This week's Company Insights interview comes in the form of a chat with Usertech's founder and CEO, Jan Beranek.
Jan was kind enough to spare some time to talk to us about Usertech's unique approach and some of the challenges of launching a startup in the Czech Republic.
1) Hi Jan, thanks for talking to us. Firstly, please tell us what was the inspiration behind Usertech?
Learning new things. I started programming at around 16 and learned how to do HTML, CSS then PHP, MySQL then Photoshop.
Usertech is the same story, we have grown from a team of 5 to a team of 70 + startups in only three years and changed from building websites to mobile apps and then banners to supporting a new company throughout its growth. The common message in our U+Universe is learning new things and furthering one’s potential.
2) What do you consider to be unique in your approach and working culture?
We are a startup studio, which means we help build startups and we build our own. Most of the profits we make we reinvest back into new things through Usertech Ventures and give shares in these ventures to our people who start working on them.
Be it UI/UX part or development of larger platforms, it requires a radically different approach to solving problems. You always have to come up with the best, easiest or cheapest solution for a problem and apply it quickly.
This makes everyone push the boundaries of what they can do and thus, learn very quickly. We do not do body shopping, we value the people we work with.
3) Which technologies do you specialise in or use most often for your projects? And why?
Backend is PHP (Symfony), Python (Django) frontend is mostly Angular, now React. For all mentioned we have Open Source initiatives where we have developed a lot of tools that help us prototype very quickly and put the product in front of the end customer and get feedback.
We’ve gravitated towards these technologies through series of tests along the lines of “which technology is about to grow very quickly and we can a) find good people for it b) harness the power of the community around them).
4) What do you think are the main challenges when launching a startup in the Czech Republic and generally?
I think Prague is a great place to build international startups out of. However, we need to be much more open to the outside influence and think in higher scope than just one country, that’s what slows us down.
If you are building a truly digital product, it is easier, if it has a local component it is hard (but then scaling is hard as well).
The Czech Republic is sort of in the unlucky section of countries scale-wise - either you have smaller countries, that have small number of potential users and building just for one country would not work (such as Estonia for example), so you are forced to build something with the thought of multiple languages and larger impact from the very beginning.
Or you have bigger countries (Germany, France) where either the market is much bigger and functioning business on a “smaller” scale can indicate success globally, or you are from an English speaking country which naturally opens up much larger market.
5) What would you say was that most challenging project you've worked on and why?
I would say Singlecase - our DMS and billing startup for Lawyers. The underlying technology is complicated and has evolved over the course of past 2 years, there are big demands on security, encryption, therefore penetration testing.
We had to learn all of this from scratch and amassed quite significant know-how in this area. On top of it being technologically demanding it is really hard to sell as Lawyers are not known to be very pro-technology and therefore there is a long sales cycle. When the product is sold, the customers love it but it is a really tough business to be in.
6) What’s your opinion on the current situation when it comes to hiring developers? Have you had any difficulties recruiting talented developers for your team?
In short - no, we have always been able to find very good talent. But we see the winds changing, it is much harder for us to get as many interviews as we had before and the prices have been growing like crazy. However, a good fit is crucial for us and usually we try to hire people who will see the learning experience with us a huge investment into their life and a possibility to have a stake at one of the startups we own.
7) And finally, what does the future hold for Usertech? Any interesting projects on the horizon?
We are fully committed to growing in the US, our first employee in NYC (Jan Fried) started working in March full time and getting business. We have already delivered on the first business and have a couple new and ongoing projects coming. The same goes for our CZ business where we continue to support and develop innovation projects with our corporate partners. The projects we're currently working on include, www.zonky.com, www.kupnajisto.com, www.koupito.com and many others.
We want to reinvest into our startups more aggressively and share the equity with our people.
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