'I don't think we could have started in the Valley' - Adam Somlai-Fischer, Prezi

Q&A: The Hungarian artist who founded visual presentation outfit Prezi in Budapest is on a mission to save businesses from snooze-inducing slide-based pitches.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 22 Jul 2016

Artist-turned-entrepreneur Adam Somlai-Fischer is the co-founder of cloud-based presentation outfit Prezi, which he started in Budapest in 2009 offering a 21st century interactive alternative to conventional slide based presentation software.

Thanks to its innovative and  highly visual, single canvas approach, Prezi now has over 75m users - many in the school and college sectors - who have created over 260m Prezi presentations between them.

Now he is moving into the business market with Prezi Business aimed at commercial users. MT caught up with him on a recent visit to London, where he talked about everything from the merits of Europe vs Silicon Valley, how not to wreck your business when you go looking for investment and how harnessing the power of visual memory can save us all from Power Point hell.

What’s the start-up scene like in Hungary?

It’s great now, everyone is an entrepreneur. One Hungarian start-up U-Stream, was recently bought by IBM [for $130m] and another, LogMeIn, is listed on the NYSE. It’s really cool that we have been part of helping to inspire a new generation.

But when we started in 2009 in Budapest, there was nothing. There was so much we didn’t know – Prezi began as something I built for my own use, but when someone finally said to us that they wanted to invest in it, my partners and I had to look up investment on wikipedia to find out what they meant.

What will work be like in future? How will it change from what we know today?

Definitely a lot more collaborative. Millennials don’t use one-to-many communications like email, so instead there will be many more tools to make sharing and working together much easier and to help people connect their brains more efficiently.

Work will also become much more visual, because it will be much easier to do that. Is it more powerful to tell a good story in a movie that anybody can watch? Of course it is, and you will be able to do that at work too because the tools will be so much better and more available. Visualisation will be the norm, it’s already happened to photography.  

Our new product Prezi Business is a collaboration platform for the whole team. You can create edit and even present remotely. Visual memory is really strong: one of our clients, Harris Computer in the US, saw a 49.7% increase in sales after moving to Prezi.

It can sound scary but it will be a good future – for one thing you won’t need so many meetings because information will be everywhere and much more widely shared.

Why do you call yourself principal artist?

I was an artist when I founded Prezi, it started as a product I built for my own needs. Putting my presentations on a single page rather than a series of slides just made more sense. You can zoom in and out as you like, it’s much more conversational and memorable.

Schools and colleges have been a big driver, now we’re moving into the business community. I hear it everywhere – ‘my kids showed me Prezi and I really like it’. It’s a great way in.

I was managing design and user experience for five years, but I felt that we could probably find better design managers than me, and that what I am good at is coming up with new ideas. So I transitioned to a new role and now I manage a small team in our innovation lab doing just that.

What’s your advice to start-ups looking for funding?

Don’t take the first offer that someone makes you. I have seen so many start-ups in Europe taking the wrong money that didn’t empower them. It can ruin your business.

When you take money you are really taking a business partner, so work very hard to make sure you get the skills and experience you need as well as the money.  For example, we got our first round funding because we wanted to open the office in San Francisco, so we made sure our partners had the expertise in bringing European start ups to the Valley that we needed.

By the time we took our last round [$57m led by Sprectrum Equity in 2014], we  wanted to launch our new product, Prezi Business. We are already at 75m users but the potential market is so much bigger, it’s about finding new segments and developing them.  There’s easily another decade in it.   

Do you have to be in Silicon Valley to succeed as a European tech company?

When you look at the numbers, Europe is challenged for sure. One of my favourite things about the Valley is that 60% of the people living are from overseas – it’s really a global tech community.

There a many European cities that say they want to be like the Valley, but then they give all their money to local start-ups. That’s not how to do it - when we were a tiny company in Budapest, four people only, we got an email from the city of San Francisco saying ‘Please move your business here’. That’s their mentality and it brings a lot of very smart people there.

But at the same time, I don’t think we could have started in the Valley – when we started in 2009 in Budapest it was the time of the global financial crisis and our market – visual presentations – just wasn’t on the map. So we needed Europe to get started, but the Valley to grow.

Brexit or Bremain?

There would be no Prezi without Europe. I am from a relatively poor country so I needed support from a European programme to go and study in Sweden, where I fell in love with technology, and then to become a successful artist. And when I was an artist I also spent time in the UK thanks to UK culture money.

So although I cannot influence the UK’s choice [in the EU Referendum on June 23rd], I would say that in a globalised world we all have to work together for the future. That is so much more important than anything else.

Adam Somlai-Fischer is co-founder and principal artist of Prezi. Find out more about Prezi Business here

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