Italy’s capital is a stunning place of age-old history and monuments that meet the eye with awe and wonder. Less obvious, perhaps, is the quickly growing ecosystem of technology and creative work. As one founder noted in 2012, the startup scene is “exploding faster than a tomato in Fruit Ninja.” Turns out these folks are putting out much more than some of the world’s best pasta plates. So what’s Rome’s digital life like? Here are some observations and learnings after an escape from the San Francisco startup scene to a summer of freelancing in the Eternal city.
I’ll admit, the growing digital and tech scene feels a little bit secret as it can be easily lost among the tourist traps and obvious draws to the city. There are certainly cultural aspects that make Rome feel different than other well-known tech hubs like Silicon Valley. For example, Romans have much less trust in fin tech applications (many people don’t pay bills online or exchange money using technology) and little interest in on-demand apps or the gig economy. With the latter comes a bit of “old-school” thinking — and far less Uber rides.
Let’s just say that getting to work looks a bit different, with smartly-dressed professionals whizzing by on scooters and driving themselves in cute little cars like a Smart or the Fiat 500. Other things, like an engineer’s growing stomach (as a result of long hours at the office) seem to be universal. “The more tummy, the more skill”, I was told over a huge, late night pizza.
Education for future employees
A healthy mix of Italians, EU citizens, and expats help bring Rome’s digital scene to life, many of them young, talented and ambitious. Long admired for the sciences, Rome is home to many universities that provide a solid engineering education. La Sapienza, one of the world’s oldest public educational institutions, is highly regarded. Roma Tre and Tor Vergata, two other public universities, also graduate students who have meticulously studied for careers in internet related disciplines, like programming, privacy and security.
For marketing and entrepreneurship, Luiss Business School, Italy’s first MBA program, is a popular, private option. The school boasts a partnership with the Confindustria, making it a prime place to network and find a career-worthy, post-graduate position in Rome or other Italian cities. An excellent school, Luiss Business School is also a relatively inexpensive choice for an English-taught MBA when compared to similar US institutions.
Engineers and entrepreneurs who studied outside of Rome still have much reason to bring their business to Italy, as the country has recently provided a unique set of laws to encourage economic development.
Government initiatives and new laws
Italy introduced the startup visa in 2012. A result of the Italian Ministry of Economic Development’s agenda, the country’s startup laws were specifically designed to bring investment to promising, developing companies. While Milan is undoubtedly Italy’s technical capital, Rome’s central location, history, and proximity to diverse landscapes make it an ideal choice for a place to start up.
Financially speaking, Italy’s new flexible labor law (which is applicable to a startup’s entire four year life cycle) has made it easy for startups to offer temporary contracts to employees, as well as issue performance-related pay — two things that vary from earlier law. Companies hiring ‘highly qualified’ employees without a time-sensitive contract (options range from 6-36 months) can take advantage of an outrageous 35% tax credit as reward. Talk about saving on salary! As far as stock and equity goes, startups in Italy are also able to offer external consultants stock options with ‘privileged tax treatment’ or the option to work for equity.
Foreign freelancers also have the possibility of living and working in Rome, with application available via a second visa. The freelance visa, known as a visto di lavoro autonomo, is a bit more difficult to get as it requires first obtaining a nulla osta in Italy. This tedious process involves meeting income requirements along with sharing a statement of work and a proven place to stay. However, it can be a good option for non-EU creatives or industry professionals who are dedicated to taking advantage of Rome’s growing digital scene.
Accelerators and investment
With government initiatives set to support new business and startups, Italy has become a valuable place for investors and accelerators. Not only do corporations, investors, and venture capitalists benefit from the second highest tax relief in the European Union, but Italy is the first country in the world to introduce special rules for equity crowdfunding. With such a specific set of regulations, many investors have taken to startups based in Rome.
Several accelerators cater to helping companies kick things into gear, including Luisse En Labs, which supports startup growth. Club Italia Investment is also known as a well-positioned ‘accelerator enhancer’, a newly modeled vehicle that helps supplement startups’ accelerator funding.
Rome is home to more than 150 startups, as noted on Angellist. Listed with an average valuation of 2.5 million, companies range in size from small founding teams to mid-size and larger. Much like in some of the designer offices that make the press from Silicon Valley, culture rules and perks keep employees happy.
Pi.campus is a solid example of what Italian startup life can look like, the office complex located in Rome’s bustling, green EUR district. Pi.Campus’ website shows an exclusive club dedicated to providing ‘the best work environment for talented people’ and counts top startups Filo, Chupamobile, and Wanderio as its inhabitants. Though not in residence at Pi.Campus, hot startups like Pathflow, LuxuryEstate, FaceSmash, Netlex, YepLike!, and UnFraud also call Rome home.
Smaller companies, remote workers, freelancers and creatives who don’t have space in a place like Pi.campus have plenty of opportunities to co-work. While the list of spaces I put together isn’t as extensive as what some I’ve seen for New Zealand, Australia, London, or San Francisco, there’s no shortage of great places to get stuff done:
- Cowo360: A favorite coworking space in Rome. The location is visually stunning, with sleek, leather furniture and sophisticated artwork.
- Impact Hub: Desks in a space dedicated to social interaction. Impact Hub is a great place to meet people and freely exchange ideas.
- Spqwork: Customized spaces have access to Spqworks’ FabLab, which offers 3D printer use, among other perks.
- Regus: A familiar name with worldwide locations, Regus offers office space and coworking rooms for startups, remote workers, and freelancers.
- Let’s Make: A beautiful, creative space for programmers and makers.
Though Roman coffee shops are more of the standup bar variety, it’s not unusual to find folks with laptops in places like Romeow (which is also an impeccably decorated cat café!), La.Vi (bonus points for the roof deck) and Café Café (just steps from the Colosseo).
Community, events, and groups
Folks flock to Rome to see some of the world’s most impressive architecture and art exhibits, but those in digital disciplines will be pleasantly surprised at the smattering of community groups and events available in the city, too. From blogger nights to Instagram meet-ups, programming groups, and major conferences, Rome’s scene offers true variety. Here’s a handful of cool, upcoming events:
- 9/23: Intel Real Sense Hands on Lab
- 10/10: The Big Hack – The Internet of Things
- 10/16-10/18: Maker Faire
- 10/26: Mobility IoT
- 11/18: Data Discovery in Action
Though not specifically Roman, the Facebook group Italian Startups is a good place to connect with founders and employees in many cities, and currently counts more than 20,000 members. A second group, Italian Startup Events, caters specifically to happenings and counts 8,000 people (many Romans) as members.
Ready for Rome? Would love to hear your thoughts, questions or experiences in regard to the ancient city’s transition to a technical hub. Leave your notes in the comments!
Featured image illustration by Lotta Nieminen