I'm an American guy living the digital nomad life here in Bangkok and like to help tech companies on a consulting/contract basis. I first came to this SE Asia region back in 2014 when Lazada was in its early days and fell in love with it.
Education-wise I graduated from Cornell University (Dean's list) in 1999 (was #8 university in the world at the time) and from IESE Business School in 2005 (was #1 MBA in the world at the time according to The Economist).
To sum up my experience, I consider myself a hybrid of sorts:
To sum up my experience, I consider myself a hybrid of sorts:
And for the past few years I have done a lot of tech consulting/contracting for companies like:
In general I would say my expertise lies in tying together business strategy with tech as the two are extremely intertwined these days.
And in the e-Commerce realm, as a result of numerous consulting engagements, there are probably only a handful of people out there that have seen as many different tech architectures and team structures as I have, as well as the learnings that go with it.
1999 - 2008, Mars & Co, BCG, Strategy Partners
"How many consultants does it take to screw in a light bulb? Depends. What is your budget?"
So I remember my old consulting days very fondly... mainly because the co-workers were awesome, young talented people from top schools like Harvard, MIT, etc who had a real team-like camaraderie. In early 2001 I became one of the first foreign consultants in the Tokyo office of Mars & Co (an offshoot by one of the top guys at BCG back in the day, Dominique Mars).
It was a boutique consultancy that worked with some industry leaders like Nestle, Sony, etc. And I kind of became a Nestle expert in those years. First working on a project in canned vending machines as we were working on optimizing the vending machine network of UCC Coffee, which had been purchased by Nestle. As I was fairly young looking I would travel to major cities like Nagoya and Osaka and chase down the trucks that would refill the vending machines.
I would then proceed to pose as a student and ask them questions on what were the sales of the specific vending machine locations. It was great exercise and a lot of fun. As i'd party my butt off at night and then chase down trucks all day. Another project, which was typical of Mars, was competitive intelligence on factories. We pretended to be an interested customer and asked for a factory visit to some factory... and then proceeded to jot down notes on all the processes, their efficiency, etc.
It was wild and fun times... and me and some of the guys even got a chance to spend an entire year out in Malaysia helping Nestle with strategic planning as well as launching a bottled water business. It was an absolute blast.
Later on my consulting took me to London (with BCG) and then to Strategy Partners in russia (russia's top strategy consultancy at the time)... and it was an absolute adventure.
My consulting days taught me some important things:
2008 - 10 Head of Acquiring Products (russia), Head of Issuing Products for CIS & SEE (15 countries)
"When you put a pipe in the ground that everyone uses... you can get away with being pretty damn slow in execution."
I moved to Visa Inc. after managing a consulting project to kick off their acquiring group.
Acquiring was already a business that made $40m+ in revenue at the time for the company but almost no effort was involved. Banks provided acquiring services to merchants and paid Visa a cut of the transaction. But now Visa had the idea to actively grow this business and so they'd hired my consulting firm at the time to help them with this.
Following the completion of the consulting project one of the senior managers in Visa that had sponsored the project asked if I wanted to stay on and create and run the group, essentially implementing the recommendations of the project we had just completed. At first I wasn't sure and so sat on it for the first few months.
But the problem was timing... it was the 'Global Financial Crisis' (from all the mortgage backed security stuff) and it was starting to hit russia hard. All of the consulting projects were drying up fast... and I was already at a point where I was supposed to be selling projects and bringing in revenue (something I was already finding not to be my strong suit as I was more of a manager than a sales person).
And so finally I agreed. And in the coming months hired a team and actively began driving the acquiring business of Visa Inc. in russia for the first time.
In early 2010 Visa Inc. moved me to Kyiv, Ukraine to run Issuing Products for the CIS & SEE region.
It was a 15 country region (from memory) and my job was to get more sales from issuing products (which essentially meant debit cards, credit cards, commercial cards, etc.). And essentially I was the 'product' head that worked hand-in-hand with the sales team to achieve this.
For the first six months or so it was fun as hell. I mean I had a green light to travel almost wherever I wanted in the region and meet with our local sales guys to drum up businesses with banks. Plus I'd stay in the nicest hotels, travel only business class, and do a fair bit of partying in the process. I lived it up for awhile.
But then I kind of tired of it. As it was just too much travel and to me it kind of felt like 'fake' business half the time. In that I'd give incentives to banks for things they were likely to do anyway. And even though the money was very good.. at some point I was asking myself.... "Ken.. is this really what you want to do at the prime of your career?"
And it was around that time that I was working on a Groupon<>Visa Inc. deal with an ex-colleague of mine, Victor. Victor had started a company called "Cheap & Daily" which had been acquired by MyCityDeal (ie. Rocket Internet's Samwer brothers), which had soon after been purchased by Groupon Inc.
In the middle of the deal Victor and another guy, Martin Reiter, asked me at some point... "Ken... why don't you just come join us?" And after thinking about it for a couple weeks I was like "hell.. why not? You guys look cool and like you're having a shitload of fun." And i'm too entrepreneurial to see myself as a Visa Inc. corporate guy for much longer.
"The rapid rise and then fall of an online empire"
2011 - 2013, CEO of Groupon Ukraine
Groupon in 2011 was perhaps the most fun I have ever had in my career.
I mean let's look at the situation... I was hired by a friend and all the senior guys I worked with were super cool. The company was flush with cash from its recent acquisition by Groupon Inc. And we had a green light to grow like the wind. I mean... what could go wrong? LOL
So I started around the Spring of 2011 in Groupon a few weeks after leaving my cushy role at Visa Inc. And I went from flying business class and working in a super fancy office in one of the most prestigious buildings in downtown Kyiv to working in this rundown old building that was fairly typical of the old Soviet offices.
They had just fired more than half the Groupon Ukraine team because the previous country head had been doing some corrupt things like stealing money... and so when I joined it was basically a back office finance & accounting team and some recently hired sales people. I'd never run a sales team directly before but this was going to the equivalent of being thrown into the deep end.
Groupon Ukraine was part of the MyCityDeal acquisition spree by the Samwers.
This meant that Oli Samwer was essentially running Groupon International and even though he reported to the US... everyone that knows Oli knows that when he is running the show, you are in for a wild ride. And I was about to learn exactly what this meant.
For the first 3-4 weeks into the job I was told to "hire, hire, hire". And so with my new Head of HR, Vika, I did exactly that. We hired like 10 additional sales people in the span of a few weeks and had built our Kiev sales team to about 20 members. All of whom were pretty much new.
It was at this point that for some reason or other Oli decided that headcount needed to be slashed across Europe. And so I was told to fire like 10 people, which came as a bit of a shock to me. I mean here I was just a few weeks prior selling them on the vision and how they were gonna be rocking it in this sexy global startup that was all over the newspaper headlines. And convincing them to leave their cushy job somewhere.. and then a few weeks later i'd be telling them "Oh sorry... but i gotta fire you now." I mean it wasn't fair and it didn't feel right.
And given that my sales target hadn't changed and was super aggressive (eg. 30% m-m growth) I didn't understand how this was gonna give me any kind of realistic chance of ever hitting these targets.
So I took a 'strategic' decision... I kind of cheated LOL
Basically I fired these guys 'officially' and removed them from payroll and headcount. But I said to them "hey... I just convinced you to leave your job and so I don't wanna just let you go. How about you work on commission?" Now not having any salary at all was not very convincing... as they were still just learning how to sell Groupon deals. So we made a deal with the sales people that were still part of official headcount that these guys I was 'firing' would kind of be their 'agents'.Which essentially meant that the sales member who was part of headcount agreed to 'share' some of their salary with their agents. And we in turn improved their salary a bit. Ok ok... yes by western standards it probably sounds a bit fishy... but hey.. i look at it in two ways:
1) This was Ukraine and not central Europe, so more creative ways of solving problems were sometimes needed. And we were not actually breaking any laws. ie. it is not illegal to raise the salary of my sales guys. What they then chose to do with their money was up to them.
2) I was doing what I felt was morally correct.
In that it was not fair of me or the company to hire these folks away from their jobs and then fire them a few weeks later for no reason.
So essentially I kind of had like 2-3x sales staff then my 'actual' sales headcount.
But from a legal perspective we were essentially doing everything correctly. We paid our full-time sales members their full salary and the commissions of all deals that were booked through their Salesforce account.
And they'd book all their agents' deals through their own Salesforce account. But when we paid our official sales staff their full salary and commission they would then share part of it with their agents.
So within a few months... I had the highest "Deals per sales person" of any country in Groupon International (ie. 30+ countries).
They'd send the spreadsheet of KPI's by country around and I'd think to myself "oh shit... we look kind of weird on here. We have like 2x the average number of new deals booked per sales member."
But fact of the matter was that Ukraine, by revenue, was still quite small relatively and so we kinda flew under the radar. As long as we kept growing and hitting our KPI's they were gonna leave us alone.
And if they left us alone it would mean:
a) That I wouldn't have to unfairly fire people.
b) I could keep my job. Which in those days was a relative accomplishment given that it seemed like Oli was traveling around firing a CEO every week.
"Whereas most Groupon leaders were taught to learn by heart the 'optimal deal structure' for beauty deals, etc. I concluded that that was a waste of time. And I was gonna do shit my way."
By this I mean that I focused on systems and motivation (which has always been my forte). I took my best sales guys and I turned them into team leads. I let them hire their own sales people and fire them for not performing.
I ran a competition of teams with a revenue calculator that was updated hourly so that the teams could see who was in the lead. And out of the five Kiev-based sales teams, if a team won it could easily mean a boost of 25-30% on top of their normal salary.
Things were starting to work like clockwork and I had created all of my own systems. And was optimizing them constantly.
I essentially ignored most of the advice that came out of Germany because I considered that whole thing to be a 'rat race' of firing a whole bunch of people just to hire new ones, and then fire them again. Plus the senior leaders of many European countries were being tossed by Oli like a salad.
And anyway we were kicking their goddamn asses.
We took a commanding #1 position in the Ukraine market.
When I joined we had something like $30k revenue per month and were in about 4th place in Ukraine out of the deal sites.
About 14 months later we had done nearly $1m in monthly revenue, were #1, and were now 3x bigger than our 2nd largest competitor according to our calculations (and we were scraping Biglion and Pokupon at the time to figure out their sales).
We also had an average gross margin of over 40%, which was awesome for Europe.
The unfortunate side was that there was no proper taxation structure for companies of our type in Ukraine. We were being taxed at over 20% of our gross revenue. And so if you sell a deal for say $10 and earn 40% in margin ($4)... well then if you pay 20% in tax ($2) you were essentially being taxed at 50% of your 'actual revenue'. And this is what killed us.
I had my CFO, Sergey, who is a good friend to this day, try to figure out a way around this... but there wasn't really anyway to circumvent this stupid taxation without someone ending up in jail.
And so our profitability looked crappy... whereas if we were taxed similarly to how the European countries were taxed (as they had 'agency tax rules') we probably would have been one of the most profitable countries in Europe.
We also aggressively expanded into physical products & the travel business.
This was a ton of fun and something I got heavily involved in. We created 'travel agents' in each of our six offices who would book tours that were sold on-site. And we'd acquired an actual tour agency license from some other deceased company.
We also got active into seeing how to sell physical products. Which generally meant finding quality inventory at a very deep discount, and agreeing to drop ship it (ie. not purchase it from the supplier in advance but rather only purchase what was sold onsite).
It was fun times... I'd travel around warehouses looking at inventory of importers and strike up deals. We also tested drop shipping stuff in from China (note that this was in the days before Aliexpress became big).
While our official headcount never surpassed 60 people or so... our actual headcount (including agents) was once as high as 120.
I am actually very proud of this fact as it reflected my strategy from the start. And it is why we trounced the other deal sites.
You see early on I'd participate in a lot of in-person sales meetings. And what I noticed was that the sales people had to spend a lot of time explaining the Groupon model to the business owners who were very tentative about trying it. And these business owners would often require multiple visits and sheer effort to convince to try it.
So I concluded that 'the player that has the most boots on the ground early on' will educate the market the fastest. And thereby grow the entire market much quicker, but also have a first mover advantage on most merchants. And so that is exactly what I did.
When our headcount was 120, we probably had around 90 sales people in 6 different sales offices. I let my regional heads hire and fire agents at will. And so cities like Odessa or Kharkov could easily have 10-15 sales people at any one time.I would guesstimate that when we had 90 sales people... the entire next 3 deal sites after us probably did not even have 90 sales people combined. Our guys were generally better trained & managed, they were hungrier (from a very optimized KPI/bonus system), and there were just more of them.
Unfortunately all good things come to an end.
The problem was that we were coming under more and more profit pressure. Groupon was now post-IPO and the main theme was no longer revenue but rather controlling cost. And we were seen to have a high cost base.
In reality our cost base was in line with other countries but we looked skewed because we were paying double or triple the tax they were. But this didn't really matter to the international guys. They told me to cut, cut, cut. And they didn't care what it did to our revenue as we were not a large part of Europe's overall revenue.
So I cut our official staff by about 20% or so and cut our agents by like 70%. Then I was asked to cut more and I cut another 15% or so of headcount and completely shut down the agency system. Also in part as we were getting more frequent visits from international. Which was always fun...
I was being forced to destroy the empire we had created. An empire that had probably become the top 10 e-commerce companies in revenue at the time in Ukraine. And more than that I was destroying my 'family' because the team had become really tight at this point.
When i was asked to cut even more... I decided I couldn't do it.
I asked for a sabbatical and let them send someone from international to do further cuts.
It had just become too painful to destroy this thing that I was proud of having just built.
And to have to fire people that were doing a great job and who i now considered my friends. We were already less than half the original team size and so I told the international guys to send one of their own people in to take the task further, as I didn't want to do it.
It was clear that Ukraine was not a priority for Groupon and so I didn't really see a future. And i'd already been told that they were likely going to shut Ukraine later on, which saddened me. And I didn't want to have to be the one to do it.
Because we had kicked everyone else's butts on relative terms. I'd compare key KPI's of Ukraine vs. any of the international Groupon countries... and we'd beaten most of them on most things.
So in the end I handed the keys to a guy 'Tengiz' who took over the time and wound the thing down until they finally shut it down sometime later. And Groupon's presence in Ukraine became part of the history books.
Although officially I had asked for a 'sabbatical' and Groupon would send me some potential positions in Europe and the US... I had no real intention of returning. And I was onto my next adventure... startups and my pivot into product management and being on the tech side of the house.
I tell this story here, now after about 10 years, because I do not want it to be forgotten.
How me and a band of young Ukrainians bonded together and kicked some ass. In my entire career I don't think there was a better culture or spirit in any team or company that I was a part of that compared to what we had during those Groupon years.
Not because of me... I consider myself only a side facilitator who made sure that politics were killed and fun reigned. It was because we all felt like we were building something together. Part of something that we'd be proud of.
A company that we had taken from the bottom to the top and had invested a part of who we are into.
Groupon Ukraine will live forever in our hearts.
Over about the past decade I have been focused on product management in e-commerce and given that I've both worked in several roles and contracted for a number of large players... I have had the opportunity to see how many companies approach the same set of problems (efficient warehouse, fast delivery, onsite conversion, etc).
The more you see, the more you can compare.
When you see how different companies solve the same problem differently it gives you the opportunity to compare and contrast. And I would say there is rarely ever a cut & dry correct vs. wrong way. Each way or each system has its own positives and negatives.
And the more you can forecast potential issues down the road.
But it is this experience having seen how many large players have done it that gives me the insight into the problems you are likely going to have with various approaches and how to solve them. It also gives you insight into how to avoid certain problems. Problems that often end up being very very expensive... because let's face it. Building software is very expensive.
I would say each of these companies below is probably best-in-class at something
In this chart below you will see some of the systems I have used and projects I have been involved with over the years. I would say that i learned very useful things in each of the companies... and each of these companies was probably best-in-class in at least one thing.
And therefore the more you have seen, generally the better you can make decisions.
that I founded... but unfortunately they did not become the next Facebook. LOL
"Most of the times—the artists you hear you keep on thinking that artist is new, but that artist has prolly been at it for years" - NF
Let me start off by saying that I am very proud of the fact that I am a serial entrepreneur... because it defines what I consider my style. I focus on 'getting shit done' and can wear many different hats to do that. I contrast that with some of the corporate managers I'd seen early on in my career... who in my view would make horrible entrepreneurs and probably would never even try.
So I actually started my first company in 2000 during the first Dot Com bubble soon after beginning my first job. It was a time when the Internet was blowing up and there was tremendous excitement.
At the time and me and a couple of friends in Boston decided we'd try to see if we could partake and started the concept for EZtenant.com, which was meant to be an 'intranet for apartment communities'. I think we'd built an extremely basic static website and were shopping the business plan around to the first wave of accelerators that were popping up at the time. Several of them were interested when Boom! The bottom fell out of the market and literally everyone we were talking to just seemed to vanish into thin air.
And thus went EZtenant... as it didn't seem like any funding was possible in the new 'dot com bust' climate and bootstrapping felt like the 'poor man's approach' after all that money that was flowing around just the year before LOL.
And for the next few years I focused on my strategy consulting career which had moved me to Japan... and essentially put the idea of entrepreneurship on the shelf for the time being.
2006 - 2007, An online marketplace of language tutors from Ukraine
Skypetutoring was my first startup that I consider ever went fully operational and I actually ran it for over a year. The idea came from solving my own problem of 'how to most optimally learn the russian language?" when I moved from London to Moscow in late 2006.
And i'd been waiting in Odessa, Ukraine for my russian work visa to come through to start my consulting job (in Moscow)... and had taking russian language classes at a language school. But after the first few weeks I quickly realized... "hey wait a minute.. these teachers are actually happy to come to my apartment and teach me in-person 1-1 for $7/hr and it is far more effective.
So I started doing that and continued using these tutors even when I made the move to Moscow by transferring our sessions to Skype.
Now in 2006, most language lessons in America were done either in offline schools, with tutors that would charge $40+ per hour, or with Rosetta Stone (a rudimentary software sold in malls). And i thought to myself... Ok why not offer Americans who are either learning a foreign language or English (as a second language) the option to learn for just $10 per hour using one of my tutors (because actually my Ukrainian tutors were English teachers by profession.
And so I threw together a quick site that someone from Pakistan built for me and started dabbling with some Adword spend. I remember that there was almost no competition for high converting keywords in this space and so I was literally spending like $0.05 a click and paying less than $0.50 per customer.
Now combine that with the fact that we had high repeat purchase (~75% of customers continued and took about 1 session per week, a healthy margin (of $3-5 margin per session)... and you start to see how the economics of this business were mindbogglingly awesome! Probably up there with the narcotics trade!
As converting a customer meant them emailing me, me responding to questions for a few days...and then finally they'd start with their first session. So as I was working 70+ hour weeks in a grueling consulting job... it was burning me out. And after I'd gotten to about 10 tutors and 30-40 clients...
I just put things on autopilot and stopped my marketing. And eventually gave the clients to my tutors and shut down the site. And note that i'd stayed in touch with some of those tutors and remember hearing that even a few years later they were still working with those same students.
Now... one thing I am proud of about this story is that I also happened to tell this story to a young team in Ukraine called Findguru in 2012-3 when I was part of Eastlabs. They were a local services marketplace that were struggling and ended up pivoting to a tutoring marketplace and renaming to Preply.com.
And even when in the summer of 2013 (when we were both in Eastlabs) they made the pivot to Skype sessions (as you can see in their August 2013 monthly newsletter on the right) there were very few players on the market promoting language tutoring online (by Skype) and to my recollection, absolutely nobody focusing on the arbitrage element of it (ie. using a teacher in a low cost country to tutor students in more developed countries like the US).
So it was no surprise to me when Preply started to figure out the same things i had.. ie. there is a massive market in online tutoring via global arbitrage! And the economics can be quite attractive, thus allowing you to scale your paid marketing spend quickly.
Note that Preply today is a $200m+ valued company and kicking ass. And I am proud of them.
2010 - 2014, A digital gift card service in Ukraine
The story of Ugift begins probably sometime in late 2010. I was working for Visa Inc. and had been moved by them from Moscow to Kiev to head issuing products for the CIS SEE 15-country region. And my ex-girlfriend from Moscow joined me in the move but didn't have a job. So as I often do, I thought... "hmmm let me create one for her!" lol.
So I came up with the idea of uGift based on my knowledge of the growth of prepaid cards that were blowing up in Visa Inc. You could see these prepaid gift cards for $50, 100, etc all over the place in the US... convenience stores, pharmacies, etc.
And I knew that there were some legal restrictions in the Ukraine that prevented them from being launched there... so I thought to myself... "Ok well perhaps we can simulate it? And thereby tap into the same demand/trend."
So uGift was mean to be like a universal gift card that could be used in all major offline and online retail stores. And my girlfriend and I started it. But she dropped out a few months later because we broke up and so for a few months uGift was in a kind of limbo as I was figuring out what to do with it. And I had moved to become CEO of Groupon Ukraine where I was preoccupied keeping up with a business that was scaling at light speed.
But sometime in late 2011 I figured out a solution. I had a talented entrepreneur in Groupon that was an ok sales person but I could tell his talents were being wasted as I could see the 'hustler' in him. His name was Andrey Zhivolovich. And when I asked him if he was interested in running his own business that I would bankroll and coach him on, he was all for it.
Over the next couple of years Ugift developed nicely into one of the leading online gifting solutions in Ukraine. And had taken part in the 'Happy Farm Accelerator', had won the #1 eCommerce startup in Ukraine by The Next Web in 2013 and also got a seed round of funding from Semyon Dukach, later founder of One Way Fentures. For awhile things looked really good.
While the company achieved some of its goals and was even close to break-even, in the end it was decided to close shop (after nearly three years) in mid 2014. It was a good run... but it was clear that the model was not gonna blow up anytime soon. The legacy of this story is two things in my view...
1. My gut on Andrey was right and he did an amazing job in his next venture, Precoro, a well -recognized b2b procurement platform
2. uGift was reincarnated by one of the team members as Giftmall.com.ua, which is still alive today.
2013 - 2014, An app to capture the everyday moments
It was late 2012 or so... and Instagram was all the rage after having been acquired for $1bn or so. And it was clear that the space was still far from tapped... and lots of startups were popping up to try and capitalize on this new trend.
This is the backdrop upon which the idea for Diarize was formed in late 2012. At first it started out as more of a philosophical question that I wanted to answer for myself...
"What if i took photos of my everyday life at regular intervals? Would this be of any value?" And so I did exactly this without building anything.
For a couple of weeks I set my timer to every twenty minutes and just took photos of the most interesting thing that was around me. Then I dumped it all into a Dropbox and looked at it... and was like "Wow! Some of this shit is actually useful!" Why?
Because it was photos that I would not have taken. They were photos of my everyday life and the people in it. And to that point (and you gotta remember that it was 2012) the only photos I ever really took and kept were of special events like birthdays and vacations.
I didn't have photos of the people i saw everyday and the everyday moments. And so the hypothesis was... if you could discipline people into taking these photos they would find it of immense value later on (ie. when they reflect on their life).
And so we put together a team that included me, Hrish Lotlikar (founder of SuperWorld app), Tiernan Quinn (recently deceased) and Steve Wu (now a project manager in Hong Kong). I raised some angel funds from a guy I knew, we built a small team, and we started putting our hypothesis to the test. Here is a video (link) of photos that were taken from the app.
Unfortunately one of the core hypotheses turned out to not true. In that it turned out next to impossible to get people into the habit of taking the photos as I had. And therefore the goal of them seeing the value 'later on' was never achieved. Also the LTV-CAC was simply not even close to what we needed it to be. But we built and iterated fast, and also failed fast. So all in all I think it was a good experience for all of us.
2013 - 2014, The leading Ukrainian startup accelerator
I joined Eastlabs as a partner in the heyday of Accelerators.
Founded in 2012, Eastlabs was one of the first startup accelerators in Ukraine. I joined about a year after its founding in 2013 and was one of four partners. The others being Eveline Buchatskiy (who later went on to Techstars and then airSlate), Olga Bielkova (who became a government official in Ukraine), and Hrish Lotlikar (SuperWorld app). It was a time when accelerators were popping up all over the world and were all the rage.
Altogether Eastlabs invested in at least 15 companies, and there are at least four (Preply.com, Promorepublic.com, Kabanchik.com.ua, and Poptop.co.uk) that are still alive today. And given that the combined valuation of these four companies is probably in the vicinity of $200m... I'd say that it was a pretty good return on the investment of $15k into each of the 15 companies (ie. $200k turned into $200m of valuation... 1000x).
For me, it was a time of exploration. I tried to create a mobile gaming 'accelerator' given that conceptually it seemed like a good idea given the level of gaming talent in Ukraine. But when that proved difficult, in particular in finding high potential teams at the stage that were interested in our level of funding, i instead decided to focus on becoming a 'growth hacker'. It was the early days of growth hacking and before any companies had a 'growth' unit, which only became sexy some years after.
So I started reading the popular growth hackers like Sean Ellis and started my own blog, which at the time was called www.kenontek.com. And I would do my best to mentor the teams that were in the incubation program on growth... utilizing experiences from my startups, uGift (which was still running) and Diarize (recently deceased), as well as my experience having run Groupon in Ukraine the past couple years prior. It was fun... and I even did some regional workshops on the topic in various cities around Ukraine to promote Eastlabs.
In the end the war in Ukraine that began at the end of 2013 brought an end to funding and the eventual 'long freeze' of Eastlabs... But I think in hindsight this program would be to the history of startups in Ukraine what Tupac was to the history of rap. It was the vehicle that brought excitement, international attention, and just kinda put Ukraine on the startup global map at the time.
But I anyway had a new path... I was moving to Vietnam and moving to my new life in product management at Rocket Internet's Amazon-play for SE Asia, Lazada.
2019-20, A crowdfunding investment vehicle for e-Commerce products
Goodsberg was born out of the meteoric rise in russian e-marketplaces in 2018.
In late 2018 I was helping Ozon, a popular russian marketplace, on contract and realized that the e-commerce marketplace model was blasting off in russia. Mainly because it hadn't really existed prior to 2018... given that the main players were all retail models (Wildberries, Ozon). But now they'd launched their own marketplaces and the race was on. So they were throwing traffic at the marketplace listings like crazy and everything that was put up there seemed to move easily.
I had a friend, Andrey, that was one of these early marketplace sellers and he'd tell me the stories of buying something from China on Alibaba.com, throwing it up on Ozon, Wildberries and a couple other sites... and having it all move within a few weeks without even changing the content from what he got from the Chinese supplier. And all at a healthy margin!
So I asked him if I could invest in some of the new products he was sourcing from China so i could check this for myself... And sure enough he was right! We made like a 15% margin on a few thousand dollars of inventory we'd purchased within about 40 days with almost no effort.
This was crazy! I mean this type of market hadn't existed on Amazon in the US since at least 2015 or so... I knew because i got burned a bit dabbling with Amazon FBA selling in 2017... and it had gotten super competitive over there.
So I had the idea of scaling this to some more friends to see if we could buy even more products. And we got a few more friends in, did some calculations in a spreadsheet, and were selling the stuff a few weeks later. And boom it worked again!
At this point.. I was like... "Hey this could be a platform! Let's scale the shit out of this!" I mean we were essentially taking advantage of timing... in that it was the 'rise of e-commerce marketplaces in Russia' and it was gonna grow like crazy for awhile.
So me and a few friends started meeting weekly and threw together a crowdfunding platform that we built ourselves (see the screenshot on the left). It worked a bit like Kickstarter but instead of investing in some brand new idea, you were essentially investing in concrete products that we were about to invest in.
And for your investment you got a % of the profit (eg. 10% of investment into the inventory equated to 10% of profits). And not just of that initial round of inventory but all follow-on purchases of that product.
You could fail on most products and still make a crazy profit... hypothetically.
The numbers looked crazy good in theory. Why? Because if you could make a 10% profit on $1000 investment in inventory within 2 months. Than this was essentially a 60%+ profit over the course of the year. Of course not every product was gonna be successful but even if only 20% were successful... we figured the economics would still rock.
Why? Because for the 20% that were successful you could probably continue to re-run that deal for a couple years... all the while you're listing on the marketplaces would only get stronger and stronger.
And the kicker to this is that you could create some very powerful white label brands in the process (ie. we were running all these products under a couple of brands that Andrey had come up with). In the next few months we ran over 60+ deals, which you can find the details in this spreadsheet on.
We were profitable and things looked beautiful... I spoke to a few friends about an angel investment and two of them wanted to throw about $200k in. But this is where things broke down... and I learned an important lesson.
First.. we were all part-time founders who were involved in other things. I had several interesting, high-paid job offers in SE Asia...and wasn't really committed to living in russia. So it wasn't gonna be me.. and the only person that was willing to jump all-in was Andrey, who was already running his own successful e-commerce business.
The second problem was that were essentially a crowdfunding overlay on top of Andrey's e-commerce business. In that it was his business that had all the headcount and did the actual selection of products, import, listing on russian marketplaces, etc. And so it was very difficult to separate the two as the crowdfunding part was completely dependent.
Thirdly was the legality of what we were doing... I mean we were essentially selling a % share of profits in products and their future earnings... but there wasn't a proper legal vehicle we could use for this. Later a crypto friend said that we could have used a 'DAO' for this exact purpose but this was a couple years too late.
And so given these issues we decided to sell our inventory and essentially give the business to Andrey who continued to run it for awhile before focusing on his core business when COVID came and his core ecom business rocketed.
2021 - Current, A marketplace for paid conversations with licensed therapists from around the world
I started seeing a therapist with no plan of creating a business.
So the founding of Therapada came in late 2021 and as with pretty much all the previous startups the idea came out of solving my own problem. You see I'd seen a therapist back in 2019 after going through some pretty hard health issues... and while I was skeptical at first i'd ended up loving it.
And since I paid out of pocket it really helped that it was so affordable (ie. $35 for a one hour session with a psychologist with 10 yrs of experience). Then in late 2019 when I moved to Bangkok I gave it up for the next couple of years as I didn't really feel I needed it.
But in the fall of 2021 I was thinking to myself... "hmmm I really enjoyed opening up to a therapist... why don't I try again?" And so I looked in the US for sites.
I tried a couple like Betterhelp and Cerebral (which had a $5bn+ valuation), but I really didn't like their models. In that I could not select the therapist, rather they selected for me. Plus I had to buy a subscription and the sessions costed $80+.
So out of curiosity I checked some Indian therapist sites and they allowed me to choose my own therapist and pay just $25-30 per session. So I tried a few of them and tried about 6-7 different therapists in the ensuing weeks, before settling on one that I liked the most.
She was awesome. Great English, great listener, and I didn't feel any kind of cultural divide from the fact that she was Indian (perhaps in part due to the fact that I was working with Indian product managers and developers almost all the time on my job).
I continued doing weekly sessions with her for the next 6 weeks or so and really enjoyed them. So much so that I said to myself... "hmm maybe it's time to start another business!" LOL
By this I mean that I didn't have any co-founders so instead I did what I had done to found Goodsberg in 2019. I asked a couple of friends to give it a try and that we'd decide on equity later. The first couple folks that got involved decided it wasn't for them, but I decided to formalize my iteration on finding co-founders a bit.
I joined starthawk.io (a co-founder marketplace) and started writing to folks. Then if they were interested I invited them to join our weekly standups. All tasks were clearly documented and tracked in Clickup, my tool of choice at that point. And we applied points to all tasks. Once the task was complete the person that did it received the points. And thus the shareholding structure of the company was simply your % of total points.