A group of six friends from a tech university founded a dormitory-based startup. Looks like one of the most uninspiring LinkedIn clichés you’d read today. But what if I told you that it didn’t happen yesterday in Berlin? It was 16 years ago in the South-Eastern European capital of Sofia and was one of just a few software companies in the region ready to kick off as an agile startup before any of this was hype.
The students were unimpressed with their first jobs. They didn’t feel treated as nicely as by their own families and friends. So they decided to set up a company that provides a homey environment to feel good again. Sounds cute, right?
The start of the startup
A couple of them quit their jobs and asked their employers for some outsourced work just to start with something. The income from the first project was 3 EUR per hour. The rest of the money came from a voluntary shareholder “fee” of about 100 EUR a month – paid by all of them. This is how Dreamix was founded. Oh, and the name – it came after a brainstorming session. In the words of Stefan, it speaks for itself: a place where the dreams of the six co-founders blend together. Even cuter.
Today, one of them, Stefan, is the 170-people software service provider’s COO. He is a Chief Operations Officer who smiles, especially when he recalls the growing pains of their student dorm endeavour. He is also an unusual operations leader indifferent to corporate hierarchy. Which was music to my ears when I first met him a year ago. I had then just joined as a marketing manager, with a pinch of a company journalist. Since then, a lot has changed.
Now the tech company invests a lot in its operational excellence. In Stefan’s words, “operational excellence is a symbiosis between processes and people.” To him, it defines the best way the company should operate, as opposed to the top management just giving directions. Still music to my ears. We sat down to talk about how the first days of Dreamix reflect on its continuous benevolent growth and how decision-making and responsibility evolved in the process.
Handling early stage decisions and responsibilities
While talking about founding their own company, Stefan never mentioned money or profit. When I asked him why, he simply said: “We didn’t need much money as students back then”. So despite being university top graders and knowing the huge potential of their startup, their main focus was an enjoyable work atmosphere. Still, they worked hard, grew quickly, rented a few rooms and hired their first employees, at which point responsibilities and decision-making started weighing heavier. “As entrepreneurs, we needed to tackle complex problems on a daily basis,” he says. And unanimous founders decision-making wasn’t scalable anymore.
At first, they decided to introduce the CEO role as something between a moderator with the power to cut off extensive discussions, and a leader who takes the final decision. Then they realised it’s quite a challenging role for any of them, so they started rotating on it. Every quarter, one of the board members would step in the shoes of the CEO and feel the bourden. In Stefan’s words, that approach actually helped them appreciate the stakes of this big responsibility and helped grow both as a company and as individuals.
Decisions and responsibilities distributed
A couple of years later, the dream team realised that not everyone feels comfortable in the boss’ role. The responsibilities increased. So instead of burdening just one leader, they decided to distribute responsibilities and introduce a C-level board for the first time, featuring a CEO with a longer mandate, a COO, a CTO and a Talent & Culture leader. Still, they regarded themselves as just the guys who had to take care of those things, no VIP mindset.
Nonetheless, I was curious to learn if the students from the dorm were already replicating some corporate books models at this stage already. The answer from Stefan was “well, it was 95% intuition”. Knowing the stories of other companies does not help much when you have to make it work in your own specific case, he says. In fact, there wasn’t really a big emphasis on a strict structure. Up until now, the operational focus was on delivering technical excellence to more and more clients.
The CEO for the last six years, Todor, was focused on business development the most, no matter that he, too, was a tech talent. The rest of the leaders cared for growing the region’s most prominent tech talent and pushing for excellence in delivering topnotch solutions for the clients. Note, they don’t call the clients clients, but partners. One of the most important priorities was working for sustainable partnerships in socially beneficial industries, like healthcare, fintech and transportation. The three industries are Dreamix’s focus of expertise to this day.
Anyone can become a shareholder and CEO
The last two CEOs are among the employees who were hired as regular employees and performed exceptionally well onwards. A couple of other senior employees also became partners in the last two years. This literally means joining the leadership by owning a share and participating in the board meetings where strategic decisions are taken.
The horizontal structure and approachability of Dreamix’s leadership is something that we’re very proud of. You literally can’t feel that there is a hierarchical boundary between the CEO and everyone else. In the process of designing our operational excellence, Stefan insists that various people from all departments attend. The format is in a circle and allows for an open discussion, which is only guided and streamlined with their strategic vision.
Stefan finds it important that we keep growing, while being efficient and in accordance with our values. This means that whatever the stage of our development is, we need to keep working with socially responsible businesses and increase our value to them. “Contributing to the ecosystem of entrepreneurs who make the world a better place will make us proud of what we do at work and in life.”
The wrap up
In the Marketing team, we have recently dug deep into people and partners’ sentiment on Dreamix, including how they feel about the company and how they perceive it. The most common phrases they used were “high quality professionals”, “good communication” and “friendliness”.
After learning more about the growth of Dreamix and how its management evolved, I realised that the dorm friends’ dreams from 2006 have actually come true. It hasn’t happened as a miracle, but with persistence and adherence to their initial values: prioritising a kind atmosphere over profit, sticking to high tech standards and feeling good about the whole thing.