Represent Stories — Michal Šimonfy
We spoke at his apartment in Karlín, Prague.
Michal studied new media art at the Academy of Arts in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia. He authored a number of projects including Odkazprestarostu.sk, Fruitmap.org, and a popular Google Chrome extension — Speed Dial 2. Originally, he planned on working with Andrej for a brief period of 3 months; these three months have now stretched to 3 years.
How did you get into doing what you do?
I started making websites in 2001, but I mostly made them for myself. My high school had Unix computers in the hallway, where you could surf the web with text-based browsers and it was fascinating. For one of my first webpages, I took Bjork’s discography and categorized all her albums with album art and lyrics, so I was able to easily browse them myself.
The first project I was seriously involved in was Inyfilm.sk, a database of experimental films I made together with Jan Adamove. As the project grew, I had to improve my programming skills to make it better and here I learned the basics of what I needed for my future work. Later, with Marián Kišďurka, who worked in the Slovak Governance Institute, we came up with Odkazprestarostu.sk — a simple web application which helps municipalities fix civic issues based on submissions. It just took off very quickly without us realizing what we are building, and helped to solve thousands of small-scale problems in Slovakia.
I also kept working on my own side projects, like Speed Dial 2, a simple bookmarking extension for Google Chrome. It currently has over 650 000 active users and I can’t live without it! Funny story — a new colleague once came to work at Represent, opened his computer and there it was — he had it on his Mac! (laughs) It always feels good to see someone else using your product.
What school did you attend?
I went to the Academy of Arts in Banska Bystrica, where I studied new media and I absolutely loved it, because it combined creativity and technology. When you study computer science, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll learn how to build something; but once you start working on your own projects, you learn quickly by overcoming every problem that’s in your way.
Many of your projects have a significant social aspect, but they also work well commercially. What do you focus on more?
I try and keep it balanced. Working on a product that is used by a lot of people is certainly satisfying, but I always felt there should be a greater mission behind a company. Represent and its sister project Prizeo has helped raise millions of dollars for charity and they are both great examples of doing business with a social aspect.
How did you meet the guys from Represent?
Well, I met them when Represent didn’t exist yet! I saw that Prizeo was hiring and headed to Y Combinator; I always wanted to see California (laughs). I responded to the open position and had a quick call with Andrej. A week later they mailed me a plane ticket, and I flew directly to Mountain View, San Francisco, knocked on the door and Andrej answered. That was it.
How did Represent start?
We took out a big sketchbook, sat down and drew the basic outline of the product page and checkout — just the bare minimum, we didn’t even have a homepage! The first prototype was built in a few days. When we saw that it could actually work, we started adding more and more people to the team.
You wear many hats at Represent; if you had to choose just one position, what would it be? Or would you want to keep doing everything?
To be completely honest I never wanted to be the best designer or the best coder; instead, I try to learn things which make me independent to work on my own projects and I pretty much enjoy the process of creating something new rather than a finished product.
When do you consider a project successful? Is it when you use a product yourself, or when you see that it has a million downloads?
I think it’s always different — not every project aims for thousands of users. Just the simple fact of making something work better for a small group of people can be considered a success. For example, I kept seeing my girlfriend listening to Czech public radio (Cesky rozhlas) through their web player and never liked the fact that the interface always hides somewhere behind all windows. So I made a simple extension to start your favorite radio with just one click. It’s never going to have many users, but it was a success in that it managed to change our habits (laughs).
Why are you still with Represent?
My original plan was to stay with Prizeo for 3 months, learn something new and see California before getting back to freelancing. But I found working in a team very stimulating, and I liked it there right away. Working at Represent never feels like going to work, and at the same time, everyone is very focused on their job, just because we all like what we do. And I still learn a lot from others — that keeps me going.
What’s the craziest idea you ever had and actually realized?
I think our band The Keygens was pretty weird! One day I forgot to quit a small program after using it on my PC. Later I found myself listening to a very short audio loop from Photoshop License Key Generator for at least an hour and realizing how much I actually enjoy it. A friend and I then downloaded all keygens we could find online and listened to all of them. By the way, we installed plenty of computer viruses in the process. We then made our all-time-favorite selection — some were disco, some 8bit, some very dark — it was really cool music! We had a few concerts where we got on the stage and ran .exe files, and although not everyone might have “gotten it”, we really had a good time (laughs).
What’s your favorite place in Prague?
Prague has a lot of great places, but I love the Přístav 18600 and Letna quarter near our office. It has a beautiful park and huge kinetic memorial called Metronome which was built upon leftovers of Joseph Stalin’s monument detonated in 1962. A giant piece of communist propaganda has been now turned into one of the most unique sites I’ve ever seen, with bars, a skatespot and lot of young people hanging out every night.
Is there anything about Prague that annoys you?
The cars. I just can’t stand seeing such a beautiful city as Prague being overwhelmed with this amount of cars. We give them disproportionate space in cities, and elevate them above all else. Sometimes, when I walk down the street, I think about what the city would look like without its rows of parked cars — just wide boulevards lined by trees. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t ban cars altogether — just keep them out of the city. Sometimes I also think about all the money people spend on cars and gasoline being invested in brand new public transportation which is affordable, fast and ecological at the same time.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
What project are you thinking of doing next?
I’ve started focusing more on tiny projects I can finish over a weekend or two. They give me a lot of freedom to experiment with new things or just to try a different approach. I also help my girlfriend to run a small fashion brand called Blindberry and started working on my first hardware product together with my friend Erik.