How two Latvian hipsters and hacker built infographics startup
We met with Alise Semjonova, co-founder of Infogram, on a crisp autumn morning at a coffee shop in downtown Riga to discuss the story of a 5-year-old data visualisation startup that was sold last year to Prezi.
What was the beginning of Infogram?
Infogram, the company, was born in 2012 – it was registered then. But as an idea of democratisation of data visualisation, or simplifying the process of creation of DataVis, it had started to develop before the company was registered.
It was envisioned by Uldis Leiterts, the idea owner and co-founder, who was working at the time in one of the biggest media companies in the Baltics, Delfi, and his colleague, Infogram’s technical co-founder, Raimonds Kaze.
They started playing around with the idea of DataVis. For their first clients here in Latvia – media companies, ad agencies – they created interactive data visuals, charts, combined them and called them infographics. At first, they said that there was a data tool that created this material, but they were actually doing it manually. Then Uldis went around to all the tech conferences and startup gatherings, pitching the story, refining it, shaping it. Somewhere along the way, Uldis shared his vision and I thought, “it’s a really interesting idea, but let’s see how it evolves when there is a proof of concept from the industry professionals.” At first, every accelerator that we approached would not accept us, but they shaped the idea by asking us the right questions. Eventually, HackFwd and Lars Hinrichs believed in the idea and offered us our first seed investment in early 2012. That was our sign to say, “OK, let’s quit our day jobs and do this full time as a company.” Then it all started; we joined Startup Sauna. All three team members went to live to Helsinki, and we were also selected for the Silicon Valley trip. That was a huge milestone for us, shaping the company and the team. The pitching was like a team-building activity. At that time, we were actually in two accelerators – Startup Sauna and HackFwd.
How did you join Infogram?
I was a university friend of Uldis. I helped as a freelancer and then I did graphic design work, user interface design and became a co-founder on the go.
So your background is actually in design?
Like Uldis, yes. The two co-founders of this company are designers – it’s really a core part of this company’s DNA. That’s the value that we bring to customers – design is woven throughout the process.
In the classic hacker, hipster, hustler world you are like two hipsters and a hacker, although Uldis became the hustler in the process?
Yeah. In that formula, I am a hipster.
How have the three of you managed to work together?
We are both different and similar. In some things, like on a cultural level, we were close. But Uldis was always the driver, until the company grew into having a strong executive team. Until then it was driven by Uldis’s passion and our reactions to that.
Starting with three people and then growing to a team that was 10-times larger can change things. Some cultural things that you could see in the beginning are still present as the team grows – there is a kind of opening up and being yourself, but still professional. Not being afraid of showing your weaknesses but also growing and being strong.
After the initial investment in 2012, what happened next?
That investment gave us a kick to start working on the product full-time, to be 100% devoted to it. The team didn’t grow very much at that time; it was 5 people, then 6, 7, 8, until we reached 10. We were part of the first co-working space in Latvia: TechHub. When we started, it was like the beginning of a startup ecosystem here in Latvia. I’ve tried to picture the pioneers in the startup world here in Latvia. I usually do it by first picturing the co-working space – who were the startups sitting there, next to us. That was the beginning of the startup world here.
What has happened to them?
Some grew bigger, but some died. It was the beginning and we were among them. With the second investment in 2014 we grew the team to 30 people, moved to our own office and were looking for the market fit. That was the second boost to the business – maturing the company and our whole attitude towards sales, business, KPIs etc. The responsibility was bigger and our delivery had to be better.
How difficult has it been selling the idea of a visualisation tool to media companies? Where were your first clients?
Our first clients were local media companies. It usually starts with one passionate editor who finds the solution as an improvement to the whole workflow. Once the story is ready journalists can publish it, but they still have to reach out to two more people: the designer and developer, or even sometimes a data scientist who approves the DataVis. Now, instead of that, you have the tools in your hands and it is really easy to use. So at first, it takes one passionate editor, then there are a few more editors in the team, and finally, they build the demand from the ground up.
My bigger question is how difficult it has been for you to find that product market fit?
We are still a startup, we are still fast at reacting to market changes and opportunities. We started with media, because of our personal background as founders working in a media company, and our industry insight came from there. For Infogram it was important to get visibility first. For every free infographic published, there was a logo included on the background. The reach and visibility from each i-frame was the starting point for our visibility. But the media industry lives from other industries, so it is not as fast-growing as FinTech, it’s not as sexy. I was trying not to say that word, but now I have. Education found the real power of Infogram, so education was a huge use-case at one point. There were librarians and teachers publishing stories about how classes of 30 kids worked in different parts of the world. Some really inspirational, powerful stories came from education. Then there were business-use cases: internal reporting, marketing and sales. The industry is currently in focus, but it always changes and evolves.
Your mission of “easing data communication” probably means that, on an ideology level, Prezi was a perfect match for you.
They’re a perfect fit in many ways. Culturally, they are so close that the transition is smooth, I don’t know if it is a national thing or a cultural thing – like eastern- or central-Europeans on the startup map: a nameless place that builds something powerful and cool that everyone uses and knows. Data communication in our case, in their case ideas communication in a new powerful way. It’s a perfect fit in terms of the powerful communication of ideas through data stories or personal inspirational stories. Communication is our battlefield. Data communication and how the need for it evolves through time is interesting. My first assumption was that infographics would be some kind of temporary trend – there is an icon, chart, a nice picture, and that’s an infographic. I thought about how we should react: was it a temporary trend? I can see now that it evolves more and more and the need doesn’t go away. There is more data, more complex information, and the attention span of human beings, our readers and media users, gets shorter and shorter. Now, in the post-truth era, with false facts and all those issues, the quality of easy-to-understand content is as crucial as ever. The demand is for growth and powerful tools for the communication of true stories. It’s a nice conclusion that is not a trend – the need just keeps growing.
How did the Prezi merger happen?
At the point of acquisition, we referred to it as a dating and marriage thing. The dating had actually started a very long time ago. It is not like a Las Vegas marriage. Instead, we got there eventually. When we were part of Startup Sauna, Uldis and I went to San Francisco and we visited their offices to show them our product. We had some common investors, they introduced us and then we met personally. So we were on each others’ radars for five years. Time after time we met, updated each other on new things, inspired each other. The whole dating before marriage part lasted eight months and it was a really transparent process. Our team went there, their team came here, we had hackathons together. Eventually, we realised it was the perfect match. We had a wedding ceremony in May and then a honeymoon trip to Budapest with the whole team.
Now you are six months into the marriage. All well?
Yes, and still no ugly surprises.
What is the main rivalry for Infogram?
Not visualising data, or not paying any attention to making content digestible – that is my biggest enemy. Not thinking about the reader at all is the worst thing that can happen. Then there are the ones that did a little better: visualising in a bad way, not being interactive, not using a tool that supports being responsive to different screen sizes. My thing is that those are like yesterday’s problems to me. There are still solutions and we are spending a lot of resources on DataVis.
Are there any good competitors out there?
It depends on the market. Canva is growing very quickly. They started out as a presentation tool, but now you can build anything there.
Basically, Canva vs Prezi is the big picture?
We share that view. There are different, bigger and smaller tools, but not for visualising things and thinking about the reader, I think that is the biggest enemy of using PowerPoint – you kill your audience. What’s next? With Prezi it’s amazing that we have this opportunity, and the resources and knowhow to boost us to the next level. We can join forces in visual communications. We have some ideas and some projects that we are working on together as joint projects, as well as Infogram projects we had already started. We’re launching a completely new product that allows us to build reports and multipage data visualisation output. That is the next thing that we are passionate about.
Is there a history of data visualisation in Latvia?
I wouldn’t say that DataVis has a long history. We have been learning from global knowledge and talent. Media is quite a big industry so it is like we were raised in the media environment. That is the logical explanation for why Infogram was born here – communications and media.
What is Infogram’s impact on the Latvian ecosystem?
There are some employees who are starting to work on their own ideas – one just moved to Canada to build a startup. The founders are very active in the local ecosystem: Uldis initiated Digital Freedom Festival, a startup conference. Since the early days we have organised meetups – Mobile Monday was the first. I co-initiated a Women in Tech NGO here. It is called Riga Tech Girls, and we have monthly meetups and coding workshops for girls. There is a responsibility for not just consuming the power of the startup ecosystem, but also learning and sharing your knowledge. Being reachable to all people in the ecosystem is a must-have, must-do thing – you don’t keep your knowledge within the company or at home, you share it and organise yourself. It’s a living organism and you are responsible for being part of it. I can start any new idea I think of: with Riga Tech Girls I just reached out to women in the ecosystem and they were ready to come to the meetup, share their ideas and host us in their companies. It’s the same everywhere. It is totally cross-functional and cross-cultural. You can go to any part of the world and although you don’t share the same food or language, in the startup world they are the same and speak the same language.
What is next for the Latvian ecosystem?
I think next will be something really powerful, like a local Skype story. We are seeing more and more success stories that invest back into the ecosystem as angels and mentors, so we are in the process of this now. The bigger the successes are, the more the ecosystem gets back in return. I truly believe that it is simply a matter of time and of getting the machinery going. We are on our way, this is happening.
There are no shotgun solutions?
I don’t think there is magic that will solve everything – the nice feeling is that we are getting there. The culture is there and it is just a matter of time for the success stories to gain a critical mass to boost the ecosystem.