Interview with Cosmin Malureanu (Ascendia Design)

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We had a change to interview Cosmin Malureanu, one of the most aspiring Romanian entrepreneurs. In 2007 Cosmin founded a software design company specializing in eLearning materials, including online learning courses for corporate clients and educational games for pre-school children.

Now his company Ascendia Design employs 24 people with an annual turnover of more than €350 000. Among Cosmin’s clients are Romania’s Ministry of Education Allianz and Raiffeisen Bank. Ascendia Design is now operating in Romania, Moldavia, Cyprus, Germany, UAE, Egypt, Malta and Kazakhstan and is expanding its presence in the UK.

A vocal advocate of digital skills and entrepreneurship education from an early age, Cosmin has been participating in numerous initiatives to promote digital skills and digital entrepreneurship among European students, such as eSkills for jobs conference 2014, European Business Summit and representing Romania at the World Summit Award 2011 with his educational Astronomy iBook.

EU Startups: Please, introduce yourself and give us a little about your background.

Cosmin Malureanu: I’m 33 years young. I’m a man who is open-minded, who speaks what he thinks and does what he says. At least I try to. I believe in ethics, responsibility and hard work. I value loyalty and friendship and above all I value love, in all its forms. To get to the point where I am today I did what I had to do, even if sometimes I didn’t like it, or sometimes I was too afraid or too sick to do it. I invested money, time, work and love in Ascendia and its e-learning products and I am proud of what we as a team achieved so far. All the risk and involvement is starting to pay off. I was a champion in economics in highschool, I had a full scholarship at a foreign university, which I renounced in order to have time to start my first business and finally I finished university in Romania in computer science. One on top of the other, I think I have a business-oriented mind with focus on education, due to the environment I lived in and continue to live in – my mother is an economics teacher and my wife has also a pedagogical background.

EU Startups: What was it like to launch an e-learning startup in 2007. and in Romania?

Cosmin Malureanu: To understand, picture two giant sequoia trees and in their shadow, many tiny, itsy bitsy unbranded seeds just trying to grow, to get by. That was the local e-learning landscape in Romania in 2007. Two big companies were dominating and we were just starting, in their shadow. I was young when I entered the e-learning world. All that I knew was that the learning process in general must be changed, that it must become more effective. I knew that technology should enhance the learning process and this new thing, at that time, called e-learning, is what should set the direction. First, we needed money so we worked our asses off as an outsourcing company, it was tough but cosy, many will understand. Our plan was not only to use the money from outsourcing services to create our own products – to shape the future of learning but to also get credit for doing so. Now I can say that we are a family business. I have my wife, brother and mother helping me and together with our great team we manage to create impact.

EU Startups: What were the major challenges over the last 7 years of running Ascendia Design?

Cosmin Malureanu: The challenges I encountered produced some useful lessons I learned first-hand, so I’ll elaborate on those.

  1. The first lesson we had to learn as a company was not to keep all of our eggs in one basket. It was a good lesson to learn, but knowing the theory is one thing, doing it in practice is another. It took some time to successfully make the transition from outsourcing, to find new clients, to create our own products.
  2. You need the right person for the right job. Trying to do it all and be part of every process is wrong. One needs to delegate.
  3. As you grow your company, your time consumed at work must remain constant. A lesson in time management. I sometimes forget this and camp at my office with piles of paperwork. Not funny.
  4. Know who you trust and know that those persons that you trust so much can change. Corruption of thought by money happens all the time. Sadly, some will sell their integrity along the way.
  5. Know what drives you. Why do you work? When there are periods with shit strategically hitting the fan you need to remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing.
  6. No one makes it alone. Doing a great thing always implies having a great team and so respect should be given if it is deserved.
  7. Adapt your strategies to the size and age of the company. As a leader you must treat a business like you would a child. Everything from what the child eats to how much independence he has changes as he grows.

EU Startups: Did you know from the beginning what you wanted to achieve or did you have to test the market and the environment first?

Cosmin Malureanu: Before founding Ascendia I had sold my shares in another e-Learning company so I had an understanding of the market. I knew what was needed and what must be delivered. Of course market changes, so there was no clear recipe to achieve whatever targets. With our products we made pilots, tested the market and step-by-step developed them. This is a continuous process. Parents give access to technology to their kids, so why not use that technology for learning by playing, instead of just playing for fun, as we said. So came to life our first product for pre-school kids, one of the many EduTeca products to come. We produced e-Learning content for many companies and educational institutions and what we saw was that some entities were not using the purchased LMS platforms, this was happening because these platforms were too complex and hard to use. We analysed the market and came to the conclusion that we should produce our own Learning Management System, user-friendly and scalable. So we did, and now we have large multinational companies using it Today we have products for the retail e-Learning market for kids, we have our own Learning Management System, we produce and sell printed and digital textbooks for the National Ministry of Education and the public education system and last, but not least we offer e-Learning development services to big multinational companies. It is a mix of solutions and are all branded Ascendia, so I’m proud :).

EU Startups: Can you tell me how you acquired your first customer? Who was your first customer?

Cosmin Malureanu: The first customer was a big integrator company – one of the two sequoia I was mentioning earlier. We just showcased them what we can do and they took us as outsourcers. We’ve done projects with them all over the world. It started a long time ago and even if it was good business at that time it was not a good direction to follow. Outsourcing was not the way.

EU Startups: What were the motives behind orientation on the e-Learning sector?

Cosmin Malureanu: As I have a family dedicated to teaching, doing a business in this area came natural. I was attracted to technology so you get the set up. Of course, many factors drive some to start a business, but let me say that one important role was also played by Junior Achievement, in both choosing the business sector we work in, as well as choosing to make a business. I liked very much their programmes, especially the digital simulations and games they had. For as long as I can remember I always thought that digital materials should enhance the learning experience. As I said, it is a mix of elements that drove me to e-Learning.

EU Startups: What are the current trends of the e-learning sector?

Cosmin Malureanu: Two major trends I can pinpoint out there. Schools are changing, they embrace technology and e-Content step-by-step, country by country. Some are early adopters, some are slow, but they are all moving. The ministries of education started to want digital textbooks to complement the printed ones, there are many countries where tablets are already part of the classroom and with tablets e-Learning content comes, so e-Learning is finding its place on the tablets in the classroom. The other direction I see is related to companies adopting e-Learning as one of the major tools for internal training. More and more companies advance from the PDF/PowerPoint-like training to real interactive e-Learning courses for their employees.

EU Startups: With the rise of the double-sided e-learning platforms (Udemy for example) along with the growing MOOCs provided by the various Universities, what will the future e-learning look like?

Cosmin Malureanu: Education is undergoing a profound metamorphosis. Who is now the one responsible for the learning process? Parents, students, teachers, content-providers? The teaching-learning paradigm has changed. The teachers no longer have the role of suppliers of knowledge, but rather that of the guides in the learning space. The world has changed and education is changing also, to integrate all these trends. For the future I can just guess, but I’m looking forward to flexible tablet/TV screens, holograms…and, why not, devices like Neo’s “I know kung-fu” from the Matrix.

EU Startups: Could you recommend our readers one or two books that helped you during your entrepreneurial endeavors?

Cosmin Malureanu: I think that the entrepreneurial experience comes from doing or trying to do business. Of course reading in general helps, but applying what you read helps more! So, for a complete all-in-one radiography of economics as the environment of the supply and demand, where the entrepreneur has as many buttons to press as a space ship has, read “Economics” by Paul Samuelson – the newest edition if possible. It’s a huge book to read and you can’t just read it, you need to easily digest it.