Forbes Georgia Tells the Story of AUBGers Giorgi Mariamidze (’09) and Vako Turnava
Forbes Georgia features AUBGers Giorgi Mariamidze (’09) and Vako Turnava who established Sweeft Digital in 2018 and has since turned it into one of the fastest growing companies in Georgia and the region. Giorgi graduated from AUBG in 2009 with a degree in Business Administration and Economics and then obtained an MBA degree from Harvard Business School, while Vako studied at AUBG between 2005 and 2006 and then graduated Bocconi University with a Business Administration degree in 2010. We are republishing the article writen by Madona Gasanova for the magazine's April cover under the original title "Digital Acceleration Partner".
I met my respondent for the interview in a two-story office in the city center. I was told that the number of employees of the company is growing so fast that the current space is already too small and can no longer accommodate 400+ people. The construction of the company’s new five-story building is almost complete and Sweeft Digital will soon provide its employees with a state of the art working environment, in line with its ambition to become #1 Best Place to Work in the region. What fascinated me most about Sweeft Digital’s story of success is that it all started with three people back in 2018.
One can measure the success of Sweeft Digital in diverse ways and say that it is a successful company because they are contributing to solving a growing problem of the lack of software developers across global markets. For others, Sweeft Digital has prospered because it managed to become part of a leading European group in the digital sector. However, for Vako Turnava, CEO & Founder of Sweeft Digital, the main source of pride is being able to develop the knowledge economy in Georgia, create a talent pool for the future and export its services to the developed world – which is exactly what Turnava always dreamed of.
Turnava is a graduate of Milan’s Bocconi University, in which he enrolled after having been an outstanding student of the Central European University of Hungary. His senior thesis was about fast payments. At that time, Italy lagged Eastern European countries in terms of the flexibility of payment services. Turnava’s thesis was turned into a real-life business idea for students and was used as a business plan.
With a small bank loan and infinite motivation, nineteen year-old Turnava and his classmates started manually setting up payment terminals. A total of 300 units were introduced to the Italian market for the first time. The university thesis-based startup reached several millions of euros in turnover after two years of hard work and dedication.
Turnava saw that Italian consumers used payment terminals to work around established practices in the market and it was a signal to him that a digital wallet would solve Italian customers’ problems at scale. After exiting the fast payment terminals company, Turnava moved to San Francisco with a goal of starting a digital wallet. He spent eight months there meeting potential investors and stakeholders, to get a clear knowledge of what kind of product would work best. Having all the necessary understanding and business contacts, Turnava moved to Georgia, where in his friend’s apartment he hired three developers and started creating Sweeft Wallet for their first large customer – Iccrea Group, the largest cooperative banking group in Italy. Cooperation with Iccrea was followed by further orders and thus Sweeft Digital was born as a software development agency.
“I was accumulating know-how in order to finally bring it back to my country, and to employ as many Georgian professionals as possible,” Vako Turnava shares with Forbes Georgia.
In 2018, Sweeft Digital started offering digital services to clients. The list of its products includes custom software development, digital product design, product consulting and analysis, team augmentation and most recently digital marketing as well.
In Turnava’s words, the company has been through an extremely exciting period, with each year seeing exponential development and progress. Headquartered in Tbilisi, by 2020 Sweeft Digital already boasted representative offices in London and Milan. “The number of our employees grew rapidly every year, and we were able to give more and more Georgian developers employment opportunities in developed markets.”
Business contacts established in Italy helped the founder of Sweeft Digital to grow his company further. One of the first customers for Sweeft Digital was Ventis – a major e-commerce platform in Italy. In the words of Ventis’ management, they are collaborating with Sweeft Digital on their most strategic project – expanding their e-commerce platform to include digital wallet functionality and to have the ability to issue digital as well as physical payment cards.
As of today, Sweeft serves over fifty businesses on the international market, including key clients in Italy, England, Belgium, Israel, Spain and more. Examples of Sweeft’s clients are both established European companies and tech startups, such as Ventis, Yeppon, Spindox, Nutriheroes, Happaning, Digibank and BKN301. Sweeft Digital also works for clients in Georgia and counts among its partners leading financial
institutions such as Bank of Georgia, Liberty Bank, Procredit Bank, Halyk Bank, Tera Bank and Basis Bank, and the ecommerce app Extra.ge.
2021 was especially important for Sweeft Digital, as in September it joined the Making Science Group (MSG). MSG is a leading digital marketing and data consultancy company, listed on the BME and Euronext exchanges with offices and subsidiaries in New York, London, Paris, Milan, Madrid, Miami, Mexico, Dublin, Bogotá, Padua, Barcelona, Lisbon, Valencia, and Tbilisi. The transaction is a win-win for both companies. “By acquiring Sweeft Digital, we are strengthening our expertise in e-commerce, payment platforms, and apps, which experienced strong growth during the pandemic. Sweeft Digital’s engineering team complements and adds to our capabilities,“ said José Antonio Martínez Aguilar, CEO of Making Science. As for Sweeft Digital, being part of the Making Science family means sustainable growth, enhanced ability to provide integrated solutions to its clients and offer a truly international career to its employees with benefits such as short-term assignments to different group locations and long-term relocation to the EU.
“It was crucial for us that after the acquisition of Sweeft Digital, a Georgian company that is well-known on the European market, we would continue operating as a Georgian brand and the Georgian management would remain onboard,” says Turnava, continuing: “Prior to Making Science, a number of other companies, including those from post-Soviet countries were interested in acquiring Sweeft Digital, but
we chose to bind our path to a European company.”
Prior to transferring to the Central European University, Vako Turnava and Giorgi Mariamidze were classmates at the American University in Bulgaria. Mariamidze joined forces with Turnava as a co-founder in 2020, after graduating with an MBA degree from Harvard Business School. Prior to Sweeft Digital, Mariamidze held director level positions in two Georgian financial service companies and was a management consultant at Bain & Company. Harvard and Bain enabled Mariamidze to gain unique exposure to working with highly diverse teams on projects globally – in the US, Argentina, Hungary, Oman, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Together with his global experience, Giorgi brought a solid corporate background and financial discipline to Sweeft Digital and played a key role in the company joining the Making Science Group. He is currently a Managing Director at Sweeft Digital.
The number of employees at Sweeft Digital when Giorgi joined was less than 100, and today, it has skyrocketed to 400+. New directions have been added to the company’s service portfolio. Sweeft has launched a first of its kind Acceleration Program in Georgia, producing over 100 junior developers in one year. The Sweeft Acceleration Program is one of the key directions of the company and is focused on equipping young professionals with both the hard and the soft skills required to be a successful software engineer on
the global market.
The Sweeft Acceleration is intensive program. Each intern has his or her own individual mentor and even a language coach. A variety of both technical and soft skill training is offered, both to mentors and interns. It is the responsibility of each intern to show maximum commitment to the process and soak up the knowledge and experience provided by the program. During the selection of candidates, only basic technical knowledge is mandatory, and no work experience is required. Considering the extremely ambitious plan of the company to supply highly qualified professionals to the international market, Sweeft Digital is uncompromising in terms of quality. Last year, the company selected 60 interns out of 1,000+ applicants and expects no more than 80% to complete the program successfully and get a job offer at Sweeft Digital. It is important to note that the digital industry has become one of the fastest growing and highest paid sectors in the world and Sweeft Digital is playing a key role in creating a talent pool of highly skilled professionals for the country.
The average salary for developers is $2,500 at Sweeft, which is quite high compared to the labor market average in Georgia. However, competitive pay is only one aspect of being a member of the Sweeft Digital team. It is essential for developers to have an opportunity to grow professionally through exposure to interesting projects in different sectors. Sweeft Digital provides this exposure to its employees through facilitating a choice of projects and rotations. It is Sweeft Digital’s ambition to become #1 Best Place to Work in the region and the company puts its money where its mouth is.
Their office is equipped with gaming consoles, a tennis table, and much more to create a positive working environment. Sweeft also regularly provides opportunities to its employees to work from Spain and other locations in the EU through a group wide ambassador program. The program is designed to enable employees to grow both personally and professionally and bring back their newfound knowledge to home offices.
More is coming in terms of employee training and growth in 2022. The company has already started developing Sweeft Salesforce Academy that management assures “will be one of a kind in Georgia” and will help popularize previously less known stack on the Georgian tech market. Another innovative project in the pipeline is Sweeft for Startups, a startup co-funding platform for Sweeft Digital employees.
Until recently software development has been the company’s core focus. The acquisition of a local digital marketing agency, Elliot, in January, has enabled Sweeft Digital to further strengthen its client offering with additional services, such as pay-per-click campaigns, SEO and SEM, social media management, creative digital production, display and video advertising and analytics. The addition of digital marketing to the portfolio also provides an opportunity to realize additional synergies with Making Science – “digital marketing is one of the key expertise of MSG and their experience and toolkit will be used for development in Georgia and later expansion abroad. Making Science is a premium partner of Meta, Google, and other tech giants. This expertise will assist us in providing the Georgian digital advertising market with services in line with global standards.”
Among Sweeft Digital’s ambitious plans is to enter the US market and continue growing the talent pool for the future of Georgia. By the end of 2022, the number of employees at Sweeft Digital will reach 600. The target number for 2023 is 1,200.