Living the dream
Stanimir Milev, CEO of Chase a Cloud, could easily be mistaken for a man, whose head, like his company’s name, is in the clouds. Yet, in reality his feet are firmly planted in the ground. His activities stretch further than running a visual storytelling business that helps clients from several countries present their product, service, or concept in a simpler, innovative way. He is also one ofthe engines behind the Bulgarian StartUP Foundation and their newest project StartUP Academy, and helps out at another visual company – Rockacoca. Not enough hours in the day? Perhaps for some people, but not for Stani.
Born in a family with an entrepreneurial streak, Stani took in the environment and decided early on, he was going his own way. His father, a former military man, saw business opportunities after communism fell and pursued several roads until he settled on owning a store. “I can’t say he stimulated us that much, he never set us down to discuss how cool it is to have your own business or something like that – after all, he is former military, not the most talkative, emotional type,” Stani reminisces. “But growing up seeing him try out different things until he came up with a business that worked for him, perhaps made it easier for me to see options out there.”
Stani’s fascination with computer graphics and design, didn’t sit well with his level-headed father, who believed that anything apart from spreadsheets was a waste of a computer’s resources and his son’s time. “I had to learn Excel, so it looked like I was doing something meaningful and have an excuse for buying better hardware,” Stani says. “So when I started working, I was very happy I had managed to turn all my game-playing into a profession, but it was also the main way for my teenage soul to say to my father – see, you weren’t right after all, so nyah. Because every teenager wants to do that to their parents at some point.”
A freeform business model
When the time came for all the game-playing to translate into earnings, however, it was his father, who supported him with the starting capital. “I had some friends, who were into computer graphics and wanted to start a company and he fronted me the capital to join them. He didn’t ask many questions, I told him I needed the money, promised I’d give it back, and it didn’t take much convincing.” The team at Dynamate had done their homework and already had some clients lined up, so their visual design studio took off quickly and Stani hasn’t had to convince his parents to front him the money since.
Looking back at the days with Treality, Stani outlines a story of success – the company had over thirty employees, did about 100 projects per year, mostly for foreign clients and managed a yearly turnover of about a million levs in its best days.
Next to his obigations, Stani also finds time to talk on stage; Photo credit: Stani MilevBecoming the manager of a big team in his twenties, however, meant Stani had to shoulder much of the HR responsibility and move away from design, so he sold his stake in Treality in 2008. He used the money to bootstrap his new company, and current flagship business, Chase a Cloud.
“Saying I started Chase a Cloud is a crude way of putting it, because it sort of grew organically and started taking shape, it’s not like I planted a flag on a certain day and said let’s do it,” he remembers. “I had clients who kept on calling me for some things, so I registered a company so I can service them. I ended up doing different things and at some point Chase a cloud was born.”
And, true to his independent roots, Stani also made his own path there too – creating a telecommuting, flexible business concept to cut costs from the very start and also reinventing the business model of his company. “It is very hard finding the right tools to motivate a designer employee to do his job properly. So I said to myself, why not make a company that’s not based in a huge office, anyone is free to work wherever and whenever they decide to. The price is project based, and everyone working on it takes a share, because they have spent time on it.” As utopian as this may sound, the concept has already worked successfully for four years and leads to a culture, that promotes responsibility and equality. Stani accepts that it is not a method that would suit everyone, but for him this is the right way to manage a team. “I feel that it is a much more flexible, consistent and interesting way of doing business. Looking at how things are going in the world, it appears we were quite visionary in 2008, because that is the direction companies are taking, but we have been in this space for a while already and have an edge,” he says. “Collective brainstorming remains a challenge, and maybe a hurdle for companies willing to try this, but, to be honest, I am extremely happy that I no longer have to be the minder, that there is no longer an office full of people, who probably won’t do much all day if I don’t show up to scold them.”
Although he owns the entire stake of the company, he sees everyone on the team as partners. For someone who runs such idealistic a business model, he is very realistic when it comes to his own strengths and abilities: “Visuals are my thing, but my strength does not lie there. I probably know five people whom I can call on to draw something better than me. What I think I am good at, is understanding the client’s problem, taking all of his ideas and comments and turning them into a plan for the designers, creating a concept, writing a script of sorts. These are the things I do with pleasure and ease, I usually give the project an initial shape and let other finish it up and polish it much better than I could have done by myself.”
Presenting at TEDx MladostWomen with Rockacoca; Photo credit: Stani Milev A design studio with a cause
Another business, where he is happy to share the load is Rockacoca, a niche fashion studio, which also offers a lot of B2B services under the “Pimp my Brand” motto.
Rockacoca, is actually the baby of Sonya Atanasova and Anjelika Petrova. They sell their hand-painted sneakers, accessories, clothes and even headphones in a store in Sofia and online, but they also do a lot of merchandise and custom orders for businesses. “We’ve worked with, and continue to work with very cool brands such as Coca-Cola and Heineken. But my role there is not on the project side, it is more advisory and I brainstorm with them on the direction of the company, branding, and marketing. In turn, I have a minority stake, which I am perfectly happy with because it is primarily Angie and Sonya’s business,” Stani says. The team has big goals and one of Stani’s dreams is seeing Rockacocapresent on other European markets.
When he mentions the Rockacoca school, where they teach animation to children, you can see his face light up. “This is something that I really love and enjoy and it couldn’t be cooler, crazier and more liberating. I join various sessions in design, I show them how to do stuff on the computer, we make workshops where in 3-4 hours we do stop-motion animation, with the kids doing their own script, decor design and characters,” he explains.
The young CEO helping kids to realise their own scripts; Photo credit: Stani MilevAll the hours in the day
Teaching children leads us to Stani’s last big undertaking – the StartUP Foundation and its recent new project – the StartUP Academy.“It’s terribly time-consuming,” Stani says. “There are always times when you’d think of all the time you would have to grow your business and the money this would result in if you stopped doing that, but there is still that magnetism which keeps you in.”
He joined the foundation in 2009, somewhat unexpectedly. He had been invited to moderate the annual StartUP Conference, and just as he was getting excited about his first big presenting gig, he got news that the event was off, because then organiser Valentin Alexiev was going abroad. Being a firm believer in making things happen, he took it upon himself to co-organise the event with Kamen Sarafov, whom he had just met, and he has been a major part of the foundation ever since. Despite Kamen’s untimely passing of Ewing’s sarcoma in 2013, Stani and a big team of volunteers like him realised their shared dream – the StartUP Academy, which has already seen two graduating classes.
A free training camp for entrepreneurs, who don’t quite know how to go about setting up a business, the academy is from founders for founders and doesn’t claim any academic value. Their third class is about to start in October, and some lessons learned from past mistakes are already in application: “When you offer something for free, people don’t value it as much. We started with 100 people signing up and only about 20 graduated. This is why, the next time we still made it a free training, but we collected 200 levs [about 100 euros] from each participant with the promise that if they graduate, they’d get them back. This worked wonders for our retention rate.”
No doubt, Stani has a lot to teach his academy entrepreneurs, but if there is one lesson that his whole experience seems to scream is that the path that works for others may not necessarily be yours. Ultimately, you have to follow your DNA, always looking upwards, but still minding your step.