Andrea Poffe is the founder of Zero-Gravity, the first chain of indoor freestyle and acrobatics parks in Italy (zero-gravity.it). Before becoming an entrepreneur, Andrea worked in finance at Morgan Stanley, first in London and then in New York. Andrea graduated in Mechanical Engineer at Politecnico di Milano and received an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.
Q: You were having a promising career in finance, and then, in 2011, you decided to resign from Morgan Stanley in New York and come back to Milan to start your own business. What led you to this decision and how did the idea of Zero-Gravity come about?
Andrea: I’ve always been passionate about winter sports and in particular snowboarding, but working at Morgan Stanley more than 15 or even 20 hours per day – weekends included – I couldn’t find spare time for my passion; especially in New York, where the mountains are few hours’ flight away.
Then, after a weekend on the Italian slopes, I wondered if there were indoor spaces in NYC where I could practise snowboarding. I found out that in the US there were chains of freestyle and acrobatics parks, so I decided to create one in my own country, in Italy.
Q: You started Zero-Gravity as a freestyle sport club, but then you pivoted to a completely different business model. When and how did you realise that a change was needed?
Andrea: At the beginning Zero-Gravity was a place where freestyle enthusiasts could train by using very high quality equipment. After few months, I realised that I was focusing on a small niche market, with very demanding customers with limited spending power.
So I decided to change the focus and create an independent gym for general acrobatics (parkour, diving, artistic gymnastics), targeting not only professionals, but also a broader and unsophisticated customer base, like children.
Q: You lived and worked abroad for many years; what do you think of the Italian start-ups and what difficulties did you have – if any – when you started your business?
Andrea: I think that there is extreme attention to the digital space, and most of the Italian start-uppers dream to create the next Facebook.
But in Italy there are many business opportunities in the physical space too, in profitable industries with little competition. Zero-Gravity is an example.
The main difficulties that I had when I started Zero-Gravity – and that unfortunately I am still having today – are bureaucracy and an unclear regulatory framework, with laws that contradict each other.
Zero-Gravity is in a grey area as it offers both sports and entertainment, and without a specific regulation, professionals and technicians apply the laws that are more confortable with, without considering the real nature of the project.
Another issue that I can mention is related to the Italian banking system, which hardly finances start-ups. But with the public Central Guarantee Fund, which guarantees part of the start-up lending, things seem to improve.
Q: You open the first Zero-Gravity park in Milan, and now you are expanding in Italy. You will open a new park in Rome soon, and you are targeting other major Italian cities. How are you dealing with the scale-up phase of the company?
Andrea: At the moment we are expanding by opening one park at a time, as the current organisation do not allow us to grow faster. We just hired and engineer, but we still need more people to join the company. We find hard to attract the right people by ourselves, so we just hired an HR agency.
Q: Given your finance background, what would you suggest to a foreign venture capital investor who would like to invest in Italian start-ups?
Andrea: I strongly suggest to co-invest with Italian operators, who know the business dynamics and the networks of people that surround Italian entrepreneurs.