Rising Star | Peter Irikovsky

1. Why did you set up your company?

I did not set up the company from scratch. I joined Jožo, the founder, about two and a half years ago, initially as a mentor, later on as an angel investor, and about a year ago, he convinced me to take on the CEO role. Since then, we’ve been jointly working on creating the best possible marketing cloud for e-commerce; and teaching e-commerce how to use customer analytics and marketing automation for a good of their own customers.

2. When did you set up your business and how long did it take?

Jožo set out on this project four and a half years ago. It took him - and later both of us - more than three and a half years to see significant customer traction. Now, a year later, we have over 50 customers on 5 continents.

3. Did you have a lightbulb moment which led you do this?

There were plenty of small ones rather than one big one. Maybe the biggest one came from Jozo’s previous experience. He was implementing analytics and marketing automation platforms for large clients. The license costs were in millions and the integration lasted over a year. He knew it could be done much better and started working on it. Another important one was, when we understood the structure of our industry and realized we’re not a tool, but a platform that can solve almost any problem in customer analytics and marketing automation. This led us to change pricing, and focus on solution sales delivered by local teams across the world.

4. What education or training did you have?

Although, I’ve studied a lot (I’ve done several executive mini-MBA courses at Stanford and Singularity University), I believe hands-on experience is the only relevant education for entrepreneurship. I learnt my biggest entrepreneurship lessons while working with top entrepreneurs at Groupon (e.g. Chris Muhr, who has since co-founded Auto1 Group, now a unicorn) and then at Slevomat with Tomas Cupr (who has already founded 3 very successful companies) and Tomas Matejcek (who already has over 10 exits under his belt). All these guys taught me loads and loads of things, for which I’m very grateful!

5. Where do you source funding to set up your business?

Jožo started very smartly by offering a service to customers with specific analytical challenges. He just agreed with them that they would pay him to build a solution for them and he would be allowed to reuse the solution for other clients. Later on, when I got involved, I brought in some of my partners and we put in the initial half a million. Later on, they invested another half a million after I became the CEO.

6. Were there any international, regional or local business support services, programmes or funding initiatives that help you set up the growth?

Not really. We discussed several things. Currently, we are only involved in one initiative, the UK government-led Global Entrepreneur Programme. For us, that seems to be the only really useful initiative out there.

7. With hindsight, which have been single most valuable skills to have that help setting up your business?

Jožo is a visionary with great product management skills and ability to drive the product development. My key skills are strategy and people. I believe it’s a super useful and lucky combination in business: you first need a vision, then you need to attract top people to join the team; and then you need to sell the vision to your customers.

8. Do you have a mentor?

Oh, I have quite a few mentors. The best ones are in the US, and two of them, Joe Lonslade and Alex Kolicich from 8 VC, are just amazing. When speaking to them, you need to have everything well thought through and be really concise, but their advice and value add is incredible. I also have Ivan Chrenko, who is incredible in terms of strategic thinking and overcoming any kind of obstacles. But there are many other people, be it our co-workers, or even our clients, who help me on various types of issues, and I am really grateful for every single one of them!

9. What is your greatest role model or inspiration?

I would say Joe Lonsdale again. He is the co-founder of Palantir (valued at around USD 20+ billion), Addepar and OpenGov. What I love is that he is strongly mission driven and has an amazing ability to simplify things and focus on the essence of the business. He is able to think very long term and then come back to the short term and think about ways to execute.

In general, I believe, people make the mistake of looking at “older” people that made it to the top (e.g. Warren Buffett) and try to learn from them. I believe you need to try and identify people who are on their way up now and learn from them. The world is changing so fast that many of yesterday’s strategies don’t work today.

10. What is the USP that distinguishes you from your competitors?

There are two types of players on the SaaS market. Tools is one. These are single-purpose apps solving some kind of problem. Platforms is the other. In analytics and marketing automation (i.e. Marketing Clouds), there is actually only one strong competitor, Adobe Marketing Cloud. Now, IBM is trying to pull off a similar platform. However, both Adobe and IBM are essentially integrating various products. Unlike them, Exponea is a comprehensive platform built from scratch with that aim. It offers all the functions you would expect plus super fast time to value thanks to very easy integration.

Thanks to our Direct Execution approach, we’re empowering users by providing them convenient access to all customer related knowledge and enabling to set-up and directly execute appropriate omni-channel campaigns.

On top of that, we provide more than just excellent support to our clients. Unlike the competition that gives lengthy manuals and implementation guides, Exponea customer success team walks each client through the process and hence enables super fast value delivery (80+% clients get first value within 2-6 weeks, where competition often required several months, or even a year). As we put it, first time we do everything for you (the client), second time we do it with you, and third time we support you. Thanks to this approach, we beat all customers on time to value.

11. How does your company affect people’s lives for the better?

This is actually something we discuss a lot with our own people. There are two main parts - direct and indirect.

The direct one is that we make the ecommerce shopping experience smoother and better for our clients’ end consumers (now well over 100 million users). We help companies identify issues that mess up the customer journey and provide the consumers with the right message, at the right time, via the right channel and thus improve the omni-channel customer experience. This makes their customers happier and they then shop more.

But for me, the indirect impact is more important. My goal is to raise a CEE PayPal Mafia (ex-PayPal team that have since co-founded over 10 billion dollar companies and people from those companies have already co-founded over 10 billion dollar companies) as that will have a long-term and exponential effect on the whole CEE region. To achieve this, in the company, we are super open about why we do things, we have a share-option program covering all employees, and do various in-company lectures helping people understand all critical aspects of the business.

12. How long did it take you to break into the new markets?

Our sell cycle is currently between 2 to 8 months depending on market segment. It is quite long and gaining trust is a major part of it. We have recently entered the UK market. We have three people on the ground, including myself. UK is the biggest e-commerce market in Europe, accounting for around 30% and is most similar to US, which is critical for us in the long-term. We expect that it will take us at least 3-6 months to really start getting significant traction. Having said that, we already have our first customer and now we need to make sure that many more follow suit.

13. How would you describe your progress so far? Are there any significant challenges you have had to overcome? We are scaling internationally. The product market fit - i.e., finding a way to help clients get real value from the product - was our main challenge about a year ago. Since then, we needed to create a brand from scratch, which is always tough and lengthy, but I believe the team has done a great job. Now our key focus is on scaling sales and customer success internationally: hiring great people from all over the world, who have strong analytical background and are able to help our clients achieve great success with the platform.

14. How are you planning to grow your business?

We are planning to roll out country by country. In each country/region we are planning to have a team of at least two people who will make sure our clients really have everything they need from us to achieve business success super fast.

15. If you were in charge of government ministry for SMEs and start-ups what would be the 3 most important changes you would make to help them grow?

This is a tough question, but I’ll try. No. 1 would be a super easy way to set up a business and business structure in all EU countries. It is a big pain today, due to complicated tax schemes. Secondly, I would be thinking about how to lower costs for start-ups initially, so I believe some tax exemptions on employment would be really helpful. Finally, I would build an organization that could help start-ups in the initial phases by doing two things: organizing top mentors to help start-ups; and making it easier for start-ups to reach customers. Essentially this would be very similar to the Global Entrepreneur Programme in the UK.

16. The best thing about being an entrepreneur is…?

The best thing about being an entrepreneur is freedom, very clearly. Also the impact you can have on people's lives.

17. What do you see as the key trends/disruptors for 2016 relevant to entrepreneurs?

It’s very difficult to answer in general. But for ecommerce, I see a very strong focus on Big Data and especially machine learning. Extracting the full value from data via platforms like ours, can get companies 50+% higher conversion (compared to the competition) and helps them make the right strategic decisions (e.g. identification of emerging trends). Almost everyone in the ecommerce world is trying hard to build these skills and capabilities and the only thing slowing this trend down is lack of people. In fact, data-scientists are considered the position with the biggest shortage on the market for the next 10 years (that’s why we offer their services at Exponea even though the cost is not insignificant).

Another huge trend is AI. All B2B companies are launching their AI driven platforms. For us, Jozo studied AI (and even started his PhD, which he didn’t finish due to Exponea) and he is pushing the AI very strongly as well.

Voice control is another huge thing. According to Singularity University, there might be more voice searches than text searches already in 2 years from now. All major companies are working on this and so are we. We will come up with something pretty interesting very soon.

18. If you could go back to when you were about to start your company and give yourself a single message or a piece of advice what would that be?

The main thing I would say is: it will take much longer than you expect, so make sure that you are ready for a long journey made up of short sprints. Keep learning and remember that things will keep changing so you always need to find the shortest route to the next milestone. Then start thinking about how to reach the next one in the shortest time possible.

In general, I’d also say: make sure you only take great people that you like for the journey. I’m very happy with this aspect as we have an amazing team in place, so it’s more of a message to other entrepreneurs.

Learn more about Exponea here