Biko: the Navarra-based front-office boutique that captivated the Jakala Group

Interview with Diego Cenzano, CEO de Biko

Biko’s history is that of a company in constant adaptation, but with a fixed focus. In the last 15 years it has grown sustainably to become a reference studio in the generation of digital products for large companies and leading entities. Its commitment to quality, its unique organizational structure and method, and its award-winning projects caught the attention of Grupo Jakala, a major player that aspires to become one of the largest digital consultancies in Europe. Since its entry into Biko’s shareholding last year, the Navarre-based company’s growth has accelerated and its future prospects are unbeatable. Its CEO, Diego Cenzano, tells us all about it.

Tell us about the origins of Biko.

Biko was created in 2006. We integrated two service companies that complemented each other in some aspects and competed in others, but the integration was successful. Both grew a lot from the merger. One of the two companies that merged, New Media Publishing (NMP), was created by me at the dawn of the digital revolution, when I was finishing college.

What were those early days like when the Internet and dotcom were still in their infancy?

In 1996, the Internet was not yet what it is today. It was mostly used in the university environment to connect colleges, but there was already a proliferation of individual users connecting from home. The partners who created the company, including myself, knew the university environment and we were involved with a small consulting firm that worked on projects for the media. Then we went to the United States to a congress on the online world and it became clear to us that this was the future. At that time the web was still unknown, it was something incipient and we had to explain it in every meeting, but we thought it was worth trying.

That was the origin, but subsequently we have experienced a lot of changes. The web has been evolving and in our trajectory we have witnessed the dotcom boom with its corresponding crisis, the comeback, the creation of social networks, the arrival of smartphones… All these disruptions have changed the Internet in a decisive way. But there is also an idealistic, almost romantic side that was present at the beginning and has now been lost. The stakes are now much higher, the Internet has become big business, and people are willing to risk much less than they used to.

When we were reviewing Biko's trajectory, we were surprised that you were pioneers in aspects in which there was hardly any literature. For example, you were the first to implement agile as an organizational formula and it is striking considering that you were young and did not have much experience in other companies. Where did all that know-how come from?

It is true that when we were born we started operating in a field where there was very little literature and very few references. In fact, when we started, access to information was much more limited than it is today. But if there was one thing we knew for sure, it was that we had to do things in a different way than the standard .

The issue of agile management, for example, arose by chance. It did not start from a cultural conviction, but one day a member of the team planted the seed, we saw the potential and decided to go for it. Lean models have been transferred to startups and there are many people who perceive it as a methodology. But we don’t see it as a methodology, but as a cultural aspect, a vector of the company’s own operation. It affects not only how we relate to customers or how we provide our services, but even how we organize ourselves internally.

We have created our own structure, with clear operating rules, and defined the relationship between people, teamwork, management, and reduced hierarchies. What we have always sought was to create a different work model that would attract people who wanted to work in a more flexible and autonomous way and that, in addition, we would be perceived by the market as a different, innovative agent that would always bring freshness and dynamism to the projects.

How does this way of organizing yourselves materialize in your projects or in the services you offer to clients?

In the end, we try to combine two things. On the one hand, we consider ourselves – and we want people to perceive us as such – as a company that is innovative in the way it works and always tries to be at the forefront of the technological state of the art. But also, and this is the second revolutionary aspect, many of us have been working together for 15 or 20 years. Therefore, we can combine the rigor and guarantees of very solvent people and a seniority that has been in the sector for a long time, with the fact that we continue to be fresh and dynamic.

We believe that this is a winning combination and, in fact, today it is so, to the point that it has helped us to turn around certain difficulties and limitations that we suffered in the past. First, because we are not a large company, because in the end we are 80 people and sometimes we compete with companies that have thousands of employees. And then because our headquarters are still – and our idea is that, being from here, it will remain so – in Navarra. But what used to be a problem because we were peripheral and many large companies preferred to have more local suppliers, in Madrid, in Barcelona, where the large clients of our type of projects in this country are located, is now an advantage.

Why is it an advantage that you operate from Navarra?

Because people have become accustomed to and have perceived that it is not a problem to work with peripheral suppliers thanks to remote work technologies. And it also offer great advantages. We have a much more stable workforce and we are a pole of attraction for the great talent in the area. Meanwhile, in Madrid, service companies have a 25% annual turnover rate, which means that some people start a project and others finish it, with the problems that this generates for the clients themselves and for delivery. We are turning what used to be a problem into a feature that differentiates us. Today it is an advantage, a value proposition and sales argument.

And in your case, how do you work on attracting and retaining talent?

We have less than 10% annual turnover. But we also have no problems with recruitment, which is a generalized difficulty in our sector that affects all. In our case, we have managed to create a brand and, in addition, we have launched a training school in software development and digital products. We have recently incorporated personnel from Valencia, Madrid, Barcelona and the Basque Country. We want to keep the core here, but with our position in the market and teleworking we can attract people from other communities.

And in the case of talent retention, I think we manage to meet people’s expectations when they come here. We are very honest in explaining to people what they are going to find and what they are going to experience so that they can evaluate whether it is the right place for them. This is the great limitation of service companies like ours today. Not so much capturing customer business, because I would say that is not so complicated nowadays, but incorporating talent and dedicating enough time to it so that it can be properly integrated when it comes to making companies grow and scale.

You define yourselves as a hyper-specialized boutique. But in what, exactly?

Mainly in two things. We build digital projects, in a specific way and a differential philosophy and customer orientation. We cover the entire value cycle, from the previous research and analysis of what should be the value proposition and customer experience to the technical construction of that experience. We work for banks, insurance companies, large hotel chains, museums… In projects such as mobile banking or ecommerce, in which we strive to understand customers, what they buy and why they buy and what difficulties they encounter. The goal is to define a scenario for improvement so that the customer feels more satisfied and finds it easier to purchase a product or service.

On the more purely technical side, what we do is generate the visualization layer, what is called the front office. That is our specialization and that is where we want to be the best. That is why, when a project of this kind arises, we are able to explain very clearly how we work and what the keys to our proposal are, which are very convincing. And when we get projects that are not exactly this, digital or technological projects that do not fit with our proposal, we thank them and tell them that we are not dedicated to it. There are more and more things that we don’t do in the digital world and we discard practically nine out of ten requests because we consider that they don’t fit with our value proposition.

E-commerce, mobile banking... What other specific projects could you mention?

We also work a lot with large information sites, such as museums or digital media with modern content management systems. We work with large volumes of information and package them in an attractive way to offer them to users through digital assets, such as a website or a mobile application, for example. There we have clients such as major museums or Disney, as we work for National Geographic and we manage ten large sites that the platform has in different countries to serve informative content in an attractive way. These are projects in which we usually get involved because we have a discourse and a way of making differential, and at the same time very adapted to what a large client or a digital site needs today.

And what flagship projects would you highlight over these 20 years?

One of the most relevant has been ‘Rethinking Guernica’, a project that we developed and that is still alive, because we have made some evolutions. It deserved a Webby, what they call the Oscars of the Internet. It is a very unique, very creative and technically complex project in which we have explained and shown a work like Guernica and a lot of information associated with it, with the artpiece itself and its historical moment. It was a completely unique collaboration with the Reina Sofia Museum.

There are other projects, not so romantic and creative, that I would also highlight. We are working for top financial institutions building their digital platforms. We have been working for years with Openbank, from the Santander Group, and we have set up the entire web platform for the eleven countries in which they operate. It is not an ordinary website, but a system for building pages while maintaining a coherent narrative and visual coherence. In addition, right now we are working in various projects for El Corte Inglés, which is, I would say, the main e-commerce in Spain along with Inditex, helping them to improve their customer experience and modernize their technology to meet the sales process.

At the end of last year, the multinational Jakala got interested in Biko and became a majority shareholder. Could you explain to us the ins and outs of the transaction?

Jakala is a group of Italian origin, which is invested by a large French fund whose goal is to create the leading European consultancy in MarTech, the technologies related to the world of marketing and digital marketing. In Italy it has a strong position. They work for large companies and luxury brands. Progressively they started to expand in Europe and last year they acquired a Spanish company, Bmind. They planned a growth strategy to consolidate in Iberia through their subsidiary and were looking to complement the services of both Italy and Madrid.

They were interested in Biko because we are a very specialized company, with a lot of experience, with the potential to work on large projects, and that is committed to doing things well and has sought sustained growth that preserves quality.

We have capabilities that they do not have, and when they identified the complementarity, they formulated their intention to grow in Iberia. Our impression was that joining a group like them allowed us to consolidate the project and give it a path independent of me, because historically it had been a very personal project. Besides, they are professionals with whom we have many things in common, people who understand very well what Biko is. In the end, we agreed on the details and they became shareholders, buying the majority in June.

How have these first months of the joint march gone? Has Biko's strategy changed with the arrival of Jakala?

So far, the feeling has been very good. In addition, we have closed the best year in the history of Biko, with nearly 5 million in turnover and gross margins above 25%, very remarkable data in the sector in which we operate. Moreover, the outlook for the coming year is even better. We have started to work with two very significant new clients, a hotel chain and a major retail player, which will give us a lot of room for growth.

In terms of strategy, it does change, in the sense that joining the group means that growth levels are accelerating. We are becoming a business unit within Jakala and we can promote synergies with the rest of the companies and propose integral and global projects. In that sense, we can be more relevant for some clients and that changes the perspective: although we continue to focus on being experts in what we do, we have to broaden our view and look at other things that are done in the group to convey a richer, more diverse and broader discourse to our clients.

You are a clear case of success within the ICT sector in Navarra, but not the only one. What picture would you draw of the industry in which you operate?

The ICT sector in Navarra is in a good moment due to the dynamics of the digital sector itself, which, in general, has had several good years. The pandemic has accelerated the course of things and it is a very good moment, although not everyone is taking advantage of it in the same way. Particularly, in Navarra, a community of 650,000 inhabitants, there are about fifteen companies that have achieved great relevance in their niche specialization, managing to project themselves abroad. In addition, I have the feeling that there are small jewels that have a lot of potential, such as startups that are developing specific software products.

We have limitations, at the level of talent generation and attraction, if we want to create very large players, but not so much if we focus on generating niche companies such as, for example, software products.

We have many local capabilities that are not fully known, especially by multinationals based in Navarra, which sometimes tend to rely on companies from other geographical locations. We lack a bit of visibility and we need to express and visualize more clearly our capabilities as companies.

What specific projects would you highlight?

Here you can find  consolidated firms like CYC, or emerging ones like DasNano or Veridas, which work in Artificial Intelligence, facial recognition and security and have a great pull. Among the small companies, we have a very close relationship with 540, which organizes a software crafters event, a national reference. Then there are small product companies, such as Nucap, which in the world of air quality and sensors has achieved an international projection and a very great potential… I am giving examples of companies of very different sizes because there is quite a lot of diversity, but I sincerely believe that this diversity is where there is a lot of potential.

What are the sector's greatest strengths and what is still to be done?

I think there is a great technical and innovative capacity. Perhaps management lacks a bit of ambition. But there is a lot of capacity, a lot of experience, because there are very solid and solvent companies, which have always been characterized by wanting to do things well and have very high quality standards.

Moreover, in certain niches of activity we have an important economic development, for example in the industrial field. There is an interesting potential that still has a long way to go, such as connecting Navarra’s technological, digital and IT sector with the agricultural, automotive and renewable energy industries. Perhaps the pending duty is to focus, specialize and, at the same time, act as a glue to connect technology with key decision makers. The digital world has become a strategic and key part of the business of many companies. Today it is already essential and we have to make a special effort to transmit it.

And what do you think of the institutional support, the public-private collaboration and the initiatives that are being promoted to structure the sector in Navarre?

There are many initiatives underway, sometimes too many. There is political will and perhaps what is lacking is to work on the connection between local companies and institutional projects, which are mainly promoted by the Administration.

As regards the structuring of the sector, there is a lot of movement. For example, Atana, the ICT cluster, in which consulting companies have recently been integrated and new associates have joined. They are playing an interesting role and already have more than 60 associated companies, including the most relevant players. I think this is the way forward.

We also have strong ties with Cein, where I participate as a mentor in entrepreneurship projects, and with Fundación Industrial Navarra, where we have actively collaborated in sectoral roundtables, training and activities. We also have a close relationship with the Navarra Employment Service, which supports us in our training school.

In short, I think there is enough institutional support and there are interesting mechanisms that help to generate activity. What we have to do is to try to take them to another level, to strengthen the relationship between the sector itself and to make communication with the institutions deeper and more fluid.

One of the differential aspects of Navarra at a business level is the wide presence of multinationals in the territory. Although your integration model is unique, the arrival of Jakala in your shareholding is one of the most recent examples of this reality. Why do you think this is?

Firstly, the weight of industrial GDP is proportionally higher than that of any other community. In this area there are many concentration processes, mergers, group integrations…, which is normally more common in the industrial field than in other areas, such as services.

On the other hand, the presence of multinationals is explained by the fact that there are many companies that have done very well. They work well here, there is a great culture of commitment to quality and this generates interest from abroad. In the field of services there are not so emblematic companies, but there have also been important acquisitions, as in the case of Open Bravo or Conasa itself.

I believe that there is a vision that Navarra is a place where people, and companies in general, take great care of the way of doing things and human capital. And that is interesting and explains the potential to attract multinationals.

Diego Cenzano
CEO at Biko