I had the pleasure of attending WWVrsac last month, which is one of the largest startup conferences in the southeastern region of Europe. WWVrsac is a great opportunity for local professionals to meet, share their experiences, pick up new skills and generally connect with their peers. We are incredibly proud to have been able to support such an event as .ME and, ultimately, feel that amazing atmosphere.
Among many lecturers, Lazar Stojkovic was there as well. We wrote about Lazar a few times before, but on this special occasion we managed to catch him on his break and ask him a few questions.
Those who do not know Lazar’s work – should know that he started a very popular magazine and fashion web portal in Serbia, prior to his relocation to San Francisco. Today, he is a mentor to many startups who are looking to launch new products and offer their services on the world-wide web.
So if you believe that you can benefit from Lazar’s experience, here are a few answers that will help you to get to know him a bit more, and to find out a lot about how startups should be run.
I must be honest and say that we stalked you a bit. Your work is quite impressive, I love your design, your prior projects are all remarkable, and it is an honor having you here.
Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say.
Naturally, we must start with a completely generic question! So please be kind and explain us what got you into design, and what inspired you to get involved into IT in general?
I’d say my parents are to blame. (laugh) They bought me my first computer when I was a wee lad of nine. Of course, that wouldn’t be a big deal in this day and age. Today’s toddlers grow up surrounded by technology, playing games on the iPad and watching YouTube videos. That’s just a regular, mundane part of the world to them. Back in 1991, having a personal computer at home was very different. It was magical. I dare even say, life-changing.
Once that clunky old PC 386 DX settled on my desk, it didn’t take long for one thing to lead to another. I moved on from playing games like the Commander Keen series to learning MS-DOS commands to programming in QBasic and Visual Studio 97 to discovering the World Wide Web and eventually building my first website. By then, I had also taught myself enough Photoshop to start freelancing, so the goal quickly became making things that are both functional and beautiful.
When I became a tech entrepreneur much later, I started crossing the platform boundaries as well and discovering that designing for the Web is not the same as, say, designing for a large storefront touch surface, an ultra-portable Bluetooth proximity advertising control unit, or a mobile app. Sure, certain principles and heuristics that guide you as designer apply everywhere, but enough things differ to always keep you learning and growing – and that’s extremely appealing to me in this line of work.
So, I guess it’d be safe to say that design has never really been something separate from technology and exploration of its possible uses to me.
You launched the Wannabe magazine, more than 6 years ago, and this web portal is still popular as ever. Could you explain to us why this niche was interesting for you. Why fashion?
Any given industry today is simply a software industry with some historical peculiarities slapped onto it. For all its glamour, fashion is no different, really. I mean, were it not like that, I’m pretty darn sure I wouldn’t be able to successfully operate across so many different verticals over the past decade.
You know, someone could look at my career up to now and say: “wow, you’ve been in retail, ecommerce, consulting, hardware, publishing, advertising, media, fashion, insurance, and more!” But that is not the way I really see it. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been working in tech my entire professional life. So, same with fashion.
I had zero knowledge about the fashion industry when we founded Wannabe. My co-founders weren’t fashion professionals by any stretch, either. Sure, they were enthusiastic about the space, but one was an Italian language professor and the other one was in pharmaceutical sales. Did it matter? Not really. Just like with anything else in life, the only thing that counts is your willingness to show up, learn, and innovate.
Is this Wannabe magazine today even remotely close to the idea you had all those years ago?
That’s a great question. At first glance, Wannabe is most definitely not the same urban fashion and lifestyle blog sporting curated crowdsourced content it started out as. Over the past years, it evolved into an entire ecosystem of products for the target demographic: online reality shows, offline events, a fashion line, subsidiary blogs, and whatnot. While my co-founders and I might not have initially envisioned Wannabe being each of these when we were just starting out, it was nevertheless crystal clear that Wannabe would not be a single-product thing either. It just wasn’t that type of brand. It was too aspirational, too quirky, and had too much attitude.
In fact, the very first business plan I wrote for the company called for the creation of an online magazine which would become the flagship product and then serve as the springboard for all other products and services in the portfolio under the same brand – and that’s exactly what happened. So, in that sense, the direction that Wannabe keeps growing in doesn’t really surprise me much. Individual new products sometimes do, though. I haven’t been involved with the company for a while now, so it’s been very interesting to me to see how the company and its product portfolio evolve over time.
You’ve designed quite a few applications for iOS, and you’ve also worked as an IT assistant at Barkley. Since this is a topic that you are very well familiar with, I would love to hear your thoughts on what we can expect next in marketing. In mobile marketing to be more precise, and what do you think we can expect in the next five years within this industry?
There are three emerging mega-themes in technology that will significantly shape the mobile computing landscape over the upcoming years – and, by extension, mobile marketing as well. An interesting thing about it is that each of these have been around for decades, but never really broke into the mainstream because they have been consistently falling short of people’s expectations – until now.
Let’s start with virtual reality (VR). I expect it to have an intensive, but transitory relationship with mobile over the next five years. There have already been amazing VR headsets — like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive — available out there for a while now. However, the price point was set too high for a typical consumer, especially since there hasn’t really been a compelling killer app for this emerging platform quite yet. Well, at least not unless you are a gamer.
Two and a half years ago, a couple of smart folks at Google’s Paris office realized that all of us already had pretty powerful mobile computers on our person all the time, replete with sensors and all. It was a device that massive sustained global demand and accompanying economy of scale had already aggressively priced down to practically nothing, given all the functionality it affords. Of course, I’m talking about the humble smartphone. And so Google Cardboard was born. Instead of buying an expensive piece of hardware, you could now just plug your phone into $5 worth of cardboard, velcro, and plastic and immediately get a taste of what VR is about. Samsung and Oculus quickly followed with Gear VR, a higher end solution of their own, and suddenly there was an explosion of all kinds of inexpensive third-party holders that would strap your phone onto your face. Today we are seeing more of that coming with Google’s recent announcement of Daydream View.
So, the message is clear: an important facet of mobile is that it is now also a gateway drug to VR. The reasoning goes something along these lines: consumers will try out VR that way, get hooked, and eventually move onto more sophisticated headsets which pack more features and allow for even more immersive experiences. It is a sound plan and I think it may very well happen in the developed world. In developing countries, however, it’s highly likely that those makeshift mobile VR solutions utilizing smartphones and some kind of a holder will become the mainstay of VR. Where everything eventually goes from there doesn’t really matter much at this moment, as that particular technological gap hasn’t formed yet. Someone in San Francisco — and I mean a regular person who doesn’t work for a VR company and is not much of a gamer — is still just as likely to be at the mobile VR stage as someone who lives in, say, Kolkata. So, there is still this massive opportunity to seize the moment by providing engaging mobile VR experiences to your customers and thus differentiating yourself from the competition in your industry.
For example, if you’re in tourism, walk your prospective customers around that beach resort in VR, fly them over the islands, or whatever… When bought in volume, most Cardboard-like mobile VR headsets nowadays are cheap enough that you can pretty much slap your branding onto them and give them away to your prospective customers for free. Certain companies dabbling in VR content are already doing that and I’d argue it’s a smart move, because the freebie ensures that you land some customers who didn’t even know they were interested in what you had to offer but who were curious about VR.
Next, another big trend worth keeping an eye on is augmented reality (AR). Just like VR, it’s not a new technology.
I remember having a lot of fun with cool AR apps on my Nokia smartphone, way before the first iPhone came out in 2007. Why hasn’t AR gone mainstream for years? There has been no compelling application for a very long time. I mean, the Google Glass project came and went. What was its biggest legacy? Quite frankly, the only thing that comes to mind is Product Hunt’s mascot Glasshole Kitty. And then everything changed when Pokémon GO burst onto the scene this year. It created massive engagement with millions of people, generated enormous revenue, and showed what smart use of AR coupled with a strong brand can do. Keeping that in mind, I’d say there is now a big opportunity for any company to learn something from that episode and leverage AR in its mobile marketing efforts. And please do keep in mind we’re talking just about using what is already available out there that you can work with immediately.
What will be tremendously more exciting over the next five years is what is yet to come. The AR startups like Meta and Magic Leap are soon expected to completely revolutionize the space. If I may be so bold to make a prediction, I’d say that some of these upcoming AR devices will eventually merge with our existing smartphones and give birth to a next-generation mobile platform. Sure – technology isn’t there quite yet, we’ll need new user interface paradigms, and social norms will likely have to change a bit, but I think that’s where it’s all going.
Then, last but not the least, there’s artificial intelligence (AI). Gosh, I don’t even know where to start from on that one… After literally decades of research and very little coming out of it, we’re now finally starting to see first genuinely impressive breakthroughs. The nature of the space is such that its future potential is practically limitless. Now, one could argue that usefulness of the AI to an average user yet has to catch up with the promise.
I mean, I get it… Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assistant aren’t exactly fool-proof conversational general intelligences that can do everything you ask them to. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be seeing exciting use cases in mobile before that happens. So, if mobile is an important part of your strategy, there’s really no reason why you couldn’t treat your customers to innovative mobile solutions combining, say, machine learning with machine vision and data mining to drive your sales. Thanks to the camera, sensors, form factor, and connectivity, the smartphone is a perfect platform for crossover solutions like that.
Ok, so now you are working at 500 Startups as a mentor, do you care to elaborate on that?
Just a clarification… I do not work at 500 Startups, I volunteer there. I’m a big believer in the importance of giving back to the community one is a part of. I’ve been donating my time to entrepreneurs, companies, and nonprofits belonging to the startup ecosystem in Serbia for a while now. Given where I currently am, it made a lot of sense to start doing the same in San Francisco, so I jumped at the opportunity when 500 Startups invited me to start mentoring their batch companies.
Ok, but you must explain to us what is it that you are actually doing there.
Sure! 500 Startups boasts an amazing network of world-class mentors available to founding teams of the firm’s batch companies. Between over 150 of us, we cover every conceivable aspect of starting, running, and growing a technology business. My thing is advising founders on design, user experience, product and brand strategy, or even just figuring stuff out after moving their team from a European country to California. Reading about Silicon Valley on TechCrunch or VentureBeat while sitting back home over the pond is a very different beast from actually knowing how to successfully operate in the industry here.
Since you had the opportunity to work with European and with American startups as well, could you compare the two and explain us how different there are? (If they are different at all)
Comparing the two would take way more time than we have today, but I’d like to point out one thing which never fails to amaze me. Generally speaking, the U.S. startups tend to be incredibly more aggressive at sales then their European counterparts. I’d say some of the sales techniques used here even outright border on what would be considered very rude on the other side of the Atlantic.
I believe there are two reasons for that. Firstly, capitalism developed differently in Europe and North America, the welfare state situation and all that, so business norms differ as well. Secondly, and much more important for your question, there is this mantra among venture-backed companies stateside that no matter how quickly you grow, you’re not growing quickly enough. Aggressive sales as a part of an overarching growth strategy certainly help a lot.
In your work with startups, is there a particular sector that is genuinely lacking and things that you have to explain over and over again to each company individually?
It depends on a startup, really. What I’d generally like to see more of in the startup world is understanding that design isn’t just slapping a coat of pretty pixels onto the product once it’s almost finished. To quote late Steve Jobs: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
What would you point out as your biggest success? Which part of your work excites you the most?
Every time I started something new, of course! (laughter) You know how Ben Horowitz says there are peacetime and wartime CEOs? The former focus on procedures, decision-making processes, delegation, and “peacetime” stuff like that, while the latter are under immediate “wartime” pressure to quickly establish the business, make it profitable, deal with a crisis of this kind or that, and so on. I’m firmly in the second camp, so I enjoy new beginnings. Big companies make me yawn.
Ok, but is there something that you wanted to do, but didn’t get the chance until now?
Oh, absolutely! I’ve had so much fun over the past decade in tech that it doesn’t really even feel like it’s already been that long. I guess the time flies when you do what you love. As for things on my professional bucket list, I prefer not to talk about them until I make them reality.
Ok, now for a few final questions exclusively for our beloved .ME audience! 🙂 Could you explain to us what startups actually need in terms of branding? What mindset they need, and which questions should they ask when they are building a brand?
It’s all about alignment of values. A lot of branding experts try to mystify that particular aspect of brand management, which irks me a lot, but it really is all about the values. Simply put, your customer need to be able to relate to your brand. The brand needs to fit in well within their mental framework of how the world operates. The brand needs to communicate in a way the customer sees as consistent and congruent with the role it aspires to fulfill in their lives. It needs to be exactly what they expect to see, even though sometimes they don’t really know what it is on the conscious level. It all sounds easy until you start doing it, which is when you discover it’s a very hard thing to do in a disciplined and sustained way. However, if you do it correctly, everything else falls into place naturally.
Ok, but in case that we are limited when it comes to resources. Which media channel should we leverage then?
Social media. Period. The potential for reach is simply incomparable to any other option.
Images of Lazar Stojkovic credited to: Stefan Đaković