Seven years ago, the smartocto we now know, didn’t exist. At that point there were two analytics companies. One was called SmartOcto, led by Erik van Heeswijk and Rutger Verhoeven, and was based in the Netherlands. The other company, called Content Insights, was led by Dejan Nikolic, Ilija Susa and Dragutin Miletic, and was based in Serbia. Both were trying to tackle the problems in the publishing industry by building great editorial analytics systems.

Read all about how these two start-ups came into existence and how their paths finally crossed to form a brand new and even more innovative company called smartocto.

Now, we are seven years into the story. And you know what they say about seven years, right? The famous seven year itch! A popular belief that states that happiness in a marriage or long-term romantic relationship declines after around seven years… So, we’re wondering, has the love for our company declined amongst our founding fathers or are they still head over heels? Let’s ask them all the ins and outs!

Looking back at the first years of smartocto, what were your expectations and how was your experience?

The Dutch founders (Erik & Rutger) : "We were naive. I believed that what we envisioned - an actionable real time analytics tool, something which was severely lacking in our industry - would be something that would sell itself. But, it turned out that we needed to become evangelists, convincing people they had a problem they weren’t aware of and at the same time teaching them that we had a solution. The result of this was that during the first year smartocto was still more a dream in progress than an actual company."

The Serbian founders (Dragutin, Ilija & Dejan): “Prior to the merger, the Content Insights and SmartOcto teams had got to know each other while working on a project for a mutual client. We expected that the merger process would be much more difficult in the sense of aligning two companies, but since we were immediately hit by the corona pandemic, we focused only on important things in order to keep the company and the business afloat. And, we needn’t have worried: the new leadership sailed the stormy waters with ease.”

What was the biggest challenge you faced in the past 7 years?

Ilija: "The pandemic that we already mentioned. Some questions really kept me busy like: how do we emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever? How do we find opportunity in the middle of difficulty? How do we keep the same development pace when people are scared, and work more from home? And, how will the team manage their emotional stress?"

Dragutin: "I agree with Ilija and, in general, I think working on innovative solutions while keeping all other areas of the business operation in check is always challenging. But, during this time I think we got to look at these challenges as one of the necessary variables rather than obstacles, and this helped us to adapt pretty fast."

Erik: "For me, I think the biggest challenge was selling smartocto at the beginning. We seemed to spend more time explaining our vision than we did actually showing the product. Although we built something really wonderful, we faced some tough times after 3 years. But, we managed to come through, and like Dragutin said, these challenges indeed were the necessary variables for our success."

What went completely different than initially expected? Anything you would've done differently?

Erik: "What I didn’t really expect were the difficulties we had at the beginning. Now, we realise that a smart realtime notifier was way too early a concept in 2014/2015. It certainly was the right vision (and I’m very proud of that now) but we were simply underfunded and the concept was too radical for newsrooms at that time. It needed time to ripen for some years - and we didn’t have the resources to do that easily. That said, as a startup you have to accept that you’ll rarely get it right the first time, so there’s not a lot that I regret. We believed in our vision and we stuck with it. We needed the hard lessons and the reality check that came out of that. We toughened up."

Rutger: "Something that went differently than expected was the impact of the Impact Radar. I really wanted to build that feature because I believed that timing would be a massive differentiator in the market. But, when we built it, there were no real indications that the whole timing visualisation was actually resonating. Now, our smart notifications on timing completely took over the purpose!"

Dejan: "I feel like our initial success (in product validity, sales and funding) was not entirely expected. We inhaled it as it went along. Of course, looking back I know what I should have done differently, but I’m not sure I know how we could have. A business is not binary and unfortunately if you know that the solution was not X it doesn’t mean it was Y. It could also be A, B, C, D…."

What was the biggest success?

Dejan: "The biggest success in the early stages of Content Insights was definitely getting validation through the qualifying funding process and first big sophisticated clients like Ringier Axel Springer and Süddeutsche Zeitung. Also, the success that allowed for everything else was the three founders becoming a team and going all in."

Rutger: "Yes, signing with some leading companies in the industry, like DPG and all their portfolio brands, is a great success. Personally, I loved collaborating with Dmitry Shishkin and producing a whitepaper on user needs with him. But most of all, I think that being here, in the shape we’re in, means we are at a stage not many startups get to. That’s a huge success in itself!"

Dragutin, Ilija & Erik: "Attracting great people to work in our company - and enabling them to grow with us - is the true success of this company. People always come first. As founders, we always discuss things we (slightly) disagree on, yet never is there any blaming."

What effect did the merger have on the company?

Ilija: "We certainly combined the best skills from the two companies in order to further our common goals and ultimately we’ve created one company much stronger in total than the two previous companies were individually."

Rutger: "We can now fly to Serbia and drink rakija, make new friends - and drive a Yugo… who wouldn’t want that?! But seriously: We got so much more powerful, extended the team with more development power, data analytics and data science and were able to combine historical analytics with real time analytics, which opened up the possibility to start calculating predictions."

Erik: "Well, SmartOcto NL really needed to upscale the Dutch technical departments, because Peter (our Senior Software Engineer) was really juggling 32 plates at the same time and we lacked good data science. I think Content Insights needed a bit more focus on the market and organisation. We really complemented our weak and strong points perfectly. It takes time to adjust strategy and vision, and to invest your time in something that you didn't have in advance, but the people and the similar culture made it work."

Where is smartocto headed, what are your predictions for the future?

If you’ve ever wondered if our founding fathers are on the same page when it comes to the future of our business, then wonder no more. We asked them: where do they see our company headed?

All founders: "In the short term, we see the team growing and expanding and we believe that we’re on our way to becoming the European standard for editorial analytics. In the long term, we’re planning to become the biggest and most powerful decision making system in the world!"

If you had to give other start-ups a golden tip, what would it be?

Dragutin: "Expect a marathon-long experience, although you should be prepared to feel like you are sprinting most of the time."

Erik: "Don’t get sucked into the myth of the ‘self-made man’ or ‘self-made woman.’ You will need friends to succeed - and lots of them. Things will get hard, pain will come, and your persistence will get tested."

Dejan: "Have a life partner who has a steady job with a solid salary ;)"

Ilija: "Use the same amount of energy you are spending on the clients, to grow your employees. One without the other simply will not work."

Rutger: "You definitely need friends to survive, but you also need the skin of an elephant. You’ll need to be prepared to continuously spread your beliefs - and you need to listen carefully to the things people say (especially those who don’t believe in your dream)."

If you had to start a new business in a completely different field, what would you do?

Erik: "I am really scared to think about this, because If I were a serial entrepreneur, I would probably die of a heart attack, but, I do have some ideas. Maybe building a sort of Youtube/TedTalk for inspirational and interesting content that really inspires people, or helping journalistic media that exercises press freedom under difficult circumstances, or building a political database where in real time all the votes of cities or countries in Europe are collected and policy becomes 100% transparent. I am sure my wife would try to talk me out of most of it, and I cannot blame her for it. She knows."

Ilija: "I would start a new startup in the field of quantum technologies!"

Dragutin: "Well, I would do something around medicine in combination with technology, agriculture, some solution for early warnings or prediction to be used in the civil sector."

Rutger: "I am worried about our planet and what is left of it for my kids, and theirs even more. I follow 'The Happy Activist' on LinkedIn to follow initiatives across the globe that bring purpose and are connected to ’saving the planet’ in a positive and constructive way. So maybe I’d put my energy into an initiative like that. But on the other hand my true dream is to create a motion picture … So who knows?! Perhaps I’ll just put all my efforts into realising that dream and create the new Pulp Fiction (never settle for less right?)"

Dejan: "Everything I ever did was always leaning on my previous or current job or business. It’s like a flow. I notice a problem and try to solve it. So, it’s difficult for me to change fields. But, it would definitely have to do something with solving things with biochemistry for the greater health of humans."

We think it's safe to conclude our founders are still head over heels with smartocto... A happy marriage indeed. Now, back to work!