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Forbes Bulgaria on Vassil Terziev ('01), the "Bulgarian Business Angel"

October 04, 2019

Forbes is back on the Bulgarian market and features AUBG alumnus Vassil Terziev ('01) on the cover of the first issue since the restart. Read author Veselin Mitkov's story on Terziev's incredible success and contribution to Bulgaria's future. (Translated from Bulgarian). 

Vassil Terziev and the other co-founders of Telerik left a mark in the history of business. Today, they are building an ecosystem that helps transfer their knowledge to young Bulgarian companies. The head of this community, Terziev, has invested in over 40 companies, to which he offers his experience, and he bets that in 7-8 years, Bulgaria will have a billion-dollar company. 

If a person meets Vassil Terziev by chance on the street, he will hardly believe that this is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Bulgaria. One of the four founders of Telerik and an example that one can create huge global companies in Bulgaria, Terziev is dressed casually. A polo shirt, jeans, a black laptop bag over his shoulder - he looks more like a team member of an emerging startup rather than someone who sold his company for over a quarter of a billion dollars five years ago.

However, Terziev says that he did not change his lifestyle substantially following the sale. He doesn't have a secretary; he doesn't have a driver. He now works even more than before and continues to actively support the things that are dear to his heart – things such as educational initiatives, entrepreneurship, investments, community service. He continues to dislike public appearances, as he did when we met for the first time years ago but says that he has already accepted them as part of his "public obligations." He hopes to set an example of how someone's success should work in favor of someone else's future success. 

The 41-year-old Terziev seems like the most suitable person for the cover of the Forbes restart. This is his third appearance on it. The first time he appeared together with one of the other founders of Telerik, Svetozar Georgiev - at the end of 2012 and after over a year of persuading him to do so. Then, in early 2016, Terziev was on the cover by himself as part of the leadership of Telerik that was then rebranding as Progress.

Now is the third time. Today's context is entirely different. The reason you see exactly Terziev on our cover is that today, he is the largest angel investor in Bulgaria and probably among the most active one in the whole region. (It is important to note here that Svetozar Georgiev is his worthy competition in that regard.) 

For non-specialists, this means that Vassil Terziev invests his funds in the development of young companies, mainly in their earliest stages of development. Not only does he provide them with financial resources, but he also advises them on how to survive, develop and reach "global domination." Without going into too much detail, he says millions have been invested in these companies. The number of companies is over 40 and they operate in different business sectors.

Some investments have already been written off, which means that the companies did not succeed and have closed. But there are already success stories, the so-called exit companies, which have sold and brought returns. Terziev mentions the acquisition of BGMenu by Takeaway.com and Connecto by Leanplum. "Investing in companies at an early stage is for people with strong nerves," says Vassil Terziev. The road to success, in this case, is long and one can draw the line in at least ten years. "But things are mostly going well."

And if this last quote refers to the financial aspect, there is another aspect that Terziev considers at least as necessary - the ecosystem. He sees his commitment as a financial investor and as a mentor to startups as his responsibility towards success. The four Telerik founders went through many difficulties before reaching the "biggest exit of an infrastructure software company in our region." Now they see their role as that of the people who create the preconditions (or the ecosystem) for the appearance of the "bigger and upgraded versions of Telerik". So that one day, "this ‘mistake of nature’ that was for us to manage to succeed without capital, knowledge and environment" becomes something systematic. "This is our dream," says Terziev. "Instead of admiring other regions, to apply our ecosystem experience and potential to drive global success."

Telerik was founded in 2002 by four young people aged 24-26: Boyko Iaramov, Vassil Terziev, Svetozar Georgiev and Hristo Kosev. They are friends from their undergraduate years at the American University in Blagoevgrad and they have decided to write custom software. Once they decided to focus on developing their own product, what gave them the initial boost was the right to sell custom-made software to other companies. This approach allowed them to increase their revenues more than six times to over BGN 15 million in just two years - the period between 2005 and 2007.

The big business booster comes in 2008 when the U.S.-based Summit Partners become a shareholder in the company. This gives the necessary comfort that the Bulgarian entrepreneurs need to start expanding through a series of acquisitions and establishing a network of offices in Europe and the U.S., including in Silicon Valley. 

The customers of Telerik are software developers – both individual programmers and teams at major companies, government and non-governmental organizations around the world. The company gains momentum in the global market with a product for creating user interfaces, complete solutions for building web, mobile and hybrid applications simultaneously. The problem that the company is trying to solve with its product is to give developers single software that they can use to make their applications from the very beginning to the final tests before the launch.

In the fall of 2014, Telerik was acquired by the U.S. company Progress in a deal for $ 262.5 million. Then, 12 years after its founding, the four had more than 800 colleagues, $70 million in annual turnover and over 130,000 customers worldwide. 

Following the sale, Yaramov, Terziev, Georgiev and Kosev remain in management positions at Telerik: a Progress Company. At the end of 2016, the company rebranded to Progress and the four Bulgarians retired. Immediately after that, they began developing Telerik Academy, which trains the software industry [in Bulgaria]. They consider it one of their biggest significant projects because of its role in the development of IT education in our country. In 2018, the three of them -- without Kosev -- announced the launch of Campus X.

Campus X is the largest incubator of startup and growing companies in Bulgaria. The project features individual offices, four buildings, shared spaces and the Telerik Academy. The goal is to bring together all the components of a technological ecosystem: startups and more established companies, entrepreneurs, investors, training professionals and more. The project's vision is to bring together 1,500 people to create a vibrant community where young entrepreneurs with great potential exchange experiences and good practices to develop as quickly and successfully as possible.

This brings us back to the start of Telerik. "The hardest thing then was that there was no environment, no people, no connection to the outside world," Terziev said. "We were learning with a lot of struggle from both the small victories and the failures. We were reading, trying to understand the world and the things around us, to connect the dots of our knowledge." According to him, the key is that the company created a culture where the personal knowledge of each of them - and of the colleagues who start working with them - becomes collective knowledge. "We were becoming smarter together. Knowledge was described, shared, applied and passed on to the younger and newer ones in the team. And everyone was responsible for that."

Self-critically, Vassil Terziev outlines several phases that Telerik went through. The first, of course, was survival. The next one was the choice of whether the company should create its own products, and then there was a rapid growth "with all its problems and the inability to manage it." Then the company became a big organization "with a lot of challenges because of our inexperience". Finding an investor helped the company become professional, and finally, between 2012 and 2014, Terziev says Telerik was "a big successful company that is a world leader in its market".

We asked him what the most difficult of all these phases was, knowing that each of them had their specific challenges. The period of professionalization and international growth seems to have left the most vivid negative memory in Terziev's mind, who said that in 2011, there were days when he did not go to work with pleasure. He and Svetozar Georgiev are CEOs at the time, and they have to deal with the rapid growth and international development, hiring and integrating experienced people in leadership positions (and all the problems that come with that), meet the growing demands of employees and customers, and face many pressing issues. "It was difficult, I had abdicated from my responsibilities a bit, I wondered what my role was and I did not enjoy the success because I had to constantly deal with all kinds of problems down the chain," Terziev said.

However, together with the other co-founders, they decide that "this is our company; we were given a vote of confidence and must manage the company - with all our good and bad decisions, adversities or mistakes of inexperience." This is a period in which, according to Vassil Terziev, "we have grown a lot, but in a painful way." In general, he said, "each phase has had its difficulties, in which you encounter your imperfections and those of the organization." 

The role of Summit Partners, for example, helped him understand the difference between a founder, a shareholder and a CEO. "Inexperienced entrepreneurs confuse these things and fail to wear these hats," said Vassil Terziev. As a leader, you have to create value for the shareholders, including yourself. As a shareholder, however, you have to think who will lead the company best, and that might not be you."

These ideas bring us back to the constant accumulation of knowledge. From today's point of view, he believes that he has outgrown imperfections such as being sensitive, touchy, or wanting to impose his opinion at all costs. Commenting on whether he is too mild to be a CEO, Terziev said: "I think I learned to do what it takes without having to be bad. But this is also a team function, and I had the chance always to work, for the most part, with exceptional people."

GIVE BACK. PAY IT FORWARD

When it comes to selling Telerik, Vassil Terziev said it was a responsible decision and no one regrets it. A little background: In 2014, the shareholders are on the way to making the company public. The founders accept it, but are also aware of the risks. "We had to change our strategy to accelerate the new areas that would give growth," Terziev said. Our core business would suffer, there were concerns regarding the building of the teams, and some functions were exposed. It was unclear whether the organization and the people would withstand the turbulence. " 

All this, coupled with the acquisition interest, lead to the Progress deal. Terziev doesn't think it makes sense to ask himself if the decision was right because "you shouldn't rearrange the story as you see fit." But he thinks the benefits are many. Telerik becomes an example to the whole entrepreneurial environment. The team also has over 350 people with shares and options that they monetize. Investors are happy too. And today, the Progress office in Bulgaria is crucially important and the largest. But the most important thing seems to be something else: "We didn't think of Telerik as the most important achievement in our lives, but as a significant step in our journey."

At the heart of the current step is the concept of giving back (for example, to your alma mater), but also to the generations ahead. It includes Telerik Academy, Campus X, Terziev's involvement in the management of the Eleven Ventures capital fund and some other entrepreneurial organizations, and investments and advice for young companies. "We are creating a mini-community and connecting the pieces of it intelligently," he said. "For us, it's a small experiment on how the knowledge gained can become systematic. The indications are good, but we need patience. 

This support to the new generations brings great satisfaction to the entrepreneur, professional investor and business angel Vassil Terziev. He stresses on the fact that this brings satisfaction, not happiness because happiness is only momentary. The option to retire (which, let's face it, would be tempting for many people) did not stand before him. "I want to be an active part of building many more good examples and transferring and implementing our knowledge that comes from success."

Currently, Terziev is involved as a business angel in over 40 companies, not counting those already written off. Most of those companies are Bulgarian. Among them are large global companies such as Leanplum, and foreign-based companies such as the U.S. Macstadium. [We list some of his favorite investments below]

He strives to keep the investments close when possible - all three examples below are founded by former Telerik employees and are based on Campus X. Terziev spends his time mentoring mainly the best companies, those who can give serious returns: "Even a little guidance for them can produce an exponential result." He also supports the "most broken", in his words, companies - "to know whether to write them off, or whether they could enter the category of neutral or positively developing. I don't pay much attention to those in the middle unless they ask me, because the idea is that sooner or later they will go one level up or down." 

The logical question is how Vassil Terziev decides which company to support. He replies that investing in the early phase means looking for a combination of the potential of the targeted market and, even more importantly, the team. "We assume that a company with the right bonding between people will find its way with adaptability and intelligence," Terziev said. “The product and the business plan come at the end because they are most easy to change.” Another important point is the mission of the company, that is, whether it solves a problem opportunistically, which is not a good sign, or believes in the cause. "A strong mission shows whether you are willing to walk the long and thorny path to success." 

According to Terziev, such examples exist and they change the environment much faster than it is visible on the surface. He thinks it's a matter of time for ecosystems to have exits in the eight-digit numbers. "I have even made a bet that in the next 7 or 8 years, there will be a billion-dollar company coming from our ecosystem." He sincerely believes that the success of the technology companies in recent years has boosted traditional sectors such as construction, tourism, manufacturing and others through partnerships and will also make these sectors competitive on a regional and global level. He is also pleased that the high salaries and excellent opportunities for the realization of specialists are bringing back talent to Bulgaria and at the same time, are pouring additional resources into the economy. All this to him is an example of how the IT sector from "small and pitiful" became an essential engine of Bulgaria's growth in just 20 years.

This positivism is characteristic of the representatives of the IT sector, who often remain unaffected by the realities in Bulgarian business. "Corruption is normal everywhere in different sizes and different levels of finesse," Terziev says on the topic. According to him, however, it can also be outgrown if there is a critical mass of people who follow the rules despite the environment and set a personal example. "The state is a group of people who make decisions that are as good as their morals and ethics allow. And the new normal is what everyone requires of themselves - to pay their taxes or not drive in the bus line, for example. This will give an example to others too... " 

Vassil Terziev is the proof that with the right dose of enthusiasm, a desire to learn, a lot of brain and a pinch of luck, change is possible - and contagious. What's more - it can be sustainable and have an impact on the generations to come. In his own words, "I want my children to proudly carry the flag of this country, to stay here to develop and build on what we have achieved."

***

THE COMPANIES WITH THE MOST POTENTIAL IN VASSIL TERZIEV'S PORTFOLIO

Gtmhub

 The company has a solution for tracking the goals and results (OKRs) of six work processes. It helps measure productivity, team collaboration, employee experience in the work process and facilitates individual feedback. Thus, Gtmhub supports the transparency and efficiency of its clients' work.

OfficeRnD 

 The company develops software for the managing of shared or flexible workspaces. "They, like Gmhub, have the potential to accomplish something huge, are built correctly from day one and ultimately do everything so professionally that they can become a global leader in their market," Terziev said.

Payhawk

The company assists small emerging businesses in managing their costs. With Payhawk.io, companies can easily issue corporate cards to their employees and have transparent, real-time information on when, how, and where funds are spent. "This is also a huge market and a problem that we think has not been resolved," Terziev says.

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