This year INTEA is celebrating the 10-year anniversary. Currently, we are the leading e-learning company in the Baltic countries with a team of more than 40 people and clients from different countries. We have been called a success story by our clients and industry experts but the path to the title has been winding and rocky. A few months before the big celebration we sat together with the founders of INTEA – Raivis Freimanis and Sergey Snegirev – to finally write down the origin story of our company.
Let’s start at the very beginning. How was the idea of an e-learning company born?
Sergey Snegirev (SS): I quit my corporate job in the real estate in 2007 and spent about a year trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. At some point, I ran into my friend Max who was working as an e-learning developer for an insurance company. He was telling me how his job was awesome and creative, but at the same time he complained about the boring parts of his job – e.g. trying to put 200 quiz questions in the Moodle LMS. Then I asked him: “Why don’t you hire someone and do the creative parts yourself, while someone else will do the boring parts? Then you can work for multiple companies, get more creative and hire more people.” He said: “Sounds like a business. Do you want to do that?” I agreed, we started and very quickly we failed, miserably, because we weren’t business or salespeople and we had exactly zero contacts in the industry. Then, at some point, I was talking to my dear friend Raivis who I knew for… how many years?
“Sounds like a business. Do you want to do that?”
Raivis Freimanis (RF): At that point, it was 8 years.
SS: Yeah, a lot of fun and intense time together, but those are four other interviews. At the time he was working at a headhunting company and I recruited him. We started working – the three of us – with our first customers and first projects. The moment when we got our first project, we had to register our company, but on the same day, our co-founder Max left to live in Belgium, and we worked remotely for about a year. However, a year later we decided to buy out his shares; he remained in Belgium and we were here, in Riga, working at INTEA which by now had been a team of 4 people.
How did you decide what kind of team you will hire – how did the DNA of INTEA develop?
RF: I believe that me and Sergey both, probably, were not satisfied with our previous jobs. The feeling was that I didn’t agree with how previous management motivated people and how they treated them at certain points. Don’t get me wrong, it was a very good company and I really liked the people there, but sometimes it felt like there was this gap between owners and employees that was very hard to bridge. So, from the very beginning, we had a subconscious feeling that we want to build a company for people who will be working here, including ourselves. Since in the beginning we were bringing in only those people who were friends of friends, the DNA of INTEA started to take its shape very soon. We had a clear idea of what we didn’t want but I don’t think it was very clear what we wanted.
SS: I think that at the time we had so much work to do that we knew we won’t be able to really manage people. That’s why the number one requirement was that people were self-managed. We would hire someone who was smart, organized and enthusiastic enough to actually go ahead and do the job. For example, have a look at the army! There are officers and there are privates. We’ve never hired a private, I think. We always hired officers – people who could bring to the table even more than we can.
...have a look at the army! There are officers and there are privates. We’ve never hired a private, I think. We always hired officers – people who could bring to the table even more than we can.
What was the first project and client you had?
RF: Now that I think of it, there were two projects – SEB bank and BTA insurance company. We were working with them around the same time. BTA was kind of inherited from Max’s previous job, therefore it cannot be considered as a client obtained from scratch. SEB had an open tender which we won because we were the first ones to realize that if you need to train two separate audiences on how to dress, then at the beginning of an e-learning course you need to have a slide with a question: “Who are you? Are you a front office or a back-office worker?” Then the learner would only see the relevant information they need to know.
SS: And that was the first documented case of adaptive learning in the history of Latvia (laughing). Yes, when we actually understood what was going on, our first client was SEB bank. It was late 2008 and early 2009, when we were trying to find clients. Let’s remember that it was the middle of the crisis and people were not picking up phones. So, we had to improvise, and we decided to do a research – we would go to banks to interview them for “research purposes”, but we would pretty much sell them the product, because at that point the only thing we had was ourselves – two smart guys who could help. Even before we crunched the numbers of our research, one of the companies, SEB, invited us to take part in their tender. By that time, we decided that it was probably time to officially register a company.
Things don’t happen like in the Hollywood movies.
Did you have a point of realization that you've made it and the company will continue to grow?
SS: It was the exact reverse of that.
RF: Things don’t happen like in the Hollywood movies.
SS: We got the SEB project and it was pretty large – enough for us to survive for almost a year. Unfortunately for us, we sort of forgot that we need to sell something to exist when that project is over. So, eventually we ran out of money. I think it was August of 2010when we were sitting in the office and talking that if something doesn’t change really soon, September 1 will be the date when we dust off our CVs and start sending them out. It was great, we had our own business for a year…
RF: … let’s get back to real life. (laughing)
SS: Yeah, why don’t we go back to real life and serious stuff? That was kind of a tough moment, I think.
RF: Fortunately, things took up again. We had 3-4 customers simultaneously. Those were very small projects, but we managed to survive. The first three years flew by just like that. It was very hard to predict what was going to happen, but when we got Swedbank as our client and they came to us with around 20 projects, we started to employ more people and this time it really felt like it’s taking off.
SS: I would say that moving to the office we are currently working at was kind of a milestone. The first office was about half the size of a small room. When we moved here and understood that we will outgrow this room at some point and that we will hire some more people… we felt that it’s finally happening, it’s a company. Before that, it was a wild experiment. Just because we didn’t want to agree on the fact that we have failed – we didn’t want to go back.
When we moved here and understood that we will outgrow this room at some point and that we will hire some more people… we felt that it’s finally happening, it’s a company.
RF: There were times when we were seriously considering – just another month and we are quitting because it’s simply unsustainable. I think we had this conversation around 2-3 times, definitely. It has always been difficult, because Latvia is not an E-learning country, naturally It’s not big, not densely populated, nor is it rich. However, if you are persistent enough, there are some other things that will make you strong. We have lived until such times that finally, last year, our government was ready to buy e-learning from us. All the banks have come out of the crisis, all the retailers have started to care about their people. Eventually, we have arrived at a very monopolistic situation because everybody else decided to call it quits when times were difficult.
SS: Returning back to DNA, it actually never occurred to me that this resilience is also a part of INTEA’s DNA. When we just started, everyone felt that this is a struggle. I hope that everyone also appreciated that we never did less work than anyone else who worked for us, and when the cash was short, the priority were salaries, rent, taxes and only then – anything that’s left for us.
Which other clients have played an important role in the history of INTEA?
RS: When you have survived long enough in the playing field, the clients come to you on their own accord. Like Fresenius, whom Sergey accidentally noticed on LinkedIn. They were tired of their partners somewhere in Asia and they were looking for someone in Eastern Europe. So, we invited them over once we had settled into the new office.
SS: We had to rent a projector.
RS: And we had to buy a proper table! I think that, at that point, we had no idea how to deal with that kind of situation and we might have seemed quite ridiculous to them. Nonetheless, we were two smart and promising guys and, at the end, we got them as a client. Of course, Fresenius were our driver of change regarding how to standardize things and how to have a very fast process. We realized that we can finish the project in a couple of weeks, and we can do that for reasonable money in a very good quality.Consequently, we had some of Swedish and Norwegian projects that were done in cooperation with our partners in Scandinavia. It could be said that there are successes and there are these difficult projects where the client would comment on every pixel – they would notice things that a normal eye wouldn’t see. That taught us certain things.
We realized that we can finish the project in a couple of weeks, and we can do that for reasonable money in a very good quality.
SS: Central Election Committee was also important…
RF: That project had certain angles that were somehow empowering, but also very challenging. When cooperating with Central Election Committee, we are talking about thousands of people who can log in the system. We had to support and deal with the system issues in real time.
SS: It was also the first time when the project we built was presented at a press conference with pretty much every TV channel. Raivis was right there on the stage with the head of CVK, and they were sitting and presenting a project. I don’t think we had ever had anything like that before.
RF: I would also like to add that the key to success was that we were very humble. And we still are.
The story of INTEA started 10 years ago and is not over yet. The idea born by three young men that seemed impossible at first, eventually became a reality. Today we are ready to share the main ingredients to create INTEA success recipe: founders’ persistence, employees’ loyalty, and clients’ support. And we hope that these qualities will put INTEA through another 10 years of growth and prosperity.