What do investors look for? How difficult is it to be a startup founder? How does one deal with failure? What happens after your company becomes a success? The answers to these and many more questions on starting up lie in the unique growth story of Simona Kijonkova’s business.
Simona is the owner or partner in 15 companies in the Czech Republic and abroad, the founder of Zasilkovna.cz, a mother of three children and an angel investor. Through her experiences, we can learn the different phases of a startup life or understand how she dealt with failure. The story is compiled from the interview with Simona at the Startup Grind Prague in June.
Simona Kijonkova was just a teenager doing odd jobs when she first dreamed of running her own company. But she did not let her dream remain only in her head. “To achieve anything, one needs to take small steps in the direction of one’s goal,” she says. As a student, she sometimes worked two jobs just to get her own computer. “I used my computer to work online and create websites as a hobby.”
While studying at a university in Prague, Simona had the opportunity to go to the USA. After working there for a while, an American company gave her an offer to open a franchise in the Czech Republic. Anyone of us would have jumped at such a chance, right? She turned it down.
“I was very happy and excited when they gave me this offer. But I was clear that I did not want to be an employee, I wanted to be a partner, put in my own money and take my own decisions,” she explains. She had a goal to start her own company and got stuck to it irrespective of other opportunities.
When Simona returned to the Czech Republic, she took up a job as a Marketing Manager in a consulting company. “Yes, all the jobs you do are important because working in a company or in different environments teaches you how to run a business. And I wanted to learn that.”
One day, her senior manager refused her idea to use new tools for marketing but since Simona knew how to work with websites, she rewrote the code and made changes to the website and marketing tools they had. “My boss was surprised that I had done it all by myself. And soon we had clients from Asia or America.” Simona’s belief in her knowledge and capability was recognized by the senior manager and he made her a board member.
Later on, Simona launched her own media agency and gained the experience of raising a capital. “Raising money is not as easy as new entrepreneurs think. One cannot go to a company or investor, show a product and ask to be funded.” She believes that to start a business, one needs to use their own money, alternatively money from their family or friends, as first. “I used two-thirds of my earnings to start my business.”
Every company or product goes through a lifecycle that includes difficult times. And so did Simona’s agency. “The recession in 2008 hit us badly and all my clients said they could not afford me anymore! We closed the agency in 2009. I sat in my room, in the darkness, and spoke to myself. I knew that I couldn’t work under someone else because of my stubborn nature. I decided to start a new business.”
The business idea? Simply something that she had done in the past – creating websites! “I launched an IT firm from my apartment with the help of freelancers. The firm did well and we were soon making CZK 250,000 each month.” What followed when the company succeeded? “Well, in this case, this firm was my first exit,” she laughs.
“I was still fooling around with the idea of a franchise and figured there was a gap in the field of pick-up points. Thus, I combined the franchise, logistics and pick-up points and the idea for Zasilkovna was born.” She started developing an application for pick up points with the help of some of her colleagues from the IT firm.
“When we tested the system, it was just not working well as I didn’t have any experience or knowledge in logistics.” She learned the hard way that it was difficult to have a business in an area where you didn’t have sufficient knowledge. “After 6 months of trying, I hired a freelancer from Brno to help with the development. We developed another system in 7 months. Unfortunately, it was not good enough for the client again. It was a tough phase for me because I had my first baby at that time, and I also lost a big client.”
If falling down, picking yourself up, dusting the past off and moving on towards success is to be believed, Simona is the true example. “I did not lose hope on my idea even though I was struggling with the application. I met three guys at a conference who liked my idea and asked to visit me for a presentation. But half way through the presentation they asked me to step outside.”
They told her that the system would never work because it was not fast enough to take on countries like the US. “I lost another CZK 700,000, I was back in Prague and in the darkness again.” Now she had to decide whether to go back to work in a corporation as an employee or start all over again. Furthermore, she did not have much money left either.
“Based on the opinion of 3 guys I hardly knew for 3 days, I took a decision to rework the system.” She called them up and asked them to be partners. “They didn’t know how to run a business, and I needed help with the system. The result was they worked on the system for free, and we would share the profits.” Simona knew that this system was working well in Western Europe, and she trusted her instincts. She went back to Ústí nad Labem where there were really small entrepreneurs and tried to explain her idea to them. Thus, she found her first franchisee.
As the company grew, it was important to have good people on. “We hired all sorts of people, and I had no idea how to communicate with them and manage them. I decided to hire a CEO.” Simona saw a guy in the church who was really nice to people and asked him to help her with some advice. She built her management team from bottom up. “My people grew with me since 2011. We have a 360-degree feedback for each person. I have 12 directors in my company – 6 women, 6 men.” 360-degree feedback is when an employee anonymously receives feedback from his peers, from seniors, and from juniors. She reiterates on humility. “A startup cannot be a one-man show – it’s all about people. If a certain person is important to you, make sure you look after them. Because if they are happy, your company will grow.”
Today, Zasilkovna has 1152 pickup points in CZ, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Germany, and Netherlands. “We have 350 employees and co-operate with 14,000 e-shops.” As per the business model, Simona was in debt for the first 3 years after 2010, today her turnover is around CZK 400 mil.
Simona believes that after a certain point, a founder needs not be involved in the daily operations of a company, but has to focus on growth, business development, and innovation. Apart from Zasilkovna, she is also an angel investor. She looks out for new ideas from young entrepreneurs, especially in relation to her field of expertise – logistics.
She is very happy to have been successful and feels that it’s important to give back to the community. “I try to help people through my experience. The Czech Republic is a special place for startups. We have open-minded, experienced investors and accelerators.”
What’s Simona’s advice when approaching investors? While pitching to investors, have a good vision and trust it. Be a good manager, recruiter, marketer, IT guy, negotiator, and a great learner. “It’s difficult for investors to believe that one person can manage everything in a startup. It’s not possible. Look for partners who have strengths different from yours. You must have a great pitch.
Make sure your idea is something that will work in the next 2-3 years, not necessarily right now. Because things are changing very fast. Have in mind what people will need in 3 years.” Vision and a plan for scaling up along with an innovative idea are important.
This story is brought to you in cooperation with the Startup Grind Prague. To see the full fireside chat with Simona, have a look on the video from the event.