When Eugene Brcic Jones packed his family, Australian wife Michelle and toddler daughters Eden and Emerson on an adventure to Croatia over two years ago, the plan was to give Croatian life a trial period and return to their Sydney home richer for the experience if things go sour.
The deadline for their little experiment recently expired, and we caught up with the Jones’ to see if they were digging in their heels or considering retreating back to Australian shores. In the meantime, we found that Eugene has been globetrotting as the CEO of a hotel app start-up called RoomOrders and founded Venatus Jones d.o.o, a booming consulting group for small and medium-sized businesses, which is now being run by members of diaspora, just like himself. Given that RoomOrders is featured in leading hotel brands from Sydney to Boston, Las Vegas and Kathmandu to Zagreb, and Venatus Jones is becoming a motor for changing business mindsets, we figured it’s likely they will be sticking around for the time being.
A few days ago I caught up with Eugene Brcic Jones for an interview to follow up on his and his young family’s move to Croatia.
It’s been just over two years since you moved your family from Sydney, Australia, to live in Zagreb, Croatia. I recall you telling me before you left Australia that you will “give it three years” to see if this return to your Croatian homeland will work for you and your young family. Has it?
Interestingly Michelle and I had this same conversation last night. It’s the million-dollar question in our lives and comes up every now and then – often when I’m on the back foot trying to sugar-coat something typically bad in Croatia. Is this it? Have we succeeded, are we stuck here now, for good? I guess while we are agreed, our life here is fun, the girls are happy and healthy, we’ve got a bunch of really good friends and it’s definitely worthwhile continuing, at the same time, we have become rather spoilt and have agreed to keep the Croatia or Australia, or even somewhere else, question alive for as long as we can. I think we have come to some sort of secret pact that keeping this question perennially open will be key to keeping ourselves committed to making our lives better every day wherever we are. For now, it’s a conditional yes to Croatia, and it seems it will remain working for us in the foreseeable future.
Would you generally describe your first couple of months of returning with your family to live in Croatia as a “soft landing”?
No, I would describe it as pretty bumpy, particularly in the first year or year-and-a-half. Croatia is not exactly Switzerland; the economy is in a funk and its transition from a corrupt socialist regime to a normal functioning free-market society is going much slower than anticipated. Politically the old structures and social elite still hold strong sway and promised reforms are just rhetoric for election time. There is no real agent of change, many potential drivers of change are emigrating and while disappointingly, diaspora is still seen in the media and by top brass as hard-line nationalists and extremists, so our influence or lobbying is not very effective.
For a soft landing you need to quickly find sustainable work and afford the luxuries you indulged in Australia. I wouldn’t advise moving here just for the sake of it, you can’t eat Croatian flags and songs, the beautiful landscape and climate. You really got to be able to create a much better life and it’s important to have a good job or business – or investments back home doing all the work for you.
I experienced disappointments professionally at the start and it brought on doubts and anxiety. We were enjoying Croatia immensely, but on the other hand, we were burning cash, our window was closing, and I started developing panic attacks in the middle of the night.
Realising that work may not be the best solution, I started my own business, Venatus Jones, and it wasn’t until the business started growing, when I started getting clients happy to pay for my service, that I started to breathe again. Things got better by the day. The strain around my chest loosened, my mood became more optimistic and Croatia became more enjoyable.
I don’t know if it’s an elixir for everybody but opening my own business from the start would have softened my landing considerably.
What has been the biggest pleasant surprise about living in Croatia today?
The biggest pleasant surprise is how much Croatia has changed in the last two years. It’s probably to be expected, all the countries that joined the EU needed time to feel the dividends of entry. Markets have opened, businesses have gotten funding, the country is emerging from its shell. Perhaps the top-ranking visitors to the country best reflects the progress and diversity, previously the top tourists were Germans, Italians and Hungarians, now it’s Americans, South Koreans and Chinese. I find the variety of people visiting the country creates a vibe, alters the ambience. If you stroll through Tkalciceva 10 years ago you would only see cafes and cevape joints, now you have Greek, Lebanese, Sri Lankan, Korean, Turkish, Italian and Mexican restaurants. You have pubs and hostels, it’s a hotbed of activity and culture.
I understand you have been keeping yourself very busy lately, you have more than one business?
Well, I started Venatus Jones as a consulting or coaching agency, helping micro, small and medium businesses grow to the next level. Over a year ago, I developed a 40-week program and now I have three associates, also from diaspora, Gerhard Saric (Germany), Aleksandra Papac (Australia) and Mark Mocnaj (Canada), helping me develop the business toward becoming the indisputable champion of the little business man in Croatia.
Our mission is to make consulting accessible to everyone, no matter how shallow their pocket. Sure, it means we are the most affordable business coaches around, but we are also the only ones with over 100 years combined Western experience and a passion to help everyone who needs our help.
This open approach led me to some very interesting clients and new opportunities including equity or partnership in businesses. My first client was the Bagatin Clinic, led by extremely talented Ognjen Bagatin, who is winning international awards and virtually single-handedly putting Croatia on the global medical tourism map. Then I helped the Museum of Illusions become the fastest growing museum chain in the world. But with RoomOrders, cooperation ultimately led to a stake in the company and assuming the role of CEO.
The Venatus Jones model is now leading to more and more opportunities for equity stakes, while our ability to customise our assistance has opened a new relationship with Croatia’s leading research institute, Rudjer Boskovic, which is led by the amazing mind of Australian David Smith.
We could say that Michelle is the trailing spouse in your family. What challenges does that present for her personally as returning expats?
Michelle is helping me keep papers and she has her hands full making sure our books are run smoothly. We often travel together on business and have tried to bring the girls with us to get them to understand the virtues of work early on in life. Michelle seems to have bonded closely with mothers from school and made her own friends, mostly expats or friends of expats. It’s tough sometimes to be away from family, parents and two brothers, but I think they communicate more than when they are in the same country. We also try to holiday in Australia or have her family visit us as much as possible.
Given that you have had a successful life in Australia what have been the best experiences in your path to forge a satisfying life in Croatia during the past two-and-a-half years?
The best experiences have been ones shared with family and friends. I don’t think there is a weekend that goes by that we do not catch up with several friends. In fact, it would be extremely rare that we don’t catch up during the week too. For me personally, a day does not go by that I do not muck around with friends at least on the phone. It’s a lot more social here and you feel like you are a part of other people’s lives, it’s a really big comfort. Everybody knows when you are dealing with something, feeling mellow and need cheering up. And if you don’t need cheering up, then you will be the target of jokes, to cheer everybody else up.
What has been the most frustrating part of beginning a new life in Croatia as a family?
The most frustrating was the start, struggling to become financially secure, everything gets on your nerves if you don’t have enough money. However, having been to doctors, hospitals, government institutions, etc we can honestly say we have had exceptionally positive experiences. Michelle is probably frustrated that learning Croatian is so hard and that my mum and dad love to come by with a magnifying glass to look for specks of dust or find out if the kids are being fed enough cooked meals. She’s over concepts like ‘propuh’ (draught) and curing everything with ‘rakija’ (brandy), but generally she finds humour in it all.
How have your Australian wife and your Australian-born children managed the transition of living in a different culture with a different language, they needed to learn? Are there any formal Croatian language classes for people from a different language background coming to live in Croatia, such as Australia has for migrants?
Croatia doesn’t really care about diaspora or returnees. They can say all they want, but if you turn learning Croatian into a business, rather than a free service of national interest, then we call bullshit. The kids initially resisted learning Croatian and we put them in an English-speaking program. Nowadays their resistance is fading and they are picking it up in leaps and bounds, scaring Michelle into thinking she will never know what they are up to. I think Michelle will cave soon; a woman can live on Netflix alone only for so long. She isn’t making animal noises to the butcher anymore and is starting to show she knows more than we suspected too. She gives me a funny look sometimes, like I’m in big trouble, there is no way she doesn’t understand what I just said.
Luckily the language barrier in Croatia is not so high, there are truckloads of expats moving to Croatia every day. There is so much English on the main square in Zagreb, and few younger people are not fluent speakers.
What are your children’s general impressions of life in Croatia having spent a majority of their young lives in a different country, in a different community culture?
The girls are happy, it is visible in their eyes and lively antics. They have friends and are a notable part of our community. The pizza guy Nermin saves lollypops for them, the bread shop knows they want chocolate krafne (doughnuts) and their conversations with the hairdresser downstairs are epic. It is a giant relief to be in such a safe country, where you are integrated in an environment inhabited by humans with feelings, a soul, a voice. People notice when you have gone away and are keen to know where you have been, what it was like and where you are going next. Sure, a lot of it is gossip, but people generally care once you become part of the scenery of their lives.
How difficult or easy was the visa and residency process for your wife and children?
That wasn’t so easy for Michelle. I think we are probably breaching some bureaucracy even now. We should probably go check, it’s been a while, she probably has to go sign some forms and buy some stamps. The kids were no problem. They got documents through me and we have been in and out of stitches, vaccinations, dentists and the usual kids growing pains without any issues. Michelle has gotten healthcare and social welfare through the company, so it’s not as difficult as the horror stories say.
What if anything do you, at this time, miss the most about life in Australia?
At this time, when it’s freezing outside, I miss the warmth. The winter lasts so long here. Even though most people go skiing, it’s fleeting, there is still a good five or six months of cold weather. It forces your activities indoors and limits the fun, although Advent has a nice, warm and tingly feel. Christmas is beautiful especially if snow falls, but the rest is boring, cold.
Once upon a time there were lots of things that are common in Australia that you couldn’t get in Croatia, like Japanese food or Vegemite. But nowadays there is not much to miss apart from some dear people and memories of youth.
Finding a job as a returning expat – how easy or difficult is it in Croatia?
Hard. Very hard. And that’s not the problem. The problem is if you do manage to get a job, it’s likely to be low paying, or not enough to afford a comfortable or eventful lifestyle. Of course, if you are a professional, maybe in management, banking and finance, IT or similar discipline, then you have all the leading global players and jobs with them may be a lot easier to find and they are likely to be well paying. Michelle and I often comment how Croatia seems a lot like Australia in the 80s, it’s a good time to start your own business, especially tradies and people who can work online.
What is the life of an entrepreneur like in Croatia?
For me personally, it is an amazing buzz, even though Croatia has a warped view of entrepreneurs. Previously it was hard to make it if you were not part of the party, so now when people see wealthy people, they think they are corrupt and made it because of their network, family or other ties to people in power. People expect money to come overnight and do not realise it takes years and years to build businesses and one false move, or even bad luck, could make it all flop overnight.
But as they say, one man’s loss is another man’s gain. And that’s what I’ve modelled Venatus Jones on, taking advantage of all the opportunities. All the complaining, all the laziness and scepticism, the tough luck stories and reluctance to have a go is music to my ears. It just leaves a lot more opportunity for those of us who want to work hard. There is definitely an enormous potential in Croatia, there is so much someone with experience from abroad can do to capitalise on their knowledge. The greatest asset I think is our work ethic and know-how. We know how the free market system works. We know competition is stiff and only the toughest survive, so we hustle, we adapt, we fight to get what we want. We know there are no free meals and you can have anything you want, only if you work had to claim it.
Is that what you teach Croatian companies?
Well, sort of. Usually Croatian companies that need our help have the resourcefulness and drive, otherwise they would not be alive in the market. What they mostly lack is strategy and planning, they don’t have a mentality of goal-setting, persistent improvement. We usually help them think in cycles and plan growth in a structured manner, expansion through setting targets, building capabilities and executing professionally. Most of it is coaching, helping companies perform better, identify weaknesses and improve results in a repetitive way.
I understand you see diaspora as a pool for employees. Are you hiring?
At this point, the pillars of Venatus Jones are colleagues from diaspora because they have a wealth of unique experiences to share and can be onboarded quickly and seamlessly. They can talk the talk and walk the walk. Most of us from diaspora have parents who have businesses or worked for Croatians with businesses and these experiences are invaluable. Venaus Jones is in expansion and anticipates a huge labour shortage mid next year.
One of our ultimate goals is to become a bridge for diaspora to move to Croatia and to that end we are looking for an investor (high financial and social return) from diaspora to help make our wish come alive: To provide diaspora a job and roof over their head on the first Monday they arrive.
The idea is to interview via teleconference and offer jobs as soon as future employees arrive, so they have an immediate source of funding and so they have a place to stay, straight from the airport to their “half-way” house. We would offer a competitive salary and free or low housing for three months, so employees can get on their feet and allow others to enjoy the same privilege.
Each employee will manage their own cluster of clients and effectively have the opportunity to run their own business.
The need for business consulting/coaching is extremely high and we need the right staff, culture and work ethic to impact huge social change, to champion Croatia’s businessmen and women.
By all means, spread the word. Yes. We are hiring and our focus is on diaspora.
We are launching Venatus Jones Business Breakfasts on Wednesday 11 Dec. between 08:15 – 08:45 at Forum Zagreb in Green and Gold building on Radnicka 50. Free entry.
And the foreseeable future for you and your family? Croatia or Australia?
Given the targets we have set and current momentum, I think it’s safe to say we will be hanging around a bit longer.
Interview by Ina Vukic