Milan Rataj: Co-founder, HR Enthusiast, Customer Happiness Lead

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Milan is a co-founder of Sloneek and a seasoned HR consultant. At Sloneek, he’s responsible for Customer Happiness and for all HR-related topics. He has two PhD titles, in Andragogy and Marketing. His startup aside, Milan teaches andragogy at several universities and raises awareness on competency-based employee development models. He’s the vice president of the Czech Andragogy Society’s Academic Club.

Milan, tell me how Sloneek started.

The key person behind the brand is my colleague, Václav Martin. He used to work as an external marketing consultant. As such, he had to file his leave request forms on paper. Annoyed, he said that mundane tasks like this should nowadays be fully automated and digitized. This is how we invented our first digital product: iDovolenka. It’s a leave request app. At about the same time, we met Filip Lukáč, a young and very talented developer. We got him debug a part of the app that kept causing problems. It took him just 2 months to rewrite code worth two years of our previous team’s work. But when the app finally hit its technical limits, we decided to invest in its 2.0 version. We got a major investment from Vision Ventures and created Sloneek, a fully-fledged HR app.

Now that you’ve explained Sloneek, how did you start in HR?

Well, it’s been a long journey since 2013, when I left the advertisement industry. For many years, I’ve worked as a marketing consultant. From a marketing perspective, employees are the key resource. They are indispensable. Every company should take proper care of them. I’ve always been acutely aware of the human element at work. When I had to decide what to choose as my major, I intuitively opted for andragogy, which is the science of teaching adults. This led me to HR and employee development. Meanwhile, my business activities have migrated towards HR, too. The tipping point was a huge contract for the organizational redevelopment of a tech agency with over 200 employees. I’ve been assigned as project leader. This is how it all started.

Do you remember Sloneek’s first customer?

We got our first key account by endorsement. Networking and building great relations with marketing agencies have always been my strong suits. When looking for customers, I referred to my contacts. It was natural, and it worked.

What’s the next step? How is your brand evolving?

It’s been quite a wild ride. Since the VC investment, we’ve hired enough specialists to develop a fully-fledged HR system. For the first years, I was very cautious and conservative. Sometimes, I expected the worst. Our team is highly driven and always goes for the goal. It’s been hard to harmonize our processes and learn to communicate with each other, but also to wind down when we need to. Now, with a new investment coming, we expect a major recruitment campaign for our company. We expect it to be a great challenge for us, with so many new people on board and new talent coming in. Blending them with the existing employees and including them in our corporate culture will be the key. It’s a complex task and our highest priority.

As far as our product is concerned, we are confident and put a lot of trust into it. Based on our research, we’re far more advanced than our international competitors. We just need to carry on and show what we can.

Where do you see Slonek in 5 years?

I’m pretty sure the core team won’t change. I hope we’ll grow at least fourfold, but not at the expense of our friendly atmosphere and family feeling. I believe our product is good enough to conquer the European markets.

Sloneek started in 2017. What is your biggest success to date?

Sloneek’s biggest success has been to build a great team. If I only knew how exactly we did it, I’d publish a self-help book on building teams. But I don’t, to be honest. My best guess is that our success has been built upon our organizational culture principles, with a hint of dumb luck. We keep being a small business with a friendly, informal attitude, open feedback, and transparent culture.

… and your biggest fail?

An overly hasty hiring process. It’s happened a few times when we’ve tried to cut corners.

You said that your team is the key to your success. What makes a great leader to you? Is leadership teachable or rather based on an innate disposition?

Everything is teachable if you want to be taught. Even if you don’t have an innate talent for something, it may take longer to learn, but you’ll finally learn it. A great leader should stand within the team, not above it. That’s it. If they can’t include themselves in the team, employee development will be hard. Money is a short-term motivation. A leader must have a good understanding of what motivates or discourages people long-term. The impact and meaning of their work are usually the strongest motivators for employees.

Finally, tell us something about you. What do you do in your free time?

I go to HR events to discuss our industry with other professionals. I enjoy spending time with my family, skiing, and hiking. I don’t get to have much me-time. When I have it, I play golf, read books, or have a glass of nice white wine.