Watch Omilia CEO, Dimitris Vassos, discuss the turning point in the company in 2010, when Omilia began to develop its own technology, about the great opening in America and the impressions gained from customers such as the Royal Bank of Canada and about the recent significant investment of 20 million dollars from Grafton Capital.
Transcription for the video
J: Hi Dimitris!
DV: Good morning!
J: Thank you for being with us.
DV: Thank you for inviting me.
J: Would you like to say a few words about Omilia?
DV: Yes! Omilia is a technology company and today, as always, operates in customer support automation. So, we’re using the technology to be able to improve customer service, and I say “improve” because there were existent technologies before Omilia that were trying to automate customer service with all those bad experiences that all of us have with those kinds of automated systems. So, we’re trying to destroy those old systems and bring a new experience to the market that is based on AI and we believe serves the consumer and not only the companies.
J: So, you’re not those who say “For credit card issues, press one”, “Say card for..”
DV: No, we’re those who are destroying those.
J: Haha, nice. So, you wanted to talk a little bit about you and your story. Where you were born, where you grew up, where did you go to college?
DV: I was born in Athens, I grew up in Athens. I realized early that I’m into technology. Since I was a boy, people always called me “mastroxalasti”(= the one who likes to “ruin” stuff to see how they’re built on the inside), because I was always destroying the toys they were bringing me, in just about 1 or 2 days, to see the way they’re built – as many others do, I think it’s the engineer’s mindset. In 1989, I left Greece cause I wanted to study Computer Science. It was too soon for Greece back then, so I had to go abroad. I wanted to go. I studied Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College in London. I had a break after my Bachelor’s degree and I went back to Greece for my military service. So I spent 23 months in the Navy. At that point, my mind just stopped working, guys.
J: The last care-free period of your life.
DV: Yes, indeed. But then I returned, and I wanted to continue my studies and I jump-started my mind again doing an MSc in Telecommunications at Imperial College. And from this point, everything went the way they were supposed to. IBM took me from the University through the dedicated programs that the Uni had with the Industry. I started working at voice systems – my dissertation was about phone systems- and I think the rest is history, as they say. This is how it all started.
J: So, at that time, you‘re part of IBM in London?
DV: I’m part of IBM in London and I work there for about one, to one year and a half; as much as I bore being a small, let’s say, entity in a huge company. I quickly overcame the role and the responsibilities that I was meant to handle, and I wanted to do something different, something of my own. So I moved from IBM to one of its business partners, Voice Right, an American company, that wanted to take all this part that I was doing at IBM with them as contract outsourced, so I went along with the contract, and I started working in a smaller company. I did the set-up and organized the whole project inthe UUK, in Europe, and then in Australia too. And I liked it very much. This gave me the opportunity to spread my wings and not only handle the clearly technical aspects of the project, from which I started with and still love, but all the business aspects around it. And moving forward, when I started thinking about having a family, like, “where I will end up?”, etc – back then, though, I must have traveled to more than 70 places in two years, I was constantly in a plane. And I started thinking of a place to end up and settle. So for me, London was too rainy, and I decided to come back to Greece. And this is how Omilia started.
J: Super. A lot of diaspora Greeks are listening to us so this is a nice chance to say, “Guys, come back”. So you started Omilia in 2002?
DV: At the end of 2000, I returned back from London. I came back having in mind to continue working with Voice Right in Greece, to set up a team, here in Greece where there’s a lot of talented engineers, for Voice Right, but eventually, I felt that I had a lot of knowledge in both the technical and the business side of things and I wanted to have a share of this venture. We couldn’t reach an agreement with my boss so I resigned and I decided to start Omilia. I found a partner via my friends’ network, Pelias – I couldn’t have found a better partner really. And in 2002 we started together Omilia.
J: Super. And what is the idea? How did your experience from IBM and Voice Right affect your idea about Omilia and what is the opportunity and gap in the market that you found to begin Omilia in 2002?
DV: Look, in 2002 those kinds of technologies were really new. We were alone back then, we were “shouting” with Pelias about speech recognition and natural language understanding and people did not understand what we were talking about. Having worked in a big company like IBM helped me understand what it means to be an enterprise. What do those types of clients mean, how are we handling them, how I can stand before those big clients. Because this is what I was doing at IBM. They were sending me around the world to represent their product line in voice and voice recognition, so I learned how to handle those big organizations. I think that helped me a lot and is still helping me, because one thing in which Omilia is really good, and clients are always saying that to us, is the way we’re partnering with big organizations, which for me is completely natural, the only way I know to do it. But for them, the feedback they’re giving us, is that this is a very unique way, a very partner-friendly way. They don’t see us as vendors, they see us as partners. And this is the reason why we haven’t lost any customers till this day. Never.
J: And you have good traction and global clients, and your story and what you have achieved till today is very interesting. So we’re in 2002, and you have found your co-founder. So which is the opportunity you’re chasing, which is the market gap you’ve seen, and what is the technology you produce to explore this opportunity?
DV: Back then, I think, what we did – call center automation- was an area that was a little off the grid, because it included telephony within it – telephony was strange for IT. So, what we did was actually bridging telephony with IT, with computers! It’s an area that even today frightens a lot of people. It’s not simple. Of course, since then telephony has evolved a lot – it’s IP-based today- those two (IT & telephony) have started to converge. But back then it was two different worlds. And we had this special know-how in bringing those two worlds together. And this is what we had as a unique selling point, combined with the experience I had from IBM and the networking I had both with IBM, that was using our services, and with big clients over the world.
J: 2002 sounds quite far away. I think back then there weren’t many start-ups and definitely wasn’t a good understanding of the technology itself. What was your view on that matter?
DV: There weren’t any start-ups back then. We were talking about “Silicon Valley” and we were imagining it as something distant and weird, a dreamy place. Yes, we were alone, we were not operating like a start-up, we just started and tried to do the best we could.
J: And I guess the team you had, you started to recruit for Voice Right? Did you have any difficulty finding people and explaining to them what you’re doing?
DV: For a lot of years, it was just me and Pellias. Our first employee was George Develekos, who started with us a couple of years later and was helping us with the technical part. And we were three people for a couple more years. We experienced some hard times up until 2010-2011. We survived the Greek Economical Crisis because we were just a small team, and generally, I think, a decade passed for the market to reach our vision. We started too early.
J: We’re talking about 10 years! Not one or two. How did you survive? What was the business model at that decade, when you were 2-3 people and, I guess, you had one client?
DV: Our first customer was Blue Star Ferries. We’re still grateful to them. They’re still our customer. We created a system for them, automating their customer service, a system that was able to give travel information, book tickets, etc. I remember back then, we had received a payment from them, I had said: “What are we going to do with all this money?”. Of course, we did find what to do with them because, unfortunately, there were not a lot of Blue Star Ferrie(s) in Greece. The market was – and still is – small for what we’re doing. So we couldn’t find a lot of Blue Star Ferrie(s), so as you’re probably guessing we needed the money.
J: So Blue Star Ferries was also a strategic investor besides being a customer?
DV: No, it was just a customer. The funding came through the project implementation.
J: Οh, sorry, I thought it was also a strategic investor. So for some years, you have only Blue Star as a customer.
DV: Yes. Moving forward, I think our next client was Hellas Online (Hol), before they merged with Vodafone, and at some point we reached the period when the market saw what we were doing and started asking for it. I remember the first phone call we received, inbound, was from Vodafone, since they had seen what we had implemented in Hol.
J: Super. So this happened in 2010-2011?
DV: Yes right about that time.
J: This is when the market started catching up with the technology. How is your technology progressing all those years? I assume technology changes.
DV: We started by using 3rd party technology. We did not have our own. We were doing the integration, the application development, and the solution delivery. But through this process and through the projects we were handling, the big ones that I already mentioned and the small ones that we were doing abroad as IBM contractors, we were seeing first hand the technology issues and gaps. When a big company promised that its natural language understanding is working properly, we believed it, and we sold it and tried to apply it in the market. But we realized that it was not as smooth as the American marketing was presenting it to be. The technology was far away from the promise they had given. And we actually got in trouble with this, because we sold the “dream” as an upgrade to Blue Star Ferries, for NLU to help the interactions with the customers become more natural, they bought it, they gave us a downpayment, and moving forward, we had many difficulties delivering sth that works correctly. And that was a defining moment. We could say:” Ok, that’s what technology does, it is what it is.” But we didn’t do that. We tried to find the technology problems and fix them. And this is how we started producing our own technology and not counting on 3rd parties. In 2010, we had created our Dialog Manager, a part of the solution that allowed us to do a much more free dialog with the user and not what we have used over the phone, where you go from the main menu to sub-menu and you get into a loop you can’t escape. And the second part we implemented, was our own NLU technology since what we were getting from our American supplier was too restricting. And this is how we started; excluding components of third-party technologies and replacing them with in-house development.
J: And your team, which started producing the technology, was based in Greece?
DV: Yes, of course. But we were just 4-5 people back then, not more.
J: Ok. And, an impulsive question here; how does a team of 5 people produce technology that pushes the frontiers globally?
DV: That’s a good question. Well, we didn’t realize that that’s what we were doing back then, to tell you the truth. We did not realize that what we were doing was something better globally. We just had a problem in front of us, and we were trying to solve it and do the best we could. This needs courage and you need to decide that you’ll not compromise for anything less than what you have as a vision. So this is what we tried to do. All the team was humble, we did not realize that we were doing anything special. But we really enjoyed what we were doing, and this matters a lot. The whole team was aligned with the vision and we all believed in it.
J: I think that “customer focus” matters too. Something that you bring to solve the problem that your customer needs at the exact moment and make a breakthrough in order to deliver it. This is what I think played an important role.
DV: Yes, and the company culture, which, I had not realized, starts from me and my character. Even today, I see a lot of good and not-so-good qualities that I have, being also in the company culture, and this is incredible! But, yes, one of my characteristics is the fact that I won’t back down, and I’ll always try for the best, I’ll never give up trying. And I think this is something all in the company also have, even today. And sometimes that works against us. So for example when we intentionally don’t want to do the best we can, we do it nevertheless, just because this is what we know. So I’m actually trying to put a stop to this. It’s a problem cause when the client asks for something extra, and you give it to him, and then asks for more and more, that never stops. So at some point, you need to stop and say: ”You know what, maybe you can pay me for those extra things?
J: Haha, that’s true. When do your technology and commercial growth start growing? What is the pivotal moment?
DV: In 2010 we did an implementation for Vodafone Greece. And at that time we understood… Vodafone compared us with all the other Vodafone(s) of the world and told us that what we had implemented for them had never been implemented before. At that point, we realized that there is something good going on here, we are doing something good. Afterward, the US Company with whom we were partners, and had been using their core technology, started seeing us as competitors. We understood then that we started competing with the big names of the global industry. And in 2013, that partner, Nuance, did a somewhat aggressive move. They asked us to review all the clients that we’re bringing to their sales pipeline. And we did exactly that, we were very excited to bring all those deals to Nuance. And what actually happened, after the company got all the names of our clients, literally the next day, they contacted all of them and tried to take them directly. What was incredible is the fact that eventually, it didn’t manage to take any of them! Our clients were really loyal to us and notified us instantly. Having realized that, Nuance terminates our reselling contract and we end up with no technology, without some parts of the technology. And why am I mentioning that? Cause this is important, this might be the biggest milestone in our history, cause up until this moment, Omilia was a company that was reselling third-party technology and was delivering some services along with the technology. This kind of company is completely different from a company that has its own software and enters the market with its own solution. So, when this happened and we lost the technology, we experienced 1-2 weeks…, I remember back then with the partners, there was a 3rd partner that had joined the company, John Nikolaidis -he had great experience in business development abroad- ….
J: That happened in 2012?
DV: Yes, it was in 2012 when John joined the company and at the end of 2013 Nuance terminated our contract. So we went through two very difficult weeks. John was telling me “Let’s find another technology, let’s build it on our own” and I mean the speech recognition technology, the Speech-to-Text, which up until then only Nuance had, it had the monopoly -a very difficult technology to produce. So, we searched around in the market, we didn’t find any partner that had both the quality we wanted and the credibility and price. So we decided to build it on our own.
J: That’s a tough decision.
DV: A tough decision, the best decision I have ever made. John pushed me to it too, because eventually, from believing that we’ll need some millions of euros, a team with Ph.D. Scientists and a good amount of time, eventually I found a student in the Czech Republic, who had just finished his dissertation in something that was exactly what we were looking to do…,
J: Speech Recognition?
DV: Speech Recognition & integration with dialog manager for telephony applications, these were what we were doing. And coincidentally a very good open-source framework had been made available. So the result was that with a 1 part-time employee, with the blueprint being available and of course with the existential crisis we had, the situation was “make or break”, we managed to create in 3-4 months a first version of a voice recognition system. And when we compared it…, I vividly remember the guys, Dimitris Zabakolas came into my office to test the first results. So, we compared them and they were at the same levels as the Nuance system. So this was liberating. “Good, we now have a solution, we’ll survive.” I started sleeping again for one week. But then I realized that if we enter the market with this version, we will have something that works, but we won’t have something that is better than the competitors’. And the competition was a 1-billion company, when we were a company of – I don’t even remember, our revenue had very few zeros back then.
J: You’re talking about Nuance, your ex-partner?
DV: Yes, exactly. So I told the team:” Guys, we need to build something better. The one we have now is good, we have an actual solution, but let’s throw it out and create something that no one else has.” And that was the time when deep learning technology was evolving, and a lot of open sources that were using deep learning were available. These technologies helped us a lot, although they were not mature enough we could get the job done. And we built a second version quite fast – we did not literally throw out the whole product, we just changed some basic algorithm components- and we built something that was actually much better than anything else in the market. And I remember the first client with whom we launched it was Alpha Bank, here in Greece. I remember the day that the system was going to receive its first call from an actual end customer. That morning I had gone in a rush to Alpha Bank’s premises to see with my own eyes what was going to happen. I saw there Nikos Kolivas, who, along with two other colleagues, had set up the whole system, and I saw an astonishing look on his face. I immediately thought something bad had happened. I said: ”Oh, no. I don’t like that look, something bad is happening. We’re over.” But when I got closer, Nikos told me: ”I’m touched by how incredible is what is happening!” and I told him: ”What happened?”. He said: ”It can even understand the hesitation”. You know, the “ehmm” that many callers do during the call when they’re not sure. So the speech recognition quality was levels above what we had used to so far with the American system. And after this, we started closing more clients. We started launching many projects both in Greece and abroad. Because having full control of the technology and having a very good product that was built with our own 100% inhouse stack.. -we weren’t using any third-party technology so we didn’t have to buy from anyone – that was very important cause Greece is not a market that can pay “American pricelists”. But, also, the markets we entered moving forward that were in the East, like Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Kazakhstan, Romania, and Bulgaria, all these were markets that we needed to do big discounts to enter. This helped us a lot though, those markets helped us a lot in our beginning cause they gave us a very quick and easy way to experiment a little. To launch projects, gain the experience, a really important experience. And what we had not realized is that very few competitive companies had the chance to practice and test so much in such a little time. Generally, the industry in the US runs much slower. You have to be a very mature company to be given the opportunity to launch. And we had 10 times more experience than them. And at some point, in 2015, we did not think that the US is an actual possibility for us yet, like, literally we were seeing the US as a utopia, where is full of competitors and those competitors must be 10 years ahead of us. Like “Who are we, a small company from Greece, with the technology we had, that can compete with those companies in the US?”. That was the mentality we had. But a Ukrainian bank in which we had implemented the system, went to present the project as a case study at a very big conference in New York, US. This conference was held around the 15 of August (holidays time for Greece) and I was like, “I don’t want to ruin my holidays for this, let him go present the case.” I was at Kithira on August 15. So the client went to the conference and presented the case study along with one of our US BizDev reps, a young employee. And I remember it was August 15. I was at Kithira on vacation with my family. We were in a small tavern in which we were completely alone, the tavern was just a yard actually. And it was in the evening when my phone rang. And it was Quinn, the BizDev rep from the US. And he’s telling me:” You cannot imagine what is happening, and I’m not senior enough to handle this. Valentina did the presentation and we now have like 15 Vice Presidents from big companies who are waiting to speak to me!” He felt unprepared for this, he was a junior. So I’m telling him:” Take everyone’s business cards and I’m on my way.” And this is how we entered the US market. And when I went there and started having conversations with all those clients, I realized that not only they weren’t ten years ahead, they were actually ten years behind us. So, eventually, all the companies in Greece and in all the other countries I mentioned before, what they did for us is that they gave us the chance to move forward really really fast.
J: And with many customers, I guess, which is very important.
DV: Yes, with many customers and with having the experience so when we went to discuss with a big client we knew the technology really well and we could recognize all the pain points.
J: And what was the year when you entered the US market?
DV: In 2016 we started meeting a lot of companies. The first company that gave us a chance was Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto, Canada. I remember vividly -I’m still amazed by the fact that they didn’t just kick us out – we went to present them the solution with a Russian demo, the language was Russian. We did not have an English version of the demo back then, we only had the Russian one. So we went to a Canadian Bank and presented a Russian demo. But people there had the perspicacity to understand, and I respect them for this, that, “Ok, it might be a small Greek company that no-one knows, and actually brought a Russian thing to show us, but they have a good product.” They understood that we brought them something that they had never seen before. So we started our cooperation, and of course, they told us to create an English version of the demo, and we did that. So we went on a pilot with them, which was very successful and they did a full roll-out. And for us, that meant that we were getting a monthly fee that it was… it had two more zeros than what we were getting from Greek Clients. So this boosted us a lot, it was like we were taking money from a VC, and with that revenue stream we built the “global Omilia”.
J: So, who is your typical client? I guess that it’s companies that have a big customer care, like banks, who are they?
DV: Our sweet spot is big Banks, cause most of the time, they have big issues but they also have the funds to address them. And then we have all the big organizations like Insurances, Telecoms, Healthcare -in the US this is a huge market, maybe the biggest one- and also clients in the US that you couldn’t even imagine. The US market has some characteristics that are kind of strange to us. For example, we had once met a client, True Green, who maintains the lawn. So that lawn maintenance company was double the project for us than the National Bank of Greece. As you understand it’s two completely different worlds.
J: Yes, I understand, so the customer behavior is very different
DV: Yes, and the market is huge. It’s just one language for 300 million people. While in Europe you don’t get this. In Europe, for us that the solution we’re offering is connected with the “languages”, if we want to address the whole of Europe we’ll have to create 15 languages. And this is 15 times more effort. You need to have dedicated sales and marketing efforts for each country. Being divided like this, makes Europe a very difficult market for someone to enter. Not that the US is an easy one, it’s also difficult but for different reasons. It’s difficult in the beginning to be accepted and stand out. But if you enter the market and reach that point and make that transatlantic journey, if you have a good product there is no chance you won’t be able to scale it. And there is no chance for the market to not accept you. And if you do one project, that spreads in the whole US, you have a huge market in front of you. And when we realized that, we realized that we don’t really have to deal with the other countries. 50% of the global software market is in the US. So we made the decision to focus there, but even if the focus was in the US we did not stop serving the rest of the countries. Today, we might be the biggest company in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan – we even have a project in Uzbekistan now. We’re the only company that has launched projects in those countries. So, as John, my partner, says “It doesn’t matter if the market is small, if it’s all yours, then, why not?” So we’re still chasing those opportunities, but what drives our product roadmap is the US.
J-Do you want to tell us some more details about your solution, your products and the service you are offering to your clients?
DV- Going back two or three years ago, we had an on-prem solution, meaning that we had to go at client’s premises and install a system which would get connected to the client’s contact center as well as to their back end and CRM systems in order to be able to do the job that an agent in a contact center would do. The last two years we realized that we have to move to Cloud as Cloud had already started being a trend both in the USA and Europe. We started building our platform on Cloud using the Cloud Services of Amazon, Microsoft etc. I think that this fact helped us a lot even for the infrastructure that our company had to use. The decision to go to Cloud and not invest on buying our own hardware, made us faster, without the need of funding as it was difficult to find a fund and invest on creating our own data center. In this way, with a click of a button we had the chance to scale to infrastructure that only our competitors had the chance to use.
DV- We needed a room full of servers only for our Speech recognition technology, the technology we use to train a UK language model for example, that obviously we didn’t have. We neither had the money for the servers. The solution to our problem was the Cloud. We rented the servers for a specific period of time via Amazon and with a minimum cost we managed to train artificial intelligence models that only Google, Amazon and the big players of the industry could do. It was clear to me early enough that Cloud is a great tool, that is why we took the decision to also transfer our offering to Cloud and create the Omilia Cloud Platform. I believe that it was the right moment to make that decision due to Covid as not only our business but even our lives, especially our social life has been moved to Cloud as we use a lot of Zoom, Teams etc. All the companies, even those that were not planning to move to Cloud, have already started moving to Cloud or are already planning to do it.
DV- This change found us ready and helps us a lot every day as we offer to our clients a service that is way better than the traditional solutions that our competitors still offer.
J- Which is the offering then? We are talking for sure about Conversational AI. Are you offering any other services using the speech recognition technology that you mentioned?
DV- We could do many different things, that was a challenge and we indeed did a lot even a year ago. We had a request for Mcdonalds for example to create a system for their drive thru service.
DV- An automated ordering service for their drive thru.
J-I see. It sounds interesting
DV- It sounded interesting to us too and we said yes ok let’s do it as the core technologies that such a system needs were already in place.
J-You already had the technology you needed for the implementation, I understand that.
DV- Yes, but it was not that simple as in drive thru the microphone is always on, the background noise is intense and the microphone is usually of a bad quality, you also have children on the back seats of the car screaming that they want an ice cream while you are ordering
J-And this was recorded
DV-Yes everything was recorded. I don’t know if you have watched any films as in Greece we do not have that much the drive thru service where the client goes close to the window and starts ordering and the way that an American makes an order on drive thru is completely random and chaotic.
DV- You have to understand very well what’s going on in order to interpret what the client is saying.It was a very difficult project that went really well though.
DV- We were down selected by Mcdonalds between fifteen competitors, among those, IBM, Google, everyone from the industry and we were their favourite one. We had also gone live in two restaurants in Chicago and we had managed to have 85% of ordering accuracy, meaning that the system could complete eighty five orders autonomously and automatically and fifteen out of one hundred with the assistance of an agent. This percentage is a very high one for this kind of system and at that point, the CIO of Mcdonalds got in touch with me in order to have a discussion about the future. Essentially his main question was if I wanted to sell the company.
DV-They wanted to buy us off and have this technology in house. They believed that this was a great competitive advantage for them and they wanted to have the technology in house. At that point, I felt that we hadn’t completed our journey in the customer service domain, the call center, the bots and all those related technologies, I didn’t want to delete this part of Omilia as we had worked on this field for so many years, so I kindly said no to this proposal. This decision marked the end of our partnership as they approached their second choice in the row and they bought them off.
DV- It was a great project though as this issue in the ordering field had never been solved before. On the other hand, this project gave us a very good revenue while it was on going but I believe that distracted us
J-It distracted you
DV- Yes as the whole Omilia team was working on this project, meaning that we were not working on the other projects that would fulfill our dream. We faced some issues the following year as both the technological and commercial gap was obvious as we even stopped commercially to focus on the goal we previously had and was related to the call centers and we focused on the food ordering as a business
DV- I think that we faced a great issue due to our focus on the food ordering project and the moment we realized that, we said that no more distractions are allowed, we will focus only on one business, the one that we already know and are working on so many years and we are really good on that.
DV-Customer Service and specifically in the customer service industry, we focused solely on the solution of voice bots, the automated customer service as the same technologies that are used for the voice bot solution can also be used for many other services in a call center such as assisting the agents on the background with pop up links in order to facilitate the agent with the specific request that the client has while he is on the phone. There are many analytics solutions as well such as metrics regarding customer satisfaction.
DV-So many and different solutions. It was really important for us though to focus on a very specific solution, trying not to do all those things that we could do in order to move forward with a company scheme that should be of a specific size. We could not evolve with no limit.
J-You are right
DV- The last one year and a half we have done that. We do not spend time on new businesses that are not part of our core business and this decision was a great one for us.
DV- It has helped us not needing so many resources as with a smaller scheme we are able to do more targeted things in less time. Our solution is what I previously mentioned, the voice bot, a robot that via voice or text input through digital channels such as webchat, whatsapp,messenger, could help the customer solve his request using natural language and free speech as he would do with a real agent. That’s our solution that we offer on Cloud anymore via OCP. We have great partnerships with strategic partners in the US, partners that have Cloud solutions as well for the call centers.
DV- So contact center as a service providers.This partnership has made us the number one company in the US with a huge amount of case studies.
J-That is impressive
DV- It is impressive.
J- It is impressive as we are talking about the USA just to remind all of you which is the biggest market in the world.
DV-You are right. We compete mainly with Google now as Nuance has been left behind technologically as they were the exclusive player in the industry for so many years. I think it is the same case with Kodak. Although Google does not have the technology we have, it is extremely difficult to persuade clients that we are better than Google. The argument is always the same that Google has unlimited resources, how could you be better than Google? That’s the point we have reached, up until now and we are waiting to see how things will evolve. We believe that we cannot be all alone in the US market for a long period of time. Our market has already started consolidating. A lot of mergers and acquisitions take place, Nuance has been sold to Microsoft recently.
DV- This merger helped us a lot as one of our main competitors, basically our main competitor got out of the game. I believe that we will also need to find a strategic partner shortly, sit down and discuss how we want to move forward and plan the next level of our company’s evolution.
J- While all those were happening you had your first round of investment from Grafton Capital in London. A nice back story for our audience is that Grafton Capital is the investor that also helped Softomotive that was sold to Microsoft last year.
J- We have two high impact scale up companies in Greece that have been offered a fund by Grafton Capital. Both companies have a nice story to say. How was this collaboration with Grafton? What was the opportunity that they found in your company? Tell us a bit more about this fund.
DV- Counting from 2011 in Omilia I spent time on vc and financing but I couldn’t find something that would fit us or to better say it, I couldn’t find someone that we could match with. Omilia is a company that could not easily get combined with VC (venture capital). The company was always profitable, we were always growing up on our own and we were evolving our company in an organic way. Thus, it was really difficult for us to communicate with the investors. Grafton approached us while they had already funded Softomotive and they had started realizing that something special is happening in Greece. Grafton was focusing on founder-led companies, companies that are led from their own founders, that are profitable and are ready to go externally and make the big step outside of Greece. Oliver from Grafton found us and was chasing us for quite a while as we were not that receptive to funding. We didn’t want a fund but at some point we realized that our growth derailed and we were evolving with a rhythm of 120%
DV- It was really difficult and we couldn’t finance this growth from our cash flow. So we thought it would be a good idea to have a fund in place to make our company evolve in an easy way. At that point, during the summer of 2019 Nuance, our beloved partner from the past, filed a lawsuit against us for patent infringement in the US, that was completely ungrounded but that was Nuance’s way to weaken us as we had started having as clients all those that were Nuance’s clients in Canada and US and this litigation had indeed started weakening us. The cost for US lawyers is huge even for a big company, you can imagine how difficult this situation was for a company of our scale. This fund also helped us in this litigation as well. We managed to give our fight there, a fight against unfair competition from Nuance. We also had the chance to evolve more and in the right way for our company for the upcoming years. Grafton is still a great partner, not only in terms of funding but also Oliver as a person who understands in depth our business and the personalities of the three of us. He was really aligned with the Omilia philosophy. He didn’t indicate to us what to do or how to do it at any point, he was always next to us and he helped us a lot in his way. Now we have a second round of funding with Grafton as well, a top up financing.
DV- And we move forward to 2022 with great growth plans.
J- You have at the moment 260 employees? How many employees do you have?
DV- Around 260
J- You also have a team working from Kiev
J Which is quite interesting. How come you have a team working from Kiev as it is sizable. You already have around 70 people working there.
DV- Yes. If I am not mistaken we have 69 people working there. The job market in Greece is really small as you know. You can find great candidates as there are many talented people out there but there are only a few. For a company of our size, the Greek job market was not enough. So, some years ago we had to search and find candidates from markets outside of Greece. We focused on Ukraine as we already had people working for the company here in Greece that were half Greek half Ukrainian or Russian and we had already expanded to those countries. Thus, it was really easy for us to look for candidates there and start growing our team. The first year we made a lot of mistakes as we had a partner there that had outsourcing employees and people working for us as contractors. This scheme didn’t work for us and once we realized that, we started building our team there the hard way. We went there, we created a company, we rented offices and we travelled a lot to Ukraine. Maryan from our team did a great job there and has built a great team. I travelled to Ukraine a while ago and I got impressed by the fact that all of our employees feel Omilia is like home. Impressive results coming from Ukraine but you definitely have to invest.
J-I see. Are there opportunities in Ukraine? Because we usually talk about Greece as an opportunity for other entrepreneurs or for Greeks of the Diaspora as founders here but I believe that it is a two way street. Greek entrepreneurs need and have to scale their teams abroad. Are opportunities out there? Is Ukraine such an opportunity? Which are the competitive advantages? What’s the opportunity that you found there?
DV- The main advantage of having offices in Ukraine is that we could find too many CVs for a job position we were looking for. While we were expecting for three months to receive a CV for a senior Java developer for instance.
DV-Yes. Mainly developers, QA engineers, project managers. In Ukraine this process was really fast. We could find personnel easily and quickly. The situation has already changed though. The post Covid era has dramatically changed the job market both in Greece and abroad.
DV- The job market has been globalized. We have seen people leaving Omilia and joining a US or a Canadian company
DV-Yes, working remotely for them. 100% remotely. A Canadian company pays way better than a Greek company who is living in Greece. We have a virtual exit from the country that I don’t believe that happens only in Greece but also everywhere abroad.
DV- This phenomenon happens everywhere. We have started having employees in countries that you cannot even imagine. We found employees in Argentina, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan. I don’t know what’s going there but we found great candidates in Azerbaijan.
J-That’s the second time we hear someone saying good things about Azerbaijan.
DV-Really? That’s very interesting. Thus, we hire people everywhere even if we have our offices in Athens,Chania and Kiev.
J: Super. So what are the next steps? What makes you excited about the future? Both for Omilia and the Industry.
DV: What’s amazing about Omilia is that each 6-12 months approximately, we’re reinventing ourselves. That’s tiring but you never get bored. Each year I’ll be trying to make an “internal campaign” to show and persuade everyone that we’re not what we thought we were anymore, we’re something different. And most of the time, events are catching as up, and I realize that after I start seeing some issues in the way that the company is operating and I say:” Wait, why do we have that issue? Oh, yes. We’re not the software company we thought we were. We’re a service provider cause, now, the software we’re developing, we’re not just giving it to the client to run alone, we run it on our own Cloud and we have to make sure that the infrastructure is up and running, that we have a 24/7 support, etc. We need to have another structure and processes that we didn’t have before.
J: And what about the partnerships that you’re doing?
DV: Partnerships are also of our interest. They don’t have such a big dynamic. It’s more with the customers that I see a quite big and sudden escalation. We have now become a “name” for the customers and not a name that has brand awareness, but a name that they consider us to be the “best-kept-secret”. The reputation is moving around “backstage”, like, they say “There is a company that’s doing it much better than Google and Nuance, and you should meet them.” This is the way, the word of mouth way, that we’re closing very big deals.
J: What differences do you see, especially now when AI is entered even more in the industry? What is making you excited for the whole industry?
DV: I think that what I see is that everything moves really fast. There is an incredible acceleration in technology and there is much better access to technology from a much broader base. When I started in 2002, the technology was something very difficult, and nowadays a start-up company that begins today has already solved many of the problems out-of-the-box, there is plenty of open-source software available, and the only thing that someone needs, is to have a vision for a new product and to know how to use all these assets that are available to him with very easy access in the market. All those services like Cloud, open-source projects… And a lot of knowledge. Even knowledge, I think, is being transmitted very fast now. There are a lot of great online Universities where you can learn things instantly. And I’m also really happy for the Greek market cause there is a lot of extroversion. And thanks to you, who are doing amazing work, this extroversion has become bigger. This was one of the problems we also had, like, “How are we going to go beyond Greece?”. And I’m happy and excited about the Greek market and I think IT and start-ups can play a significant role in Greece and the Greek economy.
J: How do you think the ecosystem in Greece will evolve? Is there anything that’s made an impression on you?
DV: It has made a great impression. I was not so optimistic that we’ll be able to support something like this in Greece. But I was probably wrong. I can see great companies and talents in Greece, that are also extroverted, and a lot of time we don’t even hear about them. So, we never needed to advertise Omilia in Greece, there was no point. Likewise, I believe that there are many companies in Greece that are doing great work abroad, and kudos to them.
J: Every interview we do, we like to close with the same question for everyone and we get very beautiful answers. What is that thing that makes an entrepreneur an outlier?
DV: That’s a good question. This includes many things. I think that entrepreneurs are strange creatures, especially in Greece. But if you ask me what is that one characteristic, I think it’s the stamina and the focus on the vision. To never give up. And at some time in the past, when my son was young, now he’s fifteen years old, I was telling him a fairytale every night – he wouldn’t sleep if I didn’t tell him a fairytale. And at some point, I was out of fairytales to tell, so I started telling him real-life stories. I had to, I didn’t have any other content. So, while telling him some of these stories, about when I was young, at some point I asked him: “So, Stephanos, what do you want to be when you grow up?”. And immediately, without giving any thought to it at all, he said “I’ll take your “job ”. And also without any thought, I replied: “No, you’re not. I created my own “job”. You’ll have to create your own “job” too, you cannot take mine. The pleasure comes from creating it, and not just having it.” And if there was one thing I could heritage to my son, that would be it. The journey of creating something, that is the most important for me. And to achieve this is very simple. You don’t need to have any special knowledge, you don’t have to do anything special. The only thing you need to do is to endure more than the others. And by “endure” I mean to have faith in your vision and not give up. If you do that, there is going to be a moment when you’ll look around you and you’ll be the only one at the top.
J: That was a very good answer. Dimitris, thank you very much for this.
DV: Thank you, guys.