an entrepreneurial journey

Toma Grozavescu, Growth Hacker, SMARTERS, Romania

This article was first published in 2020 in the Entrepreneurial Mindset Network eZINE Volume 3 no 1

You are the founder of SMARTERS. What motivated you to set up your own company?

It’s a funny story, actually. Starting SMARTERS was never the plan. My dream was to start a pancake shop with a childhood friend (I still want to do that) but since I was just a new graduate I didn’t have the resources to get started. 

My search on Google for “what do you need to know to start a business?” revealed the importance of Marketing so I chose to study it at Masters level, thinking it would help me to prepare to open the pancake shop.  

Then, when I started studying marketing I fell in love with it! I discovered “growth hacking” - a more data-based, creativity fuelled, growth oriented way of doing marketing - which I felt fitted me perfectly! 

Towards the end of my studies, I realised that I still didn’t have the money for the pancake shop but I had discovered a new passion. However, since the concept of “growth hacking” was not well known in Romania, I couldn’t find any jobs. And then, in a moment of optimism,  I told myself “If there is no one doing this in Romania, why can’t it be me?”

Image credit: SMARTERS

What elements of your university course helped you on the path to becoming an entrepreneur?

I think there were 3 main ways in which the University helped me in becoming an entrepreneur. 

First, the university environment (probably the most important). After I first got the idea of running a business I started to notice the posters and  Facebook posts advertising entrepreneurship events. I began attending those and learning new things. I got used to the idea of myself as an entrepreneur.  One thing I discovered was that starting a business isn’t the hardest part but after that keeping it alive.

Second, studying marketing definitely helped, and having teachers with practical experience was a huge plus. I think every entrepreneur should understand the basic marketing principles, it will make their life easier and their products/services easier to sell. 

Third, it helped me develop critical thinking. My Bachelors Degree was in a Faculty of Political Science and Philosophy; contradicting views on society helped me to be able to see things from different perspectives - a pretty good skill for an entrepreneur to have when your main job is to solve problems. It’s close to impossible for me today to have a strong opinion on anything, because I know it all ‘depends’:)

Were there any unexpected problems that you faced in the early days of the company and how did you deal with them?

Definitely, plenty! First were - how am I going to get the paperwork right and  where will the official office be? 

The hardest part though was learning everything on the go, especially recruiting and management. I remember, the first person I hired, I had to ask them to quit in less than 2 months (only later did I realise that I had made a bad decision when hiring them). Another challenge was cash flow, having money in the bank, not just on paper. There were many moments in the first 2 years when we were theoretically rich but had difficulties in paying the salaries because either the clients were late in paying the bills, or we negotiated bad payment terms. Then I realised how important it is to have product to market fit: to have a business where the market needs and wants you. 

Almost never in our existence did we have a problem with sales. We could always sell. There were few (good) marketing agencies in Romania and our differentiation was growth hacking, so people generally came to us.

What’ s the thing you enjoy most about your job?

I saw a post on social media a few days ago: “I can choose which 16 hours of the day I work”. Joking aside, I think it’s freedom plus impact. Freedom is not what most people think - doing what you want, when you want, “being your own boss”. I think in a certain measure every colleague that you have, and every customer, is like a mini-boss. But despite this, you have a lot of space to make decisions. The freedom to make decisions drives many people to leave their jobs and become entrepreneurs. 

As a small company, working with other small and medium companies, I see the impact of my decisions every day. And since bringing a positive impact is a personal value, it is very satisfying.  When I was going to start a company, I thought “How do I want the end results to be? What kind of company do I want SMARTERS to be?” And the answer was “One in which, and with which, I would love to work”. That answer influences almost every decision we make and we ended up with a very pleasant work environment and a high level of service for customers.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of setting up their own business?

I think they should immerse themselves in it as much as possible before starting - read as much as you can, go to events. The objective is to learn as much as possible from other people’s mistakes! It will change your mindset from “Can I do it?” to “How can I do it?”.

Second, learn marketing and management. Don’t get too technical, with marketing - the easiest way to sell something is to create it with the right mindset. Regarding management, the best way to learn it is by actually doing it, so either working somewhere else or doing volunteering and coordinating projects will help tremendously. 

And third, don’t beat yourself up because you don’t have every answer. No one does. It’s about being able to live with that and creating an organisation that can find those answers and solutions. ◼️