XLAB’s beginnings actually reach all the way back to high school. Jure Pompe and Damjan Pipan were classmates and worked together on a project called Virtual University during high school and college, while Gregor Pipan was Damjan’s “cool older brother”. When Jure and Damjan graduated from college, Gregor was already working at Slovenia’s leading scientific research institute Jozef Stefan, but wanted to move from academia to the business world where he could solve more applicable problems. So they decided to go their own way. “Damjan and I had no commitments, we had a history of working well together, so we said, ‘Let’s start a company and see what we can do,'" explains Jure Pompe, XLAB Co-founder & MD. “The idea was to make products for the market," adds Damjan, XLAB co-founder, CTO & Head of ISL Online.
The official beginnings are linked to a tragic event that changed the world forever. XLAB was officially founded on June 20, 2001, but did not begin operations until September 1. “Ten days later, 9/11 happened and the market came to an abrupt halt. The world had stopped, much like it did due to coronavirus," Jure, XLAB Co-founder & MD explains. So the first few years were additionally challenging, and because there wasn’t much going on in the market, the team started developing their own products.
It all started from friendship
Friendship was what XLAB was all about, and it’s still at the core of it all, explains Mario Medved, a former high school classmate of Jure and Damjan, who joined XLAB soon after making a short professional detour. “It all started with a friendship. We played computer games and basketball together. Those were good times," Mario, the founder of XLAB Medic, recalls. “So friendship is one of the key elements of XLAB’s origin story - we were good friends and we had to learn to mix friendship and business. We had to separate one from the other, which was pretty hard. But we were successful, and friendship is still at the core of this company," he adds.
And the friendly vibe that is still so alive today was felt by everyone as soon as they joined the team. “My first memories are not work-related, but have to do with human relationships. Those personal relationships were something completely different from what I was used to in my previous jobs. Of course, things changed as the company grew, but that personal connection always remained the same," says Gregor Berginc, who joined the team in 2007 and is now XLAB’s CEO.
Fast forward 20 years: Did they see the success coming?
XLAB grew organically, without investors, just with hard work and determination. And today it’s a global company, employing over 120 people and working with leading companies and research institutions around the world. Did they see this success coming?
“No. No. No," Damjan is short and to the point. “Absolutely not, not even in the slightest. We had no expectations. We were trying to earn enough to pay our rents and other expenses. We were young and without obligations. The most important thing for us was to have enough money to go surfing and skiing," adds Jure.
They were driven and determined, but they weren’t preoccupied with what the future held. “No, I didn’t see it coming, but that wasn’t on my mind either. I was focused on the work, we were trying to execute the projects as best we could. We didn’t think about why or how the company would grow," says Gregor Pipan, XLAB Co-founder & Board Advisor.
“I was just a kid back then, which means I didn’t think about these things. I certainly saw great potential in the genuine relationships, but I never thought about where we were going. Although I have to say that this resistance to maintaining the status quo was something that always motivated me - this continued growth, on one side my personal and professional growth, and on the other side, more importantly, the growth of the team. In my opinion, that’s the biggest driver for the future growth - the fact that we’re growing together," says Gregor Berginc.
Well, Mario, on the other hand, didn’t see it any other way straight from the start. “Of course I saw it coming. These are very smart and hardworking people. We spent every holiday, vacations, and weekends in the office. I never had any doubts."
Mistakes were made, lessons were learned
Making mistakes is part of the process, without them there is no real success. “This journey has been long and full of challenges. I would probably change some decisions, but I have no regrets. I would love to do it all again. XLAB is a very personal story for me. I’ve put my values into the company, and everyone I’ve had the opportunity to work with has left their mark on me. So XLAB has shaped me as well. I have no regrets, some decisions could be different, but they were what they were and I am satisfied," says Jure.
Mistakes are vital for learning. And there were plenty of both. “Nobody gets everything right the first time. You learn through work and defeats, you shake off the dust and move on to new challenges," says Gregor P.
So yes, mistakes are not only inevitable, but also an important part of any growth and success. “What we do is we try to rationalize the mistakes. So that no one has to ruminate about their mistakes, but can move forward because they are part of the process. That’s why we have procedures on how to resolve them. So people can work without being afraid of making mistakes or what might happen," Damjan explains.
“This team lives for this company and for each other”
But much more than mistakes, the journey has been full of big and small wins, breakthroughs, and memorable moments that have made XLAB leadership proud. “What I’m most proud of is the fact that we kept who we are, our friendships and good relationships. And that we have managed, in a small team, to develop software that is used by the biggest corporations in the world," says Mario.
To grow but stay true to the core values is truly commendable. “Despite all the changes, I still feel that this team lives for this company and for each other. I’m proud of this constant collaboration, willingness to help each other, and continuous improvement," says Gregor B.
This kind of atmosphere, closeness, and team spirit is what resonates with people. It’s what gets colleagues so excited that they spread the word among their friends. “It makes me really proud when a job applicant says at an interview that they got a recommendation from a friend that working at XLAB is a good choice," says Damjan.
Being recognized as a great place to work and as an excellent partner is truly something to be proud of. “What I’m most proud of is definitely our work with tech giants who recognize us as an excellent technology company and the fact that we are capable of pushing the limits of technology forward," Gregor P. says.
“I’m really proud of our breakthrough in the Japanese market. That left a mark on us, defined us, not just me, but all of XLAB. It is sometimes said that XLAB is a Japanese company," says Jure. In 2005, sales of ISL Online licenses were stable, and the team was considering which market to target next. Although most European software companies are aiming to capture the U.S. market, we are all about redefining the box and taking the path less traveled by. So the team decided to seize the opportunity the EU Gateway to Japan program offers. “One of the most important elements of our breakthrough was the fact that we always acted honestly and sincerely when talking to Japanese partners. We presented ourselves as we are, and when we went out for dinner and karaoke after three years, the partnership started and continues to this day," he explains.
In the following years XLAB also went West and forged successful partnerships in the United States, too, of course. Today, XLAB delivers its services to users in more than 100 countries worldwide.
So … What’s next?
What does the leadership want for the future of XLAB?
“What I would like to see more than anything is that we really give meaning to what we do. By that I mean that each of us actually feels that what he or she is doing is of value to him or her. And by that I don’t mean financial value, but that of the immeasurable kind," says Gregor B.
“I don’t think we have a shortage of challenges. The world is big, there are many markets and they are full of challenges. The culture we have formed at XLAB is permanent, it cannot collapse overnight, so I hope we will continue this journey together for a long time," says Jure.
“To enable good people to work on excellent projects and at the same time enable company growth. And for our products and solutions to be useful to as many people as possible,” says Gregor Pipan.
“To balance work and family life as best as we can, that’s something we all need to learn. And constantly acquire knowledge. Because knowledge is what really matters. That’s what has always guided us," Mario concludes.
2021 was a special year for us. XLAB celebrated its 20th anniversary. A lot has changed since 2001. Take a trip down memory lane with us here.