─ You have a variety of projects in Russia. What is MeetPartners’ place among them?
─ I am conducting many projects in parallel. About three years ago I participated as a shareholder in ten companies, and met the management of each of them at least once a month, sometimes once a week. I helped them do business, making use of my acquaintances and imparting my own experience. Now I am concentrating on MeetPartners, which is the most important project for me at this stage. It has to be brought to the level we planned for it.
The rest of the time I am mainly concerned with business coaching, both in the Skolkovo International Management School, where I teach a course, and as a private teacher.
I have been doing business in Russia for eight years now. I founded a restaurant and a chain of non-alcoholic bars. I am first of all a business artist in the broad sense. I love to bring people together so that something new and beautiful is created, and to connect different concepts.
─ Was your first project in Russia successful?
─ Well, as for the restaurant, I would call it a successful failure. From the business point of view, the project was successful: it still exists and brings in a profit, although the life cycle of restaurants is usually not a long one. But in the way relations were built within the project, and the way rights were distributed, there were quite a few mistakes. Because of this, I left the business four years ago. Now I teach young entrepreneurs on the basis of these cases what I learned from them myself, and explain what I mean by a “successful failure”.
I invested my own money in six of my Russian projects, beginning with ten thousand dollars, then more and more. Most of the projects have paid for themselves and are bringing in income, but some are not. This is partly due to the crisis, partly to unsuccessful partnerships and partly it is my own fault for not giving sufficient time to them.
─ What other Russian project could you point to, apart from MeetPartners?
─ Wizee Shopping. This is a mobile app, which helps in the completion of purchases in big shopping centres.
─ How developed is venture infrastructure in Russia?
─ Firstly, in this matter a distinction must be made between Moscow and the rest of Russia. In degree of development of venture infrastructure, Moscow is hardly behind the West at all. The Russian capital does not have enough startups up to the high standards of Silicon Valley, or, for example, Israel. But not because of a lack of talented entrepreneurs. I am always meeting creative innovative entrepreneurs here. What is happening is this: the investment ecosystem ─ business angels, venture funds ─ is developing and being perfected, the level of entrepreneurs is also rising, but investors are no longer always interested in Russian startups because their requirements for startups are being raised. This is why startups are beginning to seek investment in other countries, and local investors are thinking about how they can invest in a Western project.
─ Or in an Eastern one?
─ They invest in Asia too, of course. But less often. Many people in Skolkovo understand that the prospects are interesting, but often they are thinking not about starting up their own company, but about how to connect their business to some local business. Some interesting online projects have now been started there. To work in Asia, you need fire in your belly and decisiveness. It is not easy to work in a country with a totally different culture. Furthermore, Moscow is still too young as a venture market. Time has to elapse.
─ You did business in Canada, then in London, then in Russia. What is different about the business climates of these countries?
─ Yes, I began in Canada. I lived there from the age of 10 to 23, and managed to create four companies, the first when I was 13. At 20 I sold it and bought my mother a new kitchen and bedroom. But they were businesses on the side, mainly for amusement. I had my own main work, in an office.
Of course, the Russian business climate has many specific differences when compared to the Western one. In Russia, for example, a very watchful management is required, you have to check on absolutely everything. This is apparently one of the legacies of Russian history. On the other hand, decisions are often taken much more rapidly and simply than in England, where they think a lot, and analyse ─ clearly more than the situation requires. In Russia, similar decisions are sometimes taken in a second. This opens up new opportunities and sometimes gives great advantages.
In Canada, in this sense, there is an intermediate position, There everything is predictable and reliable, no extremes. It is convenient to do business. In Russia, you can go from one extreme to the other. One day you’re on the top of the pile, the next day you’ve lost your company.
─ Are decisions taken quickly in Silicon Valley?
─ Usually, yes. It is a characteristic of the IT market that if you take too long to think about it, someone else will pick up your market. And your staff will get fed up with it and go to work for a more dynamic company. Such conditions are very useful for business. You have to know how to take decisions and rapidly compare your actions with results. If a decision proves to be wrong, it must be put right quickly.
─ What role is played in your business by the place where we are standing now, i.e. the co-working “work station”?
─ These are partners who are important to us. In Israel or the USA, many events are held in such places. That is the strength of MeetPartners: we have developed communities of professionals, communicating both offline and online. We are specialists in the fashionable field of “edutainment”, education as entertainment. We offer events of some kind in the “work station” every week. In the building, in the open air and in the ArtPlay design centre.
─ Do people simply work here alongside each other or do they socialise beneficially for the matter in hand? What exactly does co-working offer?
─ Unfortunately, they don’t socialise enough. In the West, they actively get to know each other, they help each other, they find common business interests. Our activity here is designed to facilitate people communicating with each other. The situation is changing before our eyes.
─ Are Russian bureaucracy and corruption harmful to business?
─ You get this in all countries. It’s just that it all seems a little more blatant here. But in Russia, business can be carried on very well without becoming involved in corruption or bogged down in bureaucracy. There is a system functioning in Russia under which the long way can be “cut down”, a shortcut can be found, or the right person to solve the problem. You don’t have to try to solve it all yourself. You have to find someone who understands these ploys. Better still, send the solution for outsourcing.
─ How critical is the present situation for business?
─ In my opinion, now is the very best time to start up a new business in Russia or to expand an already existing business. Not necessarily on your own, it’s probably better to do it with a Russian partner, to create a joint enterprise or to buy a Russian firm. Russia at this moment has marked its place on the map, has made itself known. Of course there is nothing good in the current crisis, but the world now knows a lot more about Russia than it did a year ago. Fifteen million people live in Moscow, and they buy, buy, buy! The market here is flourishing, people are spending money and want to live life to the full.
─ Which Russian companies with Western capital seem the most interesting to you?
─ Of the online ones, KupiVIP.ru. I like the way Oskar Hartmann runs the business, and I myself have learned a lot from him. Then there is GetTaxi.ru: so much innovation, and in such a conservative market! And in general, there are many talented engineers and businessmen in Russia. We are helping them realise their potential.