Where do I start?
I got a pretty unfair start in life. I was born tall, smart and handsome. And modest (laughs). All jokes aside, I’ve had a lot of confidence growing up. I’ve been self-confident since I can remember. I was taller, faster and stronger than other kids and I had good grades at school and this meant I’ve always trusted my own self.
I’ve often wondered where this self-confidence came from. Maybe it was my physique or the talents I had. I was a volleyball player and my vertical jump was over a meter high. The average is below 50 cm. I could touch the basketball ring with my head as a teanager, while my peers couldn’t reach it with their hand. I remember being 13-14 years old and blocking a professional volleyball star 3 times in a row. The odds were probably 1000:1, if not higher. My friends went crazy while I was –
“Of course I would, I told you so. What’s with all the fuss?”
Or maybe self-confidence came from the way I’ve been raised. My mother cultivated extreme levels of self-confidence in me. She sold me over and over on the idea that I can cope with anything, in any situation.
I remember she once had a friend over at home. They were discussing how I went missing again for 3 days. It was not the first time and there were no mobile phones back then. No one knows where you are if you go missing and the streets were not as safe as they are today. Her friend was frustrated but my mom didn’t seem too worried. I remember her saying “He’s so intelligent and creative. I’m sure he’ll find his way out of the jungle if you toss him there”. She didn’t say it to me but she knew I could hear her while I was playing – this is how subtle and methodical she was with making me feel better about myself.
And this was not just a compliment. She was making an “inception” in my brain about how responsible I am. It must have worked, as I’ve always made sure I was very careful, conscious and responsible. I bought it so much that I never felt tempted to try any of the things my friends did as a rebellion – from being lazy, to skipping school, drinking, smoking, drugs, anything. I had my first beer when I was 30.
I believed I was conscious and responsible, so I never did anything before asking myself how much sense there was in doing it. I remember discussing the pros and cons of smoking with my mother and reaching the conclusion it’s not worth it. We really considered trying it but the math just didn’t work.
So I was talented – and I don’t consider this bragging, as it was something that’s just been given to me – and I was brought up to believe in myself. I guess both played a crucial role in my life, but I value the upbringing much more. In any case, having faith in myself made me who I am. I never just tried to have faith, I really had it. Everything I’ve achieved, I can trace back to self-confidence. This is how important it really is.
What’s interesting is where this upbringing came from… My family was very poor. My first job was driving my father’s car as a taxi to help him pay out our apartment. I was certainly off to a rough start. And that was the 1990s in Bulgaria, those were turbulent times. No one knew what they were doing.
My father was the opposite of a businessman. I kept bugging him to help me sign things and start businesses and he wanted to hear nothing about it.
I remember being in the 8th grade when I had my first business experience. A friend’s mother worked in a factory that had a café. The factory was sold and the new owner wanted this café gone as quickly as possible. It was a portable construction but still, very heavy and full of furniture and equipment.
I told my friend we’re buying the café. We needed money, of course. So I made a presentation to his mother with a business plan on how to buy the café with the money she just got from selling a family real estate. I somehow persuaded her she can’t possibly lose money on this, despite being 15. She and my father signed instead of us and there we were – owners of a café.
Then reality hit us. It was portable but the foundation was solid concrete. We had to stop strangers on the street and pay them to help us smash the concrete, so we can use a crane to move it someplace else in time.
We managed to do that and was getting ready to put it at the top of the city center, when we realized we need a legal permit to do that. So we stored it “temporarily” in some friends’ yard. When the summer came, a.k.a. café season, we still had no idea where to put it, so we decided to sell it. But we made such a great profit that our ROI was x2-3. The only things we couldn’t sell right away were a microwave and an electric juicer, both priced in USD. We sold the juicer later at the highest peak of the hyperinflation in Bulgaria and we paid my dad’s apartment with the money. It sounds crazy now but the exchange rate was 3000:1. My dad still owns that microwave.
Meanwhile, I got injured. Plus, there were constant scandals at the volleyball federation. This also coincided with a very poor and hungry period at home, so I had no energy to jump and play. What’s more I think I didn’t have the character I have today to persist, so I quit volleyball. One of my best friends did not, however. He went on through this period to become the world’s best player. His name is Vlado Nikolov.
I’ve had several jobs before trying to do business again. I used to work at a bingo, then drove a taxi. But I remember distinctly feeling there was no future ahead of me. If you wanted to be someone here in the 90s, you needed big connections. Your only other option was to be in the mob or work for them.
I had no connections and didn’t wanna work for the mob, so driving a cab looked like my way to make a living. But even back then, I remember approaching it in a conscious way. Taxis were expensive and only rich people could afford them. If you used a taxi, you were someone. So I started talking to my clients. I wouldn’t leave them alone. I asked them what they did, how they got there, collected their business cards. I collected almost 1000 cards. Somehow I realized contacts are incredibly important, even at this young age of 18.
One of those 1000 business cards belonged to a very interesting guy – the regional director for ECM – the fund management company of the EBRD. I remember talking to him and telling him I’m studying computer networking at the university. We hit it off and he told me to call him when I take my exam.
I did call him, 1 week prior to the exam, being sure I was going to take it. He laughed but agreed to meet me. He then told me he had two options for me – a big corporation (IBM) and a startup (Orbitel). He was the first to explain the difference – no certainty at the startup, but a lot more to learn and you could make a lot of money, if lucky. I chose Orbitel, of course. Startups sounded like much more fun.
Orbitel was the first company in Bulgaria to really offer quality internet at the times when few people knew what the internet really was. They took me to meet the company founders and I started working with them. It quickly became obvious I was not very technically-savvy. But I was good at talking, so I took over the business development.
I had to keep driving my cab at night to make end meet before getting my first salary. I even remember presenting to the CEO of a big corporation in the day and him hopping into my taxi in the evening. I had to hide, so that he didn’t recognize me. I had to stop driving, as this would surely happen again.
It turned out I was so good at selling that I started making a lot of money. More than the entire board of directors combined. They changed the remuneration model a few times to balance things but I always found a way to make a lot of money. So they finally put a cap on “everyone’s” incomes, which meant there was no way to keep me so motivated. I decided to quit.
Then came an offer from two guys who were the exclusive distributors of Microsoft, Adobe, etc. They had no competition – THEY were the software sector in Bulgaria. They wanted me to be their business development abroad, I had made a name for myself. I had to help their own new software department expand abroad. But the two owners of the company had disagreements between each other, which made it very hard to move the company forward. I didn’t stick around for too long.
Then came my airline company experience. I went to a birthday party and met this guy, he was the Operational director of British Airways at the time. He told me about those new low-cost air carriers I had never heard of. EasyJet and RyanAir were just starting and were selling tickets under bus prices. By cutting brokers, ads, on-board service, and making many more (x6-7) flights per day, they were killing traditional airlines.
I was really fascinated. I didn’t tell my B.A. friend but I started thinking how I could start a low-cost carrier of my own. It sounded ridiculous but I wanted to do some calculations. I was thinking that with the price-sensitivity of markets around Eastern Europe, this would make a big splash in our region.
I already learned how to make great business plans thanks to EBRD at Orbitel, so I put all my skills into it. It took me 6 months but when I went pitching it, I had thought about everything. I went to my friend at BA first. He immediately told me I was crazy – I needed 30 planes of 60 mln. each to achieve what I was aiming for. But I had thought about that too – we didn’t need to buy a single plane, we could use wet lease like JetAir. We didn’t even need crews, they came with the plane we leased. We only needed to do the marketing and fill up the planes.
He wasn’t ready to quit BA, of course, but I somehow persuaded him this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and he agreed to join, but ONLY IF I found the money to finance it.
Phase 1 successful. I now needed a great CFO. I went through all my contacts and I found the right guy – a Dutchman that was working in London. He was the vice-president of Lazard, the world’s largest independent investment bank at the time. He was also very reluctant to join, but my 6 months of excel calculations managed to persuade him, too, that a lot of thought has gone into planning that business. In the end, he also agreed to join, but ONLY IF I find financing.
The London guy helped me approach the CTO of Southwest Airlines to try and persuade him to join as well. He was of Turkish descent and I tried to play the nostalgic string on him. I think he had never actually visited Turkey, but I really wanted to have him on board. He had 30 years of experience in low-cost air travel, this was crazy.
I also recruited the guy that did the marketing for Microsoft products at the company I had recently quit. So we had our team, all ready to join, but ONLY IF I find the money.
It was time to start pitch the idea. I wondered who of my contacts might have enough money to invest in such a project and those two guys that distributed Adobe and Microsoft immediately popped up in my head.
Several meetings later, one of them agreed to give us 3 mln. To invest. This was far from enough, but it was enough to start working. Everything seemed promising when a big oil crisis hit. The price of oil jumped from $30 to $100 in a matter of weeks. I needed to make the bold move of spending a lot of money to hedge fuel deals at a better price, otherwise we had no way to compete with regular airlines. There was a big risk involved, as well as potential penalties, legal issues, etc. All big airlines had hedged their fuel prices, but they could afford far bigger financial risks than we could.
I hesitated, the prices went too high and the moment was gone. I was logically sacked from the company I started. However, the project went on and another airline company bought the business model, building a successful airline carrier from it. I’m not allowed to mention the name, but they’re doing pretty good.
I was the losing side from this situation but I wasn’t too worried. I was in my 20s and this was still a major breakthrough for me at the mindset level. Just being able to work with those successful people and do business at such a level was incredible.
After the airline venture, me and Victor from Orbitel started a software company of our own. We made software for telecom companies and used the excuse of selling it to travel all over the world. We did our work, of course, but it was just half of why we did it.
We were in India when the idea came to us try and replicate Orbitel’s success on the local market – to build a telecom from scratch. The other co-founder of Orbitel also joined us and we all moved to India. We had money to invest, as we had raised funds for our software company. But we weren’t on the same opinion whether we should use this money to penetrate India or we should grow organically.
A few years in, however, I was slowly getting tired of country – life in India is tough and pretty uncomfortable for a European; business is very slow and cumbersome. I decided to move on to something else.
At that time some opportunities came from Africa to sell telecom cables. I needed to find cheaper copper for the cables I was trading with. But copper is a commodity which makes it really hard to find it cheaper. Nevertheless, it turned out DR Congo had such huge copper deposits that there might be a way out. I just needed to get there. But that proved to be the hardest part.
I searched for more info about the country. Everything I read said “Don’t go to DR Congo”. And if you really have to, think again and don’t go.” Abductions, murders, civil wars – this was the way the internet portrayed Congo. There was zero tourism, no tourist hotels. The only foreign visitors were the UN military forces and some huge investors, the kind that own mines in the country and have their own security forces. If I went, I would be the first and only Bulgarian to visit DR Congo in 20 years, according to Bulgaria’s Foreign Office. That didn’t stop me, though. I knew I would be something rare in Congo with my experience and my skills. Even my looks if you will – I would often be the only white person in the room.
I figured I could try finding contacts through Belgium, as DR Congo use to be a Belgian colony. I found a guy that used to work high in the government, who said he can guarantee my safety if we visit the country.
It was still risky but it sounded like a lot of fun. I really wanted to go see it, especially as challenging as it seemed. This was me, again, taking the risk but being on the safe side. I had someone local to take me around and I was very careful, as always. Everywhere I go, I listen to locals – I don’t go where they tell me not to go, I watch out for local diseases and dangers. I’ve never considered myself a risk-taker, despite my friends describe me as one.
I went to DR Congo and everything seemed fine. I was walking through jungles, looking for ways to find cheaper copper. Meanwhile, I was doing my research on the country – about the problems they had, their strengths and weaknesses, their history.
I saw DR Congo had been redeemed from their country’s big debts but forced by the same international treaties not to raise any more gross government debt with an interest over 2-3%. Hence, no one would give them any money to develop their own country. They had been locked by the same treaty that helped them break free from their huge debts.
Yet, it was a very interesting country – super rich in natural deposits and super poor in GDP and living standard. This made me want to stick around even more.
I started looking for different loopholes in those limiting international treaties and for ways to walk around them without breaking them. My local guys seemed intrigued and offered to introduce you to a banker he knew. The banker in turn introduced me to the governor of the National Bank, who took me to meet somebody very important to discuss it with. His name was Augustin Katumba. He really did seem important.
An ex-CIA and current IMF executive came to translate for me from French. We went to his place and he said he only had 30 minutes to listen to me. He was as popular in Central Africa as Bill Gates is in the USA but I remember I made him introduce himself, as I didn’t know much about him. It felt awkward at first, but I asked a lot of questions, so this kind of put us on the same level psychologically. We quickly hit it off and our meeting went on for 4 whole hours.
I presented my ideas for getting foreign loans for DR Congo and he seemed impressed. I remember him calling the finance minister at 1:00 to tell him we should meet at 6:00 in the morning. Things were going great but then Katumbu died in a plane crash. I had lost a friend and my best connection.
Meanwhile, my local guy said we should try the pharmaceutical business in DR Congo. It was out of my domain and out of my region but the challenge to try doing business in Africa made me agree. We started importing medicines from wherever we could find them. It was very hard at first but we always found ways.
This is how I learned how selling medical supplies works and how I got to meet the key people and companies in the pharma business. We became the official representatives of Pfizer for Congo – the country was way out of their safety requirements, so they agreed. Today, we sell medicines all over the world.
If I have to be honest, I haven’t planned most of those businesses. I believe I’m a guest on Earth. I don’t think I need to change it, unless it calls me for it. But if I do my job well, it will sometimes call me on certain missions because I’m a good at what I do.
My idea has rarely been to make a strategic businesses or huge amounts of money. Much more, it was having fun. Sometimes it was the adrenaline that made me try a new venture, sometimes traveling to a new place. In any case, it was having that has guided most of my business decisions.
I remember when we were making telecom software. My team had made a Top 100 list of the countries we could visit to try and sell our products. I chose 4 of them, seemingly random to them. They said “Why those? That’s not where the biggest business opportunities are – Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Maldives, the Philippines.”. They were right, but that’s where I wanted to go. And the business deals always came. Every telecom is big enough to make good money, I thought. And I was right.
I’ve never tried to maximize the money-making part of my life. Yes, it’s one of my ingredients of happiness, as you will see in the BELIEFS section. But that’s all it is – ONE of them, not most of them. 1 in 7 means it occupies 15% of my attention. Not 90%, as is the case with many people. I’m always going for the balance between those 7 ingredients.
Let me tell you about my plan for Colibra. Do you know how much money I think I can make? I have no idea. This would be a wild guess. The main thing for me is doing something that’s really cool, interesting and a lot of fun for the team. We’re thus very likely to make a lot of money. How much? No idea. I’m not even trying to guess it.
I’ve never planned my businesses too much. I don’t like following a plan. I go after the feeling of well-being and having fun.
I’ve also rarely finished one business or project before I start the next one. I don’t remember having a period where I’ve been wondering what to do next. My projects kind of flow between each other. Instead of looking for new opportunities, new opportunities come up and I flow my energy into them as I follow where my interests takes me.
Just as with Colibra right now. I haven’t quit any of my current businesses – pharmaceuticals, active ingredients, real estate renting. Having many businesses gives me the confidence I can always experiment.
Yet, I can’t wait to see where Colibra will take us.