This may surprise you but 2020 has been the most successful year for us since we started the company. However, when the crisis hit in March-April, all of our customers came to a freezing point. Can you imagine it – zero income for one month?
Gradually, things got more stable and we ultimately got a record year. We’ve had the biggest growth in turnover and profit so far. We also invested in many new directions.
Of course, there is a logical explanation for this. You see, most of our customers have long-term strategies for business transformation. They do not hire us for short-term projects that last just two months. Generally, companies not only resumed their projects and payments but also began to invest more in our digital transformation services.
Digitally transforming a company isn’t just about digitising or automating but also entirely transposing the company’s business model in a digital reality. This requires changing the way the organisation operates, how it supplies itself, how it reaches its customers, how it performs its services, how it does production, communications, etc. We have been deploying such projects for companies from various industries for many years and COVID-19 only accelerated these processes.
Most companies in our industry work on a case-by-case basis and to them, digital transformation is only an automation thing. This approach has long since been outdated – this way of thinking was popular 10 years ago. In today's world, organisations need and seek a full digital transformation of their business – rethinking their strategy, processes, organisational structure, supply chains, customers, people management, etc. For the company to be successful, everything needs to adapt to the new reality! This is also how we do our work. That’s why our business has grown a lot and we are currently working with approximately 300 customers in Bulgaria, the region and other markets around the world.
I must stress that we don’t do the typical IT outsourcing. To me, big IT outsourcing companies here are harmful to the growth of the IT industry in Bulgaria. They are nothing more than recruitment-hotel-tourism or a “3 in 1” model. This activity has nothing to do with IT or creating value. Here’s how this type of company operates – a company somewhere in the world is looking for five people, the recruiter finds them in Bulgaria and sells them, charging a management fee (a commission) for that service. These recruiters take advantage of the easy process of hiring and dismissal and benefit from the lower salaries in the country. I often wonder why IT professionals choose to work in these companies. There are so many global IT talent exchanges. Through them, these professionals would earn twice as much instead of paying the salaries of 100 more managers.
Of course, there are IT professionals who develop R&D locally. We are the kind of company that exports projects, i.e. we create added value here and we export it. On international markets, Bulgarian companies cannot compete when it comes to people numbers because we are so small. We can only be competitive by offering quality value-added products! This is the strategy of Next Consult and it allows the company to successfully compete with the world's industry giants. This means that our product is similar to theirs but we are also a lot more flexible and much quicker. Nowadays, it is not so much “big versus small” – it’s more a matter of “fast versus slow”. To be able to grow in our small country, we had to create a “factory” for growing our own specialists and knowledge. This meant not only making a makeshift academy or university but also involving young talent in real day-to-day projects. When working with real projects and assigning two or three young specialists to a project, these people are trained directly in the “cold water”. And as they get to swim a little, they start warming up. This is how real consultants are made. The moment knowledge is created, it is reused – I will pass it on to other specialists, I will add more and more knowledge and that way, we will keep growing.
Working in large multinational companies with different sizes of customers from a wide variety of industries, I had the opportunity to “feel out” different business models and learn more about their strengths and weaknesses. That's how I saw the gap between businesses and IT. After leaving the corporate world, I started looking for the right people to be my partners in this new venture which was little known to Bulgarian businesses at the time. In my opinion, a prerequisite for success is finding the right people at the right place and working together to determine the strategy you will be following. After all, I'm not Steve Jobs, so I can't just say “this is our direction and we will do it this way”.
I am a pragmatist looking for people sharing the same values. Our company has an open partnership and any colleague can become a partner. Meanwhile, we continue attracting new partners to help us grow our company with new units and services. We have a simple mission – make our customers even more successful! To achieve this, we need so much knowledge, partnerships and technology – so when we go to a customer, we can find where we can make any kind of improvement that would always be beneficial to their business. It doesn't matter if we do it through business consulting, deploying new technologies, process automation or lean methodology – what matters is bringing tangible value to the customer. That's why we aim for long-term projects. Our aim is to attract the best specialists so we can offer the best knowledge. In this regard, we don’t even have an HR department. We are our own recruiters and we find people through acquaintances, recommendations or direct communication. We rely on smart and talented specialists, and not on people boasting extensive experience and countless certificates.
At this stage, we assist our customers in five main areas – strategic management, marketing, operational efficiency, human resources and IT. We have only partnered up with companies that are the leaders in their markets. A good example of this is Salesforce. We are a trusted partner and reseller of the U.S.-based company for Bulgaria and Romania and we have been working together for 8 years. You can say that we are something like their right hand in the region.
When we started working together, we began with three customers. Today, we have more than 200 banks, insurers, distributors, manufacturers, builders, professional service providers, online stores and much more. We provide consulting services to Salesforce all over the world and we sell Salesforce subscriptions directly on the territory of Bulgaria and Romania.
Another key partnership for us is the one we have with SAP. We recently signed a million-dollar deal to introduce SAP S/4HANA Cloud. We are implementing ERP solutions in complex production environments. We cannot afford to do simple things because our specialists are extremely experienced and we try to utilise their work as best as possible.
We also implemented a leading ERP solution based on Salesforce – Financial Force. It mainly focuses on financial and professional service, distribution and wholesale management. We implement business intelligence projects and sell licenses to one of the leaders in the BI market – Tableau.
Our latest direction is related to introducing the so-called bots or RPA (Robot Process Automation). The bots are algorithms that automate repetitive human activities, boost productivity and have a very wide range of applications. Our RPA technology partner is UiPath, a world industry leader.
When we start working with a company, our goal is to have a set of expert knowledge and tools we can use to really help our customer become more successful. We strive to build long-term relationships with our customers and constantly add value to their business. If we don’t work with them in the long run, we will disappear. Moreover, our people are so dear to us that we cannot afford to leave them without interesting work.
This was after the end of the previous crisis, back in 2010. Everyone kept telling me I was crazy. But I have always said, “You jump in the cold water, you get to swim and eventually you warm up.” I still say it to the people in the company at every job interview. We want to see a spirit of entrepreneurship in our people, we don’t want them to be just another employee! We don’t want them to say that they go to work – instead, we want them to feel that this is their dream and source of satisfaction.
So in the beginning, we started gathering people, and some of them even used to be our competitors. Our goal was to be the right kind of specialist – the kind you competed with on the market and you beat but who also beat you, i.e. the ones you know are worth it. In the beginning, we started “fighting” the large multinational consulting companies because we were mostly engaged in management consulting; also, we still did not have the funds necessary to invest in partnerships with the tech giants.
The good thing about entrepreneurship is that everything depends on us – if we have customers, if we keep investing and working a lot, we estimate that we will be OK. A large corporation can just say that they are restructuring and letting 1500 people go on the spot. Job security in these large companies is literally an illusion.
We already have offices in Bulgaria, Romania, Switzerland, the UK and the US. 3-4 years ago, we tried to do business with Salesforce in Romania as well. We tried with one, two, three local partners – it didn't work. Then we decided to do business there ourselves. But it just kept not working out! We are not Romanians, we do not speak Romanian, our way of thinking is similar, yet different. At one point we said to ourselves “Hey, let’s check out our biggest competitor on the market.” It turned out to be a company very similar to us. We complement each other perfectly because they develop some Tableau Software services (the best BI in the world) which was acquired by Salesforce, and we are the ones offering Salesforce. We contacted them and proposed an alliance. We offered them our Salesforce expert knowledge and experience from Bulgaria and they offered us their knowledge and experience with Tableau in Romania. So we created a joint venture and started growing together.
I would say that our story is a very good lesson – in the beginning, we came together with our competitors to create a joint company and years later, we joined with our competitors (this time from Romania) with the same goal and vision for success and growth. Today, we are more than 100 people and we have more than 450 customers in total.
So far this year, we have been growing well and we estimate at least 30 – 40% of growth. In 2019 and 2020, we were among the most dynamic companies in the Financial Times ranking and we hope to keep that trend. There’s business opportunity all over the world. However, our biggest drawback here in Bulgaria is that we are starting from a small market. You know everyone, you speak Bulgarian, you sell. But you can't grow anymore. And when you enter the international market, you can only sell people and resources – mountains, water, air, garbage for incineration. You can only sell what you have.
I can't sell what I have because I don't have it, I am yet to create it. That is why the biggest companies in the world are our benchmark – we have to compete with them and use them as an example!
Managing Partner of Next Consult
The most difficult decision is deciding to part with someone. But it is also the right thing to do for both sides. We invest a lot in everyone and in such cases, it is difficult.
Oh, the difficult, costly lessons I have learned! Here is a thought by Nelson Mandela: “We never lose; we learn.” We have learnt a lot. After all, the point is to learn and to keep growing."
If you do not call it work, it becomes a part of your life and it makes you happy; our loved ones just need to understand this. We like what we do, so our personal and professional lives have become one.
I have an “off button” – I play a lot of tennis. I snowboard and windsurf. I recently bought a camper and I do road trips. I keep getting more and more hobbies, it just keeps expanding, just like my knowledge and worldview.