Despite a slowly trickling crowd and a slight delay, the first Pioneers Unplugged event in Bulgaria, hosted by betahaus Sofia on 11 September, started to a room packed with enthusiasts, investors, techies and hopefuls. For some, the excitement was almost palpable as they were anxiously waiting to see whether they’d be among the three companies chosen at random to pitch their idea to the crowd of about 100. Others were there to learn from the best.
Moderated by Bulgarian entrepreneur Ivo Vasilev, co-founder of Useful at night, click&play.bg, and reloyalty, the evening kicked off with an interesting count of the audience. The result – a forest of hands indicated the abundance of business owners/CEOs, with just a few reemerging a second time to show their belief that their business would be financially successful in the next six months. Speaking of the pioneering spirit, Vasilev wrapped up his intro with a focus on the future of European entrepreneurship in general. “Europe will never catch up to the US,” he said, addingthat the only way for Europe to compete is to build bridges across all countries and work as one.
Space is the limit in Sofia
Starting off strong, the evening launched directly into space with an inspirational talk by Raycho Raychev, creator of the Space Challenges educational programme, whose recruitment movie was met with thundering applause. Focusing on the achievements of 20-something Bulgarians, who have already completed the programme and won scholarships to NASA, he brought out the dreamer in everyone with tales of his team’s attempt at building a space satellite. Highlighting some of the peculiarities of being a pioneer in Bulgaria, Raychev explained to a chuckling audience how all the elderly neighbours around their office were convinced that he and his teammates were actually terrorists, with all the electronics coming in the place. Despite the suspicion, the team has already launched a stratospheric balloon to take photos of Bulgaria from an altitude of 30.000 kilometres. What’s more, he did not forget to stress the price he’d paid for focusing on the final frontier – the low number of his Facebook friends. Raychev left the audience with this explicit lesson – “Keep dreaming and keep your feet firmly on the ground. Don’t bullshit yourself and keep doing awesome shit.”
Raycho Raychev captures the audience with tales of space achievements Photo credit: betahaus SofiaReality check from Telerik
Perhaps the most anticipated part of the evening was the session with Svetozar Georgiev, co-founder of Bulgaria’s most successful software startup – Telerik. Eleven years after the company’s launch, he claims that their success is mostly due to the fact that they are a continuous startup – changing every two years or so, growing and evolving. His lessons, he said were not novel, surprising, nor even far from common sense. In a nutshell, Georgiev gave the audience the following advice, peppered with real-life examples of how his company suffered when not adhering to each principle:
- Customer/Market validation: Once you have your big idea, stop trusting your gut. Start the actual research. Verify if there really is a market, and don’t cling to an idea out of sheer enthusiasm. If you have to fail, fail fast.
- Focus and segmentation: Do not try to win the global market in one sweep. Pick one segment and really win it. Being a generalist is doing everything in a mediocre way.
- Be ready to pivot: If something doesn’t work, pivot, redefine, repurpose and remarket. Hope is not a strategy, and you have to find the fine balance between being persistent and realistic.
- Be fanatical about data, test and measure everything: In a world of big data, data is gold. It can save the day and tell the future. So keep a very good account of all your data and know how to use it to draw conclusions and make predictions.
- Pay attention to marketing, sales and PR: Even the best product won’t sell itself and despite people’s belief that everyone can do marketing, that is not the case. There will come a time in your company when you will have to make the choice between hiring another tech whiz and a marketing person, think of how necessary an extra feature is to a product that doesn’t sell well because it lacks the luster a good marketing would give it.
The secret to long-term success, Georgiev emphasised, is being like a startup every time – being paranoid about everything and reinventing your company every couple of years.
Come for the lecture, stay for the win
While most people had come to hear Telerik’s famously elusive co-founder speak, as evident by the abundance of empty chairs after the short break, there were some, who were eagerly awaiting the pitches and keeping fingers crossed that their name is drawn. As it turned out, the odds weren’t that bad, for only six business cards were left for the raffle, with one company trying to up its chances by sneaking in two (which they later claimed was an accident, but didn’t help them either way). At the end, three companies got the chance to pitch for four minutes and answer questions for another three. Starting in alphabetical order, which, interestingly, coincided with how far along they were with their ideas, the companies were Agrotech Variations, Fashorama and inventures.eu veteran StatAce. Apart from the chance to promote their ideas and receive feedback from like-minded people, they all competed for a ticket to the Pioneers Festival in Vienna in October.
Agrotech Variations were probably the giddiest bunch in the room, with university students Viktor and Simeon from the team sharing before the beginning of the event that their concept was so recent that they needed to rush the order on their business cards to make it in time for the event. Their newborn idea outlined a system that brings together one of the oldest sectors – agriculture, with one of the newest – cloud technologies. Still at concept stage, their product CloudY Farm will allow farmers to remotely fertilise, water, and regulate the lighting of their crops. Riding on the pioneering spirit of enthusiasm, their idea raised a lot of questions in the audience but, sadly, provided few answers.
Fashorama, a high-end dress rental business was second to present and with a ready website weeks before launch, was a step closer to completion than itspredecessor. Born by a woman’s frustration with the lack of choice of formal wear in her hometown of Varna, Fashorama promises to be a one-stop-shop for weddings, proms, and cocktail parties. “There is a lot of interest among my friends in Varna, but, to be honest, I see the most excitement in girls from the smaller towns, where there is virtually no choice of formal wear,” said founder Daniela Stefovska. She seemed determined and definitely onto something, because when the time came to network, she was quickly surrounded by a group of excited and curious women.
The night’s winner, as selected by the public, was StatAce, an online statistical system. The fact that their business has already launched and boasts a number of clients and positive feedback won the audience over, and the vote was almost unanimous. All of this, however, came as a big surprise to co-founder Christian Mladenov – not the winning, that part they’ve already got down, having previously killed it at the local and global betapitch events. The fact that they even got to pitch was unexpected: “I didn’t really think we’d get drawn,” Mladenov commented, “I expected many more business cards in the pile. It boggles the mind, over 100 people actually paid to attend this event and only six wanted to pitch ideas. I don’t understand it.” Although he was somewhat taken by surprise, he did make the most of it, not only increasing the buzz around his idea and winning a ticket to Vienna, but also sneaking in a job ad at the end of his presentation. Talk about on-the-spot pivoting!
With Sofia now covered, Pioneers Unplugged are continuing their bridging journey with upcoming events in Riga, Prague and Budapest.