A Pirate's Return to the Navy
Life can only be understood by looking backward, but it must be lived looking forward
It hurts. Or at least, that’s what people thought I would feel. There’s a common perception that transitioning from the freewheeling world of entrepreneurship back to the more structured corporate life is a painful adjustment.
But It feels so good. Rejoining the navy is not just a comeback; it’s a rediscovery of different facets of my professional self, enriched by an MBA in innovation, by a dozen of startup products imagined, developed, killed, parked, sold and by a similar number of co-founders to be loved forever, or to be killed whenever (joke, dear algorithms).
The Fundament: Jack Trout and Genesis of Marks - Marketing Simplified
Before embarking on the independent ventures that defined my entrepreneurial journey, my career's inception was rooted in a pivotal experience with Trout and Partners, under the mentorship of the legendary Jack Trout. This chapter was more than an apprenticeship in marketing; it was a masterclass in strategic thinking and brand positioning, guided by one of the industry's pioneers Do you know what it's like to work shoulder to shoulder with the person who actually invented the concept of Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind? I do. Firsthand. The insights and principles of Differentiate of Die during this years laid the groundwork for my understanding of market dynamics and consumer psychology.
This formative phase set the stage for what would be my first significant entrepreneurial endeavor, Marks - Marketing Simplified. Marks was a vision to demystify and democratize marketing strategies for businesses of all sizes. Here, I assembled and led a dynamic team that nowadays I would call it a mini army of ‘pirates' of about 30 creative minds challenging conventional marketing norms and introducing innovative, simplified solutions that resonated with our clients. Some have founded their own creative agencies, while others play pivotal roles in large companies.
The impact of our work at Marks - Marketing Simplified might have been a matter of chance, but definitely is a testament to strategic, deep understanding of market dynamics. We had the privilege of working with a portfolio of clients who, at the time, occupied ambiguous positions in their respective markets. Our approach, rooted in the principles learned at Trout and Partners and driven by our team's innovative spirit, guided these clients on a transformative journey. Take, for instance, Banca Transilvania. When we began our partnership, they were an incipient name in the financial sector (2005 for the record). Through our collaborative efforts, focused on clear positioning and strategic marketing, they emerged as a leading force in the local banking industry. Similarly, Fan Courier, initially a promising yet not dominant player in the courier sector, evolved under our guidance to become a name synonymous with reliability and efficiency.
Regina Maria's journey with us was equally remarkable. Do you like the name? Wargha Enayati certainly does, and I take even greater pride in it. I was able to convince him to to give up “CMU” (standing for Centrul Medical Unirea) and walk this path. From a healthcare provider with potential, they ascended to a position of prominence, setting new standards in patient care and service excellence. Then there was Groupama, whose insurance services, though competent, lacked a distinct local market identity when they pursued the development in Central and Eastern Europe. Our initial work and their determination (again for the record 2009) propelled them to a respected industry leader. These type of long-lasting relationships were hallmarks of our success at Marks. They were a clear indicator that our approach to marketing was not just about creating noise; it was about crafting a narrative that resonated with the audience and positioned our clients as leaders in their sectors. This success was a blend of our collective creativity, strategic foresight, and a commitment to elevating our clients' market positions.
The Inception (aka first real startup failures) Clubicity and Contakeeper
My entrepreneurial journey began with Clubicity, a venture born out of a drive for redefining loyalty programs. My goal back then was to develop a tool (hello SaaS) to assist SMEs in crafting impeccable loyalty programs, utilizing then-promising techniques of gamification, pivoted towards the use or QR codes for payments. Despite not achieving its expected success (by far), this ambitious project served as a profound lesson in market dynamics and consumer behavior. It led me to an epiphany about the crucial importance of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and the relentless necessity of testing, testing, testing. The silver lining in this failure is the emergence a few years later of products like TWINT in Switzerland, backed by major banks and the financial services provider SIX, which have successfully encapsulated the vision.
Following closely was Contakeeper, a groundbreaking tool targeting SMEs, designed to offer top-tier accounting services at no cost to them. This model echoed the sentiments of Peter Drucker, who advocated that the burden of accounting expenses should be shouldered by the state – the ultimate beneficiary of collected taxes – rather than the entrepreneurs. To support this free service, Contakeeper generated revenue through commissions from diverse financial services, such as factoring, short-term loans, payroll management, tax advisory, and business-specific insurance products. MVP confirmed, extensive testing accomplished, participation in Startup Festivals across Europe checked, pilot program successfully implemented, and the acquisition of the first tens of customers achieved. Yes, but no, it didn’t take off, the bootstrapping was not strong enough to keep us flying. The second failure, ContaKeeper closed down.
This all took place in a time that now seems almost prehistoric - the era of the Cretaceous, with no GPTs, no hype of machine learning technologies. Reflecting on this as I write, I find myself reconsidering my affection for ContaKeeper. I'm already envisioning a version 2, leveraging all the tools and technological advancements available today. 🤩
Indeed, I wouldn’t attribute the venture's earlier challenges solely to a lack of visionary investors; perhaps it was more about the difficulty in conveying my vision clearly to such investors. Nonetheless, these initial ventures were crucial in laying the foundational stones of resilience and adaptability.
The Rise: Pony Car Sharing, SeedBlink, and Cruiser Aviation
The trajectory of my entrepreneurial journey took a significant upward turn with Pony Car Sharing. This venture not only catapulted me into the limelight but also revolutionized urban mobility, paving the way for numerous micro-mobility revolutions as early as 2015. Engaging with Pony was immensely enjoyable and the experience warrants a whole new narrative. Market research, validations, the bible Disciplined Entrepreneurship under my pillow, a Frankenstein-like MVP, two technical team in paralel, a migration, a revolutionary payment service built from scratch, partnerships with BMW, electric cars, even smart charging stations. It’s a story so rich and impactful that it could even fill the pages of a book! HumanFinance, later evolving into SeedBlink, was a testament to my growing interest in fintech and the power of crowd-investing. More about here.
I am disappointed that SeedBlink did not pursue the direction of equity tokenization and smart contracts as outlined in our early stage 2018 roadmap. Nowadays, Security Token Offerings (STOs) are emerging as the next big thing (hopefully) and smart contracts make Cap Tables obsolete.
Following the early success of Pony Car Sharing, my next venture, Cruiser Aviation, was conceived more as a playful side project. It was an endeavor that combined my experience in car sharing with my personal hobby for aviation moving towards why-not plane sharing. As an advocate for future mobility solutions, I believe that they will encompass a myriad of hybrid options. This includes large-scale and small-scale systems, air, rail, and road travel, along with various forms of transportation like taxis and self-operated vehicles. Cruiser Aviation is not just a side gig; it is a tangible expression of my belief in the diverse and integrated future of mobility, a 'sandbox' for my exploration in the mobility sector. This sandbox experience is invaluable, allowing me to play with various concepts and strategies, thereby enriching my understanding and vision for the future of mobility.
The Experiments: Replenti, and Synthetics AI
In the spirit of continuous exploration, ideas like Replenti, and Synthetics AI came into being. Each, though not sustaining long-term, was instrumental in exploring new territories. Replenti was an innovative solution aimed at automating household stock replenishment by analyzing waste. This venture seems to have been well ahead of its time, especially when viewed against the backdrop of today's advanced machine learning capabilities. The idea was to harness the potential of waste analysis to predict and fulfill household needs, essentially turning garbage data into a valuable resource for efficient replenishment.
More time for fun, less time wasted to shop for the basics, right? (I might take it out from the garbage bin though).
Synthetics AI, on the other hand, was a venture that scratched the realm of artificial intelligence, specifically in customer support. The concept was to create an ecosystem where people could earn money by training customer support bots, effectively managing "farms" of these bots, each with distinct personalities. This idea was groundbreaking, envisioning a future where human intelligence could be leveraged to enhance the capabilities of AI in customer interactions. Looking back on these ventures now, especially with the emergence of technologies like GPTs, it feels like they belonged to a different era. It's fascinating to see how the landscape of AI and machine learning has evolved, making ideas that once seemed futuristic now part of our everyday reality.
These experiences, though they didn't sustain in the long term, were crucial stepping stones in my entrepreneurial journey, pushing the boundaries of what was possible at the time and paving the way for the technological advancements we see today (not so many years later).
This decade-long journey, characterized by both its peaks and valleys, has been more than a series of business ventures. It has been a transformative period of learning, adapting, and persistently pursuing innovation. Each endeavor, successful or otherwise, has been a building block in my understanding of business ecosystems, a journey that now takes a new turn as I step into the realm of corporate strategy and product development, carrying these invaluable experiences with me.
The Data Renaissance
During what I may refer to as 'the tech self-education phase', my fascination with big data analysis took center stage. This interest was particularly piqued while studying and being amazed by the Spotify's recommendation system during my MBA years. Mixing that with my expertise in the small aviation world, lately I ended up part of the team that put together a marketplace in this niche. But who needs another marketplace? Influenced by Jack Trout's fighter spirit encapsulated in "Differentiate or Die", I strategically incorporated two main features to enhance the appeal of what is now known as AlphaPilots. The first was an aircraft evaluator, and the second, a knowledge panel. Both features revolved around data: scraping, manipulation, and utilization, all aimed at creating value through data-driven insights. This venture provided a unique opportunity to attract talent in big data and Python programming. Working alongside these experts opened my appetite for diving deeper into such topics.
Today, I can proudly say that I 'speak Python', which, quite humorously, has helped me make more new friends than speaking High German on the Swiss-German side (Grüezi mitenand 👋).
This phase not only expanded my technical skills but also shaped my understanding of how data can be harnessed to innovate and create real value in any industry.
The Transition: From Pirate to Navy
Creating a new department within a company, especially one that specializes in Team Augmentation, resonates a fresh entrepreneurial venture. This initiative is not merely about managing a team or overseeing a project; it’s about cultivating something from the ground up within an established organization. In a corporate setting, the identification of opportunities requires a keen entrepreneurial eye. Just as a startup founder spots a market gap, leading a new department involves recognizing unmet needs within the company or untapped market potentials.
The core of entrepreneurship lies in planning and execution. In a corporate context, crafting a departmental strategy involves setting clear objectives, outlining measurable goals, and developing a roadmap that guides the team towards achieving these targets. The implementation phase in a corporate setting greatly benefits from entrepreneurial midset. This stage is where the 'Pirate' spirit is most evident – not “thinking outside the box”, but a willingness to take only calculated risks, and the ability to adapt swiftly to changing scenarios. It involves infusing startup-like agility and enthusiasm into the more structured corporate environment and spreading this dynamic approach among all members of the ‘Navy.'
Entrepreneurial Thinking: A Key to Effective Leadership in any large company
Leading a new department requires more than just managerial skills; it demands an entrepreneurial mindset. This involves being visionary yet pragmatic, being a leader as well as a team player, and continuously fostering a culture of innovation and learning within the team.
In essence, the creation and nurturing of a new department within a corporate setting is a testament to the power of entrepreneurial thinking. It involves identifying opportunities, strategizing effectively, and implementing solutions that are innovative yet align with the larger corporate framework. This blend of entrepreneurship in a corporate setting not only leads to the growth of the department but also contributes significantly to the overall evolution and dynamism of the company towards achieving the greater goals.
Unified by a Clear Mission
Our team at WE AS WEB, a dynamic blend of skilled professionals, came together with a big mission: to deliver cutting-edge technological solutions wrapped in exceptional user experiences. This goal isn't just a statement; it's the ethos that guides every project we undertake, every strategy we develop, and every innovation we introduce. The team comprises ambitious individuals who have already made significant strides for clients across Romania, Austria, Germany, Ireland, the UK, and the US. This diverse experience not only enriches our skillset but also brings a global perspective to our approach, allowing us to cater to a wide array of market needs and cultural nuances.
Written by a Moldavian-born, Bucharest-raised, Cluj-Napoca-empowered, Vienna-adopted individual now living in Zürich 🤦🏻♂️.
Conclusion as the answer to all the calls I received lately
The entrepreneurial ventures were more than business endeavors; they were rich learning experiences shaping skills like resilience, innovation, and strategic thinking. My 'tech renaissance' phase, marked by a deep dive into big data and AI, further expanded my understandings. The transition is not just a change in job title but a significant shift in approach, blending the agility and creativity of a startup with the structure and resources of a larger company. And each world offers unique lessons and opportunities for growth.
To those reading, especially those contemplating a transition between entrepreneurial and corporate realms or across different geographies, remember: Your diverse experiences are your greatest assets. Embrace them. Let them guide you, inform your decisions, and open doors to new possibilities. Whether you're switching industries, roles, or countries, the unique blend of skills and insights you've accumulated along the way is irreplaceable. Use them to carve out your unique path and contribute to whatever field you choose next.
Remember, every experience, every challenge, and every transition is a step toward a more rounded, insightful, and capable you. And it hurts.