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Partner Interview – BGO Software

[Music] Sander: Hi I’m Sander Dales, CEO of SHORE teams.
Today I’ll have an interview with the CEO of BGO Software, Ivan Lekushev.
BGO, based in Sofia, Bulgaria has a remarkable client base, with
clients such as the NHS [National Health Service] from the UK. During this interview we’d like you to get
acquainted with Ivan and with BGO
and I’ll ask him to give some wonderful insights about working with a nearshore development team. So Ivan, welcome.
Ivan: Hello Sander: Can you tell me a bit about the story of BGO?
Ivan: Sure. Well it’s more or less romantic one,
We started about 12 years ago. At first we were doing some advertising
on websites, were maintaining a few automobile-related websites, and then we
went into the software development space. So first we were building websites, then
we would start doing enterprise applications, and for the last, the last
eight years, we’ve been doing mostly like enterprise applications for some bigger
organizations across the world, as well as some smaller, like startups and
some mid-sized organizations. Our experience pretty much varies from the big
pharma (corporate) to startups. Over the years that gave us a more
or less like 360-degree view on the software development industry in general.
We are about hundred people today, we have three offices in Bulgaria and we
recently opened our first international office in London, so things are looking quite exciting.
Sander: I would say, expanding rapidly! Ivan: Yeah,
I mean it may seem like a rapid expansion, but as a matter of fact it could be
a slow and painful process until you get to where you want to be.
Sander: I understand, okay. And maybe, can you tell me a bit about the background? How
did you how did you come up with it and how did you start?
Ivan: Well, to me personally, like it was more or less obvious that
I’m going to be involved in the in the IT area in general. So yeah, I always just
had this in mind and just having this strategy on the background, just
taking consecutive steps one after another.
And, as I said, we were building websites first. First for ourselves, then
we started building websites for some clients of ours, and then we started
building some web apps. And then, the size of the projects and the
size of the clients like gradually increased, until we got to the point
where we have like some of the top three pharma companies in our portfolio.
Our model, (our) IT business model changed over time – from being an
outsourcing company to being an external IT partner for the businesses that we
work with. And there’s a considerable difference between the two [models]. While outsourcing
is much rather related to somebody just executing the project that has been
defined already and has a functional and non-functional specs, the role that we
currently play for our partners really is a much deeper one. So we actively
participate in the project definition phase and we consult our clients of
how to approach their projects. So, a big part of our business nowadays is to
pretty much understand what our customers want to achieve and suggest
the best approach to get there. And after that comes the execution phase, where we
provide the resources for that project to happen.
Sander: Yeah so you’re like a full time partner?
Ivan: Yeah, external IT partner! I personally call it a
“CTO as a service” that we provide – so we turn business organizations and
business departments into powerful IT companies. that’s exactly what we do.
Sander: Yeah, interesting, okay. And maybe can you tell me what is your secret sauce? So maybe
what are your, let’s say leadership principles, that you have discovered and
executed and that have contributed to your success?
Ivan: Yeah, well, you know, like I don’t think I can come up with something
that nobody has said before. Speaking to me personally, it’s the
people, it really is the people. I mean, they say that you don’t need money to
do business – you need people to do business. So as long as people are happy
they just drive the business forward. That’s it. And from my personal
perspective, my job is to clear their path and to make sure that they don’t
have obstacles in front of them so that they can do the best they can.
That’s about it. I mean, I wish I could come up with more original, but that’s about it.
Sander: Have you got exceptional skills then to find the right people? I know that
Sir Richard Branson, he used to say that he is not skilled in anything, only
finding the right people, right? And finding the right people, how is that for you?
Ivan: Yeah, well, I think the CEO very often is the one
that plays the orchestra, really, you know – – so the the conductor of the whole thing.
My job, to a great extent, really is to understand people and to make sure
everybody’s happy and to sort of, it really is a sort of social engineering,
you see. Like when you recruit people you must take into consideration
how they will fit into the team and how they will fit into the company culture.
And something which is interesting here to mention is that the company culture
is not something that you develop, it’s something that you discover. So the
people that you put together and the environment that you create,
all those factors create the company culture. And once you have that,
which happens naturally, after that the people that don’t match the company
culture they just don’t last. I mean the environment does not sustain them. So yeah,
having said that, people-reading skills is really important. I don’t know
like how good I am in that regard, but as long as the working environment is
not stressful and people are happy to come to work and happy to be doing what
they’re doing, to me that’s a sign that me and the whole management team is doing a good job.
Sander: Yeah, okay, so how would you then define the company culture of
BGO? Ivan: Well it’s people-driven. I would say
that we are to a great extent a very democratic people. They use the term
“environment”, which means that we’re not trying to create like strict rules
and then just whip people like they don’t follow them. But we are much
more results-oriented. Our strategy is to set by clear expectations, to
align the expectations on both ends, to be very clear about what we expect our
colleagues to deliver on a monthly, quarterly and yearly basis, and then just
guide them through the process and let them do their job. And if at the
end of the periods they have delivered what they have promised to deliver,
that means that everybody’s doing a great job.Yeah, that’s about it.
Sander: And so the things you know, right, the things you have learned, I mean you need to have
learned them over the last years of course. Who opened doors for you or who
has been a great inspiratior for you? What other CEOs maybe do you look up to?
Ivan: Yeah, well I would think that it’s a long journey that’s
like a whole self perfecting thing. Really, like no matter what you’re doing as
Steve Jobs says: “Stay hungry, stay foolish”, you know? I think everybody, like
every professional should not really take themselves very seriously, because
if you do that, that means that you’re arrogant enough to think that you
have reached the end of knowledge in a certain area. And honestly speaking, we
live in times where that technically can never happen. And I always like to tell
my colleagues that every training that you attend, every conference that
you go to, every event that you attend in one way or another,
you wouldn’t take 100 percent out of it. You will take one or two percent, but you
have to go through the full 100 percent content in order to select what
is a thing that that would stick to you, right? So I think it’s it’s a long
journey like for all of us and things that we do when we’re like seventeen really
determine the type of a leader that we’ll be when we’re like 40 or 50.
things that you do when you’re 40 are a consequence of the person that you
developed yourself over the years. And every book you read, every every quote
that sticks, every email that you get, that you like, it’s part of the
factors that determine who you are, the professional that you are and the
attitude that you have towards life – professional and personal life. So there’s like so many leaders out there
that I look up to. But, you know, I wouldn’t say: “My favorite leader is..” like
almost everyone let’s say. When I when I look at interviews, when I listen to podcasts,
when I read books, articles, I just like pick up the things that I like, you know?
I’m not blindly following someone believing that he’s the ultimate truth. Sander: No, I understand you.
Ivan: I would rather just read it and whatever
makes sense to me I just get it, that’s it. And something which is like a
life hack that I found out recently, like a couple of years ago: If I like
something I want to remember, I just create a wallpaper for my phone for the
lockscreen, with some pretty much a picture, and then I put the text of what
I want to remember. So we do really like look at our phones like 100 times a day,
and when I do that, that’s when I see something that will make sense to
me in terms of attitude towards how things should be done, no matter the
aspect. I just put it as a lockscreen wallpaper and then I just like see it
like for a week or two, like everyday, hundreds of times and then it just sticks. Sander: And then it sticks, literally.
Ivan: It’s a life hack, I’m not sure how I came up with it. Sander: Okay, so let’s get back to
BGO. What do you consider to be the biggest strength of BGO?
Ivan: That’s a good one.
Yeah, I’ll mention people again. I mean, all of the people that we have here are
good-hearted people, people that want to succeed, that you want to develop their
potential and reveal it through what they do during their professional life.
So, besides people, you know, I think one of the right things that we did
over time is to make sure that we learn from our mistakes. So they say that the
only way to become good at something is to gain experience and experience is
very closely related to failing. And I don’t mean major fails, I mean
small fails, like doing one step of a 100-step process that didn’t work so
well, but just paying attention on that and making sure that you don’t repeat
that mistake. So over the recent years we really invested lots of
time, lots of management time and resources to develop policies and
methodologies that were based on the conclusions that we drew over time, like
doing projects. So having developed those is really the way that we guarantee
our clients that we’re going to do a good job. And, I didn’t say this clearly, I mean
we haven’t had an unhappy client over the last years, which is like a sign
to me that we’re like going the right way. Sander: Something to be proud of.
Ivan: Well yes, in a way, but I think, I think that this is a process
that’s ever evolving, you know? And what customers want today
is not going to be what they will want tomorrow, so
it’s not something that you can complete and just like stay relax that you
have figured it out and from now on you don’t need to really do
anything about it. So it’s a constant process and the fact that we realize
that it’s something that is part of our, as you call it, like “secret sauce”, yeah.
So last, but not least, I think I think your humbleness is the key to
professional success. You shouldn’t take yourself seriously, man. I mean, no
matter how big an organization it is, it still is very fragile and
you should never allow yourself to be arrogant in one way or another and take
yourself too seriously. So, as I said, to me personally and to the guys
that I work with, it’s an everlasting process of trying to
improve and be better and take ourselves and get better. And pretty much none
take ourselves too seriously and just realize that we’re just dust in the wind.
Sander: But it’s okay, it’s a good advice to anyone, right? I mean, be humble and just do everything to get better, every day.
Ivan: Yeah, you know, I think like 90% of
leaders say the same thing, so I don’t know, I didn’t come up with that. Just everybody
says that at some point of time I was like: “You know, maybe we should
investigate and understand why those guys say that.” And at some point, it just started making sense. Sander: Yeah, I understand. Okay, so you keep talking about your
people and that people are most likely the most important part of your business, of BGO, and maybe of any business.
Ivan: Of any business, not just of our business. Sander: So how do you, I would say,
take care of your staff and create team spirit?
Ivan: Well, I think that it all starts with this,
what I call “social engineering”, which starts with the recruitment process
and company culture that I mentioned earlier, like
as long as people are feeling comfortable in each other’s company, that
is already a head start. Then, obviously, as part of our
HR policies, we are trying to do everything that we can to keep our
people happy, so we’re trying to understand what they really want, what
they really need, and then sometimes we come up with some out-of-the-box
ideas. Last year we did, for example, BGO Fitness
Challenge. So the whole idea was that when you work out with other people
and you guys compare results and stuff like that it’s actually a, it’s
a gamification of something and it’s a it’s a nice journey. So, that’s
something that could really link together people that don’t really
work together at the workplace, but when there is something that unites them,
like physical health for example. This is something that works great
so we had ideas about, like we did quit smoking, quit smoking
programs some time ago. Obviously, team buildings, small team buildings
for teams, big team buildings for for the whole company. You know, I
think people, especially younger professionals, are very much
driven by having the opportunity to grow. So we do internal training all the time
and it’s not just like professional training – technical skills for
example, we do soft skills. Sometimes, we do just workshops that have nothing
to do with work, you know? Like for example, workshop about
drones, workshop about robots and stuff, and then…
Sander: Something fun, something new to learn. Ivan: Yeah, so many different things really.
Obviously, people enjoy like being together, having
fun together, especially like when you’re working with younger chaps. Something
else that helps is that we very often have our clients over here, so when we
work on a project. This is one of my secrets, we like
to ask all of our clients before we start the project to come over here so
they can see where the magic happens and actually meet the people face to face, Sander: Which is really good.
Ivan: I think so, yeah. And when you actually build
a personal relationship with the project owner, it’s people really
tend to take so much more responsibility about what they do, because they know who
is on the other end of the project. And this really helps the
professional environment in many different ways. So, we don’t have a client
that has never been here, we don’t have a client who doesn’t know the team that’s
working on their project. This really takes the whole
work thing to a completely new level. Because, generally, people work with
people, you know. They don’t work with machines, it’s always person to
worry. It’s not B2B, it’s like p2p – person to personnel, or h2h as a human to human.
Sander: Yeah, which is absolutely true, and especially in outstaffing or
outsourcing. I mean, you can communicate using every tool we’ve got
nowadays, but still it’s very good to every now and then see each other, of
course. Ivan: Yeah, machines don’t really replace
the human context, it doesn’t work like that. I mean, even
you and I, we met face-to-face before we could move this
business relationship that we have to a completely new level. And you
know for yourself like what a difference it made.
Sander: Yeah, absolutely 100%. Okay, so what kind of tools do
you use for collaboration and for the remote work that your team does?
Ivan: Yeah, well everything that the industry has to
offer, really. We manage our projects over Gyro or Jira, I’m never sure how it’s
the right way to call it. So, all of our operations go through Jira, this
is something that I’m particularly happy about and proud of, because every hour
that we work everything is logged in there, and all the information is
there. We provide access to our customers, we provide them access to Jira so they
can track stuff live. You know, I think that one of the main challenges
about outstaffing in general is that businesses, they want to take advantage
of the of the economical differences between different regions let’s say
around the world, but the thing that makes them more or less hesitant towards
taking a decision is the fact that trusting your businesses about his health, I’m sorry…
Trusting in somebody with your business is first of
all, really a huge responsibility for both sides, and second of all,
involves a certain level of risk. So my personal job when it comes to
customers, very often is to make sure that they understand how we work and
what’s the best way to get the most out of us, and vice versa. So yeah, learning
how to communicate, learning how to align expectations at both ends is the is the
first step towards building a successful relationship. And transparency
in the business relationships is probably like the most valuable… No, it is the
best way to build a relationship and to create comfort in the clients, as
long as you find the right way to create comfort
with the client, the rest is easy about this relationship.
Sander: It’s transparency in communication.
Ivan: Transparency and communication, yeah. So I always tell our
clients that we have nothing to hide. I mean, if you want to take a look at our
endurance and see like what we did over the last week, go ahead and do that. If you
want to come to our office and see how we work and what we do and like stay
here for a week, just to make sure that you are in safe hands, go ahead and do
that. Our purpose is: We’re not looking for the
hit-and-run, we are here to for the long game. I mean, we have clear
ambitions to become very good at what we are and to build long-lasting
relationships with the people that we work with. So, as I said, the tools
are part of the package, so tools like project management tools (like Jira),
Slack, Microsoft Teams, picking up the phone and just talking whenever you
want to talk with the guys at our end. Something that I think is extremely valuable is to have clearly
defined roles and responsibilities from the very beginning of the project – who is
responsible for what. You know, one of the most poisonous
practices could be for the client just to pick up the phone and talk with
whoever is inside, and ask them something to be done. This is a recipe
for disaster. I mean, you have to have a focal point of communication, in my
opinion, and official way of submitting your requirements and requests so that
everybody can can follow a clear track of the decision making process, and
then we can organize our work accordingly. But for best
practices as opposed to picking random requirements and changing
priorities as rapidly – this never works, even at home. I mean, tell your
kid to like clean their room and then just tell them to do something else.
And you’ll see that the room will not be perfectly clean in other words.
Sander: Yeah, I agree.
Ivan: the same way you manage kids – the same way you manage grown-ups. Like we’re
all people and they have the same personal characteristics since
childhood. So yeah, keep your focus, those steps I think are the important
thing in managing projects and people. I don’t know if that answered your question, but…
Sander: Well, I think it does, in many ways and
especially, I mean tools are one thing ,but I think that the more important thing is
being transparent and being, I would say, clear in your communication.
Ivan: That’s it. Tools just provide means of achieving
that, in my opinion, as long as the the very goal of both sides is to
achieve transparency, and I will repeat myself, align expectations on both ends.
The tools just provide means of achieving that, but they’re not the whole
picture, even if you have like the best tools, if you are not clear
with your intentions, then the tools wouldn’t make much of a difference.
Sander: No. Okay, and if you look at someone who would
like to start and build a team at BGO, what would be the ideal start? Can you
maybe explain the typical process? How does it go?
Ivan: Yeah, I would always go for a face-to-face meeting first.
I always tell that to our clients, the risk exists at both ends.
Having a client that is not clear about what they want and client that is, excuse
my French, like an asshole, can make life really, really miserable. And the
financial profits can never compensate for that. Imagine like having a highly-paid
client who is a pain in the butt for all your colleagues and teams,
and people start leaving your company. I mean, it’s not worth it. the money.
like if you wanna be completely open about it. So,
face-to-face meeting is always like the first thing that we do. I mean,
we always invite. Obviously, we start with a call, like an
introductory call. This “who we are as BGO”, “who are you guys”,
“why are you doing what you’re doing”, you know? Simon Sinek has this book
called Always Start with Why. I really believe in that.
Sander: I have it. Ivan: You have it, right?
Sander: Yeah.
Ivan: So understanding why people are doing the things that they’re
doing, gives so much context to everything after that. So we always
start with a call, a phone call, so an introductory phone call, some
general information about the project, general information about the
targets, the ideas and so on. And then we follow up with a face-to-face.
Sometimes we would go meet the clients, usually I would invite customers
to come and meet us here, because I really think it’s important for them to
see where the magic happens and what is it like, what is this company about.
Because, you know, in the internet world everybody could
pretend to be anything they want to be and… Sander: Yeah, being is believing and knowing.
Ivan: And when it comes to building a long-lasting
relationship and upm I’m not using the word relationship by an instant.
This is what really is about. Once they come over, we discuss their project. It
really is, we call that “ideation process”. So we sit in our conference
room, and we just talk about it, and throw ideas on the table, ask questions.
So if it really isn’t struck like a strictly corporate process, it’s more,
much more like a relaxed environment where we just brainstorm and
talk about it. And I think people get really excited about it, you
know. Because everybody is really passionate about about their work,
real passionate about the projects that they’re engaging in.
So once you can feel that, you can see that spark in their eyes, and you can
understand what is the person that you have in front of you is really, as I
said, I give so much context to everything that’s to follow. So something
that’s really important as well, is that we never engage in a project without
doing the proof-of-concept. Why? Because, while we talking through the
relationship – that’s one thing, but starting with a small project, like a proof
of concept (PoC) really allows both sides to see how the other side works
and how they communicate, how they set their their targets, how they define
their expectations. And, while keeping the risks small, you can really get a good
understanding of what’s to follow. So if the proof of concept goes well and
everybody is happy about the process and about the results, then you can engage in
a longer relationship without having those doubts that you initially would
have. And scaling up, step-by-step, is also something that does a great
job, so start with a proof of concept, then start with something that’s
slightly bigger, slightly bigger, and then scale up over time. This doesn’t have to
take years obviously, but the step-by-step approach is
something that I think makes all the difference in the long run.
Sander: Yeah, yeah. So start slowly and just build along the way. Ivan: Just gradually, like you want, that’s
it. Just like in life, you know, you start by being a baby and then you end up being an adult.
Sander: It doesn’t happen in one day.
Ivan: Same with projects. Some people never grow up [laughter].
Sander: Okay, and what do you think about the collaboration with SHORE teams? Ivan: Well, how do I say that without sounding
fake? You guys came in our lives in, I could tell, just
the right time. At first Eelke contacted us some time
ago, and you sounded like an interesting opportunity for every
business person. Having an extra stream of business and opportunities is
always welcome, right? So then, the first project that we started, I cannot explain how much that was the very right time
for this project to help. It really played like detrimental role in the lifecycle of our business.
For some reason, you just came, just at the right time. And what I liked
a lot was that, you know, for people like me, I just very often, I just need
somebody to open the door. I mean, one way or another me and my
colleagues that are involved in the business development process and in
doing those relationships that were talking about for the last 20 minutes, opening the door is, I mean, we have
nothing to hide. So when we talk with customers we are just
being completely open. Everybody even car-bomb, you know. When
somebody trusts their business in your hands, you’re not allowed to just take it
lightly and just mess it up and just move on with your life. I mean, it
will eventually get back to you in one form or another. So that first
project that we started, as I said came in the very right time. When we met with the
clients, they had the right expectations, and we built up on top of
those expectations. And working together with you guys to sort of navigate the
clients through the decision making process,
just that worked very naturally. We just did it. Sander: And they are still clients.
Ivan: And we’re still working with them and they have a big team with us and
yeah, it just worked. And the relationship that you and
I have and with Eelke as well is something that I enjoy. I mean, when we
speak on the phone I like it. What can I say, it’s fun. We have
built a relationship that is detrimental for all the work that we will do in the
future. And I like it, it’s fun, it works, pays off can I say.
Sander: Yeah, so what do you consider the biggest strength
of SHORE teams at this for BGO and for you? Ivan: Well, what I like about you guys, to
be completely frank, is that you’re good guys and with you I feel confident that
that we are a good match to each other. So when you sort of opened that door for
us, when you warm up a client to meet us, I feel confident that you will set the
right expectations there and you’re not gonna be
over-promising or telling the client something that turns out afterwards that
it has not to do with reality. So this is something that I really enjoy, and I
like your our small talk every now and then, and following up with with the
opportunities that are working on and, at the end of the day, I like celebrating
our successes together with you guys. And I’m looking forward to even expanding
that relationship in the future. You know, like adding more services, adding
different business models that can match what the what
the market needs, because I really believe that
businesses in the Netherlands especially are, first of all, in great
need of quality people to work with. But people in the Netherlands
in particular, are very straightforward – – something which I really like a lot. So
that makes it really easy for me because you know
certain nationalities are a bit more hard to figure out, while you guys are
quite straightforward and you just say what you mean and what you
think, which exactly overlaps with both Bulgarians, we are probably like famous for it
and for me is the way of doing business. They are really straightforward, so that I
think is what makes us a very, very good match for each other.
Sander: Yeah, I agree, I totally agree. Ok, so last question, in
which direction do you think the IT is moving in the coming five years?
Ivan: That’s a good one. You know, I have my personal
theory but I’m not 100% sure that this is going
to happen. So what I’m looking at is the Industrial Revolution, so what
happened at first is that people are doing everything by hand,
manual labor, then during the industrial revolution they started creating
factories and all those factories were having so many workers inside of
them. So currently, the software industry reminds me of that. I mean,
all those big IT companies are pretty much software factories. So what
happened during the Industrial Revolution is that machine started
replacing people, and at some point of time the people that were left to work
in those factories were the guys that were operating the machines, yeah? So
the skill set required to work in the IT industry, I think will change over time –
– from doing lots of manual labor, to operating, figuratively speaking, machines
and algorithms of how to produce what is now being produced by hand. And honestly
speaking, I’m looking forward to that. I think that it’s been quite a while now
that everything is being done by hand and I think I think we are
moving this, it’s just the history is going to be repeating itself and we’re
confidently moving in the direction of turning that current model that we have
into a less and less sustainable one. Because IT is nowadays an inevitable part
of our life, but at the same time it costs a lot to produce what businesses
need. It’s not a luxury to have to go through digital transformation, it is how things
work today and how they will be working in the future. So this process of
developing web and mobile applications must be simplified in a way
and become less expensive and I think, in more or less natural way, things will move in
that direction. I’m not sure, as per my theory, how long that will take,
but I will expect that within 3 to 5 years we’ll see a major shift in
the way that software is being developed. Sander: I would say that usually I have a time
frame, and it speeds, it’s far more faster than we expect up thumbs.
Ivan: Yeah, it’s an exponential growth, right? And
everybody’s talking about digital transformation and before that
it was digitization, or as they called it, digitalization. So I was doing a
couple of speeches about it. Digitalization is turning an analog
process into a digital one, while digital transformation is completely
transforming a process through digital means. So the digitalization created
all that data and digital transformation must find a way how this data is being
used for a greater good. Data is currently the most expensive
commodity in the world. It surpassed energy just last year, which is a major
event, and everything will circulate around data.
That’s it, it’s happening, so we better embrace it. That’s
why I like to be personal, it doesn’t make much sense when I see companies
hesitating to digitally transform what they do or modernize, that’s another term
that’s being used nowadays. Tt doesn’t make sense to me,
like the same way how you would use your the phone book on
your mobile phone instead of writing your telephone
numbers and names on a notebook. The same thing with your business. I
mean, you like using an Excel instead of writing down, like to enter
data (manually) instead of having a software that makes it so much easier. That doesn’t
make sense to me. And to anybody watching this that are wondering where they should
digitally transform or not, I mean you guys don’t have much time to wonder.
Sander: No, if you don’t do it, you’re too late. Ivan: look at what’s happening, big
corporations are not being able to match like much smaller companies that are
technologically so much more advanced than them because it doesn’t
make sense, it doesn’t make sense. I mean in an era where everybody’s driving a
car, if you prefer to walk barefoot, like it’s great, but you’re not gonna get
there as fast as the other guys. And you better figure out your priorities – how long are you
willing to last. Change is an inevitable part of our world and we
better embrace it. I mean, status quo never lasts long Sander: No, absolutely, that’s true.
Ivan: That was quite a philosophical ending, but I really believe in that, I really do.
Sander: Well, let me thank you for your time than today, Ivan, and for all the great insights you have,
and giving us a view of BGO, and a of you as a person. And if anyone wants
to get in touch with you they can reach out to us, or of course reach to you privately.
Ivan: Yeah, absolutely, looking forward to all the new challenges that the businesses will
have for both of us. [Music]

Robin Kshlerin