Pavel Serbajlo: We miss the “exit” environment in Slovakia

He co-founded M.dot – a native mobile app that enables small businesses to build websites right from their smartphones. In 2013, M.dot was acquired by GoDaddy and Pavel became a Director of Mobile Technology working for GoDaddy. After several years in Silicon Valley he is coming back to Central Europe, eager to become part of the local startup community. With his enthusiasm and experience he wants to support the community and is open to mentor anyone who would be interested. Pavel Serbajlo.

 

After several years, you are coming back to Europe, specifically to Slovakia. Leaving San Francisco (SF) is not really common, especially for a successful entrepreneur that managed to build something there. I am pretty sure it wasn’t just you being homesick. What is the motivation behind?

You can say I am a trendsetter and hope that others will eventually follow! But to be honest, there are two other reasons — “rohlik“, and “Vysočina“. You don’t really get that in the United States☺

Let’s move back to the past. How did you meet with your M.dot co-founder Dominik. We learned that you worked on several projects before M.dot together. When and how did it all start?

That is a rather long story 🙂 When i saw the first iPhone and got to hold it in my hand for the first time I felt that this device was going to change everything. As soon as the first SDK became available, I grabbed the documentation and learned Objective-C right away.

My first idea for an iPhone app was a remote control for my TV. After I built the app and was reasonably happy with the outcome, I was thinking it could be useful for others too and wanted to publish it to the App Store. I also needed to market the app to support the sales. I reached out to different portals and blogs focused on Apple products. One of those being macblog.sk. I asked if they feel like reviewing my app and I got a response from the owner of the blog, Dominik, asking me if I built the app myself and if I’m available to meet.

What followed after the meeting?

We realized there was a lot of match there, especially the way we saw apps and the mobile future in general. Also, our skills and experience would complement a lot as I was more on the technical side, Dominik is a great designer and also experienced on the marketing side. We joined forces and tried to build something together and decided that we really want to focus on apps in the productivity segment.

First app we built together, called NotifyMe was the first reminder app on AppStore leveraging push notifications and lived up to become an unexpected success for us. It gave us some confidence in the platform and we started to expand the project further. We also released another product called Bills, tracking your regular payments, later in the year.

After some time we started to feel the pain of the App Store apps ecosystem as App Store itself expanded further — no matter what you do, your downloads and sales just peak and decrease over time. We’d start thinking about it and how we could use the native apps on your phone as a gateway to something bigger.

Was this the time you started to think about M.dot?

Not really. We had a different idea before M.dot, but faced the “chicken-egg” problem with it. We iterated on the idea for some time and decided to address just one group of potential customers to avoid the problem — small businesses. Whenever you start a new business, one of the first needs is to create a good looking online presence. Most of the website builders we knew back in the day were typically too complex, requiring users to have significant technical or design skills, despite the presence of some predefined templates. We thought “What if we redefine the baseline for simplicity of these tools available and use the experience we have already with building native mobile apps. Let’s allow our customers to create their websites right from their smartphone!”

This idea felt a little crazy even to us 🙂 We heard similar feedback whenever we’d pitch the idea, too. We even had a Silicon Valley (SV) investor who’d literally asked us “Why the f*** would I even want to use this?” But we knew we had to keep going as we can prove this can be executed in a an attractive and understandable form.

After a year of intensive work we had a working prototype. It was the right time to purchase a one-way ticket to SV and try to get the feedback we needed based on something we could show to others at that point.

PavolSerbajlo_Slovakia

Do you remember your first moments in SV? What were your expectations before arriving there? Did they reflect the reality or the experience was different?

I expected a lot of sun 🙂 But seriously, I expected an environment and knowledgeable mentors able and willing to help us with the product and the validation of what we had and help us understand what the next steps should be. We knew that there was a bunch of people with a specific know-how and experience launching the productivity apps, and we were trying to reach out to them. We also decided to stay in a co-working place which would allow us to live there as well. We found Blackbox, owned by Fadi Bishara. We were lucky enough to meet bunch of excellent entrepreneurs from all around the world trying to learn and absorb the SV culture. Fadi was incredibly helpful to us from the very beginning of our stay, helping us shaping the product, positioning. I would say his help was very important for our chance to be successful in SV.

When you look at your M.dot story from today’s perspective, what do you think were the key factors that influenced the eventual success?

One of the essential introductions made by Fadi was intro to Keith Teare, co-founder of TechCrunch and Archimedes Labs, which is a small fund for super early stage startups. Keith was kind enough to meet with us soon. He wasn’t really impressed with M.dot at first 🙂 He gave us couple of great ideas during his feedback. Later on, he invited us to pitch M.dot to his partners. We didn’t expect any positive outcome, yet we did that, and they’d surprise us with a decision to invest in us.

On the other hand what would you say were some mistakes you made and what lessons you learned from it?

We learned a lot of lessons, but I would hardly consider those simply “mistakes” now. I really call them to be learnings. Whenever something unexpected happens, you either try to dismiss it or you try to understand what you could have done better and learn from it. I do the latter. When we arrived to SV, we were invited to YCombinator for an interview, with Paul Graham and his team. Luckily, we didn’t get accepted. Yes, I consider it a good thing now. It’d force us to spend more time thinking about our direction and we realized we don’t need such accelerator for our success as there’s bunch of other ways to build and run a company around our product.

Until recently you acted as a Director of Mobile Technology at GoDaddy. What is it like to be a part of such a big and successful company? If you compare it with a small startup project that was M.dot at the beginning? Which role suits you better?

That’s a tricky question 🙂 It is hard to compare a startup culture with a large enterprise company with thousands and thousands of employees. There are specifics both good and bad on both sides of the barricade. What was great about GoDaddy and became a significant reason for us to join GoDaddy was the potential amount of learning we could get from the whole experience. Not just the acquisition process, but also what we could learn from being on a director position in such a large company. Another reason was that the GoDaddy brand had its PR challenges back in the day and we heard a compelling story on the planned “inside out” transformation. We liked the fact we could be a part of this.

If you should compile into 1-2 sentences what is necessary for a project to be globally successful and eventually get to exit, what would you say? What is the key essence?

You can write books on this topic, not just 2 sentences 🙂 It’s really thousands of things that can affect the outcome. Firstly, you really need to hustle when you know you’re onto something.

Listen to people around you, be polite, humble, learn to say “no”, hire the right people able to grow with your startup…

I can go on and on. Being successful is really about those little things and details you need to focus on and be guided by your guts or a common sense, if you wish. Luck being one of the possible elements, too. But as one of our investors says: “You really need to position yourself to get hit by the lucky bus”.

PavelSerbajlo2_Slovakia

From your experience how do you see our region – Central Europe or maybe specifically Slovakia? What are the challenges you see here and on the other hand what is the biggest potential this region possesses?

I’ll start with the potential. Huge potential is the incredible technical talent we have here. Engineers here are genuinely interested in tech, having a deep knowledge. Whenever I have a discussion with an engineer coming from here and an engineer coming from, let’s say, Stanford University I can feel that the European engineer is much more excited about the technicalities, rather than business itself.

On the other hand, Europeans don’t know how to “sell themselves”, their ideas or projects. This is something that we might need to to learn from SV culture.

Another thing I noticed, especially in Slovakia, is that – even though the startup ecosystem is emerging, there is no real “exit” environment here. When was the last time you heard of a successful acquisition of a Slovak tech startup by a Slovak company or a company operating here? I have seen that happening already in Czech Republic, not that much in Slovakia yet. I believe this would close the circle for the local environment as it can give angels and VCs bigger chance of liquid investments and founders could be more confident about the functioning local market.

This closely correlates with mentoring. I can imagine that in SV mentoring is a well-established process of linking people together and passing the knowledge onwards. Do you see this also as a key factor for young entrepreneurs?

I agree, mentoring is absolutely essential. But it’s really about the way you get yourself the right mentor for your startup. Are you just waiting for your accelerator to do any intro for you or are you proactive enough to learn more about the right mentors that can be helpful to you, trying to reach out to them? There are certain organizations here in Central Europe, especially some incubators, trying to sell you the idea of “Hey, we will give you some seed money at the beginning, help you with some initial visibility, provide you with mentors, send you to SV for a few months, etc.” But how is this really supporting entrepreneurship? In my opinion, proactivity is what defines an entrepreneur. Even though incubators are mostly extremely useful, it may not give you the support you need in learning the right habits.

If you think about, let’s say, 3-5 projects within the region or in particular Slovakia, what comes to your mind first? What are the 3-5 companies that you think are successful and people can learn from them?

I would tell you, but I won’t 🙂 It wouldn’t be the right thing to just highlight a few and forget the others that are part of the ecosystem, doing a great job, too.

Not even one startup that is established in Slovakia and you think is successful, e.g. Eset or Sygic?

Let’s talk about a definition of a startup. I heard a couple of definitions already. I keep asking myself when you actually stop being a tech startup and when you become a regular tech company instead? I think that startup is defined as a company that has some innovative idea, product, service or business model. Simply trying to create something that wasn’t here before. As a startup you are frequently backed by investors and you try to validate the idea and turn it into a real business. When you successfully do that, you start scaling your business and creating a management structure. I don’t think you can call yourself startup anymore at that point. In my opinion, those companies you mentioned already out-grown the startup definition for me.

Can you share with us your near future plans? We know that you have recently moved to Slovakia so what’s next for Pavel Serbajlo?

I have to say that there is lots of opportunities in Slovakia and Czech Republic. I see myself as part of the local startup community and I’m ready to help this community grow further, by sharing my experience and learnings from my SV. I’m also more than happy to mentor anyone who would be interested in that.

Considering that I have done some investments in SV already, I was also thinking – do I want to be more on the investment side of the barricade now or do I still see myself as an entrepreneur building startups? While it’s still an open question to me, I concluded I still lean more to the entrepreneurial side. Executing on my own ideas and building a company around it still means a bit more to me than just to support and watch others doing exactly that 🙂


Cover photo: Kurt Bauschardt – flickr.com (no changes made) | Photos: Pavel Serbajlo

 

If you enjoyed the post, please share us. Thanks!