You can mostly know him as the co-founder of the biggest Slovak startup portal, Startitup, currently holding the position of the Strategist and Partner in the Startitup Group. Besides that, he also co-founded geo-location ice-breaker app, Droppie, and attacked the U.S. market. Today, Droppie is shut, Startitup Group is on the rise, and he shares the experience from both projects. Marek Sandor.
Marek, what did the Droppie pitch you did at Startup Weekend look like? Do you remember?
Before launching our Startitup portal, we wanted to meet the startup community that we were going to write about and write for. Therefore, together with Lukas (Lukas Gasparik, the co-founder of Startitup – editor´s note), we went to see the Startup Weekend in Bratislava. When the last pitch was about to finish, Lukas nudged me to make me go on the stage and pitch our own idea.
The thing is, every time we had gone to some pub or a restaurant, I was wondering how I could get in touch with a person who seemed interesting and was sitting at the next table, by using the geolocation technology. If you don´t have a good platform, it´s really hard to break the ice. This was our first idea around which I built the whole pitch.
What was the outcome of the Startup Weekend?
Our idea received great support; we built a team and worked really hard on it. We managed to prepare a relatively well functioning app, and our project won. Maybe a week later, we left for Krakow, as the prize for the winner included an intensive two-week programme in an accelerator where all the best startups from Central and Eastern Europe and mentors from Silicon Valley were sitting.
After Krakow, we set ourselves to some kind of a frozen mode because each of us had his own job to do. We wanted to find out if there would be any interest in our product in the market and if there would be someone willingness to invest. We cannot really talk about daily work back then, we wanted to know if we could get some investment which could help us open the door to the rest of the world and build a great team. Finally, it paid off and we left for San Diego.
Did you get the investment that later allowed you to enter the American market?
Yes, we got the investment, and we knew that if we wanted to execute it well, the first market had to be the U.S. When we talk about content discovery or social stuff, that´s the number one market, the trendsetter. You don´t need to go to the U.S. with a cyber security project, for instance, as you can execute it from Israel or the Czech Republic or Slovakia. We got in touch with Anton Zajac and received very positive feedback from him.
Anton Zajac has a great background in the American market, especially in San Diego, as that´s where ESET has been active successfully for several years. We had an opportunity to live and work there, and as an added value, we got the possibility to get engaged with a wide network of people. After a few days in San Diego, we came back to Slovakia and arranged all our things in order to be able to run our company from the U.S.
We launched the app successfully in Slovakia with about 10,000 downloads in the first days. Of course, we also had to check the users´ retention, how much content they were creating, as well as how deep the user engagement was and all the other things. However, all the numbers were great, so we considered our beta test done. We altered all the things that weren´t working properly in the app and got ready for the U.S. Our target market were students at universities.
How did Droppie actually work?
Imagine you go to Starbucks, and you get a push notification saying that you´ve just picked up a picture of a stranger who had left it there with a comment saying, “They have the best café latte in the whole San Diego here”. That´s relevant content with a huge potential to break the ice and open up a conversation – you just leave a quality picture with a geo-tag and a relevant note, and that´s it.
How did it work out for you at the universities? How did you approach the students?
We focused on the San Diego State University with 30,000 students, which is basically a small town. At that time, we had some delays with the app development, and once we overcame this obstacle, it was just one month before the summer holidays. If we had launched it immediately, we would have killed it straight away. Even though we were already in contact with professors, fraternities and sororities at that time, we decided to postpone the launch for another three months, until September, and go back to Slovakia to test the business monetization.
What was the point of the monetization?
You go to a shopping mall and pass a shop where you pick up a picture with a 20%-off voucher or you get a voucher with a free coffee. This model was a big success in Bratislava, with a great conversion.
And then you came back to the United States…
Yes, we came back in August in order to prepare the launch for September. We didn´t have any local contact person there, so we basically had to knock on each door all by ourselves. In the U.S., people see the university representatives very differently than they do here; the campus even has its own police. If you don´t follow the rules, they escort you out. Despite all the rules and objections, we managed to launch Droppie´s marketing and start some guerrilla marketing and other activities through fraternities and sororities. We even had our own mascot, our own team of people, and therefore, we could push the app through.
What was the feedback?
Droppie became a trending topic on Snapchat stories. Mainly our mascot was a great attraction; people were greeting him “Hey Droppieman!” even from distance, I could say we caught the buzz. We launched the app on iOS platform as it is the preferred one in the U.S., and we grew up to around 400 daily active users during the first two and a half weeks.
These numbers were quite good and growing every week, nevertheless, they weren´t as high as we had expected. At that time, we´d already wanted to be somewhere else with the numbers, and that´s why we sat together and asked ourselves: “Can we imagine being on tens of universities in half a year? Can we scale it like this?” To be honest, it´s not an easy task to scale a geo-location app. You need to have one critical mass connecting with another critical mass in order to have a sufficient number of users, content, engagement, and so on.
What was the breakpoint then? When did you tell yourselves that this is just enough and you don´t want to invest any more time, money or energy into this?
This technology moves forward very fast, and people’s behaviour changes all the time. We looked at it realistically; we discussed where we would be in a few years if we invested more time and money into the project, whether the effort would be worth it. At that given time, with the given conditions, funding and network, but also – and I need to admit it – with our lack of knowledge of the U.S. market, which has so many variables, we couldn´t imagine going on with the app.
What were your feelings as the founders? Was it relief, regret, or even anger? Or something completely different?
As a founder, I don´t regret anything. If we talk about investors, they engage in these projects with the knowledge that it can be a risk, it´s a form of venture capital. What we achieved in the U.S. was the maximum we could have done, and we couldn´t do more on our own. We openly communicated this to the investors and employees, and I dare to say it didn´t hurt any relationships. Venture capital funds usually take it less personally than angel investors who we also had at that time. But I have to say, they took it really professionally as well.
What were the biggest lessons you´ve learnt during that time?
Lesson number one: persistence. Both life and business have their ups and downs. Many people decide to shut the business during the hard times even if, originally, the business had great potential. You need to be persistent and go for the things you are good at.
Second important lesson: always look around you. Today, we live fast, and if you plan to only focus on yourself and play on your own, ignoring what others on your left or right do, that´s very risky.
The third thing I would point out is to be able to stand up to your feet once you fail. You mainly learn from your negative experience. It is crucial to understand that failing when doing business is a natural thing.
Besides Droppie, you also managed to launch the biggest Slovak startup portal. What did the beginnings look like?
Startitup was launched more than two years ago; our goal back then was to be strictly a startup medium. We wanted to cover the topics that had not been covered – innovative technologies, investments, people around it and startups, in particular. Our intention wasn´t just about creating a portal as such, but about creating a community portal. This is why we also have the biggest database of freelancers in Slovakia or why we regularly inform about the upcoming events. If you are, for example, looking for a developer, you can find one on our web page. From the beginning, we knew it wouldn´t be just a platform for creating articles; our aim was to bring the community together.
What does it look after two years?
Today, we publish more than 10 articles a day; we have an external team of 30 writers and an internal team of 11 people. Startups still represent the major part of our content; however, we cannot write ten different articles about the same topic the whole day, therefore, we’ve included other topics as well. We create articles for a very demanding community that can give you really harsh feedback.
The media business is a living environment. You publish an article or do something, and you can expect either a slap in your face or a compliment. And this is what I personally like, because you can respond to both immediately. If you´re able to set the internal processes right and act quickly, you can basically work in real time. When we were working on Droppie, we first needed to develop it, which took half a year or more, then we did beta testing, afterwards, we presented it to the audience, and then we optimized. With Startitup, we can manage a lot of things in real time, so sometimes, we modify the strategy maybe even on a weekly basis.
What are your next plans with Startitup?
Startitup goes its own way. We know the maximum we can achieve with it, so we’ve already started to discuss what our next move will be. We’ve decided to create a progressive media house that would be able to look at the content differently. The content will not only be created by journalists but mostly by people who are interested in the topics. We think that a person who loves the topic can write much more interestingly about it. There may be some stylistic or grammatical issues, but you feel the passion and “life” from it.
Therefore, we started with Sketcher that was created as a design portal, and it should soon become the biggest marketing /design portal in Slovakia. Later, we started to launch or buy shares in other portals in order to expand more quickly.
Today, everything is under one roof as Startitup Group with more than 8 portals and 1.8 million unique visits per month. We are about to become a part of AIM monitor, and we now compare ourselves to the bigger players in the market, looking at their weaknesses and our strengths, where we can be faster and more flexible.
What is, in your view, the key ingredient in managing such a portal or a media business as such?
Being flexible. Today’s technology and the way people work, e.g. freelancing, allow such media to be very flexible. The second thing is how the media use social networks and how they sometimes do not understand how social media actually works. The third thing is native advertising that starts to create significant revenue for all media. Startitup strives to be the trendsetter in the Slovak market regarding native advertising. Our average native article has approximately 4,000 unique readers.
Do you plan to access also other areas besides media?
We are working on an ambitious HR project that we are planning to launch this autumn. We would like to start a project that will look at things a bit differently and will provide better service and conversions than other players in the market currently provide. I think it´s going to be very interesting.
Photos: Marek Sandor