Žiga Vrtačič

Co-Founder of Bird Buddy

Žiga is a seasoned professional with over ten years of experience with startups and established corporations. He was the product director of My Talking Tom, a global mobile game hit with over 1 billion downloads. He co-founded DJND, a civic tech nonprofit, which received three grants from Google DNI. In 2019 alone, he was invited to speak at seven tech conferences all over the world.

Last year, he cofounded Bird Buddy which quickly became the most funded Kickstarter project ever in “Gadgets” category.

He crossed the Atlantic ocean on a sailboat and owns a dog.

Where did the idea for Bird Buddy come from?

It’s a funny story, actually. A while back I saw this video of a seagull stealing a GoPro camera. It took off with it and made all these hilarious shots. So that got me thinking about coming up with a better way to take images or video of birds. That’s the camera part. I got the inspiration for the app portion of Bird Buddy from my previous job. I used to work at a Slovenian company called Outfit7, where I worked on the My Talking Hank mobile game. Hank is a photographer dog character and the point of the game is to set out food and toys for other animals to then take their photograph. That was sort of my introduction to “collection” game mechanics. What really fascinated me about it was that the urge to collect things is an intrinsic drive in all of us. It’s everywhere if you think about it, and always has been; kids collect stuff like stickers, adults collect coins and stamps. My Talking Hank was itself of course inspired by Neko Atsume. Then around the same time, Pokemon GO blew up. All of these things got me thinking, why don’t we try and integrate something similar into Bird Buddy? I mean, think of it this way – there’s only 800 Pokemon, and more than 18,000 bird species in the world!

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

One of the main things I’ve been trying to do lately is eat healthy and only order takeout when it’s absolutely necessary. It’s so easy, when you’re trying to be hyper-productive, to just pass on lunch, but I firmly believe anyone who can afford to do so should take the time in their day to take a bit longer break and make their own lunch. After lunch, I like to go for a really long walk with my dog, which keeps me active and lets me clear my head. The good thing about having a dog is that it makes you go out no matter the weather, so there’s really no excuses! In the warmer months before COVID happened, lunchtime was also when I took my daily break. I’ve always thought of it as a very social affair, so I’d try and meet up with friends to eat or get coffee later. Speaking of which, I’ve probably been having way too much coffee these days! Another tip for staying productive which seems to work for me is not biting off more than you can chew. I try to streamline my day so I don’t have too many tasks at once; because then you just get overwhelmed and are able to accomplish way less. You could say I gamify my day in a way. I’ll plan out a little bundle of tasks, followed by a break, and then another bundle of tasks and so on.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Whatever idea I have, I like to create a lo-fi mockup. It allows me to see what would work the way I pictured it and what wouldn’t, and work out all the kinks. When it comes to design, I don’t think you need to get it right the first time. Iteration is king to developing a good product. That and not working in a bubble. I like to meet with people whose opinion I value – business partners, potential partners, friends, colleagues etc. – and bounce ideas off them. Then, with the next iteration of the mockup, I try to incorporate all the useful feedback I got, and then follow that up with another discussion until I get where I want to be.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Definitely the ongoing democratization of AI. I really feel like the conversation has opened up a lot more since AI first popped up. Before, there used to be a lot of talk about its future impact, and it was largely negative and pretty dystopian. There were really very few customer-centric solutions. However, the technology has since become increasingly more available and people are coming up with increasingly innovative and interesting ways to use it. Bird Buddy, for example, could not have happened a few years ago, because all of the AI-powered models that we used to develop our bird recognition software had not yet been made open source.

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

As mentioned, I like to take a break in the middle of the work day and go for a long walk with my dog. It really helps me clear my head and makes it easier to either work later or get up earlier. I have recently started writing everything I need to do in a notebook. I find it works much better than any productivity app, because it’s tangible. Writing my tasks out also helps me remember what I have to get done. As I’m doing them, I tick or cross them out and, at the end of the work day, write any tasks that I didn’t manage to accomplish into next day’s to-do list. A silver lining of having started Bird Buddy during the pandemic is also that there were very few sacrifices to be made in terms of my social life, and I really had all the time in the world to devote myself fully to the project.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Do your homework before diving headfirst into a project! I started creating products at a very young age; they would be all sorts of things like wooden games, apps, civic tech software… I always started these projects based on my – very subjective – opinion that they were the most awesome thing ever. I would pour a ton of time, love and sometimes money into them, and a majority of them didn’t end up taking off because other people didn’t seem to share my opinion of how cool the products were. With Bird Buddy, we did exactly the opposite. The first thing we did was get a feel for our future customers and communicate with them to gauge their purchase intent and Bird Buddy’s market fit. After we found that, we started development. So that is something I really wish I would have known when I was younger. Another important takeaway is that if the feedback you end up getting isn’t that great, don’t be afraid to let the project go! Life’s too short to get hung up on a project that research tells you is going to fail sooner or later. If you’re not that emotionally attached to your concepts, you have a much better chance of finding a product market fit, because you’re much more flexible and prepared to make any necessary alterations.

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

Pigeons are cute! They have this unfair reputation as dirty, disease-ridden pests, but that is far from the truth. In fact, people used to breed them as companions. There’s this photo of a pink-necked green pigeon going around Twitter and people are calling it “hot pigeon” because they’re surprised at its really striking colors. There are so many different species, and even if you look at the common wood pigeon – the one we are used to seeing on city streets – it has beautiful iridescent plumage too. When you look at them up close, you can see they are really beautiful birds.\

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

Talking about my ideas and getting as much feedback as I possibly can! I like to sit down with friends and have structured work chats, then go back to work and revisit our ideas. I believe that a good conversation can inspire really incredible things. Picasso used to say, “Inspiration exists but it needs to find you working.” I would like to paraphrase that and say inspiration exists but it needs to find you working and chatting!

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

Validation is key. We did our research first to prove that there actually was a market for a smart bird feeder, and communicated with our potential future customers through surveys, Facebook ads tests, all kinds of market research. We had a ton of information before we even started developing, which meant every next step we took was that much easier – and much less risky – because we had laid the necessary groundwork.

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

Way back, I decided I was going to create a wooden game. The catch was, I had zero knowledge of woodworking, but I just went into it out of curiosity, I guess. Of course everybody thought I was absolutely nuts. It all worked out pretty okay in the end, but I did learn you shouldn’t do stuff you know absolutely nothing about!

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

A “tamagotchification” of actual plants. Imagine you’ve got a device that is connected to your plants and it keeps track of their life, so your plants can tell you when they’re thirsty or when they need sunlight. It would certainly make taking care of them much easier!

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

I recently bought two things, and together they round up to $100. The first is the Overcooked game for my Nintendo Switch. I love cooking and love the idea of the kitchen as a game world, so I can honestly say this is my favorite game in a long while. The second thing is Actual Air, a collection of poems by David Berman that was out of print for so long and was nearly impossible to get but has now finally been reprinted. I can’t stress enough just how much I love David Berman’s work.

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

Balsamiq! It’s just the fastest thing out there for lo-fi mockups. Although our design team uses Figma, I’ll always stay loyal to Balsamiq for my personal use.. It’s a great tool for me to play with concepts, which is why I just treated myself to a license for the upcoming year.

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

I would recommend Yu-kai Chou’s book Actionable Gamification. It’s a great starting point for understanding the ins and outs of applying game design techniques to the non-game world and how it can ultimately help your business.

What is your favorite quote?

“The opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression,” by Brian Sutton-Smith!

Key Learnings:

  • Do your research and homework before you go into design or development to see how viable your idea is. Test it with real people!
  • Chat with others – friends, potential customers, anybody – to give you that critical feedback. Validate your concept.
  • Make time to step away from running the business and developing the products to help with your creativity.