MATĚJ NOVÁK’S JOURNEY FROM WARZONES, THROUGH SILICON VALLEY, TO BUILDING STARTUPS
“Development aid through introduction of new technologies always made sense to me, but I always wanted to try things from the business side. After all, business is the driver of technological innovation”, says Matěj Novák, the lead of a startup that aims to shake the mortgage market in Czechia. Read all about the fantastic career that lead him around the world and then back home.
How did you land in Creative Dock?
I came to launch Refinanso.cz. It’s a startup that aims to make the Czech mortgage market more liquid. We want to help clients switch banks, when they feel that their bank is not giving them favourable rate. Mortgages are long-term products, lasting up to 30 years. It is only natural that clients would switch banks from time to time. But it is too complicated, which is why 80% of people do not refinance their mortgages.
And what can Refinanso do for those 80%?
We’re removing barriers. People expect refinancing to be a time-consuming, complex process full of traps and incomprehensible footnotes. That’s why they often just shrug and keep paying more than they need to. Refinanso.cz platform simplifies and quickens the process significantly. There is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to arrange it from your sofa in 30 minutes.
Tell me more about your professional career as an aid worker in conflict zones.
About 15 years ago I went to Chechnya, where I managed a small team delivering food aid to 42,000 people stuck in a warzone. It was my first real job. We bought food in Russia, transported it through military checkpoints, and distributed it. Later I was overseeing similar operation on the other side of the Caucasian mountains, in Abkhazia, which was recovering from the conflict with Georgia. Next post was Afghanistan, where I took part in organizing democratic elections under the umbrella of United Nations. Then came the massive tsunami in Asia; I lead a mission to Sri Lanka helping local communities cope with the aftermath of the tsunami, combined with ravaging civil war. Other assignments followed, some as short as a few weeks. At one point I got to know quite a few countries in Africa, where I had the honor to lead innovation projects funded by Bill and Melinda Gates.
Did you ever fear for your life? Why did you choose such a job?
In my experience, people who enter this field are partially driven by their social ideals, and partially are looking for adventure. It was the same with me. You expect, and accept, certain level of danger. But the people in real danger are the locals, much more than international aid workers or journalists. I could always leave if I wanted to.
Were you ever in actual danger?
Couple times probably. I remember a terrorist attack on a UN base in Afghanistan, where I was staying, for example. Many times I got close to a bad road accident - that is statistically the bigger danger for aid workers than kidnappings or shooting incidents. Vehicles and roads are bad, people are stressed, rules are poorly enforced.
How did you feel about leaving this career?
The decision was gradual. You need to keep certain emotional balance which is not easy - on the one hand, you need to feel empathy towards people you are helping, that should be your primary driver. On the other, you have to be a professional that keeps focus on the big picture - you set rules of your assistance, you manage staff, you control finances. After some time spent in less fortunate areas of the world, you start getting used to the fact that suffering, corruption and injustice is ubiquitous. Empathy falls, cynicism increases, everything becomes a routine. When this came, it was time for me to leave. And I was ready for new challenges.
Fair enough. How did you land in Silicon Valley then? That’s a radical move, isn’t it?
There was a connection. On several development missions, I worked with governments on technology-related projects. For example in Ethiopia, we helped mobilize a small but agile community of programmers around developing educational apps for tablets. In Georgia we helped launch an e-government programme. Because, 70% of Georgians didn’t have internet access at that time, we were building internet centres in the countryside. In Ukraine, we introduced computers to public libraries. This technology angle, sometimes referred to as ICT4D (Information Communications Technology for Development) became my passion. Silicon Valley, where technological innovations flourish, was a somewhat natural choice. Also, my sister lives there. It was a chance to spend some proper time with her.
And did it work out?
I joined Premise, a hugely ambitious startup that facilitates micro-jobs for people all around the world, especially in developing countries. I managed expansions in markets such as Colombia or Kenya. This was my path into the private sector and into the business of building companies.