In the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series of interviews with young entrepreneurs and successful people from countries in the Balkan region who succeeded in achieving their goals in their country and that are defying the trend of "brain drain". I hope you enjoy reading these interviews just as much as I enjoyed the conversations with their actors. I also hope that these interviews will have an impact on young people from the Balkans, and also other countries facing this problem, and give them hope that it is nevertheless possible to have successful careers in this region as well. The first in the series is an interview with Timur Ćerimagić, a young man born in Sarajevo, who already succeeded in reaching some of his goals. More about Timur, his accomplishments so far, about how he managed to develop the device called "Spekta" in his home country and his plans for the future, please read below.
Emilija: Even though a lot of people have already heard about you and your achievements, could you tell us something about yourself for those who haven’t?
Timur: I was born very young, they gave me name Timur, and I received my last name, Ćerimagić, traditionally from my family. I did not complain. I did not complain even for the fact that I was born in Sarajevo in 1993, but I believe that the main reason for that is that I was still not able to talk, think and understand things happening around me. If I was born being 24, for example, things would’ve been different. I was born and raised in Sarajevo. I went to elementary school “Silvije Strahimir Kranjčević” on Mejtaš, and after that I wanted to apply for Druga gimnazija (Second Gymnasium). On our last day of school, I asked my closest friends which high school they are going to apply for. They said that they are applying for Prva gimnazija (First Gymnasium) so I joined them. It was one of the rare occasions when I wasn’t trying to be different and going my own way. Nine years went by really fast and suddenly I was in Graz University for Technology, studying for my Master degree in the field of Software Engineering and Management and I must say that I am really pleased how things have turned out.
Emilija: What influenced your decision to choose this direction in your carrier?
Timur: Most students from my University begin their stories with: “As a little kid, I loved playing with my computer...”, and my story is similar. I was young when I got my first computer and from the beginning I was on my own, trying to figure out how to install a video game, how to deal with viruses, how to fix when something breaks and stuff like that, so it lead to me falling in love with this world of technology. “Info”, magazine about the technologies, was the first thing I used to buy the moment it hits the newsstands. It wasn’t about the content as much as it was about demo CD’s that contained few video games and apps. The one who was able to install it was “the man” among our group of friends. First time I’ve earned money from dealing with computers and informatics was the price for winning a third place in municipal competition. In that moment, winning 70KM (~36€) felt like winning the lottery. The Gymnasium that I wanted to apply for in the first place, but didn’t because of my friends, was considered as mathematical gymnasium, and everyone was telling me that you have to know maths in order to know informatics (eventually I realized that this was not the case, but never mind). Even though I went to another one, I didn’t regret making that decision and I continued with getting more involved with informatics. I graduated from my high school with project about 2D i 3D computer graphics. I was supposed to write it on 30 pages and present it for 5-10 minutes. At the end, it was 60 pages long and the presentation lasted for more than 15 minutes. I was trying to justify this with the idea of me approaching the topic too enthusiastically for it to fit in 30 pages and 5-10 minutes, but the truth was I didn’t really know how to organize the material I had, and there was more than enough of it. After that, I was 100% sure that I want to continue with learning about computers so I applied for Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Sarajevo. Everything after that came after itself. After finishing Bachelor studies, I was aware that my formal education is mainly technical, and my ambition went beyond it. I wanted to combine that technical knowledge with entrepreneurship so I found an adequate Master program which unites these two professions outside Bosnia and Herzegovina and I continued with my studies there.
Emilija: In countries in Balkan region, but in other developing countries as well, it’s really hard and difficult to start your own business or develop an invention. Young people are often demotivated with the lack of investments and with the fact that persistence in accomplishing that goal usually requires some kind of sacrifice. What would be your advice for those people who struggle? How did you manage to overcome obstacles and barriers that you encountered?
Timur: There is a constant fear, in this region, that it’s hard to start something on your own, something that you should secure your future. I think that the main reason for that is general opinion imposed by older generations and every day you can hear something like: “Why are you doing that? You should do that project as a hobby, for your own satisfaction, but find a secure job in state-owned companies.” Those are common beliefs which certainly aren’t helping individuals nor the branches in which they want to make a progress. For that reason, general progress and development is minimal. You can live that way as well, but being proactive, engaging and taking a risk brings the thrill and it makes you move your own boundaries and limits. Taking this step can also lead to great number of new, inspiring ideas and, in many fields, contributes to the development of the individual and the whole society as well. That’s why they should step away from their comfort zone and the state-owned companies. As for investments, they won’t knock on your door and nobody will ask you to start and do something. Although, if you start appearing at some competitions, conferences, seminars, networking events and start talking to people and engaging more, you can open a door that won’t close for a long time. Foundation Mozaik opened that door for us. We didn’t know much about entrepreneurship, business models, plans, general business ecosystem and that was the field in which we needed a partner, a mentor that will guide us. We had technical knowledge and all the stepbacks that we faced in other fields were removed with the help of our mentor. Initially, we were just a group of students with a project and Mozaik saw a potential in it for business that could benefit the society (Socially Beneficial Business). The most important thing is that time and money are not invested just in that one idea, but rather in the whole team of people who came up with that idea because if that group of people did it once, support of investors and foundations gives them additional motivation for further development. Perhaps you will not succeed from the first try, but after a couple of conferences and read-out biographies by famous and successful entrepreneurs, you realize that things can’t happen overnight, or even in a year, instead you will face lasting set of ups and downs.
Emilija: You participated in creating a system called FeelTheSpace which helps blind and visually impaired people to move around and walk without white cane or a dog. How did you come up with the idea of inventing such device?
Timur: The concept was born around two years ago when my colleague Emin Šehić and I were in a coffee shop with the goal to think of something that we can work on in upcoming Microsoft 24h Hackathon called “Night of the Living Devs”. Initially we wanted to be different and since it was a Software competition we have decided to insert Hardware as well. That way, we could be on top or be disqualified. Once you sit down and start googling what else is out there, current state in the technology world, what you can and can’t do, you start getting various ideas. The fact that there are 245 million visually impaired people, from which 39 million is totally blind and 90% of that population is in poor material status, it makes you incredibly motivated to try to use field of your profession to help that people. Since we are from a country in which economy is not doing so well, we have a slight advantage over the competition because we automatically think about how to make cheapest, yet totally functional solution for any problem. When I look back, the whole story comes to two-hour brainstorming session over coffee.
Emilija: We have established that this device will be potentially useful for hundreds, or even millions, of blind and visually impaired people. Was there anything else, besides the altruistic desire to help other people facing this problem, that motivated you when you first started?
Timur: Honestly, not. I couldn’t imagine that coming up with some idea while drinking coffee will have a chance of becoming a commercial product. On a competition we could implement just one part and it did not look and function perfect. For some reason I got really attached to this project and I just wanted to see how this device works. Next step was finding a professor on faculty who allows a student to pick a topic for graduation project and, believe it or not, there wasn’t many of them who did. Professor Samir Ribić gave me the opportunity to graduate with FeelTheSystem app. This is when first totally functioning, but still not so perfect, version saw the light of day. Shortly after IEEE conference was held in Sarajevo and its goal was to introduce world’s technological trends to students and young professionals and part of that conference was dedicated to presentations of ideas to globally known experts from different fields. It was necessary to write a project plan and report a team of people. I had a project, but not a team. Then a key moment for this whole project took place. We gathered the team and got in touch with Mustafa Mehic. Mustafa, who was blind, and his trainer managed to run the half-marathon and we found great inspiration in that story. It was no longer important for us how to do something, it was important that we do something. His first comment was "Whatever you invent, it can not replace my white stick." I'll just tell you that after 15 minutes of using the device, the situation was totally different. The reaction of a man to whom this innovation makes life easier was the biggest motivation and from that moment we tirelessly work on the development and improvement of the device.
Emilija: What influence, according to you, has the Youth Bank (and other similar initiatives) on the development of social entrepreneurship in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Does the same apply to other countries in the region?
Timur: The program of the Youth Banks in Bosnia and Herzegovina is something that young people in our country absolutely need. The reason is that you usually come up with an idea and possibly a team of people who are interested in spending their spare time on it and that's all you have. A potential problem occurs when you fall into the investor "rungs" and you do not know how to get out of them. A much simpler and more reliable way of overcoming this gap between the project and the business is with the help of the foundation and programs of youth banks that provide the opportunity for young people to realize their ideas and innovations. I am not informed about the situation in the region, but I believe that it is not drastically different, but regardless of the state, young people need some incentive and motivating solution to launch their socially useful business.
Emilija: The secret behind the success of entrepreneurs is that they constantly learn new things and develop their own knowledge and ideas. How do you get informed about new things? What books are you reading? Which portals do you follow?
Timur: In many situations, we are bothered with the fact that Google knows everything about us and monitors our every step, but in this particular situation, this has its positive sides. I started reading articles on TechCrunch, The Verge and other similar sites, and eventually, at every corner of Google, similar articles and information about the world of technologies were suggested to me and I am very grateful to Google for this. I have no idea where and what I read, but I know that my news feed on Facebook is full of technology and innovation. Once you start Googling and opening suggested posts, it will just keep going. As for books, due to lack of time I mainly read professional literature, scientific papers and publications which, thanks to the faculty, we have free access to. I'm grateful to the college on that! It may sound banal, but everyday information sources are my social networks and suggested articles that appear there. Regarding specific searches, Google Scholar and IEEE Xplore dominate.
Emilija: Do you think about some new inventions that you could dedicate yourself to in the future or perhaps about starting a business that would bring together experts from the world of technologies in order to work with them on developing new products?
Timur: Since my best friends are working in different industries and we all live in different countries, our gatherings are usually via Skype. On these gatherings, the best ideas come from pure laziness. Everyone in their surroundings notices a problem or situation that could be approached in different ways, and then others comment, criticize, add ideas until we realize what we really want. We have a common document which contains most of these ideas and then at some point something concrete and completely realistic about one of them can come to someone’s mind. After that, he spends some time exploring the market, opportunities and everything else that goes with it and tries to charm the rest of us with concrete information in order to motivate us to start working on it seriously. So, basically, there are a few more things ready to be elaborated so that we could start working on them seriously.
Emilija: What's next for Timur Ćerimagić?
Timur: Based on more than 2,000 surveys, a study by Acquity Group in 2014 showed that 87% of people haven’t heard about the term "Internet of Things", despite the fact that in 2008 there were more things connected to the Internet than people on Earth. I would place myself in the remaining 13%, or in an even smaller percentage, since not only do I know about the term IoT, but I decided to work on that in the future. The Bachelor program at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering gave me an excellent basis for future upgrading, as well as the comprehensive knowledge necessary for training in the chosen field of computers, informatics and technologies. The plan is to finish my education outside Bosnia and Herzegovina and to develop a FeelTheSpace social business in the meantime, so that "Spekta" (the previously mentioned device for the blind and visually impaired people) can be applied and used as soon as possible, in order to make life easier for as many blind and visually impaired people as possible. Therefore, the next step is similar to the previous one, learn and apply those things.