WORK-LIFE BALANCE / JUN. 07, 2014
version 7, draft 7

Stylianos Lambrou - Founder of Social Airways [INTERVIEW]

Stylianos Lambrou the CEO of Social Airways and co founder of Heart Cyprus, is a young entrepreneur who innovatively combines intelligence and passion in whatever he’s doing. His vision is to make a positive impact to the world and works painstakingly to attain it while enjoying every challenge he encounters in the process. In this exclusive interview, Stylianos shares inspiring ideas on entrepreneurship and success tips for young entrepreneurs, explains how he managed to exponentially grow his startups and most of all…shares the inside scoop on his experience at Silicon Valley and his meeting with Mark Zuckerburg and other business tycoons.

 

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

I am almost 24 years old. I have just graduated from UCL University in London and I decided to come back to Cyprus to start and grow my business. I studied Information Technology and I am the founder of Social Airways and the co-founder of Heart Cyprus.

How easy or difficult is it to be a student and an entrepreneur at the same time?

It is hard but I think that there is time for everything. You just need to sleep less. And this was what I was doing in order to grow my company, I was working extra hours. But I think it’s a period where you don’t have many challenges, you don’t have family, but you do have money, so I think it’s the best opportunity to start something and take your shot.

How has your involvement in entrepreneurship started?

Both my parents are entrepreneurs so I knew from five years old that I would like to create something. From a young age I was creative, I liked to create stuff, and just during my military conscript I decided to start my first project, The Village Express which was a portal about the villages of Cyprus. When I told this idea to my friends, they were laughing at me. They would say “How are you going to make money from this?” With this project I managed to pay all my tuition fees and my living expenses in London. It was a start basically, because after the Village Express was launched – which features virtual tools – Heart Cyprus was born which has 200,000 likes on Facebook and it promotes the island, not just the beaches and camping sites but also hotels, restaurants and everything Cyprus has to offer to tourists. When I started my first business, I didn’t know what entrepreneurship was all about and what a startup is.

Did you get any funding for your first project?

Yes, the only funding I got was €3,000 from my parents which were used as a support at the beginning but I don’t want to use it as an excuse for people to say “OK, his parents gave him €3,000 ” because for my latest project Social Airways, I just paid for my air ticket worth €1,000  when I went to San Francisco and from there I managed to raise money. So it was just €1,000, which nowadays, I believe it is not hard to find this money.

Your motto is “taking the road less travelled“. In what ways have you applied this principle in your entrepreneurial activity?

First of all, right now (to give you a recent example) I have an offer from the University of Cambridge, I have another offer to go to San Francisco, my classmates get jobs with an annual salary of £50,000. But I decided to come back here in Cyprus, I want to start something and take the risks. I think most of the people wouldn’t do it so I think I am taking a role less travelled by which is quite “unknown”. We have just started Social Airways and when you have a start up you don’t even know whether it is a secure choice. Taking a road less travelled essentially means that you don’t do what the majority does. I think people who take that road are people who are willing to take risks and eventually become successful.

How easy or difficult is it to differentiate yourself and set yourself apart from other entrepreneurs?

People who want to be entrepreneurs when they find a difficulty say “OK. I don’t have the technology, I don’t have the money, think that my country is not the best place to develop this idea” but I think these are silly excuses. OK it might sound a bit cliché but ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. In Europe we don’t have this mentality, we have to encourage people to fail and embrace failure because failure is the first step to success and it also adds value to yourself as well. If you fail you would at least claim that you have tried and took the risks. I’d encourage someone to go and do it and don’t think about failure or what society may think about you. Nowadays I see that more people want to take these risks.

You are one of the co-founders of Heart Cyprus. What is it and why did you launch it?

We launched Heart Cyprus because we felt there was a need and frustration as the Cyprus Tourism Organisation (CTO) wasn’t doing an efficient job with the budget they had. We started with less than €10,000 and we managed to make a greater impact than CTO did. We are now employing people, we work with over 100 hotels, restaurants, universities etc. We have a made huge impact. We also offer scholarships with our name and we help Cyprus to grow. Our Facebook page has over 200,000 fans. Our freelance photographers send us amazing images for free. We have also over a thousand virtual tours of different places in Cyprus. I started this project when I was studying and I should say a ‘thank you’ to my sister Andria Lambrou who is the CEO of Heart Cyprus and she does all the management, so I have more time now to devote to my new venture.

In what ways does Heart Cyprus differ from other similar tourist portals?

First of all, we are young. The average age of our company members is 23. We use the virtual tour technology and 3D tools to showcase village landscapes and other stuff. We have a huge community which is loyal to our projects. When the bank crisis started in Cyprus last March, we managed to raise €5,000 from selling Heart Cyprus t-shirts all over the world, and surprisingly 90% of the sales came from non-Cypriots.

How did you manage to engage these people?

OK. Back then we had 160,000 likes and Cyprus was very trending at that time (given the Cyprus bank crisis). So we took advantage of this situation and like a Chinese proverb says “where there is a crisis and danger there is also an opportunity” we took the negativity about Cyprus as an opportunity to engage and get the attention of people. The result? We saw that many people loved Cyprus and in less than five days we managed to raise €5000 which we donated to families in need, school authorities, etc. This example is used in universities as a case study for social responsibility. We were featured on German newspapers, and back then the only positive news about Cyprus was Heart Cyprus.

You said that Heart Cyprus has more than 200,000 fans on its Facebook page. How did you manage to reach so many people?

Yes, Heart Cyprus is the biggest Cypriot Facebook community which is comprised of roughly one hundred thousand Cypriot and another hundred thousand international followers.  It started three years ago as an open source project under the name ‘Love Cyprus’ and now it has been renamed as Heart Cyprus, and it grew exponentially. With a lot of patience we managed to get likes. We started with almost 50,000 ‘likes’ and after that it was much easier to increase our fan base.

You are also working on a new startup, namely Social Airways. What is it and how has this idea emerged?

Social Airways is an online platform which enables travelers traveling on the same journey to connect and they can use this connection to share their transportation let’s say from Heathrow to London, and share the expenses. Or if you go to an event like the Octoberfest or a business conference, you can start networking even before booking a flight. You can even arrange to share your accommodation. Most importantly, we are making the flight more pleasant and engaging. Meeting people is very important because as a quote says “your network will determine your net worth” not only professionally but also personally. Networking today is amazing. We love to connect people. When we launched this startup, two days later I was travelling, and I had the opportunity to travel with Elita, a girl I met on Social Airways, and just the excitement of going to the airport to meet someone made my day when I woke up! So we met, we had lunch, we had an interesting chat while on board but what’s most important is that I still have a friend after the flight.

In what ways do you think Social Airways will change the way people travel?

Well, in many ways. Nowadays the overall travel costs include the actual ticket price plus other expenses such as accommodation, transportation, luggage fees etc. Today the profit margin on air tickets for airlines is low so they can’t decrease their prices. The travelers are looking for affordable and personalised travel solutions. And since we are living in a sharing economy we are able to lower prices and increase the value of our services. From an economical perspective, in days of financial crisis we are adding value that positively contributes to your networking, to the opportunity to promote yourself, to meet people to hang out with at your destination. I think this will make the booking process and the trip planning more transparent and more powerful and more fun.

Do you believe being an entrepreneur is something you’re born with?

I think you can become an entrepreneur but there are a few traits like ‘being a positive person’, or ‘willing to take the risks’, these things are something you’re born with I think. It is debatable though, I can’t tell for sure. But I believe I was born an entrepreneur and I learned the skills in the process. I think entrepreneurship could be learned and now universities encourage entrepreneurship. Today entrepreneurship has become a need. Due to the financial crisis, people want to survive; they need to find something to raise money as there are less employment opportunities. But entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. It is for people who are willing to take extra work, hours and risks.

Which factor or factors do you think determine the success of an entrepreneur?

Attaining financial success has always been a critical factor. But apart from that social entrepreneurs like Ghandi for example, and the extent to which these people create opportunities for others, help their nation and make a social impact are additional success factors for an entrepreneur. Social capital is also another factor, the way you contribute to your society, the way you help your country or an organisation makes you more valuable. I think when an entrepreneur becomes free, then it’s success. Freedom means financial independence. This enables you to do more meaningful stuff. Take Elon Musk for example, who founded PayPal, then sold it, and created SolarCity, then Tesla and SpaceX.

How easy or difficult is it for someone to become an entrepreneur nowadays?

Nowadays, you can start a company with barely any money. Especially for technology entrepreneurs what is basically needed is internet connection and a laptop. It is very easy and I will tell you why. Bootstrapping is key. When you are for example a good developer, and I am also a good engineer, we call another guy who’s doing marketing, we altogether create a prototype which we call minimum viable product, and then we can reach a project investor and raise the money with which we can actually build it.  I see from my experience that having a good team is key. It is very important to have the right people around you, people who share the same vision with you.

Has entrepreneurship taught you anything in particular? Do you have any regrets?

Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle. In the very start people will make fun of you and don’t understand you. Your ideas will seem unreasonable to them and they may call you ‘crazy’. They will wonder “Why are you doing this?” but as you become successful, more people will start getting around you. You should believe in yourself and stay focused.

What is your driving force as an entrepreneur?

First of all, making an impact is very important because the purpose of life, besides giving birth (have children), is to leave something meaningful behind. At the same time, during your life you should have a more interesting, more challenging and more fun life, and I think this is what drives entrepreneurs to create stuff and take the risks.

Are there any challenges for entrepreneurs?

There is a lot of pressure. You only have good or bad days. There’s nothing in between! And when your startup becomes very successful you’re so happy and excited but the other day when things go bad you get depressed.

How does your routine compare to a ‘9 to 5’ job?

Ours is a twelve to twelve job! You dream and you think of algorithms and numbers! You need full dedication. You must have balance in your life but all your energy goes to your startup because you need a lot of hard work and focus to become successful in what you are doing.

The Sunday Mail described you as the “next Stelios Hadjioannou” (founder of EasyJet). How far are you aiming at and what are your entrepreneurial ambitions?

It’s my honour to be described as the next Stelios Hadjioannou who is a billionaire. Actually the interview by Sunday Mail was about The Village Express and the journalist didn’t even know that I was going to be involved in airways, so hopefully I will become as successful as Stelios. What I want to achieve by the time I become say 40 years old is to say that I have at least tried. I want to make the most of my potential and have as much impact as possible rather than financial attainment.

Tell me about your experience in San Francisco. What did you do there? 

I participated in a two-week immersion programme called Blackbox, which attracts entrepreneurs from all over the world. There I had the opportunity to stay in Silicon Valley and go to Facebook’s headquarters, network with very important individuals, investors and other entrepreneurs and get feedback from them. At that time, I only had a landing page and just an idea so these people helped me shape the final idea of Social Airways. Silicon Valley is a great place to start a business. Just to give you an idea, every single person I was meeting at a bar had a startup. Only two startups per day fail on an average in San Francisco and that’s because there is a culture that does not discourage people who fail.

I also had the chance to have a brief yet interesting chat with Mark Zuckerburg last summer. In a networking event I also met with an angel investor who liked me (more than my idea), he believed in me and then we were exchanging emails to discuss the next steps and after a series of procedures we managed to raise $100,000. With this amount we hired developers who created the product that we have now and we have some extra to survive for the next six months but I think we will be growing even more as we increase our exposure and achieve the desired results.

Have you learned anything interesting from Mark Zuckerburg when you met him?

Whatever I learned from him, I didn’t learn it that particular day. But one particular thing about him is that he is very humble, while in Cyprus for example most business people tend to show off. I think all entrepreneurs, even those who have millions should be humble and be the ‘dumbest’ person in the room and be willing to learn. Like Steve Jobs said in one of his speeches “Stay hungry, stay foolish” which means that you have to be willing to learn stuff and listen from others.

What advice would you give to young people who aspire to become entrepreneurs?

Go for it. Don’t let other people determine your future, it’s your future and even if they don’t believe in you, remain positive and make sure you are surrounded by positive and like-minded people. In order to foster entrepreneurship we need to create an ecosystem that encourages young people to take risks, work hard and pursue opportunities.

Last but not least, what words of wisdom would you give to young people who are already entrepreneurs?  

Be patient. Keep up what you are doing and don’t get disappointed easily. If you take great entrepreneurs as an example, like Steve Jobs, even before he became very successful at Apple, he found himself out of the company - they fired him. But he insisted, he invested in Pixar, then in NeXT which worked much better than Apple, and has never stopped. Likewise, entrepreneurs should persist, work hard and be willing to fail. What is important for them to know is that at least if you lose the battle, don’t lose the lesson.

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