IF YOU DON’T BUILD YOUR DREAM SOMEONE WILL HIRE YOU TO HELP BUILD THEIRS.
(Tony A. Gaskins Jr.)
How does one know when an idea has the actual potential to turn into a success? What does it take from its original concept to the final realization?
Find out what happens when two innovators from the Austrian startup-scene sit down together and talk about how their respective upbringing and their international backgrounds influenced them to rather take on a big risk than to miss the opportunity of influencing the world around them.
Ali Mahlodji, CO-Founder & Chief Storyteller at WHATCHADO and Vlad Gozman, TEDxVienna Founder talked about their biggest similarities and differences in regards to their experience of realizing innovative ideas, and exchanged tips on how to assemble a highly motivated team and build an interested community in Austria. As our monthly topic suggests great minds “think of NO box”…
Ali: Do you have a certain motto, or philosophy you go by?
Vlad: That would probably be something like, “never stop learning”, “learn from everyone you meet” and most importantly to me “always stay curious”. How about you?
Ali: Those two apply to me as well, because without curiosity constant further development is not possible. From a very early age onwards my dad also taught me to question people, especially the adults trying to tell me what is right and what is wrong.
Vlad: That is interesting, I actually had quite the opposite experience. I grew up in Romania and thus my parents, coming from a communist background, had a very fixed mindset. Back then, they were pretty much convinced that things would stay the same forever. It was only much later that I learned to question things.
Ali: Why did you leave Romania?
Vlad: Well, it felt like I could not reach my whole potential there, but I left after gaining a few years of entrepreneurial experience. I was an adult then, I guess it was probably very different for you because, as far as I know, you left Iran with your parents when you were a kid, right?
Ali: We left when I was about three years old. We had a good life there, and just like yours, my parents thought that things would always stay the same. But then the Khomeini regime forced us to leave and we lived in Traiskirchen for seven months. From then on, my parents where convinced that in an ever-changing world, one must not blindly believe other peoples’ concepts about the future, because no one knows what is really going to happen. It was hard for me to find my own way, though they have always been very supportive parents. I had a problem with stuttering and, therefore, being afraid of speaking altogether, I quit school. From the age of 15 onwards I worked many blue-collar jobs and with my background and having the name “Ali” that was not the best starting point.
Vlad: Did you face a lot of barriers from Austrian society?
Ali: It was not so much the Austrian society, I think it was and still is human to treat strangers differently. I guess, it’s the same everywhere around the world.
Vlad: I have to agree. Was that the basic motivator for starting your own company?
Ali: I experienced very bad leadership during that time and I promised myself that when I have my own company, I’ll be the greatest boss I can possibly be. I self-studied a lot and read numerous books on management and entrepreneurship. I primed myself and I am still of the opinion that, if you have a vision and you really believe in it, you can achieve whatever you want. How about you, what made you start TEDxVienna?
Vlad: After moving to Bucharest to pursue a university education, I worked various jobs and also learned about the advantages and hardships of entrepreneurship while dabbling with starting two companies by myself. I was very lucky to have put aside a modest financial security before coming to Austria and looked for business opportunities that would allow me to start over. I have always been a TED-devotee myself. I’m a huge technology enthusiast and remember seeing some of the most cutting-edge technologies being presented for the first time on a TED stage.
Ali: That is so cool. Years ago I watched a TED talk every day to get inspired and motivated to follow my own dreams. I was glad when I heard that somebody founded TEDxVienna.
Vlad: I recruited four people via social media and started promoting the idea at community places like the Impact Hub Vienna and sector3. The startup-scene was still in its infancy back then. I started promoting TEDxVienna online, and although my idea was admittedly only in its initial stage, I pushed it like it was all already really happening.
Ali: I started WHATCHADO with only seven volunteers.
Vlad: How did you convince them to follow your lead? In my case, TED was already a brand name then. How did you in contrast get people to follow an unknown project?
Ali: In Austria you have to decide what you want to do at around 15. I did not have an idea what to do and no overview of the possibilities back then. I used to ask people to tell me about their lives and also wanted to create a book filled with life stories. 20 years later when I was a teacher, I saw that kids were still having the same problems. So, on the weekends I started to create the platform and promoted it everywhere. And people were willing to contribute. In 2011 I launched the website with 17 videos. When this was featured on the ORF Nachrichten one night, I had some major companies that wanted to be a part of it very quickly. But I had three other jobs at that time and had to make a choice. So I chose to start my own company.
Vlad: I remember reading about you, when I was on the train to Bratislava in 2011 to grab a flight to Edinburgh to attend TEDGlobal. Back then I had already set up a non-profit for handling everything.
Ali: And when did people start calling you and offering to work with you?
Vlad: In the beginning we where only five people, hardcore TED-enthusiasts. TED itself was also pretty new. From self-funded first events we came to have a team of around 60 people now with up to 1400 attending the conferences yearly.
Ali: How do you organize so many people?
Vlad: There was an inflection point in 2012 and it was a very work-intensive time for me since I joined another company and AustrianStartups, all at once. Therefore, we introduced a top down hierarchy with different teams and team lead roles. Although it all worked out really well, the hardest part for me was to not do everything by myself and let other individuals take over. The blog for example, is almost completely autonomous and I fully trust that it is extremely well done. In the beginning I wrote or proof-read every single post myself.
Ali: I feel the exact same way. Last year in July I changed from being the company’s CEO to being Chief Storyteller and, so to speak, ambassador of WHATCHADO. It was the best decision but it was also very tough to let other people, though I totally trusted them, take over. I thought I was a good CEO for starting the business and I am still in the management team, but I want to concentrate on other things now.
Vlad: That is a huge realization, isn’t it? I am probably somehow better at initiating and starting things than at managing them.
Ali: Same here, I love taking a risk and developing an idea and when it’s up and running, moving on to the next project. How important is teamwork for TEDxVienna?
Vlad: The team is the most important thing. You need to build a common vision, give people ownership of topics and facilitate their development as integral parts of each team, each with its own autonomy.
Ali: You started six years ago. Do you think you had an impact on people? Which one?
Vlad: The biggest impact, I think, is on the people who create TEDxVienna, who make it work and contribute to a bigger cause. For many of our speakers, having had a TEDx talk somehow impacted their lives and careers. My hope is also to get the audience inspired and curious about the future. How do you asses the results over the whole lifetime of your company?
Ali: My team also changed a lot, from very young team members to more experienced people who are proud to contribute. We are reaching out to 1.5 million people who are looking for inspiration on our platform and we are very excited about WHATCHASCHOOL, a project we founded two years ago, where we go to schools and talk to kids about their future. We get very good responses from teachers and parents and were able to reach about 60.000 kids in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Giving something back to society has always been a big dream of mine. Not only the big players are able to achieve something, small companies can also make a huge difference. I believe in that vision and I am very happy that there are so many supporters believing in it as well.
Vlad: Where do you see WHATCHADO in five years?
Ali: I want the platform to be active worldwide because, who knows, why shouldn’t for example an Austrian kid be inspired by a story from Uganda or Australia? We recently developed an app which enables people to upload their stories themselves. I also think education in general should pick up on the latest trends as far as learning is concerned, technologies kids are interested in. How about you? What are your expectations for TEDxVienna?
Vlad: I would love to see the TED concept develop further, maybe alongside a future trend to reach and impact even more people. The TEDxVienna conferences will most likely not grow much bigger in size, as the events are not only about the talks, but also about meeting new people and developing new ideas together. So Ali, to round it all up, what is the best thing about your job?
Ali: It is entrepreneurship as a whole. It is living your life, not somebody else’s and being able to create the world around you.
Vlad: I think we agree on this. Being able to take risks and make my own decisions, that’s what I enjoy most about my work.
For this interview we tried to take our monthly slogan seriously and think of NO box. That’s why we did an additional “interview without words”, were the two innovators had to convey their opinions using just their expressions.
Here are the results, click on the picture to see what they were mimicking!