Living in an age of phablets and hundreds of programming languages, it is sometimes easy to forget that, for a lot of people, it all started with an ugly box, a green blinking cursor and BASIC. Ivan Ičin (36) is one of those people – he first became fascinated with the possibilities of programming when he got a Commodore 128 as a boy, and has been in love since. He would spend hours looking through a German book about BASIC, which he got with the computer, and, despite not knowing a word of German, he ended up proficient in the programming language.
Eventually, this lead to the founding of Labsii, a one-man, Belgrade-based software company, in 2010. Labsii's products include apps to help manage office documents more efficiently, or to fix caller ID problems in roaming, but it was his latest release that made headlines by making it in Top 10 paid apps of the US Windows Store. Envisioning a world in which people get information and knowledge without spending hours reading from a screen, Ivan created Share to Speech, a text-to-speech and read-it-later app. The app reads content out loud, so apart from a handy tool for people on the go, it is also a great assistant to visually impaired users. Transforming text, including PDF, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, or Internet content, into MP3 files and playing them on any device, Ivan invites users to “reinvent their lives by listening to articles and documents while commuting, jogging or doing housework”.
Lessons of trial and error
Ivan took a winding road from that Commodore 128 to that peak position in the Windows Store. Despite the fact that he was fascinated with all things tech, he decided on a different path and started studying economics in Belgrade. "In 1997, when I was about to apply for undergraduate studies, we didn't have Internet yet and the overall situation in the country was pretty bad. At the time, enrolling into a tech programme would have meant that I was making a decision to leave the country, which I didn't want to do," Ivan explains. "Besides, social sciences always inspired me in their own way and I enjoy learning about new things all the time." With a degree from University in Belgrade, Ivan was even more resolute to monetize on his programming skills, and found that with his knowledge of Visual Basic, SQL, C#, and Java, he could take serious steps towards creating things for other people, instead of waiting for someone else to do it.
I always keep a few extra ideas in the pocket."
“My stimulus to get into this business came from my involvement with the Mozilla Firefox project. It started as a marketing story, as I was one of the leaders of community marketing, but as time went on I was getting more and more involved with the user experience side. That was when I realized what I truly enjoy doing and that I do it equally well as the top people in the industry,” Ivan worked on a document manager app called Desk & Archive for two years, but didn't manage to get the attention of users. This, however, allowed him to get acquainted with quite a few platforms, and learn about their pros and cons. "Release early, release often" (and listen to your customers, as the original quote of Eric S. Raymond goes), came to the center of Ivan's development philosophy after some trial and error.
Dedicating two years to the development of Desk & Archive, taught Ivan not to give too much time to the competition, and therefore use how own time wisely. Another thing he thinks doomed this old project was not choosing the right platform for this particular app. As Windows shifts its attention to mobile and tablet users, reaching out to desktop customers becomes much harder, unless you’re working on Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Office, he thinks.
A new start
Let the app read for you; Photo credit: Share to speech
“I always keep a few extra ideas in the pocket, and Share to Speech was the best at the time considering the resources I had at my disposal”, says Ivan. After quite a long period of polishing new functions and features, Share to Speech was released in the Windows Store in February. Only two months later the first success came: the app was officially awarded at a Microsoft Windows 8.1 Developer contest. Although launching on the Windows platform may seem restrictive, Ivan had pretty good reasons for it. “Choosing Windows was simple – the project’s SWOT matrix wouldn’t fit in that perfectly if building for any other platform”, Ivan explains adding that there was also a financial aspect to it: “Windows Store is the only one which enables payment to Serbia”. Adding the icing on the cake, the technical capabilities of the platform were just the right fit for Ivan’s idea: “soon I found out the text to speech quality in Windows 8 is top notch and the fact that there is a Microsoft app competition in this region may actually help the app’s promotion."
Although followed up by very basic marketing, Share to Speech soon found itself at the forefront of the US store. Users' feedback and the offer of big firms to help out, spurred the app's outlook in the market. "I didn't get any kind of support in mentorship or investment. However, I did get help with promotion. It started with satisfied users who were, by chance, influential in the Windows community." Ivan explains his sudden success: "When they pushed for it, media coverage followed, and most importantly I got support from Microsoft through their BizSpark Program, as well as from Lenovo which offers benefits to Windows developers. As a matter of fact, Share to Speech was created on ThinkPad!"
BizSpark has been especially helpful for Serbian software startups, giving them free access to development tools and marketing support. “Unfortunately, their regional and local activities just started when I was about to end my involvement in the program,” Ivan says, “but I still had free access to a great deal of Microsoft software and my application was featured in their website as an example of success.”
Unfortunately, people here find low wages a reason to leave the country, while real entrepreneurs would see it as a perfect chance to build a successful company."
Four years since the start, Ivan still runs the company all by himself. Even though the doesn’t dismiss the option of growing the Labsii team in the future, he finds that there are certain advantages to being a loner in this business: “One doesn’t depend on their (in)compatibility with other people on the team. Especially if we’re talking about co-founders, things could go terribly wrong if they don’t get along in the end, as it happened with Facebook.” On the other hand, running a one-man show has its downsides, of which Ivan is aware: “When there’s a team, those who are more motivated in certain stages push the others by providing feedback to every little thing you do and no matter how far away from the final version it is.”
Being a one-man company also means that Ivan could easily work from any place in the world, but he plans on sticking it out in Serbia. As a survey by inventures recently demonstrated, Serbian entrepreneurs are the among most willing in CEE to relocate their business for better opportunities to which Ivan agrees, in part. "The state of entrepreneurship in our country is desperate in general, and it is the key to most of the problems we face. For example, if 10 per cent of the people in the U.S. are ready to start a businesses, it would be sufficient for each of them to employ nine other people on average in order to reach full employment. For Serbia I suppose we would need to employ 50 people to reach full employment, which is impossible." Ivan applies his entrepreneurial mind-set to this problem and concludes: "Unfortunately, people here find low wages a reason to leave the country, while real entrepreneurs would see it as a perfect chance to build a successful company."
In the next few months, Ivan plans to continue improving Share to Speech, and possibly make it available for Android and iOS devices. This would require adding a few other people to the team and securing financial means. But his one-man show has not run its course and he hints that we should be looking forward to some new apps for Windows. Their focus? That, he prefers to keep a secret for now.