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From a Belarussian bus to a Czech AI startup. With a little help from winning a lottery

May 27, 2024
13 min read

If you think the Czech Republic doesn’t attract talent, this story will convince you otherwise. It’s got a happy ending: Belarussian Artem Markevich and his Czech partner Martin Čermák are transforming call centers using AI, and by pure coincidence, their business journey has taken them all the way to Mexico. Read about their journey and success below.

Markevich begins his story with a saying: “It’s been a journey so far, and there’s still a long way to go.” However, he doesn’t remember all of his journey so fondly. Who would want to sit in a Belarussian bus for 8 hours a day, to Minsk and back?

He still recounts the conditions he experienced in a Soviet-style public transport: “It was so cold, I had to put bags on my feet. It was insane.”

He’s not exaggerating. Markevich’s story will put to rest any doubts about the Czech Republic’s ability to attract talent.

VOCALLS co-founders Artem Markevich and Martin Čermák
VOCALLS co-founders Martin Čermák and Artem Markevich

These days, Markevich sits alongside co-founder Martin Čermák in the Prague headquarters of their startup Vocalls. They have 40 employees and reported a turnover of 50 million CZK last year, which he intends to double this year. So far, 100% year-to-year growth is their rule. Their clients include Alza, ČSOB, Innogy, and Zásilkovna.

Back when the acronym “AI” was still an insider term, Vocalls set out to transform call centers by replacing voice operators with voicebots. In 2017, when they launched, their current clients thought it was like something out of a science fiction novel.

In some sense, it’s almost more far-fetched that Markevich is co-running the operation. “I listened to American music from a young age, the Western world always attracted me. In ninth grade, when I went to visit my cousin at university in Minsk, I thought to myself: “Oh my God, I’d rather die,” the eloquent Belarussian chuckles.

It was not just that Minsk is - to put it mildly - not one of the most architecturally beautiful metropolises on the planet. The practical side of things was what bothered him.

“Everything there is so utopian,” he explains. “You study something that you’ll never use. Then you sit at a job where seventy percent of the staff could be fired and nothing would change. Infuriating ineffectiveness, neverending bureaucracy. I’ve always been the complete opposite. Go go go, ship it!”

His family saw how he felt, and immediately asked if he wanted to go to the West. They didn’t even tell him where he’d be going but he still agreed right away. Only after they brought out the map. “So to the Czech Republic? I’ve never been there, I know Prague, I guess they’ve got some nice castles, it sounds ok. I’m ready,” he recalls. He still thanks them to this day.

By chance, his mother had seen an ad from someone who sent his son to the Czech Republic and was offering help with arrangements. First step: language courses. And so began the long and freezing trips to Minsk, four hours there and four hours back.

Artem Markevich
VOCALLS co-founder Artem Markevich

“The teacher was incredibly strict, I’ve never met anyone stricter in my life. Once, one of our group of five came unprepared, and she immediately went: “Okay, everyone out, goodbye.” I would get up at six in the morning, at ten I was in Minsk, class started at noon, then back to the station, and at eleven I was back home,” he recalls. “Plus I played guitar, I did breakdancing, I just never stopped. Which was great.”

The mother of all coincidences soon followed: when his family ran out of money, “My grandmother won a car in the lottery. Completely insane,” he laughs. “It was a Peugeot 206, which she sold for $12,000 and gave my family the money so that I could finish my studies.”

These stories aren’t just random, disconnected anecdotes – they all show the extent of Artem’s determination. He became independent in half a year of being in the Czech Republic, working a range of jobs to make ends meet. And then, he met his future CTO.

“We were in English class and he talked about himself, and I thought ‘Who is this guy?’ We were cut from the same cloth,” says Čermák. “I had worked a ton of part-time jobs too, and that’s why we clicked. Artem’s ambition and motivation are immense. The energy he invested into everything was out of this world. Before, as an entrepreneur, it had annoyed me when the others didn’t have so much energy. This guy had too much.”

One of Markevich’s previous part-time jobs led to the creation of Vocalls.

“I worked for maybe two months in a call center. When I met Martin, of all my ideas, automating call centers was the one I kept coming back to. He started to talk about how he had made a robot speak, and everything fell into place,” remembers Markevich.

His colleague, who is primarily responsible for the technical side of things, has his elevator pitch down: “We make conversational AI for call centers. Recently, when I explained it to a guy who was doing some work around my house, I broke it down like this – When you call Zásilkovna and you talk with a voice that tells you where your package is, that’s not a person speaking. That’s what we do.”

Professionally speaking, Vocalls are training pseudo-neural networks, scripting dialogue and a “decision-making tree,” meaning a system the voicebot follows.

“Last year, we made a fantastic video where two robots chat for five minutes about Christmas. When we sent it to our clients – banks, insurance companies, e-shops, or logistics operations – they all thought it was cool, but they didn’t really want it. They need bots that fulfill their use case,” explains Čermák.

This means the AI must go question by question and follow a pre-defined structure. According to him, AI can completely replace humans in some fields.

“For example, in a helpdesk in a company where you report that a printer isn’t working. Our voicebot can do one hundred percent of the work and people will be one hundred percent satisfied,” says Čermák. “For things like getting loans and financial advising, I think it will take a few more years. Regardless, similar technologies will partially replace human operators.”

Markevich adds that this doesn’t mean that people will lose their jobs. Especially in the Czech Republic, where the unemployment rate is very low.

“You can employ people to handle different tasks that help the company more,” says Markevich. “At the beginning, clients were skeptical that people would want to speak with voicebots, but business-wise, they were instantly captivated. Everyone who tried it saw how it worked and implemented it. In the end, we created market interest ourselves.”

Now, Vocall’s growth is thanks to their expansion abroad. They currently have clients in England, Belgium, and even Mexico.

“We leveraged our network to connect with the biggest logistics company in Mexico, they heard us out and saw huge potential for cost reduction. Now they’re one of our biggest clients,” remarks Markevich about Estafeta Mexicana.

“Luckily we already had Mexicans in our internal team, which helped a lot. Again, it was a big coincidence, kind of like your grandma winning a car. Somehow that’s how it goes for us,” he adds with a smile.

While they intend to focus on Latin America, they still believe personal connections are the most valuable currency. “We’ve got projects in the Philippines that we landed through our partner in Holland,” explains Markevich.

Today, AI is a hot buzzword, and the valuation of small companies focusing on AI is skyrocketing. However, Čermák offers words of warning: Along with the obvious advantages come some hidden pitfalls.

“In the current boom, anyone who doesn’t have AI seems obsolete, which is great for us. Those who wouldn’t have jumped on board with us in the past all of a sudden feel like they’ll miss out. This wave is pushing companies that would have been resistant to our ‘evangelization” just a few years ago,” he begins.

VOCALLS co-founder Martin Čermák
VOCALLS co-founder Martin Čermák

According to Čermák, the advent of large language models (LLMs), led by ChatGPT, is pushing people’s mindsets in the opposite direction.

“Our potential clients sometimes feel that everything is suddenly ten times simpler and are trying to do everything internally. But the reality is, it’s really not that simple,” warns Čermák. “We have to explain to them that AI is a tool that must be tamed for it to be helpful rather than harmful. We’ve already got so much work under our belts, and we have to show them the expertise we’ve accumulated over the past seven years.”

For example, their experience has shown that call center customer satisfaction is completely independent of the gender of the robot’s voice.

“Maybe with a sample of millions of calls the percentage would deviate slightly, but from our experience, it doesn’t matter whether you choose a male or female voice,” says Čermák. “It’s crucial to have the right accent and vocabulary. The same call that would take a minute in the Czech Republic takes two minutes in Italy. In some places, people just talk more, so doing everything mechanically and uniformly doesn’t work.”

Practicality prevails. Human operators take vacations, use headphones, attend trainings, and sit on chairs that break sometimes – these are all additional costs for companies. Not to mention, voicebots are available 24/7.

“Our goal is to be as effective as a human or to come as close as possible. We understand that a robot will likely never be one hundred percent empathetic, but they cost companies a third as much,” adds Čermák.

AI has made tremendous progress. But Markevich has witnessed a different, equally impressive leap forward. The Czech Republic has come a long way.

“Prague, and especially Karlín looked completely different when I arrived in 2006. It’s amazing how much it’s changed,” he says. “I don’t have the same problems as my friends back in Belarus, who are always dealing with taxes and the financial office and the IT sector there essentially coming to a halt. Here, it’s simple: Keep good accounting records and you can completely focus on your business.”

At the same time, he sees some shortcomings. “When I compare with entrepreneur friends in London or the US, everything there is much faster and simpler in startups, like with employee stock options,” he adds. “It’s great that there are initiatives in the market to make this happen. I think the Czech Republic is quite a progressive country – but there’s still so much room to grow.”

And they hope the same is true for their company.