Written by: Kateřina Zapletňuková
Photo by: Jan Vágner
Karel Kršák & Bohumil Háj
A spare-time activity turned into a lucrative business for four friends who combined luck, foresight, and sound planning. Their firm has become invaluable to bikers and explorers throughout Europe.
KAREL KRŠÁK AND BOHUMIL HÁJ had a hobby – orienteering – a sport that made it possible for them to participate in events abroad and communicate with foreign sport mates. In 1990, a French company asked the friends to produce an orienteering map of Mende, a region in central France for the French Championship. Kršák, Háj, and their two friends Jiří Šumbera and Zbyněk Krejčík fulfilled several such orders, thus giving birth to their own map-making company: SHOCart. “We just wanted to make some money, so we took the offer to produce maps for orienteering,” recalls Kršák. Czechs were already known as good mapmakers and their product turned out cheaper than that of French producers. The money received from the French job (and later Swiss commissions) went to finance fieldwork for data collecting and printing costs. As the self-made entrepreneurs had no property to use as collateral, a bank loan was out of the question. They were forced to start their business from scratch.
– Predicting the emergence of a biking market
– Sound advertising strategies
– Stable growth
– Acquisition of valuable know-how
In 1992 Zlín-based SHOCart produced its first local tourist map of Beskydy, which turned out a great success. However, what made SHOCart a recognized brand name were cycling maps that the company started producing in late 1990s – in anticipation of the mountain biking boom that hit the Czech Republic around that time. “Our solid experience in France and Switzerland helped us predict the upcoming popularity of mountain biking at a time when people did not take it seriously here,” Háj recalls. The sportsmen-cum-businessmen hired enthusiastic people who started exploring future cycling areas and helping to create SHOCart’s recommended cycling paths. “At that time marked paths did not exist, so we had to create our maps complete with interesting paths for tourists,” explains Kršák. The first marked paths were put on the market around 1997, and for several years SHOCart produced its maps when nothing like them existed out in the terrain.
The company’s recommended paths have various levels of difficulty and contain information of all places of interest along a given path. For SHOCart, this niche became a stable source of income for a long time. “We were professionals in our field, and we received many direct orders from local authorities that created systems of marked biking paths in the České Budějovice region, South Bohemia and the Jindřichův Hradec region,” explains Háj. These orders made it possible for SHOCart to prepare digital data for these regions during a relatively short period of time.
Mapping the market
SHOCart’s success was to a great extent determined by a wise choice of regions to be mapped first. These areas included Šumava, Krkonoše and Český Ráj. “We had to decide what maps would sell the best,” Háj points out. “When the Šumava border area was opened, there was a big tourist boom and our maps sold wonderfully. The same thing with Krkonoše and Český ráj.” The profit made from early sales went to finance further work. Gradually SHOCart covered the whole republic, offering over 400 titles, including road maps, city maps, tourist maps, cycling maps, fishing maps, skiing maps, canoe guides, wall maps and atlases. Coming up with up to 60 new titles every year, the company currently produces about 1.5 million maps in Czech, Slovak, English, German, French, Russian, Hungarian, and Polish annually. The company’s turnover grows by 10-15% year-on-year. Having started from scratch, the owners expect the 2003 turnover to reach up to CZK 55 million. They attribute the growth to an increased range of maps and the production of heavy titles, including the World Atlas. “Heavy titles are expensive, and they create a large return,” says Kršák. “However, we were smart not to start with heavy titles. They are costly to produce and could have driven us to bankruptcy in the beginning,” he adds.
The road ahead
From the very beginning SHOCart faced great competition, both domestic and that coming from abroad. Socialist Czechoslovakia already had several large map companies, including Kartografie Praha and Geodezie. But they were at a disadvantage after the Velvet revolution, due to their reluctance to introduce new technologies. SHOCart used this weakness to gather momentum. “We were not burdened with analogue mapping. From the very beginning we started doing digital processing of maps which gave us an advantage over the competition,” says Kršák.
Cooperation with foreign partners worked out well during the first years. “They lacked domestic products, and a German company cannot produce, for example, a good map of Ostrava,” adds Kršák. He explains that foreign companies asked SHOCart to produce city maps for them, and the company in turn used that opportunity to offer other countries our tourist products, including cycling maps. However, soon these companies started feeling threatened by the small but ambitious Czech firm – an issue that will become more acute after the Czech Republic enters the EU this spring. Kršák acknowledges that for his company it will be difficult to survive the competition with western firms that have strong financial backing. A merger may turn out to be inevitable.
However, the Czech entrepreneurs refuse to be underestimated by stronger competitors. Realizing that the Czech Republic is becoming too small for them, they plan to expand to Slovakia. “International companies push us into it, because a great deal of our products are sold through chains, including supermarket chains and gas stations,” says Háj. “For them it is profitable to have one supplier that will handle several countries where they are present.” To what do the entrepreneurs owe their steady success? “We have never rushed into anything,” sums up Kršák.
|The world marketFrom its start SHOCart has cooperated with numerous tourist and outdoor magazines, offering them some of its data in exchange for advertisement space. To support sales of heavy titles, including the World Atlas, the company organized a consumer competition in one of Prague’s supermarkets. “We don’t use billboards. This would not have been effective,” says Karel Kršák, co-owner of the company. Now SHOCart plans to focus its advertising campaigns on schools, so that school children become acquainted with the name from an early age. “We want to issue a World Atlas for schools. If we manage to persuade teachers that our atlas is good and schools buy it, it will advertise itself because children will work with it every day,” opines Kršák.
|Distribution dealsWhen foreign producers entered the Czech market, SHOCart used their distribution channels to sell products that the others lacked. In several years this relationship went sour. “They wanted to have us just as a local supplier, and we outgrew this status,” explains Bohumil Háj, a company co-owner. In 1997 some distributors went under, stripping SHOCart of some revenue in maps. Now the company’s exclusive distributor for the whole country is Geoclub. Main outlets are supermarket chains and gas stations, although Háj admits that these are not very lucrative. “They want to sell for dumping prices,” he says. “However, they always pay. Small bookshops sell for better prices, but are very unstable and do not pay on time.”