Prezi is a presentation software that allows users to present their ideas on a zoomable virtual canvas. The story of Prezi started about five years ago in Budapest and since then the company has proved to the world that presentations can be exciting, fun, and creative. For us, Hungarians, Prezi has also proved that Budapest can be a great place to start a business and that we can dream big and make it happen. Prezi is also known for its great work space at the beautifully restored Merkúr Palace, which used to be one of Europe’s most modern telecommunication centers in the early 20th century. Check out the video about our visit to Prezi and the interview with Prezi co-founder and Principal Artist Adam Somlai-Fischer about the company, the startup culture in Budapest, and about his favorite places in the city.
When did you first have the idea of starting your own business?
Actually, I never wanted to start a business. I was an architect and media artist participating in several successful projects. As I had more and more success, I was invited to speak more often at various conferences about the projects I was involved in. On these occasions, I started to use a presentation tool, which I wrote for myself. It was a zoomable user interface (ZUI) which enabled me to explore the “big picture” overview of my ideas, and then zoom into the details of individual projects. Since no commercially-available zooming presentation editor existed, I started hand coding a ZUI for each presentation I gave. Peter Halacsy, my co-founder and then a professor at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, saw one of my presentations and he liked it a lot. It was in 2007 that he also had to give a presentation and so he approached me about using the software.
After making his presentation, we realized we might have something on our hands so we started to work on putting together something everyone could use. But neither of us knew much about running a company, so we reached out to the only person we knew who did, Peter Arvai. And it was actually Peter who convinced me (and Peter Halacsy) that the only way to succeed with our ideas was to leave our jobs and spend 100% of our energy on Prezi. So, it wasn’t really my intention to start a business but it was rather Peter Arvai and Peter Halacsy who made me jump into it.
What was the startup culture like back then?
As I mentioned, apart from Peter Arvai, we basically knew nothing about businesses or startups back then. In 2007 Peter Halacsy, me, and several friends started a media lab called Kitchen Budapest, which became a community place for everyone who wanted to work on interesting projects. But when we started to work on Prezi, there were no startups in Budapest, and in fact, we were checking on Wikipedia what a startup was or what VC money meant.
How is this culture different today?
There are a few really great examples of building a successful startup and a vibrant and exciting startup scene here in Budapest. I think more and more people know and understand what it takes to start or work in a startup. But the basic challenge is still the same: can you create value for others? Not the startup juries, but your future clients. In this respect, not that much has actually changed.
As for Prezi, we are working very hard to keep the culture that we’ve had since the beginning. We are and we will always be a startup as it is a question of culture. For us, questions such as how fast you can react when you need to change, how much ownership an individual engineer has, or how much flexibility we offer to our people, are extremely important. And not only when it comes to deciding what time they come to the office, but also when an issue gets solved. And we encourage everyone at Prezi to oppose everything. We are happy when people come up with new ideas and they stand up for their opinion even if it differs from ours. We like when they oppose our decisions and challenge us and each other with their new approaches. I think this plays a crucial part in our success as sometimes we only know what we want to reach but have no idea how to get there.
Prezi is one of the founders of Bridge Budapest. Can you name some specific changes in the Budapest startup culture that can be linked to the activity of Bridge Budapest?
It is hard to measure what derives directly from the activity of Bridge Budapest. What I can tell you is that we started Bridge Budapest with Ustream, LogMeIn and NNG to promote entrepreneurship in Hungary. When we started Prezi, there were no role models for us, although I think it is crucial to see good examples. With Bridge Budapest, we wanted to share our story with as many people as possible. We wanted to prove that you can reach global success starting a business even from Hungary. We want people to believe in what they are doing.
Also, we set up a fellowship programme. We already gave 14 youngsters – and through them, tens of thousands of other people – an insight into the world of the Silicon Valley, Boston, India, Japan, and Israel, hitherto unknown to them. We talked about business successes, because we believe that these stories have the power to inspire others, and that we have the potential to become more competitive. During the first year, nearly half of the population, around 5 million people, heard about these success stories, where the leading parts were played by Hungarian startups. We published hundreds of articles and interviews, and also created a TV series. We share our best practices with managers; we discuss our ideas of a prospecting Hungary with a group of managers in their 30s, also known as the Bridge Builders. We collaborate with foreign journalists: Bridge Budapest represents Hungary in numerous international organizations. In our opinion, it is important to let people abroad be aware of what Ede Teller’s and Ernő Rubik’s homeland has to give to the world today.
What are the assets of Budapest that could strengthen its position in the startup world?
Budapest has everything to be a startup capital: we have talents, we have education, a lot of ideas, role models people can learn from, and a community. But more importantly Budapest is a really diverse place. In the heart of Central Europe, it is far easier to recruit a diverse team which is, in my opinion, crucial when you want to start a business.
At our Budapest office, we have 26 nationalities. It means that each time we are facing a problem we examine it from 26 different perspectives. It often happens that something that might appear as a problem for, let’s say, a Spanish engineer is not even an issue for a Korean co-worker. In this way, working together saves a lot of energy, and it results in many new ideas, which are eventually being realized in the product.
And this is what San Francisco still has, as an advantage, to most places in the world. Recently, I was in Mexico City together with the mayor of San Francisco promoting entrepreneurship. He said their main asset is that one-third of the city has international background. It’s a real mix of cultures, which is amazing. So what can Budapest learn from this? Invite as many startups from the region, and from remote countries to start businesses here. It’s good for us, too.
When you look back at the last couple of years, what was the most important factor that contributed to the success of Prezi? In other words, what did Prezi have that other startups didn’t?
People have been looking for a better way to share their ideas and Prezi is the answer. We had 30 million users last november and we reached 40 million by April. 10 million new users in 6 months means around 55,000 daily sign ups. Small- and medium-sized businesses are using Prezi to sell products, land new clients, and train employees and customers. Startups are using Prezi to design their product and pitch to investors. Students and professors are collaborating on final projects in real time, all with Prezi. We’re seeing such tremendous growth because Prezi is a product that helps people convey their ideas in a more memorable and engaging way anytime, anywhere.
Why did you decide to keep your headquarters in Budapest?
We actually don’t have headquarters. We have an office in San Francisco and another one here in Budapest. Although more people work here, the executive team is mainly based in SF. So, it is hard to think of any of these two offices as headquarters. And as we started Prezi from here, for us it was never a question that we want to keep our company here. And it is not only about where we are from but, as I mentioned, Budapest has everything a startup company needs.
How many people work at Prezi and how fast are you growing?
We have 170 people in our Budapest office. In San Francisco, we have another group of 70 people working, so altogether we are about 240. As of last year, we had doubled our size each year. Currently we have more than 45 million users. We have 55k new users each day, a number that equals to the population of a mid-size town. These users are from all over the world and Prezi is used in more than 190 countries.
You’re an architect by profession. Can you name some changes in the city that have happened over the last 10 years and that you’re especially happy about?
I love the BMC, the Budapest Music Center. It is truly beautiful from the architectural point of view, has great events, but it’s also a private initiative. So it’s simply brilliant. I am really glad that we have communal bicycles, too. And this brings me to how popular cycling became, which is really important for the future of a large city like ours.
Why do you think Budapest attracts more and more visitors each year?
Budapest is a great city. It has a fantastic history, its architecture is extremely exciting, and the nightlife has evolved dramatically in the past few years. If you think about what happened to Gozsdu Court or Liszt Ferenc Square, the question is rather why it is only happening now. I think Budapest has a lot of potential and I am always happy when our people from the San Francisco office come over and instantly fall in love with the city.
If you have visitors from abroad, where do you usually take them?
To eat out, to concerts, but most importantly to stroll around in the city, daytime.
What are your favorite places in Budapest?
Well the Prezi office 🙂 , then the old arts supply store on Nagymező Street. We love Kopaszi gát, some recent places on Bartók Street, such as Kelet Café, the aforementioned BMC’s Opus Jazz Club, and many many others.