Meet one of Croatia’s most successful entrepreneurs, Andrija Čolak.
1. Croatian media often call you the „new hope of Croatian enterpreneurship“ but they seem to forget you are working for over a decade. How did your Surf ‘n’ Fries adventure begin?
True, nothing happens overnight and it’s always a matter of trials, errors and above all perseverance. I opened my first company when I was 22. The idea was to start a publishing company that would publish the first specialised real estate classifieds magazine. It was called InfoNekretnine and in 5 years it grew from measly 24 pages to 136 pages of the very best real estate offers in Croatia. Interestingly enough, I was a student at the time and I was spending one semester here working on the project and one in Vancouver where I was studying marketing. We started this whole project with virtually no capital, we didn’t even have the 20 000HRK for the deposit to open a company so we all scraped up 250 HRK each to open a trade just so we could start working. Anyhow, in 2008 we sold InfoNekretnine to Plavi oglasnik or Turkish Huryett group. It was an extraordinary feeling because we now had healthy collateral to start up our new project -Surf’n’Fries. The initial idea came from Denis, my business partner. He used to tell me stories about this pommes frittes bar in Rijeka that was open in the 70s and in the first half of the 90s. We both agreed that we should set up a brand that will “reinvent the fries”. Our aim was simple, we wanted to build a brand that will be standardised, extremely focused and innovative. Only three months after we launched our first Surf’n’Fries shop in Rijeka business exploded, in the first year that small 27m2 shop was selling 1000 servings a day and its revenue was over half a million Euros. Not to mention that it tanked the sales of fries in McDonalds by 50%. Soon we started getting enquiries about opening Surf ‘ n’ Fries shops in other cities and that’s where the idea of franchising came in.
2. On February 15th this year in Las Vegas you received an award given out by the International Franchise Association for Next Generation Franchising. When you applied, did you ever think you would be returning home with this accolade in your hand or was the trip to the States envisioned as a great opportunity to promote your brand?
To tell you the truth, I didn’t think they’d even notice our application. The whole story is interesting because their initial mail went straight to Spam on New Year’s Eve. When I finally found it and started reading it, I thought it was some sort of a scam or a mistake. I was soon contacted by the president of the Croatian Association of Franshisers and I sent the application after she confirmed the whole thing was real. Of course, when I went to Las Vegas, I did my very best to promote the Surf ‘n’ Fries brand because entering the US market has always been my secret desire. In a few months we’ll see if I did a good enough job of promoting the brand because we’re currently in negotiations for our launch in the US.
3. Now, let’s crunch some numbers. How many franchises are already open in Europe and Asia, in which countries are you represented the most and just how far along are those negotiations in the States you mentioned earlier?
So far we have over 40 Surf ‘n’ Fries locations. The furthest one is in Hanoi, Vietnam. We opened our first location there in December 2014 and opened the second one two months ago. Apart from Vietnam, we have stores in Germany, Norway, Austria, Turkey, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro while most stores are, of course, located in Croatia. A few months ago we signed a Master Franchise contract for Iran, which will definitely be interesting considering that sanctions against Iran are being lifted so a very large market is about to open. We wanted to hop on the first train in order to take the best possible starting position.
As far as the US market is concerned, we had so many enquiries, negotiations, discussions… We didn’t want to take the first offer because we are talking about a key market here, so we decided to wait for the very best opportunity. I think we’re on the right path now because one of the largest franchise consultancies is very interested in our project. They have such faith in it that they want to invest their own money in the first few locations and then they want to start franchising it across the entire USA. If everything goes according to plan, I think we will sign the final contract within the next 6 months.
4. They often say imitation is the best form of flattery, however, I can’t help but ask considering I noticed recently some incredible similarities between your specially designed and patented packaging and Ledo’s (Agrokor) new Pommes Frittes packaging. Have you contacted them about it and are you thinking of giving them „a slap on the wrist“?
HAHAHA. Agrokor keeps „flattering“ us all the time. Their copy of our internationally copyrighted packaging is not the first instance of theft of intellectual property. After the explosion of our Surf ‘n’ Fries, Zvijezda (Agrokor again) launched a mayo with a flavour that is irresistibly reminiscent of our most popular dip – Mediterranean. Of course, they didn’t even bother to change the name. We even tried to partner with Zvijezda to produce our dips for Surf ‘n’ Fries, even sent them our recipes in good faith but we’ll let bygones be bygones. Oh, and I mustn’t forget their latest „flattery“ attempt when few managers from Agrokor came to our newly opened Chilli Frozen Yoghurt store in Rijeka. I suggested a cooperation in terms of launching a new retail version of our frozen yoghurt with special additions on the packaging… To cut a long story short, now you an buy that exact product even with colours that are identical to the Chilli brand.
And now when all this is said and done, I consulted my attorney who specializes in intellectual property and he advised me to contact them and turn their attention to all these events. So, I am planning on sending an open letter to Mr. Todorić (owner of Agrokor) because if my management was doing similar things, I would like someone to warn me. Mostly because they are paid (very well if I may add) to think with their own head and not to steal someone else’s ideas.
5. You never stop, you’re constantly working on new ideas and new projects. Can you tell us something about your new smart umbrellas „Kisha“?
Kisha is a result of so many rainy days in Rijeka. It all started with a Facebook status and turned into a serious project. We basically wanted to solve two major problems people face when it comes to umbrellas. First of all they keep losing them and second problem being that they often break in the wind. In the end, we came up with a technology that links your umbrella to your smartphone via Bluetooth so the owner will receive a notification on the location of his umbrella so he can go back and pick it up. The second problem was resolved in cooperation with a Croatian company Hrvatski kišobran (Croatian Umbrella) from Zaprešić and together we developed an umbrella that is almost unbreakable. I tested it myself during one of the strongest bura (northern wind) in Rijeka, we even managed to record it and the video went viral very quickly. We’ve prepared some insane new female models for the upcoming fall. I can’t wait to launch them because their design is very interesting.
6. You and your business partner are a shining example of young entrepreneurs that had an idea and enough courage to realize it even in an often bleak Croatian business environment. What advice would you give other aspiring young dreamers, how do they take that next step from initial idea to realisation?
To be perfectly honest, I believe there is no such thing as a universal formula. I also believe that Croatia is full of shining examples of successful young people, but we are slightly more quirky and insane, so we’re not afraid to try things others don’t even want to think about. What I can say is, if you want to be an entrepreneur then just take that leap of faith, open a company, start working and start creating. What I’ve learned is that you will fail a countless number of times, I’ve personally experienced debt, bankruptcy, failure, all the things you can imagine. However, you should never be afraid of failure, it’s an integral part of success. When you fall, you just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going only slightly wiser this time.