From the mid-2000s, Yuri Bitno was an entrepreneur, then worked in senior positions in a telecom company for more than 8 years. Today, he is the CEO and co-owner of the product IT company BelPrime, co-founder of the Edtech platform for the development of thinking and logic in children Logiclike. In addition to discussing his different lives as a corporate employee and entrepreneur, Yuri spoke about creative thinking and the various business mentalities of Belarusians.
— Yuri, you’ve worked as a payroll employee for a long time — what motivated you to start your own business? Are you happy with that choice?
— I should say that I was very lucky with the manager and my experience as a payroll employee was excellent. There wasn’t a negative experience that caused me to run away and do something on my own. I spent about 8 years working for someone else—and if the situation in that market had developed differently, it is quite possible that I would still be there. It was a great time, we were building the infrastructure and providing services — this job combined hardware, software, and working with people.
I came to BelPrime when it was already a functioning business. The company was founded by two cool guys — Victor Khamenok (he is now engaged in robotics) and Oleg Borisevich.
The time of free-floating right after leaving my payroll job was a very difficult period in my life. Before I left, I was a CEO; only the owner of the company was above me. And when you work with a good company founder, there are two positive things.
First of all, he gives you additional external motivation. He represents an additional involved person with whom you can discuss any complex business issues. The right question or a kick in the butt at the right moment really helps. But when you start working for yourself, you’re alone. And success—or failure—depends entirely on you.
Secondly, when you work as a payroll employee, there is a person who is ultimately responsible for the result and in many ways determines your earnings. It’s different when you work for yourself — if you haven’t earned money, where should you go next? Either you go to the bank, or to your friends for a loan.
The first steps on my own were the hardest period of time. Literally, nothing was working out; what was taught in business schools and smart textbooks didn’t work anymore. I came home in the evenings and couldn’t even talk with my family, so I went for a run. After five kilometers, it felt a bit better. When you try doing things and nothing works out, it’s a nightmare that I would never wish for anyone. Maybe someone had a great time starting their own business. But I had it like this.
By the way, I wouldn’t say that after working in my own business I wouldn’t go back to a payroll job. I’d work with some teams for the sake of experience that I couldn’t get in any other circumstances. The companies don’t matter, because I’d go to work in a team with specific people. I don’t work for a company; I work with people.
— How did you adjust to this new life, entirely on your own when it comes to responsibility and creativity?
— It’s like the joke about the hare who comes to the owl for advice on self-defense and is told, “Become a hedgehog.” Not everyone has to become a hedgehog! God forbid everyone to think different and become super-creative people!
Devoting 2% of your creativity is probably enough to come up with the idea of a project and implement it. If you don’t have even that, hire someone who is creative, and you will compensate by doing what you can do. Do you think everyone on my team is a genius of creativity? No, they’re not. I don’t consider myself a super-creative person, but my partner in LogicLike has a head that works completely differently. But I compensate for this and do other things; I’m strong in perfectionism, knowledge, and perseverance. But my business partner in LogicLike Matvey Olevinski has a head that works completely differently. His decisions are often creative and unexpected for me. We complement each other perfectly.
— How did you come up with the idea to make LogicLike? After all, it was also a creative idea.
— Perhaps it wasn’t the most creative idea, and in part, it was a family story because my parents have been engaged in education for a long time. After a number of unsuccessful projects and undertakings, the team and I thought about what to do, looked for ideas with passion and skepticism. Even in the most optimistic circumstances, 9 out of 10 projects don’t work out. In reality, I think, the statistics are much worse. The project Logic.by (later Logiclike.com) was the startup in which we decided to do the opposite to what we were doing before.
We went to a potential target audience—parents—and asked if they had any interest in “developing the flexibility of thinking and logic in their children.” I could hardly find a parent who said no. We held meetings with our future users at a time when there was no product whatsoever. Only after collecting feedback and contacts of really interested people did we start the project. I sometimes forget about it, but you get feedback in the real world often cheaper than online.
The second reason we started this project is that I myself have children. For me, the big question is “What will be useful for my children tomorrow?” How should they be taught? Will it be AI and home study or a teacher and group work? My version is what and how we teach the kids in LogicLike.
Everything coincided at the start of the project — the students’ parents said yes, and my parents shared their methodologies and best practices, which we laid as the basis of the courses. As a result, we didn’t have an option — the first version of the product had to be done during the 3 summer vacation months.
— You said that you completely revised your approach to an MVP after failing with a project in the field of medicine. What did you do differently in Logiclike?
— Not only in the medical project; I see this very often in business. The work is based on a global hypothesis — say, a target group is lacking some tool. We’re developing this tool for months or years, then we start looking for customers and trying to sell. This is not how it works. The first bad sign is when you show a prototype, and the client says, “Wow, what a cool product! I find it interesting, but it lacks one more important function — if you add it, I’m definitely buying!” You leave, and the client thinks, “Do I really need it?”
In LogicLike, we acted differently — we came to the client and asked, “Here’s a hypothesis, are you buying?” If the client at the idea level says, “Yes, I’m buying, ” then you go and make a product. The time gap between your question and the finished product should be minimal. In our case, this period turned out naturally — summer holidays. We made the MVP in three months. Restrictions help to discard what’s more than necessary, what you always want to add during development.
We started selling Logiclike before we had the product. And I think this was our most correct decision in the project at the initial stage.
— Do you agree that business is, first and foremost, perseverance and faith in the success of your project?
— Yes, it much depends on how crazy you are to keep moving forward despite the fact that everything says the opposite. You need a ton of perseverance and a healthy share of insensitivity to failure.
It’s too early to say that LogicLike is an example of global success. Within Belarus, we are undoubtedly noticeable, but we’ll be able to talk about some achievements on a global scale at least in a year. But if someone had told me 4 years ago that we would grow to this scale, I wouldn’t have believed it. Everyone. I told about the project answered that it was a cool and socially significant project, but could it earn any money?
Most people twisted at the temple when they heard that we’re doing a project in the field of education in the CIS segment.
Clearly, scaling was originally in the business model. But choosing a market to work with, we had to take into account the mentality and environment. We were trying to understand whether there was any demand for such a service, and where exactly it was. Different countries have different approaches to the motivation of parents to educate their children and different competition. The competitive component is strong in the countries of the former USSR, but it’s not the case in the European countries. In the USA, for example, the Russian school of mathematics is popular. Some guys took the Russian textbooks on mathematics and began to teach Americans by those textbooks. That worked out for them. I really hope that our project will also work out, but due to other reasons.
— How popular is the prospect of owning a business in Belarus today?
— Only an insane person will do business in Belarus. The accumulated experience is so thorny that it will probably take decades before something changes in perception. The first thought that comes to your mind, if you are considering the possibility of doing business in Belarus is whether it’s prohibited by law or not. It seems to me that the first thought that occurs to any American is how to squeeze money out of it? This is a huge difference in perception. They think about possibilities, we think about limitations.
Yes, a lot is changing for the better. It changes slowly, that’s even hard to notice, but if we study a segment for 10 years, the difference will be very noticeable. The famous Decree number 8 is a great, very serious signal for the market, especially for the IT industry. Tax exemptions were exclusive before, too. The new decree helped solve many problems with companies that conduct business worldwide. These conditions brought us closer to the realities in which successful foreign companies have long been living. You stumble less with upon something archaic and bureaucracy. I hope this will eventually allow us to move toward a quantum leap in improvement for the entire industry.
To us, living here and now, the current situation always seems to be not good enough. But it will gradually improve along with our way of perception.
— How should we teach and raise children now so that they grow up with the right sort of business outlook?
— I would very much like to know the correct answer to this question myself. In conditions when the right solution is unknown, I tried to formulate criteria for myself as follows: • to maintain natural curiosity; • to develop flexibility and adaptability to the environment; • to keep the hunger for needs; • and of course, to work, work, work… Notice that there’s no “get only high grades, ” no “be the best of the best, ” no love of art or math, although it is a priority for my children Such a combination, in my opinion, will allow us to grow a generation of people with a new way of thinking that will shape the business environment, the economy and culture of the country in circumstances that we cannot even imagine yet.