Artem Vysotsky began his career at the Belarusian outsourcing company Intentics. Then Boris Kontsevoi’s company was outsourcing for the California company SugarCRM. In 2013, at the invitation of this company, Artem moved to Silicon Valley. There he, along with his wife and classmate Mikita Mikado, CEO of PandaDoc, created the 300Editors startup.
Artem was the first engineer in the Valley to be hired by Oleg Roginsky’s company People.ai. This B2B-startup, whose clients are such “industry giants” as Red Hat, Lyft, Zoom, Dropbox, Zendesk, New Relic, Splunk, recently raised $60M in investments, giving it an unofficial valuation of $500M.
Read below about how our hero ended up in San Francisco. And if you heroically read to the end, you’ll learn about Artem’s predictions on whether or not Belarus can build its own Silicon Valley with its own Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
Life Experience vs. Work in Silicon Valley Startups
I’ve been working in IT for 10 years now, in different positions. In 2009, when I returned from Germany after graduating from the magistracy, I worked as a freelancer for three years. Then I realized that I wanted to get teamwork experience, so I joined Boris Kontsevoi’s Intetics. I was very lucky to be introduced to its SugarCRM project. I was the fourth person to work there; then we grew the team to 64+ people.
Travelling to the main office of SugarCRM in Silicon Valley, I completely fell in love with California. Upstart that I was, I went to the then Chief Product Officer Lila Tretikov. I asked her to get me a visa so I could come to California. Of course, she was a little bit stunned because we had no such agreement with Intetics. Moreover, according to the rules, it was impossible to remove people from outsourcing; that was supposed to be paid for. But they made an exception for me, and my life story in the Valley began in 2013.
On the SugarCRM project in Minsk, we managed to create a certain corporate culture. We gathered like-minded people and developed very good relationships inside the company.
But when I arrived in Silicon Valley, I discovered that the company’s culture was completely different there. Having worked with them for a year, I realized that I simply didn’t fit in. People were much older, they had very different priorities in life, and the company moved much more slowly. I thought, why not try something different, and went to another startup.
Connect and the Hugs
That’s how I ended up with Connect. Most likely, I chose this company because of its CEO Ryan Allis. This guy sold his company for $169M and began to build a new product with the money.
We worked in a real startup house — a five-story building with a pool and a jacuzzi in the middle of San Francisco. By the way, my interview took place in that pool. That was my first experience with the startup culture of Silicon Valley.
The first thing that surprised me was the hugs. Now you find them everywhere, of course, even in Belarusian startups. But back in 2013, the hugs became a certain ritual within the company — they made us different from all the others.
At Connect, we were engaged in the aggregation of social networks — connecting all social networks to one account in the application; we sucked up social graphs and displayed them on the map. That way we were solving our CEO’s problem. He had tens of thousands of acquaintances all over the world, and people with so many acquaintances couldn’t conveniently group and catalogue them.
When CEOs travel, they try to meet with the maximum number of useful people. Our application allows you to see the acquaintances you have in a particular geographical point.
But, unfortunately, the application didn’t work out. Facebook closed access to the social graph in 2015 while it was the main social network for us. The company had to shut down. That’s how we successfully “burned” almost $20M.
I met key people who changed my life while I was at Connect. I mainly worked with the engineer Ivan Bertona who had been at Google for seven years. He completely reformatted my brain. He explained to me how engineering products are developed on a large scale, with a large number of users. I had to throw out all my previous experience and relearn to be a programmer. I learned some recruitment tricks from Caen Contee, the second CEO of Connect, who later went to the position of VP of Marketing at Lime.
300Editors & Ghostwriting
The same year I moved to Silicon Valley, my classmate Mikita Mikado, CEO of PandaDoc, also moved there. We began to communicate more often, and once he came to me with an idea. Mikita was writing a lot of articles in English for TechCrunch and other online magazines similar to yours. His English was very good, but all the same, every time he wrote an article, he had to do a spell check and translate his “Russian English” into normal English.
He had to look for proofreaders on freelance exchanges, which took an enormous amount of time. Mikita suggested an idea: to make an extension for Google Docs, which will allow sharing a document with the editor in one click of a button.
The idea was interesting, and most importantly, I clearly understood that I could do it. In addition, it fitted my family very well. My wife had also moved to Silicon Valley by that time, but her type of visa didn’t give her the right to work; before she moved, she was engaged in translating texts and applications. She also had to go to the freelance exchanges, looking for people who knew English well and giving them proofreading work. She understood this work behind the scenes and knew how to communicate with people who work with texts.
This was the solution for the chicken-and-egg problem: Editors will not sit and wait for work if there are no orders, but orders will not arrive if there are no editors.
As a result, we created the 300editors company. My wife was the CEO, and I was the CTO. We very quickly developed what we call an “Uber for proofreading.” With this platform, editors can view orders in real time. Whoever first calls up a document gets the order. For people not familiar with Google Docs and the collaborative function, it’s like magic.
My wife hired the best editors from the oDesk freelance market, promising them slightly higher fees than they received there. This was the solution for the chicken-and-egg problem: Editors will not sit and wait for work if there are no orders, but orders will not arrive if there are no editors.
We had a couple of dozen editors who were constantly available on our platform, waiting for orders. And it turned out that there were more of those who wanted to work than there was work. Editors in America are usually English language teachers with a very small salary who are looking for a side job, including proofreading.
At the very beginning, I thought how cool it would be to earn the first $5. But on the very first day, we earned a hundred. The service was working and people were coming.
We originally thought that the market would consist of people like Mikita who write blog posts and articles. And this was the case at first. For example, when ABBYY Lingvo’s founder David Yang was launching the Findo.com startup in Silicon Valley, all of his blog’s marketing material went through us.
But the biggest orders came from a market we knew nothing about — from ghostwriting agency owners. If someone wants to write a book and doesn’t have a clue about how to do so, he contacts a certain agency, distributes the idea, and pays for the job to be done. Ghostwriters or no-name writers write the text for him. All copyrights are transferred to the customer, and the book is published under his authorship.
Despite the fact that there are many such agencies and they hire their own writers and editors, sometimes there are too many orders. And in America, it is often more important to do the work on time than to earn money — to maintain your reputation.
When some ghostwriting agency lacked editors, they came to us and threw off entire books for review. Before the launch of the company, we’d never heard about the existence of this market. But as a result, most of the money began to come from there.
How did it all end? First, the visa I had at the time allowed me to work only for a specific company, so I couldn’t leave it to completely engage in my startup — I would have to leave America.
In America, it is often more important to do the work on time than to earn money — to maintain your reputation.
Secondly, life in Silicon Valley is very expensive. The money we earned at 300editors was completely inadequate even to keep crumbs on the table. And thirdly, I got an offer from People.ai. Assessing the risks, I realized that if I accepted it, the probability of my personal success and the company’s success would be much higher. The focus is very important at the beginning. You can’t simultaneously successfully expand a company and work on your own startup.
Therefore, we decided to sell 300editors, despite the fact that it was profitable from the very first month, to one of our product users. It is still afloat.
People.ai and its founder Oleg Roginsky
I met with Oleg Roginsky a year before Connect closed down. At that time, he was looking for a CTO and offered me the job. But I was waiting for a green card and couldn’t go to work for him. We met in the Russian sauna Archimedes. It’s quite a famous place in Silicon Valley among Russian-speaking engineers and entrepreneurs. People go there to bathe and often — for investments and new staff.
It turned out that Oleg came there purposefully for me, although he doesn’t like saunas. This shows his interesting character: the guy does whatever the company needs. Even if he personally doesn’t like it. After Connect closed, I began to look for a new job. I went to Facebook, Google, Dropbox, and I realized that I didn’t want to be this little cog among tens of thousands of wheels. I was looking for a startup that understands what doing business means. Where the staff knows how to work with iterations. And I no longer wanted to be in B2 °C, I didn’t want to engage in social networks.
Salespeople in some companies in the US are not paid commissions until the transaction is recorded in the system. Salespeople hate to keep these records and fill out forms.
Just at that moment, Oleg Roginsky posted an announcement that they were recruiting people and could now afford engineers in Silicon Valley. Before that, their team was based in Ukraine. By that time, they’d passed Y Combinator, one of the largest startup incubators in the world. Once, we tried to get into YCombinator with 300Editors but we didn’t qualify, and I really wanted to work in a startup that went through this incubator.
In addition, what the company was doing well resonated with me. It was an AI service that collects and analyzes CRM data generates by salespeople to give them recommendations and, as a result, to help them close the deal faster and more efficiently. Since my time at SugarCRM, I understand this business and the problem it solves.
Sales are the main driving force of all big businesses in America. When the company has 2K-10K sales staff, it is very important to keep records of all transactions and their statuses in one system. This allows you to build models and assumptions, know the status of transactions, and understand how much the company earns.
CRM is the Customer Relationship Management system, the main tracking system for all sales processes within an organization.
Salespeople in some companies in the US are not paid commissions until the transaction is recorded in the system. Salespeople hate to keep these records and fill out forms. Their brains don’t work that way. They want to do their job — to sell. But managers need the CRM system to be filled. Our startup solves this problem.
We connect to the company’s information flows (e-mails, meeting calendars, Slack, and other information systems where people are negotiating) and understand from the context what record in the CRM system can be created.
The whole process is fully automatic. Our artificial intelligence fills the CRM system with all the data it can find in the information flows. Analytics is built on top of the available data.
Belarus for a rest and gestalt therapy
I returned to Belarus for six months. I want to make a decision about whether to stay in America or return to my homeland.
Silicon Valley is not heaven on earth.
What am I going to do here? First, I’ll have some rest. Second, I’ll bring my doubts to a closure. When I went to San Francisco, I had a good job here, an apartment. Everything was good.
Silicon Valley is not heaven on earth. Despite the fact that there are goal-oriented people there, wonderful weather, nature, and, perhaps, the best views anywhere that I have seen, there are a lot of things I don’t like — from homeless people on the streets to very high prices for everything.
From the very first day after the move, I constantly asked myself, “Where is it better for me?” I asked myself this question for five years, and then I decided that I couldn’t continue like this. This question didn’t allow me to live my life. Every time I came across something that I didn’t like in San Francisco, I thought about Belarus and began to idealize it for myself.
I want to check how the idealized Belarus that has developed in my head over the past five years corresponds to reality. Moreover, my child was born in America. I haven’t lived in Belarus with children yet, so this will be a completely new experience.
So far, everything is very good. Even awesome. Infrastructure has developed very strongly in five years. There are places to go on the weekend, there are places where to work. Everything is very nice. Even this cafe — there were simply no such cafes with such coffee and such a level of service five years ago. It is clear that I have a kind of “resort” attitude to the country for now.
«Will help you build your startup. Or maybe not: D»
I worked for a company that failed, and I know how to help people avoid the same mistakes. Honestly, there have been only failures in my experience, not counting the small success with 300editors.
The most common mistake is that people are doing something without first finding out if anyone else needs it.
Now I get acquainted with startups in Minsk. There are several great ones that will probably succeed. But it seems that they no longer need my help. It’s not their first time in battle.
The most common mistake is that people are doing something without first finding out if anyone else needs it. Most engineers are introverts. They take the path of least resistance — they simply make their product trying with all their might to avoid communicating with people. But in fact, they should communicate in the first place.
I myself know that engineers are afraid to communicate with people. The first question I ask when I meet with startups is, “Guys, did you talk to anyone at all? Have you verified that someone needs what you are doing?”
This way I try to help people to move on from where they’re stuck. I ask the right questions.
Are you tired of reading? But that’s not all yet. The second part of the interview with the heroic Artem Vysotsky will soon appear on our website.
In the next part, the hero will tell us about the People.Ai CRM system — a startup that passed the program of the most authoritative business accelerator in the world and is now estimated at $500M, as well as about the differences between people in startups in Belarus and California and predict the future of Belarus in plans for world domination in the silicon world.