In the age of 20, she founded the Slovak branch of Invia, the first and one of the largest travel agencies in Slovakia. It was way before others even knew about online as a viable channel. Invia got acquired by Rockaway in 2016 for EUR 76M.
Meeting with Katarina happened in one of the hip coffee roasteries and cafes in the heart of Prague. She arrived for the meeting from accounting startup Trivi and spent an inspiring hour talking about her life experience as well as being a young mother and entrepreneur.
Katarina, your professional career started in Invia, the largest e-travel distributor in the CEE that got acquired for 76 mil EUR, while you were still a university student. Tell me how did that happen.
I responded to an ad to be a part time sales representative selling trips to customers. I am very proactive by nature, so from the very first day, I went to the management and suggested what we could improve and what didn’t work really well and how we could improve it. I was also good at sales, and when I talked with Radek and Michal (the founders of Invia, Radek Stavinoha and Michal Drozd.), and I asked them: Why don’t we have Invia in Slovakia? And they replied: “Well, just start it there.” I said to myself, why not?
So the founders gave a university student the task to start a Slovak branch of their company, and you agreed?
Of course. Since I had no clue what it meant and had a lot of free time as a student and wanted to do something meaningful, it made absolut sense to me.
What did you learn starting Invia in Slovakia?
Everything about starting and running a company. From legislation, to marketing campaigns or accounting which became handy in the future.
I was learning a lot about Internet marketing, which had been at its infancy back then and no one could have seen what was going to happen next. I still remember coming to our first business meeting at a traditional travel agency and they said: “Here are some leaflets for your shop window.” We didn’t have any windows or even a shop to display them, only our website, so perplexed as they were, they said to do as we please and I left with all their catalogues, leaflets and our contract.
The freedom of starting anew allowed me to create something that worked for the company. As the time passed, we realized we started to sell trips from couple of thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. In Slovak crowns at those days.I didn’t really understand why I had to attend the university since the best possible education at that time was Invia.
How long did you work for Invia?
I stayed for three years to build up and stabilize the Slovak branch. And then I asked myself if this was it? Am I going to stay in this company my whole life? In my fourth year of university, I decided to quit the company and take my Masters in Halle Wittenberg to fully immerse myself in the structured university education.
Where was Invia when you left?
We became the top seller for some of the largest travel agencies in Slovakia and number one on the Slovak market. I hired the new Executive Director for Invia Slovakia, and she has been there already ten years. It’s a strong legacy for me and gives me a feeling that I can surround myself with great people who can continue working on the mission. (Invia operates on the Slovak, Czech, Hungarian and Polish markets and works with 350 tour operators – editor’s note).
After graduation, you decided to join the corporate world with Sun Microsystems and Oracle. How was that for a natural startup founder?
I was curious to know what a work in a large corporation looked like. It was easy to work and navigate in a small startup, where things went smoothly and change was a natural ingredient. During my university studies, the corporate world was presented to us as a holy grail of our career. As a mark of success. So I got a job there, and it wasn’t that much of a big bang as I had expected.
Still, it was a valuable experience. What skills did you improve there?
I appreciate the learnings I got in people management (Katarina was the Business Operations Manager for EMEA at Oracle – editor’s note). My department of 50 people required a good set of communication skills. Since the processes were given, you could acquire domain knowledge really fast, but you needed a great interpersonal management to succeed.
The key is to manage the team effectively. Some team members are very effective and skilled and others are lagging behind. I learned empathy and giving feedback without emotions, being clear and concise. It gave me a crash course in diplomacy and politics. Every step on my journey added a new piece to the puzzle of where I am now.
After you got the taste of the corporate experience, you decided to join forces with the founders of Invia and start a new venture together. Trivi was born. Why did you go back to entrepreneurship?
I realized that if you have a lot of energy and drive to change things, the corporate world is very tough. It’s large and the size prevents any fast changes. It takes a lot of time and patience to make a change, and I don’t have that much patience in my skill set.
Startups allow me to use my strengths fully. We met again with Radek and Michal and started to talk about new opportunities. Accounting was an industry ripe for revolution. We all hated it and had a bad experience with it, and, thus, we decided to change it with a help of technology.
Dealing with company financials, you need to have a full system in place not just a basic MVP. How did you start?
It’s been three years since we started. In accounting, you can’t make a small proof of concept. You either have a great accounting service or you don’t. The preparation phase was quite long compared to Invia where we had started to sell trips right away without any sophisticated backend. It took us nearly two years to get to a stage where we were certain with the service, that we understood the technicalities and were able to take on the responsibility coming along with handling someone’s accounting.
We set a goal for us to use machine learning to improve the boring and repetitive work of accountants . The machine learning algorithm we’ve been developing for two years advices and helps our accountants and they can use their time to offer consulting and advisory services to their clients.
Where are you now with Trivi?
We are a technological and accounting company servicing clients for two years now with 35 employees in the Czech Republic. We have over 300 paying customers and have served over thousand clients who have tested our accounting abilities.
Our customer base is diverse from the size and industry perspective, which I consider a great success – to be able to attract such a portfolio of clients and deliver a great service.
Do the accountants need to worry about being replaced by your machine learning algorithm at Trivi?
No, we are creating a more interesting and sophisticated accounting jobs. Before, accountants were considered as a right-hand or experts for entrepreneurs to guide them through accounting and financials. They used to be more in an advisory role to support them in their financial decisions.
However, growing administrative burden deformed the role into a invoice and receipts file managers. We want to automate the administrative and repetitive part and use the accountant’s skills for accounting and tax advisory for the company owner or CFO.
Coming back to you, you are currently on maternity leave. How did your daughter change your life?
My daughter Emmka changed my life in more positive ways than I ever expected. I would recommend every woman the feeling when her child is born, that this little human being can be your life teacher.
She reshuffled my priorities as well. Family is on the top of my list. A lot of people talk about it, but I am not sure they truly live it. She also taught me to be more feminine. The female role is sometimes missing from business and it’s crucial there. It made me more empathetic, effective, sensitive, and observant. I don’t waste time with anything. I kept all my hard skills which were enriched by a new set of skills thanks to motherhood and can be transferred into developing businesses.
How does Trivi fit into it?
I am still active in Trivi’s strategic direction and international expansion. True, I wouldn’t be able to do it without help from my husband, my mother, and my brother, who runs Trivi as CEO while I am on maternity leave. It’s important to be able to self-reflect, know which role to take and when to shift from a player on the field to a coach.
What are the three key learnings you can share with a young women about to enter the business world?
The most important lesson I learned in my life – get to know yourself. Then you can work with your skills, limits and you know what you can expect and where you work best.
Second, solve problems without emotions. Emotions cloud your vision, and you can’t see forest for the trees.
Third, don’t worry about problems. If it has a solution, you will find it. If it doesn’t, there is no point of worrying.
Overall it is important to enjoy what you do. Often I feel that people don’t see happiness in their work, they see it as a part of their free time activities, sports, art. When I enjoy my work, I live my life, and it doesn’t feel like I am going to work, I am going to Trivi to do some good. I want to share a message with my daughter that my work fulfills me, it is not a chore.