Volen Vulkov

Volen Vulkov

Junior Entrepreneur

What I’ve learned as a junior entrepreneur in Bulgaria in three years

This article first appeared on Enhancv blog.

Seven years ago I joined one of the first entrepreneurship organisations here in Bulgaria. One of my first tasks was to conduct a small research on what Bulgarians understand when they hear the word “entrepreneur”. I was really stunned to see that the average Bulgarian was thinking entrepreneurs are the people who construct huge buildings.

Fortunately, things started to change thanks to several significant events that got our capital Sofia listed as one of the top 10 cities to launch a startup. Eleven, a local early stage venture fund was ranked #3 most active VC in Europe in 2015. Launchub, the other local venture fund has recently closed another 18M EUR round of funding. Together they have invested in more than 200 startups for the past 3 years. Dronamics, one of the newborn ventures, won the Pioneers Festival. Last, but not least, the Bulgarian IT company Telerik got acquired by Progress Software for $262.5M, leading to the biggest industry exit in Central and Eastern Europe.

The foundations of a working startup environment are already laid, but this environment is still much closer to the Wild West rather than Silicon Valley. I’m following the development of the local startup community both as part of the community and as a founder of Enhancv – a startup we launched 3 years ago. Here are 8 lessons I learned as a junior entrepreneur in our nascent ecosystem.

1. It’s not fun, but it’s up to you to enjoy the game

Not fun, working

With the birth of entrepreneurship here in Sofia, there were a lot of startup events prompting you to start your own company. They paint a pretty picture: ‘’You are going to develop your own ideas’’, “You will be your own boss’’, ‘’You will lead a team and define its culture’’, etc. I bet it sounds like loads of fun. Well… it’s not. And if for some reason it is, there surely is a problem either in you or in your company. I can’t be convinced that facing all kinds of problems every single day, hearing “No” 10 times per week when you are fundraising, contacting media or even presenting your idea for the whole team to challenge, is somewhat near ‘’fun’’.

However, in a startup, there’s nothing you can’t control, except for bad luck and bad weather. But here lies the biggest challenge – being able to rise above and enjoy the good things in life and business, even when sometimes you want to quit them all. It’s one of your most crucial responsibilities as a founder. Feeling blue is normal, but showing it in front of others is something you cannot afford. You’ll make it harder for your team to follow you and harder for your investors to say “Yes”. You should also not forget that building a startup is a long journey and you learn a lot on the way. Not many people have the opportunity to take such a journey and you should do your best to enjoy it, no matter how hard it is.

2. There is no finish line

a man running at the airport

I believe that people should work super hard in order to get things done, but there are moments when you have to slow down or completely switch off. So, when is everything going to stop? When would the so-called tipping point come around and make everything easier and better?

Well, in real life and especially in a startup, there is rarely a “tipping point”. I always thought that the usual startup journey would last for a couple of years. This is a wrong and short-sided opinion and it took me a while to realize it.

Look at Zuckerberg, Musk or Page – do you think they were calculating how much time they would need to make their ideas come to life? Or that they’re not facing any new tremendous problems a decade after they’ve launched their products?

Do yourself a favor – think of your startup as a lifelong race with no finish line.
Anything worth doing takes a lot of time. Probably a lifetime.

3. Press the gas pedal harder after a victory, not after a failure

We all know who Elon Musk is – probably the smartest and most successful person living on Earth right now. Personally, I think that he has reached such a level not only because he didn’t give up despite the million hard situations he had to deal with.

The thing he has more than others is hunger. He didn’t stop when they sold PayPal. Rather he invested his time into creating the first electric car and sending rockets to Mars. He already was a successful person, but for him, it was simply not enough.

At the beginning of our journey, I found that we felt somewhat satisfied when we achieved something big. In fact, this motivated us to do even more. Be proud of what you’ve achieved, but working on the next big thing right away should be your game. Don’t settle and don’t please your hunger – it’s one of your strongest weapons.

4. Everything is everyone’s responsibility

a-boat-in-the-river

If you’re a developer, you probably want to code and have someone else taking care of the business. If you are a marketer, you probably want to bring thousands of users to your website, but have someone else handling their questions and complaints. And no matter what you do, it’s very unlikely you want to handle accounting or fundraising.

My theory is that building a great company is not only about getting your things done, it’s about getting your hands dirty. In a startup, it’s vital to keep everyone on the frontline of the battlefield – as near as possible to all customers, actions, dangers, and enjoyments.

The closer you keep your team to everything that’s going on, the more they understand the impact and responsibility of their actions. Give major tasks to the younger people too, encourage devs to do marketing and the other way around. Try not to establish the kind of culture that makes your team members do only what’s their responsibility or what they have a university degree for and you will be amazed by the results.

5. Fear and ego are a junior entrepreneurs’ biggest enemies

Amaryllis Fox, a former CIA agent, points out the biggest lesson that her work has taught her after 10 years undercover:

“Everybody believes they are the good guy.”

It’s almost the same case in entrepreneurship. We, as founders, keep saying that we are doing something great, something that helps a lot of people, that we are on the right track, the next funding round is coming and essentially we are the heroes on this planet.

The problem here is that entrepreneurs usually have a huge ego, which might help in specific cases, but for me, it’s the number one reason we fail. Most of the times we are so delusional about our idea, that we are full of self-belief and this blocks us from listening to our friends, investors or customers. You should remain a ‘student’ and learn every single day even 10 years after you’ve launched your product. You should be less, say less and not let the ego overcome you.

The other thing that could destroy the early entrepreneurial life is fear. The fear of a potential failure, the fear of losing the trust of the team, the fear of what others might think of you, the fear of not closing that important deal… and that’s normal. But it could negatively reflect on your team, investors, community, even on your personal life and relationships. Fear makes us nervous and reveals the worst side of us. Be ready to show courage and endure danger without ego.

6. Not the community, but friends and family are the ones who are going to help you build your startup

boy holding hand

Many entrepreneurs think that a startup’s success is defined by a number of users, revenue or fundings it has. At the beginning, my thoughts were the same and there were times when I forgot about all the support my friends and family have provided. They’ve put their problems on the side in order to help resolve mine or have just encouraged me and the team after a bad day. They’ve used their connections to make us known. They’ve spent their valuable time reviewing our financials, operations or marketing strategy all for free just because it’s us. They’ve never refused to help us – from funding our financial gaps to just sharing something on Facebook. If I had to list all the names of people who’ve helped us, I’d probably need a whole new post.

So my advice is, don’t try to build a community. You already have one, just look around. These people are your most important and valuable asset.

7. The only startup bubble is your own bubble

a soap bubble

Lately, many people started suggesting that the next startup bubble is growing and even worse – that most of the local startups exist only because of this bubble.

In my opinion, it’s a very big overstatement. Yes, many startups, which probably wouldn’t exist in Silicon Valley, were born here only because the European Union has decided to develop and fund the entrepreneurship ecosystem. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The founders and their whole teams are learning a lot, and even if their companies fail, they’d still bring lots of knowledge to their next job or entrepreneurial endeavor.

On the other hand, the whole buzz around startups isn’t very healthy. I’ve met founders who are talking and thinking only about their companies, and this locks them in an even smaller bubble that they have created in their minds. Running a startup doesn’t mean you have to be in your office 24/7 or that you should go to every entrepreneurship event in your city. You need to move, go out, spend time with your family, friends and yourself. There are more important things in life than your startup, aren’t there?

8. Life is extremely short and you won’t get many chances

a clock in a hand

Life is short. We all pretend that we know it, but few of us are really aware of it. Three years ago when we founded Enhancv I was thinking like a typical Generation Y kid. I was assuming that even if we fail, I will learn a lot and that will help me with my next endeavors, especially in Bulgaria, where very few people have startup experience in their pocket.

The truth is that our time is now and now only. Second chances in life come rarely so don’t just wait around for them. Everyone in the startup world says that you learn a lot if you fail, but I’ll assure you that you’ll learn much more if you succeed.

In the end of the day, I think we need a couple of more exciting and successful startups. Telerik still remains the only major example, but the entrepreneurship community in Bulgaria has all the elements it needs to make us a business hot-spot.

What have I learned for a year in a start-up?

5 lessons from a first-time entrepreneur

This article first appeared in Enhancv’s Medium account.

I remember the beginning of 2014 — it started with the usual wishes people make on New Year’s Eve. At that time, I wanted to have a higher income, more breath-taking moments with my friends, and many opportunities to travel, see and learn new things…
…now at the start of 2015 I am really amazed of how things have turned up. During the last days of the year I was writing a personal review of my past 12 months and I simply couldn’t stop writing — primarily because for a first time I have actually done many of the things I wanted to. And running a start-up was one of them.

Start-up life is not an easy one, though. Most people — including most of my friends, too — think that a funded start-up means less work and more money. But, to be honest, I have never worked as much as I did in the past year; and I am sure I could have earned way more if I had continued to work as a developer. But still, if someone asks me now to pick between a peaceful and “secure” life or a first-time entrepreneurial experience, I would definitely go for the second option every single time. This is because I have learned, felt, and experienced things that you can’t encounter anywhere else and, things that you simply have to experience!

So which are the most important lessons that left a mark in the last twelve months?

1. Have a working organization inside the team (roles, processes, planning, and meetings) — makes the team feel much more determined and successful.

Planning board with sticky notes

I have seen many founders dividing their businesses into product and marketing part, or product development and business development, traction and services — you name it, they have it. There are many other small roles — accounting and legal e.g. — yet at first, I also thought that is what you mainly do in a start-up — build and sell. Things are different in reality, though. You need a backbone for your future empire.
Setting vision, mission, roles, and expectations from the very beginning and keeping the working processes alive and everyone engaged is a tough job, but it pays off well in the end. Better than a thousand customers I would say. My advice is: allow time for managing your company, or you have to stop work every time something or someone is not working right.

2. Understand which actions really matter and focus on those.

Focus path in the wild If you had met me on the street a couple of months ago and asked me “Hey Volen, how is Enhancv going?” my answer would be — “Next question, please”. In none of those moments were we doing bad, but there were simply so many tasks on the table that I didn’t want to talk about. I truly believe this is the case with every start-up.
It may sound stupid but for almost a year it was impossible for me to say “we don’t have to do this, it is not important right now” — I thought that we had to do everything, literally everything. And the result was that almost every task that I undertook (and believe me I undertook a lot) was done, but not as good as we all wanted. It took me a long time to understand that it is actually better to finish three things that really matter, than fifteen at 80%.
Now if the same person bumped into me on the street again with the same question I can clearly tell him whether we are having success with something and what we have learned from the things that failed. That makes us faster, happier and gives us the opportunity to further delegate and prioritize.

3. Bring users to your product. It is as important as building it regardless of the stage.

boy with an apple phone enhancvHave you wondered why there are plenty of people that smoke? Although there are so many videos and books about what smoking can cause when you go out you will definitely see someone with a cigarette in hand. They know it is unhealthy, but they will not stop until the problems come.
Funny or not, it is almost the same situation when it comes to start-ups. I own maybe twenty books about start-ups. In every single one of them, I am sure it is written somewhere that bringing users to your product at every stage of the start-up life is vital. Although I have read most of them I was somehow too focused on the product and believed that if we build something awesome users will somehow come alone. And when we were ready with the piece of the product that had to be launched, I was wondering why there were no customers on board.
Now as a newly born entrepreneur and ex-developer I will recommend you with both hands — first talk over, put in writing, test your future product, and then build it. But do not forget to work on user acquisition along the way — it doesn’t matter whether you have a product, website or even a facebook page.
Soon you will understand that everything is so much easier when you have 10 000 users — it has a positive effect on fundraising, featuring in medias, user acquisition, and most importantly — keeping the team more engaged.

4. Expecting more from your team and less from yourself is totally wrong and it is a bad way of leadership.

leadership text on a green board
Ok, let’s make that clear — before making Enhancv come to life, I have done many different things — coding, selling, contributing to different world-changing causes and so on. I can say that I was good in most of them, but I have never felt good enough to be the leader of any of the things that I was doing. I had my first leadership lessons — or as I sometimes call it “my university master degree” — at Enhancv.
I have never been the best student and my “masters” also thought that I didn’t make such a good start. For example — we have a great office (“The Roof”, you can google it, or as a Microsoftee I have to say — bing it), but working every day on the same desk was a little bit too “banal” for me. Sometimes, I preferred to work until late and spend the next morning in my quiet room where I can be more productive. At the same time, I expected my team to be on time, early in the morning, at the office. I’ve started somehow to be angry at others for being late, but actually most of the time it was me who was late.
I am not saying that you should not expect people in your team to work hard, but you should inspire them, too — and you can’t do it if you are not the example they want to follow.

5. Celebrate wins, have fun, and find time to relax.

enhancv team on a snow car
It may sound ridiculous, but this was the hardest lesson for me to learn. Look, I am the kind of guy that always goes out, always likes to be with someone, and always finds a way to enjoy the moment. I don’t think I have changed much but being in a start-up maybe somehow changed the way I think. I remember frequently saying to my friends — “Hey can we meet next week, I am a bit busy right now”. Sadly this was almost every week. I thought that we could be something more — we could have a better product, more customers, be a better team and so on. I was so obsessed with our vision that sometimes I’d forget to celebrate what we had achieved. And believe me — as first-time entrepreneurs in a start-up together we had achieved a lot. Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough for me.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t strive for more, actually you should always do it, but building a successful company takes a lot of time. Having fun and being thankful and happy for the positive things that happen to you is a part of the journey, too. Go out, meet an old friend or just have a beer with your team celebrating your new customer. This will give you the power to execute more.
And don’t forget to take regular breaks. Working seven days a week will bring you nothing. I think that this is one of the most common mistakes that first-time entrepreneurs tend to make. Don’t get me wrong — rule number one to succeed is: work hard. Yet, in this fast-moving world of ours where everyone strives to be as fast as possible, sometimes you have to slow down. There are so many ads for fast food, speed dating, and even for fast sex, that we are thinking being fast is always a good thing. But sometimes less means more. Finding time to truly relax on a daily basis will recharge your batteries, fill your mind with new ideas and give you time to appreciate what you have. Don’t forget it.

Believe me or not, the review that I talked about cost me 3 days. I simply couldn’t stop writing down the things I have learned, the things I have to start, stop or continue doing. But if I have to prioritize them, as I have said before, I will give you those five advises. If you haven’t been in a start-up, do it. It may sound like a cliché, but it will change your life. It will change the way you think and the way you see the world. There are lessons that cannot be learned anywhere else and if you think you are not prepared, take me as an example. I was a junior developer with a year and a half of experience, college senior, who had just returned from an exhausting study-abroad program. Was I ready? No. But I would do it again. Writing so much made me feel proud. I think you should do it too — and you will definitely feel the same way.