Text: Taras Prokopyshyn. Photo & Video: Nazar Parkhomyk. The article is taken from theUkrainians.
Co-Founder and COO at KindGeek about the importance of strategic planning as well as why the ability to take responsibility is the most important thing for an entrepreneur.
“The technology of success” is the series of interviews with the most prominent Ukrainian IT companies’ leaders. Throughout the year, along with Lviv IT Cluster, we are going to tell you about the people who are leading technology companies in Ukraine, trying to get to know better those who move the country forward.
We talked with Yuriy Gnatyuk, Co-Founder and COO at KindGeek about the history of the company, the importance of strategic planning as well as why the ability to take responsibility is the most important thing for an entrepreneur.
An entrepreneur, first of all, is a person ready to take on much more responsibilities than others, and, secondly, someone who is ready to deal with risks. Why have you chosen this, the more complex way?
Being an entrepreneur is primarily a motive, a desire to give this world something, not just to consume. It’s a constant movement forward, a constant desire to be the best version of yourself. It’s a glint in the eyes. It’s discipline. It’s dreaminess and pragmatism at the same time.
An entrepreneur is ready to lose, choose, decide and give up on something every day. Business — is always a lot of work: interesting and not very, but always a lot of work.
I have often thought about who is an entrepreneur, and eventually, I realized that there is no such a profession. Let’s take, for example, Elon Musk, who has built at least three successful global companies in spheres that he didn’t have a degree in. He neither had an education in electric car engineering nor a Ph.D. in launching private rockets into space.
There are motivation and inspiration — they have meanings. And there is a motive — this is what drives a person.
For someone, a motive can be love for science or a big goal. For another, it’s a desire to have money. For yet another, it’s the older brother, who was always better in everything or the more beautiful sister, who was loved more than them. For someone else — it’s an old сhildhood fear or an unknown chemical reaction that constantly makes them move forward. People without a motive don’t have to rush too much, or rest, or make any extra decisions. They are happy, they are in their comfort zone.
Motives can vary a lot, but without them — everything is completely different. The main thing — they have to help you move forward. I have my own motive that helps me move. I know how it used to be, and I don’t want it to be the same.
How did you become who you are now? From being a journalist and a musician, how did you transition to being a COO at an IT company?
Often, when people tell you about how they got into IT, you can hear the usual story: a person liked Maths, got a computer when they were 7, wrote their first code at the age of 11 and so on. I’ve also had a computer since I was 10. I also created my own websites and forums. However, when I was younger I was more interested in people, their motives, and the interaction between them, as well as in literature, music, and football. I got interested in Maths as soon as I understood that “people” means Maths and “business” means formulas. It was back then that I got a desire to try and understand all of that better, on a different level.
If we are talking about my start in IT — I began from working at a startup. It was a product startup called STATR — something like Google Analytics for mobile games.
It’s a common story when people from outsourcing want to transfer to product development. With us, everything was vice versa. (Smiles) We have successfully failed that startup a couple of times. It already had rather big investments and was on the market for a few years. It had good chances of success, and actually, it had some customers. However, the company’s structure was really complex and getting investments from other investors was already difficult. That’s why the project was closed.
There was a logical question — what do we do next? No one hesitated and we immediately decided that we wanted to start something. Respectively, almost on the first day, we started developing our business. We wanted to build a platform for positive changes that would allow us, our employees, partners, and clients to constantly grow and develop.
"We wanted to build a platform for positive changes that would allow us, our employees, partners, and clients to constantly grow and develop."
Since we have worked in outsourcing companies before, we were acquainted with the business model. Also, the experience we gained while we were developing our startup has been invaluable. We immediately focused on working with startups and continue to do that to this day.
We wanted to build a platform for positive changes around this idea. This laid the foundations of the company. Our plan was to create a place where you would be happy to come back to. Whatever you might say, work takes up 75% of the life and time of the average person. And of course, you don’t want to associate yourself with a company or a job that you don’t like and where you don’t develop. This is wrong. We have a limited time, but a lot of people don’t understand it.
These are the things we relied on when starting the company, and, hence, that’s where our values come from. Once I’ve heard an interesting quote: “Value — is not a noun, but a verb”. We try to work in a team, even with our clients and partners (by the way, we call our employees partners as well). We try to make such values as social responsibility, trust, transparency and aesthetic sensitivity, the basis for what we do.
"Many people think that values and culture — are something you can write down in marketing materials or on a poster somewhere in the kitchen. But that’s not true."
When the values are the same as the actions, the operational activity becomes much easier: you don’t have to invent something, you have clear and transparent rules according to which the whole organization works. It really helps. Many people think that values and culture — are something you can write down in marketing materials or on a poster somewhere in the kitchen. But that’s not true. In modern companies, it’s one of the main things that helps it move forward, these are actions.
Please, tell us more about yourself. When did your entrepreneur story begin?
I grew up and studied in Lviv. When I was 14 I started making music. Others call it rap, but I don’t really like the word “rap”. For me, it was a tool of communication with the world. I have always been interested in people, literature, and media. Probably, that’s why I decided to study journalism at Ivan Franko National University.
Basically, everything that I started in life, I considered as a separate project. While majoring in journalism, I had a lot of free time, that’s why KindGeek — is not my first business. I used to have a music band and a recording studio. This can be considered my first business, since we created specific products there for the money. For some time I was also engaged in the clothing industry.
After that, together with my partner Anton Skrypnyk we started a manufacturing company of frameless furniture — Yo-ma-Yo. It still exists, however, we do not participate in its operating activities. I went through all stages with this company — from the moment the product was created to sales, communications, and collaboration with other Ukrainian entrepreneurs. After that came STATR, our startup in the tech sphere.
Why have you decided to work in the tech business?
Compared to other fields, tech business — is much more interesting. Here I mean the standards that the IT sector offers, the business that is building around it as well as the opportunities to work with global companies. I can really learn a lot here by working with companies from all around the world. Our clients are scattered throughout continents: the USA, Europe, Middle East, Australia and Asia.
Were all of your previous companies financially successful?
Certainly. They were not unprofitable, though it’s quite difficult to assess their financial success right now since there are a lot of different formulas and it depends on what are you comparing them to. Probably, they weren’t as successful as we would have liked them to be because otherwise we would be still developing them. We were looking for opportunities that would allow us to work on the global market.
Who are the founders of KindGeek? Why have you decided to start a company with them?
It’s quite simple. Apart from me, the other co-founders were Anton Skrypnyk and Oleh Pankiv. Why them? First of all, we had very similar life periods. Anton — is a close friend of mine and now also a relative, since I’m a godfather to his baby. I’ve known him for almost 15 years. As to Oleh, we used to work together at STATR.
At some point, we felt something like a catharsis, we sort of synchronized. We’ve been in similar life situations and understood that we wanted to change something in our lives.
After some time, Oleh left the project and for nearly a year Anton and I have been continuing to develop the company on our own.
Could you please tell us more about the work of KindGeek: what are your priorities? What makes you special?
We help companies grow. We have some personal experience with startups and we know perfectly well what a startup is, and what its challenges, life cycles, etc. are. Most importantly, we know what one definitely should not do. And now, we also know what one has to do. (Smiles)
Therefore, our basic goal — is to help companies with a tech component. We give them an opportunity to work on the business, develop it, think about strategic matters and we take care of the technical part. Although, recently we’ve been working a lot with startup marketing and attracting investments.
There were several cases when we attended meetings with investors. The startup we have been working with from the very beginning, with our help attracted Round A investments. Now we’re partners with the entrepreneur and the startup.
So, for now, our focus is 100% startups. First of all, because it’s interesting. Every day you work and communicate with people who sort of already passed the “natural selection” in the industry, they’re interesting and want to create something. It’s very motivating.
If we’re talking about the range of services, we are positioning ourselves as a full cycle software development company, which means we can make a product “from scratch”. Starting with business analysis and design, and finishing with development, testing, launching, and marketing.
Please, tell us about your most interesting projects and clients.
Working with startups has its own specificity — every project is very interesting. Unlike big corporations, we don’t have boring projects. Every upcoming project is completely different. We are lucky in this respect. We are so agile that on the one hand, a startup may not survive even three months, and on the other hand, it may grow into a large company already in half a year.
"Unlike big corporations, we don’t have boring projects. Every upcoming project is completely different. We are lucky in this respect."
Once we were writing a product “from scratch”, completely for free. Now this company has attracted a round of investments and has thousands of employees in the USA. They grew from a startup into a big business. A lot of companies that undergo such an evolution still continue to call themselves startups, even though, in fact, they are already real companies.
We’ve had a lot of interesting projects. For example, we made an irrigation system for fields in Africa. Also, together with Lviv City Council, we did a test project to track temperatures in kindergartens throughout the city. There are some projects in which we are investing.
I can talk for hours about our projects. (Smiles) When we have clients visiting, it’s a real holiday. All of them are interesting and you can really learn a lot from them.
How many people are working at the company?
We started back in 2015. Currently, there are nearly 140 of us. We are trying to work with people who have similar values and vision. We also try to be straightforward, as transparent as possible, and we try to synchronize the expectations of the company with the expectations of its employees. And also to grow together.
What is the secret of such a rapid growth?
Honestly, I don’t think it’s so cool. For me, it’s not a difficult business and there are no special tricks. Analyzing these two years, I understand that we could have done everything much better. So, for me, we haven’t really done anything that can be called amazing. I actually get angry sometimes, because we’re not growing as fast as I wish we would.
We have a very simple business model. One thing you need to know exactly — is what you are selling and what value you can give to your clients. The market is so big, that there is much more demand than there is what to offer. Therefore, I don’t understand that there are companies that have been on the market for ten years, but their size hasn’t grown from ten employees. Probably, it’s comfortable for them.
"People who I can really call successful, have been working at 100% for a long period of time. They’ve been working not 24/7, but 28/9."
There are two ways of monetization in outsourcing: either increase profits and move into product business or increase the number of employees. Because the number of projects, profits and everything else depends on the number of people. So you either transform into a super automated service and do projects worth millions, or you need to efficiently and steadily enlarge the team.
First of all, it’s a lot of work. Many people, when starting a business think that they just need an idea, meetings and a photo on Facebook. And then someone will come and bring them a million. (Laughs) I have met many such people.
People who I can really call successful (and this doesn’t mean they have a million, a billion or a trillion because success is a combination of different attributes and balance), have been working at 100% for a long period of time. They’ve been working not 24/7, but 28/9. Always.
We often analyze how a company is developing and clearly understand — there is no magic. When we speak at conferences, people often approach us asking to tell them the secret of success, advise them for a scheme or for a template.
In fact, such templates exist. But these are instructions that you can personally write for yourself based on your area, experience, information field, social circle… This is what comes first. But people think that there is a one-page document which says where there is a button called “success” and how to activate it. (Smiles)
Let’s take, for example, sales. To achieve normal sales you need to work systematically, have a good team, start working on certain platforms, make a good website and a portfolio.
Everybody knows these things, but not everyone does it. Due to the fact that on every stage we worked a lot and made the right decisions, there are more than a hundred of us now, not just 30.
From the very beginning we laid processes for a large scale, we were ready to grow. For the first people who joined our team, I personally made a branded T-shirt and told them in details who we and our values are. It was the same with every department. We tried to lay the foundations for the organization beforehand so that it was easier to grow further. The company with 20 employees and the one with 120 employees — are two completely different stories.
"From the very beginning we laid processes for a large scale, we were ready to grow."
Many companies find it difficult to transition from a “family” company to a process one. When there are just 20 people, you can see all of them, communicate, spend time together. When there 120 of you, it becomes difficult to interact with one another if the processes are not adjusted and no rules are specified. Thus, from the very beginning, we tried to lay out these processes specifically for each direction. That’s exactly what I am doing at the company.
We have recently discussed this with Anton and we have come to realize that it actually played a big role for us. Right now we find it much easier. We haven’t felt the transition because the right processes were laid out from the beginning.
You mean, you already knew how to move in the process of growth…
I can’t say we knew it for sure, but we tried to predict it. Everybody has access to information, therefore we tried to analyze the best practices and to predict. Everybody has the Internet, all data is public, so the only thing one needs to do — is to learn how to analyze it properly, organize, and use it. This is one of the factors that helped us grow harmoniously.
Theoretically, tomorrow we could expand the team by 50 people. But will this decision be justified? There are companies with a development plan and they are growing according to it, but quantity growth doesn’t always mean quality growth.
"Business — is about money. However, balance is always important because growing just for the sake of growing doesn’t make any sense. The same applies to processes for the sake of processes."
Whenever we’re setting up a new process, I send an e-mail to every employee. It’s a formal document, but everyone can edit it. If anyone has any ideas, comments, or criticism — they will write it down there. Then we work on every correction and idea and implement them with the whole team.
One of the founders has left the company rather quickly after its launch. How critical was the situation?
Honestly, I don’t think that anything terrible happened. Why? I’ve already had an experience when we parted our ways with a business partner, and that’s why before starting the company we signed a partnership agreement and clearly stated all the important moments including a possible partner disaffiliation. Therefore, this story was relatively quick and lacked in drama.
People often think that if someone leaves a business, they for sure ditched someone and took advantage of them. (Smiles) Very often it happens so, but we had a totally different story. Our third partner changed his priorities — he decided to start a product development business. And it was a great decision.
We have laid out processes which would contribute to a rapid growth from the very beginning, so it’s not a problem to replace someone’s competencies. We are not trying to build a company of stars, we want to create a star-company.
You can often hear about a star-team in the context of football. That’s a popular strategy among coaches: always have a good alternative for every position…
I’m a fan of the football team “Manchester United” and Alex Fergusson personally. He used to teach at Harvard Business School and writes really good books about management. I like his philosophy because there’s no one who knows better how to work with celebrities. His “products” include some of the world-famous footballers such as David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, and many others.
In his autobiography he describes in details the whole experience, it’s really interesting to read how he worked with football stars: what are the rules of interaction, what to do and what to avoid, how to plan a season and conduct a selection. Every four years he was rebuilding the team and knew for sure which player would be needed for a specific position in five or ten years.
"To get the right answers, you need to know the right questions."
We have a portrait of Sir Alex in our room and we’re trying to build our team with a similar philosophy. There are a lot of stars in IT, too. I often speak about that in my public talks. I sometimes think that due to the fact that there is a lot of poverty in our country, people who are earning relatively good compared to others, start to get their minds distorted, their coordinate system crashes. You have to always be careful with that, you need to understand a person’s motivation, their strategic goals, and work with that. To get the right answers, you need to know the right questions.
Every organization has a mission or a big idea. What is the mission of KindGeek?
We’re trying to build a platform for positive changes. Both local and global. We want to create a place where people will be willing to self-develop, learn, earn, change themselves and their surroundings. Everyone might have completely different goals, but if we see the company as something that belongs to us, it’s easier to achieve any goal. If you have a success story, it’s so much easier to make an impact.
Some of our plans are already becoming a reality. Right now we are working on a number of projects with universities — we deliver lectures and mentor. There are many other ideas that we plan to implement or we are already implementing within this platform.
What are the main challenges and risks that people who want to start an IT company are facing?
First of all, you have to understand that it is actually possible. We were starting our business in the post-revolution period, the period when the Crimea was annexed and the war began. When we would tell this to our friends, everyone would say that we were weird. (Smiles) They were saying it’s a bad timing, that we had to calm down, that we wouldn’t succeed.
Currently, there already more than 100 of us and we continue to grow in quantity and quality. First of all, you have to listen to yourself and do what you think is the right option. And do it with the right people.
There is a myth that it is difficult to do business in Ukraine. Perhaps, Ukraine doesn’t have the best ecosystem for entrepreneurs, but it’s very easy to do business here. Since there is practically no business in Ukraine. Here is an example.
I was redecorating my apartment recently. It’s another story, a big pain actually. (Smiles) I needed a wardrobe. What do you do when you need a wardrobe? Of course, you just google “Wardrobe. Lviv. Buy”. I looked at maybe 10 pages of the results and didn’t find any proper website or service that would help me satisfy the need.
"Doing your job properly in Ukraine — already is a competitive advantage. The majority of businesses here — are not very client-oriented. That’s why it is very easy to start a business in Ukraine."
Everyone who’s now reading this interview, can analyze the market, find providers and with small investments start a business that would later become successful. Why? There is a very low competition here, and brands on the market often provide poor quality services or create bad products.
Let me give you another example. When we were moving to another office, we used the services of a moving company. I’ve become a real fan of that company and recommend it to everyone. I left a review on their website and sort of became their brand promoter. Why? They came in advance, did everything quickly and didn’t take more money than they should have. Sounds like nothing special. They simply did their job properly.
Doing your job properly in Ukraine — already is a competitive advantage. The majority of businesses here — are not very client-oriented. That’s why it is very easy to start a business in Ukraine. You can make a team of a few good people, identify several niche areas, go in there and make a profitable business. You don’t need any subsidies or other simplifications.
The only thing you need is to be willing to take responsibility. Of course, there are many other nuances, but you are the state yourself, and a lot depends on you. The key thing here — is taking responsibility. It’s important to understand that there is no one to blame. No one except you is responsible for your social status, income, perspectives, mood and everything else.
"The key thing here — is taking responsibility. It’s important to understand that there is no one to blame."
It’s very easy to feel sorry for yourself. It’s the way of the least resistance. I feel sorry for myself because “everything is bad”, “it’s the President’s fault”, “I hate my school”, my area, language etc. It’s the moment when you have to stop, look in the mirror and understand who you are. And then start moving and changing.
How do you see KindGeek, let’s say in 10 years?
I’m a rather systemic person — I have a plan for three and five years ahead. There is a clear vision of the company in 2019. It’s a big program document that we wrote together with Anton. Sometimes we reread everything we wrote, in order to make sure that we are moving in the right direction. Our overall vision, specific numbers, quality requirements, etc. are written there.
In the upcoming decade, I see KindGeek as a global company, a leader on the market with the best combination of price and offer, and with a good added value. As a place where people want to work and are happy to come back to. Needless to say, a financially successful organization as well.
How do you see yourself?
When I was making music, people used to call me a musician, now I’m engaged in IT, so they call me an “IT guy”. However, I’m engaged in a lot of things, I don’t like to associate myself with one specific sphere. I have many friends in different industries and businesses. I’m interested in a lot of other spheres, and that’s why I’m already investing in some of them. In publishing, real estate, agriculture. If I shared my ambitions with a stranger, they would probably think I was inadequate. (Smiles) I see myself the way I am now but on a larger scale.
What does success mean to you?
It’s difficult to say what success means exactly, but I for sure know where to find it. Success is always out of your comfort zone. Success means balancing between hundreds of different “I”s.
Every day I wake up with a great joy about the upcoming day. I’m happy that I’m doing exactly what I’m doing. And that every specific thing brings me closer to my strategic objectives. That’s why success is also the sense of balance and usefulness. It’s when every day you’re coming closer to a great idea, when you’re giving something back to the world, and not just consuming. It’s when you make your loved ones happy.
"It’s difficult to say what success means exactly, but I for sure know where to find it. Success is always out of your comfort zone."
Many people associate success with money. On the one hand, it’s logical, because there are a lot of poor people in Ukraine, and they can’t think about self-development and their mission on Earth, because all they can think about is what will they eat tomorrow.
But there comes a moment in life when you understand that money is no longer your goal. If you’ve passed that stage already, you start to think about other things: What could I do for my girlfriend to make her happier? What could I do for my parents? What could I do for the house I live in? My city? My country? The world?
Answers are born in actions. Including the answers about what exactly success is.
Do you consider yourself successful?
If I say “no”, I’ll lie. If I say “yes”, it also won’t be quite true. Because you learn everything in comparison. Now I’m in the process of a certain transformation, a renewal. I don’t know how long this process will last, but I’m really enjoying it.
I’m really lucky because throughout my life I have had three moments that you could call “catharsis”. But after each one, I have come to the right conclusions.
There are certain moments in life when you think: “That’s all”. And then someone calls you from beneath and you understand that’s the end. A lot of people feel broken in such moments: some start drinking, others — emigrate, yet others — try to escape from themselves.
The moment when you stop, think about yourself, draw conclusions and take responsibility for your own life — is the hardest one. I was lucky because I came to the right conclusions in each of these periods. The universe offered me options which weren’t that funny. (Smiles)
I’m not one of those people who studied super well in school, or who had an aristocratic family where everything was thought out in advance. My story is completely different. I’m one of those people who had to choose on every stage: turn left or right. The way I am right now — is a result of my conscious choices.
Do you agree with an opinion that IT — is one of the few spheres where “social elevators” work and the talented Ukrainian youth can take advantage of that?
I completely disagree. You don’t have to simply follow the trends. It often happens that people come in the IT industry just because people earn decent money here. They start working at IT companies, but they are suffering there. It doesn’t make any sense.
However, actually many people get retrained perfectly. There are different people working at our company. For example, a former welder or a bartender. These are simple transformations, but most importantly the desire to change a profession should come from the inside. If such a decision synchronizes with your essence, it’s wonderful.
IT is not just all technical things, it involves a lot of working with people and administrative work. Of course, if you like making furniture or being a journalist, you’ll do everything with maximum quality in your area and will earn the same money. If you have the desire to do so.
"Old rules do not apply anymore. It’s not enough to get a degree. You have to be able to analyze information and make decisions."
The world has changed. Old rules do not apply anymore. It’s not enough to get a degree. You have to be able to analyze information and make decisions. You don’t have to study for 10 years to start earning money. Now you can earn good money even while you’re still 18.
I have a friend — Bohdan Hnatkovskyi — at the age of 18 he was already out of his first business which received huge investments. Now he’s 22 — and he already owns a third company. When he was just starting, he didn’t have any higher education, not just the technical one.
Now everything is possible. You just have to learn to take responsibility for your own life.