November 11, 2019 – There are bubbles of positivity all over Croatia and in the most unlikely of places. Bubbly bubbles, such as EU funds specialist Natalia Zielinksa in Ogulin, a long way from her native Poland.
2019 so far has been the Year of the Positive Person. I have met SO many interesting and positive people all doing their amazing things that there really are not enough hours in the day to keep up with them all. Among them is one very cool Polish lady living in Ogulin, who I had never heard of until we both spoke at the first international edition of Business Cafe earlier this year.
Since then, Natalia Zielinska has been seemingly everywhere. So much so in fact that I joked with her that she is the only blonde who appears more in the Croatian media these days than President Kolinda and Kristina Mandarina combined.
Her enthusiastic and dynamic no-nonsense approach to EU funding opportunities has brought considerable success already, and Natalia is quickly developing a reputation as one of the top gurus for EU funding opportunities in Croatia. Coming from Poland, her perspective on the Croatian mindset and approach to business and entrepreneurship is different to my own, and of the many interviews she has given, none was better than one for Tportal a couple of weeks ago – which I have been meaning to do when time allowed, but which you can find below.
With an eye on some TCN projects of our own, it was great to catch up with Natalia and talk possibilities on my way to the CIHT 2019 conference in Selce, Crikvenica last week. She found the time to explore some opportunities for funding while showing me the vibrant November Ogulin nightlife in her famous Hieronymous Bosch top. More on those plans in due course, but here is the very refreshing Tportal interview in full. It is a great read for those looking for inspiration on succeeding in Croatia, as well as those interested in EU funding.
After talking to Natalia Zielinska, you get the strong desire to do just about anything. Work in a field, clean-up your house, or throw yourself into realizing the business idea you came up ages ago. The 31-year-old Polish woman from Ogulin talks about her work as an EU project consultant with contagious energy. She came to Croatia six years ago and almost from nothing has built up a respectable business. There doesn’t seem to be a part of Croatia where she hasn’t helped getting some European money. She explains in an interview with tportal what brought her to Croatia, why she enjoys life in Ogulin and what her most significant problems with Croatians are.
Zielinska moved to Ogulin six years ago, and she visited Croatia before that, through student exchanges. She even did an internship in our Ministry of Regional Development.
She was born in the Polish town of Gniezno, and she studied Croatian language and European studies in Wroclaw. When she was a student, she worked on EU projects, and one of them took place in Ključ, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she met a student from Ogulin. They fell in love, so after getting married, she moved to the center of Croatia.
Her business partners from Poland offered her the chance to start her own business here, because of her knowledge of EU funds and Croatian language fluency. She took the offer gladly. She started an obrt, and before you know it, she was teaching entrepreneurs and farmers in Ogulin and area what the European funds are. Then the town of Vrbovsko hired her, and she managed the EU funds for them for three years. After that, she went her separate way, and in the last year, she took a position as a director in the Euro Grant Konzalting company, which is also Polish-owned.
Zielinska and her team of two currently administer around 30 projects, with clients from all over Croatia, including towns, municipalities, family farms, as well as small and big companies. In addition to that, Zielinska runs her private projects, such as the Entrepreneurial Academy in Ogulin, as well as the “I Know and I Do” (Znam i poduzimam) project. It aims to teach the young, unemployed people the skills needed for digital entrepreneurship.
How do you have time for all of that?
(laughter) On a regular day, when I don’t have to go to Zagreb or Rijeka, there’s time for everything. That’s the thing about living in Ogulin – everything is very close! If I did the same job in Zagreb, I think I’d explode. I’d lose two or three hours in traffic each day. Here, I can spend that time with my children, and I have two girls, a two- and a five-year-old, or take a walk in the woods. Imagine how valuable that is! Time truly is money. Life is simple in Ogulin, and that allows me to dedicate myself to complex business tasks.
Do you plan to stay in Ogulin once your kids have grown up?
No. I think we’ll move to Poland then. Ogulin offers us a quality of life now, which I couldn’t have in Poland. But, the children will need more than peace and relaxing. They’ll need an inspirational atmosphere. The surroundings of people who will make them become enterprising, ambitious, willing to learn, and move forward. I think that’s something that’s lacking in Croatia.
<strong?Is there that much of a difference between the Croats and the Poles when it comes to entrepreneurial spirit and forcefulness?
Yes. Most people here are satisfied with bare survival and floating on the surface. You just go along, and if something bad happens, you withdraw. That’s a big surprise for me. We Poles see people from the Balkans as fiery and enthusiastic. And then you come to Croatia, where the answer to any problem is “A JEBI GA” (laughter). There’s no passion or grit. The truth is that it’s difficult to work and for business here. Maybe even twice as hard as in Poland. You open a company there with a click; it’s cheaper to run a company, you don’t have to pay certain taxes until you’re 30… But all of that should make entrepreneurs in Croatia more determined and energetic. The only place where the situation is different is in Zagreb because there’s more competition there.
What do you think, why are Croatian entrepreneurs like that?
I don’t know. We both lived in communism. The Poles were always trying something to try to get out of that. The story of Polish tourists who used to sell anything from plush toys to car parts after coming back home from former Yugoslavia is quite famous. The problematic situation created an entrepreneurial spirit in the Polish people. They thought out of the box. People in Croatia are pacified. They keep waiting and believe that a big hand will come down to pat them on the head and solve all their problems. Nobody will solve any of your problems. That’s been done with a long time ago. You gotta fight for yourself. The only obstacle for development is – you.
Has anything else surprised you in our mentality?
You take injustice too easily. Croatia is a small country; everybody knows everybody. One would expect that in such a society, bad entrepreneurs and politicians will get discarded soon because it’s impossible to hide anything. But no. People here accept getting cheated and taken advantage of. They’ll spend time with that entrepreneur and politician, and pat them on their back. I find that unbelievable.
How are our entrepreneurs doing with the EU funds? Do they understand their logic?
A lot of people call me to tell me they need help from the EU funds. Those funds are not helping. The idea behind them is not to help you when your business is doing poorly. That’s a critical misunderstanding. The EU funds are financial support for stable companies that have clear goals. They are a type of loan; it’s just that you don’t have to repay the principal and the interest, you pay back with concrete results, which need to be tangible and real. People also don’t understand that private people can’t use EU funds. Like, I have some apartments for rent, and I want to invest in them. That’s great, but get a loan in a bank for that. When I tell them that, they get angry. If you want the EU funds, start a company, family farm, or “obrt” and go into business. The more prominent, more serious companies understand the logic behind the EU funds. But with them, the problem is that the programs are not adjusted to them. So people complain, and I ask them where they were in 2013 or 2014 when the programs were tailored, and decisions where to invest the money were made. Where were the chambers of commerce and other institutions by entrepreneurs? For instance, there are no EU funds for the tourist sector, which accounts for 20 percent of Croatian GDP.
The new European financing period is ahead, starting in 2021. Things can change.
Of course. But you need to work on that systematically, and you must lobby. Nobody is throwing a bag of money your way. Entrepreneurs need to put pressure on the state. Otherwise, the Croatian state is rigid. It doesn’t allow consultants or entrepreneurs into the deliberative process so that they could manifest their interest. If it happens again that the state programs things, the same situation will happen again. The funds will not be fully used, as the programs will not be appropriate for the market. Also, there are significant problems with the implementation of programs, as in Croatia, the institutions pretend to be smarter and stricter than the European Commission. The rules applied in the entire Union are made even more stringent in Croatia. For instance, a large Polish company wanted to invest in Croatia. They tried to apply for the EU tender for the commercialization of innovations. I told them that the project wouldn’t be successful, as in Croatia, that is not an innovation. It was a device through which they were offering a service. If you change some parameters, you can use the device differently. They got some money for that in Poland, and they hired people. In Croatia, that’s not innovation. It’s the change in the machine functionality.
How big is the interest in the EU funds?
Big. Usually, the madness starts around 9 am. I get around 15 calls from all over Croatia each day. I managed to cut the number of meetings down. Before, everybody called me to get a coffee. That would annoy me to no end, as they’d tell me their plan, ask for my advice, and then get angry when I told them that it costs money to get my advice. Now I only agree to meet someone when I’m convinced there’s some potential in their story. I deal with everything before that on the phone or through emails.
What do you charge clients?
200 to 400 kunas an hour, depending on the type of consulting. The preparation of a project costs 5 to 50 thousand kunas, depending on how much work there is to be done.
What is it that your company Euro Grant Konzalting is offering?
I call myself an expert in turning problems into opportunities. We make a business analysis, take a look at the balance sheet, and then try to find a solution through EU funds. Sometimes all it takes is to connect people or to find investors. We never go into a project which is not 99 percent certain. When we prepare and submit a project, then there’s a break of around a year before the client gets the money. Then we administer the project, which is a critical part of our job. We do procurement, stick to the rules strictly, and prepare reports throughout the project, which is five years.
What is it like working with towns and municipalities? Are the people working there capable?
It is complicated to have successful cooperation, mostly because of politics. It was challenging for me, a consultant and a Polish person from Ogulin, to find my position on the market. I needed to prove myself a lot. On several occasions, I gave solutions and offered solid projects to some municipalities or towns, only to find out six months later that they hired a politically convenient consultant. The towns I work with are at least somewhat independent and can hire a consultant with no political connections.
Do you even follow the politics in Croatia?
Yes, because I have to. Every change in ministries affects my job directly.
What do you say about all those discussions of partisans and ustaše?
I find that ridiculous. The Second World War ended over 70 years ago. I regret that those keep getting forward, as there are so many other topics, fantastic and positive.
What is the situation in Poland? Do people there talk about the topics from WWII all the time?
For younger generations, born in the EU, the free market is quite usual. They don’t appreciate that, so they turn to the right-wing parties. A 15-year-old kid takes a flag to the protests and yells ‘kill a communist.’ What does he even know about communism? For kids like that, it’s better to take their computers and create a cool project.
Let’s leave the past and talk about the present. You started the Entrepreneurial Academy in Ogulin. What gave you that idea?
The project was envisioned and prepared in 2017. The idea came to me when I was talking to the local entrepreneurs who complained about the lack of information and education. For each piece of advice or information, they needed to travel to Zagreb or Rijeka. The project is based on the experience of our company-friend PL Europa, which has an entrepreneurial incubator in Poland. We were waiting for an appropriate call, and when it appeared, we got around 490 thousand kunas of funds from the European Regional Development Fund. The Academy started working in August of last year, and we’ve had over 70 participants. In addition to that, we were able to open a coworking space in Ogulin, together with Ogulin town, called “Ćošak” (corner in English).
Recently you started your second big project financed by European funds – Znam i poduzimam (I Know and I Do). What’s its goal?
Our goal is to train 60 young people in digital entrepreneurship. More specifically, we want to encourage them to self-employ by developing business ideas online. The lecturers are the well-known influencers, such as Ella Dvornik, the travel and lifestyle blogger, Matija Lazarević, the YouTuber known as LayZ, fashion designer Ivan Alduk, flight attendant and food blogger Maja Brekalo and fashion blogger and lawyer, Isabella Rakonić. We added a project manager and EU funds expert Roman Marinović to them. During the project, those 60 young people should learn about the law, the finances, using the EU funds as well as national funding, management, protection of the innovations. We got around 530 thousand kunas from the EU funds for this project.
What’s the quality of the EU funds consultants in Croatia? Is your competition strong?
I am the vice-president of the Association of EU funds professionals with the Croatian Employers Association. Experts at the highest level surround me there. However, in the last years, a large number of businesses appear, I call them the wannabe consultants who work on projects without setting the price from the start. They work with companies that can’t afford to pay for the preparation of the projects, but they do not care. They are paid a percentage of the funds as if they’re unaware that a company that can’t afford to pay the preparation of a project won’t be able to finance the project itself. I think that’s absurd, why waste time and resources on something you’re not guaranteed will be able to be completed in the long term.
Natalia has previously been featured on TCN’s Croatian Foreign Entrepreneur series. If you are a foreign entrepreneur trying to make it in The Beautiful Croatia and would like to be featured, please contact us on [email protected] Subject Entrepreneur.