May 08

Dejan Roljič: The startup world can’t exist without corporations!

There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes. Sometimes we win, sometimes we learn. But we are all winners in this process, says Dejan Roljič in his interview before the PODIM Conference, uncovering his philosophy for leading the ABC accelerator. He states that the best proof of their work in the past month, ever since they’ve accepted a new generation of teams, is a blog post in which members of one of the accepted companies say that they’ve learned more in three weeks than they did before in three years.
 
At 27 years of age, Dejan Roljič has several international start-up stories behind him, including participation in the programme of the Amsterdam-based and most successful European accelerator Startupbootcamp with the Formtaste team that’s developing self-service vending machines with focus on 3D-printing. He is withdrawing from that story now, in order to be able to fully focus on leading the ABC accelerator and launching it amongst the most successful accelerators in Southeast Europe ...
 
You have the first month of active work behind you. How satisfied are you with the progress of the 8+1 startup teams that you accepted into your first Smart Cities programme at the beginning of April?
It would be better if you asked the teams that (laughter)… Instead of me praising the progress of teams, I’ll tell you about a blog post that I think is much more revealing. It’s the blog post of the German-Austrian team Symvaro, developing a platform for waste management. They said that since they’ve been here, they’ve learned more than they had in the past three years. The teams are currently intensively validating and pivoting their ideas, discovering new findings, recruiting new members … I am glad that we are giving them the opportunity to make contact with potential new investors who are also attentively monitoring their development. I am glad that established companies, such as Triglav, Petrol, BTC, Spar, Emporium and others, are not only accelerator partners but also do business collaboration with the teams.
 
Collaboration and connection of large, established companies and startups is the central topic of this year’s PODIM Conference. How important is this practice, do we know how to exploit its potential?
We have to realize that without large, established companies – without the enterprise sector – the startup world doesn’t exist. Because enterprise is the one that invests in you, that buys you at the end, opens the market for you, gives you knowledge and know-how. And you are the one who makes enterprises agile and innovative. One does not exist without the other. It used to be different. Corporations used to invest into their own development of innovative solutions, which sometimes took up to a couple of years. But today, the world of startups is so strong and fast that it only takes a short while before five teams developing the same or similar solution appear.
 
One of the key advantages of ABC accelerator is exactly this collaboration with corporations …
Yes. Corporations such as IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, Samsung BMW and others that have their own business networks among thousands of companies all across the world. Another example of the importance of such collaborations is a conference that will take place in Berlin on 22 May. I am glad to have the opportunity to be one of the speakers on the panel, where we will talk about the needs and challenges that startups face, and about the support they need for their development.
 
In your experience, what is the crucial difference between the roles of a startup entrepreneur and a startup accelerator CEO?
When you are an entrepreneur and you are working on your startup, you are so in love with your product and filled with worry about what your startup even is and what and how it will work, that you have problems with seeing and maintaining the big picture. One of the main lessons that an entrepreneur must go through is that he learns to kill his product if it isn’t on the right path. All of this is happening in the accelerator right now, of course, but on a significantly larger scope than when it’s only your own company. Right now, we have eight or nine teams, and nine of these products. As the accelerator CEO, I have to be interested in giving the teams everything they need for their success. But even if they don’t succeed, there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes we win, sometimes we learn.
 
So you see failure in a positive light …
Of course, because I believe that the boys and girls who are with me today will try again, in case they don’t succeed with this story. They will make a new team and a new product and maybe even enter the accelerator again. And we’ll be happy to take them, because a good team is what counts the most. So, if I sum up. When you’re creating your startup, you think everything is more complex, the idea completely overcomes you, you give it your all so you would succeed. But when you’re leading an accelerator, you find out that each start-up is a smaller story that embarked on a path of success, and you feel that there is no possibility of failure. It will succeed, sooner or later, one way or another, because, as I already said, sometimes we win, sometimes we learn.
 
Which are the key activities that startup teams have in your three-month programme?
I will divide these activities into months. The first month has a scheduled test phase, meaning activities such as validation, pivoting, spin-offs … During this time, we’re trying to figure out the development stage of the companies, what kinds of problems they have and what the first market reactions are. The second month is the so-called traction phase, during which we try to find out how attractive the product is for sales. In this phase, you’ve already done something, you come to the market, but the market can still “spit in your face” and tells you that no, this is still not what I want. Then you go from one customer to another, and maybe only the tenth one tells you that yes, this is something they’d want. The success of this phase isn’t measured only in earnings but also in intention letters and the fact that the customer honestly admits that you are actually solving a problem with your product. And finally, there’s the “getting the investors” phase, which is the result of the first two. We’ll talk more about that on the demo day, which will take place for our teams on Wednesday, 24 June 2015 and will be an event, the likes of which the Slovenian start-up scene has not yet experienced.
 
And what do you think about the state or development of the Slovenian start-up scene and the entrepreneurial ecosystem?
In the past ten years, a lot has been done. Organisations and initiatives such as CEED, Hekovnik, Initiative Start:up Slovenia, Technology Park Ljubljana, 30Lean, Silicon Gardens Fund and many others I might have forgotten to list, have built an excellent foundation, so hats off to them. Accusations that money was being thrown out of the window simply aren’t correct. Ecosystem development demands time and money, and sometimes you may spend a bit more of it, but in the long run it all pays off. So, we have excellent foundations, but now it’s time that we as Slovenians and Slovenia as a country and region learn how to position ourselves. We’re Southeast Europe, not “Middle Europe” or new Switzerland, and as part of this region, we have our advantages.
 
We often hear reproaches that we don’t know how to sell (ourselves), that we don’t know how to position ourselves and highlight all our advantages.
Personally, I think that people from the Balkans are born salesmen. But it’s interesting that when we have our own innovative company, we don’t know how to position ourselves, and this has to be done before we start selling. As a region, we have an excellent demographic and geographic position, the market is big enough for us to do things, we are surrounded by countries with similar languages and mentality. We are the region of the future, and Slovenia always was and always will be an innovative country. We only have to position ourselves correctly, and then we’re on course with our entire startup ecosystem, each of us covering our own specific field.
 
When it comes to ecosystem development, how would you rate collaboration with the Initiative Start:up Slovenia and its programmes, such as the competition Start:up Slovenia, the PODIM Conference, and products SK75 and SK200, offered in collaboration with the Slovene Enterprise Fund?
Let me start with the PODIM Conference. It’s an excellent entrepreneurship event, also good for promoting Slovenia outside the region. I welcome the SK75 and SK200 products and see them in a positive light, because they help fill the lack of seed capital and create startups, even though I am personally not a fan of public funds. But as I said, all these are positive stories helping develop the ecosystem, and only time and investment results will show the actual success of it all. Even competitions such as Start:up Slovenia are very positive because they help spread the word about startups. Startups are talked and written about, they appear in the media and there is an increased level of awareness of how important they are for the national economy.
The only thing that sometimes bothers me in all this is that we don’t share the opinion on what the definition of a startup even is. It’s crucial that we understand that a startup is a company with a high-tech product and its own intellectual property. It doesn’t get built from one day to the next and it can’t start selling its products right away. First, the market has to get to know them and accept them as one of their own. That is the main difference between a startup and a “trading” business – there’s nothing wrong with the latter, but it’s not a startup.
 
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The ABC accelerator is an ideal environment for startups that wish to succeed on the global market. At the PODIM Conference, you can meet the members of the leading team and the eight startup teams that were accepted into the first Smart Cities programme. CEO of the ABC accelerator, Dejan Roljič, will be one of the 12 members of the committee for the investment part of the conference, PODIM Challenge. 

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Author: Stanislava Vabšek, Iniciativa Start:up Slovenija
Photo: Ana Kovač, Planet SiOL.net