A few years ago, in France, with an Erasmus scholarship, Răzvan Bretoiu worked at the Informatics Research Institute in Toulouse. Once every few days, he had to travel a long distance to do his shopping and wasted a lot of time. Back home, in Cluj-Napoca, the young man called his friend, Alexandru Bogdan, whom he had known since kindergarten, telling him that he had a startup idea, an older desire of the two was to start a business together.
After analyzing several ideas, this is how, six years ago, a startup appeared that aimed to bring home shopping from the supermarket, a model similar to the online food delivery platforms that gained momentum during the pandemic.
Even if their idea did not catch on then, because the big commercial networks were not so open to this type of business, Alexandru and Răzvan persevered in their desire to create software products based on their creed: simplifying life through innovation, offering simple solutions to complicated problems.
The team was also joined by Cătălin Briciu, with whom Alexandru and Răzvan knew each other from high school, and the three of them founded, at the end of 2016, Linnify, a company active in the IT market in Romania. Linnify develops mobile and web applications, both as its own products and for third parties, with customers mainly from abroad. Currently, the applications developed by the company are used, among others, by companies from Germany, the USA, Canada, and China.
Innovation Labs, the most important pre-acceleration program for information technology startups in Romania, played an important role in their development as entrepreneurs.
'The Innovation Labs program came at the perfect time. Before it, we worked on our idea, deliverME, for 6 months, by ourselves in an apartment. We built a large part of the product, prepared a business plan with financial projections, and were confident that we were ready to bring the concept to market.
Our perspective changed completely after the first few days of the program when we realized that we had skipped the most important step, market validation.
Innovation Labs was where we started to build a solid knowledge base. That was the beginning of our networking with the people we’ve just met. I have kept in touch with some of them until now and have built ever closer relationships', says Alexandru Bogdan, CEO, and co-founder of Linnify.
After participating in Innovation Labs, the founders of Linnify were involved as mentors in the pre-acceleration program, then as jury members, and currently they are also local partners and sponsors in Cluj-Napoca – one of the 5 national centers where it takes place the Innovation Labs program.
Alexandru's recommendation for young people entering the Innovation Labs Program is to make the most of the workshops supported by mentors.
'The mentors' experience and different perspectives provide a very good overview on the basis of which you can outline your idea more and more clearly. One of the biggest advantages is the fact that you get to come into contact with people in the field who are experts in various areas, but most importantly, you understand the steps necessary to launch a start-up', pointed out the Linnify co-founder. He says that at the beginning, when he entered entrepreneurship, he wished he had 'paid more attention to certain areas in advance, to have more solid foundations: financial, management and marketing.'
'There are a lot of things that nobody tells you, especially if you don't study at a college in the field,' he says.
'We strongly believe that to innovate you need three main things: capable people, know-how, and modern processes. All three are connected and accentuate each other. We stayed close to the universities and every time we had the opportunity and could get involved in local programs', says the entrepreneur from Cluj.
Linnify is to be the main partner, together with the HIVE organization and the Cluj-Napoca city hall, in a program aimed at startups in the health field, carried out at the European level.
'The process used for market validation will be the one developed and used by us with the objective of increasing their chances of success,' says Alexandru Bogdan.
At Linnify, we place a strong emphasis on company culture, points out Alexandru Bogdan. 'We believe that the surrounding environment is very important to be able to make a real impact.'
What makes Linnify different?
'In terms of Linnify's offering, we differentiate ourselves through our validation process that provides the tools any startup needs to successfully launch and grow a product to market. It combines different methodologies recognized in the field in a unique way, making the investments made more efficient through intimate knowledge of the market and iterative experimentation of hypotheses', reveals the entrepreneur from Cluj.
In order to build a product that matters and is successful, Alexandru Bogdan believes that an entrepreneur must understand very well what is the need that the created product solves.
'In short, why would anyone use that product, why would anyone spend time or pay for it? The first two reasons why products fail are the lack of capital and the fact that the startup built a product that does not meet the needs of users', Alex Bogdan emphasizes the reasons why an IT startup may not be well received on the market, adding that there are many other external factors that can influence success: from political factors to economic and social factors.
The nice thing, he says, is that by validating the market you reduce one of the biggest risks of failure, and 'there are always people interested in investing capital if the product is successful and growing.' So, with a well-designed validation process, you can significantly increase the product's chances of success, he sees.
Regarding the things that an entrepreneur must know before launching a product on the market, Alex Bogdan says that the following three aspects are always in his mind when he thinks about any product:
1. 'Validate the need for the product before you start developing it. It is much easier to change something at the idea stage in a few minutes or hours than in a developed product, where it can take tens or hundreds of hours and a lot of money.
2. A product is built by a team, not by a single person. Find people who complement you, and who find themselves in the vision and the chosen direction. Create a comfortable space for them to enhance creativity and innovation.
3. Find the right balance between the data you gather to make a decision and your gut. Speed and agility are the factors that make the difference in the dynamic world we live in. Minimize risk by gathering data to the point where you have clarity and are comfortable taking the plunge into the market.'
'The surrounding ecosystem grows much faster if we give back the time, knowledge, and opportunities to explore to the early adopters. I think this is happening more and more and there are a few companies that are pushing forward. I hope that their number will increase and we will transition as soon as possible towards an innovation center with several successful local startups', hopes the entrepreneur.
Linnify's founders set out to become the best digital product development agency in Romania, through the unique internal process mapped to startups. At the same time, this year they will take stronger steps towards expansion in the market in the United States of America. And their ambitions are high for the future: 'In 5 years, we see ourselves with our own investment fund in addition to the product development company, through which we will invest in startups at the local and global level.'
The Innovation Labs program reached its 10th edition this year and is the largest pre-acceleration program in Romania dedicated to technology startups. Its main goal is the growth of young generations of new Romanian entrepreneurs, by creating an updated context for learning, practicing, and debuting in the business environment. The entrepreneur Andrei Pitiș, together with the co-founder Răzvan Rughiniș, university professor at the Faculty of Automation and Computers of the Bucharest Polytechnic University, managed to bring Innovation Labs to 18 universities in Romania, with the aim of familiarizing students both with the experience of product development, as well as with entrepreneurial experience.
'I would like to take the Innovation Labs Program in the direction of attracting people who are different. Let's get as many people as possible, for example, journalism students or tech marketing students to write the tech marketing stories, theater students to help with pitching, or visual arts students to design the app pages. Now we are partners with all these universities, and if we manage to make mixed teams that can really collaborate, I think the sky is the limit', said Andrei Pitiș.
In 10 years of Innovation Labs, 1,300 teams have enrolled in the program, of which 500 have been in the mentoring program and more than 180 have been in a final such as Demo Day. Out of the 180 teams, over 40 companies are active on the market, have received investments or have developed from their own sources, and have ongoing business. Their value is estimated by Andrei Pitis at approximately 250 million euros.