At the age of 15 Pavlo Kuznetsov has been expelled from school. And just a year later became a co-founder of a startup Preenster, which initially attracted 15 thousand dollars of investments in Ukraine, and then — 500 thousand dollars in the USA. And again two years later he received the Peter Thiel Foundation invitation to visit the “Silicon Valley” and attend the Congress of successful entrepreneurs who are under twenty.
How does the childhood end?
In the early 2000s in Ukraine the young generation of that time didn’t even know about the Apple products, never played the game “Angry Birds”, and, of course, never used the social networks before. They enjoyed their lives by playing football after school, attending computer clubs and watching cartoons on a “New Channel” (one of the most popular Ukrainian TV channels).
This is how the world looked like when Pavlo Kuznetsov was growing up. Since his childhood he’s got two hobbies such as drawing and basketball playing.
— “I played almost every day, although trainings were three times per week. I studied well. At the elementary school everything was perfect. I studied at school №28, which was specialized in learning German language”, he says.
Pavlo had about eight German lessons per week, but he admits that it was not what he was good at. Frankly speaking, he was more keen on basketball.
When Paul turned 12, on his birthday as a gift he got a camera and taking photos became an important and decisive part of his life.
“The majority of awards I have got for photos. Even though, how good can you be at photography at the age of 12? I practiced macro photography and portraits. Nothing special”, recalls Pavlo.
A year before Pavlo’s father moved to Russia to work there. His father was born in Tula (Russia), and there, at that time, still lived his mother, Pavlo’s granny. So, the choice of the work place was predictable.
The man moved to Moscow, where he worked in one of the largest companies, he dealt with logistics. Because of the busy schedule he could hardly come to Lviv once every two months. On Fridays family got in touch by calling to each other, but once it didn’t happened.
Anxiety increased when Pavlo’s godfather, who was in Moscow at that time too, informed that he also hadn’t been able to contact him. On Saturday godfather with friends went to the Pavlo’s father apartment. They found him dead there, a blood clot in the heart caused his death.
— “Just in a few days my mother was fired. And our bank account was closed — the bank’s owner hanged himself”, Pavlo says.
His mother left to his father’s funeral and asked Palvo to look for a job. The family had almost no money.
A kick in the teeth for 150
Some of his friends advised him to work in a nightclub — low salary, but that was a stable income, around 150 UAH (Ukrainian currency) per night. The boy agreed to work in one of the local clubs like that.
At nine in the evening he left home and went to the first club, he didn’t use any bus or tram trying to save every coin. After working in one club he moved to the other and he worked till the morning.
— “Frequently, I was involved in some fights with drunk visitors, who wanted to organize personal photo sessions. I got in different situations”, he recalls.
In such conditions he worked during few months. But at the same time he had to go to school. Lessons started at 8.30, thus immediately after work he went to school. He could barely handle not to sleep on the school desk. It couldn’t least for a long time, the director delivered the law lessons, so he couldn’t skip her classes.
— “She was a strict teacher, in two weeks she told me that even though my situation was difficult, all of us were equal at school, so she expelled me.”
The death of his father, poverty, permanent night shifts in clubs full of tobacco smell and alcohol, depression, responsibility for the family budget…, and he was only 15 years old, so exclusion in this list was not the biggest trouble.
In a couple of days Pavlo was accepted to the evening school.
— “I came there, of course. But who studied there? Those who in theirs 40ies hadn’t finished a school or some marginal people. So, I decided not to attend it.
Therefore, my education ended in such way: to come and write a test or to pass a project and leave. That was a time during which I could be busy with finishing my geography exam and then I ran to one club and and than to another one, by the time my friends entered universities and went to celebrate in pubs.”
The idea of half a million
Pavlo had the idea to create his own magazine. But his friend and then the co-founder of startup Preenster Bohdan Hnatkovskyy, convinced him to focus on creating a website, explaining that it is cheaper and more practical. Since then, the world saw the first Ukrainian-language media about the technology and advertisement called “Be-sparkle”.
— “We wanted local Ukrainians to have the possibility to read news about advertisement and media technology from the best world editions in Ukrainian. Therefore, we translated news from The New York Times, TechCrunch and other major media. The project had a small audience — not more than a hundred of readers a day. But in order to give some materials we had to re-read about 40 texts daily — trying to find the most interesting information. We didn’t get money out of it, but we kept the audience”, says Pavlo.
Because of a small number of publications with such focus in Ukraine, Be-sparkle attracted the attention of the IT industry in Ukraine. Over time, the boys started to get invitations to participate in different conferences like IDCEE, I-Forum, Google Developers Group, etc.
— “We kept doing that till the time we understood that we wanted something more — we had the desire to develop our own application with interviews. We had no money, no application. But one designer helped us to get ready with the presentation about it. We sent it to a business incubator GrowthUp. And we were accepted!”
During five days in Ukrainian office of Microsoft guys were taught how to create and promote their own product. Eventually they realized that they had been moving in a wrong way. So, they asked for advice Denys Dovgopolyi, the head of the incubator. Guys knew that each year hundreds of start-ups go through his hands and he is a very straightforward person, so if the idea is a “shit” he says about it honestly. Such negative feedback they heard about Be-sparkle.
— “But he gave the advise to think about the application to select clothes. Girls always drag their boyfriends to shop and they usually buy too much. We had to solve this problem.”
Of course, nobody gave them money for it. But those ideas became a sense of their life, so they started to look for people who could help them for free.
— “Often we heard: “I am senior-developer, I get five thousand dollars a month. What can you offer me? “We replied that we didn’t have a lot to offer, but we tried to motivate them by the idea of a large project. And only one of 30 agreed to participate.”
At first there were only five developers, but fortunately some other designers joined. People came and helped for free.
Thus in two months “Preenster” was born. Their team was in GrowthUp again — but this time they have brought the finished product. The “business incubator” met them completely differently.
GrowthUp even compensated their participation in the IDCEE conference in Kyiv, which costed several thousands.
— “There we met with a bunch of investors. But as a rule it has no result. So we didn’t expect to get something quickly. After the event we were approached by a man from the “lean” and “new balance”, it was Andriy Logvin, a founder of ModnaKasta — the largest fashion e-commerce site in Ukraine.
Businessman invited Pavlo and Bohdan to his office in Kyiv. He met two sixteen year old guys who arrived there by subway, as honored guests — he arranged a tour around the office and drank some tea together.
— “In conclusion, he made an offer for 15 thousand dollars”, — tells Pavlo Kuznetsov.
The boys took a train to Lviv and could not believe that they did it!
The next morning they announced the whole team (eleven people) great news about salaries. Not five thousand dollars to each employee, of course, but enough to start with and to pay for an office rent.
The business project quickly began to grow. Firstly, it was the application with the poll to choose clothes, and then they developed an algorithm that determines when a person doubts in choosing clothes. For example, when somebody scrolls up and down, or choose the colors.
In such case the application advises the client to conduct a survey among friends asking them to help to choose. This is how they started to sell.
Soon Preenster has got the Adidas company among their customers.
We had a real startup atmosphere. We did not get out of the office, we ate there and slept there
— “We had a real startup atmosphere. We did not get out of the office, we ate there and slept there. I and Bohdan even agreed not to start relationship with the girls, because it distracts. We rarely met with friends. We were sectarians of our business. I think, it was a success because we were crazy with our idea, we worked only on it.”
Although we started to sale, 15,000 investment was not enough. The money ended when the project didn’t get the chance to become profitable. But their success wasn’t unnoticed. Business Incubator GrowthUp once a year sends its members (three teams from almost 300 applicants) to the “Silicon Valley” to learn there and develop. The Preenster was among them.
— “In the US, Bohdan met with a “business angel”. Let’s call him Bill. He had never invested before, but worked in various top companies such as Oracle or Microsoft. He offered us 500 thousand dollars.”
Of course, the team agreed. The guys rented a new office, increased wages for people and continued to work.
A year after they realize that from 100 visitors website owners they reached to the half a million dollars product.
Debts, courts and unemployment
However, Bill from the USA couldn’t get the way they work. He thought that company has to have the model of corporation, with a clear marketing strategy, where every solution is accepted by the Board of Directors, and as for him sixteen year old person couldn’t rule the company.
First, Pavlo and Bohdan tried to follow his recommendations. But soon it grew into a conflict. Bill stopped sending money. So, while the boys were looking for new investors, people were waiting for their salaries.
— “As for me and Bohdan, we both didn’t pay salary ourselves at all. Sometimes we even borrowed money from our own employees”, Pavlo says.
After a few months without salaries our employees stopped coming to the office. It was a period when I didn’t want to wake up. It’s like when you fall asleep and no one calls or writes you, but when you wake up you have a bunch of missed messages and calls like “Urgent”, “it does not work”, “pay us or we turn it off”, “we turned it off and we won’t turn it on until you pay”, — Pavlo remembers.
At the same time they had got the subpoena to appear in court. They rented an office in the state structure and owed one month rent. Officials immediately took a legal action against them.
In fact, the company “Preenster” after two years of work officially ceased its existence.
Bohdan quickly found another job. But Pavlo returned to the place where he had started.
Odessa, Readdle, new life
During two weeks Pavlo was living locked in his room. He was analyzing everything that had happened with him, including the time when he was studying at the GrowthUp Ukrainian office of Microsoft, so he decided to ask there for a job. There he was given an advice to contact the company Readdle.
— “I sat down and read everything I could find on the Internet about them. And then I decided that I wanted to work only there. I wrote them a letter with my story. And Sasha Tyahulskyi, a co-founder of the company, contacted me. He listened and said that it was very interesting, but they do not hire interns and juniors, so he couldn’t help.”
But Pavlo didn’t give up, he was reaching Sasha again and again. He downloaded all Readdle applications using mom’s iPad and started to look for everything he could improve. The 15 pages document of his proposals was sent to the co-founder.
— “He answered nothing, but in a Google Docs document gradually began to appear some comments. It was clear that someone was reading the document and edited it. I wrote Sasha again.”
He got a refusal for a Product Manager position, but they told him to contact a person responsible for communications.
— “It was Denys Zhdanov. His brother founded the company, and Denys worked there since he turned 19. I was 19 at that time too, and I think that Denys might saw himself in me.”, thinks Pavlo.
Accordingly, he moved to Odessa. Sometimes he spent nights at the office working till the very late time.
— “I was working, when all came to the office, and I kept working when they left”, tells Pavlo about his life in Odessa.
In the company he was responsible for marketing automation and the user experience, also he was in charge of the experiments with prices and design in the App Store. The Readdle team developed its products at a breakneck pace. When Pavlo came, their applications had 33 million downloads when he left the number reached to 45 million.
— “Six products and hundreds of letters in nine languages, each product had about 20 different e-mails. In total, during the year we made about 800 different letters and received about three million users. It was only a part of my responsibilities. To work there was like to jump into the icy water. Global high-end editions often wrote about our products. At the same time we launched a new product, it was a great responsibility. I have never worked with such loads of information, so I had to learn something new every day. Denys always provided me with decent feedback, helped to analyze my work and guided me ahead.”
Suddenly Bohdan and Pavlo received an unusual letter from Peter Thiel, the first Facebook investor, founder of PayPal and Palantir, who once a year meets successful young entrepreneurs from around the world. In his letter he invited them to the “Silicon Valley” to visit “Thiel Summit” as representatives of the Preenster product.
— “Unlike Bohdan, it was my first visit to the USA. That was a first time I learnt the principal of business from the very core. I fell in love with New York City, with its active rhythm of life and the way it motivates to work on something ambitious. I decided that I wanted to live there.”
To Play at the Major League
Paul leaves Readdle and starts preparing a portfolio to find a work in New York.
— “Vitaliy Malets, the founder of Publicfast, contacted me. Technically, the product was of a very high quality. The algorithm could show the popularity of each person in social networks basing on 32 factors. Thanks to Publicfast representatives of such brands like Samsung or PokerStars could find famous bloggers or stars to cooperate with.”
Product was popular on the CIS market (Community of Independent States), the largest advertising agencies used it. And Vitaliy suggested Pavlo to be responsible for Publicfast communication strategies, the main aim was to capture new markets. So they got employed by the most famous B2B-European accelerator Startup Wise Guys, and they spent the winter in Estonia preparing for product launch on the US market.
When you define a very ambitious target and you try to jump over your head, you often have to work at night, forget about weekends and manage several things at the same time
— “Very soon we realized that many competing products had long-term agreements with agencies and some of them became too big and controlled the market. In order to find the “window of opportunity” on the America’s market, I suggested a way of monetization Periscope through the product-placement. Competitors had databases of leaders’ opinions on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine and even Snapchat, but Periscope was free. This opened the doors of agencies for us.
We started to work with 20th Century Fox, with agencies in Los Angeles and London. We saw the advertising model in movies and the idea to transfer it into Periscope sounded fresh (but a bit strange). It attracted an interest.”
Now Pavlo is 21 and he has a contract-oriented jobs. Nowadays a young man is trying to get into another game, the game of a higher level.
— “When you define a very ambitious target and you try to jump over your head, you often have to work at nights, forget about weekends and manage several things at the same time. I think I have become even more crazy about my job than ever before.”
“To play at the major league or die”, — this is the motivation which made him a man he is now. And, he admits, he is not going to stop.