A Better eLearning Environment
In the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown in Bulgaria, in mid-March, Melon’s co-founder and CEO Krum Hadjgeorgiev made Melon Learning Management System available for free for the period of 6 months. It's a platform for online employee training, quizzes, and surveys. At this time, he says his primary task is to safeguard the team, and business continuity comes second.
Every morning Krum Hadjigeorgiev opens Sofia’s office and spends the working day there together with two system support engineers. All the rest, close to 200 web and mobile developers, UX/UI designers, QA and DevOps engineers, and the administration work from home to withstand physical distance and help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Melon had kept all three offices in Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo and Skopje opened so that if anybody needs anything, they can go and get it without any specific arrangements. Actually, this is how the company had functioned since the end of February, two weeks before the state announced a lockdown. Back then, Hadjigeorgiev’s only concern was whether the system would be able to support work from home for all employees. The DevOps team, though, reassured him that wouldn’t be a problem.
An Alternative to Employee Training
At that period of uncertainty and transformation, he thought of how Melon could help other organizations struggling to ensure business continuity. That’s why since mid-March Melon Learning is available for free for the period of 6 months. It’s a platform for online employee training, quizzes, and surveys. “At the beginning of the Bulgarian lockdown, we thought that we have a product that can ease companies’ efforts to train their employees and associates no matter where they are. In 6 months, the health crisis may be over and they may be returning to their offices.”
Melon Learning is a learning management system that stores and delivers learning and assessment content, and tracks and measures the learning progress. Built around simplicity, it is designed to manage corporate online training accessible anytime, anywhere. Yet, a lot of educational institutions, non-governmental organizations and even parents and psychotherapists are enquiring about it so that they can continue their teaching processes. What Hadjigeorgiev didn’t expect is getting a lot of requests from tech companies. Until that date, Melon Learning has been utilized mainly by telecoms, pharmaceutical and financial industries – organizations with traditionally way more dispersed workforce. At the moment, we have enquiries from outsourcing and investment companies and call centers.
“Until recently we tried convincing clients that it’s wise to invest in an internal learning management system to train their employees. Now, they don’t have other choices,” says Hadjigeorgiev.
He’s happy that he’s found a way to help other companies when they need it the most. However, he ponders Melon’s chances of financial endurance. The implementation of the system and the employees’ training how to use it is costly as well. The questions that arise are: once Melon is giving the license for the learning management system for free, should it charge the companies for Melon Learning’s team manhours? If there’re too many clients, could Melon afford it? The cost is a five-digit number. On the other hand, Hadjigeorgiev says: “If you’re offering help, it should be candidly, not as a hook.” His final decision is Melon Learning to be entirely for free for that period – not only the software solution, but also the set-up and customer support. Additionally, the company will invest in new functionalities like online meetings – something that has been put off for a long time but now the enquiries are piling up because of all that remote work.
Hadjigeorgiev realized he wanted to build a learning management system for the first time in 2004. Back then, a client from the UK had designed such a solution but using outdated technologies and had refused to update them because it wasn’t important to him. “That’s why I was itching to develop a learning management system,” he says. Several years later, the Bulgarian telecom Vivacom reached Melon in regards to an upcoming online product training. That’s the moment when Hadjigeorgiev decided to invest in the software development of Melon learning management system. “It can propel the companies’ digital transformation,” he says. He also built a dedicated team headed by Silvia Andreeva – a former Vivacom employee who has been part of the process from the very beginning. The entire system was developed together with the client to deliver an autonomous software solution that enables companies to handle internal trainings way more effectivelyr.
Ten years later, Melon Learning has had more than 40 clients. At the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the product has been gaining added value because the number of companies all around the world with dispersed workforce is growing exponentially. Now, Melon Learning can be not only self-sustainable, but also grow.
Ensuring Business Contunuity
Hadjigeorgiev is the CEO of Melon, managing the business development, sales, and marketing. During the crisis with the novel coronavirus, the company’s business continuity is under enormous pressure. The tech company has 80 active projects with clients from the EU, USA, Canada and Australia. Because of the diversification, he believes that Melon will handle the negative consequences. He worries that anywhere around the globe clients’ businesses are at stake. “Some of the start-ups are very conscious of how they’re spending their investment money. Enterprises are laying off staff and requesting discounts for software development services,” he says.
Now, all the efforts are focused on minimizing the losses and attracting new business. Indeed, every day new inquiries about urgent or long-term projects are received. An owner of a bingo is eager to transfer his gaming business online for mobile devices. A Scandinavian media company need a software solution for its TV shows. There’re companies looking into new online shops, online financial products or online medical services. And there’re those Melon clients who’ve been waiting for a moment like this to unfold their potential. Krum Hadjigeorgiev tells about a small Swiss company with a software solution built in Bulgaria that allows financial consultants to manage their clients’ investment portfolios without meeting them face to face. There’s another very interesting start-up that’s been working with Melon’s developer for six months to build a software solution to aid the vast number of isolated at home people. “In some way, the founders are lucky to be working on a problem that pretty much overnight affected the entire globe. There’s scientific proof that isolation and loneliness is way more harmful than smoking. The investment is substantial and the product should be delivered any time now,” he says.
Close to 85% of Melon’s clients are referred. This is the case from the very beginning in 2001 when three start-ups with a shared investor merged – AdVenture, a digital marketing agency, WebLang – an outsourcing web development company, and WebGate – a mobile development company.
Hadjigeorgiev comes from AdVenture. Together with fellow alumni from the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) majoring in Business Administration and Economics he was delivering multimedia and interactive solutions. Their first client was an international trade center, that needed an interactive presentation. “It was fun and enjoyable. In the beginning, we got financial support and mentorship from the BulVentures Incubator,” he says. “They advised us on the merger with the other two start-ups.”
Matching the Right Software Projects with the Right Developers
Melon’s clients arrived through several channels. The WebLang founders who had lived for two years in Paris brought with them their clients. Other AUBG alumni left Bulgaria and started recommending Melon to clients like Philips. Later, Melon’s employees found jobs abroad and came back as clients. Each and every successful project has brought another project. The achievements have been mainly with software development services rather than products. That’s why Melon’s managing partners have decided to focus on outsourcing services.
The main challenges came not with the big financial crisis in 2008, but with the bankruptcy of several big clients in 2014. “We had projects with several big companies bringing close to 15% of our business. We lost 5 of them within two months over a phone call or an email. One of them was a big gaming company,” says Hadjigeorgiev.
Some acquisitions and mergers also lead to client losses. The worst is losing both business and people at one and the same time. These are the most challenging moments for Hadjigeorgiev – when he needs to find long-term, intriguing and promising projects and software talent. The lack of people has always been a big problem in the country’s IT industry. Without the right people the company cannot grow. In 2008, Melon opened a development office in Veliko Tarnovo in Northern Bulgaria and sales offices in Western Europe. In 2016, Melon opened a development office in Skopje. Northern Macedonia wasn’t part of his talent research back then. He was considering Armenia while at a meeting a client reassured him that there’re very fine developers in Northern Macedonia too. “They speak a similar language, the tax system is similar and have the engineers,” Hadjigeorgiev says. He also says that the opening of the Skopje office wasn’t meant to save on salaries, rather in search for talent. “The asset is the access to one more pool of software talent, close to us both geographically and culturally. We were very lucky with our first employee in Skopje. He found other valuable developers and became a partner.” The same year, Melon’s revenue increased with 15% to 8.4 mln BGN.
In February, the managing partners had an ambitious 2020 plan but the COVID-19 crisis led to a recession. Though, Hadjigeorgiev sees the opportunities of the imminent digital transformation of the businesses, including online trainings. With more creativity, persistence and the right approach he hopes to minimize the losses. “If we’re lucky, we may even emerge stronger than before,” he says. “The uncertainty is huge. We have the optimistic and the pessimistic scenarios. The primary task is to safeguard the team, and business continuity comes second.”