Szabi Szekely – from Sighisoara, via Cluj, towards the top of the world
Who’s behind the Romanian Juror in Cannes Lions Mobile? Well, an exceptionally gifted individual, praised by Forbes USA, The Guardian and BranD Hong Kong. Born in Sighisoara and educated in Cluj, he was a computer aficionado since early childhood. Along with his partner and friend, Levente Szabo, he managed to raise a tech company with an impressive international pedigree by the age of 30. Have a glimpse of his life story in this Ad Hugger interview.
AdH: Tell us a story from your childhood that announced Szabi Szekely, the performer.
I discovered computers when I was 8, back in 1993, and was immediately drawn to the unique and versatile nature of these machines. A couple of years later, a friend of mine showed me that with a couple lines of text you can make the computer print your name on the screen in any colour of your choosing. I was instantly hooked. In 1998 I got my first PC, and a year later I was building programs with proper graphical user interfaces.
When and how did you start your entrepreneurial adventure?
Back in 2004, while we were doing our Bachelor degrees still, Levente and I were thinking about doing some work for hire in web technologies, and maybe even build a product of our own. Our first ‘client’ came back to us in 2005 with a request for some random dev work, but knowing that he’s a business angel, we pitched him a mobile game concept we were thinking about. We crunched the numbers, came up with a budget and he said he’d finance the project. To have everything covered legally, we set up a company in a couple of weeks, but (as it often happens) by the time he had to wire us the money, he was nowhere to be found. That’s how Halcyon Mobile was born.
What about the first project you were proud of and enjoyed international exposure?
We built a game generator back in 2007 (mypersonalgame.com) which had a proper launch, and was covered by various smaller tech blogs around the world, like gamesindustry.biz. The product was never monetized, but even after three years we were still having thousands of games generated and downloaded by people every month. Our first real success, though, came in 2013, when we launched Dollarbird, which was featured by the major tech outlets such as TechCrunch, Mashable, Lifehacker, TheNextWeb, as well as in the mainstream media: The Guardian, The Huffington Post or Forbes.
You have a large team. How do you select your people? Which are the principles that make the whole organization tick?
From the get-go we had a pretty well defined set of values, and we made sure everyone on the team shared and lived these values. We also put emphasis on attitude instead of experience when hiring new team members, which led to a young team of talented individuals who share a passion for technology and respect for their colleagues.
Some backstage stories behind your highly appraised work?
Just before the launch of Windows 8, at the end of 2011, Microsoft announced a contest for writing apps for this new operating system, running on tablets as well. One of our clients saw this as a good PR opportunity, so they asked us if we would like to take a stab at it. While it sounded like a great opportunity, we only had three weeks until the deadline and we were just about to go on our Christmas holiday. Also, we’d never worked with Microsoft technologies in production before. With all the odds against us, each and every member of our team back then showed up and we worked on this app through X-Mas and New Year’s, pretty much day and night, for two weeks. We ended up winning the contest, but even if we hadn’t, it was an experience that we’ll never forget.
How did you react when you saw Halcyon mobile celebrated in the media outlets of the planet?
We started this whole thing out of passion for technology and our curiosity for the mobile platforms. We never planned for international recognition, but when it came, it felt really nice, since we’ve worked really hard on every project of ours. It was, of course, a great motivating factor for our team, and had a significant impact on the type of work coming to us afterwards. We still don’t have a ‘sales’ team in the true sense of the word, as all of our clients find us.
Which are your plans for Halcyon Mobile?
We want to continue our quest to become one of the leading players in the Central / Eastern-European tech ecosystem, as well as to create mobile products that would bring value and be used by people worldwide. We truly believe that you can improve people’s lives with technology, and the bigger impact we can have on that, the better. Our long-term plans include converting a significant part of the business into a product company.
We feel that Cluj is a perfect bridge between the Eastern and Western worlds, providing a great social and cultural environment for a tech industry to thrive. We have great universities and a lot of talented individuals flocking to the city from all around the country, so we’re never in short supply of fresh brains to mold into the tech mindset.