Lazar Stojković, Lead Product Designer at Super and Mentor at 500 Startups: Right approach turns magic

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Serbian startup scene is at a very early stage but everything’s been going up and to the right for a while now, so it’s no surprise it started attracting attention. If it wants, the Government can do a lot if it improves business conditions for tech and other entrepreneurs.

„With a little help the magic can start happening“, says Lazar Stojković, MSc, MIMS, talking about the prospects of the Serbian tech companies, and what both startup accelerators and the vise government engagement can do for the IT scene.

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 You have recently replaced your entrepreneurial and academic career with the position of the lead product designer in Super, a startup based in San Francisco.  What makes Silicon Valley so appealing to young experts like yourself despite many countries claiming that they have very strong replicas of the Valley?

Silicon Valley is unlike any other place in the world. Almost 27,000 tech companies call San Francisco Bay Area home, including tech giants like Apple, Google, Facebook, Uber, and Tesla. Two out of top three research universities in the world — Stanford and UC Berkeley — provide global talent and big ideas. Almost half of the U.S. venture capital is concentrated here. There are countless tech events every year. The weather is not too shabby, either.

Aside from the Valley, there is only one other tech ecosystem in the world that consistently produces world-class technology companies and that is Israel. No one else comes even close if you look at the data.

There are many people, teams even, in Serbia who are working remotely for startups based in Silicon Valley. Can we argue that there are just cheap labour in this industry and to what extent are they really involved in small- or large-scale revolutions in Silicon Valley?

Let’s get one thing clear: no startup in the world offers big salaries. It doesn’t matter whether it’s based in California or Serbia. Nobody’s ever gotten rich from a startup salary alone. An early team member typically gets just enough money to lead a decent life in their location while helping out with building the company. That’s where the regional compensation differences you mentioned come from. If you live in San Francisco, your salary by necessity needs to be a lot higher than somebody else’s in Belgrade or Novi Sad because the cost of living in Bay Area is much higher. Every month, you are forced to spend a multiple of a typical Serbian tech salary on rent alone. Bottomline: if you want a big paycheck, job security, and lavish perks, you don’t go join a startup. Rather, you find a job with a large tech corporation like Google, Microsoft, or Salesforce.

What startup folks do get — or at least should always get — is stock options. That way, if the company hits a home run known as “exit”, the team will usually do much better financially than if they’ve been working for a big corporation all that time. From that perspective, the issue is not whether a remote team member in Serbia earns less or more than his counterparts elsewhere. The real question is: did the person get stock options as a part of their compensation package? If the answer is “no” and they work for salary alone, then they’d be much better off working for a larger company that’d pay them more cash.

Is there any room for the government to play a role in developing startups and establishing links between our technological community and Silicon Valley, and, if there is, what place should it occupy?

The government certainly has a place in fostering a healthy tech ecosystem in Serbia. Its main objective should be removing obstacles to growth. How can it achieve that? Educate more STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) workers. Pick and choose good things other countries have implemented, like Estonia’s stellar e-government services and Albania’s 0% tax rate for startups. Make freelancers’ lives easy – don’t strangle them with bureaucracy until they have no other option but to start dodging taxes by using Payoneer and the like. Keep the National Bank of Serbia on a tight leash. Its enforcement of antiquated foreign currency rules is not just appalling to a modern world – it is the main reason why techies in Serbia rather opt for registering companies abroad then in their own country. If Croatia could fix that issue by statute, so can Serbia. Don’t give hiring subsidies to foreign companies when you know local companies are competing for the same talent pool. Things like that.

Looking back at the last few years, we can see that there startups have been popping up here in Serbia too, and that there is as a community that supports them via the ICT Hub, which you are a member of too. Also, there various other startup accelerators available. How much is Serbia on the tech world’s radar, so to speak, and what is your view of this foreign support (like, for instance, 500 Startups)? Is this yet another brain drain from Serbia or should we view it as an investment in Serbia?

Serbian startup scene is definitely improving its visibility in the tech world. It is still at a very early stage, of course, but everything’s been going up and to the right for a while now, so it’s no surprise it started attracting attention.

Startup accelerators are a very important and valuable piece of the puzzle. It doesn’t really matter if they’re foreign, domestic, and hybrid such as 500 Startups, ICT Hub, or StartLabs, respectively. They all contribute not just through funding, but also by educating local entrepreneurs, which then share that knowledge with others at, say, events at the Startit Centers and thus further enrich the entire ecosystem.

And what happens if some of these companies do end up moving to Silicon Valley because it’s easier to scale a business from here? Nothing, really. Very few European startups that make the move sever all ties to their previous residence. Most keep development teams in the home country due to lower costs and move just the business folks over the pond. The latter go on to become economic ambassadors in a sense, forging deeper ties between the Valley and the tech ecosystem they originated from. When the company eventually strikes gold, guess who ends up funding the next generation of entrepreneurs back home? We live in a globalized world and need to start thinking beyond made up lines that divide us.

Do you think that young startup entrepreneurs in this part of the world have enough knowledge about global trends and do they know what business moves they need to make in order to transform their local products into global solutions?

Unfortunately, lack of business development talent is evident in all industries in Serbia, not just tech. A lot of people got disconnected from the world during the ‘90s or grew up in that disconnected environment and thus behave as if they live on another planet, separated from the rest of humanity. Startup accelerators can help with fixing that problem by teaching soft skills to tech entrepreneurs who already have hard technical skills. And that is when the magic start happening.

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