Julius Bencko: Always set your mind to “I’m gonna make it!”

Design

Primarily you are a designer. Do you recall your first memories regarding design thinking or any type of graphics that got your attention?

This is not an easy one to answer since everything around us can be used for your inspiration. All you need to do is look at it from that perspective.

I remember seeing commercials on MTV when the cable TV first came in. I think I was in the 8th grade then. I was totally fascinated by the combination of the animation, the video, the audio and the “level of coolness” in those commercials as well as the music videos.

I have a very good visual and audio memory and so these were constantly looping in my head. It’s very rare today. Everything is just so… skin deep. Of course back then, 1990 i think,  I didn’t even dream about doing anything not even remotely related to that.

Even before this – I remember we had this collection of LP’s when me and my brother were little kids. As a family we didn’t have much money, so we only had a few of those. But I remember studying every square centimeter of the covers of those LP’s.

By the way I’m looking for one for my son. Dreveny tato by Tomas Janovic. Someone please get me a digital version of it:)

 

What do you think are the most crucial skills a designer should have? Have you maybe gained those at school or are you a 100% self-learner? 

To answer the first question: what skills should designers have?  To meet the deadline:)

But now seriously. If we take the word “skill” in the sense of a mindset, rather than a technical skill (using some software, etc), I think the skill should be the ability to stay up to date with trends as well as be able to implement something into your work that defines your own style and makes your creation unique.

For instance  a big trend for the last years has been flat design. Many designers are very skilled at it and create beautiful things. But the more you browse the sites, look at prints, or watch presentational animations, it kinda starts to look the same. It’s not easy to be original. But I’m not saying it’s impossible!

Let me put it this way: a wheel has already been invented. You can try to re-invent it, or you can work on the one that is already out there and add something to it that no one has done yet. I have a friend who designs motorbikes. For the wheels he uses glass instead of metal. So you see through the wheel. It’s still a wheel with the same specs and all and yet you say you yourself: No waaay, what an idea!

I often get inspired by other people´s work, but in the process of my workflow there is a shift point where I just kinda go my way. I am rarely satisfied with my work so I can not judge it, but I have been hearing words of appreciation for being able to still keep my own style as well as be up to date with today’s trends. Which is important if you want to make money of your designs, which I’m guessing you do:)

You were also asking about schools. Back then there were no graphic design oriented schools in Slovakia, so yes I’ve learned everything by myself.

 

Here is a tricky one. If you were given only one year to become a designer that best companies want to hire – what would be the key steps you would take? What is the most essential when becoming a good designer? 

This is not a tricky one,  the previous two were:)

For me personally it’ very easy to answer it. Set your mind to “I’m gonna make it” and don’t let anyone or anything change it. And here comes the part that will hurt for those 365 days: No partying, no breaking rules of the mindset, no going-outs, no drugs, no holidays, you have to stay dedicated to it. Sounds easy, but trust me, I had seen guys give up already after a week.

I remember doing the very thing you are asking me about. Since I started with graphic design kinda late and not so young anymore, I had to go through exactly what you are asking. For me sport and keeping yourself physically fit are the key factors. And listen to music! Anytime you can, all the time, listen to whatever you feel like at that moment, wear a headset everywhere you go, always play your music in the car, no radio! :). That is my recipe.

 

What was your first design job you got paid for? 

Actually this is where my story begins. Exactly after the year I was mentioning in your previous question I made a portfolio for myself. I saw an ad for a position of a graphic designer in Bratislava, at this German company called Dignity Media. I packed my bag and went to Bratislava with no hope for any luck. The owner of the company was a pretty cool German guy and he told me straight: “Your portfolio is not like anything we usually receive since you haven’t done any real jobs yet.” But after he heard how I almost literally locked myself in a room for a year, he told me “I see the potential”. He than gave me a task of finalising few half-done designs. I was like “Ok, I’m gonna get on it, fail, pack my stuff and go back”. Everyday in my trial week I was sitting there for 12 hours busting my ass. Then I made it. I was hired. I fell in love with that job. I remember I was so happy. Great team, I was learning so much every day. So my 3-week trip turned into a 3 year living in Bratislava. In fact  the owner of the company was the one showing me pictures of Kim on the internet. Back then Kim was doing Gumball 3000, he had amazing flash sites etc. Not exactly the type you forget about easily:)

 

juliusbencko

Megaupload

Most of us are familiar with your name thanks to Megaupload where you held the position of Graphic Director. What did you do prior to this? 

A lot of things actually :). I never wanted to be unemployed and so I always did something. I know you are asking about jobs related to graphic design, but still I want to mention some  jobs I really enjoyed. I worked as a restaurateur at St. Elizabeth church in Kosice. I did everything around that big clock and one more small tower. I really loved that work.

Then I managed to break my wrist very badly skateboarding, so I took a job as an English teacher at two elementary schools. I liked that a lot. And this was before I had gone to any english-speaking country, so when people say “of course your english is good, you lived in Australia” it’s not like that. You can learn it without going anywhere and you can be as good as you want at it.

But what I did before Megaupload – I had a web development company in Kosice (ex-pixelhood.com). Flash was a big thing then and we were excellent at it, so we were pretty busy. I had my small design team and my partner had his coders (all very skilled guys).

These were nice times. Not much money yet, but we enjoyed every minute of our days. First we did outsourcing for western companies, but this eventually transformed into 50-50 deal cooperation.

 

Could you describe the steps that had led you to Megaupload?

It’s actually a movie-scene kinda story. Like I said, with our little “basement-office-company” we achieved quite a lot. Won some awards, we were published in books several times and since I’m kind of a “there’s-no-limits-show-man” I always reached further and tried get new cool contacts.

I prepared this marketing email we used for seeking new partners and projects. Our company’s site was all done in Flash, many people in the Flash community compared us to 2advanced, our Der Bauer if you remember.

I recall this one evening that changed my life. I came home from our office one day, it was around 11.30 pm. Of course I immediately turned on the Extreme Channel. Then I see this crazy guy racing Gumball 3000 and eventually winning it.

I remember saying to my fiancé “I know about this guy! He made it big on the Internet and he has some cool sites.”  I started googling his name as I didn’t remember it accurately. So I dropped him our marketing email along with some personal notes. I think the beginning of the email was “You will probably never read this but…”.

20 minutes later I get a call from a weird number. “Wassuuuuup Julius! It´s Kim. Good work you guys are doing over there!”.  I did 2 projects as a tryout and he and the team loved it. Next thing you know we were on a plane to Asia. That is how it started. Not with Megaupload. That was not even a plan back then. We had a cool web design company focusing on Flash and unbeatable design. Megaupload came later.

 

How did you feel every morning waking up thinking of Mega having about 150 employees, more than 82 million unique and 50 million daily visitors and being a 4% of the data-volume of the whole Internet?

I can not answer that, as our mornings were usually our bed-times 🙂 But if you mean the 2pm-afternoon-wake ups, then first thing – short but quality time with our dog while logging onto Skype and checking e-mails, then coffee, a lot of it and off we go!

How I felt? Last years I was already burnt out, but overall I didn’t really wanna distract my mind with this question. Another day – here we go again. Full steam. I didn´t ask myself how I felt. That was just not a priority. I mean don’t get me wrong – no one forced me to do this. I chose this path because I believed in it. Every now and then I got an email from a satisfied user and that felt great! I especially liked the kind words on the UX and my designs 🙂

And as for your statistics, to be more precise we had more than 200 employees eventually.

 

What were your main duties and responsibilities?

Well, obviously as a designer, it was making sure our sites looked slick and the usage was as simple and convenient for our users as it possible could be. First years it was only me doing all the designs, later as we grew, my job turned into a manager of several teams working on different projects. So at a later stage the main designs were done by our new head designer. Actually, my brother 🙂 But still the approval of everything went through me. You know what they say “busy hands are happy hands”.

 

Could you describe what your day looked like?

When I was not 13 000 metres above the ground, it was just the usual: coffee, e-mails, Skype,  Photoshop, phone, more e-mails, Photoshop, Skype, the other phone, more coffee,  Photoshop, again the phone, Photoshop, Skype on my iPad and a kiss good night :).

 

You have been one of the fastest growing companies in the last decade. What was the secret ingredient?

I would say it was the common synergy amongst us.

We were very close and so the synergy was very natural. We all shared similar sense of humour, similar stance towards work,  as well as the way of having fun.

There were no secret or sneaky games we would’d played towards each other. That just does’nt work. Better tell the truth even if you have to take shit for it that moment, but it will prevent further escalation.

But mostly it was the way we cooperated with each other. It was almost a competition at some points:

“Should I prepare it for you like this?”

“Nono I will handle it like that.”

“No no no, it’s more work for you, I will simplify it.”

“Haha no way man – I can do it in 3 minutes even more simple, look.”

and so on and so on…

It was challenging and the word efficiency suddenly had a different meaning – we kinda “put it on steroids”.

juliusbencko 

 

What did the core team look like? What philosophy did you have when hiring people?

We were always very close back then as I said earlier. First years it was only handful of us. We were like family. It was really cool. The outside world was different to ours. Holidays, weekends, going-outs – these were usually activities we said NO to.

Later, when it came to hiring people, well, I will speak for my team. When we saw someone with a potential, we gave them a chance. It’s easier to learn working with some software than to learn dedication, attitude and a certain level of sophistication. There were several guys from Slovakia in our team.

  

Did you have some kind of specific working culture? If so, what were the cornerstones of it?

Indeed we did. We had these unwritten rules nobody talked about but everyone followed.

No bullshitting each other. I mean If you are tired and it’s not your day, just say it, don’t come up with stories like your HDD died, or you have to drive you grandma to a hospital. Just come clean if there is a problem, or if you screw something up. The sooner, the better. Truth works. Bullshitting doesn’t. Easy as that.

Always be reachable. For all the years of the existence you could count the time we couldn´t reach each other on one hand. Except of course when we were sleeping or on planes with no Internet connection. But we always knew each others’ availability.

And last but not least. Don’t say “that’s not doable”. Try to find a solution first, or at least a workaround. But never say things are not doable right away.

 

In retrospect, what are the key lessons you have learnt being a part of the executive team of a company such as Megaupload?

I am a person with lots of temper, so for me one of the main as you call it “key lessons” was not to act with a hot head and be more “diplomatic”. There were times when things went, so to say, “sideways” for whatever reason, but over the years I’ve learned not to act immediately by firing out some emotional email, but instead let things cool down and act rationally in order to solve the problem in the most efficient way.

 

Could you maybe name some tips and tricks for Slovak startup teams with ambitions to transform into business with such worldwide impact?

You need to have a good team with good relationships towards each other. Otherwise I would say don’t bother. Synergy in the team is the key and the bottom line. Other than this, I would say don’t limit yourself. Don’t think you cannot make it. You can!  Make sacrifices if you have to, work hard and don’t compromise the quality.

 

juliusbencko

Startups

Actually, can we call Megaupload a startup? What is your personal definition of a startup?

Startups. Yeah it’s really a thing of today, isn’t it? I don’t know the standard definition, but I look at startups as newly established companies usually financed by an external capital source based on the potential value of the company or its project.

Was Megaupload a startup? I wouldn’t say we qualified as a startup company. There was no “crowd-funding” in the beginning and plus, as I said earlier, Megaupload was not the reason we started working together as a team. It was Web Design and Development. There were also some video plans back then. Megaupload was pretty much created for purpose of easily sharing our work files that would not go through by email because of their size.

 

What do you think of the recent Slovak startup environment?

Since few years I had been following some of my friends and their companies on social media and I’d seen some good progress and growth. I hadn’t really had that much time to pay more attention to it back then as I was busy myself. Only now, after some time when I visited the guys at RubixLab in Bratislava I see how cool the startup scene in Slovakia is. I was pleasantly surprised by the whole image of it: very nice and stylish offices, teams of people transforming exciting and radical ideas into reality. From what I’ve witnessed for the last few weeks that I have spent time with them, I can safely state that these are dynamical, flexible and hard-working teams of young people with a clear and in-compromised mind set of achieving their goals, willing to push it hard at work, as well as constantly educate themselves in order to maximize their efficiency. THIS is the way to go!

 

What is the first startup, service or product with global potential that comes into your mind in regards to Slovakia?  

ESET.

 

Present

Could you maybe share with us what your life looks like nowadays?

Well, it is no Sunday picnic I tell you that. We just had our first baby born recently and he is just amazing. So that takes our minds off what has been going on. My mom is a diabetic and had major problems last year so I am taking care of her as well. Other than that I was pretty much out of scene last 4 years but I am changing it now. There is one album by this band called Rancid: “Life won’t wait”. So, better live it, then wait for it to start again.

As you know from the Internet, we were all stripped down off our finances, so starting from zero at the age of 39 is not exactly easy. First 2 years were very hard. We had been under constant stress, not knowing what will happen. But that’s life and I’m not complaining. I am thankful for every day I  can spend with my beloved wife and our baby. I am keeping myself fit with sport and work. One thing I learned in the last 4 years is to live for today.

 

Any future plans we can look forward to?

What I am looking forward to is spending as much time as I can with our first son Dominik, who is just totally fascinated by gadgets, which makes me a very happy daddy 🙂

As for the work-related plans me and my partner are now in the stage of talking to several potential investors about our ideas which we would like to turn into reality, so let’s see.

In April I will be speaking at the Pioneer Bratislava conference so I will be more than happy to meet new people and make new friends there.

And as a bonus I am also writing a book about my life with all my crazy stories. I am open to new opportunities so you can always contact me.


Photos: Julius Bencko

 

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