How our family tandem of husband and wife started our first business together

Starting a business in a post-communist Eastern European country (i.e. Bulgaria) has never been an easy task. It is quite challenging, actually. Entrepreneurs have to deal with the clumsy, not-business-friendly, bureaucratic machine and to find their way through a dense jungle of highly corrupted structures. Before  moving to the States three and half years ago, that was the only kind of business environment that my husband George and I ever knew or worked in.

When George broke the news to me about 12 years ago that he was seriously thinking of starting a business of our own – well, I was not thrilled, to say the least. The political and economic situation of Bulgaria at that point was not very thrilling either. George was then working for an international financial institution, while I was teaching at the local university. I had never been a "business" type of person. I had always wanted to live a simpler and more peaceful life.

So, the concept of partnering my husband in opening our first business together, on the very third year of our life as a couple, kind of contradicted my nature. We were two opposites of character and I mainly saw my place in that tandem as the "hero support". But, combining our skills, we decided to give our small business venture a shot. A software development company appeared in 1995.

Our first office was an eight-floor condo in a typical communist residential building. That was just fine with us as a start. Our first employee was George’s best friend (also the best man to our wedding), who is still with us today as the CTO of the company (and much more than any job description could ever describe). Our first secretary was one of our best friends. The first desks in this first office of ours were manually assembled by the four of us. Then, one by one, the other software developers got hired.

Our first customer was a hysterical US client, himself an owner of a software company, who used to change his priorities, ideas and moods more often than his clothes. He called us for everything he was not able to do or comprehend himself, which could be translated as “calling all the time”. He called even during the night. The pile of lessons we learned the hard way kept growing. “Do not stick to only one customer - no matter how small you still are or how promising the business for that customer might seem to be”, was just one of too many to follow. “Start developing the company’s own products and market them ourselves”, was another one.

On the fourth year, our growing personnel got a bit too tight in that condo-office and we also rented the available neighboring condo.  Access between the two was quickly-and-least-painfully organized by taking off the balcony partition. Smart – yes, convenient – not particularly. That was the point when we decided we had had enough. It was time to find a larger office, preferably – our own.

Our idea was to find some kind of existing facilities that would serve our needs: a fixer-upper. After having looked at several options, we decided to go for the second one we liked, and never had a second thought.  The  process of  buying a property (in Bulgaria) that had already been pledged as collateral against a business loan by the previous owner, that we successfully managed to obtain possession of, was a horror story of its own.

It took us one year to transform it from dingy, shabby sewing-company facility of about 15 separate rooms into an open-space contemporary software development office space. We created three separate work areas – two for the development teams and one for the management, each featuring its own kitchen and restrooms, plus a reception area and a conference room. The first architectural design firm we used developed the idea for numerous hospital-like rectangular rooms, so we turned to a second company. They did a great job designing a contemporary and quite attractive office space. Nonetheless, it required some serious transformation before it was suitable for our needs.

George and I had a clear idea how our developers worked and what their needs were, while the designers obviously did not. They wanted it  flashy but less user-friendly. For instance, the flooring the designers chose (shiny silver-streak tiles in high-tech style) were not suitable at all for our people, who liked kneeling down next to a buddy’s workspace. Neither was the too pricey high-end lighting, or some of the color scheme, or the original design of office furniture...

Our decision to take a down-to-earth approach to their  attractive high-end design made the design company quite suspicious and they even warned us that, if we bravely went for our version of the interior, they would never mention our office design in their portfolio. But, stubborn as we have always been, we did it our way, substituting the high-end items for people-friendly options.

When it was finished, the design company was really happy. They not only included us in their portfolio but also proudly featured our office in an Interior and Design Market Magazine, with tons of photos. So, we ended doing quite a decent job in the filed of interior design.

Despite the huge responsibilities and risks, as well as the overwhelming stress and lack of any private time, the early years also produced some very worthwhile experiences. Like the pleasure of  working with amazing people, most of whom not only stuck with us for years (some have long passed a decade!), but also became valued partners. It has been so rewarding to realize that while we were thinking our life was lost in the roller coaster of business ups and downs, there have also been so many precious moments - my favorite one being the fact that people we once called employees have evolved into close friends.

So, in the long run, I feel tired but happy about what we achieved. Would I want to do all that again? – Probably not. Would I do it anyway? - I think, yes.

This article was originally written for MyVenturePad.com (published December 18, 2007)