A Conversation With Petar Petkov on Co-Founding INDUSTRIA

Petar Petkov, INDUSTRIA's Operations Manager, on being an INDUSTRIA Co-Founder, surviving the 2009 recession, and keeping things working within the company.

Petar Petkov in front of a building

Petar greatly enjoys travelling and exploring local cultures and takes every chance he has to capture what he sees.

What does an operations manager do?

A little bit of everything. An operations manager oversees a company’s day-to-day administrative and operational functions. I have to be aware of everything, get my information from the respective managers and team leads, and ensure all is running smoothly. That’s it in a nutshell. 

What did you do before, and how did you end up in INDUSTRIA?

As my first job, I started in a communications agency while studying insurance. At some point, I decided I wanted to work in the field I was studying, but it proved very difficult. I had already reached a certain level in the advertising agency I worked at, but if I was to start in insurance, I had to start from scratch, which didn't particularly thrill me as a concept at the time, so I continued in advertising. 

I was doing production for different advertising agencies - audio, video, printed material, and so on. They weren't small companies, either. I was an account manager looking after two of the biggest accounts in the agency. Because of that experience, I moved on to a third agency where I was again dealing with relatively large accounts.

Then I met Petko. 

Various friends had told me he could sell water to a drowning man. He's charismatic and very persuasive, so when I was changing jobs, he invested two weeks in spending time with me, including helping me with home renovations, just to convince me to work at his company. 

At the time, he was managing a small web development studio - Smak Media. I started as a marketer with the idea that the experience I had up to that point in advertising and PR would help me continue growing in that direction.

But because we trusted each other so much, when the opportunity to buy Magic Solutions - the early INDUSTRIA - from its previous owners came up, he suggested we go for it and start our own business.

And I ended up going with him. Initially, the company was quite small - five to six people. We had four developers, and Petko and I covered everything else.

Eventually, of course, INDUSTRIA started to grow. We had more positions, more employees. And so, because I've been around from the beginning and I know all the specifics and the entire company’s history, I ended up being the operations manager.

A ritual bath in an ancient shrine in Bali

A ritual bath in an ancient shrine in Bali

That's a very endearing story.

Yeah, we dove in head first. Neither of us knew how to conduct due diligence for a company or anything like that. We inherited very little. Magic Solutions was a web development company, so our core business initially was websites and web presence. 

Mostly, we were making representative websites with very little functionality and mostly text - who we are, what we do, how we do it, and so on. Small and medium businesses at first, but once we got going, we started to grow, and the first big clients came. 

What is needed to manage a company effectively?

The right colleagues. One person can't do it alone.

There has to be a structure to help you do it. Namely, you need department leads. Discuss things with them, go over current developments, get information on what is coming down the pipeline and how we can make it happen. 

Besides being the operations officer, I also do double duty as a financial officer. At the higher level, I take care of the company’s finance. 

That must be very challenging.

Well, it is quite challenging. If you look back, knowing how long I've been with the company, we've actually been through a couple of global crises. 

There's been a few now that involved a lot of challenges, a lot of difficult decisions that you have to make and so on, but from what I've found, if you're honest with yourself and your colleagues, the world keeps spinning. 

Feeding deers near Jakarta

Feeding deers during a safari in Bogor

Navigating that landscape must have also been incredibly difficult.

It was quite difficult navigating that whole thing, yes. In 2007 - 2008, we'd expanded to about 30 people, and we had gotten a few pretty big contracts, mostly from overseas. We were looking for and hiring new people, and when the 2008 crisis came, we had no idea what that was. 

Local politicians were coming out and saying, 'This will all pass us by. It won't affect us at all. It's only happening in America”. And for a long time, we believed that that would be the case because it had taken us a long time to get the team together - talented people, great people, the kind of people that fit the company's culture. We were determined to retain as much of our team as possible, as 90% of our work was overseas, and it just completely ran dry one day.

Up until a day ago, you'd negotiated with clients, you thought you had business for months ahead, you were gearing up to hire more people and so on, and at some point, one by one, all the clients start letting you know that they were terminating all projects they had with us. Even then, we held on to the hope that things would pass us quickly and things would get better. 

We were not working with the Bulgarian market at all. We didn't look for Bulgarian customers, and we had even turned them down because we didn't have the capacity. It was better for us to focus on our work abroad, and at some point, when this whole crisis happened, we had to do a total 180 and turn back to the Bulgarian market and start again. 

You've built up a portfolio and have many projects under your belt, but nobody knows you here. It was quite difficult, and then we saw that we couldn't really keep the same pace we’d previously had. And we had to part with some colleagues, which was quite a difficult moment, but I guess we did right by them.

There's still a group of former Magic Solutions colleagues that we get together with, see each other, and have no hard feelings. I guess we communicated things properly. People understood why it happened. We keep in touch, and we’re on good terms.

That all must have amounted to some pretty serious managerial experience.

In 2008, Petko and I did an MBA at Cotrugli Business School in Croatia. And we saw how different education is abroad compared to here in Bulgaria. We got the most out of that experience because we took what we had learned with us and shared it with our colleagues back home. Almost all of them eventually became our clients. 

But what I wanted to say is that we actually learned a lot of shortcuts there - we went back and compared it to our own experience. You’re thinking, “I had this exact problem, and I did this and that”, but as it turns out, there was always a shortcut that we could have taken.

It was incredibly beneficial. I already had some experience that I could compare and contrast what I was learning with, and I could come up with ideas of how to utilise that knowledge in our business. 

Since then, we've focused on gaining experience from our partnerships and customers, looking at how they tackle similar problems. 

An interior view of the cathedral in Bergamo

The interior of a cathedral in Bergamo

There's a certain standard in INDUSTRIA that was very appealing to me when I first joined. Everyone here seems to be open to expanding the way we do things. How are those standards applied to our clients?

What we set as a standard helps us greatly in our work. We've fostered genuine, years-long relationships with many of our clients. 

The project managers, their role is to represent us in front of our clients. I mean, it's a bit more than a Project Manager. It's a bit like an Account Manager as well. You have to talk to the client so that they're absolutely sure that you understand them one hundred per cent, that you're the person that can deliver the best ideas and suggestions for their business. That’s one part.

The other part is absolute openness and honesty with customers - we spare them nothing. They have to be aware of what we’re doing and what we think is best for them - after all, they pay us for consulting on top of development.

These are the things that make our jobs easier and make us well received by our clients.

So the main tenets are trust and transparency.

Complete trust and transparency. And of course, you have to show that you know more than them. Otherwise, what are we for? We never look at just being a developer for them, we’re thinking with them about which solution is best for their business. They run the business. They know their needs and who their customers are, and what they need to offer those customers. But we go through that process with them, we talk to them about what path they need to go down. How can we make it as easy as possible for their customers, so they contact them or purchase products and so on. 

How do you consolidate between the needs of the client and the needs of the company?

What’s very important internally is to translate the needs of the client for your team and the teams that you work with so they truly understand them. So that they are absolutely aware of what is expected and, in turn, can unleash their creativity to provide an innovative proposal that will help your client to a) get to their customers faster and b) stay more innovative than the competition. 

Project managers are right in the middle. For the client, they should be on their team, and for in-house employees, they should represent us.

There's no point in a project manager if he comes in and says, "the client told me to do this", and then everyone just sits down and does it. He has to be part of both worlds. 

You can't have your colleagues inside the company thinking, "he's on the client’s side." They have to know that he's on their side, his colleagues' side. It's a bit schizophrenic - with the client, you have to be a client, and with your colleagues, you have to be a colleague. 

And you have to make sure that the connection is made between the two. Direct communication between the client and developers can sometimes break a lot of things. 

Petar Petkov with his children in shallow waters in front of a cliff.

With his daughter in Indonesia

What happens if the communication fails or you have a particularly difficult client?

That’s a tough question. It's actually very easy to swing one way or the other. Being a project manager, you can't give yourself completely to the client and have them think you're their employee, right? You have to protect the interests of your company first. Reconciling the two is quite difficult. That's why the management team often gets together, and we discuss specific situations like this, so we know how best to approach them in order for everybody to be happy in the end.

What's your methodology for developing processes?

My position is that processes are vital for a company to optimise and facilitate a good work-life balance. Otherwise, you will have to start from the beginning every time and end up in different places, which is a waste of time. 

On the other hand, processes should help people, not limit them. We don't want to work for the sake of a process, so on the one hand, processes have to be there, and on the other, they have to be flexible enough to serve you in any situation. And when you don't need something, you shouldn’t have to open a book and go, "Oh, it says here I have to do this" - they need to be flexible enough to work in any situation. 

And processes are built with experience. They might change frequently and are defined after discussions with other colleagues. 

Exploring the nuanced local culture near Lake Garda

Exploring the nuances of local culture near Lake Garda

How do you ensure that the processes don't bog down employees for the company's sake or vice versa?

With continuous adaptation. You always have a start and an endpoint. You've got requirements at the start, and you must have produced a result by the end. And throughout this whole process, you usually have a lot of people involved.

Accordingly, you try to make everyone's task as easy as possible so they can focus on what they do best. And by providing the team with everything they need, they can do their work as quickly as possible without wandering or having to ask questions. 

Which means that you have to gather the information, structure it, assimilate it - you have to find out for yourself exactly what is required. Then you reference that with previous cases we’ve had.

If you don't find any within the company, you have to look around for similar solutions that can give you some direction. And, of course, you don't have to put them all in some stringent framework - you can leave it to your colleagues to offer their knowledge and creativity. What they have seen and what they know will do the most good. 

In reality, these processes always run in parallel. You need to know when to communicate with the client, when to refer to them about something, when to offer them a demo, etc. You need to structure a project so it runs as smooth as possible. 

Of course, this means that the client and your colleagues need to be on the same page. 

It's a matter of experience - you earn it as you go. But we've had tense moments, too. 

The client says to you, "make me this thing", and you go, your colleagues work it out, some months go by, you come back to the client, you show it to him, and they say, "but this isn’t at all what I wanted, I want something completely different". So all the ambiguities and doubts should be cleared up during the project so that - if changes have to be made - they can be made in time, not thrown away after working on something no one asked for. 

The other thing you need to do with clients is take notes. Learning more and more information about the customer along the way. What does he expect when he tells you he wants something? Does he actually have something completely different in mind but just can't express it to you in the right way? 

This adds up over time and therefore makes your job easier because you have fewer and fewer question marks. 

What do you do when a project isn't working out?

The question is what you come out of a project like this with. One option is to say this client is not working out, but the second is to think, "did I learn anything from all this work". Did I do something wrong somewhere, let me see if there's anything I could have changed that would have made things better. 

It is the same with successful projects. Successful projects bring a lot of enthusiasm, joy, and satisfaction at the end, but there are some bumps you've been through. So you have to analyse that too. 

At times like that, you have two prospects. One is to carry on the same way and not change anything. The other is to stop the project immediately. Those are the two extremes.

If you think of them as a line where those are the two endpoints, inside that line, you start to think up all kinds of other possible scenarios. And you're always guided by what's best for the company.

The factors here are numerous - there's the financial factor, there's the reputational factor, there's colleague satisfaction, and there's customer satisfaction. What will you lose or gain if you choose one over the other?

And now that you've come to a solution - that usually means you need to implement some changes you want to make to the project to get it back on track. Usually, you start the process within your team. You talk to colleagues, touch base, and determine whether you can get to an end result. 

And when you have their agreement, you can now communicate it to the client. 

Sometimes those conversations are not pleasant at all. Sometimes it's surprising that the client is receptive, which I attribute to proper communication. You need to properly frame your arguments and reveal enough information about why something might not be OK. 

When it's common sense stuff, the client usually accepts it. 

Making a new friend in Thasos

Making a new friend in Thasos

What is it like working with emerging tech?

The positives are that everyone is very excited about it. In our company, developers mostly want to work with something modern, and the opportunity to do so motivates them. It motivates me as well. 

And on the other hand, it brings its own challenges. Firstly, some of these technologies have not caught on - you don't know if they have a future. Introducing everyone to why this new thing is so cool without having concrete examples from the past is a pretty tricky process, too.

Additionally, customers understand that new technologies can help them differentiate themselves from their competitors, conduct their business better, and stay competitive. 

What do you do in your spare time?

It might sound cliché, but I love to travel. I try to have at least one bigger trip once a year that is not about vacationing but rather about discovering new things.

And lately, I've become very keen on gardening: flowers, vegetables, yardwork, mowing, maintenance. I also read, and not just specialised literature, like business or finance or whatever. I read anything I come across that somebody has told me is good. I also play football. I'm finally getting back in shape after a knee injury. It was pretty tough, but everything is fine now, so I'm back to playing football.


About INDUSTRIA

INDUSTRIA is a global technology consulting, development, and ventures company with expertise in the field of enterprise blockchain, confidential computing, process automation, and digital experience. As one of the official partners of R3, we are implementing cutting-edge blockchain technologies and reshaping the fintech world.

At INDUSTRIA, we are focused on providing permissioned blockchain solutions, such as Central Bank Digital Currencies, Electronic Bill of Lading, and Smart Legal Contracts. Our solutions apply to a wide range of industries and use cases to empower and modernise society.

Let’s talk about making your idea a reality — contact us at hello@industria.tech!

Follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

We use cookies in order to personalize your experience.