“Having an idea is not enough: the implementation is more important.”
Interview with Erik Barna, founder & CEO at ‘Life is hard – work soft’
With more than 15 years of experience in software development, Erik Barna, CEO and founder of “Life is hard: work soft”, combines both technical and entrepreneurial skills. He started his career by developing a web platform for real estate agencies. Nowadays, ‘Life is hard’ provides software solutions for transportation, medical businesses and areas of cloud computing.
So, can one turn an IT technician into a great leader? Let’s ask Mr. Barna.
In 2004 your company was founded under the name ‘KL Software’. After 9 years of work your company went through a rebranding process that changed even the work culture What was the cause of these fundamental changes?
To increase our brand-awareness we had to invest in marketing development. With a limited budget we wanted to have a good starting point for a new brand.
That’s why we asked our branding partner for just 2 things: create our brand-awareness without big expenses, and identify us in the tech industry so that everyone can understand who we are. A new name shouldn’t have cliché words and phrases like ‘solution’, ‘software’, ‘technology’, ‘provider’.
Having understood that, our branding company came to us with an extraordinary and interesting name ‘Life is hard: Work Soft’. Initially we thought that only the second part ‘Work soft’ will be an official name. But the position of the agency was opposite. So now ‘Life is hard’ is our name, and ‘work soft’ is one of slogans that create balance (negative-positive) in this brand. We made it our mission to make life easier and more enjoyable. Our employees and customers happier. This is our philosophy, our ‘raison d’être’.
Did you and your team members feel any changes in the company after rebranding? How did it impact work efficiency?
Of course, we felt a new ‘wave’, because the philosophy of rebranding is to to improve the quality of our lives and lives of people who are using our solutions. Inside the company our organisational culture was rethought too, and until nowadays we use this approach ‘to generate good things’. It has a great effect on our employers and clients.
How exactly did you change the organisational culture?
Our new organisational structure is based on holacracy. We have several self-departments at ‘Life is hard’, each of them representing a certain product. In other words, these departments remind of small independent companies. Meanwhile we don’t have HR managers: all recruitment processes are based on the involvement of each team player. If a department needs to hire a new employee, the whole team takes part in interviewing and after makes a decision. If they don’t feel the ‘chemistry’ and empathise with a new candidate, they don’t hire them, even if this person has a good background. So, the emotional level plays the most important role. This approach makes our employee retention efficient.
Do you have conflicts between departments? If yes, how do you solve them?
I can’t classify it as a conflict, but sometimes we have problems with communication, even inside one department. So we are still learning how to communicate better. For example, our meetings have been changed: we have stand-up meetings regularly for each product. It’s obligatory for everybody to be present, even remotely. Additionally it helps to come up with new ideas. On regular basis we have also KTM’s (Knowledge Transfer Meetings) which allow us to transfer know-how and best practice principles between departments.
We implemented a goal management framework: OKR (Objectives and Key Results).
There are specific objectives set for each department, upon which managers and team members define key results. It allows everybody to clearly see the main target of each product and each department.
Which modern project management approaches do you use?
As a SaaS company we are using an Agile methodology in product development, but this applies to new products and services. On the other hand, when talking about existing products, it is worth emphasizing that approximately 60% of time is spent on maintenance. For these operational improvements and bug fixing we use Kanban principles.
When you were talking about the timeline of ‘Life is hard’, you mentioned that in 2008 the firm’s turnover reached a record EUR 80,000. But you started to regret that you didn’t pay enough attention to the firm’s development since its foundation. What do you regret about it? What would you do it differently?
In 2008 I held the position of Technical Director at the local branch of an international company, and in my spare time I developed some other products as a freelancer for outsourcing projects. That’s why I started to regret that I hadn’t spent that time for business development from the very beginning when I’ve started the company in 2004. Instead of permanent employers I had only other freelancers in my team.
Why do you think about the high popularity of outsourcing in IT companies now?
Definitely it helps to cut costs, especially in a short time. However, in my opinion it is not a long-term strategic plan. Romania is positioning itself as a country with low-cost IT labour that attracts Western European companies to collaborate with local providers. But tomorrow they can find a cheaper labour, in Asia, in particular. That’s why this approach doesn’t add value for a country.
Now, we are looking for companies to invest in from our main fields: insurance, health-tech and mobility (or smart cities). And of course, a team plays the most important role. We need to preserve trust between start-up members and our staff.
If a software company wants to work for long periods of time, which business model would you recommend?
It’s difficult to generalize all SaaS companies and give them an all-purpose advice. They should develop in the field where they are the best. If you are pulling a firm in different directions, you can fail.
Are you planning to enter foreign markets and do business globally? In some earlier interviews you mentioned a plan to strengthen the presence in the UK market.
We have started to expand in Poland with one of our product 24Broker. We are looking for local partners to help us to burn out stages and grow faster. Also we have an outsourcing company that works in the UK, but it didn’t develop properly. We did some strategic mistakes and now now this company is smaller. Our plan is to change the direction of this company from outsourcing to our product development: what we do the best.
3 years ago ‘Life is hard’ announced a launching an accelerator. How do you select start-ups for this program?
We started the accelerator as an internal idea buster for our employees. One of the result of this accelerator is a product (donez450.ro) for the entire community. This platform is proposing to encourage and facilitate blood donation. Now, we are looking for companies to invest in from our main fields: insurance, health-tech and mobility (or smart cities). And of course a team plays the most important role. We need to preserve trust between start-up members and our staff.
There are a lot of talented tech enthusiasts in Romania, but sometimes they have a lack of managerial skills. What do you usually advice for a technician who wants to run a business?
Regretfully, it’s a huge problem for Romania. As you said, these guys have a lack of entrepreneurial and marketing skills. Having an idea is not enough: the implementation is more important. I often hear the expression ‘I have an idea, but I can’t tell you about it, because you will steal it’ (laughing). Actually, an idea has no value until you implement it. For this process you need to become an entrepreneur, know how to face the risk and accept that people around you can be better in certain fields.
Everything can change tomorrow, especially in a digital environment. So it’s important to be well-informed and flexible in business.