Tsvetan Iliev ’06: After My First Day at ACS, I Wanted to Switch Schools. I’m Glad I Didn’t

June 25, 2019 by American College of Sofia

Even though Tsvetan & I probably ran into each other in the halls of Ostrander in 2003, we officially met in the spring of 2019 when he got in touch with the Development Office with a request to take promotional photos of his electric pushscooter prototype against  the wonderful backdrop that is the ACS campus in the spring. Over time he has developed a rather British accent and his taste for cars has evolved into a passion, which his higher education in engineering and his blog RoadHunter.bg confirm. I was very happy he agreed for an interview for this edition of the Alumni Magazine.

Read on what Tsvetan Iliev ’06 told me about his path after ACS, his business start up and fondest ACS memories.

Interview by Alexander Tomov ’04

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What have you been up to in the 13 years since you graduated?

Well, I started with a gap year in the Netherlands, then I went to the UK to study automotive engineering, and I was basically killing time at universities. After that I worked for Mercedes for a year in Germany and then I got tired of Germany and I went back to the UK to study at the University of Sheffield. After that it’s been four years of work in the automotive industry, first in Bulgaria and then in the Netherlands. Later I finally got to the stage when I decided that I could now create something on my own and start working on it. That’s a company for electric bicycles and push scooters where I do the design and my idea is to also do the manufacturing.

Well you’ve certainly been busy!

Yeah, in a way.

So, you worked for Mercedes?

Yes, that was on engine development. Basically, all my engineering work has been on  engine development.

Cool, AMG* & stuff?

Еmm, no, diesel vans, unfortunately. When I was in the Netherlands, I moved up to diesel trucks. But it’s not been anything sporty. I left the sporty cars for my free time, because I also run a blog about cars and sometimes I test some very interesting ones.

So is it safe to say you do have a passion for cars?

Definitely. Especially since some people probably remember me as the kid who would always be drawing cars in his notebooks, instead of paying attention in class. (laughs)

Can you remember when that passion started?
I think when I was about 7 or 8 years old. Someone in my family told me that even when I was a baby, I would point at cars in drawings and stuff. But definitely, when I was about 7, I started drawing cars. A lot of cars. Actually, my flagship was called Arno Vinghen and that name Vinghen came out of nowhere, but is now the name of my bike company. After I hadn’t found this meant anything offensive in the many languages I checked, I registered it and that’s my company now.

Tell me, what was it that made you realize you would rather be doing something on your own instead of being part of a larger company, working on diesel trucks and whatever else?

I will be honest. In a way, I am a little bit lazy and I get bored easily. A lot of these 9-5 jobs were a waste of time for me, because normally I would do proper work for 2 hours a day and for the rest, it would be more or less killing time. So I saw that as a big waste of time and I just wanted to do something on my own. Now, when I work on Vinghen, very often I start working around 11 in the morning, and I will go on until 1 at night. So I am busy now.

But then, again, you manage your own time?

Yes, I do. If I want to, I go skiing on a Wednesday, so that’s a lot nicer.

Would you tell me a little bit more about your blog?

Sure, so I started it back when I returned to Bulgaria in 2014, after I earned my Master’s. Once again, it was because I was really bored at work. I decided I should drive some nice cars and I started it. It is called RoadHunter. I write in Bulgarian. I tried English as well, but it’s too difficult to keep two languages at the same time. So I stick to Bulgarian, because I take the cars from Bulgarian dealers. So, basically, I will get a car for a couple of days, then drive somewhere nice, take a lot of photos, drive fast sometimes, on some mountain roads, so it’s really good. Sometimes I get cars like the Mercedes SL or a Ford Mustang, or the Jaguar F-Type etc. – cars with over 400 hp, but other times I’ll get small city SUVs, which I don’t really like, but it’s still part of the job.

What’s your favorite car that you have driven for your blog?

I think, actually, it’s probably the Mercedes SL-500, from the ones I have taken on the road properly. Because it was powerful, it was very comfortable and it was convertible and it just felt nice. Otherwise, I’ve also driven some cars on race tracks, one of them being the Ferrari 360. I didn’t like Ferraris much before getting into the 360, but this car made me change my mind. Ferrari is an amazing company.

What’s the origin story behind Vinghen, apart from you coming up with the name when you were 7 years old? How did you decide to go into electric bikes and push scooters?

I think in a way I saw a market possibility, because when I created the first sketch back in 2016, it was actually before, or at the very beginning of the boom of electric scooters that we’re seeing in the US and Western Europe. So, in a way, I was ahead of time, but I didn’t have the resources to get there quickly, because if I did, I could have had something ready for the market in three or four months. And it took me two and a half years because first of all I was busy at work –sometimes you get back from work and you just cannot stare at a monitor for another four or five hours. I also wanted to have some Bulgarian suppliers, but then I realized it’s so difficult to find people to work here and the communication with some of them was a complete nightmare, so eventually, the last two years of the project, I invited a friend of mine, who is also an engineer, to join me, just for this project, not the company as a whole. He took over communication with
local suppliers and that worked out better.

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Excellent. When can I buy one?

Well, you can sort of pre-order one now, because being a small start up with no resources or investment, I am going to launch with a funding campaign, which will go live in a couple of days, so it will run between early May and early June. And if we get funding through that, people who supported the project early on will start getting their bikes around August or September, depending on their location in the world. If that goes right, hopefully people will be able to buy them, starting August, but if you support the funding campaign, you will be getting a much better price.

What has been your biggest challenge with Vinghen so far? Apart from communication with Bulgarian suppliers?

Well, I think that was it actually. And then also probably some of the marketing, because I’m not sure how exactly to market the product. I mean, I’ve done a lot of research into my target group and what the market is, but I’m not a professional in this area, I’m an engineer. So, for me that was also a bit difficult and I still have doubts whether I have done something wrong.

Maybe you could reach out to the Alumni community for some marketing advice. I’m sure there are plenty of marketing people out there.

I’m sure too. Could do that.

Looking back, what are your best and worst memories from ACS?

Worst memory is my first day at ACS.

Really?!

Yeah, for me it was really scary. I was in 8/7 and at the time this was the section with people who spoke the least English. So, I’m in this classroom and then Ms. Struch comes in the room and starts speaking in English and we don’t understand a word. And then, Ms. Marinova came and she started in English and she realized by our looks of surprise and fear and then she said: Не разбирате нищо от това, което ви казвам, нали? And then she switched to Bulgarian. But all of that was quite bad. Then I had math class and we started, from day one, with a lot of work and for me that was something new. So, I actually went home after my first day at ACS and I told my mom: “I’m switching schools!” But I’m happy I didn’t because I liked it after that.

Best memories?

I do have quite a lot. I must say I was really happy with the musical I was in in my senior year, “The Producers”. It was a bit controversial, and it was produced by students, but there was Mrs. Cattelle, who really helped us organizationally. I think, in a way, she made it happen, together, of course, with the actual seniors – producers who were also from my class.

Now that you’ve come back on several occasions, is there anything new that you like, or anything that you miss?

I wouldn’t say I miss anything. Of course, I like the new buildings. I don’t think I could get used to the new name of Ostrander, but other than that … I mean it’s a pretty nice place and it still has the same feel about it. I feel that in a way it hasn’t so much changed, but rather evolved.

As a matter of fact, the two-building complex with the “Whitaker Auditorium” is the America for Bulgaria Campus Center. Ostrander is Ostrander. 

Do you remember your proudest moment at ACS?

Not really, could’ve been the musical again, because people loved it. I mean, I have no academic achievements, in fact, I was on an academic probation. Twice. And, funny thing is, I was quite bad at math and physics, and now I’m an engineer and I actually made the top of the class at the University of Sheffield, so it’s kind of funny how times change.

That’s amazing, congratulations on that!

I cannot recall any sort of proud moments. More like moments of fear when my parents would go to parent-teacher conferences.

I too remember that feeling, it’s a very acute one.

Do you keep in touch with many of the other alumni?

Not so many, but I do. I have some very close friends from my class of 2006. And a lot of close friends from 2008. But I mean, I do keep in touch occasionally. I wish I were more involved, but many of them are in London, and me being here makes it a bit more difficult.

What one thing would you change about the school if you could?

Good question! I don’t think I would change anything. Of course, now I’m not involved with it, so I don’t know what some internal issues might be, if there are any, but from what I perceive and from my memories, I don’t think I would change anything.

Would you change anything about yourself?

Not really, I’m quite happy with how things have been going for me.

What is your most distinctive feature as a person?

Could be the fact that I don’t want to follow the normal path of people, you know, going into university, graduating, landing your first job etc. Could be that, because, looking at people my age, of course there are many who are like me, but the majority seem to be a bit different, and I think they are more ordinary in terms of following their life path and making their choices.

What is perfect happiness to you, what would it look like?

Personally, it would be living somewhere where I feel I belong, partially, and then, having the time and resources to do what I like – road trips, skiing, surfing, all these things. Also, working with people. I have often thought that I’d probably like to become a university professor at some point in life.

Wow!

Well, not a professor, but a teacher probably. This would be quite nice. And, if I could combine it with a bit of business on the side, that would be perfect. I don’t know how this would fit with having some free time, but it would be quite nice.

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Where do you see yourself in 10 years? You kind of mentioned it – teaching.

Yes, but I don’t know in which country. I’d love to feel fine in Bulgaria, but the truth is that I don’t. It will probably be somewhere else, but still in Europe. I really like Europe.

Maybe teaching at the University of Sheffield? 🙂

Could be, why not?

Do you have regrets from your time at ACS?
Well, I think I should have studied a bit harder, to be fair. I don’t even know how I graduated. So I think I should have done that, it probably would have helped. And also, maybe I should have been a bit more social at the time. I was a strange kid. But as teenagers many people are. I think working on my grades and my social interactions would have been pretty nice.

How about anything after that?

Yeah, well, I thought about that myself not so long ago, actually. I was 28, had just graduated a year before and, in a way, I had wasted a lot of time in my twenties, but it was such a nice way of wasting time. So, I came to the conclusion that I do not regret at all the mistakes I made and all the wasted time, because I didn’t do anything majorly stupid in my twenties, I just did a lot of small stupid things. But overall, I’m quite happy with how this time passed.

Where would you like to live?

I think that I would like Switzerland or Austria, because I like the Alps and I like to be close to the sea. But from experience, I feel best in the UK or in the Netherlands. I’ve never lived in Switzerland, so it could be a huge disappointment.

I hear it’s nice.

Yeah, me too, but from what I’ve heard, people over there follow the rules quite closely, which is a must for me, because that’s my biggest issue in Bulgaria.

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Backstage of The Producers

I was going to ask, is that what bothers you most about Bulgaria?

Yes, I get in a taxi – it has no seat belts in the back. I go to a club – they’re smoking inside. All these things just annoy me so much, I mean even on a daily level. Because, of course, corruption and all that sort of thing is terrible, but in my personal day-to-day life I get a lot of these things where people don’t follow the rules, and also when driving. People getting out of their cars to attack me – yeah – these things happen.

Really?

It depends on what car I’m driving. When I was in my personal Mini Cooper, I got a lot of aggression. When I drive a Maserati, for example, there’s none, and I drive exactly the same way. So these are things that would never happen to me anywhere else that I’ve lived.

Right, I will give you that I agree that we as a people are not really keen on following these rules. To us they are more like guidelines. But then have you thought of ways that this could change?

I have and I don’t think there is a possibility, unfortunately. I’m very disappointed with all this. And also, when I was living in Bulgaria before, I was a member of an organization that ran a project specifically about culture on the road. We did nothing, of course, and even some of the people who were on this project, when they were driving, they wouldn’t put their indicator on, for example. So I don’t think it would ever happen, not in my lifetime anyway.

I had hoped you would be more optimistic…

Not at all. I think that now I have learned, partially, to accept it. And, I mean, I know it’s not right for me. Unfortunately in ten years’ time, or even in two years’ time I don’t see myself in Bulgaria.

Although your business is here?

Well, that’s actually why I came back, that and my girlfriend, and it was because I wanted to start it here, because it’s a good place for manufacturing, we have a good connection with Asia for suppliers, like in Varna. Well, the location is good, labor is cheap, for now, although I am planning on paying proper salaries, unlike other small manufacturers. But the thing is, even if manufacturing is here, I could just visit it once a month, once it’s up and running and just live elsewhere.

That makes me wonder, if treating workers respectfully won’t be part of the change we’re looking for.

It could be, but one person’s not going to make a difference. I can make a very small local  impact, of course, but nothing more.

Well, that could be an example to set. And next time I interview you, we could go over these questions and see how things turned out, both for you and for our society. 🙂

Well, I like that optimism.

It’s the coffee, it will wear off.

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Backstage of The Producers

Did you have a favorite teacher?

I had quite a few very nice teachers. The one that I remember is Mr. Stevens for English. I had him in grade 11. I liked him and it was really funny, because the first time we had class with him, everyone was really scared, because he looked so serious and mean. And then he starts cracking jokes, but keeping his poker face on, so he says a joke and you need, like, a few seconds to realize what he had actually just said. That was very nice. And the books we were reading were fine too.

Speaking of books, do you have a favorite one? Apart from the engineering textbooks.

I really like Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo books. There are a few of them that make for one big story, there is one where Captain Nemo (spoiler alert) dies, and it’s about something completely different, but at the end, some people on an island help an old man hidden in a cave and they realize it’s Captain Nemo. That’s quite thrilling. I do like Jules Verne, he is a bit naive, of course, his books always start pretty slowly, but once they pick up, they are very enjoyable to read. I like the stories and the philosophy behind some of them. So it’s this one and Dorian Gray. I remember when I started reading that on my Kindle, I was underlining something on almost every page, it was that good.

Do you remember how you came to attend ACS?

Partially. When I was in 7th grade, we actually had the exams for public schools first, and for ACS it was in June or something. It was like my not even second choice. Because I was quite poor as a student, up to 7th grade, I didn’t have good grades or anything, but I still got in. I think my parents probably suggested it was quite a nice school. I still remember them telling me when I got accepted, I was riding my bike at my grandma’s village, and I was quite happy. I never planned for it, it was just something that happened.

This is the second thing that “kind of just happened,” that potentially made a huge impact on your future, coming up with Vinghen when you were 7 being the first one.

Could be, yes. I mean, I hope Vinghen has a huge impact on my future.

I do wish that for you as well.

What would you like to wish/tell whoever’s reading this, mostly alumni?

Be fond of your memories at ACS and not only that. Come to the Christmas Reception and the Reunions, because it’s nice to see how everyone is now.

 


*AMG stands for Mercedes-AMG GmbH, and is the high-performance brand used by Mercedes-Benz.
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