They were among the first digital players in the market when e-commerce was just in the launch phase in Slovakia. Today, if you want to buy a flight ticket, they are probably the first site you visit. Just recently, the Slovak Alliance for Innovation Economy included them in the Titans of Tomorrow report, an overview of the fast-growing Slovak firms. Pelikan.sk has been here since 2004, and Tatiana Ondrejková co-founded the company and has led it since then.
On the occasion of the upcoming Startup Grind Bratislava fireside chat with Tatiana, we talked to her about her role as a CEO, her impressions of the role of business women in Slovakia, her story and the story of Pelikan.sk, and much more. If you would like to meet her in person and talk to her, don’t miss the opportunity this Monday, August 21st, 2017, on Magio Beach. Entry is free.
Can you tell me about the beginnings of Tatiana Ondrejková in business?
I was about 20 years old and very angry with my actual employer who treated all employees like numbers and never admitted he made a mistake, even though it was clear he did. So I told myself: if he can do it, I can do it better, because I will treat people better than he did.
What has changed in the Slovak business environment since you first started?
Many things:) Banks’ attitude towards the entrepreneurs for example. Clients are much more sophisticated. Technology is much more advanced. I thought that the business environment is tough that time. But now it is much tougher. Competition is much more advanced, especially when borders are open, and there are many tycoons coming from much bigger markets and, thus, having much more money for growth. And, of course, I never thought EU would make it so difficult with so many useless and unreasonable regulations. On the other hand, the open market and EURO open the doors for more opportunities to grow.
The company you are the founder and CEO of, Pelikan, is a platform for flight tickets, accommodation, insurance, processing visa, etc. What does your regular day look like? What kind of tasks and responsibilities do you need to take care of during the day?
Depends on what stage I am in. Whether I am just a CEO, or COO (Chief Operations Officer) and CEO in one person that day. Last months, I have been COO and CEO in one person. Well, unfortunately, a little bit more COO than CEO.
As the COO, I was for example the one to start our new call center in Zvolen, conducting interviews with new people, deciding on the new hires, picking up the offices, types of furniture and computers we would use. I decided how the training plan will look like and who will train the people. I supervised the training and tools people use for work.
Thus, my day as a COO started with a look into my calendar, then into my inbox and the task list:) Then I started preparing for meetings, answering e-mails, helping people make decisions. I usually go for a lunch every day with some colleagues, and we discuss various topics.
What is the story of Pelikan? Where it begins? How did Pelikan come to be?
After I left my last employer, I started my own business. A travel agency. However, after a short period, the business became very difficult. With 9/11 airline loses, low cost airlines coming into the market aggressively causing decrease of the prices and cutting the margins for travel agents, I had to find a way to solve a big problem.
To give an example, my employees before the low cost airlines spreading could produce 100K EUR per month; after, they hardly produced 30k EUR per month. In addition, legacy carriers started to cut the travel agents commissions rapidly. For me it meant that my costs were growing like crazy and my profits were dropping like crazy. So I was standing at a crossroads – find a solution to survive in the business or go back home to the Central Slovakia, marry, have children, and cook:) I was not ready for the latter option. I have always been a good observer and noticed a growing trend in online travel agencies (OTAs) in the western countries and United States.
There came the solution – internet. It can serve thousands of clients in one second. One agent can serve only one, and it takes him at least half an hour to find a really good flight option for a client. But internet, that’s a miracle. I talked about it a lot with my friend, dreaming about it, yet I was a little scared. If I was to go for the internet solution, it would mean I had to spend all of the saved money on the solution. This friend encouraged me to do it. He also brought one more guy on board, who was supposed to be a great programmer. The three of us met and agreed to start a company. Pelikan was born.
You were one of the first services in Slovakia combining tourism and digital world. How do you recall the beginnings? What was the first biggest challenge you had to face?
I have many funny stories;) It was a little difficult, but still nothing comparing to what we have to solve these days. All three of us were so enthusiastic.
I guess each of us would see different challenges. The biggest challenge for me at the beginning was to manage Patrik (Patrik Dragula, the co-founder of Pelikan – editor’s note) to listen to me. He was so stubborn, well, he still is, but at least now we have a great working relationship, we can listen to each other and communicate effectively even though we are such different personalities.
Partnership can either kill the business in the beginnings or, if you can manage the first problems and misunderstandings, understand each other’s differences and take it as an advantage, than it can be very beneficial for the company.
Just recently, SAPIE included you in their Titans of Tomorrow report about Slovak scale-ups. The report defines a scale-up as „a high growth firm with average annual growth in employees or turnover greater than 20% per year, over a three year period, and with more than 10 employees at the beginning of the observation period.“ How has the growth evolved? Was it linear or rather exponential? How did you manage the challenges of financing, setting up the processes, talent acquisition, both in the beginnings and during the growth phase?
I do not know, we somehow did:) I have to say that nor me, neither Patrik are big planners. We were solving the problems as they were coming, never spending much time on planning what we would do with the company in 10 years. We enjoy every success and hate every problem, but we always go on.
There are some situations which you can anticipate, but some just come and you have to face them. Especially in the travel business, which is so vulnerable and depends on almost everything that is happening in the world. I think we both are fighters and we look everything that comes straight into the eyes and try to solve it. We do not bury the heads in sand like ostriches.
We had tough times with the money, but we were lucky to get the overdraft from the bank when we really needed it. Right now, we have our ingenious CFO. I do not know what we would do without him. He is sometimes real, well, you know what:) He is angry when we are spending and making bad decisions, but we are managers and we need him to be hard on us sometimes. He manages the finances, and – to be honest – he is my hero:)
I hate managing the finances. I want to do what I love, not to deal with the money. I love talking to people, motivate them, teach them, listen to them and make changes together with them. Then I love to see how they grow, how they get so much better than me in many areas. I love creating systems for people to make their work easier, making the work more effective. I love working with smart, honest and humble people. As I said at the beginning we are quite different with Patrik, but we understand strengths and weaknesses of each other and help each other with solving different type of problems. I do what I can do the best and he does what he does the best.
Pelikan currently employs 140 people with turnover of 80 million EUR in 2016. From your position as a CEO, what are some specifics of this stage of a company? How do you tackle those specifics?
Well, in regards to this size, it is not possible anymore to manage the company solely by two people. We learn how to make a platform for smart employees. We are looking for different types of employees and need much more experienced people if we want to grow. We had to learn how to let them make their own decisions and let them make mistakes to grow much faster. We need leaders and learn how to teach these leaders to talk together, how to respect each other.
We need to learn how to make people from different departments to effectively exchange information among themselves so they do not spend every day 8 hours on meetings. We have to come with several new tools for different things – project management tool, HR tool, software development management tool, just to mention few. And we also need to watch closely new regulations which significantly influence our business.
=The Titans of Tomorrow, the scale-up report – Interview with Tatiana Ondrejkova (SVK only)=
What is one key learning you have gained over those 13 years since the launch of Pelikan? Would you do something different if you were to launch Pelikan with today‘s knowledge?
I have learned many things, but my key learning comes from the time before Pelikan: it is very difficult to gain the trust of a person, but you can lose it in a second.
Can you share some of your professional set-backs that were the basis for what came next in your career? In other words, which fails did you turn into your strengths?
Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve always been stubborn, I’ve always hated to lose and loved to win. I’ve always worked hard when I wanted to achieve something, and I usually did achieve what I wanted. I would not say anything important in my character has changed.
I hope you won‘t mind but a chunk of my questions would be aimed at women in business, specifically in Slovakia, as you are a very rare, yet great example. What have been the greatest challenges you have overcome up to this day when running a business, being a CEO, and being a women in this environment?
I do not think I am such a rare example, there are many great successful women in Slovakia. And some yet to come:)
There were two great challenges. Women are usually underestimated by men, so they have to work harder to succeed. And they are often considered to be bought very easily by cheap compliments. I really hate when someone wants to make business and starts a conversation with: “You look really great today.” or “You always look so great, how do you do it?”.
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman in business?
Disadvantages I mentioned above. Sometimes it is difficult to control emotions. On the other hand, more emotions mean people can feel when you are happy and they are more happy together with you. If you are a cold man, with no emotions, you will have difficulty fighting with a female leader:) Sometimes the door opens faster if you are a smart and pretty woman. Women also think differently, sometimes being much more creative and practical than men.
Just recently, we published a story of Simona Kijonkova, a Czech businesswoman who runs Zasilkovna.cz. A new initiative in EU is being launched aimed at Women Business Angels. There is a lot going on in the field of encouraging women to take part in the business world. Where do you see potential pitfalls and how can we understand and overcome them?
I think that women who want to get in the business will find their way. Women want to be women, they want men to take care of them. They want men to spoil them, take them to a restaurant for a nice dinner, buy them flowers, and first of all they want to be mothers. And there are some who have other calling, but they will find their way.
I do not think we should force this kind of change. I am not saying women should sit at home. I come from a family from Central Slovakia. After velvet revolution, we did not have much money. I did not have anyone in my family who would encourage me to do the business or who would support me. And yet, here I am today.
I had to fight hard to achieve what I have and no one would ever lend me a cent before I proved I can make the money. I could tell you stories about how banks treated me at the beginning.. I think money for free will be spent very easily. I think there are much bigger problems to be solved and supported than pushing women to do something they might not be ready or they may not want.
How do you balance family and your work?
My work is my hobby. I love what I do even there are some days when I would bomb some people and places for their stupidity:) My partner loves his job as well, so we love to talk about what we did during the day and share experiences, views on different situations. I love to meet my family and friends. I can work hard, but then I can also take my time to rest:)
How do you choose your team? What are the crucial personal traits you look for? What is the balance of your team right now in terms of men and women?
I choose humble, honest, creative and polite people willing to work hard and to learn a lot, rather optimistic than pessimistic people, people who have no problem to show and share emotions. Those have the potential to be good leaders. Right now we have about 30 to 70, 30 men:)
What is your daily source of information, inspiration, motivation in terms of blogs, sites, books, podcasts?
People I work with:) They are my biggest inspiration and motivation. In regards to information, I read SME daily, Dennik N daily, and others.
The story is bright to you in cooperation with Startup Grind Bratislava. Cover photo published with a kind permission by CESC.