“There’s always a way, you need to look for it and to not give up” Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly interviews Vassil Terziev

Vassil Terziev is one of the most successful Bulgarian entrepreneurs, a business angel and mentor of startups. He is also co-founder of the Telerik software company, established in 2002, as well as of the Telerik Academy, which offers free software engineering training.

On October 22nd, 2014, Telerik was acquired by Progress Software for $262,5M. In Bulgarian corporate history, the deal was deemed one of the biggest for a private company which was founded and developed by Bulgarian entrepreneurs independently.

Since then, Vassil Terziev has been busy with the Telerik Academy, the co-working space Campus X, and he has been partner at the Eleven venture capital fund. He is also on the board of directors of Endeavour Bulgaria, part of the world entrepreneurship network.

He is a mentor of the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center foundation, as well as co-founder of the San Francisco Bulgarian Innovation Hub – an organization that helps Bulgarian entrepreneurs get a footing on the American market. He graduated from the American University in Bulgaria, receiving a business administration degree.

 L: Hello, Vasko!

V: Good evening, Lilly, I’m very happy to be here at the studio with you!

 L: Thank you for your time and for coming. I’ll use T-forms, because we know each other, we went on a very nice tour together – a roadshow across Bulgaria that gave birth to interesting opportunities, tell us more about it.

V: And that’s how the Bulgarian Innovation Hub was born, which, currently, is doing a pretty good job of helping our native entrepreneurs to set foot on American soil, to find markets, to tap into that know-how, to be part of the network there, to have access to the diaspora of Bulgarians in San Francisco and the valley, so I fondly remember that tour when we spent 5-6 days in the fun bus and went around Bulgaria talking about entrepreneurship.

L: That’s right, we had presentations in different cities, and you inspired many young entrepreneurs. Let’s say a few more words about Bulgarian Innovation Hub. Pavlina Yanakieva, who is its director, was with us at Darik Radio. Do you have the time to fly to San Francisco to follow developments?

V: No, I’m part of the board, along with Pavlina Yanakieva, Bogomil Balkansky and Ivan Dimov, but I don’t have work commitments there like before and I’m happy to be able to spend time here working on the things that are my focus.

L: Recently, in one of your interviews, you mentioned the three phases of success. And maybe there is a fourth? Give us some more details.

V: Turns out there is. It was at the Forbes DNA of Success event that I shared about the three phases of success. The first is when you are happy that you found a job that someone pays you to do. The second is when you can afford to do work without being paid – for example, volunteering, doing things for others. The third phase is when you start paying yourself to do work, when you take responsibility for the well-being of others. But then I realized the importance of the fourth as well, namely to be able to inspire as many people as possible with this way of thinking, so that you are not the only one who has gone through these things. To empower people with an understanding of the importance of their contribution to our movement forward as an ecosystem and society, so that this is reproduced for generations to come.

L: In America they say failure is a step towards success.

V: Failure, for me, is a repeated mistake with no lessons learned. I like to believe that I haven’t failed too many times. I have made many mistakes, but failures – not so much. Whenever I talk to young colleagues who are entrepreneurs, we talk about how to learn from our mistakes so that paying the price for them was worth it.

L: You are the most successful Bulgarian entrepreneur in the tech sector. People admire you and want to be like you. You help startups in the sector. But how do we fight for a better public life? How do we fight negativity, nihilism, lack of respect for institutions and rules?

V: A very broad question. First, thanks for the introduction, but I don’t think I’m the most successful. Fortunately, there are a lot of people who are doing great things, I truly admire both the attitude with which they work and the scale of action. Many of them are yet to leave their mark.

L: I say this because I have seen it with my own eyes. At the Power of Bulgaria conference in Varna, in the hotel everyone was waiting for you with great excitement, they were wearing T-shirts with your name on them. You enjoy huge respect throughout the sector, and for young entrepreneurs you are truly a hero.

V: I’m glad if this is truly the case. I hope they will have the same attitude towards the next generations, and that they will be just as ambitious to give and to leave their mark. I don’t like the word “hero” as I associate it with someone coming along and saving everyone from their dark fate. It is much more convenient to play the part of a victim, to be a beneficiary, to constantly have someone to blame, to complain and wait for the next savior or hero who will solve all the problems of the fatherland or the universe. In my opinion, everyone should assume greater responsibility for themselves and their own lives, for managing well the time that they have, their talents, and, instead of waiting for some “hero” to come along, they should be their own hero – responsible and positive, a creator and a builder. I want more people to have that attitude, instead of always being a victim of circumstances and relying on an outsider (a hero) for their own fate.

L: How can this personal success and change in thinking result in improving public life?

V: Social life is a function of the choices we make. If seven million people decided to obey traffic regulations, to not throw garbage on the streets, to dig up the garden in front of their building, then everything would look very different. Small actions by many people make a big difference.

L: And how can we encourage and develop volunteer work, make it so there are more people like you?

V: This is a gradual process. Like many people, I am impatient, I want everything to happen quickly, but these things take time. From my perspective, I see the number of volunteers donating their time to various causes growing, as well as the purely financial philanthropists who sponsor organizations. It takes time to create good examples, for people to see and recognize them and to say “yes, I want to be like that too”. In my opinion, the start is a bit harder until it snowballs down, with good work from everyone. Because the responsibility also lies with those who set the tone. Anyone who chooses to go down this path, going back to what we talked about earlier, needs to infect others and not just do things, because only through influencing others is the change sustainable and does it become the new normal.

L:  So in your opinion the initiative needs to come from the people and not so much from state institutions? We need to have an active civic position?

V:  Yes, I think yes. And you can express this active civic position in a thousand ways. You can be unhappy with everything that happens, but every day you can choose to be a better citizen, more disciplined, more dedicated to causes. Society is what we are. When we become more responsible for our own destiny and the destiny of the people around us, when we begin to understand that we need to give, that we need to deprive ourselves from something in order to make it better for ourselves and for others, because good things cannot happen without effort, without sacrifice, then they will start to happen. In order for society to become more beautiful, we, as individuals, must become more beautiful.

L:  We need to follow rules, because they were put in place for us. For example I see more and more drivers stopping at pedestrian crossings but, as you said, change takes time and patience.

V:  I am one of those people who are very optimistic about the qualities of Bulgarian people. We may not have much confidence, sometimes we beat ourselves up too much, but as far as potential, skills, and talents are concerned, we have them. We need a little more order, discipline, respect for collective structures, since a society is built on precisely this – you deprive yourself of certain rights and opportunities in the name of making everyone feel better. It’s a choice. It’s not easy, some things take time, you need to go through the necessary pain and inconvenience and things will work out. I’m an optimist and I hope more people who don’t listen will choose and say “Okay, I want to do something different starting tomorrow, I want something good to happen, to help a cause. If I’ve already done that, I want to help with a second cause.” So, little by little, as we raise our level and infect the people around us, it will happen before we know it.

L: Having discussed the topic of public life and how enterprising people can help and how it is all up to us, and that this is a process that just needs to be accelerated, I’ll continue with another question. Since you have a lot of experience in managing people, organizations and capital, what are the difficulties you have encountered and is it easier to work with computers, with robots, than with people?

V: Perhaps it is easier to work with a machine, since in most cases the answer is unequivocal and one-sided, less unexpected, than when working with people. But working with people is much more interesting, at least for me, as it helps me to develop much more, to ask myself questions about who I am and what I’m fighting for, what I can improve, how to work better on a team. These are things that you can only learn with the help of people.

L: I ask you because a common problem that entrepreneurs share during our conversations is human capital, that there are no resources, you want to start a business, but it is difficult to find the personnel.

V: By definition, in a market that is doing well, you shouldn’t get a different answer. Quality people are not found in abundance anywhere in the world, because they find the right place very quickly. In Bulgaria, at least in the IT sector, which I have observed, there are problems with personnel, but there is also an awful lot of effort on the part of all companies, startups, organizations, educational institutions, to constantly feed this sector. Now with the residence permits this will accelerate even more. The struggle to make people better is constant and involves continuous, daily investment in those people. This should be key for any organization, to spend a lot of time not only attracting people, but also developing them, building them, creating the conditions for them to be successful, creating the right work ethic.

L: Earlier in our conversation, we mentioned failure and mistakes. Looking back, which mistakes do you wish you could have avoided? What would you change, if you could?

V: I wouldn’t change a thing as I am happy with the person I have become with all the good and bad decisions. However, the mistakes that have been the most painful have to do with people. You aren’t a very good leader when you let your ego drive a discussion, when you want to impose yourself, when you aren’t a good listener, when you aren’t good enough at reaching consensus. These things, by the time you learn them, affect people you work with. It isn’t just painful for you, it is painful for the other party as well. So these lessons have affected me more, they have shown me what I should avoid and I try very hard to help the companies we work with to avoid such mistakes as well, so that they can make the most of what they have as human capital.

L: And what advice would you give to young entrepreneurs that wish to start up their own business?

V: One of the tips is to associate with like-minded individuals, to try and be surrounded by people who also have ideas, so that you can develop yours. The other thing is that you shouldn’t stop investing in yourselves, in what you have chosen to do. To believe that you can achieve much more than the people around you tell you. Don’t give up. Because there are always many people who will tell you that you can’t, that you won’t do it, that many others before you have tried and failed. Don’t worry about being alone. In general, the fate of pioneers is always more or less lonely. It’s normal when you’re fighting for something new, whether it’s a new product, a new market, a new problem that hasn’t been resolved yet, whether it’s for social change, that at such a time people don’t see the problem that you see. Because if they all saw it, it would have been solved already. Sometimes the fact that no one else sees it can mean that the idea is not very good, but there is a way to check this. My advice is not to worry that you may be alone because you are the first and it is difficult and this is normal on the road to success. The other thing is, at least it took me a long time to say to myself, “Okay, other people not understanding and helping you isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s a privilege that you see something that they don’t. You have to pull up your socks and deal with it, so instead of sulking, whining and grumbling, don’t waste time and get to work.”

L: And is the entrepreneurial spirit, in your opinion, a quality you are born with or something to be learned?

V: I think it’s both. What you are, maybe not exactly born with, but is definitely acquired in the early, formative years – that is the feeling of freedom. To understand that you are an independent fighting unit, that you can manage your time, that you can do whatever you want. After that, specific skills can be built, how to do business, how to think about customers, how to build a team and all that is functional knowledge. It all starts with not feeling chained and a victim, but knowing that there is always a way, that you need to look for it and not give up easily.  

L: Let’s say a few words about education as well. You are member of the board of directors of “Teach for Bulgaria”, an organization that supports education by means of innovative methods. How does education in Bulgaria compare with education abroad, what can we change and how?

V: I don’t think I can give an expert opinion on the subject, but I am a parent of two children and thanks to them I see what is happening in the educational process. What I would like to see change is this focus on learning things, which are then irretrievably lost, but rather we should focus on developing certain practical skills. I was recently looking at information about the different phases of education in Singapore. In general, they don’t have to know all the countries in the world and what their capitals are, but to build communication skills, teamwork, morals, ethics. They prepare you as a human being, not so much fill your head with knowledge that will not be so useful to you tomorrow. I hope that the educational process includes things like project work, how to take care of your physical and mental health, financial literacy and understanding of the world of money, understanding the basis and functioning of a society, what is the role of institutions and basic philosophical principles.

L: That is, not just knowledge, but life lessons as well?

V: Yes, lessons to make us better individuals. Because when you know how to assume responsibility, you understand your role, when you can take care of yourself and you are brought up in certain virtues, then you very easily manage to build on this with the other kinds of knowledge.

L: Vasko, thank you for this interview, I wish you a successful year, good health and good luck!

V: I also want to wish all the best to the listeners, I wish for them to be healthy, positive and not to wait for tomorrow to do something good.

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