Monday, September 22, 2008

An innovative breakthrough that breakes down Slovenian taboos

Image representing Zemanta as depicted in Crun...Image by Zemanta via CrunchBaseZemanta. The story before you could be yet another interesting high-tech story. However, it is much more; it is a prime example how progressive thinking and new generation approach can seamlessly break local and national taboos and move a start-up straight into the global arena. The following ranks them amongst the greatest examples of Slovenian innovative breakthroughs:
  • The founders have been thinking global from the beginning. They didn`t start looking for confirmation at home, just the opposite, they went international right away. Like we would be listening to prof. Jose Santos`s advices (IEDC, ISEAD), who was encouraging students to firstly succeed abroad and therefore exceed the old model of needing firstly to succeed at home, then copy the model globally.
  • They started developing a product, that would satisfy global target markets and make foreign seed and risk investors enthusiastic. The solution, they were developing, didn´t grow from passion or from inner inspiration, but as a combination of rational, pragmatic thinking, viability, youthful enthusiasm, a wish to succeed and understanding the needs of those, they were trying to draw in their business cycle - customers. This is a goal of all progressive business environments: "Understand your capabilities, understand your target market and start feeding it with products and solutions, they will notice, appreciate and pay for."

This interview happened at the beginning of May 2008. The dynamics of everyday rhythm held the text in background. Meanwhile, something big, something worthwhile happened. Amongst others, their story was published in the web-newspaper VentureBeat, an interesting article about them was published by Finance, furthermore, they were members of a round table on the conference about Innovation Journalism and Innovation Communication "Stanford after Stanford 2008". We still decided to add another impulse for understanding their story. We left out some business details that you can access on their web page, or find then on the Internet. We also left out the general known truths about success, impressive financial injections. Here is "Zemanta", a team that you have possibly never heard of before.

The Zemanta team

VB: Who are the Zemanta team?
Z: The team was founded a year ago by me (Andraž) and Matjaž. When we went international, we strengthened ourselves with extra members. First with Aleš, the director, whom we needed for our growth strategy. We got news of a possible director from Great Britain, where we were also trying to get the attention of financial investors. We were a little too young and therefore we needed someone with some business experiences, to complement our energy. There are ten of us at the moment but we daily employ new people (the interviews were at the beginning of May 2008, and today there are over 40 in the group). As a group we are aware of our relative "youth" and are fully aware of the need to balance this with the experience of others longer in the field. Youthful drive and enthusiasm helped us to break through some tough walls and obstacles, but for sustainable stability we need far more than this alone.

VB: What binds you?
Z: Each of us has their own motivation. However, the vision of making a global story is very appealing to all of us. In addition, an opportunity of co-creating and manifesting our vision in a socially responsible long-term way, motivates us strongly.

VB: How to produce an innovative idea?
Z: The first joint project with Boštjan was at RTV Slovenija. There we had an opportunity to go deeply and explore the issues and challenges of mastering texts, a huge amounts of texts! A turning point for us was certainly the project called "odprti kop"(open digging), where we discovered the challenges of subtitles for the deaf-and-dumb. When we arrived at a solution, we discovered, that no one in the world had ever produced something similar before. At least not at the level of production we sought. When we sold our project we knew that the logic and knowledge, we had gained and developed, would also be useful in other fields. We developed the idea and after some interactions we managed to come up with a tool, that helps every writer of Internet content, to enrich their texts automatically (automatic connection with similar content on the Net).

VB: How do you make it happen?
Z: Ideas aren´t for free, but there is a lot of them. However, that´s not enough. It takes a great deal of commitment to carry out an idea. What is more, you have to be very persistent and strong-willed to hold onto the tempo necessary for achieving the desired results; especially team commitment to the idea was crucial for building trust by investors in order to come to a successful ending.

VB: Such projects seem to be much more than a regular job....
Z: Yes. Is is typical project work. Months of focusing yourself just on one task, constant adaptation to the latest developments in the field, to new tools, to the Net evolution. Net is alive, all the time transforming. I prefer not to mention all the sleepless nights and the parties we missed. When an idea draws you in so hard, like it dragged us, there is no time for anything else.

VB: How can you gain necessary knowledge for such an innovative breakthrough?
Z: One of the most important factors is certainly a lot of practice, and the working environment. These were two primary sources for our technological and organizational knowledge. Together we strengthened ourselves at RTV, in Kiberpipe and also with smaller projects, where the income was a bit low. We have gained knowledge from almost everywhere: at the faculty, at the Institute Josef Stefan, we read everything that fell into our hands and we believed that it would fit into our concept.

VB: Do you and Boštjan share a common background?
Z: No. Our diversity, (Boštjan is a philosopher and I´m from the Faculty for Computer Science and Informatics), was crucial for the development of ideas and response to challenges: different sight angles, experiences, models of thinking. On the other hand, both of us constantly test ideas and visions, we seize and take advantage of every opportunity that leads into something new. We also both believe that you constantly have to be open to new, crazy ideas, you have to dare to look a long way forward. Soon you realize that everything in some way, somehow, and at the right time can be manifested.

VB: Do you have any mentors, role models?
Z: Of course. You can`t work in a vacuum. You lose perspective. We spoke (and still do) to different branches (finance, investments, management, creative people that know how to evaluate users' experience). It was especially important to us to find right people for the areas of expertise where we felt weak, where we were lacking our own experiences.

VB: Why did you decide to internationalize right away?
Z: Opportunity. That was the idea from the very beginning. We saw the opportunity only in a global approach and international networking. We knew we have a great product, so we could afford to make that move. Systematically, we turned up at various fairs, venture fund events and competitions. We really made it big in London. It was a springboard into the world. It was followed by the RedHerring Award. Than the snow ball started to roll and here we are. The company is growing, our product is developing, we are reaching out to our customers.

VB: Can you gain attention from investors just with an idea?
Z: When there is money involved, you always have to show something; a prototype, something that works.

VB: Is work for you a passion or just one of the activities that you do?
Z: As a team we try to find the right relation between passion and common sense. Therefore, when we try to avoid risks we seek common sense responses; when we decide that the risk is worth taking we enter with a lot of passion.

VB: Who were your initial clients? How did they react?
Z: We had a new technology and an idea about the target customer groups. That`s how we also defined the potential investors, all the necessary connections and the generic target segment. They all responded favorably.

VB: What's next?
Z: The circumstances and target clients are now more or less settled. Our focus are now scenarios. It is essential for us to take a look at all the possible scenarios on the market and find out, where added value is maximal. We count on having all the necessary data and findings till the end of the year. And than we will move on to a new business cycle with a new focus.

VB: What does your solution bring into the Internet environment, to bloggers? Does it have any wider consequences for the Internet development as a concept? Have you been used as a reference for other developers?
Z: We are at the point, when computers are starting to understand people's needs and that is what makes the technology even more useful. If we look a bit wider: there is a lot of data about people and their work on the Net, therefore it is possible, that the computer itself will send us to an interview for a new job and suggest to us a vacation. We solve the part of the process, that enables all this, and at this point a reasonable question arise: what kind of a computer do we in fact want? A computer that needs the same explanations (what we want, how much...) all the time, or a computer that needs just a suggestion and then comes up with a solution by itself?

VB: What about you? Where are you heading?
Z: At the moment I try to function more or less on the operational level. I try to help to consolidate the business and set very clear strategies. However, we learned that we can plan just about 6 weeks in advance. After that the conditions change in a way that decisions made earlier become obsolete. Our desire is to assure our point of presence at the US west coast with the help of financiers and our nets of partners.

VB: What is Internet for you?
Z: Internet has enabled people with selected interests to cooperate as a group on the global market (there are exceptions on the local level, globally they are a group). The first bigger example was Linux, whereas Wikipedia is even a greater phenomena. One of the major challenges of the Net is not to sell itself out and get chained between the public interests, countries, companies and individuals. That has to be followed and observed all the time otherwise it can lead to monopolies (oligopolies), that would crush all existing innovation. Today we already know that there is too much information, that has to be filtrated and organized... And that is where we see our role, we won´t be out of work.

VB: What about copyrights?
Z: Copywriters and directors of networks. There are two major points of gathering the "bridge tool" on the Net. By using our solution we certainly face both daily. When we propose a connection on our clients´ blog, we have to be sure that the users can use it without breaking copyrights. We warn the blog owner, that in the case of use, it is essential to put them in order and to define the terms of usage. The users of the Net have to learn slowly that not everything is for free, but there is still a lot of work and a lot of business opportunities.

The real strategy in real hands. If only time would serve them. The approach of the team is pragmatic enough to succeed in long-term growth and development. Their mayor challenge will probably be HR; how to find the right people, those who will understand and identify itself with common sense and passion that the Zemanta team has integrated into their core. It`s worth following their story. And it is certainly fun to use their product.

Violeta Bulc and Vibacom team

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