How Croatia can become more like Korea

By Axel  Reiserer

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Croatia and South Korea may be more than 5,400 miles apart and the shortest flight from Zagreb to Seoul takes more than 13 hours. But despite the huge distance they also have many things in common. They boast a beautiful coast line, they are dotted with romantic fishing villages. They both host a vibrant IT sector.

It is here that Croatia can learn from Korea. The whole world knows about and admires Korea’s excellence in high-tech, automation and knowledge-based solutions.

Not enough people know about the prowess of Croatia’s information technology sector. This is where the EBRD comes in: funded by the government of South Korea, the Bank recently organised a trip to Korea for small business in the IT sector.

One of the participants in the visit was Marin Vidaković, founder, owner and CEO of Sedmi Odjel, a leading provider of enterprise cloud architecture in Croatia and beyond.

Established in 2010, Sedmi Odjel today has more than 25 staff, EUR 2 million in annual revenue and in addition to cloud solutions also provides software development and ICT consulting. The company is now looking to add cyber security to its offering.

The EBRD supported this undertaking by financing a feasibility study, supported by the European Investment Advisory Hub, the European Union and the European Investment Bank.

The visit to Seoul allowed Mr Vidaković to meet up with fellow IT entrepreneurs and engineers at “Connect Innovation Korea”, a conference dedicated to all aspects of Industry 4.0.

Mr Vidaković liked what he saw: “It was more than I expected. We met several companies who I think we will be able to work with in the future.”

Understandably, he would not say exactly what sort of cooperation he has in mind. But the potential is wide, ranging from technical cooperation in the design and production process to distribution agreements: “The Asian market is huge”, Mr Vidaković says. “Meanwhile, we could become their gateway to the EU.”

Even before the study journey to Korea, Sedmi Odjel had started to cast its eyes beyond Croatia. A company already has a subsidiary in Vienna, Austria, but operates much wider: “Our client base ranges from Switzerland to Canada”, Mr Vidaković remarks. More than 60 per cent of the company’s revenue is derived outside Croatia. “Our vision is to become an international company”, he says.

Korea is now definitely on Sedmi Odjel’s list: “We are thinking about it. I liked what I saw there.”

And what are the key factors in such a decision? “The most important thing is the workforce. You need staff you can count on. This matters more than anything else. Of course cost is important but in our line of business we aim to create a lot of value for our customers and we can only do this with the right workforce.”

Despite Sedmi Odjel’s wide-reaching ambitions the company has not forgotten its origins and is an active player in south-eastern Europe, too. “Most of our work is actually done in the region and we work with many telecoms companies there, for instance in Kosovo.” Mr Vidaković sees huge potential which is ready to be unleashed: “We expect Kosovar companies to expand, taking advantage of competitive labour costs and a skilled workforce.”

One prerequisite for this is access to finance, a hurdle which for many start-ups all too quickly becomes an insurmountable obstacle.

This, again, is where the EBRD can play a supporting role with tailored loans especially for small businesses to foster their potential to grow through innovation.

But more than anything, for Mr Vidaković what matters most is the attitude: “In a way, we are still a start-up: not by the work we do, but by the way we think and how we see the world. In our first 3 or 4 years we grew by 100-200 per cent every year. Then we slowed down to 10-20 per cent. But now we are returning to the initial pace again.”

It is a growth rate which would even make Korean companies envious.

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