Miroslav Hornak — a designer who picked up survival skills from the Prince of Persia
It takes a lot of courage to move from a small city in Czechia to London, by yourself, at only 18, with only a thousand pounds in your pocket and no job prospects. Maybe it was the persistence and stubbornness that Miroslav Hornak picked up from playing video games that prevented him from failing. By 25, Miroslav has already founded three start-ups (one of which Wired named one of the “Hottest Startups in Europe”), created a game that has been played by over a million players worldwide, and is now a design lead in Pipedrive.
Miroslav has always been particularly keen on two things — tech and video games. At a young age, he started playing Prince of Persia on his family’s computer — running it on MS DOS with a black and white screen. “I spent probably too many hours of my childhood playing video games, but who would have known that they would put bread on my table one day,” Miroslav fondly recalls.
Miroslav prepared himself for his future adventures by learning from the best in the industry. He attended a high school that focused on computer science and web development, became a junior front end developer at the age of 16, and made webpages as a freelancer. After graduating from high school, a gaming friend he had met online invited him to London. He packed his bags and decided to try his luck.
A long-running “school trip” in the City
So with no real plan, Miroslav landed in London with a little over a thousand euros from savings and family. “We were three guys living in an extremely tiny room, but it was fun! It felt like a never-ending school trip.” But with rent quickly coming due, the days of fun were numbered. “I was desperately looking for a job in IT, but with my terrible English skills then, it was extremely difficult.” Eventually, he received an opportunity to contract as a front-end developer and web designer for two months. After this experience, he was ready to become an entrepreneur himself.
Attempt #1 — Gitoon, the hottest startup in Europe
For the next three years, while also studying informatics at the Prague University of Economics, Miroslav worked in London and co-founded Gitoon — a platform for artists to display and receive reviews for their paintings and photography. Without prior experience, Miroslav was handling everything from design, illustration, and development to talking to investors and preparing business plans. The hard work received notice. In 2014, Wired magazine acknowledged Gitoon as one of the hottest startups in Europe and they were shortlisted for an O2 accelerator.
Although they had a great idea, Gitoon turned out to be more of a passion project rather than something that could be sustainable as a business.
Attempt #2 — ArtHome.London
Since Miroslav and his partners still had some finances left, they decided to create something to develop the art scene in London, in a profitable way. Their new company — ArtHome.London — was like Netflix, but for art. By paying a small subscription fee, you could receive new, original art pieces, worth thousands of pounds, to your home every month.
They soon had their first customers, but quickly realized that the company was not scaling well. Miroslav decided to move back to Prague and focus on finishing his studies.
Attempt #3 — GetMeBro! crashed by Google
Perhaps inevitably, Miroslav returned back to his passion for video games. For his next company, he founded the gaming studio “Gimmebreak” with his friend who initially invited him to London. Their vision was to create unique multiplayer games. “We had no idea what we were doing, how to make games, how to make money with games, but we nonetheless still had a dream of building a game.”
Miroslav was a product manager and designer at the same time. In 2017, they released GetMeBro!, a real-time head-to-head battle game set in a post-apocalyptic world. “We contacted Apple and Google Play and asked them whether they would be willing to list it. It was a game-changer for us.” Google Play featured the game globally for a week, bringing their player base from 100 to over 100,000 in a couple of weeks.
With all the new signups, their servers unfortunately crashed and they had to restart their services every 15 minutes just to keep the players alive. After some crucial fixes, the game was also featured on Apple. “We had achieved what we always had wanted — a player community with people who actually enjoy our game and would share our ideas. This was like a dream come true — thousands of people around the globe simultaneously played our game. Real people.” Over the years, GetMeBro! had a total user base of more than a million players.
Getting off the train
Going back a bit, at the age of 23 Miroslav had already been in the startup business for five years. “You don’t know what will happen next, you don’t know where you are going, and no one knows what is the right way to go. Over time this becomes very stressful. I wanted to slow down and find something stable. Not money-wise, but in terms of responsibilities. I was tired.” He knew that as a founder, you are responsible for other people. “Your actions change someone else’s life in a good or bad way and this alone creates a lot of stress.” He wanted to focus more on the product and not so much on hunting for investors.
Miroslav does not make long-term plans and jokingly says that even joining Pipedrive was just “dumb luck”. One day, while searching on Linkedin for a product designer position in London, he forgot to select a location. He ended up seeing that Pipedrive, a global sales CRM, was looking for a designer in Prague. “I liked the tone of the ad, and I liked what I saw and heard. I thought, why not try out new things. From art to gaming to B2B.” He believes that if you do something with the best intentions and capabilities, something good has to come out of it. “If you don’t do anything, nothing can happen!”
Freedom to choose
Miroslav was amazed by Pipedrive’s culture. “It isn’t common to have five or six rounds of interviews during the hiring process. One of the people I was talking to was Tomáš, Pipedrive’s Engineering Manager, and site lead in Prague. I could see that he had worked through my CV, he was actually interested in what I did. If anyone is interested in my time, I am also interested in theirs. This mutual respect was the selling point for me.”
The other reason why he decided to join Pipedrive was its tribes and missions framework. “I had never heard of anything like this. I can be on a mission with my tribe and it feels like my own little company. This gives us a lot of responsibility, but also the freedom to choose which projects to work on and which decisions to make, and actually shape the product that is used by more than 90,000 sales teams all over the world.” He says that although Pipedrive is a global company with more than 650 employees in seven different countries, it still maintains a start-up feel. “We have a fantastic team. Everyone is enthusiastic about their work and you can see that they all put their hearts in it.”
Think wider than design
His experience in the fast-paced start-up business has helped Miroslav to be proactive and hands-on. “I am not waiting for someone to come to me with a request. I am thinking about how we can make the best possible product here in Prague, in Pipedrive’s brand new office in the trendiest area of the city. It doesn’t matter if this is through design, development, or changing the product. I am not putting myself in the box of just being a designer. Instead, I prefer to look at the large picture.”
This fits well with his normal approach to getting things done– let’s do it, see what happens, and then fix the problems. “This is usually not possible in big companies. But it is possible in Pipedrive”.
Do it as long as you enjoy it
Maybe someday Miroslav will try running his own business again, but right now he is focused on managing his team, helping and encouraging them to give their best. He believes that money can influence decisions, but life is not only about money. “There are always ways to make money. But in the end, it is all about people around you. Go to work in the morning, enjoy your day and then look back and see if you learned something new.” If this year goes exactly the same as the previous one, then nothing is learned and there’s no real growth. For Miroslav, this is a sign that it’s time to leave. For now, Miroslav is happy at Pipedrive, where he plans to stay as long as he keeps learning. It also keeps his mom happy. “Finally I do something that qualifies for her as a real job.”