By Raya Tihinova

Photography: Rumen Vasilev

His favourite phrase is: "Luck is when opportunity meets preparation." Atanas Raykov is a general manager of Viber for Central and Eastern Europe. Together with two girls, he manages a market of thirty million users. This whole communication universe moves from a sunny room in Betahaus, Lozenets district, Sofia.


Why live and work in Bulgaria?

My family history is very different. My grandparents and great-grandparents have studied abroad. Due to historical and political reasons, many of my relatives live around the world - I have a grandmother in London, an aunt in Vienna. From a very young age I was being prepared to leave the country. However, I stayed to study and work in Bulgaria. I think everyone has their own formula for how things will happen. In Sofia University, I became a Bachelor of Business Administration and got involved in an environment with plenty of opportunities and filled with positive young people. While studying, I participated in a student organization, assisting students in their career orientation; in meeting motivating people and finding inspiring examples.

More than half of my fellow students developed successful careers in Bulgaria and abroad. Presently, I work on some very promising projects with them. As a student, I have never relied solely on the lectures at the university. When I was admitted to the University, the only gift from my grandparents was a subscription to The Economist. It gave me access to many resources and valuable information. When I got my first job, they stopped my subscription - so I can start paying for it myself.


OK, if these are the pros of studying in Bulgaria, what are the pros of working here?

The advantage is that, in Bulgaria, there is much less infrastructure, much less models and, therefore, more freedom for progress and innovations. In Western Europe, companies have put systematic efforts into building successful models for years, and it is more difficult to innovate. From my current job position, I am trying to create a precedent and prove that Bulgaria is not only for outsourcing and that foreigners choose us not only because we are source of cheap labour.

Viber headquarters for the region is in Bulgaria because of the quality of work here that is measurable with the level of any other place in the world. Curiously, Viber regional office had to be in Budapest but, after our meetings, they decided to change location.


Have you ever felt less competitive?

I have never felt an outsider. My results have never been worse than those of foreign students, and I have studied with the sons and daughters of senators and foreign ministers who have come from prestigious universities.


How do you choose people for your team?

The University for National and World Economy (UNWE) in Sofia invited me to speak on the topic of teamwork. I've always worked for big companies, but in small teams. I do not believe in the power of big teams, all I need are a few exceptional individuals. I spotted out the 'diamonds' and put individual efforts into the development of each one of them. I find it interesting to invite people who have never thought of working with me or for the company. Their approach to the tasks is interesting to me. I'm looking for independent individuals with serious hunger for success, committed to a cause, and I strongлу believe in consistency and continuity. The first person to join me at Viber, was a cosmopolitan young woman who had worked for SoundCloud in Berlin.

She had studied and lived in the Netherlands, the US and Korea. Today she is happily living in Bulgaria, closer to her family and friends.

I joined the company before it had set up any mobile business. It had yet to be created, we had to build a whole new brand. I had the honour to participate in the team that created something entirely new from scratch and, when I left, the brand had reached leading positions in some of the most important market segments.

How many jobs have you had prior to getting this high position at Viber?

My previous job was my first one. This is quite unusual nowadays because typically employees go from one telecom to another. By 2005, I was involved with the student organization; around that time the young HR people at Bulgarian Telecom (BTC) have spotted me during a forum. Without me knowing it, they got hold of my CV and included me in their intern program. From there, I was selected for a job position aspired for by the top specialists from around the world - Australians, Englishmen, Scotsmen, Americans. I worked for Vivacom for nine years and nine months. At the end of that period, I was responsible for the commercial strategy of mobile services and value-added services. When I left, the company was a powerful market player to be reckoned with, holding a solid 25% market share.

When I left, instead of the official one month's notice, I stayed three months and a half, until my bosses found the right person to whom I can pass my knowledge. In my last working day at Vivacom, I had three meetings. It was thanks to those final three months in Vivacom that my bosses sent me to the biggest convention for mobile services in Barcelona. There I met the heads of Viber. They were impressed by my perseverance, seriousness and the fact that I attend such an event with my bosses. A few weeks later they contacted me. All that was gained - knowledge, skills, mistakes and initiatives - helped me go in the direction I wanted.


You are interested in start-ups. What ideas impress you the most?

I'm a mentor to two of the largest funds for start-up business in Bulgaria - LAUNCHub and Eleven, and I also help the local team of StartUp foundation. This society in Bulgaria is microscopic. The only way to achieve success is to work together. I consulted a very interesting project - Darin Madjarov's  It's a place where school lessons are presented in an easy-to-grasp, fresh style. Darin's idea make use of technology to address a serious problem in our society – the crisis of the educational system. It started with a small team and at the beginning they did low-budget videos. Over time, the idea got popular and received funding. It endured and went forward. This is not the biggest start-up, but it generates very high value for students and teachers. Surely this is an idea that will change the lives of people in Bulgaria.


Before accepting the office at Viber, you took some time to travel alone. What did you learn about yourself and the world in this interlude?

I went to Prague, London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco; unfortunately I did not have time to visit Singapore. At each of these places, I stayed at friends or acquaintances. Most of them were Bulgarians. I witnessed a variety of immigrant stories: from young people caught up in the big city spending their time waiting for documents, to those who found dream-jobs in Apple or Cisco. All of them had one thing in common: they missed home and would never forget about it.

- ID -

Atanas Raykov graduated from the National Finance and Economics High School, then graduated as a Bachelor of Business Administration at Sofia University and then got a Master's degree in International Business Communications at the New Bulgarian University. In the last year of his studies, he spent some time at the International Institute of Economics and Political Science at Georgetown University. In October 2007, Raykov was included in the catalogue with the best students of the NBU, and in December 2012 he was elected most innovative employee at Vivacom.

- Did you know that... -

There is no need to mention that Sofia University 'St. Kliment Ohridski' is the oldest university in Bulgaria. But maybe you didn't know that in its library you will find more than 2.51 million books and papers - in electronic form or with the moist scent of ancient history. This is the largest scientific repository in Bulgaria, which each month is also home to various cultural events.

- Did you know that... -

This year, University of National and World Economy celebrates its 96th anniversary. Currently it is attended by more than 22,000 students who can choose from 47 Bachelor's or over 100 Master's programs.

It was hard picking the best out of its many proposals. Eventually, we chose something out of the ordinary. UNWE is the only European university to offer, since recently and in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a Master's degree in Nuclear security. The program lasts two years and currently eleven students from seven countries are in training - Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Zambia, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria, Lebanon. Participation of famous Bulgarian and foreign lecturers is also a big plus. Training is conducted in English and combines theory and practical simulation exercises. This is an ideal opportunity to swim in international waters while still on your own soil.