Inspiration and Positivity at Entrepreneurial Mindset 2021 in Zagreb

Lauren Simmonds

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As 24sata/Nikol Zagorac writes, the opening of 2021’s Entrepreneurial Mindset conference began with the following words: ”Today we’ve gathered about 30 leaders who are an inspiration to many, who are creating a better Croatia and a better Europe. These leaders are what we need in order to be better, they aren’t just looking at their own jobs but creating new generations of leaders and they’re there to show us that we can do it. The message to young people is: you can do it, don’t wait, get moving. These are the leaders who move mountains. When success is combined with even more success, then miracles are possible,” said Ognjen Bagatin.

(Watch the conference in full, above)

This year, for the third time in a row, organised by the media platform “Entrepreneur” and its programme partner EY Croatia, Entrepreneurial Mindset brought together successful Croatian leaders, such as Mate Rimac, Silvio Kutic, Hrvoje Balen, Ognjen Bagatin, Lada Tedeschi Fiorio, Jasminka Horvat Martinovic, to tell their success stories in an effort to change the perspective of entrepreneurship in Croatia.

‘People who create robots from Croatia are crazy’

Among them is Matija Kopic, who, five years ago, started the now very well known company Gideon Brothers, a company for robotics and software solutions based on artificial intelligence, right here in Croatia, and – he succeeded. So much so that this summer they attracted a group of foreign investors to invest over 30 million US dollars into the recapitalisation of the company, and their robots are already working in warehouses around the world.

”There are two groups of people. The first group is those crazy people who create robots from Croatia. Yes, they’re crazy because statistically there is a five to ten times less chance that we in Croatia can make successful robots when compared to some other countries where there is better funding, where they have access to a wide range of talent and experience in producing complex machines. We don’t, and so all of that together is crazy. When we embarked on this adventure five years ago, I wasn’t aware of these limitations and I don’t know if I would do it again, but I probably would – because I’m crazy. The second group of people are investors who are even crazier than the first ones because they dare to hunt for their ideas,” Kopic also pointed out that in this society networked with technologies we must not forget the people, all those who helped them, as well as their families.

‘The key is in the first bit of energy shown, the first message sent out’

”It’s crucial that leaders know how to shape what they love, what they do and what’s different about what they do,” said Vedrana Likan when talking about leadership, and this is especially true for female leaders who are working to change society. Vedrana herself knows very well what qualities are needed for a successful leader. She is the director of the global leading consulting company Colliers, and in the past 10 years she has been the first vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce, the founder and head of the Green Building Council and the president of the British Chamber of Commerce in Croatia. Back in 2012, she was named “Woman of the Year”, after which she designed the project “21 times towards success”, as well as the LeaderSHE conference.

”The key is in that first bit of energy, the first message, in that punch line of 20 seconds,” she said.

Manuela Šola, entrepreneur, communication and event expert, who also works in the Supervisory Board of the Croatian Employers’ Association, pointed out that the changes can already be seen at this conference, when men talk about happiness and family.

‘What makes leaders are character and integrity. That’s why there are no politicians here with us today’

”10 years ago, a typical manager would never say that, he’d only talk about numbers, and managers and leaders wouldn’t say that because it wasn’t something that was accepted in society. Leadership in Croatian business is definitely changing. And what makes leaders who they are, in my opinion, is character and integrity. Perhaps because integrity is needed here today there are no politicians siting with us. I’d like to have politicians here with us in five years, who will talk about leadership, because then they’d work and live so that integrity can be seen in and from their every step,” she said.

So far, Sola pointed out, she hasn’t met a man or a woman in politics who she could say are leaders.

”It’s good that our work in entrepreneurship proves that you don’t need to be a politician to change things, in fact, in our country, this paradigm has been reversed and it turns out that politics is a place to hide, lie, steal and politicians in our country have no integrity, they are not there to serve the citizens. And we entrepreneurs are much more in favour of the common good and positive changes in society,” added Likan, who is also one of the co-founders of SOS Zagreb formed after the earthquake, which she started because she believes that things can change.

”Any engagement of us who are in business for anything that is characterised today as activism and contrary to some mainstream that politics leads is very risky. We’re a very shallow society in the sense that everyone knows each other and it’s really risky to expose ourselves outside of business, stand up to the establishment and say that our expectations are higher than that,” she said.

Speaking about HUP, (Croatian Employers’ Association) Sola pointed out that everything that the association went through was necessary for Croatian society because such a large association of entrepreneurs had to undergo a transformation in order to become a modern, more inclusive association.

”Changes are always difficult because they’re demanding and we have to personally expose ourselves to some situations that aren’t pleasant for us, but many colleagues pushed in the same direction with the goal of a good and quality employers’ association, which is transparent, has good relations, and which will be a kind of signpost for entrepreneurs. Today, HUP is different, it’s more open, more modern, we have a completely different way of leadership, but it’s difficult to keep that motivation up because we all have our jobs,” she said.

‘Leadership is full of paradoxes,’ said Fran Mikulcic business coach.

”Only when you experience them through your own eyes does your mental universe expand. If you want to be able to evaluate leadership, its effectiveness and the effects it creates, you must first break your own rules. It must become a habit for you, but your real goal is to become a rule breaker, that’s the real difference between leaders and those who aren’t yet,” he pointed out.

”Lada Tedeschi Fiorio from Atlantic Grupa (Group) spoke with Igor Klaja, CEO of OTCF from Poland and EY Entrepreneur in 2020. Fifteen years ago, he started a sportswear business, which he sold to supermarkets, and today OTCF is a leading sportswear manufacturer and distributor, supplying Olympic teams and sports associations across Europe. A key moment for the job came when he designed the team’s clothes for the Polish Ski Federation. Cooperation with the Polish Olympic Committee quickly followed, and since then he has dressed six national teams of athletes in 4F, both for the Summer and Winter Olympics, including the Croatian team.

”I’m honoured to be able to be here in the company of many Croatian leaders. There’s a great connection between sport and business, sport created me, and as an entrepreneur you have to believe in what you do, but also in the people you work with. I don’t even know how many stores I have, but it doesn’t matter to me because I’m in charge of my people and being a leader means that I have to take care of them all,” he pointed out.

”’I was on the verge of bankruptcy, I didn’t sleep for three months, but I didn’t fire any of my workers. I was horrified at the thought of letting them down,”

Although he was on the verge of bankruptcy last year, when the coronavirus pandemic erupted and lockdown occurred in countries around the world, he didn’t lay off any of the 3,250 workers he employs.

”I told them that the situation is bad, that we have for salaries for April, possibly for May. We went online. We had each other’s backs. As a leader, I’m responsible for my team, but I also told them that they must be responsible for each other and not to let their colleagues down. At that time, we helped numerous hospitals with ski masks for doctors. If we’re already in such a situation, let’s at least help, I thought. It was a stressful, crazy and emotional period, but I had confidence in my people. As a leader, you don’t have to constantly push your fingers into the business because these people know what they’re doing,” said Klaja, emphasising that the coronavirus pandemic has shown just how much one needs to be ready for innovation.

”Leaders must seize opportunities as they come and adapt quickly to change. I was afraid, of course, of bankruptcy, but not for myself, I thought to myself “alright, if I fall, I’ll get up”, but the terrible thought was that I could let down 3250 employees, who all have their own families… the fact that I’m responsible for nine or ten thousand of people… that was my motivation. I literally slept for about three hours a week for three months, I was tired and stressed out, but I knew it was my responsibility and I had to give them hope that I knew what I was doing. I believed I would succeed and I trusted my employees to know what they were doing, too,” Klaja said when recalling the stressful period in which he was almost left without everything.

Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, ups and downs are part of life and work, Klaja emphasised.

-”Sometimes we have to fall and make mistakes, there’s nothing wrong with that, it makes us stronger and gives us an opportunity to come to some conclusions. I love working with younger people, millennials, I’m 45, I’m not really so young, but these young people give me energy. However, the problem is that the younger generations want everything right now, they have no patience, but in business, patience is paramount. I was born into an average Polish family, I didn’t have wealthy parents, I started with 5000 euros of capital, my father passed away when I was 18, I had to take care of myself and the T-shirt business was just there for me to survive at first, but my passion gave me hope that everything would come back to me. It’s a long process and it takes patience, just keep going, don’t stop, and your dreams will come true,” he said.

‘A company or community leader must cultivate four key values’

The director and owner of Prima Group, which manufactures and sells furniture, Renato Radic, also knows what it’s like to take care of many employees. Namely, he employs over 2,000 of them across four countries.

”People are the most important thing of all. As a child I learned that one should always be there for people, be ready to help and have a heart, empathy. And when I got into the business and became an entrepreneur I was met with clichés that you can’t be honest in business, that you have to be selfish, and to me as a young man, that was weird. And then I decided that if I can’t be a man in business, then I won’t even work and deal with it,” he said, adding that the leader of every company and community needs four key values: self-awareness, sensitivity, love, courage.

“One should know that every person is worthy” he belives.

When starting a business, he added, it’s important to know the first step towards achieving your goal and to believe that this desire can be realised without too many expectations.

”If you set your expectations in order, then you actually limit yourself. If it happens, alright, if not, that’s alright as well. Don’t stop your wish from coming true through your own expectations,” he said, adding that we need crises from time to time because they teach us how to be better, stronger, and more resilient.

”Don’t compare yourself with others, only with yourself. If I have a goa of doing five kilometres in a period of time, every millimetre of mine on a daily basis is a success. Small steps motivate you to do more,” he said.

‘It was very difficult. But we succeeded’

Ivan Ante Nikolic, the CEO of BLINK, Petar Simic, President of the Management Board of Primaco and Tana Zimmermann, co-founder of the online shop spoke about the beginnings and changes over time.

”Everything we did well when we started is different today. It was very difficult, a lot of people didn’t believe in us and our story, but we were looking forward to each of our small successes, we wanted to learn, adapt what was wrong and make it good, and then take what was good and improve it even more. There were many days when we’d throw everything away because we’d had enough, but then you need to remember that not everything is so bleak, you sleep on it and then next day you start again from scratch,” Zimmermann said when recalling the beginnings, emphasising that nothing can be achieved without perseverance and patience.

Today, she added, the company is growing and expanding to the territory of neighbouring Serbia.

Nikolic jumped from IT into the production of food for pets, which is the first such company in Croatia.

”We knew that Croatia had certain obstacles and shortcomings, but when you analyse the food industry in Croatia, and pet food is similar to the conventional food industry because they use similar raw materials, Croatia has enormous advantages, has agricultural raw materials that aren’t treated with industrial additives, it’s logistically in a very good place and we weighed those things up,” said Nikolic, adding that their primary idea was not the production of pet food, but in their analysis, they realised that Croatia already had everything they needed.

”Then we realised that there’s no production of pet food in Croatia. So we started with that, there were a lot of difficulties, there was slowness, the NKD didn’t have that food line, and it was very important to us because of EU funds, and then we needed permission from the Ministry of Health, so we had to invent some new rules. And the real problem was the lack of engineers who knew how to do this,” said Nikolic, adding that all these obstacles were eventually overcome.

‘Some projects are developed out of necessity’

Primaco has accepted a lot of changes in the last 10 years, Simic pointed out.

”We specialise in the pharmaceutical and food industry, where through various software solutions, which we developed ourselves, we allowed our clients to see data about their cargo while driving, which made us better than the competition. Then when we saw that these software solutions were good and that they could be used by some other players in the market, we decided to spinoff that segment of the business. And today, it’s a separate company with over 14,000 vehicles in the region,” he pointed out, adding that the project was developed out of necessity.

”Our employees respond well to changes, so we adapt every day. We have well-coordinated teams, we’re constantly educating ourselves, especially through conversations with clients,” he said.

‘We started out from Croatia… and then we conquered the world’

Silvio Kutic, the co-founder of Infobip, pointed out that today his company employs 3,500 people and has offices across 75 countries around the world. Speaking about how important it is to do what you love and what motivates you, he recalled with a laugh how on his first day of work at Elektra, where he got a job after college, he went to brunch after four hours and just never bothered going back.

”I wanted to deal with my own projects. We started out in Croatia, we have about 1200 people here, the main engineering staff is here. Our guiding thread has always been our vision. Over time, the technology has changed, as have our capabilities and the way we solve problems. We started with SMS, and today we help companies to digitise their costumer experience processes through WhatsApp, video communication, e-mail, voice, our chatbot platform…” he pointed out.

”When we started out back in 2006, being an entrepreneur wasn’t as positive a thing as it is today. Today, that has changed and the state is somehow more positive about entrepreneurs, society as a whole is more positive and now it’s much easier to start things up because of digitalisation anywhere in the world,” he said.

Mistakes in business are very normal, but one should learn from them, he emphasised.

”We’ve made mistakes on many projects several times and were about to give up on everything. In 2010, we launched sGate for protection against spam, we didn’t know the technical solution, the business model, or how to sell it… But we solved one problem at a time, and we didn’t give up. In 2011 we installed this solution with the first operator, for free, we didn’t know how to sell that either and over the years it has developed. Infobip now generates 250 million euros a year. The important thing is to pick yourself up, move on and to do so quickly,” he said, adding that happiness is an important factor for success.

Infobip, he added, cooperates with schools and faculties, both in Croatia and abroad.

‘We now have 1,500 employees, and we’ll hire over 2,500 more’

Mate Rimac and the mayor of Sveta Nedelja Dario Zurovec spoke about the new era of entrepreneurs and the importance of creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem. In Sveta Nedelja, Rimac will build a brand new campus, which will employ over 2,500 people.

”This campus is going to be a great asset, it’s the largest private investment that has taken place in this part of Croatia, if not beyond it. And I see only positives here. The best protection against unemployment is to have a place to work. Some 20 years ago, opposite that campus, there was a company where my father worked, unfortunately, during the privatisation process, the company went to the birds and my goal was always to return to that part of entrepreneurial activity. I’m glad that I had the good fortune to come across Mate Rimac and that positive energy that he wanted to invest something. That’s courage,” Zurovec pointed out.

Throughout his business, Rimac has been criticised for not producing anything and that it’s all a scam, but he says that he doesn’t pay attention to such anonymous, negative people.

”Now, with the takeover of Bugatti, we have 1500 employees, 200 in Germany, 200 in France and over 1000 here in Croatia. We’re constantly growing, we’ve accelerated the last few months and we don’t plan to slow things down but to accelerate it all even more. We’ve opened a location in England, we want to strengthen our presence Split, but now we see that the campus won’t be enough for us either, so we’re working on additional locations, both in Croatia and abroad,” said Rimac, adding that there is a lot of potential.

”I’m not going to say what our plan is because anything can happen, but everything we’re doing now is a small part of what is possible,” he said, adding that they need various profiles of workers – from electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, production planning, procurement, sales, marketing, production workers, janitors, security guards …

Zurovec pointed out that in Sveta Nedelja, they approach each investment individually and thus remove obstacles in the process.

”We have a trend of immigration of young families with two or more children, and we have a lack of schools and kindergartens. That’s why we plan to build new ones. As for levies, to demystify the issue, the local government unit gets very little of that public funding. 80 percent of state finances are centred, up to 17 percent goes to the City of Zagreb and three percent is allocated to the rest of us. And you need to find a balance,” he said.

Speaking about robo-taxis, cars that will drive themselves, Rimac pointed out that they have been working on this project for three years, but that he doesn’t want to talk about details yet.

”We want to show it off when it’s almost done. This is a very good example where you really can’t do much without local government being involved. You have to have an agreement with the cities and offer a benefit to them, it has to be integrated with the rest of the transport system, with public infrastructure … We talk to a lot of cities across the world, but we want that first city to be Zagreb. We haven’t talked to the new government yet, they just have a lot on their plate right now. But if Croatia doesn’t want that in Croatia, there is no problem,” he said.

Read more coverage of yesterday in Mate Rimac & Dario Zurovec, a Case Study of Politician Entrepreneur Harmony

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