Tomáš is a manager with real- life experience from Europe, North America and Eastern Africa, where he coordinated development and humanitarian projects. He is a consultant to Slovak national and European strategies and policies. He participated in international programmes led by the United Nations and founded an eco-social brand called sobi.eco.
Where can I find sobi.eco?
What does social entrepreneurship mean to you? How would you define it? Where did you first encounter this term?
Entrepreneurship means to me creativity. The definition of entrepreneurship itself includes creating added value for everyone. However, this is not always true. Everyone should be benefiting from business activities whether they are owners, managers, producers, employees, distributors or end customers. Nobody should feel robbed, unappreciated, abused. Social entrepreneurship is somehow an upgrade of regular business when besides the above-mentioned principles we are trying to solve specific social issues using business models. Or otherwise, we are trying to set a socially sustainable help. I have known about this concept for a longer time, however, the main source of information for me were international programmes that I joined, such as Yunus & Youth Fellowship, ChangemakerXchange and others.
How did you become an entrepreneur? What was your main motivation to start the business?
I have always been attracted to entrepreneurship. As a child, I imagined we would have a family pension once. I like the space for self-realization that is offered to a person to implement various ideas. I had my first business attempts during the college, but they didn’t work out. Looking back, my ideas were quite ambitious, I did not have the proper background, experience nor I did not get enough support for them.
Was sobi.eco your first business?
As I mentioned previously, I had my first attempts as student. Sobi.eco allowed me to establish a team of experienced people who were able to transform idea into reality. At the beginning we were meeting with various specialists in order to find the most effective connection between the reuse of old textiles and inclusion of disadvantaged people. After a while we founded sobi.eco together with my sister Alena Horváthová and friend Martin Malina.
You spent a lot of time abroad. How did it influence your perception of social entrepreneurship? What is the potential for social entrepreneurship of Slovak market compared to abroad?
I would say that, unlike the Western countries, Slovakia became the right place for social entrepreneurship years ago. This is because we have many unanswered social questions. Whether we take a closer look at inclusion of disadvantaged groups, education and brain drain of country, disintegrated healthcare or environmental solutions, we often find ourselves at the tail of the EU. There is indeed a huge gap that could be covered by social entrepreneurship. However, this should be combined with supportive policies so that social enterprises will not be „islands of hope “, but rather self-sufficient cells in a functioning organism. Otherwise, we will continue to see the efforts of enthusiasts getting lost and ending up exhausted in a short time. We need to set up supportive measures which are not too bureaucratic and that helps for real.
Are you doing business abroad, too? If yes, do you have more success abroad? Do people abroad perceive the added value of an ethical and ecological product differently?
Our sobi.eco products are selling abroad far better than in Slovakia. Already when we came up with the idea to produce products from recycled clothing with the involvement of disadvantaged people, we knew that our costs will be higher, and our products will bear attributes that many people in Slovakia will not appreciate. Among these are the environmental and human impact, too. Ethical production and the ecological nature of the product are sought especially by conscious customers. In Slovakia, the community of such people grows and strengthens from year to year, however, in the markets like Western Europe, North America and Australia, this thinking has been “integrated” for much longer. When looking at a product, customers often prefer a product with a story that corresponds with their settings and life values.
As a founder of sobi.eco, you participated on multiple international events where you presented your business idea. What was the hardest part in preparing the proper presentation at such an event? What would you recommend to starting entrepreneurs when developing their own social and ecologically beneficial ideas?
The first time I presented my idea at the UNLEASH event in Denmark, where the organizers invited young innovators from different parts of the world to an almost 2-week incubation program. When I sent the application to UNLEASH, I had more than a concept. I didn’t know many details; I had no idea what might come out of it. I had an idea in my head, and I wanted to move it somewhere. I was invited to the event and I have been provided with a complete program, during which I could work on this idea in a circle of inspiring people, until I presented my idea to the jury at the end of the incubator program. My idea was added to the sustainability catalogue of the best solutions, which started the whole process.
My advantage was that I came to the program with the first prototype, which we sewed just before I left. Having a prototype in hand was a big advantage, because I proved to the organizers that I mean it and I really want to bring the idea to reality. I recommend this to all fresh ideas: have something specific that you can show as a proof that you are serious about your idea. At the same time, if you do not find recognition at home, find opportunities in the world that can help you gain credibility, mentoring or finance. There are many sites where you can find various programs to join. I also recommend the website www.youthop.com, where you will find them collected in one place.
Many young people indicate as one of the barriers to starting the business the lack of missing capital or mentoring. How did you deal with this?
After the UNLEASH event, we won the OpenMaker competition and received introductory capital and mentoring. This 9-month program helped us in critical beginnings. We had the finances and professional insight and we had to report progress every 3 months. This helped us to stay awake and not let the opportunity slip away. Later we got into the incubator of the National Business Centre under the Slovak Business Agency. We have our own representative office space here, mentoring and professional consultations as well as the opportunity to participate in various workshops and events. We received this support package for 3 years, which should be the time until projects like ours stand firmly on ground.
What is in your opinion the biggest barrier to social entrepreneurship?
In Slovakia, there are certainly difficult conditions for business in general: a lot of bureaucratic burden and fast changing conditions. It is not easy to find your way around everything and we need some different consultations to stay updated. In addition, we have higher costs compared to the regular enterprise, which is reflected in cash flow, overall financial setting as well as communication with potential distributors, etc. It would be necessary for social enterprises to be advantaged (e.g. flat-rate system) in order to survive. And without unnecessary bureaucracy.
You are doing business together with your sister. How do you feel about family business? Does it make your job easier?
I always wanted to have family business. When there are good relationships, there can be original good projects. It is easier for me especially because we understand each other better and there is a minimum of misunderstandings. We are on the same wave of thinking and feelings about things. When you have such team members, you have already achieved an important goal.
How would you evaluate your collaboration with sheltered workshops? What was your point of view on the problem when searching for the right workshop for production?
We found a reliable long-term partner already in the first sheltered workshop in Kežmarok, with which we started cooperation on production. It is interesting that they found us before we even started our production. It’s about a relationship again, we understand each other, we can communicate about things openly. We have been cooperating for 2 years by now.
When scaling up our production we weren’t so lucky anymore. We changed several workshops where we tried production, but after a while we had to end it. The recycled material we use is harder to work with. That’s a fact. You need strong industrial machines and precision. We are currently trying to involve another sheltered workshop, but due to the coronavirus and other difficulties it proves to be more difficult.
We also cooperate with the Family Centre in Dúbravka. Together with them we managed to bring a series of facemasks and other new products available in e-shop. We believe that our cooperation will develop further.
You managed to organise a competition last year – EcoIdea (2019/2020). Do you plan to do something similar in the upcoming period? If yes, who should apply and what would it support?
We were happy to include several partners into the competition EcoIdea and we were delighted by ideas sent to us by young people. We wanted to continue with the competition but last year (2020) we were dealing with completely different and unexpected activities. We have to wait until the global pandemic situation calms down. The business and collaboration with abroad are crucial to us and these activities were widely restricted this year which caused us considerable complications.
What is your message for young people willing to start a social/ ecological enterprise?
Do not be afraid to go for your dream! Look for the development opportunities at home and abroad. They are somewhere and they are waiting to be discovered. Connect with other like-minded people who can support and advise you, maybe create common campaigns in future or sent a project proposal together. Together can be done much more than a single person can do.
What makes sobi.eco successful? What are the pillars of successful social entrepreneurship?
In the beginning, it was the awards that gave our idea credibility. Also, thanks to them, we received various support which enabled us to get our idea on “its feet”, make it real and set grounds for long-term operation. The interest of the media also helped us – they interviewed us and wrote about the sobi.eco brand, thus allowing us to establish new partnerships.
You need to talk about what you need, go into collaborations, look for innovative ways. After all, in social entrepreneurship we often come across innovative ideas and these often require an innovative way of thinking, supporting and developing.
What are your development plans for sobi.eco in the upcoming period?
We planned to develop the production and distribution abroad in 2020. Covid-19 has restricted these goals and so we focused on process stabilisation, organising the warehouse and other similar activities. We would like to go back to production upscaling once we overcome Covid-19. This will mean an increase of recycling and upcycling volumes and more importantly increase of people involved in the project. The people, for whom we created this project, could become their main source of living in a long-term perspective.
If you would like to get to know Tomáš better, watch a short video on sobi.eco.