Credits: Igor Milić

Spark the Balkans!

a short report from Spark.Me conference

What a conference!

I’ve been on many conferences, and since I’m working on a startup myself, I’m closely following the scene and always have high expectations from conferences I’m attending. Knowing the team behind this one (domain.me & digitalizuj.me), I had even higher expectations, and they have all been met, and topped.

So, what’s Spark.Me all about?

It’s a tech/startup conference with an idea to inspire and motivate startups from Balkans (and not only) and promote them through network and partners of domain.me (for example, the winner of the startup competition gets a ticket to TechCrunch Disrupt 2014 in New York). In a way, it is a social responsibility project of domain.me, and done a best possible way — directly connected to their core business and at the same time giving back to its community.

Organizers (the best team ever!) managed to bring a great mixture of lecturers and speakers, attract great startups into a competition (finalists were Social Spot, Jelly Note, DataMaid, Zzzzap Wireless, TruckTrack, TourVia.me, Lovely Heroku, Cruise.me, Bark and Stream Arena), and finally bring a fantastic bunch of people as attendants in one the best hotels in Montenegro. When you manage to excel at all these things, the success simply comes along.

Startup competition winner

TruckTrack wins!

My favourite among finalists — TruckTrack — won the competition and is going to New York for TC Disrupt 2014. Truck yeah! :)
I was so happy to see them winning the competition and am sure they have a great chance in NYC too! Great idea, dedicated and competent people behind the wheel, and now a motivation boost — New York, get ready for Vukašin, Vuk and TruckTrack!

The speakers

Line-up was impressive (Steve Keil, Ryan Fujiu of About.me, Rob Hinchcliffe of Rushmore.fm, Meelik Gornoi of Skype, Maxim Gurvits of Eleven Startup Accelerator, John Biggs of TechCrunch, Bogdan Iordache of HowToWeb, Bal Balaji of Bal Lab…), and I did enjoy every single one of them, along with great panels too. However, a couple of them have hit the all the right notes for me:

Chris Varenhorst

Chris Varenhorst is a software engineer at Dropbox, but his speech was more about his startup experience and he somehow managed to deliver more fantastic advices for young entrepreneurs than all other speakers together. Great advices for me, that is. It was as if he prepared his speech based on my questions. :)
Basically, Chris summed up his experience in a very direct way, while throwing around great and easy to understand advices, such are:

  • Success of a startup depends on all the details and dimensions. Everything matters.
  • College is great, but one should go only if he/she really wants to go, not “by default”.
  • Having more features in your product is not necessarily a good thing — Dropbox is keeping it simple and it’s awesome.
  • It’s not all about marketing and luck, though both are important. Skill is crucial.
  • Running a startup is such an emotional roller-coaster, but it’s worth it.

Friends at domain.me covered his speech in more details, so please check out their post too.

Dragana Đermanović

Dragana Đermanović from PR Pepper is a huge name in PR world in Balkans (among other things, she is best known for helping Novak Đoković as an online strategist). Dragana is also one of those people who are “moving mountains” by using common sense (great analytical skills) and each of her speeches/lectures can be considered as a step forward in improving the PR&Communications area in the region. At Spark.Me she began her speech with a question: “Why is social media consulting business so full of shit in our region?” and immediately got the full attention of the crowd. :) I’m sure her speech will be echoing the Balkans in the weeks to come. You can check out all the slides here.

However, it was not the great content that I loved the most about her appearance, but it was the approach to it. Slides, energy, the looks, the fact that she used the opportunity to introduce the young-but-so-professional Aleksandra from her team and let her share the company values with us - it all bursted with professionalism and world class quality.

Dr. Eli Opper

Dr. Eli Opper is sitting on boards of many hi-tech companies, but he is better known for being one of those people considered “guilty” for Israel being a “startup nation”. He shared a lot of his experience and wisdom in his speech and highlighted the importance of government in accelerating change. See his slides here.

Many of the people in the crowd were tech people, and probably were not listening to his words the same way I did, but for me the most important thing he said was that opportunities and ideas are everywhere around us, and not even hidden so well — we just have to look into the social needs of our surrounding, and think of solutions. Those who know me well can probably imagine how happy I was to hear him talking between the lines about social entrepreneurship. :)

Other than that, I had an opportunity to spend a couple of hours with Dr. Opper over a relaxing cruise in Boka Bay, and have such a great conversation with him and Aleksandra. He is like a walking encyclopaedia, and had several amazing real life stories on every topic we touched upon. I think I could listen to those stories forever! So much wisdom that can be extracted from his experience. I’m really thankful for an opportunity to meet such a guy.

Key learnings

So, if I was to reflect upon the conference and decide what are the most important things I brought from Montenegro, those would be:

  • All the great advices from Chris — I will be thinking a lot these days about the way I’m running my startup.
  • Professionalism of PR Pepper — geeky relaxed conference or not, one should always come fully prepared (and look like million dollars :)). Their organisational culture is apparently amazing too — I saw Dragana and Aleksandra’s behaviour on and off stage and I think I will be seeking advice from Dragana on how to create such a supportive environment in my own startup.
  • All the stories from Dr. Opper — life is short and it should be enriched with as many great adventures as possible. He reminded me of one of my favourite quotes: “Life is a journey, not a destination”. I want to be able to tell such stories when I’m Dr. Opper’s age.
  • Inspiration from Vukašin and TruckTrack — I’ve known Vukašin for some years now, and seeing him grow professionally this fast is such an amazing thing and a huge inspiration.
  • Organisational culture from the organising team— don’t know if all of them in the team are also close friends, but it definitely looked like there are.

Thank you all again for a great conference and inspiration. I hope to be at Spark.Me 2014 not only as an attendant, but as a startup competition finalist too! ;)

Photo credits: Igor Milić
Conference photos here.
Speakers’ slides here.

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