Interview with Alex Negru

The Challenge

 “Minutizer is the PayPal for time”

Now that’s an ambitious statement from a young Romanian entrepreneur that started this project only a few months ago.

Read on to find out what are his plans and what sets him apart from his  peers in Western Europe. Interesting stuff. I promise.

Intro

I know Alex for maybe 6-7 years now. We first met during a blog meet in Iasi, our hometown. We were both there to find out other like-minded people and connect with the upcoming people in the Romanian online scene.

Even though we kind of lost the connection during the years, especially since I moved to the Netherlands, we still had Facebook and LinkedIn to keep up with each other’s achievements.

This interview proved to be great opportunity to revive a dormant friendship and learn so many nee things about the Romanian startup scene.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

Hi everyone, my name is Alex and I am an experienced marketeer that loves to work in Online.

Before starting my current project, I ran my own marketing agency in Iasi, providing online and offline marketing solutions to the local market. In 2012 I moved to Bucharest, the capital city of Romania, with only one thing on my mind: create a business that will bring me a passive income.

When I got here I started an online project, together with an ex-client of mine. We wanted to create a new market for the online services industry. After a few months of working and deep diving into this new area, I noticed a big need that wasn’t filled by anyone … so I decided to start a new company and solve it myself.

 Can you describe your new project for our readers? 

Minutizer is the PayPal for time. This is basically a tool that helps anybody to charge per minute an online conversation.

So for example, if you wanted to learn Spanish, Minutizer would allow you to pay per minute the video/audio call with the teacher instead of  paying him/her upfront.

You can imagine that as a buyer, you don’t want to pay upfront for a service that you didn’t receive and the teacher would not want to perform the service and hope the transfer will happen afterwards. This is a great solution as both parties are happy with this pay as you go solution.

For the moment Minutizer works only with Skype, but we are developing plugins for other VoIP apps like Google Hangouts, Viber and so on.

Alex Negru from Minutizer

So it’s basically real time payments through Skype. Correct?

Exactly. Another way you could think about Minutizer is to compare it to the paid/ premium number for GSM mobile phones but for Internet. So basically the 0900 numbers or whatever it is in your country.

How did you come up with this idea? 

As I mentioned, I moved to Bucharest to work on a project that was not related to online payments. We wanted to start an online market for people selling and buying online horoscope readings and tarot predictions. As I looked into this industry, I understood better both the market and the user behavior. And the idea evolved form there.

At first I wanted to embed Skype calls in a web page, but that is technically impossible. So… thinking about this I realized I don’t need to do that. Instead I could make a pay per minute tool for Skype that would simplify the process and free the user.

I bet you had a lot of ideas. What made you choose this project over other projects?

First, this idea made a lot of sense for me. I noticed that a lot of the horoscope readers that were providing services on the website were moving their clients to Skype after the first contact. So the need for an alternative solution was there.

Second, I believe that the time is right for a tool like Minutizer. Nowadays, many people understand concepts like e-wallet, e-payments and so on. Think about it, PayPal is already 11 year old and they did a good work educating the masses in this area.

Third, nowadays almost everybody is using video calling, and they even use on the go.

And last but not least, in the last two years the Bitcoin ecurrency has open the gates to the peer-to-peer, decentralized payments.

So yeah… basically I choose Minutizer because all of the above 🙂 .

Talking about ridding these waves. I imagine there are others ridding the same waves. So how do you feel about competition?

First of all I think is good to mention that Skype already tried this in 2007 but abandoned it after 1 -1.5 years or so. I guess that’s because they changed the CEO and they decided to focus on SkypeOut, their VoIP to operator solution, which I think is a much better revenue model for them. Also I had the opportunity to talk with some guys from Microsoft Europe (since Microsoft owns Skype) and from what I understand, their focus in a very different direction. So for the moment I am not worried about them.

So that is Skype. And the other players?

As I told you, Minutizer is a third party tool that allows people to charge per Skype conversations. However in the future we want Minutizer to work with any IM/VoIP platform, so think services like Google Hangouts, Viber, Oovoo and so on. So basically any service providing live video audio conversations.

Of course there are others, indirect competitors as think of them.

Take for example Google Helpouts. Google offers a similar solution with Helpouts, but in the same time you can be sure that they will never make a plugin for Skype or any other VoIP provider. So they are kind of closed. On the other hand, we can and are building a version of Minutizer for Google Hangouts.

Other indirect completion comes from LiveNinja or Oranum. Both are big communities for horoscope readers, who have to spit the revenue with the platform owner. I think we have a much better proposal, especially for people that want to move their clients to Skype.

So the key takeaway is that competitors have closed ecosystems, where we have an open ecosystem. We give you the freedom to use  whatever communication channel  you want.

And as far as I know there is no other company to do the exact same thing as we do. That also means we need to move FAST!!

Monetize every minute

Another interesting aspect is that we started in the area of online horoscope and tarot, but imagine all the other areas where people would want to pay to have an expert opinion: tutoring, cooking advice, learning a new language, … . So the growth potential is huge.

And in the future you also want to create a market for all these people to meet up?

Our focus is on technology. We want to build an API and allow other businesses to build their products on top of us. This is why I also started with “Minutizer is the PayPal for time.” We want to be like PayPal. You can integrate PayPal in your market place, mobile app, website and this exactly our direction as well.

And how did you fund the project?

Before bringing together the team, I did an extensive research. I spent almost 9 months thinking about it. After the first 5 months I started looking also for a technical co-founder.

At this point we are both using our own money to fund this project. This is not a lot but just enough to get it of the ground.

Also I try to use the existent cash flow to fund some of our expenses. The advantage of Minutizer is that it started making money from the first day. The disadvantage is that it doesn’t make a lot of money. 

And do you have a lot of clients? If you can tell me that of course…

Yes I can. Since we launched the product 6 months ago, over 10.000 people created a Minutizer account, of which 3000 are active users.

And the great thing that the CLTV (customer life time value) can be very high.

You mentioned looked for a technical cofounder. What was the reason for that?  

Well, many of the projects I started, I started and ended alone. It was a lot like a one-man show.

Having a co-founder allowed me focus mostly on marketing and business development while he would focus on the technical part.

So did you ever considered stopping?

No. I never considered this option.

Of course there were many difficulties along the way that I had to solve, so much that I have saying by now “I died and resurrected so many times that I got used to it”. So the next time “I’m dying”, aka I fell like giving up, I know that I will not give up and that I will come back after all.

Do you think luck played a part in achieving your goal?

In my opinion to be lucky is to create your opportunities and to be at the right place at the right time.

I think this applies in my case as well. First of all, there were several things that had to fall into place exactly like this so I could get here: I was born in Romania, I worked in advertising, I moved to Bucharest, I love online products, I met the guy who introduced me to this industry … and so on.

On the other hand I was constantly looking for opportunities and new business ideas. It didn’t just happened. I kept my eyes open and constantly looked around me.

I am sure you will see a lot of problems/opportunities around you, and if you if you have the brains and the right information you can find the solution.

How do you did your background influence this project?

Sometimes when I mention that I’m in the Horoscope market most business people raise an eyebrow and get the wrong impression. So, before answering your question I would like to make a small note. The online horoscope and tarot industry, in US alone, in 2012 was a $2 billion market. There are 200.000 experts worldwide that are selling these services and there are millions of people that buys these services.

So even though I ended up working in this industry by chance, I used my marketing and business expertise to look at it in different way than others usually do. Thanks to my background I was able to understand how the business works and see how the demand of the customers is changing over time, from a closed, almost gated community that uses flash video embedded on websites to a new model, a peer to peer communication where they use VoIP software like Skype.

What are the things you’ve learned or skills that you developed during this project?

Good question…. What I like about being an entrepreneur is the fact that I learn new things every day.  Since I’ve started this project I have learned a lot of things about the finance industry, payments, credit cards.

I learned a lot about how the debit cards, credit cards, banking industry, money transfers, regulations in the e-money, online fraud and anti-fraud techniques and so on. All this information I had to learn during this project and I continue learning something new everyday.

Do you think your location (city/country) influenced the project in any way?  

I think I have mentioned the positives parts of how living in Romania influenced this project so far.

What I would like to add are the not so positive things :).  Mainly the lack of funding and the need to move s fast as possible to the west, where there are a lot more opportunities for startups to get funding.

But we are already exploring the possibility of moving to Western Europe in one of the upcoming tech hubs like Berlin, Amsterdam or London.

How did/will you promote your project and why did you choose for those? 

The main reason for choosing the channels we’ve chosen is that we don’t have an advertising budget.

First we jumped on Twitter and started building a strong follower base there. We use it to communicate with our users and position ourselves a thought leader.

We also went after the service providers in this industry, because if they like the product they will do our marketing for us and bring more clients. We are contacting them directly on Twitter and forums, where these experts are talking a lot with each other.

Of course we started with the horoscope and tarot industry, but Minutizer is built to work with any industry. One of the next industries we plan to target is the online tutoring, which is much larger market that the one we currently targeting. Just to give you an idea, from the research I’ve done the tutoring market in Asia is bigger than the entire video games market in the US.  

Do you have a motto or an inspiring quote?

Hmm… not sure about that. I guess the one I came up with during this project: “To build your own startup you have to die and resurrect a few times”.

Minutizer pitch

 

Where do you get your news and what type of news do you read?

I use  my social network to be my filter. So I mainly get my news from my friends.  

I also subscribed to some publications that really interest me.

Do you also follow any RSS Feeds?

I don’t have the time to filter myself the RSS feed so I am using my friends to filter the most interesting articles.

What was the TED talk, book, blog post, life lesson or anything really that inspired you the most in making this project?

I can definitely recommend reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. That is a book that I really like and I used many of the lessons I learned from it in this project, especially the pricing part.

The other book that I recommend reading Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box, by Arbinger Institute. The idea of book is that even if we look at the communication as B2B or a B2C, the reality is that communication is between people. And because of that, because we are not dealing with abstract entities, humans can feel when another person is trying to bullshit him. They will know it; they will feel it. This is another helpful advice I took and I can recommend to others as well.

Key learning point!

What would be the most practical advice you could give to someone that would like to do something similar? Something that he or she could apply from tomorrow.

Don’t go looking for a business idea/opportunity. Don’t say tomorrow I will start A business (emphasis on A). Go and work in an industry or do something that you like and get your head into that industry. Open your eyes to see what is happening there. IF you do this, in a few month you will see a lot of opportunities around and if you have the knowledge, the brain and the timing is right you can come up with a solution for them.

The second advice is: just start with it. There are a lot of people that have great ideas but do nothing with the. They keep postponing the moment when finally they take action. Just start. And after be prepared to die and resurrect a few times. Be prepared for tough times and always push trough. If you persevere there will be an upside. 

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