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Start-Up Poland

The People Who Transformed an Economy

Poland in the 1980s was filled with shuttered restaurants and shops that bore such imaginative names as “bread,” “shoes,” and “milk products,” from which lines could stretch for days on the mere rumor there was something worth buying. But you’d be hard-pressed to recognize the same squares—buzzing with bars and cafés—today. In the years since the collapse of communism, Poland’s GDP has almost tripled, making it the eighth-largest economy in the European Union, with a wealth of well-educated and highly skilled workers and a buoyant private sector that competes in international markets. Many consider it one of the only European countries to have truly weathered the financial crisis.
As the Warsaw bureau chief for the Financial Times, Jan Cienski spent more than a decade talking with the people who did something that had never been done before: recreating a market economy out of a socialist one. Poland had always lagged behind wealthier Western Europe, but in the 1980s the gap had grown to its widest in centuries. But the corrupt Polish version of communism also created the conditions for its eventual revitalization, bringing forth a remarkably resilient and entrepreneurial people prepared to brave red tape and limited access to capital. In the 1990s, more than a million Polish people opened their own businesses, selling everything from bicycles to leather jackets, Japanese VCRs, and romance novels. The most business-savvy turned those primitive operations into complex corporations that now have global reach.

Well researched and accessibly and entertainingly written, Start-Up Poland tells the story of the opening bell in the East, painting lively portraits of the men and women who built successful businesses there, what their lives were like, and what they did to catapult their ideas to incredible success. At a time when Poland’s new right-wing government plays on past grievances and forms part of the populist and nationalist revolution sweeping the Western world, Cienski’s book also serves as a reminder that the past century has been the most successful in Poland’s history.


“An in-depth overview of Poland’s transition from a poor Soviet satellite to a democracy with one of Europe’s fastest growing economies. . . . The book’s survey of entrepreneurs focuses on a younger generation of businesspeople trying to establish themselves in an economy increasingly similar to those of Western Europe in its competitiveness and rising labor costs. . . . Cienski’s work is highly informative, and for Americans provides an object lesson in what can be learned from the accomplishments, and failures, of other nations, regimes, and economic systems.”

Publishers Weekly

“The remarkable success of Polish entrepreneurs is the great postcommunist story that has not been told. Cienski knows how to tell that story, and, with Start-Up Poland, he has shaped his outstanding understanding of the history of Poland’s economic transformation and access to the top Polish entrepreneurs into a highly readable journalistic account.”

Anders Åslund, Atlantic Council, author of How Capitalism Was Built

“This is a fascinating book about Poland’s transition towards a market economy, told through the lives of Polish entrepreneurs. Cienski combines superb economic analysis with a gift for lively storytelling. He combines an outsider’s perspective with an extensive and deep knowledge of Poland’s developments. I highly recommend this book to everyone interested in the reforms.”

Leszek Balcerowicz, former finance minister of Poland and chief architect of the Balcerowicz Plan to reform the Polish economy

Table of Contents


1 From People’s Poland to the Third Republic

2 In the Starting Blocks

3 Shocked by Therapy

4 The Survivors

5 Oligarchs?

6 White Socks and Dark Suits: The Polish Quest for Luxury

7 The Red Press Baron

8 On the Move

9 A Question of Scale

10 Crushed by Capitalism—or by the Visible Hand of the Government?

11 New Businesses

12 Halfway There

Other Sources

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