Senad Santic is a Swedish and Bosnian serial entrepreneur who’s founded companies like Avidnote, Robinize, Mendy, and then probably the most popular one, ZenDev, one of the fastest-growing companies in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Senad, can you tell us about your background?
I’m actually originally from Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in 1993, when the war broke out, my family and I moved to Gothenburg, Sweden. But I was a small kid back then, I was four years old. So I spent almost my entire life in Gothenburg. That’s where I grew up, that’s where I went to school, and so on. I first had to learn the language because it was a new country. But when you’re a kid it tends to go really, really easily. So by the time I was in first grade, I was speaking the language. I thought I was going to be a professional basketball player and just around the end of high school, I saw that it was the end of the road for me. So I had to think about what other alternatives I had in life. Like a lot of other kids, I grew up with a computer and I have to say my dad was really really ahead of his time there. We were living in Bosnia in 1989 when he bought his first computer and he’s not from the IT space or electrical engineering, he’s actually an economist. But he had a friend here in Bosnia that wrote a simple software for him very early on to help him with his accounting. When he saw how much that helped make him much more effective in his work, he realized that whatever this thing computers is, this is the future. When we came to Sweden even though on welfare, he made sure he bought a computer so that my brother and I could grow up with it. That’s how I started playing around with it. I started creating websites very early on because dad, when we got to Sweden, couldn’t get a job as an economist.
They told him, IT is really hot right now. So he brought home these books about HTML and I started learning with him. I started creating the first websites – basketball websites for my league. I really enjoyed it and I figured it would be really cool if I could make a living off of this. I started studying software engineering in Gothenburg which is the birth city of the car brand Volvo. Most of the industry, in one way or another, revolves around it. For me personally, that just wasn’t appealing. The idea of working in a company where there are another 30-40,000 people working for that company.
I wanted to have something much smaller where I had much more creative control of what it was that I was going to create. So I started the first company as soon as I got into college. College was basically a backup plan. If creating websites doesn’t work out, then it’s good to have an engineering degree, right? So I started creating these websites on the side and because I didn’t have money for marketing, I realized I have to get really good in search engine optimization.
The ambition was to create websites that would drive enough traffic for me to be able to make an income off of ads, off of those websites, so that by the time I’m finished with college I don’t have to get a job.
I had three or four flops. It’s a long story. And then I had my first hit, which was a super simple website – you enter a word and you get a hundred example sentences for that specific word, and how to use it in a sentence. Because it’s what we call in SEO, a long-tail play, it had a ton of traffic. On a good day, you would have over a hundred thousand visitors and then I just put on Google ads on that website. Everybody that clicks on it gets me a little bit of income and basically got that goal that I wanted to.
In my third year of my Bachelor’s Studies, I got the opportunity to move to the United States for a paid internship. This was in 2010. Nikola, a friend of mine that I’ve known my entire life, also jumped on that opportunity. I ended up in San Francisco for a year and he ended up in San Jose. And what I saw there was how people did this at scale and I was kind of bit by the startup bug. But what I also realized was that I didn’t have any business knowledge. I had more of a hack of how I was making money online and I figured out the SEO game, but I had to learn a lot more about business to be able to create the kind of companies that these people are creating.
After a year in San Francisco, I got back to Gothenburg and I decided to get my Master’s in Entrepreneurship and Business Design. Towards the end of that education, my professor contacted me and he asked me if I wanted to start a new company with him. He was already a proven entrepreneur in Sweden who had created a company that had great revenue and so on. This was a great opportunity to have a mentor in real life. We were creating a mobile application for schools in Sweden for task management and communication between teachers and students. So I did that for about three years. I worked as a developer. But after about three years it felt like it got monotonous.
I started actually thinking about what other things I can do in life and what has always been there was the idea of moving back to Bosnia. But it’s one thing to spend the summer and another to try to live here. But I figured I’d give it a shot although it might be difficult to find friends. I figured if I start a consultancy company, by the very nature of a consultancy company you get more connections to your own company, and through those people, you also get to be a part of the community. Whatever we were doing up to this point in Sweden, let’s just offer that as a service. In 2016, my friend Nikola went to Gothenburg to find our first clients and I went to Mostar to create an organization. That was the start of ZenDev basically.
How do you know who is the right person to form a partnership in business?
We were always talking about the idea of starting something in the Balkans. I just knew he would be the right person for this because he’s an optimist and he’s a very hard worker and we’ve done other projects before as well. And I think that’s one of the key things when you’re looking for a partner to do something, that additional level has to be on the same wavelength, basically. So even if you’re great friends, it can be very tough if there’s always going to be that one person that’s trying to push and the other person that’s being pulled along. That kind of relationship is not good for anybody.
We both had a lot of ambition and when I talked to him about this, he was ready to quit his job in Gothenburg. I told him to sleep on it and tell me the next day, and his reply was that he can sleep on it, but he’ll tell me the same thing tomorrow morning.
And that was basically what it was. He didn’t have any issues with that and obviously, for him, it wasn’t as big of a transition as it was for me. I genuinely wanted to move down to Bosnia and that’s where I spend the bigger part of the year now. I fly up to Sweden probably four or five times per year, but then Nikola also comes down to Mostar probably three or four times per year as well, so we get to see each other.
Is taking a business idea that works elsewhere and applying it in your area good?
As far as taking something that’s working in the US and moving it down to Bosnia and Herzegovina, that’s something that we initially thought a lot about. The things that are available in the US but also in Sweden (which is perhaps even more digitalized in the United States) can just be copied and should hopefully work, right? But then you realize you have to evaluate where Bosnia is. So the things that are cutting edge in Sweden are maybe too early for Bosnia to go in. For example, if they haven’t got used to purchasing clothing items online, then you can’t start thinking about an Uber or something like that.
Then you always also have to value what is the purchasing power in the country that you’re in currently. Because the weaker the purchasing power, the more you’re going to have to orient toward must-have needs rather than nice-to-have needs. People don’t have the luxury to spend money on Spotify or something like that, so you have to think about what’s a real must-have for the people that are locally living here.
Are there good developers based in Bosnia and Herzegovina?
That was one of the unknowns when I came down here, and so what I saw essentially was that I didn’t feel like on software development they were lacking behind what I had seen in Sweden and the United States. That wasn’t a problem. What I did see was that, because Bosnia and Herzegovina has been an outsourcing country for the past 20 years, what happens is that you get quite good at the tech side of things, but as far as the business side of things and product development and thinking broader, they were lacking in that. I think that we’re on that transition right now, where a lot of these people feel like, all right, we’ve done as much as we can do in this outsourcing phase. Can we start creating our own products? And I know that a lot of other countries have gone through this process before.
If you look at a country like Poland, for 10 to 15 years they were purely an outsourcing country for Germany, but once they had their first hit, everybody starts pointing to that one success story. I want to be a part of that as well, as you start creating a culture around that. So it’s a combination of education, but also even getting out there and trying it, because outsourcing will always be a pretty lucrative business. We’re doing great on our consulting side of things, but I feel like we need to do more and we need to promote a culture of startups, and that’s why we extended the side of that.
We’re going to take a lot of that profit that we’re making off of our consulting and we invested into our own products that are either 100% founded by ZenDev, like Robinize, or co-founded with partners in Sweden or the US, and so on something like Mendy, where we create this thing together so that we’re much closer to that development. When we work on a project like Mendy, you want everybody to feel like we’re creating this together, So you don’t want it to feel like there’s a client in Sweden and then there’s us here and some mediator in between. This is all one group and we’re creating this together. It just happens to be for the Swedish market this time.
Is starting up a business in Bosnia and Herzegovina a bit bureaucratic? What are the differences between Sweden and Bosnia entrepreneurially?
Starting a company in Bosnia and Herzegovina versus Sweden – the bureaucracy, of course, it’s not ideal. So there is some paperwork. It’s maybe five or six weeks walking around different places in the city to hand over papers. But in the grand scheme of things, as far as how hard it is to actually create a company, the easiest part is the paperwork. If you genuinely want to start a company, that really shouldn’t be the thing that’s blocking you. And if people say that that’s the thing that’s blocking them, that’s not 100% genuine. Now, of course, it needs to be made easier so you can promote entrepreneurship so that it’s easier to get to that point and make it a bit cheaper as well. That’s one part of it, and then it’s also a mentality issue.
A lot of kids here are the kids of a generation that lived during a communist Yugoslavia and what you were taught there was that as soon as you’re out of your education, the government would find a job for you and there’s a chance you’re going to be there until your pension – focusing on that security because what their parents told them was that security is everything.
I think a mindset shift has to happen there so that you don’t always have to go through that 100% security path. One of the things that they did really well at my college was breaking down the mystique or the involvement of having a startup that fails. In Herzegovina, people are very much worried about what the neighbor’s going to say and so on, and what they were able to do at that college in Sweden was to say that as soon as you’ve tried, you’re a winner already. So I think we have to teach our youth that there’s nothing wrong with trying and failing. Just make sure to learn something out of it and something good will come out of it.
Is the Balkans a good region to set up a company for digital nomads? How do you see that progressing over the next five to ten years?
The thing in Bosnia and Herzegovina is we have such a complex structure, if you look from the top down, from a government perspective. I’ve tried to change things in the sense of introducing a digital nomad visa but it ended up being so much hassle. There are politicians that pretend that they will help you to get some points here and there, but when it comes down to it, they don’t actually want to do the work. Maybe eventually they will see the opportunity.
One of the things that obviously I’m doing and I’m trying to promote it a lot in every way that I can. I try to stay active on LinkedIn and talk about the different opportunities that are there because I think like you said when you were here as well, you had no idea when you came here, there are a lot of similar benefits that maybe Spain has. It’s very affordable as well. It obviously has some drawbacks as well, but certainly has a lot of things to offer.
I’m also trying to kind of put out a mindset there. And if we can just get a buzz going in a vibe going, that’s more positive, that’s not just looking at the negative side of things. We’re just getting some breakthrough there. I had broken in on nomadlist.com in the top 100 towns In the world for digital nomads. A buzz is coming around and I’m just an optimist.
What is ZendDev’s growth strategy?
The idea we have in Zendev is not to just have one product but to have a few products just to create that culture of creating products. We have multiple teams working on multiple products at the same time, and I think what most consultancy companies will have is that a lot of people will come to them and say, look, I had this idea and you want to build it with me and you get a certain percentage of the equity. You have to know your own business to be able to evaluate what is genuinely legit in all of this, what is not, who’s ready to co-invest with you, and who is just looking to have some fun with your money.
So, in the case of somebody like Mendy, they had heard of us through some colleagues in Sweden. They came to us and said all right, we have this idea. But they were also very proven themselves. They had a company called UV, where they did their staffing in Gothenburg and employed over 500 people themselves. People that have a track record will naturally look for other people that have a track record as well, and then you can meet up halfway and see what we can build together. In the space of startups, they say don’t invest in ideas, invest in people. So it’s mostly that we feel that the people that are really competent in what they’re doing.
And then the second part is are they a cultural fit for us as well? We’re going to have fun working on this for the next five years because you can’t build a startup in six months. So we felt that, for example, with Mendy would be a ton of fun. They have such great energy and they’re a great complement to the skill sets that we have. Everybody wanted to have skin in the game and everybody saw the benefit of everybody else being involved in all of this. So that’s an example of how we get into these kinds of projects.
Basically, what we do there from ZenDev is that we took some of the profit and invested it into Mendy. We reinvest money into some of these startups. What we want to do as a company, if these startups are very, very successful in the end, is to have a kickback for all the people that are in ZenDev because they’re part of creating this as well. So we created a model about a year ago where we decided that 50% of all the dividends that are taken out of ZenDev are going to be given back to the people in the company.
Through that, we want to create that ecosystem of people that feel all involved in this and if this group over here does a great job on Mendy and we do a great job on Avidnote, we’ll be able to distribute all of that between all of us. It was an idea that was probably lurking in the back of my mind for a year. I spoke to Nikola about it. I think it’s a big decision. You can’t go back from a decision like that. But we felt that it was the right thing to do and we’ll see how things play out.
How does Mendy help its customers?
What we saw in Sweden is that a lot is moving towards video. So very early on in Sweden, we had an application to have your doctor on your phone and then there was the Mindler, which is basically your therapist on your phone. So we saw that in Sweden people are accepting of these kinds of services and if you can accept a doctor over the phone, we figured certainly a handyman can help you over the phone if you can use the camera of the phone in a good way. For someone like myself – I’m a person that can’t fix anything at home – and Gen Z which is going to be even worse because everything’s going into the space of being a service, we figured this makes sense and it was just a matter of how to set it all up.
The idea was Mustafa’s who has actually been a handyman for 20 years, so he understands that industry very, very well and he said that a big percentage of these issues can be solved over the phone. For the ones that can’t be solved over the phone, then we’re going to send out a handyman.
Can the principle of Mendy be used elsewhere?
Yeah, absolutely. We have thought about the idea, of the video call aspect of solving problems in your life. And it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibilities that Mendy will branch out like that. But what I feel also is that we need to own one vertical first. So it’s initially this handyman vertical. Figure it out, learn how to sell, who to sell to, and so on. And only once you’ve figured out one vertical is it worth actually starting to expand. But I won’t be surprised that there’s a ton of competitors in the ton of other spaces, because overall it’s going to be a better life for all of us when they are more services like that.
How will the AI industry develop and influence digital nomad jobs?
Certainly, Chat GPT is a disruptive technology, so a lot of things are going to change in a lot of different industries because we’re also at the infancy stage of what Chat GPT is. Nobody knows exactly where this is going. Robinize certainly is an industry that has been heavily, heavily touched by that and for the people that don’t know about Robinize, it is a tool that helps you write SEO optimized content that we feel is going to rank in Google. The first question is what is this going to mean for the Google search engine in the next five to 10 years? Will it be as dominant and will their algorithm still be the same? That is our go-to place for information, but what I think ultimately is going to happen is that a lot of the content that has been put out to the internet by people that are aware of how to use SEO content is actually pretty generic. If you’re putting out content like that, Chat GPT will be able to replace you because you’re not actually creating any new value.
But if you’re really a serious content writer, where you’re actually doing serious quantifiable but also qualitative research, Chat GPT won’t be able to generate those types of articles. Eventually, Chat GPT will scrape all of that and maybe use it as some of their future articles.
What do you think about Chat GPT and plagiarism?
It’s very interesting. Sam Altman is telling schools not to try to figure out how to create plagiarism detectors for content written in school because his point is it’s never going to go back. People are always going to be able to use this tool to generate assets and you’re not going to know if Chat GPT generated it. And he says I tried to figure out how to work around it, in the same way, that when the calculator came around, you have to figure out how to make your school work around the calculator
In a lot of ways, what Chat GPT does is what actually the human mind does in a lot of places as well. For these simpler articles, you take four articles on the same topic, you try to read it fast and then create some sort of aggregation of all of that. Yeah, now there’s a computer that can do that for the easier variants, but if you really go deeper into the research, there’s the competitive edge for people And in a sense, it’s good, because we perhaps don’t need any more generic information. We need new cutting-edge information that comes out to the world.
How far off are we from full-on videos of someone talking being created from AI without anyone doing anything?
That’s the million-dollar question that everybody’s asking themselves and all the implications that it’s going to have. I don’t know how far along it is, but there is something to the fact that how we create new knowledge if you will, is the same way that this AI is going to do as well. It’s just going to have the ability to read much, much more than we can and be able to create much more comprehensive things. I don’t know what the future for human beings is versus AI, but I think eventually we’re going to be able to do more of the things that we do enjoy, and that’s not just like the creative side of things. I think our quality of life overall is just going to be better. We’ve programmed the people in the world that all of these nine-to-five jobs that came with the industrial revolution are what gives you purpose in your life. Meanwhile, you feel like you’re doing the same thing eight hours a day for maybe 20 years of your life. Is it really that evolving for you? I know that it’s scary in the sense that if this is the only thing that I know and a computer or a robot can replace me for this. It’s never fun, but I think for the new generations that are coming, it teaches us that we don’t have to learn how to do those kinds of jobs. We have to figure out how to constantly be evolving ourselves with time, and I think that’s what it’s going to come down to. So I think more good will come out of it than bad.
If you could take all of your life experiences that you’ve lived, turn around, and give someone one piece of advice from all those experiences, what would that piece of advice be?
So, mine would be patience because one of the things that I struggled with in my early 20s was that I started developing these panic attacks that were really bad for my health, and most of it came out of the idea that I was literally going to a website called retireat21.com and you had this 20-year-old that retired, but I thought because I was going into entrepreneurship, I need to figure out everything at once. So rather than thinking that you need to get to this destination in this amount of time, just enjoy the process. Know in which direction you’re going, but give yourself time.
Nikola always says: “When you have slow success, it builds character. When we have fast success, it builds arrogance.” So, if you’re young and out there, give yourself time. There are very few Zuckerbergs out there that are billionaires at 24. Don’t even look at it.
Where can people reach out to you?
I spend most of my time on LinkedIn. Reach out to me if there’s anything that’s of interest to you, if you have any questions, or if you potentially want to do business together.
Thanks. I appreciate your time, Senad.