When Diana first came to Austria in 2007 as a student she faced – like many other Bulgarian emigrants – the “Sperre”; the 7-year ban on access to the domestic labour market imposed on nationals of newly acceded EU member states. She applied for a countless number of jobs, but did not have luck in procuring a green light from the AMS, the Austrian labor market authority. “I had to apply for jobs and I was constantly searching, and the thing was that the companies really wanted to hire me because I had different languages and experiences, but in the end they were confronted with AMS and they always received an Ablehnung [rejection],” says Diana, remembering the frustration of that time.
Luckily, in this case, Diana was no stranger to adversity. Growing up in a poor region of Bulgaria, she left home at 13 to attend an elite boarding school and had to support herself by giving English lessons in order to finance the tuition. As a result she knew the value of perseverance and motivation many years later as a young adult. “In the end, circumstances led me to start an IT company called Segments with Ivo, my then to-become husband. Initially, we made websites and [specialised in] SEO.” After Segments was incorporated, Diana and Ivo quickly grew the open-source solutions and online marketing advisory business into a profitable operation. Since merging with the Danish ProPeople Group in 2010, Segments now counts a number of prestigious organisations amongst its clients, including the OSCE and UNICEF.
An innovative approach to insurances
In 2007, Diana and Ivo came up with the idea to launch versichern24.at, an online insurance aggregator and comparison website. At first, people were skeptical and emphasised the traditional relationship element that came with a system of local family insurance advisors. As Diana recalls, when she and Ivo first presented the model to potential investors and partners, many said, “no one in Austria is going to sign anything online, especially in insurance”. Unable to qualify for a loan, the project continued to face negative reactions and remained unprofitable for a number of years, but co-founder Diana continued to work towards its eventual take-off: “Because we believed the project had a future, to make the [insurance] market transparent. There was nothing like that before in Austria”, says Diana. Versichern24 grew rapidly and is now the leading insurance aggregator in Austria, with 15 employees and a 100m2 office in Vienna. The site has upwards of 1500 daily unique visitors.
So how does versichern24 work? “We act like an insurance agent, and we receive a commission from every contract signed online. The difference for the client is that they receive consulting, and we act as an intermediary with the insurance company – at no extra cost. For the clients, it’s basically entirely free.”
The break-even for the company came three years later after foundation in 2010. The many evenings and weekends – as well as income gained through Segments – spent on developing the website had finally paid off. Both Diana and Ivo are now certified insurance brokers, and Diana is also studying towards the prestigious CEMS Master in International Management at the WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business).
Diana hopes that stromgas24 will spur change in people’s energy habits. Photo credit: privateChanging people’s energy habits
Following the success of versichern24, Diana co-founded stromgas24.at with her husband and in collaboration with E-Control, the Austrian energy market regulatory authority in 2012. The website works on a similar principle as versichern24, except that it offers consumers price comparisons of all electricity and gas providers in Austria, and also the possibility to switch providers easily online for free. Diana hopes that stromgas24 will spur change in people’s energy habits: “Only 1.1% of Austrians changed their electricity provider in 2012”, she explains. “Many end consumers are unaware that the energy costs for households are higher than those for industry and that they are in fact paying for a large part of the renewable energy subsidies provided by the Austrian state. If the switch rate increases, energy suppliers will be challenged to lower the prices for [end] consumers,” argues Diana.
Like with most young companies, a flexible structure is a sine qua non for Diana’s startups. “Some people work from home. We still meet twice a week in the office, but most other meetings we conduct via Skype or our internal VoIP. We have a developer in Spain, for example, on the Canary Islands and I never actually met him in person. Our designer is based in Bulgaria. We organise a lot of events that… promote the open-source system that our websites are based on, Drupal. Through these events wehave such a huge network across Europe”, says Diana when asked about her employees. Diana and Ivo also host yearly “Drupal Camps” in Bulgaria, the first of which attracted over 200 participants.
Not just an accolade, a responsibility
In March 2013, Diana joined the ranks of Selma Prodanović and other prominent Austrian business women of a migrant background by being awarded the MiA in the category of Business and Economics. For Diana, this is more than just an accolade; it’s a responsibility. “When I read about the success of other people, I get motivated. I decided I can maybe tell my story, in order to motivate others. There is a huge demand for migrant and women founders in Austria”, says Diana.She also believes that ““entrepreneurship has no gender,” as she commented at the EBAN congress in Vienna.
Since then, Diana has taken this responsibility seriously. She continues to encourage others – especially girls and young women – to consider entrepreneurship as a career option. “A few weeks ago, I organised the so-called Wiener Töchtertag [Daughter’s Day] at my office. I invited girls from two schools, and I talked to them about what entrepreneurship is and what it’s like to work in a startup company.” Diana’s sense of giving back was alive already before the MiA or any other outward praise was on the horizon. Since a couple of years, she has been helping her old primary school in Bulgaria build up a website and online presence, while also organising tutorials and workshops for teachers so as to enhance the role played by technology in often outdated curricula.
Any words of advice to fellow startuppers? Diana says: “Principally, I think you should focus on one thing, and envision your business future on a daily basis.” And, above all, don’t waste time.
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