StartUs Presents: Imagga

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Imagga is an image recognition platform that helps you build scalable, image intensive apps. We asked CEO Georgi Kadrev to tell us his startup's story.

Describe Imagga in 50 words or less.

Imagga is a pioneer in the image tagging technology-as-a-service space. The company provides an easy-to-use API in the cloud that can be integrated in any image intensive app in a matter of minutes. Imagga’s customer base is spread over the globe – from the U.S. to Latin America, Europe and Asia.

Why did you decide to pursue your own dreams rather than someone else’s?

All the founders and the early employees of the company are entrepreneurial and creative people by heart – each of us has always been keen on creating, experimenting, and challenging the status quo. Imagga is the intersection point of the passions that we have – hardcore technology, photography and imaging, and web services and APIs.

The sparkle of what we started a long time ago, initially just as a side-project with the dream it could be a successful company one day, proved to be powerful enough for everybody to keep going even in the hard moments, which are inevitable in the life of every startup company. Now everybody is happy the we came this far, though we risked a lot.

7 years from now: How did your startup change the world?

Imagga API is going to be an integral part of any application that has something to do with images. We enable apps to understand images and with the exponentially growing amount of digital images produced these days it’s insane not to take advantage of all this content – organize it, make it searchable, make it contextual, monetize it, get insights about it. We are here to stay and aim to be at least as widely used in the imaging world as are Amazon Web Services in the world of web services.

In what ways do you measure your success and how do you make sure you don’t lose track?

As a technology-driven company the quality of our technology is always an important part of our focus. If the technology is of high quality – this organically grants us more happy customers and a strong reputation, and thus – high recurrence and growth of our user base.

We listen to our customers a lot and every reasonable feedback is immediately taken into account. If aligned with our short-mid-term strategy we aim to implement it right away without hurting the backbone of our roadmap.

It’s hard to say “No” sometimes but we also learned the hard way that too many “Yes”-es lead to a lot of distraction and low quality that can practically turn a half-hearted “Yes” into a painful “No”.

Describe your typical working day from coming to the office to leaving it.

Part of our team is remote and no matter if we are in the office or somewhere else we tend to use electronic means of communication almost all the time.

After some quiet time in the morning I start with a review of the top priorities in Trello, review of the internal communication, checking emails from customers and partners, re-prioritization if needed, then jumping on the actual tasks. Quite often also generating ideas about improvements, optimizations, adapted approaches in various aspects of our business and new features. My key responsibility is connecting the dots – in the past, in the present, and in the future.

The working day almost never ends – we live with Imagga in our minds!

Already pivoted? Did customers use the image tagging technology like you imagined it in the beginning?

Shorty after the inception of the company we pivoted from a B2C smart search engine for stock photography to a B2B image tagging API. A lot of people aware of the technology behind our search engine started asking if they can use the technology in their own projects and this triggered one of our original ideas that we had left on the shelf – to offer this as an API that others can use. After that major pivot we turned into a platform, and by definition the use-cases, I’d say happily, are more diverse than what we could imagine!

In the recent months one of the nice use-case “surprises” we had was the creative use of our technology in advertising campaigns for huge customers in the U.S. and Asia, independently from each other but with a similar ideology. So now we think about how we could dig even more deeply into that space.

Bootstrapped or financed: What fuels your startup now and what will in the future?

Before the major pivot, while we were still a stock search engine, we got a micro-seed funding from the Greek angel group The Open Fund. It helped the founders-only company back then to start generating revenue and then keep running as a company after the initial funding was utilized.

About a year later, shorty after our pivot, we raised a seed round from LAUNCHub – one of the leading Bulgarian seed funds, plus some of the most successful tech entrepreneurs in Bulgaria as angel investors. This round helped us grow the team with several stellar people that are now an integral part of our team and bring our technology and API to the next level.

We are currently profitable and organically growing, but still open to opportunities to speed up growth with the help of the right venture capital partners.

With ferocious competition and a booming trend to build new companies: How do you make sure you don’t get lost in the shuffle?

We’ve always tried to set the trend instead of following it. Or maybe more precisely – to be visionary enough to sense the trend before it’s obvious for everybody, so we can be well positioned when the critical set of conditions is there. That explains why we were one of the very first vendors to offer easy to use cloud APIs for understanding image composition, colors, and most importantly – content.

Also, we were one of the very first early stage companies in Bulgaria to get outside funding, after a year of hard work and hurdles and back in the days when getting venture funding in Bulgaria sounded less probable than a ‘slumdog millionaire’ story.

What do you look for in team members?

Natural drive and enthusiasm to learn, experiment, and challenge boundaries. Ability to adapt, communicate, be empathic toward the other members of the team and our customers, investors, and partners. Commitment and strong sense of responsibility. High level of morality, integrity. And ability to have fun!

Why would a talent join your team?

Couldn’t think of any better place to work if you want to have the opportunity and the freedom to solve hardcore technology, scalability and optimization challenges. The chance to be part of the company changing the (image understanding) world is also very high and the vision is already quite clear compared to what it was when we started.

We are currently in the sweet stop where we have the culture of a startup company that encourages creativity and favors outstanding results over strict rules, but also have passed through most of the difficult moments that an earlier stage startup is going to have.

What was your most memorable moment so far?

Honestly, there are so many almost every week, if not day, that it’s hard to pinpoint just one. Recognition-wise one of the strongest moments was winning second place at the European Entrepreneurship Challenge by Intel and UC Berkley in 2012. Business-wise – our first paying customer, our first enterprise customer, our first meeting with a huge potential customer when I almost couldn’t sleep the night before. Technology-wise there are many – optimizing our search engine speed x10 times, getting the very first version of our tagging technology running, making our platform highly scalable.

What advice would you give fellow founders for their startup?

Identify exactly where (in the value chain) your company really really adds value and throw all your focus and attention there. Always think about how you can better serve your customers and don’t forget to be happy about it – this is what recharges your battery and brings you even more creativity.

In my opinion there are no particular rules, other than the ones that are about principles and integrity, so please take any particular outside advices with a pinch of salt – others’ success is a personal thing that is quite often inappropriate to be copy/pasted in your own business odyssey. This also applied to your competitors – instead of being jealous of their success in a certain field and stuck in the state of mediocre fast-follower, think what you could do better and where you can add more value.

Last but not least – be ambitious – the higher your target the higher the chance to hit it, because your own motivation is so much higher that you really push yourself to the limit and whatever happens you will never regret that you’ve given it your best shot.

Would you change anything in the path of the company if you had the chance to turn back time?

I do believe that in practice the path you’ve walked is the optimal one for you. You can learn the lessons of experience only post factum.
However, looking back I’d change just two things. First, don’t get distracted by too many opinions, even if they are coming from a respectable source. You are in your business because you have the guts to be there, and your advisers are just advisers because they don’t.

Second, try to build (and adapt, if needed) policies. It’s your team’s world – you all can (and must) decide in advance how to handle situations with co-founders, interviews, employees, potential investors, advisors, partners, and customers. Of course these evolve over time and with experience, but you need to realize it’s up to your team and nobody else to decide how to run the company and the sooner everybody knows your policies, the better for your relationships.


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