Netgen Talk: 20 Years of Generating Digital Change

By Mislav Jantoljak -

Twenty years in business is a long time. Through that time we evolved, changed from designing and developing websites to guiding businesses through full scale digital transformation of their online presence with a unique, energetic and challenge-first philosophy.

Following a redesigned website and new branding that better reflects why we’re the agency of choice for all our partners, we couldn’t think of a better way to look back, check the present and peek into the future of Netgen, than letting Vjeran Vlahovic, Igor Vrdoljak and Ivo Lukac tell their story.

Thinking back, did you ever imagine Netgen getting to this point?

Ivo: In the beginning, certainly not, but over the years as the business grew, we became more and more convinced that we were creating something good. It was tough when we first started, all three of us fresh from university with zero real-world business and job experience. It really took a couple of years for us to be convinced Netgen could be a lasting business.

Igor: During the first couple of years, the thrill of making it on our own was the primary driving force and the goal, we surely did not look 20 years ahead. Heck, we were just 20 years old ourselves. It was more of an experiment, an uncommon one for Croatia at the time, and we were just enjoying the ride. 

What made you start a business together?

Vjeran and Ivo: Well, we sat near each other during our first days at Zagreb’s Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing 25 years ago and we’ve been friends ever since. The three of us were primarily interested in doing what we like - designing and developing applications and websites to impact positive digital change for businesses - and were never as focused on the “financial” part of our business, as crazy as that sounds. It was a low-risk period in our lives - no kids, no mortgages, and we wanted to build a company we would actually enjoy working in. So, why not give it a go? 20 years later, here we are.

A huge milestone for any company, what do these 20 years mean to you?

Ivo: It is just a round number, really. But it does represent consistency. Every year, every month, every week, you try to improve and adapt, bit by bit, piece by piece. In business, you can’t last this long without perseverance and trust between the board, employees, partners, and clients. This is really hard to achieve, even harder to maintain, but very rewarding in every aspect.

Igor: It’s more or less half of my life! It is great to see something we invested so much time in reaching a mature phase. What means the most to me are the people who stuck with us for so long, primarily people working in Netgen, but also our clients and partners. Many of them became good friends along the way. I believe that is one of the special things with Netgen, building lasting relationships between people. Because companies are really about people. And we love working with good people.

What was the vision behind the company when you first started and how much did it change over the years?

Ivo: As we stated in our recent rebranding, bringing impactful change to our clients and partners through technology and the design of digital products was always at the core of Netgen. This remained true through time. What changed is the level of impact our work brings to our clients. Digital is at the core of all today's business; there is no divide between the digital and real world, as it used to be theorized back in the day. This all just makes our work more important nowadays.

Vjeran: Well, honestly, not that much, the vision became clearer but our core values absolutely remained the same. As Ivo said earlier, we wanted to build a company we would love to work for. For us, this was always paramount. If we wanted uncontrolled exponential growth, I believe we could get there, but then I suspect that that company would be this company and not only would we not be able to lead a normal life outside the company, we would not be leading a normal life inside it, too. We’re very passionate about sharing what we’ve learned and know with the people inside the company, helping them with career and skills development - the philosophy is that - even if you leave Netgen eventually, we want you to leave as a better professional, with new knowledge.

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Early days

Can you take us through the early days and some of the challenges when starting out?

Igor: During the first few years we were really running mostly on passion, learning as we go on how to run a profitable business. Most of the challenges were in that - business - part of the equation, as at the start of the millennium there were less resources to learn from. We were just a few friends fresh out of college with zero experience in entrepreneurship, but with a lot of energy and the will not to work in the corporate IT world.

We didn’t think about where we’d want to end up, just what we wanted to build next. Tryings things out, hiring our first colleagues who shared our drive. Then, from 2008 to about 2014, things really started taking off - Netgen was becoming a recognized name in the CMS world, more and more efforts were put into establishing a partnership network, but our core focus was always technology and doing things that made sense for our stack. By 2014 until today, I’d say that we did a lot of growing up, building our full-fledged product (Netgen Layouts) and expanding both internally (UX, customer success teams) and internationally, with Netgen Switzerland. Now, I would say that the biggest goal we have is maintaining our culture with that newly found growth.

If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Ivo: Well, the thing is - you never know. Probably nothing that different. I mean, it’s easy to look back and say that we could have done certain things a lot better. And that would be true, but a huge part of what brought us here was actually learning from our past mistakes, the entire process of growing up together as a team so if you’re happy at this point, and we are, I honestly never dwell on “whats and ifs”.

If you had to name one thing you learned to appreciate in business during your period of running the company that would be…

Vjeran: That feeling of playfulness. It’s a spark that pushes you forward, to go beyond something the rational part of you thinks is possible.

Ivo: For me, it always came down to focusing on people. Hiring the right individuals, introducing them to the company in the right way and giving them a chance to grow, then seeing and enjoying that growth, both as part of personal development and reflected in business results.

Igor: It’s also about choosing the right partners that are willing to dig deep to get the result they actually need. We are very uncompromising in choosing the partners and clients, where we feel we can actually make a difference and impact digital change. It’s never just about the financial terms, we never commit to a project where we don’t see long term added value for the client. Guided by this approach, we’re really happy with the partnerships we’ve been able to build over the years - where they give us the freedom to challenge the status quo or project ideas that we feel could be better executed, or just try different approaches. It’s very rewarding to have their trust to be able to push back on some things and end up with a much better end-product as a result.

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Ivo Lukac, Igor Vrdoljak & Vjeran Vlahović

Why do you think of yourselves as the Generator of Change?

Igor: Well, it came up from the recent efforts we had in clearing up our communication and surfacing core Netgen capabilities. We dove deep and tried to sum up the value our clients appreciate most. In the end, this perfectly summed up the core service we were bringing to our clients from day one: transforming their businesses for the better, future proofing with digital technology and using a tremendous amount of drive and effort to understand our clients’ business and create a solution for them. Making an impact is what drives us, and Generator of Change (for the better) sums up the effort and expertise that we feel needs to be put into every project to bring about lasting change.

Vjeran: I very much agree with what Igor just mentioned. I can only add that it takes a lot of energy to change and fuel change. That’s why we always try to see the people on “the other side” of the project, not entities or businesses. But people we’re actually doing this with. True relationships are the power source.

How about a story of a partnership or project that stuck with you, one that made all the challenges and effort totally worth it?

Ivo: With Netgen Switzerland (formerly Prime). Fifteen years ago, we randomly met our now colleague Christian Paredes at a conference. More coincidence than anything else, but as life goes, fourteen years after that led to us jointly opening Netgen’s Swiss office last year. A lot of the time, business closely mirrors life - it’s always an unpredictable ride. This is also what makes us excited for the years ahead. Forging new relationships and seeing where that takes us.

What was the craziest situation you dealt with (and can be shared :D)?

Ivo: Well, in terms of what we can share hah, I can think of a business trip to Kyrgyzstan, landing in Bishkek airport in the middle of the night. We managed to get a cab, which drove on the “wrong side” of the road, speeding wildly with the taxi driver barely knowing where we were, let alone where the hotel was. It was a wild ride to say the least, unlike the project - which ended up being smooth sailing.

After 20 years, what gets you up in the morning? We know it’s the kids, but work wise.

Ivo: Kids, of course. But there’s also the team - I always look forward to seeing what each business day throws at us. One thing is clear - Netgen is never a dull place.

What is the best thing about Netgen today?

Ivo: Again, it’s the team, which I find is better than ever. A mix of great individuals, from experienced seniors to promising interns, all eager to collaborate and get things done. I know I sound like a broken record, but the absolute best bit about Netgen, from the beginning until now, are the people making up the company.

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The team today

Thinking about technologies, what has been the most radical trend that made you rethink the business?

Igor: Well, not necessarily rethink the business, but there was a distinct point in time where a company website went from being a postcard with purely basic information to one of the primary digital drivers of revenue and brand. This change obviously helped us a great deal, since we could expand our business to cater to the growing digital transformation needs of businesses, an ever-evolving trend which continues to this day.

Looking forward, what does Netgen’s future look like?

Igor: Regarding the future, much like we talked about our beginnings, nobody really knows the details. However, we’re still driven by the very same things that got us here - we want to stay true to our core values and try to retain the culture we have right now, because it feels amazing.

We want to grow, certainly, but more so by impacting actual change by collaborating with partners that we genuinely fit with, which enables us to deliver quality solutions and continue to be proud with every single project we complete together. One big thing we’re focusing on now is Netgen Layouts, which simplify every day tasks for site builders and maintainers, allowing anyone to easily manage websites through low code and easy-to-use visual blocks.

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2022 Web Summer Camp

Vjeran: From a strategic point of view, we’re trying to evolve even further to help our clients with their digital strategy, project prioritization and continuous improvement in the digital realm - future proofing. With everything mentioned above, you can tell why this shift to a more consulting approach comes very natural to us. It’s based on 20 years of continued efforts and experience in different industries and verticals which allows us to see beyond the obvious direction for our partners’ digital initiatives. In the future we’re definitely looking to provide an even bigger contribution to the community at large through education activities and further growth of Web Summer Camp - which will remain our core community-focused initiative.

There's nothing much left to say except that we're very much looking forward to the next 20! And, if you feel 20 years of experience in building complex websites and our philosophy could help your business drop us a line right here.

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