Impact Incubator’s Expert Mentors: Jan Cifra & Pavol Magic

Impact Hub Bratislava is launching the second edition of the biggest business incubator in Slovakia. Impact Incubator will provide a complex support for young entrepreneurs for the period of three months. There are two categories startup projects can apply for – Social Business and Technology For Good. Both will also provide know-how and experience of the renown mentors such as Tatiana Svrckova (Slovak Telekom), Sergej Kara (Dobre&Dobré), Kenneth Ryan (KPMG), Lucia and Simon Sicko (Pixel Federation) and Jan Cifra (Websupport) with Pavol Magic (Sygic). Today, we would gladly introduce to you the last two.

Impact Incubator Jan Cifra

Jan Cifra: The Right Founding Team Is The Most Important Asset

After his studies at Vlerick Leuven-Gent Management School in Belgium and working experience at ING Belgium, he came back to Slovakia to become a part of the Piano Media company. After that, the experience and his big network brought him an opportunity to run the biggest webhosting company in Slovakia, Websupport, as its CEO. Jan Cifra.

What is your story? Could you describe the path that led you where you are today?

I studied physics at Comenius University in Bratislava. During the studies, I realized that the path I had taken was not the one I really wanted to follow, so I did the first thing that occurred to me—I found a job at a large German corporation. There, I grew from customer support to software development to management. The environment favored those who wanted to grow, and I enjoyed it and used of all the available opportunities. I went for an MBA to Vlerick Business School in Belgium as a form of a sabbatical, and after graduating, I joined Piano Media. The experience and the MBA helped a lot—I’ve gained a broad skill set including finance, business development and technology as well. I managed to build out my network, and as a result, after stints at multiple startups, I got offered the CEO job at Websupport.

Do you follow the Slovak startup scene? What are, let’s say, three projects that cross your mind first? Where do you see the potential in terms of Slovak projects or ideas? And, on the other hand, where do you see the gaps? 

I do follow the startup scene and, actually, I do mentor/consult a few projects. Beyond those, I also follow the portfolio of Neulogy Ventures and a few of the incubators. I also try to attend events where I can meet interesting teams. The projects that I find particularly interesting at the moment are definitely Vectary, Limewood and Portwish. Some because of the idea, others because of the team.

In regards to startups, it is hard to talk about the gaps. They all have plenty of gaps such as the idea is not coherent, lack of execution, their business acumen is low—but so were those of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. I think the most important thing is to have the right founding team.

You have embraced the role of an expert mentor for Impact Hub Bratislava’s Impact Incubator which supports new ideas and innovation. Why did you decide to go for it? What are your expectations?

I, personally, have gained a lot from mentors, and I want to give back. But that is not all. Innovation as such is at the heart of the Slovak potential to move forward. We need to nurture young people with the idea that innovation is the way, so that we all can benefit from the fruit of their labour later on. Moreover, I also enjoy sharing my experience.
And what do I expect? Interesting discussions and challenging questions.

When you talk to startup founders or people in business who seek your support, what advice do you give them the most? 

Be honest with yourself. Startups are hard, really hard.

Impact Incubator Pavol Magic

Pavol Magic: My Advice? Do Stuff. Really.

From corporate 9-5 job to work at a PR agency and online advertising company up to a product manager at the very well-known Slovak GPS brand, Sygic, he has gained a lot of experience in different fields. Now he wants to give back and share his know-how with others. Pavol Magic.

What is your story? Could you describe the path that led you where you are today? 

It’s always easy to look back and connect the dots. But at the time the things were happening, I usually had no idea.

During my university studies, I worked as a contractor or a part-timer in several companies and also volunteered for AIESEC. Getting kicked out of the university wasn’t the most pleasant experience. I felt I needed to run away for a while, so I literally did. I took an internship through AIESEC in Peru for 3 months, which was truly a life-changing experience. This trip gave me a whole new perspective on life and priorities. After I came back, apart from friends and family, I didn’t have anything – no degree, no work, no place to stay, and no money.

I found a place to stay and a regular 9-5 job. After four months there, I got an opportunity to work at the best Slovak PR agency. I ended up working at Seesame for more than 4 years, and it was one of the defining periods of my life. If you have an opportunity to work for an agency, go for it. Thanks to this work, I jumped on the hype train of online media very early on.

After those four years, one day, I posted a question on Facebook asking if anyone was interested in hiring me. And there was someone. Etarget used to be one of the most promising startups in Slovakia. I worked as the head of communication, responsible for marcom activities of the company in 10 markets. The job grew my network to the whole CEE region, but having worked in communications for quite a long time, I felt I needed a much bigger change. After two years, I decided I no longer wanted to do the marcom stuff. It started to feel like a routine, and if there’s something I truly hate, it’s stereotypes.

One day over a lunch, I was offered to lead the comms team at Sygic, which I rejected, but enquired about other open positions, because I really liked the company and its vibe. The former CMO, with whom I met, mentioned a new project they called “the platform” and that they were looking for a product manager for it. So we started brainstorming, and from the first second, you could see that we were on the same page.

Starting a job at a new company is always a bit difficult. Not to mention that I was changing fields and began working on a completely new position. I had literally no idea what was expected from me as a product manager. But I have always been really interested in how things work and whether there is any room for improvement. The job of a product manager is very similar to that. You analyze stuff, understand how it works, and suggest improvements or a completely new product.

During the first two years, our projects ranged from unsuccessful to disastrous. Of course, there were some small wins. We kept on going, pivoting from one project to another. I can’t even tell how many times I thought I’d be fired. But I was not. After three years, we launched a new project which rocketed, and we finally started to earn some serious cash for the company, which invested its money and trust in us. Currently, I’m leading a team of 11 people that works on several different projects, which generate about a fifth of the company’s revenue.

To sum it up–like I wrote in the beginning–it’s very easy to look back and write the story. But there’s no chance I could plan for it. The best things usually happen when you don’t expect them, when you’re out of your comfort zone. So don’t be afraid and take that leap of faith.

Do you follow the Slovak startup scene? What are the first, let’s say, three projects that cross your mind? Where do you see the potential in terms of Slovak projects or ideas? And, on the other hand, where do you see the gaps? 

I haven’t been following the Slovak startup scene lately. There’s a bunch of really nice and potential projects, though. My long-time favorite is I’m a fan of Exponea and Photoneo as well. And Sygic can still be considered a startup, too. At least the part I’m working on.

The problem is that the really good ones get often lost in hundreds of average or below-average projects. Some people just create a website and pretend that they have a startup. There’s a lot of money that’s virtually lying on the ground, ready to be picked up by anyone. I believe that in the end, it hurts the whole startup environment. You simply don’t need to go through the pain of thinking what will earn you some money, so you can survive. Self-preservation is one of the strongest motivators, and if you push yourself to a situation where you have to get up and fight, that’s where the magic happens.

I don’t want to be all negative, but considering there’s a tremendous engineering potential in Slovakia, which stems from the past, I would expect we would have more startups that are not only in the internet or apps business. It’s really time to start looking beyond that.

You have embraced the role of an expert mentor for Impact Hub Bratislava’s Impact Incubator which supports new ideas and innovation. What does it mean to you? Why did you decide to go for it?

In the past year or so, I was approached by quite a lot of people who were trying to sell me on the idea of their new startup. After a bunch of such pitches, you start seeing a pattern. Many make the same mistakes. Even when you attend startup competitions or when you meet seasoned businessmen, you see the same.

Although it’s important to go through some of these mistakes on your own, some can and should be avoided. That’s why I joined. I want to share my experience, my mistakes, my know-how, because I believe that somewhere out there is at least a bunch of “Sygics” waiting to be discovered. Maybe they just need a little help or a push in the right direction.

When you talk to startup founders or people in business who seek your support, what advice do you give them the most? 

Do stuff. Really. We have great marketers who can sell you on the idea. But when you start asking questions, you’ll very often find that they don’t even have a prototype or validation whatsoever. This isn’t going to work. If you really believe in something, invest YOUR money in it, do the stuff, sell it. If you can go through this pain and see some initial success, then go out to investors and start the marketing hype. In the end, doing business is quite simple – you have to bring in more money than you spend.

Photos: Impact Incubator | Cover photo: Screenhot

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