We talked to Nenad Bozic of SmartCat about Big Data and Analytics technical solutions during the pandemic.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Nenad Bozic: Thank you for asking. These are crazy times indeed, but we are well, and throughout all this time, we have focused on good things. For example, this situation made me spend more time in nature, as I’ve decided to renovate our family countryside house and organize my life to spend weekends there. I must admit this was a great way to slow down and relax after a hectic workweek life in the city.
COVID-19 brought its challenges with the working-from-home situation, but it also made me rethink how I organize my workweek and find the balance between the home and the real office. Office life is great for sure, but a quiet home office allows you to think and look at your business form a different perspective. All in all, we’re living in interesting times, and not everything needs to be gray and sad; it’s just different, so we must adapt.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded SmartCat.
Nenad Bozic: Well, our story started five years ago. Three founders, including myself, worked together in a company in Novi Sad (a city north of Belgrade), and all shared a common goal – the will to innovate. Our first step was when we tried to organize a small AI/Data team in that company with the idea to improve the service they were providing. However, we were not welcomed with wide arms… That is why we have decided to start our own thing and solely focus on data solutions and AI. I am super grateful for that rejection, as now we are working our dream job.
Regarding myself, from the very start of my career, I strongly believed in the balance between soft skills, management, and strong technical skills. Being an engineer, this balance made me more efficient since my sole goal was not only to deliver tech solutions but to understand how it impacts the business and provides the best possible solution for the company overall. This mix helped me move to the CEO position of SmartCat, and so far, I have to brag and say I now work with a team of very clever people on data-driven solutions in this innovative era of AI and machine learning.
How does SmartCat innovate?
Nenad Bozic: We are learning a lot, and we embrace knowledge. By definition, working on AI is innovative alone. You cannot apply something from a previous project or read something online and say it will work. Rather, you need to learn a lot, think hard, understand how something will impact the business and what problems are at stake, and come up with unique and innovative solutions.
We invest in knowledge through knowledge budget, internal knowledge sharing, and work on our solutions pays off when we are faced with difficult problems. We are bringing a portion of our profit back to the company, and we are investing in our solutions where we can be creative and innovative. Optimus Power is one of those solutions where we are trying to bring innovative approaches in smart building, creating AI-driven controlling units for big energy spenders (such as HVAC) to have lower CO2 footprint and consumption but keeping comfort level for people in the building.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Nenad Bozic: We were affected a lot during the first couple of months. Innovation is the first thing you cut off when you are faced with a crisis. Since we work with AI – almost always an innovative part of the product – you can imagine budget cut-offs we had in Q1 and Q2.
What we did was regroup and established strong bonds with customers by creating unique plans for every single project, as we knew the situation was temporary and the business must go on.
We also tried to be transparent within the company, so everyone knew where we were standing. Six months into the pandemic, we now see an increase in our business in comparison to the first 3 months that were not as productive for us. People now realize that they must stay in the innovation game in order to be competitive and that every crisis is an opportunity as well. We even onboarded some new customers who approached us during the pandemic outburst, and we helped them automate and improve their businesses using data and novel approaches.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Nenad Bozic: Oh, for sure, we had to make several difficult decisions. We started our business in the golden years of the global economy, as after 2008 everything was going upwards, so during the past 5 years of how much we’ve been in the market, we haven’t had the chance to cope in difficult times.
Being a new business during a crisis made us rethink our doings, operations, processes, positioning, etc. Situations like these make you grow both as a person and a company, and I have to admit that now we’re much more clever when it comes to spending and money buffer we keep in the company. Moreover, we are much pickier when deciding who we want to work with. One of the most important lessons we learned is to keep the team intact and not let people go due to the temporary financial obstacles. When you have a great team, it is much easier to adjust to whatever challenge arises.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and SmartCat in the future?
Nenad Bozic: Coping with stress and anxiety is much easier when you have a strong anchor, and for me, that is my family. I am learning how to leave work at work and spend quiet time with my loved ones. I do that by strongly guarding my weekend and afternoon time. I also try to do activities that relax me, such as sports (tennis, basketball) or organize board gaming nights (you cannot beat the geek inside of me, haha).
Regarding myself in the company and the future, I am an engineer, so I love to build software and create innovative solutions that deal with important problems in this world. I would love to create some more time and space within the company to work on such solutions even more which would mean I need to surround myself with a carefully selected team of people who can lead this company operationally. This is my next step and my vision.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Nenad Bozic: Great question, as we are just now doing competitive research since the last time we did it was when we started operating. I would say there are a couple of obvious competitors. We are a service-oriented data/AI solution focused company. On one side you have service-oriented companies that offer full package (web development, mobile development, backend, frontend, DevOps, UI/UX) and against them, we have an edge being focused on data and AI. The mentioned companies are just adding service which we have been doing for five years now, and we became really good at it, we have a process and the know-how.
On the other side, you have hyper-focused companies, building chatbots, recommenders, predictive analytics solutions, working only in fintech or healthcare, against those companies we are planning to fight with our versatility and broad knowledge.
We identified many problems from different industries and can apply solutions from one industry to the other. Did you know that fraud detection in banks is a similar problem as predictive analytics in manufacturing?
Your final thoughts?
Nenad Bozic: Being a CEO in a company with an engineering background means lots of tradeoffs – being an engineer you always want to create stuff, plan and develop solutions, whereas being a CEO, your job is to step away from daily operations and think about the big vision, people in the company and people outside that you work with or want to work with, where you want to be and why.
It took me a while to realize that the common denominator between those two worlds is solving a problem, when you are a CEO you will have a lot of them and when you are an engineer you are trained to solve them efficiently. Once I realized this, I started enjoying the position I am in. COVID-19 is a huge problem but also an opportunity, and I believe that many great things will come out of it for society.