Cover Story: Opinov8 Co-Founders

Do you know how to create a company with over 200 employees all over the world from a bold idea starting above a garage? We can definitely say that we know now :) 

This April Opinov8 turns 4 years old, and to celebrate this occasion, we would like to tell you a story. Opinov8 beginnings in this month's Cover Story!

Meet Opinov8 founders: Craig Wilson, Chief Commercial Officer, and Christian Aaen, Chief Technology, Delivery & Operations Officer. Even though their daily tasks are very diverse, they are good friends and they built an even gr8er company together. They told us about Opinov8's first steps and how it all started. 

Are you curious to read a bunch of exciting moments they've collected over the years? 

Find out the story behind Opinov8 and get to know a little more about the personalities of the founders in this article!

How did you come up with the idea to start Opinov8? 

Craig Wilson (CW): I remember that moment when we discussed the whole concept. It was in the Holiday Inn. We spoke about doing something different from what we were doing before.

Opinov8 means having an opinion on innovation. Both of us have very strong opinions! So having an opinion on innovation was the core of what we wanted to do. 

We wanted to have an opinion on building products or platforms for our clients. Not just be sitting back waiting to take instruction to build software on demand. Being a Technology Innovation partner, using our company as a platform for our clients.

 

Christian Aaen (CA): We had the belief that the market needed a bit of a holistic approach to what traditionally has been known as “outsourcing”. We wanted to set business objectives at the center of the client relationship and build from there. 

Even though we are a technology services company, we do look at technology, as an enabler. We believe it has to be the business that drives the technology solution and technology implementation. 

 

"We had a belief that the market would be better served with a technology services company that puts business objective at the core."

 

Why did you choose Ukraine as one of the main countries for your office?

(CW): Well, it was a natural choice. Christian lives in Kyiv and we have both worked with and in the Ukrainian market for a long time. 

Things are obviously changing currently with the world situation as it is, and we will continue to push out, but Ukraine remains our center of gravity.

(CA): The reason why I ended up in Ukraine is obviously because of well-skilled engineers and an accommodating culture quite close to what I know from growing up in Western Europe. Those two points remain to be very strong reasons for our continued commitment to Ukraine!

Tell us about your first steps at Opinov8, what was the path you took to get to where you are today?

(CA): Our first steps at Opinov8 started in April 2017. 

We actually started where I'm sitting now, above the garage. Yes, like Google (laughing). This is the place where the first couple of steps were taken. 

As with many startups, it starts with “3 F’s” friends, family, and fools, and this story is no different. Our very first client was a friend. So the very first code line that we wrote was a deal from a close network. 

As we've been so many years in the business and in the industry we have a good network. The network we have cherished and built up over many years. We have almost broken our backs to not disappoint. So, yes, a good network is really what got us going. 

We saw it as an opportunity to start on a blank piece of paper. Through those many years within the industry and within larger organizations, we saw the impact of older on-premise legacy business support systems that couldn’t really keep up with running at scale in a fast-changing business environment. We didn’t need to worry about legacy slowing us down, we could take full advantage of cloud service infrastructure and applications and build a foundation that could grow as fast as we can grow the business.

 

 

You are bound to run into trouble if you are not thinking through the entirety of the business (not only the business model but also the operating model). You need to have long-term strategic glasses on and you need to be bold

We looked at this and we said to each other: “In five years, we need to build a company that will be able to manage 40% of our people working remotely”. That was built into our thinking, into investments, into systems and processes from the beginning. 

Little did we know that 3 years later in 2020, one Monday evening in March, it would be 100%... But that's history.  

 

"We had an opportunity to do things right - without legacy - and we were quite excited about it!"

 

Also, the fact that we wanted to build an organization that could scale and function so that there was no single point of failure, which you tend to have if everything revolves around one central point or person.

(CW): I remember sitting with Christian in the summer, drawing on a piece of paper, thinking about our branding and the positioning. 

We were thinking about one of the things that we saw in our previous roles. From a cultural perspective, the culture of the organization was tied to the leadership. The world and the company revolved around them, there was a whole ecosystem around them. We definitely didn't want that, we wanted to be able to operate in the business, but also operate out of the business, not have a detrimental, or negative effect on the company, for the company to BE the culture and the people in it

We came up with our core six principles when we were sitting on a terrace in the sunshine one day. Those are still as true today as they were then. They were the first set of steps. 

We wanted to create a cultural identity for the organization, something to attach to. As much as the systems and processes are important, just as important was our cultural identity when we started.

(CA): We had very entertaining conversations starting, of course, very informal for quite a while. The “final drop” was when both Craig and I were a part of getting big private equity into the company where we worked. That was a bit of a mental milestone. 

We also both had working experiences in organizations that spend a lot of time looking inwards, looking at their own belly button, having competing interests within the organization. Such behavior drives focus away from the market dynamics and responding to what clients and the market demands. We are trying hard every day to enforce focus on the things that matter for the success of opinov8rs and our clients. The aim is obviously to have this approach and philosophy reflected in our company DNA and how we organize ourselves.

What was the hardest part in the early stages of the company’s growth?

(CW): The hardest part in the early stages is that you absolutely live and breathe every step you take. In our approach, every challenge is completely personal and emotional. 

 

"It's not a job. This is your family, this is your future, this is your universe." 

 

Anything that goes wrong (and lots of things do go wrong) you take personally. You take personal pride in making sure that they don't happen again.

There are lots of things that were hard. Growing a company is not easy, finding the right people is not easy, keeping the right people is not easy. I think there are lots of challenges that you have to overcome on a day-to-day basis, and they're still relevant today.

(CA): Also, finding the right partners to collaborate with can prove to be a challenge! 

You do tend to take everything personally, and everything and anything matters. It's getting a little bit easier now because we now have a sizable team of capable people to help “grab challenges”. 

But in the beginning, it was hard, it's everything from the toilet paper to delivery, full-cycle ;-)

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome?

(CW): I think one of the biggest challenges that we've had to overcome jointly, was when COVID hit last year. We had to, unfortunately, say goodbye to some very smart people. 

At the same time, we sold our activities in Spain. That allowed us to focus our attention. We were testing our strategy, and then very quickly pushing forward again. 

The biggest challenge was getting through that process. Those were very tough days.

(CA): But it helped us to realize that we have built an organization where our leading people have been with us through all these hard times (and good times for that matter). We got to know each other better. Trust is built, because when the shit hits the fan, the way that people react, says a lot about their character.

It wasn't just us, as business owners, who sat and looked at our entire foundation for feeding our families, were in jeopardy, the money and time that we've invested. I think everyone in the company had a hard time. But as I said, working through that has built more trust and that is, of course, something that we can further build on.

My sister once said to me: “the sum of problems is always the same”. I think there's a lot of truth to that.
I'm still worried about a lot of things, but they don't feel as fundamental and life-threatening, as they did back in the middle of March - early April last year. 

 

"One of those reasons is, of course, that we have built a team that cares about our company, like we do, which is so gr8!"

 

What are you most proud of regarding the company? What do you think makes Opinov8 different?

(CW): We're proud of a lot of things. I’m proud of the fact that we support and nurture over 200 people and their families. I am proud of the people.

 

"Proud that they have chosen us to be part of their journey."

 

I've seen a lot of individual people in the organization grow and do amazing things, I'm proud of that.

We are fighting like Mike Tyson, we are still very small and relatively unknown. But we can be a heavyweight when we get into a client engagement, and we have done things for clients that 10 million companies “like us” will not be able to do. And I'm proud of that. 

We have a lot of ability and talent. And that's what makes us different. 
It is that very ability of innovators, to bring their own opinion, exactly that additional 10%. Something more than just being a developer. The way that they think is the freedom they get through the philosophy and our systems and processes. Their ability to have some wiggle room when doing their job. That's what makes us different, and brings that extra value -- our secret sauce!

We are not rigid in our controls. However, our systems are very structured, consistent, but there is a lot of space for people to be creative. That is where our added value is. 

So the ability to give people freedom within the structures makes us different. I'm proud of that.

(CA): Yeah, I totally agree. As the German American economist Theodore Levitt famously said “Organizations exist to enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things”. 

So it's about combining people and skills in a way that allows individuals to have more impact than individual contribution. That's the environment that we believe we have managed to create.

The other thing is that we're honest, which may sound a bit strange. We're not perfect. We are people, we don't try to hide it. We deal with issues with clients, and we fix problems out in the open. That makes us authentic, I think. That's also what makes us different. And that's also quite something to be proud of.

We don't want people to over-commit and under-deliver. But when we commit, we do whatever it is we can do to meet the commitment we have made! That's not just towards clients, but also towards our people. So we do what we say and we say what we do. 

This actually sounds very basic, but it is our core belief.

What is your typical workday at Opinov8? What do you consider to be the balance between your work and personal life? 

(CW): I think the word “typical” doesn't apply here (laughing).

I think, certainly in the last year the term “work-life balance” is no longer relevant to me. The work-life balance works when you can separate work and life. I feel like we've gone into the sort of hybrid era, it's all just blended. 

The work-life balance has been a bit lost. Unfortunately, more people tend to work too much for their own good. We end up balancing too much on the work side. A typical day is the “eat,  sleep, repeat” model. We are just in a cycle at the moment. We gotta get back out into the world.

The peloton is a part of my life. I was forced to exercise a lot more, which is actually quite good. I normally do a bit of a break around 17:00 and then I come back later to close off the stuff that I need to close or deal with US clients later in the evening.

We've been in a strict lockdown in the UK and I spend more time with the family. My kids have been at home, that has been good. For the last year, I have been around, which has been great, it's been a complete change to my normal schedule. In the last 10 years or so, I've been traveling probably every two weeks, internationally or out of the house, but now I can't find my passport. It's been good but I'm looking forward to seeing some new places again.

(CA): We all have to figure out what a work-life balance looks like in this newer digital-first world. There are pros and cons to it. I certainly miss being in a meeting room with a whiteboard and just mapping stuff out... I miss going to see a client, I miss having beers with the colleagues, having those laughs.

A typical workday is just solving challenges constantly. I wake up around 6:30, then I check messages from last night, then I wake up the kids, feed them and drive them to school (when we are not in lockdown!). Around 8:30, I'm in front of the laptop, then I'm off to the races. 

Lately, I've become better at not “slacking” till midnight. We all have a passion, but we need to keep reminding ourselves that we also need to think about something else, as hard as that can be. I have to stop myself sometimes “No, I'm gonna wait until tomorrow”. All these communication tools don't mean that you should use them all the time

On the other hand, with homeschooling and all that I have spent a lot of time with my family, which has been great! We had our third girl in October and it is of course great to spend much more time with her than I otherwise would.

What do you think we’d be most surprised to find out about you? Do you have a secret hobby?

(CA): I must admit that I do enjoy playing Lego very much. I have always done that and I haven't forced that on my girls, we have a whole room full of Lego and they love it. I sneak away and play Lego and listen to Bob Dylan. They love it as well, so all the old good music that I liked when I was a lot younger. Now, I am hanging out with the girls on the floor playing Lego, and listening to Bob. That's fantastic.

I think I haven't had a “real” hobby. For a while, I liked reading and scuba-diving, but I haven't found time, maybe I could have found it, but I just never did it. And now with three kids and the business that we are trying to grow… Time is a scarce resource.

(CW): It’s not a secret, I am a sports fanatic. I like most sports, I like to watch sports. 

I like to play golf. Let's call it a long walk (because you actually have a lovely walk in the countryside). Normally not completely stressed out, although you can get annoyed with the bad shots you've just had. Golf is fun and also is quite social. It's nice to get out with your buddies and spend 4 hours just talking about absolutely nothing related to normal life.

I like to fly fish. I don't do it often, but standing in a river catching trout or salmon... That's pretty cool. The silence. You're on your own. Zero going on around you. I am quite comfortable in my own company.

What is the biggest lesson that you learned at Opinov8? What would you wish you'd have known before founding Opinov8?

(CW): There's nothing I would want to have known before. All being new and going on a journey as you're exploring and discovering each step of the way. 

 

"The biggest thing that I've learned is that there is no place for ego."

 

(CA): I think if I'd known, I would do it again. I grew up with a father, who was also an entrepreneur. I saw how difficult it can be, but, I also saw the joy of the small wins. 

One of the biggest lessons is that you actually can and should take enjoyment just with the smallest, very-very small wins. 

What I would wish to know before founding Opinov8?

 

 "I wish I would have known that Bitcoin would be so valuable by now"

 

Because then I would probably have spent my time investing in that (laughing).

How has the global pandemic affected Opinov8?

(CW): First of all, it's affected people, and that hasn't been cool at all, but it has challenged me. 

The first challenge was to think about self-preservation both personally and from a business perspective. We need to change our attitudes on things that we thought were important or not important. It's just brought about change, and that's good. 

It's even refreshing. I mean you saw the dolphin swimming in the canals in Venice, that hadn't happened for 100 years. It has shown the world a lot.

(CA): I think it is important also to consider opportunities arising in crisis. That opportunity can be captured by people and companies who adapt fast. I think it's very much around having the mental agility to basically go 360’. We can come out of this stronger than we were before, I firmly believe that.

(CW): When we cut people, in April last year when COVID hit we also went out and found at least half of them new jobs within our network. Another half we rehired when we bounced back. Some people we asked to take a salary cut to retain them but actually, we managed to not ever affect that salary cut on those people. 

Have you ever thought of running a business on your own? 

(CW): I have done, but one of the reasons why I didn't want to found the company by myself was that I would like to partner with someone who I respect, Someone who might look at things differently. Of course, for such a partnership to work, you always need to be open to hearing different opinions that may contradict your own.

We certainly don't always agree (laughing). A good thing is that it doesn't escalate into yelling, shouting. That is the ego. If ego was playing a big role all the time, then you tend to close for other input. 


(CA): Our partnership with Craig has been a great thing. I wouldn't want to do that alone. Could I have done it? Maybe. But it would have been so much more painful. Could Crag have done it alone? Maybe. But I also think from his perspective, it would also have been so much more painful. 

we all have “off” days. It's good to know there is someone that can tend to help you get over mental barriers that may exist that given day, right when you reach the edge of your energy.

(CW): I completely agree with that. The two of us are almost opposite in approach, However quite similar in a lot of ways foundationally, but certainly think about things differently, from a different angle. We also have complimentary professional skill sets, which is great.

I must admit, we had our moments where we just had to sit each other down and align and say ok, lets get to the core of the issue and work it through 1 on 1. When you resolve one or two issues here and there, you come out of it stronger and understand each other better. 

 

"If you're on your own, you're on your own. 

No one is looking out for you." 

 

What is the best advice you can give young entrepreneurs starting their own business?

(CW): Just go for it! 

When you first have your family, you are thinking - is it the right time? You are tired, busy, don't have enough money, and need to be a good father. But just go for it. Because when? 

Well, not everyone will be successful. But don't overthink it. Just go

(CA): Overthinking it - no. 

But, have some sort of a plan and a direction. You need to have the concept of a business model you believe in. Because when it is getting rough you need to have something foundational to lean on 

If you had to define yourself with one of the Opinov8 values, which one would it be?

(CW): We wanted that company values to somewhat mirror our thoughts. We wanted half of them to be towards character traits and half of them to be towards the way that we engage right? So our collaboration with clients and with colleagues and peers and collaboration as a core value. However...

As to define me with one of the values, I think all of them are related in some way to showing different sides of my personality. By picking just one you are excluding the others...

 

(CA): I can't say a specific one. Maybe you have an opinion on that? But I find it difficult to pick just one.

Can you tell us a little bit about your entrepreneurial background?

(CA): I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. I was helping my father writing his business plan for his company that he launched. Then throughout the early part of the university, I started a couple of businesses at least on paper. I participated in some venture competitions, such as business plan competitions, where I actually got nominated to receive mentoring and so on and so forth. I didn't expect that, as I was so busy studying and partying (laughing).

The point is that I have never really got to start my own thing, but early on in my career I did a stint of working in venture capital. I worked for a venture fund.  I met all these entrepreneurs, and I realized that I wanted to be on that side of the table in the future.

The last role that I had before starting my own company, I think it would be fair to say that I did the role of an intrapreneur, starting new service portfolios and new areas within the company. But, I never did my own thing in reality, until I did Opinov8.

 

 

(CW): I guess the first entrepreneurial thing I did was when I had a job driving cars for an auction house. They needed to get from A to B, then they would have an auction portion in the evening. I thought to sell people beer and hot dogs at the auction, and the auctioneer was happy because the more people drank the more they used to bid on cars, so that was my first sort of my own little thing. A little food and drink stand.

After that, I started a nightclub with a buddy of mine in South Africa. We did that for a couple of years, that was fun. Then I had an IT Services company in South Africa, and had that for several years before moving back to the UK, and then taking a job where I met Christian. 

So, various things. I didn't take the academic path. I was very much not interested in studying, I was much more interested in playing sports and doing things instinctively. I guess different paths meet in the same place.

What do you love most about your work?

(CW): I like to see people do good, achieve and solve problems for clients. That's what I love the most. When we actually, build something or do something or create something and people have done a good job... That gives me a lot of self-satisfaction.

(CA): I like that I’m in a position to influence, hopefully mostly positive (laughing), people around me, and I like that my days are rarely the same. There is always something new happening. 

How do you see the future of Opinov8?

(CW): I see the future being awesome, full of opportunity for all opinov8rs!

(CA): Opinov8’s future is about the future of Opinov8rs because Opinov8 is Opinov8rs. The future is full of opportunity and full of impact. 

We see Opinov8 as a service, a platform of sorts, and we see it as a structure from which we serve stakeholders. Stakeholders being innovators, clients, and ourselves. 

The future is pretty bright! So as long as we can continue to adapt and be agile in the way we're doing things, what we're doing, where we are doing it from. I see lots of opportunities! 

| created by opinov8 team

Let us innovate
with you

Opinov8 uses cookies to improve your website experience with analytics and personalization.

By continuing to browse you agree to our use of cookies.