European start-up Imagga: from Venture Connect to IBC

I have met Chris and Georgi in June 2011 when they came to Romania to present Stockpodium at the third edition of VentureConnect. And since then, we tried to stay in touch as often as possible: I visited them in Sofia, participating in Open Coffee and so on. A couple of days ago I discovered that Chris and Georgi were the cool tech guys behind Imagga, company that won second place in the start-up competition powered by Intel: Intel Business Challenge.

Imagga Ltd develops and offers technologies, services, and online tools for visual image search, image processing, and image understanding in the cloud. And by participating and winning second place in the European round of Intel Challenge, Chris and Georgi will travel to UC Berkeley for the finals in November 2012. And to that we also add a considerable 15.000$ cash prize. For Intel Business Challenge (Europe), almost 4,000 ideas were submitted through 20 affiliated competitions and on-line platform.  Among all the nine categories (including nanotechnology, robotics, biotechnology, electronics, or energy), the most – almost half – of  all the projects were submitted in the areas of Software and IT and Mobile and Wireless. Romania also had a valuable presence, Appscend being one of the most important businesses present in the competition.

You can easily imagine that I wrote to Chris and Georgi immediately for a follow-up interview. And, as always, enjoy! :-)


1. You’ve attended VentutreConnect in May 2011, when you were just getting started. How are things now — what have you been working on in the last year? 

We’ve been really busy during the last year at Imagga. Things rapidly changed, we pivoted a bit our business model and shifted from pure B2C to B2B model. Our flagship project is doing really great, but we decided to focus more on the technology part of our startup. Imagga is a cloud platform that helps businesses and individuals to organize their images in a fast and cost-effective way. We are taking advantage of the huge hype for images. All the affordable smart phones and digital cameras, photo-sharing apps, and visual exploration web-sites make our lives really image intensive. Every single day over 1, 4 billion photos are shared online. This is huge opportunity for Imagga. We believe our services are really needed as every web company is starting to deal with constantly growing image databases.
2. You’ve attended Intel Business Challenge and won second place. Congratulations, I believe this is amazing! Could you briefly describe the experience? 

Intel  Business Challenge was awesome. Really well organized and inspiring. It’s amazing to see so many young people with such a passion for innovation, well educated, well behaved, trained to deliver excellent presentations, but most of all, with great business ideas. The format of IBC evolved and this year most of the preselection process was done offline. During the previous years, Eastern and Western Europe have had their own competitions. This year Intel and the organizers in Europe decided the divide is no more needed. The quality of the ideas and the teams was really high. We are thrilled to be one of the only Eastern European team that made it through the finals and in November will be pitching in University of California, Berkley at IBC World. It’s great experience and also an amazing opportunity to represent Bulgaria and the so called New Europe.

3. Is this type of program something you would recommend further on? I bet the money is great, but it’s more to it than that.

It’s great program and experience. First you learn how to put your ideas on paper, then if it’s a good idea, you will be given the chance to meet and talk to mentors with lifelong experience in business and product development, etc. Going through the mentoring time and the pitching experience is really valuable. This something you can’t learn by reading, it needs to be practice in real, live environment. Specially in Eastern Europe we are not well thought how to speak in front of people, how use properly the body language and how to give short, focused answers. These are skills much needed as in real life you will not have a second chance to pitch in front of investor and redo any damage. English is also the language of the entrepreneurship, so being fluent when you present is something that won’t happen overnight. Competitions like IBC are so needed in countries like Bulgaria and Romania, so I encourage every young person to try and get the best out of the format.

4. I have the pleasure to know you for quite some time now — coming close to two years. You are entrepreneurs, marketers, Project Managers for various entrepreneurial local initiatives. Can you describe your activities for this autumn? 

We want to see the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Bulgaria advance. That’s why we help with what we can to see that happen. Chris is very active in organizing monthly OpenCoffee meetups, and also Startup Weekend Sofia, which was great success with more than 200 people that attended in total in May and September editions. Georgi is actively involved as a mentor and scout at LAUNCHub, one of the seed funds that operate under the Jeremie initiative and is also teaching Technology Entrepreneurship in Sofia University. We believe giving back to the community is really important, that’s why we take some of our time and help out other young people. We see that more like a mission than as a day job. The wellbeing of our company Imagga is of higher priority but whenever we have time we are delighted to be part of an event or initiative that will help Bulgaria become high tech nation.

5. What I’ve noticed lately, and actually love it, is that the Bulgarian community is constantly growing: new projects, new funds (Eleven, LauncHub), new local initiatives such as Betahouse. Where do you see yourselves as businessmen in the following years? 

Our priority is Imagga. We really want to see our company mature and grow. If this means we need to move to some other location, let be it. Our mission is to smartly automate image organization and give people more time for tasks that are more important for their live. We believe the following years we need to focus on advancing our image understanding technology and also significantly growing our customer base.

We love what we do, and are excited about the opportunities that have been created in Bulgaria to do what we love. LauncHub and Eleven will play significant role in funding Bulgarian and regional startups in the following years. Organizations like StartUP Foundation, which by the way is the first entrepreneurial organization in the country (and the reason I got fired up with starting a tech startup) and events like OpenCoffee and Startup Weekend are an important players in creating startup culture. We will see more funds coming to the region, more exciting startup events, and hopefully more success stories.

6. Let’s imagine this article is read by young entrepreneurs, that have a business idea, but did not start developing their project. I bet there are quite some few in Bulgaria and Romania as well. From your experience, what would you recommend in the first stages of their business? 

When I talk to young people (I still feel young, but got disappointed this year, they say I am too old to participate in some youth activities) I usually see two things – they are afraid somebody will steal their idea or they are afraid of failure. Ideas cost nothing until you act on them and transform them in a profitable business. The failure attitude is something we need to address as society. In the States, if you have started and failed, you are viewed as somebody that has gained experience and it’s more likely to invest in you. In countries like Bulgaria or maybe even Romania, people believe you have just one chance. I strongly believe life has way much to offer to the young people in our region, but they need to dare to share the ideas, dare to start their own business, even if they at first fail, but try again until they succeed.

7. Speaking from your own personal experience, is Eastern Europe a place to grow your business? 

For some business it’s great place to grow your business. Unfortunately for most tech startups that’s not true. It might be good place to start, test your product, get convenience in contacting prospective customers, acquire some tech talent. But to truly grow your startup I believe you need to be move where your customers are. Most of them usually live in Western Europe and USA, so that’s the best you can do. You can still keep an active role here on the Balkans, but sales and biz development needs to be moved where the customers are. This is also required by VCs as well. They invest in companies that are located let say 20-30 miles away from their office. So if you need to grow, get worldwide traction, consider you will eventually need to open an office in London, Berlin or San Francisco.

Venture Connect scheduled for 27 November

One of the most notable initiatives in Romania and Eastern Europe, Venture Connect reached its sixth edition, being organized on 27th November for the first time in the heart of the Romanian entrepreneurial community, the HUB Bucharest. Venture Connect is the first Romanian initiative that periodically brings together a number of pre-screened entrepreneurial teams from the IT/Internet/Technology sector with potential investors in order to maximize and ensure direct business interactions.

Entrepreneurs who want to present their businesses in front of some of the most important investors in Romania and SEE can submit their projects until Friday, November 16th by filling in the Application Form.

VentureConnect is a project in which we had confidence from the get go, and after two years from its official launch, through the efforts of my colleagues in the VentureConnect Foundation, we intend to surpass ourselves with each edition. So far, VentureConnect facilitated two venture investments and also paved the way for over 70 Romanian businesses to the investor’s community,” mentioned Orlando Nicoară, General Manager Mediafax Group and VentureConnect Board Member.

VentureConnect, the first initiative in Romania that brings together entrepreneurs and potential investors from the IT / Online / Technology sector, has evolved over the past year from a match-making event type to an entire platform of support for entrepreneurs, helping in identifying new funding, business and mentoring opportunities. In 2012, together with VentureConnect, the Foundation organized four Venture Mentoring sessions, other eight meetings being scheduled for the rest of the year. Venture Mentoring is a program of monthly sessions between entrepreneurs who need mentoring and business counseling and VentureConect Board members or other guests, who use their experience and knowledge to guide and advise the entrepreneurial community.

“Unlike other VentureConnect editions, for this autumn event we already have two entries which demonstrates that the platform we have built is a very effective investment in a Romanian entrepreneurial community that is becoming stronger and even more active”, mentions Dragoș Rouă, online entrepreneur and member of the VentureConnect Board.

Apart from VentureConnect and the Venture Mentoring sessions, in October this year the VentureConnect Foundation will launch Angel Connect, a digital community targeting business-angels and VCs, the first of its kind in Romania and South-Eastern Europe, focusing on the education and growth of the local investment branch.

In the five VentureConnect meetings so far, 60 companies pitched their business plan in front of over 200 potential investors; with close to 1000 participants involved in the entrepreneurial community.

“In May 2012, VentureConnect attracted 37 companies with rapid growth from Romania, Bulgaria and Silicon Valley, with over 40 potential investors interested in the Technology, IT and Online sector. This autumn, projecting on the high interest for VentureConnect and relying on the strong positive feedback received for the last meeting, we built the concept of the event around entrepreneurs, so that those who deliver presentations can find their originality and free spirit in front of an audience that is usually extremely demanding” adds Alexandra Dumitru, Project Manager VentureConnect.

Razvan Roman: The hardest thing in BIG deals is applying the same strategies as on SMALL ones

I first meet Razvan three years ago when I was working for a very cool startup and we were having issues with a Blackberry app. Out of everyone in the world, the one phone that could help us with the necessary log files was Razvan’s. And thus a friendship made in tech heaven was borne. I’ve learned a lot by watching Razvan do his “networking magic”, as he has that special ability of making his way into one’s business heart.

Razvan is doing great things from very early on, being involved in wonderful projects such as Appnor or UberVu as Sales Consultant and Business Development Manager. He lives in London, comes to visit Bucharest from time to time [he arrived on Friday] and makes Business Development, Marketing and Sales seem so very easy.

With curiosity being my middle name, I wanted to find out more about Razvan’s activities and business objectives. As expected, it turned out to be a great and insightful interview. Enjoy! :-)

VC: Tell us a little bit more about Razvan Roman: what do you do and how did you get started?

RR: I’ve started off on a Spectrum since before I could read and I think I’ve been incredibly lucky to have good timing in being passionate about a very high impact domain that’s driving innovation in a lot of businesses.

That pretty much lead to being a part of many startups and companies playing different roles along the way. I’ve transitioned from development to marketing, operations and more recently sales. It really helps to see the overall picture from all department’s point of view and there’s no easy path or shortcut to gaining experience.

I’ve started my first project at 16 and experimented for the next couple of years. From then on I focused on working on projects where I could learn as much as possible and also meet people that I’d like to work with in the future. I’m currently doing sales and business development for uberVU from the London office.

VC: You live in London in the management team of a project we hold close to heart: UberVu. Do sales goes smoother from London compared to Bucharest?

RR: It’s a whole different process throughout. In Bucharest you need to rely on conference calls to sell to big global clients — travelling doesn’t scale when you’re working with clients from almost all continents. In London however you can meet up with pretty much any big client so you’re building a much more personal relationship with people.

Reputation is also more important in the UK. Compared to the US, where it’s mostly about wether a transaction makes sense rather than who you’re buying from and what’s their reputation. However, once reputation starts building up there’s a snowball effect so long term effects are positive i.e. clients start recommending you, talking about your product etc.

B2B sales is all about making a good deal for 2 or more sides. For that to happen somebody has to have a need for your product, you have to somehow be there at the right time and control the whole process along the way without making mistakes.

London makes it easy to meet the biggest clients in Europe but there’s also more competition for their attention. It’s the place to be in Europe if you’re looking for big deals, definitely.

VC: Taking into consideration your experience and business intuition, what line of work would you chose as an entrepreneur in 2012 and why?

RR: I’m definitely sticking to online based models. You’re going to experiment a lot as an entrepreneur focused on innovation and new models compared to the sort of entrepreneur that opens a small restaurant franchise for example, where the model is often set in place and allows little flexibility. In order to accommodate all that experimenting you need a continuously growing industry to cushion for your inevitable mistakes. The online medium definitely grants you that and most models (even ecommerce) are still on a very high growth curve if you look at the overall economy.

VC: From your point of view, could you name top three key milestones which entrepreneurs in Romania should consider?

RR: That’s a bit too broad for a generalisation but I think the focus should be all about experimenting and learning as much as you can in order to really jump on a good opportunity later on when planets align.

A part that seems to be missing to a lot of Romanian entrepreneurs is a general understanding of the global market as opposed to focusing only on the local one. Even if you decide to make a local play in Romania I still think understanding what works on other markets is essential.

Three milestones though: the 11th employee, managing EUR 1.2MLN in yearly revenues, offices in multiple timezones. These all come with their own trials and difficulties and usually change your organisation significantly.

VC: Looking back at the way in which UberVu grew and developed in the last couple of years, is there anything you would have done different?

RR: No. All decisions make sense at the time they’re made. As long as you have the proper knowledge to assess a situation you can’t really regret any decisions you’ve made.

VC: I told myself I wouldn’t ask you that, but I cannot help it. Which is the hardest sale you’ve completed and how much?

RR: The hardest sales aren’t necessarily the most expensive. You can sometimes have a really hard time selling an average sized contract –5 figures in yearly revenue– to a big corporation. If they’re running a long and strenuous RFP process you can end up spending months on end on such an opportunity and you get very low leverage over the situation. There’s no way of sweetening the deal for them.

By comparison you can win big business in only a few days if there’s ways to push the sale — like an internal deadline on their end, flexibility on your pricing, payment options etc. The hardest thing however in big deals is applying the same strategies as you do on smaller deals. Not caving in to pressures from the other side to issue discounts or extras is really hard when you really want to sign that huge contract. But being consistent, offering a great service and being congruent about your offer will get the deal sealed. It’s all about execution rather than great ideas here.

VC: We all have mentors and gurus we look up. I am fortunate to work with all them and here I’m referring to the Venture Connect Board. Which is your business figure you admire most and why?

RR: There’s too many to chose only one. Elon Musk definitely stands out lately and I love the way he’s been an underdog for 5+ years and only recently media started reconsidering his whole efforts and backstory. That looks like the next Steve Jobs story to me and certainly the media jumped on the opportunity to portray him so.

There’s distinction to be made between being inspired versus learning something very useful that you can apply today in your organisation. While Elon ranks high as somebody that inspires, you often learn more by following Ben Horrowitz, Marc Andreessen, Martin Varsavski or other big name entrepreneurs that share a lot of practical advice.

Biographies can teach you so much about the psychology of winning, losing and getting up again. And I also tend to look for inspiration in highly successful people in other trades of life or even historical figures. I’ve learned just as much from Arnon Milchan’s biography or Keith Richard’s “Life” than from Steve Job’s or Founders at Work.

Success can either take you by surprise by accidentally riding a fantastic wave of change at the right time and being up to par on executing on it — think Mark Zuckerberg  or The Rolling Stones — or you can plan for it and it will only look good while looking back — like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs post 2000.

More than 40 investors interested in Romanian start-ups

VentureConnect, one of the notable programs in the Romanian business environoment, targeting entrepreneurs of the IT, Online, Technology areas, will be bringing them together with 40 confirmed investors for the Venture Connect event, on 31st of May, at Intercontinental Hotel, Bucharest. Entrepreneurs can submit thier projects until the end of this week, on 20th of May.

VentureConnect, the initiative that started in 2010, reached its fifth edition. The entrepreneurs interested to present thier business in front of over 40 investors from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary or Poland can submit thier projects until 20th of May. Along with the traditional pitching event, the second part of the day will host a conference dedicated to Romanian investors, interested in supporting entreprenorial start-ups in the IT, Online, Technology areas: Angel Connect.

Among the confirmed investors who will attend the event, we mention: Andreas Cser (Director of Fraser Finance), Alexis Bonte (CEO eRepublik Labs Limited), Ondrej Bartos (Partner & Chairman of the Board at Credo Ventures), Gwidon Humeniuk (Member of the Board at Xevin Investments), Maxim Gurvits (New Europe Corporate Advisory) along with other Romanian business-angels.

“A company’s success is based on its project development, its business objectives, as well as fully understanding the targeted market. As technology or business planning can be learned, mentored or even bought, the project developed by entrepreneurs has the experimental value: it involves several try-outs, failures or multiple repositioning strategies. But, in order to shape a scalable business that’s locally and internationally appreciated, the entrepreneurs need a mature business environment. I am happy to be seeing a stable and growing market in South-East Europe, especially in Bucharest and also in Bulgaria” says Maxim Gurvits, Investment Banking Associate la New Europe Corporate Advisory.

Until now, two major investments were granted:  in 2011, project. an online recruiting platform that was supported by Andreas Cser (business-angel Frasier Finance), Alexis Bonte and Post-Privatization Foundation and BITTNET Systems, a leading project in the Network Training market in Romania,  who announced in the beginning of 2011 the investment of Răzvan Căpăţînă, Romanian business-angel.

“We are very happy with all the start-up projects that were submitted, from the first Venture Connect event in 2010 to the most recent ones for the event on 31st of May. Together with the Venture Connect Board members, we’re doing our best to bring to Bucharest investors interested in the local entrepreneurial market and to facilitate the development of local business to become internationally recognized” declared Ana-Maria Andronic, Senior Associate at Biriş Goran, co- founder member of VentureConnect Foundation.

The Venture Connect spring edition is supported by Allegro Group Romania, part of the international media group Naspers and the Post-Privatization Foundation (FPP).