Shortage of local investment drives tech startups out of Spain

Third story written with Ethan about the tech startup culture in Spain.

NU Journalism Abroad · Spain 2015

Story by Alex Newman and Ethan Parets

MADRID–Several computer monitors and laptops are scattered about the office’s lone desk, used as a communal space for the company’s four employees. The walls are plastered with diagrams of web design, sticky-notes and the close-knit team’s inside jokes – including Arnold Schwarzenegger as Employee of the Month.

Among the tangle of wires and cables that keep the group charged and connected are Rubik’s Cubes, Legos and a 3D-printed Yoda figure. It could be the office of a young, hip, Silicon Valley startup – except that in Silicon Valley, there’s usually no problem shopping products and securing funding. In Spain, though, tech startups such as Samsamia have found themselves unable to close a deal in the country’s sparse venture capital market.

Miguel Gonz‡lez-Fierro, founder and CEO of Samsamia, demonstrating how Dresscovery, the application he designed, works.  Photo by Clara Cutbill Miguel Gonz‡ález-Fierro, founder and CEO of Samsamia, demonstrating how Dresscovery, the application he designed, works.
Photo by Clara Cutbill

“We spent all…

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Back at Seis Uno Cuatro (Doesn’t Have the Same Ring as Cuatro Cuatro)

Tonight I sit alone in my apartment at 614 Columbus, struggling to stave off jet lag as my roommates are out watching Game 6 of the NBA Finals. And while it’s great being home, seeing my friends (they’ve all echoed that I didn’t miss much), and having my first extended conversation with my family on the phone in over a month, part of me feels like I should be concluding the night in the living room of Cuatro Cuatro, sitting in a semicircle with my six partners in crime.

Thus concludes the sappiest sentence I’ve ever written.

In all seriousness, though, I couldn’t imagine experiencing Spain with any other group of people, both inside the Thunderdome and out. As several of us have already remarked, we came to the country as 20 almost-strangers from wildly different backgrounds, interests and ages, and left as a team.

And our team wouldn’t have been possible without its instructors, translators, host families – even the poor IT guy at AIL who we pestered about the wifi every five minutes.

Oscar, Inma, Joan, Teresa, Jordi, all of the other host families I don’t know the names of, Joel, Alvaro, Arturo and Carlene – we would not have been able to accomplish what we did without you.

Our two TA’s, Danny – who I begrudgingly give credit to – and Maria. You two always knew how to make our stories that much more, well, dynamic (don’t know where I came up with that word).

Top to bottom, everything clicked. While it wasn’t always perfect, and certainly wasn’t always easy, I think I speak for everyone when I say that we would all go back faster than you could say “Vale.”

It’s Beeeeeeeen…One Week

And while I know I built up a significant amount of goodwill with Carlene for my last post, I’m sure it is wearing thin. But what a week it’s been.

First, for my more religious readers, I got ordained last Tuesday on a whim. Anyone looking for someone to officiate a wedding, baptism, or any other Church ceremony, I’m your guy. Also I’d prefer to be called Rev from now on.

I spent the better part of last week scouring the interwebs for a sword expert – which, as it turns out, is nigh impossible to find. Who knew. After cold calling anyone who has ever picked up a sword, I finally settled on two experts to round out my story. The relief I felt cannot be overstated – I literally sent an email to Carlene with the subject “Hallelujah” (appropriate, since I’m now a man of God).

While I awaited edits on my sword piece, I jumped into my next story, about the state of tech startups in Spain. For this one I partnered with Ethan, one of my fellow Road Warriors (shoutout Danny’s Mad Max post). It’s been a relief having him on board – I think between the two of us we’ll churn out a passable third story.

And we should be able to, since we stayed up until 5 am this morning writing our first draft. This is after taking a metro, a commuter train, a bus, a car, a bus again, and then four more metros on Friday to get all of our reporting done. Danny’s been calling himself the “Man of Madrid,” but I think Ethan and I could make a case for ourselves after the day we had.

I spent Saturday and Sunday editing my second story with Carlene, individually going through each sentence. It was an intense process, but it produced a story I’m very proud of. Definitely worth it.

An update on the Thunderdome: Per usual, we were unable to get it together last night for one of our last meals together. We planned to all go out for a nice group dinner that didn’t involve burritos or McNuggets, and so we went out in search of a cozy tapas place. After about 25 minutes of aimlessly wandering around, we found a quiet spot with a terrace where we could enjoy the cool evening air and reminisce on our time together.

The cool evening air turned into cold evening air, and it started raining. We got our food, which consisted of nine croquets, five pieces of bread (there were six of us), and one square of lasagna. Overall, each of us was treated to a meal of one and a half croquets, a bite of lasagna, and almost a piece of bread for a cool seven euros. Needless to say, we were stuffed.

Ultimately it was just another funny story for the boys at Cuatro Cuatro, in the vein of our failed lagoon excursion. At the risk of getting too sentimental, these misadventures have been some of the most fun I’ve had in Spain.

So cheers to our last night. The Thunderdome rides one last time.

The Toledo sword: Last remaining craftsmen struggle to keep age-old tradition alive

My second story, on the sword artisan Mariano Zamorano and his struggle to keep the craft alive.

NU Journalism Abroad · Spain 2015

Story by Alex Newman

TOLEDO, SPAIN–Mariano Zamorano has a 12-inch dagger blade gripped in his right hand as he guides it with his left over a rough stone rotating on a spinning wheel. He shifts and sparks fly up and out, illuminating the darkened room. Then he moves with the blade to the next stone, and then another and another, each finer than the last, to whir away the layer of black left by the flames it was forged with.

Mariano Zamorano, 63, polishes the blade of the sword in his workshop on June 5, 2015. Zamorano is one of the last artisan sword makers of Toledo, Spain. Mariano Zamorano, 63, polishes the blade of the sword in his workshop. Zamorano is one of the last artisan sword makers in Toledo, Spain.
Photo by Maria Amasanti

Zamorano learned this method from his father, also Mariano, who learned it from his father, another Mariano. After almost 50 years of making the centuries-old and storied Toledo sword, he is nearly done with what will be a gleaming silver and…

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The Creature from La Casa de Campo Lagoon

Yesterday the Thunderdome went on an excursion to this lagoon we heard about from a source who will remain anonymous. It’s technically a lake – and is in fact called Lago de la Casa de Campo – but we have been affectionately referring to it as a lagoon, so a lagoon it will remain. We anticipated being able to swim in it, so we showed up with bathing suits, tank tops and flip flops, attire which was noticeably out of place among the other lake attendees. Tip off number 1.

No matter, we still remained optimistic. On the other side of the lake we spotted what looked like basketball nets from afar. If there’s basketball nets in the water, we must be able to swim in it, right? And if that doesn’t work out, isn’t that a beach further down? Off we went, circumnavigating the body of water with visions of ourselves as the aquatic Michael Jordan. As we got closer our hearts sank – the “basketball nets” were in reality some sort of fishing nets standing outside of the water. Why fishing nets would be outside of the water is a great question – it wouldn’t surprise me if the lake’s demon fish had started sprouting wings, but more on that later. Tip off number 2.

I have to commend the lagoon on its visual trickery – the beach really did look like a beach from the other side, but it turned out to be a dirt path. Tip off number 3.

So there’s no defined place for swimming, but it’s still a lake and people swim in lakes all of the time, we thought to ourselves. As we approached the water via a grassy knoll, we noticed there wasn’t a single other person in the water. Tip off number 4.

Our final tip off was the most terrifying – a monstrosity of a fish came bubbling to the surface, and to our horror, swam toward us (granted, we were on a bridge at this point, but see tip off number 2 for my wing hypothesis). As we scanned the surface, we discovered this fish was not an anomaly, but was in fact the norm. Even more unsettling was that this school of mutant fish seemed to be the only living creatures in the water – there were numerous floating dead fish that had either been eaten by the Fishzillas or had somehow died from just being in the water (one of these options alone was enough to send us running).

Ultimately we did not get to swim in the lagoon. To be fair, it was a very pretty area – just don’t drink the water.

Holy Toledo!

I know I’m not going to be able to make this the headline of my next story, so I’ll have to settle for making it a blog title. Tomorrow will be the first of two trips I make to the historical city of Toledo, writing about its famous sword making history and one of the modern-day sword makers keeping the tradition alive. In preparation, I have gotten my AP Euro on and scoured the history books websites so I don’t look like a novice when I go talk to this guy.

In between that and working on my third story, the gents at the Thunderdome have embarked on a week-long Mad Max marathon. With every movie another person loses interest, so suffice it to say as a group we are less than impressed with the storied franchise. However, three of us have decided to stick it out and watch the third one, for closure and out of respect for it being our apartment’s namesake. Since it is a holiday, today seems like the perfect day to watch it, after we’ve completed our reporting of course (shoutout Carlene).

Today will also give me a chance to catch up on uploading photos to my slideshow, something I have noticeably been slacking on (I’m probably the only person who’s noticed this).

Finally I’d like to give special thanks to my parents, who are acting as my blog’s editors from across the pond. You the real MVP.

Happy Corpus Christi y’all.

Paradise lost: Barcelona residents push back against tourism boom

A tad dated (about a week) but better late than never

NU Journalism Abroad · Spain 2015

Story by Alex Newman

BARCELONA–It’s Friday, late afternoon, and Justin Dowell, Emily Biggins and Summer Bredin are strolling the famed Barceloneta seaport, reminiscing about their late night of karaoke, drinking and flirting in the popular La Rambla area.

A Barceloneta neighborhood flag, a Estelada (Catalonian) flag, and an anti-tourism banner that reads A Barceloneta neighborhood flag, an Estelada (Catalonian) flag, and an anti-tourism banner that reads “no tourist apartment” hang off a balcony in the Barceloneta neighborhood.
Photo by Clara Cutbill

The three friends, in shorts and tank tops and with various degrees of sunburn, are here to work for a local travel agency that focuses on drawing 20-somethings to the historic city with promises of partying, hooking up and all-night binges they’ll never remember. It’s the sort of debauchery that the locals have come to despise.

Biggins, a 25-year old petite brunette most recently from the New York and New Jersey areas, is a promoter for The Stoke Travel Company, which means…

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Welcome to Thunderdome

It goes by many names – Cuatro Cuatro, Thunderdome, the Men’s Department – but the boys’ apartment is still standing after a week in Madrid. In order to survive, we have been forced to eat Doner Kebab and McDonald’s, alternating daily so the staff doesn’t judge us more than they already do. Last week the tribe faced our gravest challenge yet – on the way to class Thursday, we overheard a subway busker playing a tune. We all knew the tune, buried away in the deep recesses of our minds, but no one could place it. Just as the man was about to sing, the subway doors slammed shut, the melody our only clue as to the identity of the song.

This tune firmly situated itself at the front of our brains all day. At random intervals, one of us would break out in it, prompting the other six to chime in like a barbershop septet no one asked for. The “duh duh, duh duh da duh da duhhhh duh” haunted us as we tried to go about our day, and it would trigger without warning. Somehow we managed to narrow it down to a heavily-synthesized ’80s jam, and that night, we must have gone through over 200 of the greatest hits from the Reagan era in the hopes that just maybe we could finally rest easy.

As a last ditch effort, Ethan and Dylan snapchatted Ethan singing the tune to numerous people on their friend list. Their resourcefulness paid off; at 2 in the morning Ethan ran through the apartment blasting it – the Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life.” Great teamwork guys. We could finally sleep in peace.

This weekend marked the first time I can honestly say I didn’t feel like a tourist in Spain. No, it wasn’t walking around Segovia with my camera around my neck and cringing at the sight of a hoof in the suckling pig that did it – oddly enough, it was the municipal pool we went to today. While Madrid is lacking in beaches, it most certainly is not lacking in heat. Fortunately Evan had scoped out a pool about “15” minutes walking distance (in actual time this is closer to 40) from our apartment. We were the only non-Spaniards there, and it was blatantly obvious to the locals. However, it was nice doing something outside of the stereotypical tourist activities, and I felt like we were a part of the community.

So of course after that cultural experience we celebrated by seeing Mad Max in English and consuming more Mickey D’s.

‘Til Next Time Barcelona

Two weeks in Barcelona went by way too fast. I know people always say that (not specifically about Barcelona), but between Spanish class, reporting, our daily tour and a rigidly scheduled dinner, we were always moving sunup to sundown. Our last night, Jordi – son of Teresa and Joan, our Barca parents – took Danny and me to Mount Tibidabo. Words cannot describe how incredible the view was, and as it turns out neither can my pictures. Apparently I need mucho practice on my nocturnal photography.

The last weekend there we took a day trip to Monserrat on Saturday and on Sunday a few of us went to the beach at Sitges, which makes Barceloneta look like Seaside Heights (for those of you from the Jerz). Monserrat was an exercise in…well, exercise, as we were forced to partake in a grueling, never-ending hike as we walked down to an inconveniently located church and back. Now that the complaining is out of the way, the monastery itself was an architectural feat, and the views from the top of the mountain were amazing. Even someone not very religious like myself had to pause and take it all in.

Yesterday we arrived in Madrid, and I already miss Inma and Oscar, our handlers/translators/lifesavers/friends. Although it was awesome getting to see my boy Evan, who has been here since last summer and showed us the ropes. All the guys are in one apartment, and so far our dinners have consisted of pizza bagel bites and chicken fries and pasta. So we’re off to a good start taking care of ourselves.