Wed, 09/07/2011 - 13:47

Australian-born entrepreneur and TED presenter Steve Keil enjoys local sense of 'chaos'

Steve Keil

"We don’t need a workers' revolution. What we need is a players' uprising," says entrepreneur Steve Keil in his 18-minute TED Bulgaria presentation, which has been watched on YouTube by more than 34,000 people. In a convincing way he explains to a bewildered public how essential play and fun are for things to start working in Bulgaria.

Steve Keil is an Australian, and has been living in Bulgaria for eight years now. He has worked for two Bulgarian companies, and now runs his own software business with three partners. He also teaches Introduction to Business and Marketing 101 at Sofia University. He is married to a Bulgarian woman and has two children.

Although Steve has visited 55 countries and lived in 15 he considers Bulgaria his home. When talking about the country, its people and their habits, he uses "we" instead of "it" and "they." Steve thinks that Bulgaria has a lot of potential for growth and is ready to share his ideas on how to make things better.

When did you come to Bulgaria for the first time?

I came in 2003, because of a woman, actually, a Bulgarian woman I met in the United States at my university. We started dating after university; I was working in the States. Then we went to Australia together, lived there a while. And then we came here. We thought we would give it a try for a couple of years and see if we liked it. So the original plan was just to stay for two years. And we just kept liking it, we stayed longer and longer and longer, and I am still here. It's the longest I've ever lived in any country.

Did you experience any kind of culture shock in the beginning?

I have to say that my first impression of Bulgaria was not very good. It was one of those rainy days, back then there wasn't that Brussels Boulevard from the airport, it was full of dupki, or potholes, everywhere. It was a grey day, and the Druzhba neighbourhood was grey with all these panel buildings. I said: "Gosh, this place needs a lot of paint." But after that it was cool. I quickly got to Bansko. Back then it wasn't the overdeveloped piece of land that it is now, it actually had charm and character, because it still looked like a village. I borrowed a car and I drove around to the south, in the Rhodope and even on to the Black Sea. It was beautiful because it was just nice, living countryside and things were just cool, so outside of Sofia it was really beautiful and I got a good impression.

You have travelled a lot and lived in many countries; can you tell me what the particular thing about Bulgaria is?

I will, but let me say this as well, because it pisses me off that all these Bulgarians I talk to say "Oh, I want to leave Bulgaria, Bulgaria sucks, I want to go to Germany or England or Australia." Man, Bulgaria kicks ass. It's like people don't appreciate how cool Bulgaria is. Every country and every city has good things and bad things.

So what are the good things about Bulgaria?

On the good side I think that here people have more freedom than almost any other developed country. The United States loves to wave their little freedom banner, like "We Are the Freedom Country," but you've got more rules, legislation and restrictions there than you have anywhere else. And anything you do improperly you can get sued for. Try leaving your kid on a beach for two minutes while you go the toilet ‒ by the time you come back somebody will have called the Child Protection Services on you for being a bad parent. You have so much that you can't do, so many restrictions, so much overlegislation, that it's just ridiculous, it's insane.

So, I think what is still a really good thing about Bulgaria is a) the sense of freedom, and b) there is still a sense of community in society. Bulgaria is safer than most of the developed countries. It is. You can go out with your friends at two in the morning and walk home and you don't have to don't worry about being raped, mugged or assaulted. So there is still a sense of being nice to each other. Yeah, we might yell at each other while we're driving, but we're just kind of doing that because it is our culture, and not to be really mean, not because we actually want that person eaten. I like the chaos here ‒ that things aren't exactly so planned. I like the sense that there is still a lot of opportunity here and a lot of potential for growth. And I like the people in general ‒ it's pretty easy.

What about the bad things?

Obviously there is corruption. But you have to keep that in context, there is corruption in every country. And I'd say there is more corruption in the United States and the UK, it's just you don't see it as much. So that's a bad, but it's also bad in every country.

I think one thing I don't like about the business environment here is that we are very shortsighted. We'd rather take a short-term decision that brings us more cash now, but we might suffer in the long-term, than think in the long-term. So there is some shortterm negativistic thinking like "I've got to just take what I can now, rather than build a more sustainable long-term whatever it is I'm doing business, or brand building."

Pollution is also kind of a problem for me; I'm really into environmentalism and things like that, so I wish Bulgarians would be a little bit more aware. There is progress, and I love the fact that the Kremikovtsi factory shut down ‒ there is a noticeable difference in the air quality before and after Kremikovtsi. But I still think we're not really thinking about that. And I wish we were.

You are a foreigner, but still you say "we", when talking about Bulgaria…

Yeah, a home is where your heart is, right? This is why I do the talks and this is why I think about it, because I live here and, because I live here, I want it to improve. I wanna live in a country I am proud of and a country that's moving in a good direction.

What was the most difficult thing that you had to cope with, living in Bulgaria?

I think overcoming people's resistance to change. I had a lot of fun with my previous job here but it took a lot of time and effort to get people to think differently. And I see the same thing at the university with the students. You try to get them to think in one way or do an exercise or an assignment that's outside of what is normally done and they just say "Oh, it is not possible, I can't." Students in other countries do this, students do this all around the world, it is not impossible. So there is a lot of weird negativism, that sort of I-Can't attitude.

What would you recommend to foreigners who are just coming to Bulgaria?

One thing that does bother me about expats is that they go to Irish pubs and hang out together and complain about how it is not the same here as it is back home. I don't like that, of course it is not like home, but that's actually some of the joy of travelling, because with globalisation everything is quickly becoming the same everywhere, with McDonald's and things like that. So I would say don't just go to the expat bars, because you're not gonna meet the real people, because people there are the same that you're gonna meet in London. The real flavour of Bulgaria is outside the expat bars. Go to the local places, the best restaurants are the little Bulgarian restaurants, not the westernised franchises. Go to the Bulgarian bars. It's cool. to go somewhere and meet somebody and talk, most people are pretty friendly.

Issue 59-60

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