Creating something out of nothing is a specialty for then Macedonian entrepreneur Ivan Zografski. He’s one of the country’s household names when it comes to the startup ecosystem. When he and his partner Dragana Neshovska founded the innovation consultancy agency Solveo in 2016, the two of them were first setting up the basis for the project in a coffee shop that served as their first office.
The journey afterward took Zografski and Solveo through local incubators and accelerators, to having its offices in the center of Skopje, employing close to 20 people and working with clients and brands from all over the world, helping them achieve sustainable growth and implement innovation through the method of design thinking. The innovation agency has helped various startups and global companies such as T-Mobile and Treblle launch more than 30 products.
Solveo also organizes the annual Skopje Startup Weekend event during which groups of developers, business managers, startup enthusiasts, marketing experts, graphic artists, and more pitch ideas for new startup companies, form teams around those ideas, and work to develop working prototypes.
So what changed for the Macedonian ecosystem from the time that Zografski was just starting out his career, up until now? According to him, back then upcoming entrepreneurs had a lot more courage and willingness to try out new projects and concepts, and this is something that the ecosystem lacks right now.
In an honest interview with The Recursive, Zografski shares his thoughts on what he has learned from his entrepreneurial journey, what it takes to succeed from North Macedonia, and what are the perspectives for the local ecosystem.
The Recursive: How did you discover your role as an entrepreneur and co-founder of Solveo?
Ivan Zografski: One of the things that helped out a lot is that a family of entrepreneurs raised me, and my partner in the company was the same.
From a young age, I wanted to build stuff and was very interested in technology. I was a very early user of the internet, so I got an early start on the whole digital thing.
We came from London before starting Solveo. So we got very positive feelings and examples about entrepreneurship, design thinking, customer value, and startups.
- Ivo and Dragana
One of the main bits for us was that we wanted to build something here locally. It’s more interesting creating something from here than from there.
The second reason is that we wanted to work with inspiring people, with other entrepreneurs, and help them build their products and make their products better and more customer-centric.
We began in a co-working space and an incubator, the two of us, me and my partner. Now it has evolved into an 18-person company with a management structure and systems built around it.
We grew a lot during this time. And, of course, we changed over this period, and that’s good because change is good for us.
How does the Macedonian startup ecosystem look through your eyes, especially if you compare it to Solveo’s development over the years?
Well, it has changed over the years. In my eyes, it’s underdeveloped but overhyped. As I see it, there is a lot of talk and not much action—something which previously was not the case.
One of the needs is more accessible funding opportunities for early-stage companies because that’s one of the things they need and is the most significant barrier to entry, especially locally.
What can be done better for the ecosystem to succeed, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of Macedonian entrepreneurs?
The ecosystem will benefit from offering better grant opportunities. This will create more successful companies and founders, which will, in turn, mentor the younger guys and gals. All these network effects, of course, snowball into a unicorn startup one day.
I’ll focus on the strengths because it’s easier to discuss weaknesses. The main strength is that we have a cheaper infrastructure and a lot of intelligent people who can get things done. It’s a small number for now, but it is growing.
What does it take to succeed from North Macedonia?
The answer is the same everywhere. It takes a lot of hard work and, as always, a bit of luck.
Having that first-mover advantage is essential, especially for us and other emerging businesses.
Being the first to discuss design, process, customer interaction, and the development of customer-centric products sets us apart. Moreover, it benefited us in the long run, creating an opportunity to build brand awareness around those values.
What are your and Solveo’s goals for 2023, and what other projects are you currently working on?
My goal and Solveo’s for 2023 is to continue growing. I have this calm progress and growth in mind – becoming a giant without everyone knowing about it. Other things we’re focusing our energy on would be the media properties like Zero to Users and Growth Marketing Pros.
We want to scale up these projects and make them more accessible to people, which will be our primary focus over the next 18 months. We aim to grow our community of 10,000 people and make it a 20,000-people community of digital marketers and marketers worldwide.