Babson Magazine

Winter 2018

To Follow a Dream

They fell in love in their native Slovenia, two young dreamers who liked to talk of their future plans. Now living half a world away, the Mikeks have built that future: a home in Boston, two young children, and a successful tech business, Celtra, that they co-founded. Running a company with your spouse makes for a full, hectic life, but Miha, MBA’06, and Maja, MBA’07, wouldn’t want it any other way.

Miha and Maja Mikek
Miha (left) and Maja Mikek, co-founders of Celtra, stroll through the Public Garden in Boston.

Growing up, Maja Mikek, MBA’07, was a dreamer. As a teen in her native Slovenia, she hung a world map on her bedroom wall and tagged the many places she hoped to visit with a marker. “I was curious always,” she says.

Her younger sister, Tina, often wanted to spend the night in Maja’s room. Maja would let her come in, but only on one condition, that the pair would spend time discussing their plans for the future. So Tina would drag her mattress into the room, and night after night, the sisters talked of ideas and aspirations, of the ventures they would start, of how they would change the world. Maja loved these talks, and so did Tina, even if she was pushed into them by her older sister.

Then at the age of 15, Maja met someone with a similar spirit at her high school. They bonded over a multitude of sports, from skiing to hiking to roller blading, but they also shared something deeper. “What really brought us together was that we liked to dream together,” Maja says. “He was the best person to dream with.”

That person was Mihael Mikek, MBA’06. The two became high school sweethearts and then attended the same college, the University of Ljubljana, located in Slovenia’s charming capital. In each other, they found a partner for adventure, romance, and turning dreams into reality. “Our values, about life and what is worth fighting for, about what is right and wrong, about adventure and dreaming big, that stuff is very much aligned,” says Mihael, who goes by Miha.

Leaving Slovenia, Maja and Miha set off to find what life had in store for them. They came to Babson, settled in Boston, and started a family, not to mention a successful business. That business, Celtra, offers a creative management platform for digital advertising. Miha serves as the company’s CEO and Maja as its CFO. With prescient timing, Celtra was launched in the early days of smartphones and since then has ridden a wave of growth. Two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies, according to Celtra, use mobile ads created with its platform. Last year, Celtra’s platform delivered more than 90 billion ads to mobile internet and apps users.

As they build their business, as well as raise two small children, the Mikeks dash through days that are filled to the brim. But for the two dreamers from a small country, who were hungry to one day “live our own movie,” as Miha puts it, this chock-full life is what they were seeking. “It’s about freedom, independence, doing things on our own terms,” Miha says. “It’s exactly how we wanted to live our lives.”

Spouse and Co-Worker

Celtra’s Boston headquarters is located on Boylston Street, on the 11th floor of a Copley Square office building. Looking out on Back Bay and the Charles River beyond, the office’s windows offer a panoramic view of the couple’s adopted hometown, from Kenmore Square’s Citgo sign to the Zakim Bridge.

On a Monday afternoon at 12:30, Miha darts out of his office, which is simply decorated save for a quote about business strategy and vision written large on the wall. As he makes a beeline for the conference room, he passes Maja’s office, which sits next to his and is filled with pictures of family and friends, and taps on the glass. It’s time for a weekly management meeting, in which the Boston office checks in with Celtra locations around the world. The company has 180-plus employees, with about 70, the bulk of them engineers, stationed in its largest office in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Celtra also has locations in London, New York, San Francisco, Sydney, and Singapore.

In the conference room, Miha and Maja sit directly across from each other. Miha leads the meeting, while Maja chimes in when needed. They speak fast and to the point as leaders from various Celtra offices appear on a large video screen on the wall. “Do we have London on?” asks Miha, who proceeds to run through the numerous deals that Celtra is lining up with large companies looking to improve the effectiveness of their mobile advertising. “Let’s push these things forward,” Miha says.

In Celtra's Boston location, Maja and Miha Mikek have adjoining offices.

In Celtra’s Boston location, Maja and Miha Mikek have adjoining offices.

Among those sitting in the meeting is Dekyi Lhaze, vice president and controller of Celtra. During her five years at the company, Lhaze has had ample time to witness the Mikeks interacting with each other. For some, the idea of starting a business with a spouse, of having the personal and professional so closely intertwined, would make the challenges of entrepreneurship even more complicated. But Lhaze sees the Mikeks as a steady hand who set a good example for their employees. “They have a very honest relationship,” Lhaze says. “They tell us if we’ve messed up, and they will tell each other if they’ve messed up, even in front of others. It doesn’t matter to them if we’re listening. They are true and honest. They feed off of each other.”

Rodney Alvarez, Celtra’s vice president of talent management, admits to having been curious, and a little concerned, about the dynamics of working for a married couple when he started at the company two years ago. Those concerns proved unfounded. “They are great together,” says Alvarez. “They are a well-synced team. They don’t bring any drama.”

Miha acknowledges that starting a business with a spouse blurs the line between work and home, but that doesn’t bother him. He enjoys sharing his workday with Maja and encourages other entrepreneurial couples to do the same. “This is our life,” he says. “There is no work-life balance. An important part of life is work, another is family. You can’t separate these things. I cannot imagine it otherwise.” In the mornings, Maja and Miha walk to work from their home in the nearby Boston neighborhood of Beacon Hill, and they often bring their children, 6-year-old Sofia and 3-year-old Lev, into the office before school starts. In the evenings, the whole family spends time together, and once the children are asleep, the Mikeks work on the business some more, with night-owl Miha staying up till 2 or 3 a.m.

In the office, the couple bring complementary skill sets. “We are very different in terms of our strengths,” says Miha. Proficient at organizing and connecting with people, Maja focuses on creating a positive culture in the company and tries to get to know every employee. “She takes a holistic look at people,” says Megan St. Ledger, Celtra’s senior legal counsel. “She is interested in people, and I think that is unusual in that role.” Indeed, the CFO has long talked of becoming a social worker one day. “A lot of CFOs look at a company through raw numbers,” Maja says. “I look at it through the people we have.”

Maja and Miha Mikek meet via video conference call

Every Monday, Maja and Miha Mikek meet via video conference call with the company’s multiple locations around the world.

Miha, on the other hand, focuses on pushing Celtra forward. “He demands a lot, challenges everything, and pushes to the limits, many times wanting the impossible,” says Gregor Smrekar, Celtra’s COO. “But then it is OK because he is even harder on himself, and because the goal is big and worthy.” A voracious learner, Miha strives to understand where the ad tech industry is headed and to visualize Celtra’s place in it, says Maja. He always is reading and reaching out to people who can provide insight. He feels no need to be the most knowledgeable person in the room. “He loves to surround himself with smarter people,” says Maja. “He is not ashamed to be the underdog.”

It Felt Right

Miha’s curiosity and interest in tech are ultimately what led the couple to start Celtra in the first place. Mobile phones were set to change the world, and Miha wanted to be part of that. He long has had a knack for identifying trends and business opportunities. In his late teens, during the early days of the internet in Slovenia, he bought 100 domain names and in the ensuing years sold them for a good profit. As a college student, Miha saw how golf had been growing in popularity since Slovenia’s independence brought an increasing Western influence to the country, so he borrowed money from his father and started a golf academy. Miha hired a few professional golfers as instructors and made money offering classes. “There was a certain class of Slovenians hungry for Western things,” Miha says.

In the years prior to coming to Babson, he ran his family’s chemical trading company, becoming CEO after his father died unexpectedly from cancer. Miha admits he wasn’t prepared to be thrust into that position. Lots of on-the-job learning ensued. “I had no clue about that business whatsoever,” he says. “It wasn’t the easiest three years of my life.”

Miha started at Babson in 2005, just after selling the family enterprise to a large public company. He saw the MBA program as a chance to reset his career. At the age of 29, he already had experienced much in the business world, but he was eager for what was next. Maja, the head of marketing at a Slovenian manufacturer of gaming devices, soon followed him to Babson. She was then 26, and she found herself inspired by the College’s can-do, entrepreneurial spirit.

Miha and Maja Mikek walk along Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue

Leaving work for the day, Miha and Maja Mikek walk along Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue toward their home in Beacon Hill.

When the couple came to Babson, the iPhone had yet to be introduced, but Miha already was thinking about the potential of the mobile industry. “I just thought mobile would be a big and super interesting market,” he says. “Phones and networks were getting more and more advanced every year.” Celtra started as a school project and was launched in 2006, though at first the venture’s focus was on offering mobile services such as voice greetings and entertainment content that could be shared peer to peer. But with the iPhone’s arrival in 2007, the couple retooled to center on digital advertising. “Mobile was about to become the most important internet platform,” Miha says. “That changed everything.”

After graduation, the pair settled in the Boston area, which wasn’t the initial plan. “We just thought we were here for school and would be back in Europe in a year or two,” says Miha. But the couple was charmed by Boston. They liked its business environment, its institutions and energy and people. “Boston is great,” says Miha. “It’s full of people with strong opinions who want to make change.” Deciding to stay, Miha and Maja at first worked out of their loft in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before moving the company’s offices to the Cambridge Innovation Center in 2008 and eventually to Boston in 2014.

The company had only three employees in its early years: the Mikeks (who married in 2008) and their co-founder, Matevz Klanjsek, who serves as Celtra’s chief product officer. Ups and downs came and went. “There were days when you wondered whether it would work out, but other days, you felt like you could fly,” says Miha. “Everyone I know who is an entrepreneur, they feel the same.” Young and willing to take a risk, the couple embraced the uncertainty. “It felt right,” Maja says. “If we had to do this now with two kids, I would be way more careful.”

With Klanjsek living in another city, the Mikeks typically were left to themselves. Maja wondered how all that time together, not to mention the stress and intensity of building a business, would affect their relationship. “I never thought it would turn out so productive and joyful,” she says. “It bettered our relationship. We were in it together. The stress, it brought us closer and closer. I definitely think it did a lot of good for us.” Given the challenges they were up against, they didn’t waste time on petty arguments. “It was just the two of us,” Maja says.

The Best Years

Miha and Maja Mikek with their children

Miha and Maja Mikek with their children, Lev (with Maja) and Sofia (right), at the Frog Pond ice rink in Boston Common.

Celtra took time to find its footing. In 2009, the company received $1.2 million in seed funding, but Maja says Celtra didn’t truly take off until the fourth quarter of 2010, when it experienced a surge in revenue. “It felt like we had some wind in our wings,” she says. Series A funding of $5 million followed in 2011—“I did a screen shot of the account that day,” Maja says—and Series B and C funding came next in 2013 and 2017, respectively. Miha’s ultimate goal for Celtra is a big one, to essentially make advertising better by elevating the quality of the message. He believes that rapid changes in technology and the way consumers absorb content make advertising challenging for companies, but he feels Celtra can help companies greatly improve their creative.

As Celtra thrives, controller Dekyi Lhaze marvels at how the Mikeks have continued to develop as leaders. A dozen years after founding Celtra during their Babson days, they remain passionate and committed. “I think there is remarkable growth in both of them. They push themselves very hard,” Lhaze says. “I have been a strong believer in this company because of them.”

With all their success, the Mikeks haven’t forgotten the small, beautiful country where they were raised and first met as teenagers. They return to Slovenia frequently for work and personal reasons. They also bring all Celtra employees to the country for a company-wide meeting every year. “I still call Slovenia home,” Miha says.

In Slovenia, the pair dreamed up a life together, and leaving the country ultimately set them off on an entrepreneurial journey with Celtra. It’s a path the Mikeks are grateful to have taken by each other’s side. “It’s really been an experience,” says Miha. “When I look back, it was the best 12 years of my life.”