Finding the Right Balance – in Bulgaria

June 24, 2024 Douglas Barry
Finding the Right Balance – in Bulgaria

Stoyan Mitov’s choice of a career in business was creating businesses. He recently sold one, his most successful to date called Dreamix. He’ll use some of the profits to create more businesses and possibly help friends create their businesses. He’s a business making machine.

He began his AUBG journey in 2006.  “I wanted to study in the U.S., but my parents couldn’t afford it,” he recalled.  My mom heard about AUBG, checked it out, and insisted that I go there. It was entirely her decision, and it completely changed my life.”

He said that in those days, not many Bulgarians knew about AUBG. “There were no success cases,” and now he seems surprised, even humbled, that he’s considered one such case. He had attended the prestigious English language high school in Sofia, and his English studies had begun even earlier thanks to a family member who had been in the Bulgarian foreign service and saw that English opens doors to the world. He was also an excellent student, and AUBG welcomed him.

His brother attended the equally prestigious German language school in Sofia, then did additional studies and worked in Germany. He has since returned to Bulgaria “to live, grow and develop here,” said Mitov.  Same family, different choices, similar destinations.

Quest to be better

Mitov recognized immediately there was something special about AUBG campus life. It was easy to make friends.  “I loved that there were people from so many different countries. They wanted to work hard. To make a difference.”

“What surrounds you at AUBG doesn’t allow you to stay idle. You learn to want things to become better. So, you push—for a better Bulgaria, a better society, city, neighborhood.”

He said that Bulgaria is becoming a little more like the U.S. in that “people want to be above average and to be rewarded for their hard work. Having people who don’t want to remain average produces a dynamic society and economy.” He thinks Bulgaria is moving in this direction, which is a big reason why he wants to remain here—to help. Although he spent several years in Silicon Valley,

“It’s more important for me to be successful here.”

It almost didn’t turn out for the better. “There wasn’t much financial assistance available [for students], and it became painfully clear that even with my parents’ support, I would not have enough to cover my time [at AUBG].” So midway, he dropped out and got a job.  In a year, he had made some money and with some help from AUBG friends, he returned to campus and finished a business administration degree—in five years instead of four. While he was busy at being an entrepreneur, he also met a woman in the last year they were both at AUBG. Some years later, they partnered and have three young children.

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Stoyan doing extreme sports with other AUBG entrepreneurs

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Receiving an award for Citizens in Amsterdam

Higher education was not a right, and having to struggle gave him a greater appreciation for it. It was at AUBG where he created his first businesses together with another AUBGer. One was devoted to marketing extreme sports such as paragliding and all terrain vehicle racing, coupled with how to make art out of metal and other materials. An interesting combination reflecting his interests, and they both generated revenue but not enough and folded in less than two years. A second business made gourmet chocolates but crumbled when one of the founders absconded with the profits. “You learn from failure,” he observed.

More than half of his ventures failed, but one succeeded spectacularly. It started as an idea to create a place where 20 or so friends and AUBG graduates could meet after work. The group pooled a percentage of their salaries to buy a property to replace a room on campus that had served as the meeting location. “We first planned to build a bar where we could socialize and make some money. The pooled salaries became the seed capital for Citizens (Grajdanite),” an app that improves communication between governments and the eponymous governed. It was a major success becoming the number one seller at Bulgarian app stores.  Mitov marveled: “All this without any money spent on marketing and is used by thousands of people. The aim was to make a more proactive, polite and responsive citizenship. It worked as hoped.”

Balm for bureaucrats

Citizens filled an important need: a way for people to communicate with their local governments—to report traffic light outages, to learn about delays on public transit, to find out where to vote, to get neighborhood news, to complain directly to decision makers. Citizens loved Citizens. Worries by bureaucrats that their jobs would be axed soon realized this was not the case.  By eliminating paperwork, they had more time to devise creative solutions and make people happier. Turns out bureaucrats hate bureaucracy too.  Theirs was a dull paperwork world where ten steps were needed instead of one step represented by Citizens, with 600,000 peak time users in Bulgaria, about 10 percent of the entire population.  

His successful companies evolved out of a supportive environment at AUBG and the belief that hard work pays off. As a student, he was pushed to work hard and excel at everything he did.  Surrounded by friends with similar values, he developed a general theory of success.  Using his hands to illustrate, he explained: “On the left side you have the entrepreneurs. On the right you have the lazier. In the middle, you have a combination, where most people are. AUBG helps the people in the middle move to the left side.” 

Other successful alumni have credited a particular faculty member or course of study for their transformation. Mitov credits the entire environment and especially other students, many of whom have become lifelong friends and colleagues. “The network is incredible. I can call on alumni anywhere in the world. They may not be able to help me immediately, but when they have time, they will.” As a result, he has never needed to tap capital markets for any of his businesses. For those who need such markets, there are Bulgarians who provide startup funding in the tens of millions of dollars. It’s not surprising that many of the new venture capitalists, with expertise in funding vehicles such as crypto currency, are also AUBG graduates.

“Bulgaria is now the best place to raise capital in the Balkans. Risks are low. If your business is shitty, no one will loan you money.” 

But if the business is great, someone may buy it for big money, enabling you to create new businesses to meet important needs. When the business sold earlier this year, he said: “I gave presents to 20 people who contributed to the success of the company—almost all of them were AUBG graduates.” They helped make the company one of the fastest growing in Europe, quadrupling revenue in three years without external investment capital.  

On giving back

In recognition of AUBG’s special role in his life and to relieve the struggle for money to pay tuition, Mitov and his wife provided a substantial gift. Using a three to one match provided by the America in Bulgaria Foundation, the total exceeded $200,000. 

He likes the idea of Bulgaria and AUBG playing a bigger role in the region by injecting students from those countries back into local economies and politics. Meanwhile, at age 37, he has many work years remaining. Does he have a new business idea? “Many. I have them all the time.  But I want to take time to spend with my kids and focus on Dreamix after the deal. This is an attractive part of Bulgarian culture—to spend time with family and friends. No need to work all the time. You must have balance, and this is why Bulgaria is such a great place to be.” 

Will his kids become entrepreneurs and attend AUBG? “They will likely go there unless they opt for medicine, or another professional degree not offered there.  What they do later in life, I don’t much care.  As long as they are good people.”