Marin Smiljanic

Co-Founder of Omnisearch

Marin is the co-founder and CEO of Omnisearch, a startup building the next generation of search technology. As a software engineer, Marin accumulated years of experience at both fast-growing venture-backed startups as well as Big Tech. Prior to becoming a startup founder, he spent three years at Amazon, working on Amazon Web Services and Alexa.

Where did the idea for Omnisearch come from?

The idea for Omnisearch came during my time at Amazon. As in any large company, we had hours of training videos that we needed to go through, packed with really dense technical information. And it was difficult and time-consuming to find information inside those materials – you can find videos by title or description, but it was impossible to find exact moments where the information was covered and navigate straight to them. I talked with my co-founder Matej Ferencevic, a spectacular engineer with lots of startup experience, about the idea and we decided to go all-in and try to solve this for good.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My day is mostly spent meeting with lots of people: the Omnisearch team, our outside associates and advisors, investors and, most importantly, customers. Since I’m in charge of the business side of the company, I do a lot of sales calls and overall just try to get people everywhere excited about us and our product. I still try to get in a bit of coding, especially if there’s a new feature that needs to be prototyped or some cool recent development that can be applied.

In terms of productivity, I keep a pretty thorough to-do list and try to prioritize my tasks for maximum benefit. While I don’t use Trello right now, I used both that and Asana in previous projects and I’m seriously considering going back. Apart from that, I make sure to have all the relevant tasks in Google Calendar with the appropriate reminders.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Primarily by just coding. This is definitely the biggest upside of having a technical background. Especially with the large number of tools and services available today, the barrier for trying out and launching a product has never been lower (though the flip side is more competition). Granted, most of the business aspects of the company are now on my plate so there’s less coding for me on a day-to-day basis. But the gist is the same.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I’ve been extremely bullish on the advances in deep learning in the past few years. I often feel like the public debate about it lacks nuance, either dismissing neural network-based AI as not truly intelligent or, more often, fearmongering. I genuinely believe that the wave of AI-related advances since 2015 has been monumental – from mastering more complex games to image recognition to language models, these new approaches massively outperform earlier ones. I always make it a point to stay on top of these advances and try to think of ways to apply them to real-world problems.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Picking the right colleagues. I’ve always believed this was essential for a founder and is in fact one of the main benefits of running your own company! It’s always great to find people whose skills and, more importantly, passions complement your own. I’ve worked with amazing programmers, graphic designers, marketers, and salespeople. Our track record has so far been good and I expect it to stay that way.

What advice would you give your younger self?

If you’re immigrating to a foreign country, pick a large, established company for your first job. There’ll be a lot of immigration- and work-related bureaucracy to navigate early on and it’s helpful to be working for a company that has these processes already in place. Afterward, go work for startups since it’s way more fun and the pace is a lot faster!

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Remote work is fine for more senior people, but I believe that for people earlier on in their careers it’s extremely important and beneficial to have more senior team members around, since they can ask questions more freely and get a better understanding of both the tech and business sides of the company way faster, and it helps them get “unstuck” faster.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Talk to your customers. Every now and then you’ll find a founder who is able, Jobs-like, to dictate to the market. But this is extremely rare, especially in B2B. At Omnisearch we’ve always had a culture of gathering feedback from customers and taking it seriously. The caveat here is to not be too jittery and to not be afraid of saying no. But it’s been incredibly beneficial for us and we got a number of excellent feature requests by listening to customers’ problems. In fact, a lot of our product evolution happened in response to the feedback of customers in the EdTech space.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Being creative about customer acquisition channels. Our initial traction came through a partnership with a public company in the EdTech space, where we built an integration on their App Store and started selling to course creators around the world. I think this is a pretty underrated way of generating initial traction and more companies should consider it.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Our fundraising journey wasn’t easy, and we got rejected some twenty-five times before finally landing our investment from GoAhead Ventures. It was a tough time, especially since living in Vancouver without a salary was a recipe for ruin. But for problems like this the solution is plain perseverance. We took investors’ feedback seriously, polished our story, and made sure our value proposition and go-to-market strategy were tighter. So the advice is to just power through the No’s and remember that highly, highly accomplished founders faced the exact same problems.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

In the past year or so I’ve become a bit concerned about the possibility of widespread outages of cloud providers since an event like that can bring down a massive number of online businesses. Respectable experts even estimate a major AWS outage to have the same impact as a global recession. I’d love it if there were a hassle-free way for customers to deploy software to multiple clouds and make their environments safer.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I got Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” from Amazon and really loved it. I’m a big fan of Neal Stephenson’s work and of various forms of science fiction. It helps you imagine the future and it’s not a coincidence that the man was brought on as an advisor at Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

We use Slack as our default means of communication. Though it’s got myriad issues (notifications, search) it’s still invaluable. I remember being a skeptic way back in 2016, but I’ve since been converted.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I recently read “Becoming Steve Jobs” by Schlender and Tetzeli and absolutely loved it. The book is pretty different from the usual Jobs hagiography in that it tries to analyze why he was so much more effective in his second act at Apple as opposed to his first stint. It devotes a lot of time to NeXT and Pixar and shows the effect those companies had on teaching him how to deal with people. And it’s not afraid to show times when his legendary vision misfired (for instance at NeXT). Overall, an incredible book about one of the giants of the industry. For more recommendations, I recently wrote a Twitter thread with my favorite business books!

What is your favorite quote?

“When the facts change, I change my mind” – John Maynard Keynes

Key Learnings:

  • Picking the right coworkers in the single most important part of running a startup.
  • Read books about successful companies and founders and see which part of their story can be applied to the challenges you’re facing.
  • Talk to customers a lot, especially in B2B. Don’t take it too far and let them dictate your roadmap, but gather as much information about their pain points as possible.
  • Make sure to stay on top of cutting-edge technical developments, at least from a high-level standpoint.