Zivojin Zika Petrovic: The Basement Innovator
Zivojin Zika Petrovic has been a proper ‘wiz’ in electronics since an early age, a radio amateur and enamored with innovation. Over a decade ago, he started the Serbian science television, today known as Brainz TV.
For his interview with 011info, Zivojin Petrovic reveals how he ran a TV repair service as a young boy, the award he got for the best pager salesman in the country and how he got the idea of setting up an eco-alarm on the Moon.
You’re known for your entrepreneurial spirit and optimism. Is that something you inherited from your parents?
My late parents moved to Belgrade in 1948. My father was born in a village called Drenovo near Takovo and Gornji Milanovac, and my mother was from Uzice. After WWII ended, my father participated in the youth work action to construct the factory “Ivo Lole Ribar” in Zeleznik, where he afterward worked as a smelter. In the meantime, he graduated from both highschool and faculty, became the chief, then director and finally the executive director of that entire company.
I learned a lot about leadership from him. My father’s motto was that first you have to be the subordinate and gain knowledge and experience, in order to be a good leader later. That message is still with me to this day. For example, when we were starting our television channel, first I learned how to write scripts, how to direct and edit footage and all that so I could eventually lead my employees properly. I definitely got my pragmatism from my father.
All in all, that’s how I spent the first ten years of my life in Zeleznik, where my mother worked at the factory ambulance. After that, we moved to Vidikovac which I remember much more fondly and vividly.
What was it like growing up in Vidikovac?
We lived in the Susedgradska street in the high-rise buildings that the factory constructed for their employees. Our building had a shared common area which was down in the semi-basement which is where each apartment had their own basement storage. When I realized I was good at building electronics in the eighth grade, I asked our neighbors to let me section off the shared area and make a small TV service. I got the green light and ramshackled it all together with some old wooden boards. I built the shelves and connected electricity from our basement.
My then-friend and today best-man Rade Gligorijevic helped me with all of it. He was also an electronics nerd like me. The two of us worked tirelessly day and night, and that’s how it all got started.
How do you remember Belgrade from those days?
When my friends came to my home looking for me, my mom would always tell them “Zika went to Belgrade”. It sounded like something I said, but actually it’s how my mother saw our capital city. (laughter) All in all, I feel like Belgrade was a far kinder place then.
Here’s an example. I remember vividly when I was 15-16 years old, I set up an antenna on the roof, to which I connected my wireless telephone. Since I hadn’t passed my driving test yet, I asked the neighbor to drive me around so I could test the signal reach. I could hear Rade on the other end of the line all the way up to the Mostar traffic loop. When we lost the signal, we stopped in the middle of the highway. I waved around my headphones, trying to get the signal again. At that point, the police showed up out of nowhere. They told us to clear out of there immediately, but they did so in a kind way.
To put it simply, Belgrade was safe back then. Nobody bothered me, so my parents never worried. Although I jumped transportations during my daily activities a lot, nobody was worried about me, nor did I need anyone to escort me anywhere.
How did you fall in love with electronics?
In junior school, one of our school subjects was GTE (general technical education), and that’s how I discovered the world of electronics for the first time. On the other hand, I also got a lot of enthusiasm from my uncles, prof. Branko Lalovic and Dragan Lalovic. Both of them were exceptional physicists: Branko was a nuclear physicist and Dragan was a theoretical physicist. Whenever we visited them, they’d always show me their latest constructions. The first time I saw a digital watch at my uncle’s place, with a green display, I could sleep a wink that entire night. All I could think about was that watch.
Luckily, I had a lot of freedom as a kid. I was allowed to tinker even if that meant I could break something, which happened very often. Thanks to this, I grew to love electronics and that love later grew into a business.
And this was the reason you enrolled in the electrotechnical school “Nikola Tesla”?
You bet. I remember it like it was today. I’d graduated from eighth grade and it was time to choose my highschool. When I came back from town, my mother was waiting for me. She asked if I enrolled in a highschool and I told her yes, I was now a freshman in “Nikola Tesla”. The only other thing she wanted to know was where the school was. (laughter)
You can probably imagine that my parents were not involved in my choice of highschool in any way, nor did they try to influence me. Today it’s often very different. Parents will hold their child’s hand when enrolling in high school and into faculty as well.
You were raised to be independent.
That’s right. My father didn’t hesitate to leave home when he was 14 to feed his family. Same with my mother, who left Uzice to enroll in medical school. Obviously they didn’t want to mess with a formula that works, especially since I showed maturity and responsibility at a very early age. By putting all the pieces together, I was allowed my independence.
And that independence is the most valuable thing one can have. You can survive thanks to it, and also advance and create. There is no money or education that can make up for a lack of independence. Sadly, I think we have lost a lot of it both as individuals and society. Now we can only speculate on the cause.
It’s also something you carried over to your own children.
I did. I was lucky that my wife shares my philosophy. From an early age, we raised our daughters to take care of themselves and work towards achieving their wishes. Of course, as parents we are there to help them within reason, but we always try to guide them towards achieving it on their own. Honestly, I was surprised when my younger daughter told me she enrolled in the Management faculty. So in a way, I experienced the same thing my mother had with me. (laughter)
But I never forced them to do anything. On the contrary, my goal was to show them everything I possibly could, from professions to hobbies. They were the ones who chose what they wanted to pursue: my older daughter picked design and art and my younger, as I said, finances.
Did your friends from junior and high school share your love for electronics?
In junior school sadly no. But on the other hand, they didn’t obstruct me from achieving my wishes either. In highschool, it was a whole other story. There were several of my friends who were interested in the practical application of that knowledge. In translation, that meant that you would fix something yourself and do a good deed. But none of them really realized it until the very end. Unlike them, I absolutely took it into practise whenever I could. My service worked from 1984 to 1994.
So you worked your way through high school?
Yes, non-stop. I didn’t give up my ‘trade’ even during my obligatory military service. I was the one who fixed everyone’s TV’s in the garrison. When I came back from the military, my service began to work within a company that I founded in 1991. Rade and I took all our contraptions and moved shop to the Belgrade fair, where we started selling physical goods and later pagers and mobile phones.
When did the interest start to rise?
During the 90’s, the politician Ante Markovic introduced a new Law that allowed people to start their own private companies. Although I was only 19 at the time, my experience from my service showed me that I had a ‘knack’ for trade. That’s why I registered a company under the name “Procesor Komerc”, specifically for the purpose of purchasing and selling technology wares.
Rade kept working at the service and I picked up the sale. The first decision I made was to steer clear of imported goods, but rather I would pick up technology goods from the importers and sell them in one place. My customers appreciated that lot, because now they no longer had to run around Belgrade looking for what they needed. In addition to sales, we also did deliveries and repairs, but also education. This was all a big hit, because as new technologies began to emerge, many people wanted to use them but didn’t have the knowledge for it yet.
In only a few years, our company became the go-to place for purchasing technology wares. We had lines of people waiting outside. Innovation was the main feature of that venture. I was the first business to introduce sales in 6-12-15 installments using citizen cheques.
In the meantime, you also became the best seller of pagers.
True. Back then, it was another innovation. You need novelties in every type of business, including trade. I took some steps that were considered odd at the time. One of them was flat out begging “Belpadzet” to let me sell their pagers in my store. Before, you could only purchase them in their outlet in New Belgrade by filling in a form and then making a payment in the post-office across the street, after which you had to go back to pick up your device. By the way for our younger readers, the pager was a one-way communication device you would wear on your belt.
But anyway, I spent days persuading the management at “Belpadzet” and finally pulled it off. I did so by taking out my money and requesting to purchase 100 pagers. When they saw the cash, they immediately changed their tune. I only had one request, which was that they had to code and set up the devices in advance, but to not input the name and surname of the owner and instead do it once I’ve sold the devices. After some brief contemplation, they agreed to it.
When I took the pagers back and displayed them in my shop window, that was a real sensation. Passersby would drop in to ask what new-fangled device that was and would often decide to buy. As soon as I sold them, I’d call “Belpadzet” to complete the registration for that device and that was it. That year, I was named the best pager seller in Serbia.
As my reward, I got to choose my own pager number. I asked for number 13, which at the time belonged to my friend Ivica Koren who was the marketing director of that company. He immediately took the pager off of his own belt and handed it to me. (laughter)
How did you become interested in radio amateurism?
Back then we had the system of “National technology” that had clubs all around the country. They included: electronics, radio amateurism, photography, cinematography and so on. It was a great opportunity for junior schoolers to find their occupation. I kind of fell-into radio amateurism which was, in fact, the first social network in the world. It all happened through devices and antennae that we often constructed ourselves.
Now, you may be wondering how radio amateurism worked back then? Using these devices and antennae, we would send out signals which could be either vocal or in Morse code. Someone, somewhere, would receive those signals and reply to them. And that’s how you would strike up friendships. That’s why that social network was interesting and popular. The innovation greatly helped it, because back then it was incredibly novel to send a signal around the world with just your fingertips.
Radio-amateurs really came through during the NATO bombing in 1999.
Back then, radio-amateurs showed their art, skill and ingenuity to the public for the first time. The 5000 of us, which is how many are registered in Serbia today, can take our devices to the significant points in the country at any time and use solar panels, batteries or car batteries to establish a communications network. In moments of emergency, information can be crucial. Such was the case during the bombing, then the devastating earthquake in Kraljevo or the floods in Obrenovac.
When all other systems are down, the radio-amateurs can come out and contribute to communications. Although it costs the country nothing, the State still hasn’t officially recognized our significance. Unlike many other, more advanced countries, who have given recognition to their radio amateurs and placed them in the service of defense and safety for crisis situations.
What is it like to organize those 5000 people?
The name ‘amateur’ is just a relic from older times. We are, in every sense of the words, professionals. When misfortune strikes, our organization, the Radio-amateurs union of Serbia, which includes all members and clubs around the country, will immediately establish the so-called emergency radio network known as RMZO.
The Union representative will take the microphone and direct the connection while everyone else listens closely. Nobody can use that specific frequency except for the Central emergency station and the active members of RMZO. The Radio-amateur union of Serbia and the Central emergency station take over coordination for the action and call in all the radio amateurs to assist, and they immediately begin to observe, scout and report on the situation.
We are not experts to determine the model of an airplane, or the intensity of an earthquake or the proportions of a flood. But we are able to completely and in detail report on everything observable in the area from point A to point B and then it’s up to the experts who are listening to decide what to do next. So information is what matters in those emergency situations and the radio-amateurs are indispensable in that case. Using several kinds of radio waves, we can send out our signal very far away.
What was the remotest contact you ever made?
Although I have a full setup at home, I’m not a competitive radio-amateur unlike some of my colleagues who are among the best in the world. I’ve sent signals throughout Europe and I think the furthest I’ve reached was to south of Africa. But no, I’m not known for my DX connections or remote connections. My DX connection was Africa, but for our best radio amateurs that’s an afterthought. (laughter)
What’s preventing the state from including you in their institutions?
I wouldn’t know. It’s a decades-old question. We’ve had promises, starting with Slobodan Milosevic who decorated us with an Order of Merit for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and continuing with succeeding presidents and all Ministers of police. All of them patted us on the back, but none of them officially included us in the Republic headquarters for emergency situations. The headquarters today number around 50 organizations that all play a vital role in defense, safety and rescue, but the radio-amateurs are sadly not among them.
Therefore I would like to take this opportunity to once more call upon the State to take a page from other developed nations and include us into the Republic headquarters for emergency situations. If, god forbid, some kind of emergency arises and all other methods of communication fail us, the radio-amateurs would be able to react even quicker and more efficiently from within such a state body.
You started the Serbian science television from your apartment and with a single camera. How did that come about?
All my life I’ve gathered hardworking and smart people who share my interests and I always spent time with them doing something useful. I managed to bring the gathered geniuses in several domains with trade. Namely, they needed contacts and the businesses needed their expertise. I basically acted as a bridge between geniuses and businesses.
At first we gathered informally but then we agreed that we should publicly promote them and their expertise. I went around pulling the sleeves of my friends and contacts from the media to write an article or two about some of these incredible minds. It was grueling. Between 2005 to 2009, these brilliant and award-winning minds would barely get a line or two in the newspaper.
Then we made a snap decision - if we couldn’t beat the media, we would join them. That’s who we formed the Expertise committee of Serbia, whose goal was to promote knowledge, culture and the arts. The first step was to start a TV channel which we named “Serbian science television”.
Did any of the cable operators recognize your idea?
Yes, it was Telekom. We struck an agreement with them that we’d start a channel that would promote science, education, culture and art 24hrs a day. We named it Serbian science television and started from scratch. It was very demanding to run an entire television, especially since we were self-funding. But our knowledge and enthusiasm prevailed over lack of finances.
But that alone wasn’t enough for us to survive, let alone spread. I did my best to work out some government aid for us, but it was all for naught. Just like with the case of radio-amateurs, everyone patted us on the back but not on our packets. I always got only excuses. Just to emphasize, I wasn’t asking for anything unreasonable. Just the minimal funds that I ended up supplying out of pocket and with the help of friends and donors.
I was a high-society beggar. We tried to win financing in various competitions, but since we were independent, we often came up short. We had executed amazing, marvelous ideas and concepts with minimal funding and survived like that for five years. However, in 2017, I was forced to give up. I couldn’t bear the burden either in the financial or mental sense. I was completely defeated.
Still, that wasn’t the end of Serbian national television.
Not long after, we got a call from United Media who were following our work for a while, with an offer to make a science channel. It was, as they say, life after death. I composed a modest list of demands, such as everything we might need to broadcast in high definition in our country and abroad, so that everyone can meet our geniuses.
They immediately agreed to everything. In order for us to become an international television, I insisted on rebranding, so the Serbian science television became Brainz TV. As of 2018, we have been broadcasting over two satellites and are available in all former Yugoslavia countries and South Europe.
In the meantime, we have won so many awards. Among other things, we got the highest order regards for the promotion of science and culture in Serbia, which is the “Svetosavska” award issued by the Ministry of education.
Sadly, the previous cable operator didn’t have understanding for the fact we accepted help from the group I mentioned before, so they took us off their program plan. But I’m still trying to ingratiate us to them so they’d put us back on. I believe it’s important for the other half of Serbia to watch us too, so that our great minds and their successes are in the spotlight. That’s something we should all be proud of.
Do you think there’s a lack of educational content on television?
What good does it do us to have 280 TV channels, but only one of them is a registered scienced television? If there’s no science program, no free science clubs in schools, the children won’t be able to elevate their knowledge and become independent from each other.
Nobody is happy in our current education system: starting with teachers and principals, to parents and students. How can you then expect the children to want to build and create something after graduation? I am very worried about your newer generations.
I believe the intellectuals are the ones who should deal with that issue. I’ve been suggesting that we establish a sort of Ministry for the future, which would feature let’s say a committee of 100 of our best and most renowned scientists who would get a say in those matters.
In the meantime, you’ve tackled pollution.
I think it’s a huge issue. Today, the developed nations have reached their success by polluting the environment but now they are gating the less-developed nations from doing the same. On the other hand, it doesn’t benefit them to put an end to the biggest polluters such as the factories. In order to illustrate the scale of the pollution issue to the average person around the world, I got an idea that I put to paper.
With the help of the Physics Institute and the department for lasers and laboratories in Belgrade, I wrote a paper and handed it in to the ESA who then published it. My paper, titled “Moon Eco Alarm” suggested an alarm on the Moon in the form of a green lamp that would warn humanity of the pollution at night. The worse the pollution, the faster it would blink.
Although it’s a philosophical paper more than anything, I’ve still backed it with the technical and material documentation that proved that this endeavor is possible to achieve within the next 20-30 years. So, if in the future something green shows up on the moon, know that a Serb is behind it. (laughter)
On top of everything else you do, you also write and publish books. How did you get into writing?
As I mentioned before, my late father was from the village Drenovo, where Mina Karadzic was buried. He left me the oldest standing house in that town, over 100 years old. When I took it over, I found a heap of documents, letters and notes from my grandfather Zivojin who was a fighter in the Macedonian front. I believe that was the initial capsule. On that year 2006/2007 I got a bit deeper into the life and times of my grandfather at the Macedonian front and I just started taking notes.
What was the first book you ever wrote?
It was “Budi GURU menadzer” (“Be a Guru Manager”) which I wrote after having several successful startups from scratch. I was persuaded to do it. It had a bit of a bombastic title and an innovative format and sale method. Namely, as a pocket edition, it was the first book to be sold in grocery stores and newspaper stands in 2004.
So you could buy your newspaper and a book, then put said book in your pocket and thumb through it from time to time. In just a few months, it sold in tens of thousands of copies, much to the amazement of printing companies. (laughter)
Your latest books deal with true events. How much research and effort did they take?
Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve done with all my effort and on impulse, never planned. That was also the case with research. If I got interested in a topic, I’d immediately get in touch with professors and scientists, exchange information and thoughts with experts and rely on myself and my own research along the way.
Is there any part of your life that suffers due to all your obligations?
I am good at organizing my time. It’s a key skill in business. No matter how much money you have, the one resource you can’t buy is time. At the same time, it’s the only resource that works against you. That’s why it’s important to master time management and everything else will come naturally.
I learned that skill very early on. Whenever I’d take up any obligation, I’d coordinate my time. Often people will take on responsibilities they don’t have time for, and that’s when something else suffers: family, client or something third. I don’t justify or support that.
What do you like to do in your free time?
My philosophy from an early age is to see work as fun and see fun as work. In translation, I do everything I do with gusto. I’d never accept work that doesn’t feel good to me.
On the other hand, I approach fun and hobbies with my utmost dedication, enthusiasm and persistence. Whether it’s radio amateurism, historical research or socializing with experts from various fields. I love to meet new people, exchange experiences and absorb their knowledge.
Then there’s outings and walks with my friends. During Covid those encounters had to happen online, except for one. I’ve got a friend who I’ve been exchanging physical letters with for years. It’s a real rarity nowadays.
What are your goals moving forward?
I always set my goals one step higher than what I can realistically achieve. That motivates me to do my absolute best. I can reveal a few things to you, such as my new manuscript that I’ve just handed to Laguna for approval. It’s a never before seen story that’s so odd and bizarre that it deserves a spot in my famous edition “Unreal but real”.
On the other hand, there are some plans I can’t talk about yet. I am one of those people who are guided by the proverb “Jump first and then say hop”. Actions should always speak more than words, and that’s something I stand by.