Vladislav Simov started his first company when he was only 18. When he was about to invest his family’s entire savings in his first truck, the dealer asked him, “What kind of truck do you want?” “Well, um, blue,” he replied.
Vladislav may have been lacking in experience and knowledge, but he had motivation aplenty, so success wasn’t long in coming: a decade and a half later, his company owns more than 40 trucks and is one of the major hazmat carriers in the Balkans. His transportation company is one of several successful businesses he has built so far, among them Domestina, Bulgaria’s largest online platform for cleaning services.
Stanimira Georgieva of Stanimira’s Chocolate House started making chocolate after her husband mistakenly signed her up for a professional chocolate-making course instead of giving her a holiday tour of chocolate workshops in Belgium.
Georgi Hristov of Ailyak started brewing beer on the stovetop at home, and Lukan Chervenkov of Shushon sold his first merino wool socks to the three Fs: family, friends, and fools. It took both businesses a few years to break even.
Today, you don’t need to rely on chance or luck, or hope to hit upon the right approach if you want to build a business. Starting a company is no longer the lonely undertaking it was years ago thanks to the Business Academy for Starting Entrepreneurs – BASE, a free entrepreneurship program developed by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The program connects aspiring entrepreneurs with business veterans like Vladislav, Stanimira, Georgi, and Lukan and helps them become a part of a network of individuals who want to make things happen and are willing to share their experience with others.
Inspired by US training programs for small-business owners, BASE shortens the distance from idea to implementation by relying on volunteer mentors with an entrepreneurship background and on learning by doing. During the three-month program, participants master the basics of starting a business, as outlined in ABF’s Practical Handbook on Entrepreneurship: they learn how to develop their business ideas, why it is important to do a market study, how to talk to potential customers and suppliers, where to get start-up capital, how to price their goods and services, and much more. With the help of their mentors, they develop business plans that compete for funding at the program’s end.
So far, 102 individuals have completed one of the five editions of the program, in Sofia, Mirkovo, Etropole, Panagyurishte, and Vratsa. Program participants presented 61 business plans and started or grew 58 small businesses as a result of the program. Among them is a bakery, a robotics course, a glassware workshop, a guest house, and a souvenir shop. About thirty mentors from different business fields have volunteered their time in the BASE program so far.
“Many of the participants already have a good idea, but they lack the knowledge to transform it into a functioning business, and sometimes also the courage to take the first step. BASE gives them the basic knowledge to get started and shows them that they are not alone. There are many like them who choose the path of entrepreneurship,” says Nadia Zaharieva, who manages the program for ABF and teaches the class on financial planning.
Mariya Tsacheva lived in the United States for many years and had never considered going into business by herself before she and her family moved back to Bulgaria in 2016. The BASE program encouraged her to give entrepreneurship a try. “The lecturers in the program were very interesting, and with their example, with the businesses they developed, they gave me moral support and the confidence that I could do it too,” she says. Currently, Mariya co-owns and manages a small bakery in the village of Chavdar.
Although she left the program more than a year ago, Mariya keeps in touch with some of her group members and mentors. “We succeed because we create a supportive community of entrepreneurs,” Nadia Zaharieva says.
Mariya’s bakery is Hristina Bairiakova’s first big client. The latter’s business plan won first prize in the Panagyurishte edition of the program in 2019. Hristina had been making cakes for friends for years but never mustered the courage to turn her hobby into a business. Thanks to BASE, this is about to change.
How do you know if entrepreneurship is right for you? Vladislav Simov offers a good litmus test of entrepreneurship potential:
“An entrepreneur is someone who is not satisfied with something in their life and has decided to change it. An entrepreneur is not happy with the status quo. An entrepreneur is not scared to dream. Entrepreneurship is freedom. If you want to live a better life and have more freedom to follow your personal happiness and goals, rather than follow others’, then you are an entrepreneur.”
ABF works in partnership with the Trust for Social Achievement, Industrial Cluster Srednogorie, the National Association of Small and Medium Businesses, ABLE (Association of Bulgarian Leaders & Entrepreneurs) and corporate partners to bring BASE to communities around Bulgaria. Five new program editions will be launched in the fall of 2019, two in Sofia and one each in Vratsa, Pleven, and the Srednogorie region.