How to Retire at 33 (English Subs+Transcription)
I met Ilya in March 2014, when he came to me for an interview. At that moment, I was living in San Francisco. A couple of weeks before that, VentureBeat had just written about his company. If you haven’t seen it, be sure to watch our first interview with Ilya Simon. It’s fascinating how the person has changed since then.
We stayed in touch and met several times after that. After the sale of his company Datanyze in 2018, Ilya and his family moved to the suburb of San Diego, Carlsbad, which I was extremely happy about.
The video was recorded at the end of 2019 at Ilya at the cottage in Big Bear Lake, which they bought a few months before and invited us to visit. At the same time, we decided to record this interview as a continuation of his history.
In 2012, Ilya founded his startup Datanyze, which he successfully sold in 2018 and retired when he was 33 years old.
If you seriously want to learn Russian – you can watch it with both English and Russian subtitles. Just search for “two captions for youtube” solutions.
Read the whole interview’s transcript below (Russian version is here):
About the company.
I didn’t fully understand who needed to use Datanyze and why. Recently, Ilya published a text on VC in which he spoke about his experience of immigration and selling a business. He received a request to explain in a real simple way what his startup was doing. His answer was complete:
It doesn’t matter what your competitors use. What matters is who uses your competitors.
Let’s say you do Live Chat in Russia but want to enter the American market and start selling subscriptions for $100K a year. Who will you initially sell your product to? Datanyze can tell you who in America uses a similar product to yours, so you would know that they at least need it. Moreover, we could tell who had just started using your competitors’ product, and most likely, it was a trial. This way, you could call the “right” potential customers at the right time.
In this interview, Ilya talks about the stage of the rapid growth of the company, their exit, and how he lives his retirement life now. How he ran an Ironman, bought a summer cottage in Big Bear Lake, and moved to San Diego, CA. Lastly, he shares his ideas on future projects.
1:13 – the interview starts.
2:23 – future business plans.
4:16 – an Ironman triathlon experience.
6:15 – planning to rerun?
7:42 – how many hours a day to train to prepare for an Ironman?
8:58 – is Ironman helpful to improve health or not?
10:36 – how to balance health and startup?
12:28 – how to know when to exit?
14:30 – about GBPR.
18:52 – Datanyze sale amount.
20:07 – did you find buyers or they found you?
21:46 – how many employees did you have at the time of the sale?
22:47 – about dark time.
24:55 – how to pump your team’s morale?
26:06 – outsourcing in Russia. How Silicon Valley companies steal developers from each other.
28:43 – “we don’t need investments.” Why did you take them?
32:56 – how Datanyze was different from 99% of other startups?
35:33 – work and life before and after the rapid growth.
39:10 – how your spouse reacted on 80 hours of workweeks?
41:12 – Silicon Valley VS San Diego, CA
44:18 – productive entrepreneur’s habits
45:23 – necessary, but not sufficient condition to build any startup.
48:45 – how much do you sleep? What time do you awake?
49:30 – an early bird’s advice to owls.
52:21 – how does your day look like?
54:29 – advising? Mentoring? Investing?
59:35 – Advice to people who think to start their business or to immigrate.
Pavel. Retired at 33.
Ilya. Yes, it took me 7 years in total… Everything is set against you…
You must completely give 110% of your best… Health comes back to normal very quickly…
Pavel. Let’s talk about the startup.
Ilya. And not all even successful startups can be sold because… they did not raise money. What’s wrong with you?.. I don’t know of any cases other than ours when this wouldn’t have happened… No, no, no, we don’t need your money, but they were saying: “someday you’ll definitely need them. Come over for lunch, we will hangout… On the first day, you get paid there 40–50 thousand dollars… worked for 80 hours, seven days a week… Our developers told me: “So, dude, don’t push your crap anymore”… Are you a good CEO? Are you doing everything, right?.. Better than Steve Jobs and Elon Musk… Very many don’t even believe in such an opportunity… They think this is impossible, it never happened… You have to be right only once. It’s enough to build one successful startup so that you don’t worry about your salary until the rest of your life.
Pavel. How long has it been?
Ilya. A lot of time has passed — 4.5 years from the previous interview.
Pavel. 4.5 years!
Pavel. What happened during these 4.5 years in your professional and personal front?
Ilya. A lot of things happened on the professional front. As far as I remember, back then, we had only three people in the company, and we seemed to take the first serious steps. After 4.5 years, our company sold last year (2018). We made a successful exit, as they say here, and at the moment, I’m retired. On a personal level, a lot of things also happened. I got a second child; we moved to the suburb of San Diego, the city of Carlsbad, and enjoying life.
Pavel. Cool! Congratulations on your exit, congratulations on moving to San Diego. So you’re retired?
Ilya. Well, yes.
Pavel. This is very cool. How old are you now?
Ilya. Now I’m 34, but I was 33 at that moment.
Pavel. You retired at the age of 33.
Pavel. Do you plan to do any projects in the future? The last time we spoke, you said that you want to build at least three companies. And that one should be more successful than the previous one.
Ilya. Yeah, well, I don’t know about three. I think that at some point I’ll have a desire to do some next project. Now I want to do some other things that aren’t related to work activities, which I never had enough time for. For example, I love to travel. Now I’m saying that I’m retired, but at some point, I don’t know… In some years it’ll probably become very boring, and I’ll decide that it’s time to do something else.
For three companies, I’m not sure that there will be enough time. The first company took 7 years in total, from start to exit. And, it seems to me that if I do something, I will do something more ambitious, and it is logical to assume that it will take even more time. And then it will not be far from a real pension. So let’s see, see how it goes. In the meantime, I’m at a stage that I like I can do what I want. Such a break in professional activity, it seems to me to be very useful.
Pavel. So you’re enjoying time now, do you have any desire to do something yet?
Pavel. Super! I also know that you finished Ironman recently.
Pavel. Tell us about your experience?
Ilya. Actually, we were bought in September 2018. I worked for the company that bought us for about a month and a half. Then I couldn’t do it anymore. It’s challenging when you are in charge of everything, and then you obey someone. Of course, we were bought by a quite large company, with established processes, and I didn’t have to work there for a long time, so I transferred things. Plus, the company was in Boston, but we love the warmer climate. So, we moved from Boston right after that, and I needed to set some goals for myself for 2019, and I wanted to take up my health closely.
During a startup, for some reason, health fades into the background, although this is very important. And I thought that I could somehow make up for it. Of course, it will not work 100%. Still, at least to some extent, preparation for an Ironman can improve health in all parameters that could be measured in the body. In general, health returns to normal very quickly.
I started training in February. Before that, I had never run a triathlon. I had to learn a lot and prepare my body to swim, cycle, and run this distance. And in November, after 10 months of training, not without difficulty, but I finished this distance and am very happy. Now I take a short break. So the ski season has begun, I want to go skiing more.
Pavel. Do you want to rerun a triathlon?
Ilya. It’s always challenging because this race is considered such a peak. If you do something — do something even more. And more would probably be more harmful to your health. Such distances, of course, affect the body very much, so, for now, I decided to take a break.
I signed up for another race in April, just at our place near the place where we live. This will be half the Ironman’s distance, what it means is to swim 1.2 miles, ride a bicycle 56 miles, and run a half marathon, 13 miles. The same race I finished in November. Not so much to prepare for it, and it seems like it’s near the house. I want to do it just for the sake of some kind of diversity.
I think that I’m unlikely to rerun the full distance because it requires large workloads for an extended period, and this is almost a full-time job. It takes a lot of time. But of course, I always want to do something active, and now I have become more involved in swimming. So I’m trying to monitor my health.
Pavel. How many hours a day do you need to train to prepare for the triathlon? How much did it take you?
Ilya. It is incremental progress. When I started — about an hour a day, there was training, only 6 hours a week. Usually, train six days a week and one day completely break. Sunday, you do nothing. From Monday to Saturday, three disciplines. For example, on Monday — swimming, Tuesday — bicycle, Wednesday — running. So each discipline repeats 2 times a week. Then it all increases and increases. By the end, it reached 20–22 hours a week, plus this still takes a tremendous amount of time to prepare: prepare a bike, get ready, go to the pool, come from the pool, take a shower… Roughly speaking, full-fledged job and, of course, it’s challenging to do when you still have real work. In this regard, the ideal time was to prepare to do this. If I did this while I still had Datanyze, that would be unrealistic, I think.
Pavel. Do you feel it helped you improve your health more, or at some point did the opposite effect?
Ilya. I think the training itself helps a lot. I measured some simple indicators — the pulse is at rest, for example. When I started, I had roughly 65 bpm. By the end, I had 52, I think. It means your heart is so trained that it doesn’t have to beat so often that oxygen is transferred to the muscles. I lost a lot of weight during this time… Well, not really, I lost 15 lbs, which is pretty essential for me. That is improved body composition. All this can be easily measured, and in this regard, there was a 100% benefit.
What’s probably not so healthy is the race itself, because it took me about 13 hours to do all this, and this is a significant burden on the body. After that two weeks in the row, I just laid on the couch and did not want to get up anywhere, just do nothing. After this, of course, you need to rest for a long time. They say that it is better not to do it more than once a year if you are not a professional. I thought that, thank God, the first time I completed this. Will I still do it? I don’t know. Maybe some kind of race will be unique. But so far, no plans.
Pavel. You say health is essential, but when you worked on your startup, you basically did not have time for health. Here’s your next business adventure, if there would be one, will you pay more attention to your health and how? I mean, what do you think would be ideal for balancing these things?
Ilya. Listen, it’s tricky to combine. When you have a startup, you have little time for everything. Suppose you find time to work out, but you even have no moral strength to plan your training carefully. You have all your kind of semantic, mental workload going to your startup. According to statistics, 95%, in my opinion, recent statistics of startups: go bankrupt, or they’ve bought for a penny, or somehow, they finish with nothing. There are chances, but…
Everything is against you: it’s challenging to make a successful startup. You can’t do it half-heartedly, yes, you must completely give 110% of your best. Naturally, at this time, there’s nothing left, practically no time. It’s not enough time for the family, to rest, to train. Well, it’s just such a life, you have to put up with it. If you are doing a startup, you just have to keep in mind that some victims will be in the process of building a startup. There’s no getting around it.
Pavel. Let’s talk about the startup. How did you understand that it’s time to sell it? How did this process go?
Ilya. In fact, in most cases, startups are not selling potatoes in the market. You dug in the garden, brought them, put your price tag, and sold. People think that as soon as they want to sell a startup, they can take it and sell it. In fact, this is far from reality. Not all even successful startups can be sold because a lot of stars in the sky have to converge for this to happen.
Fortunately, the stars converged for us. First, there must be a strategic buyer. Some companies, much bigger than yours, are interested in your product or your customers. And they understand that they don’t have enough time to build it themselves. They have an alternative: either buy you, or do something inside the company, or buy your competitors. And for you to be purchased, you must be the best in your field. You must show that you have solid customers, stable revenue. And with all this, they should have some kind of initiative within the company or some person who would say: “Listen, we need to buy this company,” and then agree on a price. So that all these components somehow coincide, this happens very rarely. Probably, every startup, by God, has 3–5 potential buyers, and for them to have it all work out somehow, this should be lucky. I think we were very lucky. This is how I got to this.
In our company all the time, there were ups and downs, the ecosystem around us was changing. Recently, I noticed that they started cracking down in terms of even bills. For example, in Europe, they adopted the GDPR project, according to which it became complicated for our European customers to use our product. They went on to find the technologies that other companies use. Still, at the same time, they could not directly write e-mail, they needed some kind of permission. And, I noticed that people began to unsubscribe slowly, or we had to offer them some completely ridiculous conditions to keep them with us. And it seemed to me that this is such a first step. I thought that sooner or later in America, where there was probably 85 percent of our customers, the same situation could happen. It was such a sign that it’s worth thinking about.
Then, as I said, the stars began to converge. The company that bought us changed its CEO. As soon as the new CEO came, looked at what was lacking in their company, he realized that we do this best in the world. And they became interested, we were talking about specific numbers, then agreed, and all this happened. If there weren’t a new CEO, maybe it would all have gone on like this for years. A favorable situation developed, and we got a proposal, I decided it was time. In the end, as I said, there were other plans for life. I think it was the best time to sell, and it all happened.
Pavel. Were you negotiating?
Ilya. Of course. Who doesn’t? Of course, we were negotiating. They always offer a low price, and we still want a higher one. The companies that are sold, they try to find more alternatives. Let’s say the one who buys has a choice to buy our competitors. For our part, we must find other potential buyers, and ideally, some kind of auction process would begin. They say: “We will buy you for so much.” And we tell others that we got an offer for so much — outbid it. In general, the most successful deals, if you read blogs about billions of dollars in purchases, 100% times, this happens exactly like that. It is a price that seems unrealistic. Why is this happening? Because several potential buyers are starting to fight for this startup, and as a result, it raises the price higher and higher and higher. As a result, such astronomical amounts are obtained.
In our case, we were able to create a competitive environment, I can’t tell the details, but in the end, it turned out very favorably. We are in a reasonably short time… Again, I know that many people have the idea that you can do it in 2 -3 days. I know cases where this happens in 3 months, but usually, this process takes 6–9 months. And very often, these processes fall apart. In the middle of this process, some key person leaves a buyer’s company, and the whole deal got suspended. Or somebody can buy buyers. So many things can happen, and during the entire process, you need to fulfill all their needs, provide financial documents, etc., etc. It has been a long process. Thank God it’s ended, and we coped with all their needs.
Pavel. As I understand you signed some papers on which you cannot disclaim the amount of the transaction. When can you talk about it?
Ilya. No, I can’t disclaim it ever. I can’t say that I am happy with this policy. The company that bought us, they insisted on it… In general, they don’t want their competitors to see these “body movements”. If the company buys publicly, then they are obliged to show this in their documents, in annual reports. Even then, they somehow could bury deep all these purchases. In short, all kinds of financial tricks. In our case, it was a non-public company, so they did not have such requirements, and they decided not to disclose it. Basically, I understand why. So, all I can say is that there was a successful exit, but I can’t name specific numbers. By the way, after that, they were also bought by another company DiscoverOrg. They are primarily engaged in the sale of contacts. Such a mega-company was formed, which is simply very successful.
Pavel. Did you find them or they found you?
Ilya. Let’s just say that we made it clear. You don’t have to advertise very much… When you cook in this environment for a long time, you know people, people know you, everyone talks to each other, you at the same conferences: “how are you?”, back and forth. And you can unobtrusively make it clear that you would not mind. This is such a game. Like, I don’t know, go on dates. Some such movements — one said something, the other understood something, and so on. It goes on in such a dance for some time. Then they say: “Listen, come to our office. Give us a presentation.” After that, the process itself begins. But in principle, you can give a signal, and if people are interested, they usually grab onto this. And then you can already quite openly talk about it. When there is already a first offer to sell or to buy from our site, you can go to some competitors and say: “Well, guys, are you interested? If not, we will sell it.” But in any case, they will be interested in at least tightening the deal. Because they do not want their competitors to buy you… Therefore, the process keeps going. Especially in large companies it take a very long time.
Pavel. How many employees did you have at the time of the sale?
Ilya. At the time of the sale, we had 80–85 people in the area, something like that. Yes, we have come a long way after those three… Since we had an interview that year, here we have grown from three, in my opinion, to 14. And this is in 2014. In 2015, we grew from 14 to 65. And that was what I said, 2015th, and in 2016-2017 we had a slight decline, and we lost a lot of employees. We started to lose a lot of customers, and my employees just started to leave. And there was a rather difficult period that we managed to overcome. Somewhere by the end of 2017, even our revenue began to fall. We grew, grew, grew, and then such a wave occurred. At some point, we even had a reduction, and we had to fire 14 employees. It was, in my opinion, at the end of 2016. it was such a dark streak, and then we reviewed all our processes, we reviewed people at key positions, we began to approach in more detail some of our things that. Just when you grow quickly, you don’t notice: something is going on. And when you already understand that there is some kind of inhibition, then you begin to peer in more detail and think that it does not work.
In general, we reviewed a lot of things, and by the end of 2017, we began to grow again, made many improvements in the product. Since we were a somewhat atypical startup, and because we raised money from outstanding investors. All this time, we tried not to spend more than we earn. We always tried to make a small profit, and this helped us to stay afloat, even when everything went awry. We had enough money in our bank account and enough customers.
Usually, why do startups go bankrupt or close? Because they simply cannot raise the next round of financing. And in our case, it was irrelevant, because we could just use the reserves that we had accumulated. Only because of this, we survived.
And, in fact, we became very profitable at some point. In 2017, we began to share part of our profits between all the employees who worked for us. 50% of the money we earned, net profit, we left in the company, and the rest 50% we just handed out to employees. This greatly influenced the morale within the team, and people began to work as one family. At the same time, a certain sense of responsibility towards employees appeared. You couldn’t just sit and do nothing because people saw that you weren’t working, and roughly speaking, a piece of bread was shared among everyone. If someone didn’t do their job well, it was visible, and people said: “Dude, come on.”
We had excellent employees in this regard, and in general, the team has become very friendly. We also opened 2 offices: first, an office in St. Petersburg. This also helped us a lot, because, in Silicon Valley, where we were at that time, the turnover rate is just crazy. It is constant competition between companies for staff, and they offer… Well, I can call the numbers, 40–50 thousand dollars offer just a bonus that you came to work with them. On the first day, you are paid 40–50 thousand dollars as a one-time bonus.
Ilya. Yes, our developers were enticed in this way. We decided: instead of every person who was leaving us in San Mateo, we hired a person in St. Petersburg.
And it worked very well, because, firstly, the loyalty of people in St. Petersburg was simply incomparable with those who were in San Mateo. And for us, it was immeasurably in salaries. The salary, of course, is much lower in St. Petersburg than in San Mateo. And the quality of Russian programmers is not worse than the quality of programmers in Silicon Valley. In St. Petersburg, we also tried to pay very competitive salaries, and we hired people who were TOP in their position. And it helped us a lot, and the St. Petersburg team was just superb.
In the wake of this success, we later opened a branch in Kazan, where we hired mainly students who came to work in their free time and worked for us. They did a manual data check. We hired an English tutor for them, and it was the first job, while they were still studying at a university in Kazan. There was an excellent experience for them, and they were delighted.
Unfortunately, after DiscoverOrg bought ZoomInfo, they decided that they did not need these offices anymore. They shut them down. But the teams were excellent. Thus, with the help of all these measures, we survived this crisis, reached super-profitability. In the end, there was an opportunity to sell, and we sold well.
Pavel. In one of your previous interviews, you said that you do not need investors.
Pavel. Tell me, how did you come to the point that you still raised your investment and why?
Ilya. Yes, at that moment, we had a profitable company. I tried to do this from the very beginning, and there was no need for them neither then nor later. So what happened? I believe that if you make a good product, then clients will be drawn to you as well as investors begin to reach out because the clients who use our product also have meetings with investors. Investors ask: “What’s new are you using, what is trending now, what is relevant?”. And when our name pops up several times, investors themselves write to us: “Let’s chat.” We say: “No, no, no, we do not need investments.” They say: “Well, someday you would definitely need them. Come, come to us for lunch, we will trali-wali /untranslated Russian idiom, means “friendly hangout/,” they lure you with all sorts of things. And yes, we were lured, but we refused at the beginning. We refused completely.
At some point, some kind of situation happened to us. We started selling our product to rather large public companies, and they did not want to deal with monthly payments. They say: “So, guys, let’s make a contract for 3 years, 100 thousand dollars a year, and for three years we forget about payments”… They don’t want to deal with this, as they have bureaucracy inside the company. They want to pay big money for the long term. But at the same time, they say: “Listen, guys, you have 6 people working here. You’re sitting in the garage, you’ll take our 300 thousand, go to Hawaii, where can we find you there then? Who are you? Nobody knows you. You haven’t raised money.” If you haven’t raised money in Silicon Valley – it’s …
Ilya. Yes, “This is nonsense. What’s wrong with you?” And we thought: “Well, for that matter, let’s see if we can raise the money well. And we had a goal — not to get money from investors, but to be perceived as serious people. Something like…
Ilya. Yes, trust, here is the trust to acquire at the expense of the right investors. We decided that we just want the most famous investors who were at that time. First of all, Google Ventures, it was probably the most… This is how much it was, 5 years ago, maybe even now, they are considered one of the best-known investors in Silicon Valley. We got an arrangement with them.
Here we have such a famous character Mark Kuban, and he is very well-known in his circles. You probably know him. He is on television in the US everywhere, and he has great charisma, everyone knows him, most love him. In general, we were able to find investors who, on the one hand, were very famous, on the other hand, some very strategic people who have already done a lot in our area. And we individually found several people, these are not VC firms, but angel investors, who were also very relevant to us.
In general, we gathered such a handful syndicate, and closed the round, agreed on the most favorable conditions that could be. 99% of times when startups raise money, investors have the right to block the sale of the company. I do not know a single case except ours when this would not have happened. We immediately said: “Guys, this will not work for us. You want to invest in us. This condition is unacceptable. If we’re going to sell the company, we sell the company.”
At the same time, they have all kinds of protection so that their money is not lost, but we were able to get such things out. They did not have a single place on the board of directors. They could simply observe how the company conducts its business, but they did not have the right to vote. They were a kind of passive investors.
Looking back, if I could, I would actually give them more control, and that they participate more. Since they were pretty passive, I can’t say they were much helpful. However, we needed their name first of all, and not some kind of help. Consequently, we changed our position, we closed one single round, added 1.8, almost 2 million to the bank account. It also served us as some kind of capital cushion for a rainy day. But we didn’t mainly spend this money when the black streak happened, we got into them, but then we quickly put it back again for a rainy day. Then continue to be a profitable startup located in Silicon Valley, which again is very rare.
Pavel. So, you mostly raised money, not for the sake of money, but the sake of the name and expertise?
Ilya. Yes, it’s called ‘credibility’ in English. We needed to mention on our company page that such and such people had invested in us. It’s been seen everywhere. For example, when we sent a sale contract for our product, we included what Mark Cuban said about us, and about Google Ventures. People saw that we are not just 6 people sitting in the garage, but already a respectable company. In Silicon Valley, everyone is more familiar with this. Have investors — everything is clear. Who is responsible if something happens. It helped us.
Pavel. Has work and life changed much after raising money somehow?
Ilya. I would say it was changed not when we raised money, but when the period of rapid growth began. Leading a team of 5 people is an entirely different matter than managing a team of 60–80 people. Just completely different responsibilities. The day goes altogether differently. It seems to me that we hired the first programmer as the 6th or 7th employer. I’m afraid to lie. But the first 4 people I hired, they were all selling. I continued to develop the product and push the code every day. I told them: “So, you go sell. I will code.” They were selling. We had a person who was fully responsible for sales, and they were directly subordinate to him. And I went on, in principle, to do my favorite thing, write code, so far I like it the most.
When the company grew to 30 people, a lot of meetings appeared. It doesn’t seem to me now that it was a lot. At that moment, it seemed: “Oh, how many meetings.” Two meetings a day, and I was exhausted after that.
When we grew to 80 people, our programmers told me: “So, dude, don’t push your crap anymore.” Yes, we hired outstanding people who were much better than me, and I had a lot of other responsibilities. And then it was necessary to convey to people some general policy, our plans, forecasts, to let people know what they are doing right or wrong. Of course, I participated in some sales processes if there were large customers. But in fact, this was not at all what I did in the first stages. Accordingly, all life revolves around this, and the larger the company, the more stress, it seems to me. Especially if you grow it from the very beginning. Maybe some people can somehow disengage themselves, ignore the little things, some client is dissatisfied with something. You will say: “figure it out for yourself.” But I’m just a person who digs into the smallest detail and gets into when it is necessary and when it is not. Only afterward, you understand that people will figure out better than you, but it’s hard to abstract. So, a lot of stress was added, and it took more time for this, worked for 80 hours, seven days a week…
Pavel. How much ?!
Ilya. It sometimes worked for 80 hours, a double working day, sort of speaking. You get up in the morning because the time zones are shifted. From 6 am, some kind of meetings begin with Russia, and it ends late at night when some customers need to answer letters or something else. There was a lot of work, of course.
Pavel. How did Sasha react to this?
Ilya. Sasha, my wife, always supported me. Family support is essential. If the spouse does not approve of this or does not understand what it is all for, it will be challenging. Because you make enormous sacrifices for the sake of a startup, especially after the birth of a child. This is all such a balance. On the one hand, you have to run a business and be a successful receiver. On the other hand, you want to be a good husband and dad. Of course, the family is important, because it is even morally more comfortable when you come home after a hard workday, and you get words of support.
There is always some doubt: “Are you a good CEO? Are you doing everything right?” The larger the company — the more criticism you receive. Some people do not like some kind of politics. It is challenging to live always under this stress, and words of approval or words of support from the spouse are critical. We have been sailing in this boat together for 7 years. On the other hand, she understood that I always had a final goal — selling the company and getting retired. And now I am catching up as I can: with my wife and kids. We spend a lot of time together. It all ended very well.
Pavel. You have a lovely house.
Pavel. Cottage, yes, cottage. It’s great that you got over it. How’s life in Northern California compared with Southern California? How significant is the difference? And where do you like more?
Ilya. I should probably mention that we are now explicitly located in a place called Big Bear Lake, it is about 2 hours drive from us. In the mountains, this is a ski resort where we bought, as we call affectionately, a cottage — a small house where we can come in the winter and enjoy the snow for a while. And after 3 days, we are usually bored and return to our 70+°F degrees.
As for some differences between Northern and Southern California, I don’t know if all of this is Northern California, or is it Silicon Valley like that, but the rhythm of life there is frantic. In principle, I’m very used to it, and I don’t have enough here. People do everything quickly, efficiently, even this is expressed as they walk the streets, how they drive cars, how they treat customers. You come to the hairdresser, or the doctor, etc.
In Southern California, everyone seems laid back. You drive a car, and someone is sitting there, dreaming. Or you’ll come to the grocery… A person is standing in front of you in line, they could have a small talk with a cashier for 5 minutes, while you are standing and waiting for him.
Of course, this rhythm is not peculiar to big cities. I have been to New York a lot, the same thing there. This rhythm of life is frantic. And it’s good to live in such a rhythm when you have a startup, it whips you up, you live with it, you constantly breathe this air, and this drive helps you.
Yet when you have already retired, you want something calmer. Sometimes it’s just such a charge present… However, I like where we live now, very relaxed. We are right on the ocean, and you constantly see surfers or people run a triathlon, bicycles are around. It’s such a calm, measured rhythm of life, and for my situation, it now fits perfectly.
You went through the stage when you were the only employee and to the stage where you manage 80+ people. As I understand it, you had to re-organize yourself completely. Firstly, to control everything, and secondly, to lead the company in the right direction. Any habits you needed to acquire for this? Tell me about effective habits.
I don’t know, somehow I have developed this since childhood. I am a very effective person, and this was transferred to work. I do not know what example? Well, when I get up in the morning, I have several things going in parallel at once: breakfast is being cooked on the stove, I brush my teeth, check my emails. I multithread both at home and at work. And she, of course, helps a lot.
Again, to make a successful startup, a lot of things have to work out well. And if you don’t do some things effectively, you can forget about it. I know a few people who say they do startups. They are working on something, but it takes years, and they continue to polish the product, improve the code, and so on. In this regard, I believe that as a former programmer… Can I say so? I will simply say as a programmer.
Pavel. There are no former programmers.
Ilya. There are no former, yes. About this balance… I know I am writing code, it’s not very efficient, not perfect. And if someone else looks at it, he will simply be horrified. But I get that from a business point of view, I need to write it like this… It happened that over the weekend, I had some features that a client casually mentioned: “Listen, if only you had this, it would be really cool.” I’m sitting on the weekend doing it. On Monday I present it to him, he says: “We are clients for life. Just take our money.” It’s just that people see that they care about them, that they have such an attitude, and customers always like it very much.
The fact that there is not the best code. Yes, I admit. But this is a feature of startups. You need to move very quickly, work very efficiently, and keep this balance… Of course, you can’t do garbage. It will somehow affect later. A lot of time to spend polishing, doing everything so that everything is just cool, is also impossible because time is running out and you perpetually need to keep up. And this balance is critical to see. And I always tried to do that. This is a necessary but not enough condition for building any startup. If you do not have this, I think it will be tough for you, and it is almost impossible to make a successful startup. If you have it, it’s good, but it’s not enough, you need some more qualities, you need a lot of effort, hard work.
At some point, you would need psychological stability, because there are always ups and downs. You need to have a cold head when getting up. Do not beat yourself in the chest and say that you are better than Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. On the other hand, when there is a fall, you cannot criticize yourself too much for this. You should always keep your head up, especially when you are CEO, people look at you. You come to the office, and you need to maintain a smile on your face and say that everything will be fine. In this regard, I learned a lot during the time I built Datanyze, and these qualities helped me a lot to achieve what we achieved.
Pavel. Now when you are retired, what time do you get up?
Ilya. Oh, it depends, but now we have a newborn baby, so I take the older one to kindergarten myself. And he needs to be there by 8:00. I get up at around 7:00. I always loved to live by some rhythm. I don’t have one that I watch movies until 2 am, but another night – I don’t. We always go to bed and get up at the same time. I don’t remember when I used an alarm clock last time, probably when I needed to go to an airport or something else. I always get up on my own.
Pavel. How much do you sleep?
Ilya. 9 hours.
Pavel. One piece of advice from an early bird to owls.
Ilya. I think it doesn’t matter if you’re an early bird or an owl. It’s crucial to find the time in which you’re the most productive and use this time to the maximum benefit. Do things that need maximum focus.
For example, I know that in the morning, I’m very productive. In the afternoon, especially if I had a good lunch, I was getting sleepy, and somehow I really can’t do anything significant.
During Datanyze, I got up early. I tried to structure my day in such a way that I had all my meetings in the afternoon. Because you sit there, listen to something, make decisions, but it was not so important.
And, let’s say, some important task for me. I set it like this: “tomorrow I need to make a plan for next year,” exaggerated how much we want to grow. I sit down, focus as much as possible, for two hours I turn off all chats, emails, and put the phone in airplane mode. That is, nothing can distract me. I do this because I know that I’m the most productive this morning. I’ve done everything and am pleased that the task for the day has been completed. Then you can already do some other things, most likely something planned for this day. But at least I know that I spent my most productive time on the most important project. After that, you can relax a bit.
If you’re an owl, and you know that, for example, your most productive time is from 9 pm till midnight, then I would just try to do some focused work then. And for example, in the morning, while I’m swinging, doing something that’s not very important. Everyone finds his own balance, and whatever he succeeds or not depends on external factors. Being a CEO is easy because you can make everyone else fit you. However, being a director — your boss can tell you: “Here we have a meeting,” Either you want or don’t – you have to go, you can’t do anything about it.
Pavel. Now, what does your day look like?
Ilya. Oh, it looks relaxed, but until the end of November, until the last month, there were mostly training sessions. Now the eldest son, who’s four and a half years old, is on me, in terms of kindergarten and lessons: sometimes take-bring takes some time. I am engaged in side projects, let’s say I have small ideas with real estate, including in Russia, including San Diego. Actually, we bought this house, I was working on this too.
Now I try to make up a time to communicate with friends who have stayed in Russia. Also, as much as possible, spend time with my family. I have a mother and sister in Russia, and my sister has a family there too. Trying to make up for some time, which I gave entirely to work in the past. In general, the time passes in such a sluggish mode. Also, some kinds of hobbies. Right now, I’m learning hard to swim. I want to get the third level of swimming next year. I don’t know if it’ll work out or not. This time will tell.
Pavel. Is the third the very beginning?
Ilya. This is the most basic, yes. But I never did swimming in childhood, so in adulthood, as well as with languages, some new skills are challenging to gain. When I was preparing for an Ironman… Doesn’t matter if you want or don’t want – you have to swim 2.4 miles, in open water. You have to learn to swim, but it’s mainly for endurance. And here it is for speed. It’s necessary to swim for a specific time, for example, 300 feet. Now I go to a pool four days a week, I think I’ll do even five days a week. And other activities: to have dinner with my wife, to play with the children. How people usually spend their retirement.
Pavel. Well, you are living the American dream. Immigrated, won, received citizenship. You’re already a citizen, right?
Pavel. Got citizenship, founded a startup, sold it successfully, bought a Tesla, a house. All this is very short enough compared to other people. Do you have any desire to help young startups, young businessmen? Mentoring? Advising? Do you have something in this matter?
Ilya. Yes, I have a great desire, and I’m doing it right now. I’m helping several startups in different roles, somewhere officially, somewhere unofficially. I try to help people. Some, as you rightly said, the experience won’t appear from anywhere. Those things that I’ve experienced on myself, I want to somehow pass them on to other people, so that maybe they learn from my mistakes somewhere. Someone might just be inspired because so many don’t even believe in such an opportunity, they think that this is impossible, this doesn’t happen.
You know, when I was 18–19 years old, and I thought of going to America, there was the forum called “Privet,” I think. I just read it, and I really liked these success stories, because they always somehow inspire. You see this example in front of you, and you think: “Listen, I can do the same,” or “I can do better.” And I read it, and it helped me. This is psychologically very important. If, of course, I can help someone, somewhere with advice, somewhere with some kind of simple words of support, I always try to do it.
There’s still a desire at some point to simply write a series of articles or blog posts. I don’t know in what form it’ll be, or put it into some kind of an e-book. Just describe the steps of immigration. Very few people know this stuff. If someone wants to grow their business or build a startup, it’s always easier to do in America. There are now some countries that are catching up, but still, nothing is even close. There are not many resources for immigration, where it all arranged and well explained: how to get a green card, a work visa, how to build a company. As well as all that we talked about today: how to be more productive, efficient, etc.
Someday, I hope, I will get together, sort out my laziness, sit down, and write it all. In the meantime, I will try as much as I can, help the young startups with advice or mentoring. There’s plenty of time now. Therefore I’m doing this a bit.
Pavel. And how did they find you? Did someone PMed you, like helping here with advice?
Ilya. Usually, by the nature of my activity, I just met a lot of people while working at Datanyze. It’s clear that I’m the most advanced in this area, and I know a lot about this market, I understand how it all works. People who just turn around in this industry, they turn to me for some advice.
Also, there are several ex-employees of Datanyze, as I said many times, very talented people, start their own companies. And they ask me to be a mentor or an adviser. Sometimes I act as an investor too. And of course, I want to help them, because thanks to them we’ve achieved success. And if I can somehow thank them with my time or some experience, or something else, I always do it.
Yes, people write from time to time. If I see, I can’t help, e.x. the topic is entirely alien to me, I just say right away: “Sorry, I just don’t understand much about that.” There are many smarter people who understand much more on this topic than me, and it’s better to ask them. If I see that somewhere I can help in something, I always with my hands and feet are in favor.
Pave. What advice can you give people who are at the crossroads? With any question: immigration or creating a business. What advice would you give them?
Ilya. I always act on the principle, I think, Henry Ford said: “It’s better to regret what you’ve done than what you haven’t.” In the case of immigration, for example, I always say: listen, come, try. If you don’t succeed here, you can always return home. Relatives often stay at home, someone who can help. What’s the worst that can happen? You’re likely to learn English. You’re likely to get a vast experience. You’re likely to make new friends. Learn how people live in another country and so on. I don’t see the downsides of immigration in terms of at least trying, and if something doesn’t work out, you can always come back.
In the case of startups, you need to be right only once. It’s enough to build one successful startup so that you don’t have to worry about your salary or need to go somewhere to earn money until the end of your life. You can try 10 times. From 10 times every time to learn some lessons. If, for example, the first 9 times were unsuccessful, but a person learned some lessons, got some new knowledge, and succeeds for the 10th time, then all these 9 times were worth it. And so why not try, see what happens. Of course, you always need to know where you just bang your head against the wall, and where you just have to endure or make more effort. This moment is not easy, but it’s better to always try and just ask yourself: “What is the worst thing that can happen if I try?”
Usually, the worst is not that bad. Yes, some people lose a massive amount of money, but we must also approach wisely and do everything in stages. You do not need to immediately swipe a tremendous amount of money. As a rule, people who have such questions, they usually do not have millions in the bank. They’re trying to build their first startup. And for them it’s just a matter of time, they usually have a full-time job, and they think, how would I find the time to do my startup. We all went through this, it is necessary to find the time, have a weekend, have evenings, we must try to do something. A rolling stone gathers no moss. To build something, you need to start something, this is the first step.
Most importantly, do not be afraid. In the end, it is unlikely that something can happen very bad, but a vast experience is obtained. Any new undertaking brings some unique knowledge. In the case of startups or immigration, this is an experience that will last a lifetime. In 99% of cases, it’s beneficial.
Pavel. Cool! Thanks a lot!
Ilya. Yes, thank you.
Pavel. Thank you.
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