If you are a geek, always at the cutting edge it seems like you may be predestined to become a startup founder. But for Mitko the journey started at a very different place. After graduating law school, he decided to not look for a job in this field but rather go on the lookout for new adventures. At VIP Operator, a Macedonian subsidiary of the Telekom Austria, he worked as Innovation Manager where his job was to come up with innovative ideas and to develop new products. “I have always been passionate about technology, sci-fi, mobile phones and everything futuristic. It was a really exciting time building a telecom from the ground up and developing numerous products. It was something that defined my career and ended up being my passion,” Mitko says of finding his calling. A calling that saw him create u:Plug, an allround tool that allows users to not only to juice up all their mobile devices with the same charger but also comes in a handy design that holds the phone or tablet right in place.
How creative coffee breaks pay off
Developing the idea for u:Plug; Photo credit: u:Plug
The work at VIP Operator was only the first chapter in the career of the inventor. As creative and fun as he found his assignments, often the lunch breaks were what stimulated new ideas the most. So together with Nikola Namicev (33), with whom he regularly discussed mobile industry or location-based services over a coffee, he decided to leave the company and start an own gig. “I had the luck to find a cofounder in one of my colleagues at VIP, we became great friends, shared a lot of passions and decided to go for it.”
In 2012 they founded Ambio, a platform and mobile application for location-based services that crunches data from the likes of Foursquare, Yelp and Instagram. “Ambio was the world’s first location magazine. A magazine that changes according to your location and stays interesting and fun to discover,” Mitko says of the venture that had five employees and later became part of ITgma in an undisclosed arrangement.
Despite the initial surprise of friends and family who told him he was “crazy for leaving a managerial position with great pay to do something that may never end up being successful,” they soon started to understand his decision and nowadays just shrug and say “ok, It’s your life.”
If you lack a role model, become one yourself
From scratch to product; Photo credit: u:Plug
Mitko recalls that he religiously followed and read all the tech sites and blogs which frequently featured startup companies from USA and interesting applications – soaking in all the information he could get like a sponge. “I can’t quite explain the feeling, it was like following something deep inside me which was always there, just waiting to be awaken.”
When Ivan Jelusic (24), whom he met through mutual friends in Skopje, approached him with his idea about u:Plug it immediately clicked with him. “I could envision developing this product that would change how we charge our electronics. “ Together with Daniel Rupic (26) Ivan and Mitko cofounded u:Plug in 2014.
“When starting a hardware startup you quickly realise that there are very few industrial designer unicorns. It’s really hard to find an industrial designer that is passionate and motivated to imagine amazing products,” Mitko explains the struggles of getting started. But also in other sectors, the way towards starting up a business in Macedonia is paved with obstacles. Not only is the society averse to risk, fear and failure but it is also missing role models, which makes it hard for young entrepreneurs to break through. “The lack of big successful startups that would inspire young people in combination with the non-existing options for risk funding is making things difficult.” Besides the struggles and obstacles, Mitko hasn’t lost his optimism along the way. “I’m happy to say that things are changing, we are giving our best to build our startup community and push things forward.”
High feelings and slow walks
Events […] are the life force for early startup companies. They give you the necessary validation and networking but more importantly media coverage.
To support and give back to the community, Mitko is also active in the European startup scene. In 2014 he hosted Startup Grind in Skopje where he talked about his profession as Product Manager and entrepreneur. “It was an awesome experience and event. I mean what can you expect from young passionate people gathered all in one place sharing their energy and thoughts? I collected a lot of know-how in marketing and product development. I just love the fast paced nature of startups, always trying something new, and working directly with our users.”
For Mitko, the startup life is an „emotional rollercoaster“ and that’s why in his rare free time he likes to cool down a bit, take a walk in nature and sometimes he simply needs to switch off – only in a figurative sense of course. “I have interest in casual photography and am especially hooked on instagram. I am a visual person and I love design. I like to wander and just think how things could be better.”
Mitko sees the numerous events he visited as important steps in his entrepreneurial career. These include Seedcamp New York, StartupBootCamp Copenhagen, TechStars Demo Days Paris or StartupCamp Rijeka where u:Plug managed to secure the second prize. “Events like this are the life force for early startup companies. They give you the necessary validation and networking but more importantly media coverage which is extremely helpful for getting noticed from potential investors and customers.”
Recharging the business
Testing the ready product at Grand Hotel Sofia; Photo credit: u:Plug
For the Macedonian hardware startup, those networking efforts have already paid off: the team was noticed by Eleven, were supported with 25,000 euros and moved to Sofia for their three-month accelerator programme. “Although the investment was pretty humble for a hardware startup we managed to gain a lot of experience, networking and most importantly potential partners and buyers.” With this experience Mitko and his team even managed to get 100,000 dollars in a follow-up investment form Eleven Venture Fund and secured Sasa Cvetojevic in their advisory board. “Sasa is one of the biggest entrepreneurs in Croatia and he has huge experience in sales, scale and building companies from ground up. He is one of the most known angel investors in Croatia,” Mitko proudly speaks of the most recent news at u:Plug.
Currently, the team’s office is still based in Sofia, at the Eleven co-working office but they are already setting up further locations in Croatia and Macedonia. They are in the final phase of prototyping and are busy with fine-tuning the details. “Very soon we will start manufacturing and get u:Plug in people’s hands and on their walls!,” Mitko is certain. “Our goal is to make beautiful smart design products. We just want to make people`s lives a bit easier and a bit more fun.”