In this inaugural Founder Interview blog post, I discuss with CEO and Co-Founder, Tomas Gogar, the origins of Rossum, his time working with StartupYard, and his visions for the future of Rossum. Named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in 2018 and Financial Times’ New Europe 100 Challenger in 2017, Tomas is a force to be reckoned with. Read on and you’ll see why.
OG: Hi Tomas, thanks for sitting down with me (and for the coffee). Can you start off by explaining your background and how you became the founder of a tech startup?
TG: Hi! Thanks for giving me an excuse to leave the office. I had originally been studying Physics, but was always interested in computers, so I decided I should make a change. Once I switched schools, I started to program different things - from fixing the software in my mother’s office to developing mobile apps.
During my studies I focused on programming user interfaces - the correct way. But here, the workflows were already quite developed. I realized that machine learning was the next big thing, so for the last 2 years of my Masters, I studied AI. I had a professor, Jan Sedivy, who was a big influence in my studies, as well as in the early part of my career and the start of Rossum.
I spent a short time working in spam filtering, and then started my PhD where I met the other two founders of Rossum, Petr Baudis and Tomas Tunys. In the lab, we had a focus on extracting data from web pages and structured documents. I saw some business opportunities with the skills that we each had, so we starting doing some consultancy in our free time. We thought we should use the knowledge gained from our PhD to build a product of value inside our own company instead of building value for someone else. This is when I realized it can take a super long time to build something practical that might actually help people around the world - which has always been my goal.
OG: At this point, you joined Startup Yard with some basic idea and the skills and knowledge you had gained during your PhD studies?
TG: We joined Startup Yard with some computer vision, but we were not computer vision experts. We knew we should focus on what we knew best, which was processing documents. We wanted to find an opportunity in our industry, where we were very strong. We met a lot of people through Startup Yard and discussed what the needs were regarding documents. Along the way we had a lot of really crazy ideas. Then we met a few guys from Ernst & Young, who focused our attention on the difficulties with traditional data capture systems. It turned out to be the perfect fit from what we had all studied in our PhD.
OG: Startup Yard had a big influence on you when you were first starting. What was some of the most valuable advice that you received?
TG: I would say that Startup Yard gave us a lot of the soft skills. They tell you how to present, they explain why it’s important not to say everything - clarity over accuracy. As a scientist, you tend to explain all of the details, and when it comes to something complex, everyone stops listening to you. My feeling is that, as a founder, you always have a core competency - your “comfort zone”. Ours was science and machine learning. The problem is that we have three quite similar competencies from school, but our personalities are different.
I would say that I am probably the biggest extrovert in the company and I also have a large network. In startups you need to learn quickly - about accounting, how to build a business plan, how to network, and how to talk to people within your company. It is 100% necessary to leave your comfort zone.
OG: Now that you are more established, what is some advice you would give to someone thinking of starting a tech company?
TG: I think that at the beginning all you need is coffee, internet and a computer to start a software business. And then you need a lot of opportunities to meet relevant people for what you want to build - either your potential customers or potential competitors. In order to build a great product, you need to get feedback from the right people. You will also need to leverage your network, and constantly work at it.
OG: You recently spent some time in Silicon Valley - any takeaways you have to share?
TG: The great thing about Silicon Valley is that you can meet people quite easily. I met with potential investors, potential clients, as well as other companies that are similar to us, so that we can learn from them. In Silicon Valley, reciprocity works very well. People tend to help you, even if they know you may never be able to help them. They don’t know whether we will succeed, but the culture is that if we help each other, there is someone who will help me in return in the future. If you put a lot of smart people in one place, and there is this kind of mindset of karma, then it starts to work. I think that sense works best in Silicon Valley as compared to the whole of Europe. It is still business-oriented - you use it or lose it when it comes to the time and chance that you can make a difference. They don’t skip opportunities there.
OG: I know you are super busy, but how do you like to spend your limited free time?
TG: It’s mostly focused on Rossum. Right now, I have been spending a lot of time fundraising, so I am looking forward to being back and spending more time with the people in the company. When I have the free time, I like to go out in nature or to the mountains.
OG: Rossum’s second anniversary is coming up, how do you see the company evolving in the future?
TG: I see us eventually expanding to the US - most probably Silicon Valley or at least New York. We see the potential in the US, but we also realize the potential in Europe as well, and because we are located in Europe, it will be easier to focus here for the time being. I believe when building a great company, it should be great in all aspects. We have worked to build credibility with companies that are trusted, like EY, UiPath and IBM. We want to have a story that people are interested in and we want to grow with them.
We see the inefficiencies in the workforce, but we know that documents will be around forever. They may not always exist in physical form, but even electronic documents have staying power because people will always have that need - it is the only way to exchange complex information. We started Rossum with the idea to eliminate inefficiencies by using computers to understand those documents and, in the end, eliminate manual data entry. From the practical side, it makes sense to start with something logical and structured like an invoice. We are starting with the basics that need to be solved now, and which will have the largest impact. Then we will work on developing solutions for more complex documents. We are really just starting.
OG: Thank you, Tomas, for speaking with me today. You’ve been very generous with your time - I know you are very busy. You’ve brought a lot of great insights into your background as well as with Rossum, and I know everyone is on the edge of their seats to see what’s next!