The Good Old Days
I was born in the last decade of Yugoslavia’s golden age and my parents thought I would be a scientist, musician or an artist. Instead, I ended up running an online marketing agency on the other side of the planet. This is a story about some of the most unlikely events which have set the path for my entrepreneurial journey.
Public Speaking & Showmanship
One of my first childhood memories is when I was three years old. “Come and see the wonder” my grandparents would say to everyone in the neighbourhood. When enough people turned up, they’d place me on top of a table say “Go on, do your thing!”. I’d proudly recite all the Latin names of animals and plants from an encyclopaedia of natural life. People applauded, exclaimed and praised me. I enjoyed the attention.
Timing, Placement & Targeting
My grandfather was a carpenter so we always had visitors in our house discussing their latest project. When I was about seven years old, I figured out when to come out and play Serbian or Croatian national songs on my keyboard, depending on the dialect the customer used.
Next thing you know there’s a pat on the back and 500 dinars in my pocket.
Influence & Leadership
In primary school I turned my passion for archaeology into a hobby group. I realised that I can make new things happen by reaching out to people in power. My teacher authorised the excavations on the local archaeological site and soon after that I had a group of workers digging ancient relics for me. All our findings were sorted and presented in the class and later in front of the video camera.
I was ten years old when the war started in Yugoslavia and it happened to be in my home town. We were no longer welcome there and were told by our neighbours to leave. We packed what we could and crossed the border on a barge. After an 87-day siege, the town was in ruins. Living as a refugee was tough, but I always tried to look on the bright side and seek opportunities. I knew my family was running out of money so I kept thinking about ways to contribute.
Out of Thin Air
My first product was a novelty item. On the 31 December 1991 we used plastic a bag sealer and created about a dozen of air pockets. The next day we brought out our merchandise and were selling “the air from 1991”. A few kids bought it, but I had a suspicion they were feeling sorry for us. Just as I was writing this article, a parcel appeared on my desk and when I opened it I saw a bunch of plastic air cushions. It made me laugh.
The return to my home town was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had. At first, we were allocated a temporary home in a nearby town. A hand grenade was thrown in front of the house one evening and although nobody was hurt, it traumatised the whole family, particularly my mom and the sister. We understood the message and left as quickly as we could. The next explosive device nearly took the front of the house off. We made the right choice by abandoning that house.
The drive through our home town was surreal. There wasn’t a square inch of a road or building without bullet holes or debris. Trees were all trimmed to near stumps from all the projectiles and explosions. Military, tanks, checkpoints, barbed wire… it’s smelled of gunpowder, diesel and smoke. Still, I wanted to see my home, but when I did I could hardly recognise it.
Image Credit: Peter Denton
Living in the Ruins
We worked on the house for the next few months making it liveable again. In the distance, constant explosions, heavy artillery, machine guns; sounds that you eventually get used to and sleep with. We learned how to live without power and running water. United nations vehicles brought us aid for a while, but eventually we were on our own. Looking for food and supplies in nearby ruins was a risky business. Many were injured or killed by the remaining landmines and unexploded projectiles. People, however, were the most dangerous thing you could encounter. We were held at point blank range by drunken soldiers, shot at by a sniper, threatened and robbed. There are also events that I will not talk or write about.
Opening New Markets & Risk Management
From time to time we would cross the border and step into normality. I noticed that everyone wanted to hear our stories and asked us if we had any souvenirs from the war. I recognised the opportunity and next time had a van loaded with empty bazooka shells, exploded mortar tails, bullet and cannon shells. I took risks knowing that the soldiers at the border would scrutinise my cargo. I don’t know if my uncle bribed the official but we were on the other side and selling. We made around 200 Deutsche Marks which was roughly two months worth of food and supplies. Not bad.
Eventually I realised the market was saturated so I sought new opportunities. Scavenging for valuables in a building that used to be my school I found an old sniper nest with what had to be hundreds of empty bullet shells. I picked one up and thought “This metal’s gotta be worth something.”
I turned to my father and grandfather and made a proposal. We were to collect bullet shells around the neighbourhood and sell the metal to a local dealer. My idea was rejected with an explanation that there just wasn’t enough metal out there to make the risk of scavenging through ruined buildings a worthwhile exercise.
Proof of Concept
I took a wheelbarrow and a shovel and headed for my old school. At the end of the day I brought home some twenty kilograms of brass. Next thing you know all three of us are out there in the streets collecting bullet shells.
We lived of metal trading for years and have along the way diversified into more metal types including copper, which had a significantly higher selling price. But the supply was shrinking each month and I decided it was time to focus my energy on other things.
We had a gun in every corner of our house. I had an AK-47 and knew how to use it. The trouble was that as law and order restored people had to give back all the assault weapons.
Grandfather, father and I teamed up and started offering weapon conversion services. Many types of military rifles such as the Karabin resembled hunting rifles so this was our focus. Father and I would sketch beautiful images and grandfather would carve them into the wooden parts of the weapon. Deer, nature, roses… pretty things.
Soon after that we started carving national symbols and that was a big hit with our customers.
The carving business turned back into icon making, something grandfather used to do in the eighties. His workshop became famous and was even featured on TV.
People came to him for a variety of projects and (not surprisingly) the next big thing was home renovation. They designed, carved and installed staircases, coffee tables, chess boards, decorative wheels… we even had a magician come to us ordering a special type of prop.
There was no 3D printing back then. When you needed a custom shape done, you went to see Master Petrovic.
At that point I was back in school where I’ve suddenly developed interest in English language. It felt like a useful language to know so I practiced a lot.
We sat at a small coffee shop in Belgrade filling out our refugee immigration application. I remember being asked where we should go, Canada, United States, Norway… I picked Australia; it sounded like a really nice place. So the box was ticked and that was it.
From time to time more paperwork would come back and one day, to our disbelief, we were granted a humanitarian visa for Australia. “Do we know where we’re going guys?” mother asked. I shrugged it off knowing that, no matter what, it can’t be worse than where we were at the time.
On arrival we were greeted by social workers and brought into a small apartment in a nice suburb. There was a TV, a fridge full of food and ATM cards loaded with 200 dollars each. Life was good again.
In Pursuit of Interests
In late 1998 I bought my first computer and connected to the Internet. This changed everything. My passion for art, music and science suddenly had a converging platform. While studying multimedia at Griffith University I started a company with a few friends from my course. This is when I realised that I did not like partnerships nor business in general. For the next five years I worked on professional development and with each new job I took on a more serious role.
My first website became world’s most popular site in its niche. More importantly it generated income. Next two years were spent in experimentation and replication. One day I recognised an extraordinary opportunity and put all the money I had in the world with my fingers crossed.
I was on a holiday in Malaysia when my mother called telling me that the site activity had gone through the roof. It was in the lobby of a two and a half star hotel in Borneo that I made my first business plan.
Building an Empire
After months of persuasion I made a friend from Croatia quit his full time job and work with me on building websites and setting up an online advertising network. We had a unique approach and enormous scalability. In twelve months we built up an online portfolio with more than a thousand domains, had an office in Croatia and the money was rolling in. I made four times my yearly wage, bought a house, quit my job and fully dedicated to my new venture.
Choosing the Right Path
The whole thing felt too good to be true though so I decided to invest every dollar I made into building up an SEO agency. I spent months researching and publishing all my work online. This content and aggressive branding secured me something of a status in the industry. Everyone thought I was a big SEO company.
One day I picked up a phone and on the other line was a marketing executive of a very big corporation. While on the call, my cat Mitz, started meowing and scratching on the door. “Is that a cat?”, the big client said. “That’s it. I’ve gotta have an office.”, I said to my wife. So I started looking.
We drove past the Brisbane Technology Park many times as it was in our neighbourhood. Each time I’d say something like “Hmmm… Brisbane Technology Park. I wonder what’s there. We should go one day and check it out. It sounds cool.” I never did go, so it just became one of those things we always joke about when we drive past it. While Googling “office space South Brisbane” I saw a familiar name, chuckled and went over to check it out. The rates were reasonable so I signed the lease.
On another casual drive I said to mother that I’ve been to the Brisbane Technology Park and that I found out what it had – my future. We laughed heartily and I gave her a tour of the place.
We had the right service at the right time and grew quickly, doubling in size each year. Right now Dejan SEO has hundred and fifty clients with sixty staff in six offices in Australia and Europe.
My little search engine optimisation company has quickly transformed into an online marketing agency. Today, I’m looking at the whole operation from afar wondering what my next challenge will be.