I met Nikolay online a couple of months ago. A really nice and inspiring person that runs a business but also is not afraid to jump into new business ventures. I am sharing this interview today with great pleasure. Invest some time and read it 🙂 You won’t be sorry!
Introduce yourself to the readers of the blog
Hey there, dream chasers! I’m Nikolay Tsanev, a dreamer from the small town of Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria. Ever since high school, I’ve had the desire to explore the world and embrace new experiences. So, in 2012, I took a leap of faith and headed to the Netherlands to pursue my education, stepping out of my comfort zone and into the unknown.
Living abroad has been a transformative experience, helping me discover who I truly am. It taught me independence, focus, and the importance of building connections worldwide. After four incredible years studying international business management and doing internships in the Netherlands and Barcelona, I had the amazing opportunity to work for Nike European Headquarters, where I learned best practices in my field and even met sports icons such as LeBron James. That was a dream come true for an ex-basketball player like me.
However, I’ve always believed I could do better. In 2018, I left the corporate world to join a small Dutch startup in Rotterdam as a Senior UX/UI Designer. Going from a giant like Nike to a team of just five people was a challenge, but I embraced it well. Wearing multiple hats and giving my all from the start, I gained invaluable experience.
Being an entrepreneur had always been a dream of mine, but I didn’t feel ready to take that leap. So, I worked as a Senior UX/UI Designer in multiple companies while building side hustles in my spare time. I loved seeing ideas evolve into successful digital products that solve real problems and delighted users. This drive led me to team up with my best friend, Aleksander Terziev who I met in Amsterdam, and together we founded Codelevate, our own boutique digital agency. And that’s not all – we also created our first own digital product, Swapkaart.
You are a partner in a company for custom software development but today we are going to speak about something else you co-created – Swapkaart. Tell us how it all started and how the project has developed so far.
Swapkaart is a smart business card that allows you to share contact details, social media links, and attachments using NFC technology or a QR code.
The story of Swapkaart started when I personally experienced the power of NFC business cards. It all began at an event in Rotterdam, where I met a young entrepreneur from China. With a simple tap of his plastic business card on my phone, he effortlessly shared his contact details and social media links. Instantly, I was amazed by the possibilities of this technology and the positive impact it had on the world compared to traditional paper business cards.
From that moment on, the idea consumed me. I deep-dived into research, immersing myself in the world of NFC technology. Days turned into months, and the opportunity to put this knowledge into action arose when my current company prepared for an event. In 48 hours, we wanted to buy paper business cards but unfortunately, nobody could print and deliver that fast. Faced with this challenge, I opened my creativity.
In a stroke of inspiration, I remembered the wonder of digital business cards. Eager to bridge the gap between imagination and reality, I embarked on a mission to create digital business cards for my team. That day, I shared my vision with my business partner, Aleks. In less than 24 hours, he was able to research, order sample NFC business cards and encode a prototype. Fueling our passion, I quickly designed landing pages that would serve as our digital business cards. With a touch of NFC card and a sprinkle of design and coding, we stood ready for the event.
As our team proudly showcased their NFC business cards, a wave of excitement showed through the crowd. The concept was still unfamiliar, sparking intrigue and curiosity. Our cards became the talk of the event, spreading like fire. Witnessing the enthusiasm and eager anticipation from everyone, it became evident that we had stumbled upon a gold mine of potential. Our prototype had become a proof of concept, solidifying our belief in the limitless possibilities of Swapkaart.
Don’t you find it funny that you started a business about digital business cards when all major events were shut down during Covid-19? How did this impact your work?
While the world was impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw an opportunity rather than a setback in launching a business centered around digital business cards. Traditional paper cards had become obsolete, as in-person events were put on hold, and the shift towards digital and hybrid experiences became the new norm.
The limitations imposed by the pandemic compelled us to reconsider the efficacy of paper business cards. The constant need for reprints with each phone or email change was not only inconvenient but also unsustainable for companies. Astonishingly, approximately 100 billion business cards are produced worldwide annually, resulting in the potential loss of 6 million trees. Even more disheartening is the fact that nearly 90% of received business cards are thrown away in the rubbish within a week.
Our mission from the beginning was not to replace paper cards but to introduce an innovative technology that would enable individuals to represent themselves and force meaningful connections in a sustainable way, anytime and anywhere. We sought to transcend the traditional notion of exchanging a paper card in hopes of future contact. Instead, our focus is on fostering long-lasting relationships, empowering individuals with the tools to facilitate networking at every stage of the process.
In a world where face-to-face interactions were limited, we embraced the chance to redefine how business connections are made, creating a platform that thrives on adaptability and sustainability. By seizing the opportunity presented by the pandemic, we have reimagined the future of networking, ensuring that every connection made through Swapkaart is not just a fleeting encounter, but a lasting relationship that resonates beyond the limitations of physical events.
You are developing this as a side hustle. How do you manage to cope with your other business and how do you manage to find work-life balance?
In my time spent in the Netherlands, I’ve come to appreciate the value of planning and seizing opportunities in advance. The culture here emphasizes the art of planning, enabling individuals to map out their schedules and activities for months ahead. As the world emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic, people began to realize they have multiple passions, challenging the notion of a linear career path. The Great Recession of 2023 served as a reminder of this paradigm shift.
Having always nurtured a diverse set of interests, I recognized that my true passion and focus lay in the realm of building digital products. With my background as a Senior UX/UI Designer, I embraced my role as a digital idea shaper and product evangelist. Whether crafting mobile apps or pioneering new SaaS platforms, I am driven by the thrill of transforming concepts into tangible digital experiences.
My day starts at 6:30 am, a deliberate choice to make the most of my time. During those initial hours, I tackle the most crucial tasks, allowing me to focus before the busyness of the day takes hold. I incorporate short breaks and engage in deep, hour-long focus sessions. The Netherlands’ work-life balance culture affords me the luxury of taking a pleasant stroll or hitting the gym after 5:00 pm. Evenings are dedicated to an additional 3-4 hours of focused work, wrapping up tasks and preparing for the following day.
While some may argue that I work excessively, I am fortunate to have a supportive partner who believes in my dreams and helps me focus on my daily tasks. Weekends often find me spending a full day outdoors with friends, replenishing my energy and harnessing it to further enhance my craft. Sundays are typically working days unless I am traveling, providing an opportunity to plan the week ahead and prioritize my tasks. I never perceive it as mere work; my unwavering passion fuels me, allowing me to immerse myself for hours on end in the art of design and digital product development.
What are the top 3 lessons you learned from this experience you wish to share with others?
Embarking on this journey of building digital products and launching Swapkaart has taught me invaluable lessons that I want to share with others:
Lesson 1: Don’t overthink in the early stages.
When we started Swapkaart as a side project, we found ourselves getting caught up in overthinking and deliberating excessively. It wasn’t until we took action and delivered something, testing it with potential customers, that we discovered the true demand of the market. We realized that companies sought a comprehensive end-to-end solution for digital business cards, rather than just NFC cards. Acting swiftly and avoiding excessive overthinking allowed us to adapt and pivot based on valuable feedback. So, my first lesson is to act fast and be open to the possibility of your idea evolving.
Lesson 2: Validate your assumptions.
One of the most crucial lessons I’ve learned is the importance of validating assumptions. It’s easy to become infatuated with our own ideas and neglect user feedback, leading us to spend months developing something that hasn’t been thoroughly validated. Often, once the product is launched, it fails to attract customers because their expectations and needs weren’t properly considered. Instead of pursuing costly and time-consuming changes, I recommend hiring a UX/UI designer or conducting research to create a prototype and validate your digital product with early potential customers before you even start development. This upfront validation will save you time, costs, and prevent the development of unnecessary features.
Lesson 3: Define the true meaning for yourself.
Starting a new project or business can be exhilarating, but challenges and customer complaints may cause doubts to creep in. It’s during such moments that understanding the true meaning behind your endeavor becomes vital. Personally, I discovered that Swapkaart wasn’t solely about business cards; it was about using technology to facilitate meaningful connections and helping people in the process. Embracing this deeper purpose has been my driving force, enabling me to stay committed and motivated to make a positive impact through my skills.
Before investing countless hours of your life into a project, ask yourself if you’re ready to take risks and make sacrifices, potentially impacting your time with loved ones. Clarifying your dedication and understanding the personal significance of your venture will provide the necessary foundation for your journey ahead.
Each startup has its ups and downs. What inspires you to get through the hard times?
In the rollercoaster journey of startups, finding inspiration during challenging times is crucial. What keeps me going is the unwavering passion for the purpose behind Swapkaart and the positive impact it can make. Alongside that, the support of my team, family, and friends fuels my resilience, providing unwavering belief and encouragement. I embrace obstacles as valuable learning opportunities, using them to refine strategies and grow. By celebrating even the smallest wins and visualizing the future impact of Swapkaart, I stay motivated and focused. These sources of inspiration ignite my determination to overcome hardships and drive the startup toward success.
Share with us something you wish someone had told you before you started working on your idea
Looking back on my journey, there’s one piece of advice I wish someone had shared with me before embarking on my idea: Embrace the uncertainty and enjoy the process.
Starting a venture comes with its fair share of challenges and unexpected twists, but that’s where the real growth happens. Instead of fixating on a perfect roadmap, embrace the unknown and be open to adapting along the way. Embrace the lessons learned from failures and setbacks, as they pave the way for progress and innovation. Remember, it’s not just about reaching the destination but savoring the journey and the valuable experiences gained along the path of entrepreneurship and design thinking.