[Women’s Month 2022] Interview with Iva Silla of Secret Zagreb

Iva Silla of Secret Zagreb on St. Marks Square, Croatia
Image by Božidar Raos – Zagreb Ghosts & Dragons Tour

Iva Silla is the owner of Kazivačica, an obrt based in Zagreb. Under this umbrella, Iva executes an endless number of projects with the sole purpose of cherishing and sharing Croatia’s heritage. She works with schools and tourist boards, gives lectures and holds workshops, and shares her mystical Croatian knowledge on her podcast “Croatia Underrated”.

The core of her business is Secret Zagreb, which is a unique set of storytelling tours and gamified quests in her hometown with themes like “Badass Women of Zagreb” and “Into the Forest”.

As part of our Women’s Month campaign, 94 female-owned businesses in Croatia were nominated for recognition by YOU – our audience. Our independent panel of Croatian professionals selected 5 extraordinary businesses to be interviewed and featured on expatincroatia.com. Iva’s company Kazivačica was one of the 5 selected – deservedly so.

I spoke with Iva on February 27, 2022, during which we talked about…

Read the full interview below…

Interview with Iva Silla of Secret Zagreb

Sara: Your business is really unique. You do tons of different things: educational materials, trainings, workshops, lectures, tours, blogging, the podcast… You work with children in schools… Do you sleep?

Iva: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes.

Sara: I feel like I found my doppelganger because I am also someone, who’s just like “Oh, I always got to do something new. I always have tons of ideas.” I feel like we definitely have that in common.

Your list of accomplishments is incredibly impressive, and especially your dedication to the education of Croatia’s historical heritage and culture. And you do it very uniquely. It’s truly something special. How did you get into the appreciation of local lore and Croatian history and heritage? When did you develop that passion?

Iva: As a kid, I read all sorts of old myths and explored all sorts of cultures. Eventually, I realized that only by preserving what we know, we are contributing to the diversity of the World Heritage. I know it sounds a bit… exaggerated, but that’s what I feel that we can do and overall, every one of us has some skill. I don’t really have many talents, I don’t really know how to dance, or how to make lace or anything like that. The only thing that I have left are the stories, the histories, and through tourism – I think that this can be a good tool to share them with the rest of the world.

Sara: Absolutely. Being here on the coast, it’s like all the tours are “go to the islands!” To be able to take this kind of deeper dive into Croatian heritage has a lot of value and it’s very interesting. Of all the projects that you do, which is your favorite and why?

Iva: Well, that’s a really hard question. I don’t really have favorites. I love everything. But if I have to choose, the most meaningful project so far was the one that I worked on as a collaborator for Bakar Tourism Board about the blind water carrier of Bakar.

The local community gathered through this project to create an audio book and an illustrated book dedicated to this historical personality – a kind of an underdog. He was a water carrier from the 19th century who supplied the city with water. The Old Town is on the hill, so he had to go up and down the street. Even now, the regular tourist doesn’t really want to go up there because it’s so steep. And he had to do all of that blind.

Gamified tour “Challenge of the Bakar Water Carrier”, part of a project about the blind Bakar Water Carrier

So, it’s a beautiful story. I mean, as a project, it was used to promote inclusiveness and to share this with the youngest ones, because the children from local schools took part in it. Eventually they were the ones who created the content, with our guidance. We only guided them through different tools and education. And that’s what made it very unique.

Of my projects that I personally conduct, my favorite is Secret Zagreb. The reason for that now is maybe different than when I first started it. I think it adds to the quality of life, really, when you get to the be outside, when working. It’s something that not many people have a privilege to do – to not stay in the office, all the time sitting down behind the computer, which I do a lot with other projects.

Instead, you get to know all sorts of people. Sometimes when you’re not able to travel yourself, travel comes to you. That’s also a new kind of experience. I started the tours as a very heavy introvert and this was really a step out of my comfort zone. Now I’m very comfortable, and I really enjoy that.

Sara: So, if you are riding in an elevator with someone and had to just quickly explain what Secret Zagreb is, what would you say?

Iva: It’s a set of tours and gamified tours that go into different topics and themes to show different faces of Zagreb.

Sara: What did Secret Zagreb look like when you first started, and how has it grown?

Iva: When it first started, it was a blog because I wanted to see whether I would even be able to get some people to notice that this thing exists. Back in 2013, I started the tours. I thought it was going to be a project based on local legends, myths and mysterious history. The first tours were the Ghost Tour and the Sleeping Dragon Tour.

I just couldn’t stop, which is probably a bit confusing for someone who finds Secret Zagreb because you can find it through different topics and themes. There’s so many tours of different kinds. The Novi Zagreb Tour (in the area where I live) is completely opposite from the Zagreb Ghosts and Dragons Tour.

The good thing about Secret Zagreb is that it keeps spreading. By now, the places that were originally included in the first tours – now many tours in Zagreb includes those places. But back then, it was really something different. Now it’s getting harder for me to find something new that travelers would find interesting.

Sara: The entire Expat in Croatia team will be in Zagreb in April, and we are planning to take your Badass Women of Zagreb Tour. We are very, very excited. Of all your tours, which tour is your favorite, and why?

Iva: I still really love the Zagreb Ghosts and Dragon tour because I started with that one. I probably have this dark side that doesn’t show, at first sight, but don’t be fooled.

Right now, I have to say that Badass Women is my favorite tour. I started it without great expectations. I started writing a little bit about interesting women that visited Zagreb or lived in Zagreb and I thought it would be just an article, but then I realized “Oh my God, there’s so much, so many. I don’t know which one to choose for this!” Then all of a sudden, I realized… this is a tour!

I planned it, researched it even better, and then put it on the website. I didn’t really expect that anything is going to happen. I didn’t really promote it much, but people started calling about the tour. A company started organizing events choosing that particular tour. Even schools… And then then I decided “I’m just going to try one year – put it on scheduled dates.” It has been three years now that it’s been running. And it’s turned out to be really inspiring and also kind of a filter of what kind of people are going to join. It’s usually really interesting people, who have so much to add and share. It’s always a great experience.

Gift from the Badass Women of Zagreb Tour given by Secret Zagreb
Image by Silvija Jacić – Badass Women of Zagreb Tour

Sara: Awesome. I’m so super excited to take this tour with our team! Speaking of being a badass woman, have you come across any obstacles, or experienced any discrimination as a woman entrepreneur in Croatia? And if so, what happened, and how did you deal with it?

Iva: I wouldn’t say that there were many visible obstacles. In fact, in tourism, especially creative tourism, I feel like there are more women than men. It’s easy to find support and people to work with.

What I do know is that whenever a woman is doing something different, something out of ordinary, or if she seems successful then the first question is going to be “what does your husband do”?

They start calculating. “She can play her little games if she has some kind of financial support from her daddy, her husband, her sugar daddy.” I think that’s the most unfair thing that I noticed.

For two years I’ve been one of the participants of this initiative called Equality in Tourism. They interviewed a lot of female entrepreneurs in tourism all over the world. I noticed that when women reach a certain age in tourism – as soon as they don’t really look, fresh and young – they stop being the front face that will welcome you. You don’t see them serving guests almost anywhere. They just disappear when they reach a certain age. They are not going to be at the reception, they are not going to be even working in a bar or restaurant. Maybe they are going to work in some traditional associations of tour guides, but in some companies and city tours, I’ve never ever met a woman older than forty.

Sara: Wow!

Iva: But that’s triggered by the guests as well. For example, I was personally on a tour once where a huge group of people was divided with two guides. The guests were supposed to join one of the guides. One of them was an older man. And the other was a woman – not too young. You could rely on her to know her content and only three people stepped to the woman and everyone else went to the man. These are the little things that you might notice once you start paying attention.

Sara: On average, who’s making that decision more often? Is it the guide or is it the person they work for?

Iva: I think it’s all interwoven, but it’s the guests [primarily]. If it’s a private company, then they are probably reacting to the guests. Another reason might be because after a while we need a certain security. The woman could also be a part of this decision.

Sara: Wow, you just blew my brain apart.

Iva: In tourism management, it’s proven that the majority of jobs go to men even though there are more workers in tourism who are women. All of the sudden [women’s expertise] is not as recognized as men’s expertise – even though there are more women, especially in this creative tourism field.

I still didn’t reach that point, but I’m thinking about it. I’m thinking about how people are maybe not going to be very happy in 10 years from now when I welcome them. So, that’s one of the reasons why I’m searching for other ways to have passive income. Maybe that will be the time to transfer the tours to someone else.

Sara: Is there anything that could happen to help change that?

Iva: I think that it’s the guests, the travelers themselves. They could be educated so that they stop having the prejudice. If there is a business who has the guts to put a woman in her 60’s at the front desk, then let’s encourage them and say “Wow, these people have a really friendly staff.”

Iva Silla on Secret Zagreb Quest
Image by Branko Nađ – Secret Zagreb Quests

Sara: We’re going to take a bit of a turn. Do you ever have moments with your business when you are like “Nothing makes sense. I feel like giving up. I just don’t know if I can do this anymore.” How do you pull yourself through? How do you stay positive? Do you have your own method of solving problems?

Iva: New projects help me with that – to start working on something that was in the back of my mind and I never got a chance to do it. That’s what usually gets me out of those thoughts. And those thoughts do not really happen that often.

The Zagreb earthquake was one of those cases. It really took me a long while to even start thinking that it is appropriate to do something. On any other occasion, I would say that tours can be a meaningful way to learn about the destination, to expand your knowledge, to appreciate it more. But in those moments, I literally felt a bit like I’m doing nothing important.

And now with the war in Ukraine, you start thinking… “Is there a better way to employ our capabilities and skills?” Maybe taking baby steps always and having a little bit of a wider goal. It doesn’t need to be something unachievable, but something that you can work on through baby steps is usually pretty helpful for me.

Sara: I have a hard time not taking big steps. I tell myself to take baby steps, but I have a tendency to leap forward. That’s something I’m trying to work on. It’s good sometimes, it’s not good all the time.

Tours are at the core of your business. Speaking of problem solving, how did you handle the impact from the pandemic?

Iva: Well, there are two ways. One was to kind of stay on the surface, to keep the visibility because, obviously, there was not going to be many tours for a while. I was working on ideas to make the tours available for tourists. We didn’t know how they would act if they traveled – whether they would even want to join tours.

So, that’s how my podcast Croatia Underrated started as one of the ways to get in contact with possible future visitors – people who are longing for Croatia, or for travel.

So, in that year and a half, I created self-guided gamified tour and audio tours. I haven’t finished it yet, but they are coming soon. Regarding the podcast, this didn’t really help me with monetization, but I think it was really helpful. The agencies that I collaborate with could keep track that Secret Zagreb is going to be still there and present. It keeps posting on social networks. I think that was really, really useful and it still is. So, I think that was a good strategy.

Secondly, networking and taking a look at the bigger picture. Finding out how do other people who are in tour businesses all over the world react, not just in the region. There is a Facebook group and also podcast called Tourpreneur. It was a very valuable source of information for me. All the biggest research and trends of the future of travel were easily accessible through that group and we were easily able to see how do other tourpreneurs deal with their problems.

Sara: You’re like “Oh, I didn’t do that much.” You just listed like 4 big things that you did to try and fill your time and to keep your business alive. You’ve done quite a lot so, so that’s really admirable. It takes a lot of work to keep a tourism business alive during the pandemic. It’s no small feat and the fact that you were able to do it is really emblematic of your dedication and the uniqueness of who you are. I’m in awe.

Back to Croatia Underrated. I loved your episode about cemeteries.

 

Iva: Oh really?

Sara: Yes, I’m a big fan of cemeteries. I didn’t know that there was a route that you could follow, and I also didn’t know, about the one in Varaždin. I have barely scratched the surface in terms of cemeteries in Croatia, but there’s two that I like in particular that I always keep revisiting. It’s not necessarily because of the cemetery itself, but the setting around them. I really love the one that’s in Motovun  and then the one that is right in front of Ložišća on Island Brač.

Iva: Oh wow, yeah, I haven’t been there.

Sara: Now that we’ve talked about cemeteries, it seems natural to segue into talking about fear. What would you say is your biggest business fear and how do you fight against that?

Iva: I think that the biggest fear is that I wouldn’t be able to work. I think that any entrepreneur in Croatia knows that some things are beyond our control. New surprises come along, but we still look a little bit forward.

I know for sure is that there’s going to be the time when I’m probably not going to be as healthy, or some member of my family might not be. I know that one of the top reasons that women entrepreneurs give up on their businesses is they need to take care of their family members. That’s something that’s not talked about as much. Usually, they talk about children as obstacles.

I’m trying to fight it or prevent it from happening [by working] on some ways of passive income. That was also the biggest lesson from all of the disasters that have happened so far – both the earthquake and the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s absolutely necessary to find a way to create some passive income. It’s pretty difficult to do it through merchandise in Croatia. It’s not easy to have a web shop. Those are all the reasons why I’m working on some different approaches. I plan to kind of expand into illustrated books and audio tours.

Iva Silla of Secret Zagreb on St. Marks Square in Zagreb
Image by Branko Nađ – 13 Nights Photo Tour: Available for download here

Sara: You said that women have to take care of families when they’re sick. Is it more common in the Croatian culture that the females have to take care of the sick relatives rather than the males?

Iva: I think it just happens. It’s not that they have to, but it often happens that way. Something happens in your private life that is obviously a priority and all of the sudden you have to let something go. I know that women are letting go of their businesses when something like that happens.

I’m not saying that’s the plan for me. I know that I’m physically not able to do as many tours as ten years ago. Physically I’m a bit colder, so in winter it would be a little bit too much to do two tours one after another. I can feel that already and your women organs start to hurt. This is something that’s inevitable.

It’s just me [as the only guide]. I could have more guides, but the tour business is often really unfair. It’s hard to pay a decent fee and be in the accordance with the law. That’s one of the main reasons why I don’t have more guides. Guides are usually underpaid, and I just don’t want to take part in that.

Sara: What is the main thing that you’ve had to sacrifice in your life for your business?

Iva: I really don’t feel like I sacrificed anything. What other people think that I sacrificed is a certain stability. The Croatian dream is still “Why don’t you work as a clerk somewhere? Why don’t you work for some kind of ministry? Is this enough now? All of these projects?”

If there is something, it’s probably free weekends. I often work in the evenings and in the afternoons when everything else is taking place. So, I usually can’t go to other events even if friends invite me or something, because I work right then. So, that’s about it.

Sara: I identify with that completely. I was told by one of my colleagues recently “Sara, you have no social life. You work too much”, and I’m like “Ummmm, so what do you want me to do about it?”

Iva: The fun part is that I’m always surrounded by people, but yes, I just can’t have some free time.

Sara: How do you go about separating your private life for your business?

Iva: I’ve read that question when you sent it to me. It was so fun the way you formulated it, because I think it’s a perfect formulation. I managed to separate private life from business, but not the other way around.

If I need some time to work, everyone in my house will respect that. That’s what we managed to work out early on when I started all of these projects. Everybody knows that I’m going to be on the phone all the time, that I’m going to read the notifications.

Every time I say “Okay, this weekend we’re taking some time off.” Then I regret it because so many things come back at me afterwards – things that I need to solve backwards.

Iva Silla of Secret Zagreb on the Zagrebarium tour in front of HNK
Image by Suzana Ajhner-Starčević – Zagrebarium Tour

Sara: Are there any private aspirations and business goals that that have been in conflict with each other, and you’ve had to choose one or the other?

Iva: I did have plans, but it never seemed to be the right time. There were always some complications. I always thought I should probably test the tours first and then maybe quit my regular job back then. But then when my older kid was going to school, it seemed so stressful – when I had to run from my workplace to pick them up from school or kindergarten. That was really the most stressful thing that happened to me on a daily basis. I’m not talking about big events, but daily things like “Oh no, if I don’t leave my workplace right now, I’m going to get stuck in the traffic and then I’m going to be late for my kid”.

Sara: Did having your own business give you more flexibility for your private life?

Iva: Yes, a bit more flexibility, although it’s all pretty much confusing. The children don’t have a specific routine. We can’t afford to have a dog, for example, because that poor creature would never be a normal creature because everyone has a crazy schedule. But I think that they got used to being more, um… “samostalni” – independent. They can easily take care of themselves. Sometimes I’m joking that I’m a “nemajka” – non-mum. But in a good way… It sounds really terrible now that I said it out loud.

Sara: No, no, not at all. Not at all. What you do is very unique, so it does not surprise me you would also be a unique mother as well.

Iva: Hope it’s a good example for kids – especially since I have girls. I think it’s a good example – that you can kind of do what you love and that you don’t really have to compromise a lot. In fact, as with everything else, the whole family needs to find a way to work with it.

Sara: I’d love to hear more about Playful Croatia, which is another one of your projects. Can you tell us about that and how you came up with the idea?

Iva: It was in 2015 when I created the first gaming fight quest. It’s a combination of a tour and an escape game experience. That’s what kind of riddles you get. It’s a bit challenging, but it’s based on the city’s history or legends. You’re learning about the local heritage. However, you do it this fun way, which turned out to be a great team activity.

They are usually completely involved and engaged in the activity, and that’s what, by definition, makes a good tourism product. I started developing more of these and eventually I started collaborating with some other partners in creating something similar for their destination.

I realized that this could be something that could help smaller destinations to create their first, or one of their first, tourism products that can invite people to see them, to explore them. The smaller destinations usually have a problem because people who live there don’t see the potential in tourism. They don’t have enough people who would even be qualified and especially find the opportunities in tourism. Maybe this can be one of the triggers to show them, the locals, that what they have around them can be interesting, can be educational, can attract people.

I collaborated with a tourism board in a small destination called Novigrad podravski (view map). It’s a village, but any village in Croatia has some curious personalities and spots. The whole activity invites you to walk around the village and play your way through it.

Right now, I’m working on a project for the Istrian Tour Board of Ližnjan County, very close to Pula. It’s rooted in their fishermen tradition. There’s going to be a gamified brochure that can help people explore in a fun way.

I think that this is something that more and more people are looking at –  a sort of the gamification of tourism and of exploring self-guided tours. There are a lot of apps that allow that as well, but I’m kind of a fan of analogue solutions – things that you can hold in your hands and maybe keep it as a souvenir, like a little booklet or a map. That will always remind you of this activity… as a user. And I think that people actually like that. The very use of mobile apps is still not that present. They are being produced, but they are not used that much still and they’re expensive.

Image by Ivana Mikulinjak – Zagrebarium Tour

Sara: Could you give us an example of how the game comes into play?

Iva: The tour guide gives you a story and you’re not really sure what are you about to do. You think that everything that she’s telling is very important. That’s why people are paying more attention than on any other tour because they think “Oh my God, this here could be some kind of a code”. I have some chests with me, or we find them along the way. They are locked. Then they receive some riddles and now they have to remember where did they hear certain stories in order to find the answers for themselves. Nothing is revealed to them during the process.

Also, if you get some kind of a booklet or a map, then you have little riddles that take you from one spot to another. You have to solve them by finding different patterns or maybe blocks – something that will help you to move on to the next location and eventually, if you follow through, you should find some kind of a solution, some numbers, some words.

And then sometimes there is a prize… It depends on how you organize it. It’s important that they are challenging and not too easy. It can be a great family activity and a reason to come to a certain destination. It’s an intellectual challenge as well, so that makes people very satisfied once they solve it.

You start creating certain memories, links and bonds in your mind with a destination. When you travel, you realize someone tells you some kind of information that you wouldn’t expect, and you have that feeling “Oh my God, I haven’t noticed that, oh look at this!”. These little thoughts are proven to be the biggest moments of learning. These activities are based on moments when you spot something that you would otherwise pass by and never even pay attention to.

Sara: I imagine it definitely helps with retention. When people retain, they get more value out of it. It’s really wonderful that you’ve come up with that concept and I hope that it continues to catch on.

We know the Croatian Government has a very heavy bureaucracy. What is the number one thing that you, if you had the power, would change about the Croatian Government that would help make it easier for you to run your business or make it more profitable?

Iva: I think there should be some kind of a deregulation of small businesses in the sense that they shouldn’t be as burdened with so many regulations. Or at least, if we were all able to ask a question and get the right answer and we’re not responsible anymore about any faulty responses that we might have gotten, then that would make our lives really so much easier. The biggest problems are the constant traps that were falling into, obstacles that are on our way. The only thing you’re absolutely positive about is that you must be doing something wrong.

Sara: Yes. I feel that all the time. My accountant will say “you can’t do that because it’s going to make you look like you’re evading taxes” and I’m like “but it’s a legal thing at my disposal”. Then she tells me, “No, you can’t do that. It’ll trigger an audit. No, you can’t do that. It’ll make you look guilty.” I’m like “What?!”

Iva: This thing that we have to be afraid of an audit or something…that’s crazy because you know that they are going to [do it]. What I heard is that people are putting something minor out…

Sara: A decoy?

Iva: Yes, on the surface, so that [the government] sticks with that. They have to find something.

Sara: Oh wow, yes, it’s like a strategy. Oh my goodness, I haven’t heard of that. I will keep that one in the back of my mind.

Iva Silla leading the Badass Women of Zagreb Tour
Image by Silvija Jacić – Badass Women of Zagreb Tour

Sara: Because I want to give the Croatian government credit where it deserves it, is there anything about being an entrepreneur in Croatia that you feel benefits your company? Anything that you’re glad the Croatian Government does or offers?

Iva: I think that “paušalni obrt” is special way of doing small business. Do you know paušalni obrt?

Sara: I do know extensively about it and I recommend it to people on a weekly basis.

[Read: Types of obrt]

Iva: It seemed like an advanced concept and something that helped a lot of businesses at first. Now, again it turned out to be kind of a trap for a lot of businesses who are working for one client, and it was [considered] “hidden employment”. As an idea, it’s really a great thing because it helps, especially in services when you don’t have a lot of expenses. It can be a good way to try out your ideas. I think it is a great way to help small businesses. I still work as a paušalni obrt.

Sara: Given everything that you do is driven by protection and promotion of Croatian heritage, I’m curious what you think about how Croatia handles tourism at the national level.

Iva: It’s a big bureaucratic body. This is such a complex topic with all the smaller tourism boards that are not independent enough. I would say that’s the biggest problem for them. They have too many people behind them who are controlling them and they might not be as progressive, innovative.

Of course, most of the country, perceives it as just another way to hire some “uhljebs”. That’s a picture that people are getting, but I think it’s unfair towards those tourism boards who actually want to do the work. They really are trying to mobilize tourism and maybe not to do something that any other destination will do.

There should be a better way to raise the quality of the smaller tourism boards. They should have a purpose, but they don’t always have it.

I feel like some of the [national] campaigns are too generic. They are missing out on opportunities to send people to different destinations. The biggest promotion goes to the most important or visited destination and there’s no real kind of intention visible to spread the tourism routes, to really work on niche tourism. We have a lot of potential there.

Sara: That’s an interesting insight. So, what is next for you? What new projects are on the horizon? Do you have any big goals, or milestones you’re working towards?

Iva: Right now, I’m really focused on Croatian Underrated, the podcast. I didn’t really expect that this is going to work. I started it because I really wanted to try it out, but now that it has picked up and people are listening from all over the world, I’m now thinking I really want to make some side products that could help monetize that project. Like, some illustrated books about certain destinations and audio tours. That’s the thing that I’m working on right now. That’s my next milestone.

Everything that I’m working on is kind of developing nicely. I have a lot of new educational projects where I develop some gamified products for other destinations. It would be crazy to start something even newer until these things are as steady as Secret Zagreb.

Sara: Excellent! So, the final one I have for you: Is there anything else you’d like, to add or share with us?

Iva: Well, no, I haven’t talked this much about all of these projects for a long while but thank you for the opportunity. It was really, really a pleasure talking to you and I really hope you’re going to come to Zagreb in April.


How to support Iva Silla


View the full list of Women’s Month 2022 winners here. We will publish a new female entrepreneur interview every week during March. Stay tuned…

Please note: All information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. For legal advice, you must consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, you must consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant. We can recommend one if you contact us.

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