Four growing European startups to keep an eye on

Starting a tech business in Europe is still harder than in the US, but things are looking up, an investor said

Europe's startup scene is as diverse as any in the world, and young companies with unique value propositions are expanding quickly.

That, at least, is the view from up-and-coming entrepreneurs at four quickly expanding European tech companies who took the stage in Amsterdam Thursday during The Next Web Europe Conference.

Companies selected to present their business strategies at the conference went through a multistage vetting process. First, conference organizers selected companies based on revenue, website traffic and employee data showing their growth rate between 2011 and 2013.

The organizers then presented a list of five companies each from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the U.K., France and Sweden to prospective attendees, who were asked to vote on which of the five from each country they wanted to hear talk during the conference.

One of the selected companies, France-based KelBillet, has found a niche in the travel sector by providing a meta-search engine that aggregates a list of travel options from multiple transportation providers on one page. Travelers can select the mode of transportation -- like bus, train or airplane -- and weigh factors such as cost and comfort. The company also offers a marketplace where people can resell their unused non-refundable tickets.

The service is currently only available in France, but with 1.5 million unique visitors per month, and having generated more than €20 million (US$27.6 million) in sales for its travel company customers, it is looking to expand to other big countries in Europe. KelBillet did not disclose which countries specifically figure into its expansion plans.

Also taking the stage was Showpad, a Belgian startup that offers an online platform and mobile app that aim to align marketing and sales departments to help companies increase revenue, said David Du Pré, Showpad's vice president of sales.

Staff in sales and marketing departments can upload and share price lists and marketing material on the platform. The mobile app lets salespeople, who typically carry tablets, view the data in an easy-to-read format.

Rather than replacing existing sales and marketing systems, Showpad wants to integrate with and add to them, Du Pré said. Showpad's customers include companies like Volvo, Audi and Heineken. While most of its customers are based in the EU and the U.S., Showpad has customers in countries all over the world, Du Pré said. The company charges a fixed price per user per month and offers a 30-day trial service.

Another quickly growing startup is Spanish social gaming company Akamon. It has about 20 million registered users, of whom about 2.5 million play every month, said Akamon CEO Vicenc Marti. The company mainly focuses on Europe and Latin America and will probably break the €1 million monthly revenue barrier this month, he added.

Akamon games, available on PCs, iOS, Android and Facebook, are designed to be simple. "They need to be playable with your grandparents," Marti said.

New games are developed quickly and posted on the portal by the company's developers. If they prove successful they are developed further, Marti said, adding that about 70 percent of the games they publish end up failing.

Akamon has a freemium model in which people can pay for extra options in games. About 10 percent of the company's users pay for the extras, Marti said.

On the enterprise end of the startup spectrum, Netherlands-based Eyefreight offers a Web-based transportation management system for shipping companies. Its platform provides central coordination for global transport operations and is designed to help companies calculate optimal routes for freight pickup.

Licenses vary from €80,000 to €750,000 annually, with companies typically opting for a contract of three to five years, according to the company. Some customers include Heineken, Levi's and Campari. Small customers need about six weeks to have the system up and running while bigger companies can take up to a year to set it up, according to the company.

The companies presenting at the conference Thursday are a good sign for Europe, given the hurdles that young European companies have had to overcome in the past, said Evan Nisselson, an investor at LDV Capital.

"The European startup scene was lagging very much behind the U.S. for many, many years," Nisselson said. "But now there are a lot more companies that are actually making real revenue."

Starting businesses has always been harder in Europe than in the U.S., for a variety of reasons, Nisselson said.

Failure is not looked at as kindly in Europe as it is in the U.S. When an entrepreneur's company fails, it can become impossible for him to borrow money from a bank for other ventures, Nisselson said. Entrepreneurs can also be held personally liable for the salary of employees when a company goes out of business, he noted.

The many different cultures in Europe can make business expansion difficult, Nisselson added. "In the U.S. most likely you can sell to all of the U.S. and they all speak English."

But there appears to be more venture capital invested in European startups now than in past years, Nisselson said. In addition, entrepreneurs who have already sold their companies are reinvesting in the startup community, which is what got things going in Silicon Valley years ago, he said.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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Tags mobileservicesKelBilletEyefreightShowpadAkamon

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