The Russian entrepreneur, whose life in business began on second-hand car market and on board ships in the Barents Sea, explains why he has chosen Lithuania, and gives his suggestions on which young companies will be the next to receive substantial investment.
Before you started working with start-ups, what did you do?
Like many of my colleagues, I started in business in Murmansk, a city far away from the riches and temptations of the metropolis. I studied at an academy for training sailors, experiencing many hardships working on the Barents Sea. In these tough conditions, I had to work hard and fight for survival every day. At about this time, I started visiting Finland and Sweden. Like many sailors with whom I worked, I was involved in the second-hand car and parts business. Actually my whole life was split between working on the ship by day and driving hundreds of kilometres on icy roads by night. Difficult conditions are the best teacher you will find in life.
Over this period, my business ideas turned from quantity to quality, and my mistakes and failures turned gave me valuable skills and experience. When my car business was in full swing, I realised that I had gone as far as I could with this line of business, and that the time had come for something more. At this time, computer games were rapidly becoming popular and I understood that this was my path.
When and how was your first computer game business established?
Around the year 2000, I became a fan of the popular game “FightClub”. The game gave me new experiences and connected me to many people across the world. I was fascinated by the opportunities that the internet could offer for everything in life.
As a person who doesn’t accept any limits, I had the idea to create a computer game that would be more beautiful and interesting than any other. I gave up the car business and moved from Murmansk to Moscow so that my team and I could create a computer game. 2003 marked the beginning of my investment in Internet projects and the beginning of my first game, called “The Territory,” which was the only online game created for a team of players.
At the moment you manage the imi.vc risk capital fund. What criteria do you use when judging the success of a start-up?
When investing, I use two tactics. Firstly, I believe that in areas where the local market is well developed (in my case, these are the Internet, mobile phone and information technology markets) it pays to invest in teams which already have a proven track record.
Secondly, in younger markets where the infrastructure and ecosystem are not yet sufficiently developed and there are few success stories, it is worth engaging in “sowing“. By this I mean small, initial investments in teams, with the hope that some of them will succeed in the future. These choices do not usually have rational explanations. I rely on intuition and take decisions based on whether or not I should trust these teams. In this case investment in individuals alone is not enough. You must invest in the entire ecosystem – invite specialists, open up the market and make it more interesting, expand the financial options and appreciate other fields. Successful sowing is not possible in sterilised soil.
Crucially, I think that job of fertilising the soil should not fall only on the shoulders of investors. In fact, most of this work should be done by the government. Lithuania provides a good example in this case: we have had to create the ecosystem – prepare the soil for a good harvest – from zero. We are trying to do everything we can here. There were many things that we were able to do right from beginning, thanks to my expertise and that of my team. Projects which seem impossible in the beginning can be made real.
Talking about the sectors which I invest in, most of all I open doors to new opportunities. In business books this is most often called “blue waters”. For example, when the market is not yet fully developed, but it is obvious now that it will be bursting in several years.
At the moment I would like to invest in young start-ups, and to do this I collaborate with the Lithuanian accelerator “Start-up Highway”. We provide seed funding and personal mentoring to develop start-ups.
“Start-up Highway” has already developed a network of business contacts and a base of international mentors. The closing date for start-ups to register with the acceleration programme is 15 April. So everyone who is ready to help their business develop can submit an application. For this year’s start-ups, we will also be accepting applications from the whole Eastern European region. Successful applicants from abroad will get help with preparing their documents so that they can move to Lithuania.
Talking about future technologies and developments, which start-ups today seem most promising to you?
Among the most popular trends today, I would point to the car industry, alternative energy, green technologies, smart city technologies and other technologies which demand a lot of capital and long-term investment. However, in terms of what interests me, I could say that I am attracted most to start-ups whose presentations include some or all of the following words: mobile technologies, Internet, global, social, digital marketing, robotics, internet of things, games, higher technologies, “big data” and data analysis.
Start-ups which you have invested in (like Game Insight, 5D Planner, and Plague) have moved from Russia to Lithuania. Was this your decision or your team‘s?
Decisions are made based on the goals and the interest environment of each individual project. Naturally, I shared my ideas with the founders or start-ups and their teams about moving, and about product development in Europe. And not only about moving, but also about the creation of an ecosystem, the usage of all the resources available, about new “gusts of wind” ─ the experience of local enterprising individuals and teams.
I contribute to the creation of a friendly and attractive business environment in Lithuania. The main project I am investing in is Vilnius Tech Park. This project will help to improve the ecosystem of Lithuanian start-ups and integrate them into European start-up communities.
Why did you choose Lithuania? What advantages did you see in comparison to other European countries?
There are several obvious advantages. And there are others that are not as noticeable, but equally attractive. Talking about the obvious ones – the geographical and social proximity, the perfect weather and the perfect attitude of Lithuanians with regards to sports and living a healthy lifestyle (at least this is the impression we newcomers have).
The less obvious advantages include clear rules for communication with governmental institutions, and the multicultural nature of Vilnius, which helps us to integrate and makes us immediately feel at home.
Of course, other important factors are the professional consultants in the companies we work with in Lithuania and their solid references concerning business management process, the ability of employees to speak different European languages and the excellent Internet infrastructure.
Why did you move to Lithuania? Was your decision linked to the political situation in Russia?
I moved to Vilnius at the beginning of last summer and I do like the city, the nature, the feeling of peace that I lacked in Russia. Talking about the political situation, you know, there is a saying: barriers for some are opportunities for others. I have been in charge of an international business for many years and the only context in which I consider the geographical place and national borders is the context of business prospects. My experience shows that you have to give all of yourself if you want to achieve efficiency. You have to breath it, live it, think of it and fight for it day by day.
Have you noticed any differences in managing a business in Russia and in Lithuania?
No, there are no fundamental differences. When you are a global player, you can do business anywhere.