Specialisation, soft-skills and mastering the business impact of technology
We had another email/virtual chat just ahead of the Christmas holidays with Krešimir Končić, CEO of Neuralab. Initially, we were prompted by the recent news they released, however we knew there is an interesting story behind all those achievements in the WordPress e/Commerce world. After reading Krešimir’s answers, my assumptions were confirmed, and I must admit I was impressed by his attitude and work philosophy, which in the humble opinion of the founder of this platform and someone working in the technology industry, is energising, refreshing and honest.
However, it is most beneficial for their clients, which obviously translates into all those industry recognitions they received.
Two things are especially exciting in this story. The first one is how they structurally approached the team growth from a commercial and client value perspective, which at the same time adds such a depth to their developers’ skill set. The second one is again beneficial for the clients, ‘no bullshit’ policy and honest approach in bridging dev-business relation.
I hope you will enjoy reading this Q&A, I personally found value in Krešimir’s answers, and as always I extend my thanks to him and his team for assisting with assembling this piece.
When you remember your early beginnings, which memory evokes a sense of nostalgia?
I had an extreme urge to travel and learn new things back in the college days. A couple of us managed a student association (Euroavia). We hopped around the EU, it was cheap as we buzzed around students’ dorms and ate cafeteria food. We also met other like-minded people, new cultures and companies that sponsored our workshops or academic projects.
You might be wondering how this is connected to Neuralab, right? Well, we as students needed to sell our projects to various sponsors and backers, and this was our early glimpse into what actual selling processes look alike.
For instance, we needed composite materials for our Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) project. I took my dad’s car and travelled to Karlovac to meet Kelteks, a company that was producing fibre. I needed to persuade their factory director to sponsor us, as the fibre is a crucial element of composite materials.
I was 21 back then with no sales skills and the vocabulary of a tech-only geeky youngster. I honestly explained to him that we are students with no budget, but with cool scientific projects and that we will utilise his products in a new and pioneering way. He recognised that we are a hard-working team and sponsored us despite my trembling voice. We continued our collaboration throughout the years.
This experience was an eye-opener since it showed me there are achievable cooperations whenever you can give some value to it, no matter your current skill or expertise. It pushed me to found Neuralab as I knew that we could work immediately with various clients, at least to some startup extent.
Did the growth of the company change you personally, and if so, how?
Neuralab’s growth showed me that soft skills are as important as tech skills. We started as a couple of developers that were interested in programming languages, web development, neural networks, hard statistics and how to build complete digital products.
In all fairness, we needed to learn how to build solutions first as we instantly had clients that needed complex custom eCommerce platforms. Yeah, we needed to code a shopping cart before thinking about eCommerce philosophy and overall business strategy.
Developing and learning soft skills changes you, and your view of the world dramatically. Learning soft skills grows a team as things become more nuanced and more complex – team output does not depend on a couple of us, but on dozens of us. Managing expectations, time, budgets, emotions and hype around projects has become more important than deciding which tool to use.
What are your company values, something that you see embedded in your work and culture?
I saw a LinkedIn post the other day that stated: ‘There are no problems in business, just challenges’. I cringed instantly upon seeing such ‘new business lingo’. I’m continually trying to influence my team not to talk in these buzzwords and overly simplistic terms.
In short, we are here to deliver our clients an excellent eCommerce project – and that means being direct and calling bullshit whenever you see it. We have a responsibility to tell our clients about potential problems when we see them. I believe now we are seen as experts that don’t shy away from having difficult conversations. This concept is woven into all of our projects and clients expectations.
I think this is a truly necessary approach because our designers and developers are working directly on clients’ business processes, and our solutions will have a massive impact on clients’ future revenue. Both positive and negative. This is a big commitment as well as responsibility. A lot of agencies are missing out on this.
In your t-portal.hr interview, you have mentioned that you are trying to cover each junior role with three senior roles, to make up for the mentorship and training. How many years would a junior developer be in their role, and how can they grow?
I do not believe you can easily generalise or quantify the exact number of months for being a junior. It generally depends on the individual and precise tech stack.
But to be fair, I would say that two commercial years are enough for a developer to start behaving like a mid-level colleague. 7 years of commercial experience in one technology would make you a senior developer to some extent. Of course, I presume that this person would also simultaneously work on her/his writing, mentoring and business skills. I believe that most craft-based careers have this 7-year pattern to mastery.
As for the growth part, we always promote writing as a proper tool to sharpen your development and overall communication skills. Writing is natural for developers. We start by teaching juniors how to write good code comments and business requirements.
Then we continue to work on writing clear and concise emails or various technical proposals as the second stage of our internal writing effort. Lastly, we teach juniors to write technical blog posts and tech opinions towards clients to communicate expertise and knowledge about projects.
Juniors see the bigger picture through these real-life scenarios. They can then intertwine their software development skills with newly achieved business writing skills.
What is the best advice you share with your junior employees?
We are pushing our juniors to learn theories, concepts and engineering thinking first and tools second. We are working in a swiftly changing web industry where tools and practices are evolving on an hourly basis. But knowing major digital and software theories will allow you to build your ‘utility belt’ from the ground up.
If you could point out major milestones for Neuralab, what would they be?
Gaining our first eCommerce clients such as Vipnet, HalPet or Altus was a major milestone around 2009, as this meant that we could produce web applications for enterprise clients. This was also a time when we received our first design awards such as the Weekend Media’s Somo Borac or VIDI award.
Stepping into the WooCommerce partnership as the first CEE agency to accomplish this was the second major milestone. It coincided with opening our New York office in 2014, and Neuralab’s baby steps ‘across the pond’. We started to work with our US clients and produce more international web & eCommerce applications.
The third and still fresh milestone is our acceptance into WordPress VIP – only a couple of agencies in the WordPress global ecosystem have accomplished this. We are very proud to be part of this group. It takes a lot of continuous hard work and evangelising WordPress to cut into this partnership. This will help us produce WordPress and WooCommerce projects for even more complex and challenging scenarios, something that we have been craving for some time.
What are some other secret ingredients of a good e-commerce business, besides technology and a good product?
There are two crucial moments in time for an eCommerce owner: starting his eCommerce project and starting to sell on his eCommerce project. These are entirely two different beasts.
When starting an eCommerce project – cooperation with eCommerce agencies is paramount and this chemistry, whether good or bad, will translate into design and development. Then, this will translate into User eXperience and in the end – onto overall Customer eXperience. I would say that choosing the right agency to work with on an eCommerce project is a massive factor in overall eComm success.
The second part is starting to sell your products on the newly developed eCommerce project. I believe content and context are still the most relevant factors in generating eCommerce revenue. We talked about this exact concept during the last digital breakfast. All eCommerce experts agree: producing high-quality content and presenting it along with your high-quality products will generate a warm context for your users to interact with your brand and in the end, make a purchase.
Why is the Clutch recognition so relevant, and does it provide industry acknowledgement or contributes to widening your client portfolio?
The Clutch is globally relevant. Their audits/agency reviews are performed by external auditors and direct clients. These grades and overviews are not paid by us or some external entity. They are produced by clients and people we worked with. Clutch’s approach is pretty detailed as they have several team members contacting our clients, probing approaches in past projects and interviewing several stakeholders to see how our agency performed on a given project. Neuralab has received 32 of these audits (I believe the highest number in Croatia) and because of that, we have been named as the best audited global agency in the WooCommerce space.
All in all, Clutch IS recognized as most Croatian and global agencies are present on this platform. For instance, you can find other prominent agencies such as Kontra, Q Agency, Five, Inchoo etc.
Why is ISO 27001 an international standard for information security management important for your clients, and how long did it take you to get through the process?
Clients are starting their eCommerce and web projects in an entirely different era. Privacy, security, data breaches and fake news are becoming new factors in the digital landscape and simply taking care of web design, development or content is not enough.
Our clients need to take care of their own and their customers’ data, privacy policies and various security or government regulations. eCommerce owners nowadays have more serious headaches about these new requirements than ever before. This is the reason why we wanted two things: first, we work with OpenSource tools such as WordPress and WooCommerce, so our clients are the owners of their complete eCommerce projects. Our clients own their platform and whole encompassing customer data.
Secondly, we wanted to adhere to ISO 27001 security standards to plan our production with regards to the highest security and privacy standards and to give our clients peace of mind when dealing with various data, hosting, servers and privacy issues. The whole process of implementing ISO 27001 into our production lasted for four months and this was an opportunity to polish all of our internal nuts and bolts.