#FoundersFridays: Meet Nikolay Tsanev
Meet Nikolay Tsanev, co-founder of Swapkaart. Learn how a university course made him fall in love with entrepreneurship, and what drove him to found his own startup, drawing on skills and experiences gained from working at corporates and scale-ups.
#FoundersFridays is a StartupAmsterdam interview series: for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs. Each hero answers questions on their entrepreneurial journey, their learnings, milestones and bottlenecks, as well as on Amsterdam and the Dutch startup scene. It’s a platform for entrepreneurs to speak their minds freely and pass on their learnings to anyone who’s thinking about founding a startup as well.
This month we spoke with Nikolay Tsanev, one of the founders of Swapkaart - a contact management platform that allows professionals to easily create digital business cards. With the Swapkaart single dynamic card, one can effortlessly share comprehensive contact information and social media links, and generate leads using NFC technology or QR codes. Using Swapkaart’s intuitive platform, one can update contact details anytime, manage multiple digital business cards from a centralized dashboard and collect customer details in one click.
Nikolay, you told Silicon Canals a brief story of how Swapkaart came to be. Can you share more details about your personal journey as an entrepreneur? What led you to take the path of entrepreneurship?
These days, the term "entrepreneur" holds diverse interpretations for different people. For some, it's about starting a new business, while others see it as freelancing or coming up with a killer idea and working on it. Many often associate it with freedom or being their own boss. In short, defining who an entrepreneur is proves to be a challenging task.
My own journey over the past 12 years has shaped me into who I am today. It all kicked off when I decided to study abroad in the Netherlands, diving into international business and management. I wasn't big on reading books - I preferred hands-on learning. That's why I picked a university that focused more on practical experience, rather than textbooks. In the Netherlands, I had a semester dedicated to launching a business - learning the ABCs of building a company, testing ideas, and pitching to investors. This turned out to be my favourite time at university, alongside my internships. I learned the most during these experiences, getting a taste of what it's like to start a business and work in different companies.
Having worked in various companies in the Netherlands, from startups to some of the world's most successful enterprises, I gained heaps of experience. I switched industries and careers, and picked up skills in marketing, finance, sales, development, design, and more – all crucial disciplines to kickstart your own company. Everything I did felt like it was preparing me to become the person I am today. Call it an Entrepreneur, Creator, Designer of my own life, or an Artist – no single label fits. What I'm certain about is that I love building products that people find useful, helping them with my skills, and watching a company grow along the way. And that's how Swapkaart came to life.
You’ve worked for corporates and scale-ups. What specific skills did you acquire from those environments that empowered you to embark on your entrepreneurial journey? Moreover, which skills do you believe you had to cultivate entirely from the ground up in order to succeed in your own venture?
Working for both big corporations like Nike and scaleups in the Netherlands was a crucial stepping stone before founding my own startup. It was a goldmine of experiences that equipped me with valuable skills. Working at big companies granted me a front-row seat to how they structure teams, strategize for the long haul, and foster growth to build something truly beloved. This exposed me to incredible people, mentors, and colleagues, boosting my confidence and refining my skills.
In the corporate world, especially at enterprises like Nike, decision-making involves many stakeholders. This taught me effective communication with a multitude of people, honed my presentation skills, and made me adept at juggling multiple projects simultaneously. That said, fitting into the system as just one piece was challenging for me, as I tend to go the extra mile and learn rapidly.
On the flip side, the startup and scaleup environment is a whole new ball game. Decisions are made quickly, you wear many hats, and waiting around for instructions isn't an option. Experiencing these diverse company sizes and industries gave me insights into running a mature company versus starting something from scratch.
While I've come a long way and still have much to learn, I've observed that the skills needed to manage Swapkaart differ from those in a traditional company role. As a Senior UX/UI Designer, my expertise lies in design, research, technical know-how, and creativity. Yet, steering a startup demands an expanded skill set: strategic thinking, leadership, negotiation, team management, networking, and problem-solving. These are skills I had to build entirely from the ground up to make my venture a success.
What makes Amsterdam a great city and a great ecosystem for startup founders?
Amsterdam is more than just a city; it's a vibrant hub of international businesses and cultures, with a rich history in trade and global networking. It's the home base for many of today's major companies, drawing on Dutch roots that run deep.
Before launching Swapkaart, I was part of the StartupLeap program, a fantastic opportunity to learn from the best of the Netherlands' startup ecosystem. This experience allowed me to connect with fellow founders to exchange ideas and insights. In my free time, I actively participate in local tech meetups like Amsterdam Startup Founder 101, Amsterdam Startup Community, and Tech Makers Amsterdam.
Taking it up a notch, we participated in Amsterdam's flagship tech event, TNW Conference. This annual gathering attracts thousands of startups and tech enthusiasts, providing a platform to dive into the latest trends, industry insights, and invaluable networking opportunities.
Let's not forget the abundance of amazing co-working spaces. Our office is in such coworking space in Amsterdam, and it's an incredible space that not only provides a conducive work environment but also facilitates interactions with other inspiring individuals and startup founders. Amsterdam truly offers an ecosystem that nurtures innovation, collaboration, and growth.
As Swapkaart has evolved, what are the key objectives and milestones the company has achieved so far?
As a bootstrapped startup, Swapkaart has had significant success since its inception, navigating the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Founded by two friends in Amsterdam, we've successfully attracted over 3,000 users to the platform, facilitating the transition of more than 500 companies from traditional paper business cards to our sustainable and eco-friendly digital solution.
Our journey has seen a shift in goals and strategy from the startup's launch to the present. Initially targeting solopreneurs and the B2C market, our innovative physical NFC business cards propelled our rapid growth. However, a recent evolution in focus has directed us toward the B2B market and technology. We're no longer confined to NFC business cards; instead, we're building a comprehensive ecosystem of products for companies, enabling them to manage contacts, share contact details instantly, and navigate the networking journey seamlessly. This evolving ecosystem integrates platforms, AI, NFC technology, and hardware to provide robust support for companies and teams.
With this refined focus, our key objectives and milestones have also evolved. While our initial aim was to assist one million individuals in transitioning from paper business cards to a single NFC business card, our current vision extends beyond mere numbers. We aspire to guide companies in embracing a seamless digital experience for contact management, fostering enduring relationships in the process. The journey continues, and Swapkaart is set on a path to make a lasting impact on how businesses connect and collaborate.
What is Swapkaart’s most urgent ask in the coming 6-12 months?
In the next 6-12 months, Swapkaart is at a critical period, undergoing a significant transition in our branding strategy. This shift aims to enhance our positioning and outreach to our ideal customer base. We're gearing up to introduce several new features, anticipating a substantial increase in user requests over the coming year.
With our strategic focus realigned, we are actively seeking strategic partnerships as a key element of our expansion into new markets. Collaborating with other companies is crucial to our approach, and we're particularly interested in connecting with event organisers and business card print providers across Europe.
Our ask is straightforward: if you are involved in event organization or printing business card services and are reading this, we welcome you to reach out to us at email@example.com. Let's explore the potential for partnerships and work together to create a seamless networking experience for B2B companies. Your engagement is integral to our journey, and we look forward to forging meaningful collaborations in the months ahead.
If you’re an Amsterdam-based founder working on an innovative solution that solves an urban or social challenge, and you’d like to share your story with our audience, email Alexandra at firstname.lastname@example.org.