Some might call him “one of the founding fathers of JA Alumni Europe and the Honoris”: Boris Kolev, born in a small Bulgarian city, moved to the capital at the age of seven, took part in his first JA company at the age of only 12 years – and today he’s managing a group of five companies, a tech VC fund and DigiMark, which was ranked by the Computer World magazine three years in a row among the fastest growing IT companies in the country.
Moreover, he was part of, like he says, “the first kind of European Board of JA Alumni” in 2006 as and creator of the network’s first webpage. A true cornerstone of the network and passionate leader, who we call on the go in Sofia:
It’s the fourth year of DigiMark, which is your “main Start Up project” you work on. Due to having provided customers with solutions in the field of digital innovations technology and apps you were able to grow and open offices abroad, even, plus you were featured in Forbes Bulgaria’s “30 under 30” ranking in 2013 - (note: A list stating the most promising and outstanding young leaders >30 years) – what’s your personal recipe of success?
"At DigiMark, I’d say we’re a big-hearted crew and our first aim has usually been to help others, for example, we created an app for blood donation a while ago and wanted to give it out for free. This was our brave strategy in the beginning, doing business for a good cause and this simply creates a win-win situation for all stakeholders: Customers are happy, you get attention and positive feedback, which is appealing to new applicants who also share these values and so on.
In our first year we sponsored a NGO to built a free social app for people’s civil rights and it quickly became the country’s most downloaded mobile app. Which gave us lot’s of publicity and a positive image.
Last year we created a micro tech VC company called DigiMark Ventures where we put our profit from the main company and used it to invest in 5 local startups. We grow through helping others and this is why clients like us among competitors. I think the key to success is one – helping others always returns to you… accelerated."
You’re a well-known face of JA Alumni Honoris and living a life as manager of various Start Up projects and due to that a constant lack of time – Why are you still not missing out any Alumni Events?
It’s this feeling so many people have already described at such events: The feeling and the participants really pushed me forward and had an impact on both my professional and business development. I just can’t stop doing it and even though I’m often one of the oldest people to attend, it’s great to catch up with the vibe, this keeps me young!
"Thanks to the network I gained so much, now I’m finally able to give back and support the impact JA Alumni Europe can have on young adults with my resources"
Because of your volunteering, giving-back attitude and career, you were recently featured in a book for JA Worldwide’s 100th birthday: “Entrepreneurial Attitude” by Larry Farrel – how does it feel like to be mentioned in a book of such importance for JA’s centennial celebration?
I feel truly honoured and thankful, however, this is not the first book I was featured in. Six years ago, Sabirul Islam stated examples of 25 teenaged entrepreneurs in his book “Young Entrepreneur World”. Back to the JA anniversary book, the intention was to present leaders from many different parts of the world and for Eastern Europe they chose to feature me as well.
If you had not been in the JA program back in time or chose to not engage with the Alumni network, how do you think your life would look like today?
It’s always difficult to picture how life could have been without a specific decision…I don’t know, much likely I would have finished my studies and now work an ordinary job life. But I don’t even know how this “works” because I decided to drop out after three years at university because I saw my first company growing and dedicated more time to learn by doing.
After some years, the Forbes Magazine awarded me with a special prize, which included a full scholarship for a Master's Degree in Innovations and Entrepreneurship and in the beginning I couldn’t take it because I didn’t finish my bachelor...
Finally the university allowed me just to attend the classes, learn and pass through the whole program without gaining any certificates and diplomas at the end. So you never know what life will give you, but the experience of the JA programs prepared me to take all the chances and opportunities life offers me.
You recently moved to the Silicon Valley with your Start Up – don’t you think that’s a little bit mainstream?
That’s correct, the offices of my main project “DigiMark” are located in Sofia, Bulgaria, also in Porto, Portugal where my (Alumni and company) partner Ricardo is from.
In addition, we have offices in NYC, Salt Lake City and, indeed, San Francisco/Silicon Valley. In the States, our colleagues work from home or in Coworking Spaces, in Europe office spaces are much more affordable. US customers are a little different than the Europeans and it’s so important for them to have a service that knows their business culture well and is not located with a time difference of seven to ten hours.
Putting your home country in focus: How’s Bulgaria treating Start Ups and how’s the country’s image abroad?
Unfortunately, Bulgaria still has these old, stereotypical clichés glued to it and in order to prove our customers wrong, we first wanted to make a move towards them by setting up branches in the States.
Though, the climate to set up a business in Bulgaria is really okay I have to say! There aren’t many hurdles to set up a company, taxes are low and you can get lots of funding opportunities in the beginning.
By Bulgarian Start Ups going abroad and coming back when they’ve gained reputation, we will be able to turn the page and get rid of a definitely outdated image.
Rumor has it you had a chat with a major player and denied a tempting offer a fews years back - have you ever had regrets about this decision?
It’s true and you should definitely stay tuned because there’s something in the pipeline again, however, I can’t tell any names. In the past, we were happy to receive such good feedback and this offer as a conclusion but to be honest, we were a little unsure if we could master something this huge back then.
So no, I never had regrets about this story, sure you should dream big and take challenges but we wanted to stay realistic and grow just the right amount. If this offer came in today when we are already a grown company, we would be totally ready to jump in so it was worth the while!
JA 100th birthday book by Larry Farrell (2018)
Book by Sabirul Islam (2012)