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Navigating Tech Entrepreneurship: Insights from a Serial Innovator in IT and eTech

Aleksey Chirkoff
CEO & Founder
Kirill Rozhkovskiy

Kirill Rozhkovskiy

Serial Entrepreneur and Consulter | - helping busy people learn English, Spanish etc. with no extra time spent.

LinkedIn Link

1. Would you tell us about yourself?

I consider myself a serial entrepreneur, engaged in IT projects since 2000. I've launched 4 startups, sold one to partners, one is currently active, and closed the other two.

My strengths lie in product design, product strategy, and overall strategy, particularly in the early stages of product development. Working with people energizes me, and I thrive on starting projects from scratch or rebooting stagnant ones.

I've remained involved in projects from their early stages, working both in startups and corporations. In startups, I focused on sales development and served as Director of Business Development, handling initial client interactions and building sales and support teams. Additionally, I've worked as a project manager in a top-tier mobile operator, overseeing services rebranding and partnership projects.

I also provide consulting services to startups on fundraising in the US, drawing from my own experiences to offer valuable advice, particularly to first and second-time startup founders.

2. Can you share a bit about your background industry and one of the biggest challenges you've faced in the industry?

I'm from EdTech, and my last two projects were in this sphere.

I launched my first EdTech project in 2018, which was initially an EventTech project. The project's goal was to accumulate video recordings of the experiences shared at offline conferences and provide access to insights within these recordings, facilitating learning. Hence, we rightfully positioned ourselves as players in the EdTech field.

Our idea was to take content, package it attractively, and provide it to those seeking such content, those who wished to learn from individuals giving talks at conferences.

The biggest challenge was conveying innovation to content providers – in our case, conference organizers. For them, it was an entirely new concept, especially in pre-COVID times. We needed to convince them to share content with us and consider future collaborations. This was challenging because it required shifting their conservative mindset from project launches to content management categories. I cannot say we succeeded because even two years after COVID, the market remained very nascent in terms of understanding content management.  

The second challenge was the difficulty in selling our idea to conference organizers. Without their content, it was challenging to create something fundamental and exclusive, to build the grand idea of creating a platform with unique content from events. We needed to properly address and argue why they should provide content to us, what benefits they would gain, and what we could offer in return.

Then COVID intervened, forcing us to change our product's value proposition several times and adapt to rapidly changing market conditions, which we could not keep up with. We had to find the right new comprehensive proposition that would be fresh and relevant to our audience. During this exploration, there were several moments that unfortunately could not have been fully implemented because they required investments we couldn't raise. But the search for the right configuration in constantly changing conditions was the second challenge.

Now, the challenge with my current project lies in marketing because it is a B2C project and requires significant marketing spends. We are currently trying to figure out how to push marketing without large budgets because large budgets come with metrics we haven't yet reached.

In parallel, there is the story, as with any tech product with corporate sales, of finding a way to approach corporate clients (they are diverse, with different demands) and offer them our product. The most difficult part here is finding the right initial contacts within these niches. We need people open enough to honestly talk about such warm clients, how they view the product, and what values they see. Then, I package this feedback into a product that we will rush to sell on the market. That is where we are right now.

3. How has technology transformed the way your business operates?

I think it's not very relevant to my situation because all of my businesses have been built specifically around technology, so there hasn't been any transformation as such.

4. Could you share a success story where technology significantly improved efficiency or customer satisfaction for your business?

The first product I mentioned was ConferenceCast, and the proposition to conference organizers was very simple – you create content and earn money by selling tickets for accessing it. We offer you the chance to earn money on this content again by selling access to its recordings.

And since this sounded quite appealing to organizers, especially pioneers, the problem was that they did not understand it technologically. So, we designed the product in such a way that all the work was on our side. Meaning, the only thing they needed to do was provide us with content. In return, they received from us a pre-configured product with a storefront, which they only needed to embed on their website (in the case of a single event). Or we created a full-fledged media portal, and the client just had to lead customers there. From a technological point of view, we streamlined the entire content management cycle on the platform into a couple of steps. Technically, the client could manage it themselves, but we made sure to prevent such situations for the client. This was a technological solution that allowed companies lacking experience with such technologies to reach a new level. In our case, everything was done within one service, which lowered the entry barrier for content creators and consumers. Additionally, we organized the content with search, categorization, and a user-friendly interface. Moreover, the barrier to sales was removed for content creators. So, we completely covered the segment of their business related to content distribution.

5. In what ways have customer expectations evolved in recent years, and how has your company adapted to meet these expectations through technology?

I can't talk about the current evolution of customer expectations because, unfortunately, on my last project, there wasn't much active feedback from the customer. In B2C products, getting feedback, even from paying customers, can be quite a challenge.

However, there is a significant barrier for young companies entering the market. Users have experience interacting with products whose creators spend millions and billions on user interface and user experience, there are set habits of working with the interface. But the reality is that the implementation of many features expected by the user is extremely expensive. Therefore, a startup needs to do not only the core of the project but also everything that surrounds it, including things that are expected by default by the user but may cost more than the core itself.

And here lies a very difficult task – finding this balance, so as not to significantly lower the service level relative to the expectations of users spoiled by corporations, and on the other hand, to provide the user with the minimum that will not scare them away and will allow them to consider the new features that the product offers. This is a challenging task, and it is very important and difficult to maintain this balance between features and important nuances (there are key features, there are auxiliary features, but often the latter can be more important to the user than the former). There is no perfect solution here, and looking for a way to solve this puzzle is a big challenge.

Overall, the evolution of user experience is constant but not abrupt. That is, people now have an idea of how things work. On the one hand, this is good – there is no need to reinvent the wheel regarding the interface, but on the other hand, it is essential to cut off what can be left unimplemented without affecting the user experience – this is already a skill of the highest class.

6. What emerging trends do you see shaping the future of eTech, and  how should businesses prepare to embrace these changes?

We've been living in a reality for over a year now where the term "AI" dominates all the news, and even people far removed from technology have heard something about it. So, my expectations are that everything will become even more intuitive: recommendations, selections, auto-adjustments. Because the user will expect it: Hey, there's AI, why haven't you integrated it into your product? These are people's perceptions of how everything should work, and these perceptions don't necessarily have anything to do with reality. They have a picture in their minds of how things should work, and they expect that. And the fact that it's technically impossible doesn't bother them. Especially when other people, in order to raise stakes, increase the value of the product, or be on trend, say that their products are AI-driven.

In general, users expect friendliness and responsiveness from products. They expect AI-powered products, so products should be smart, understand everything on their own, and do everything for users.

These are the expectations I foresee, especially if the product explicitly states the use of artificial intelligence. But at the same time, I suspect that this is still in the very early stages; people are more tolerant of products not working as they thought. So, there's room to experiment with this and not get too carried away, as there is still space to customize fairly raw products, explaining that technology is evolving, and we're seeking optimal ways to implement it.

In general, everyone is waiting for AI and expects it to make routine product work even more intuitive for the user, which the company offers.

7. For businesses looking to invest in new software or technology, what advice would you give to ensure they make a decision that aligns with their long-term goals?

Firstly, it's an investment in everything related to the practical application of AI. ChatGPT is just one aspect, although these large linguistic models have certainly opened up a vast horizon for building user interaction with the system, emulating human communication, or identifying patterns in speech or human actions. But overall, this could be an investment in solutions that simplify routine actions in existing processes. Many examples can be found where 15-20 actions can be collapsed into a single button.

Secondly, we've long been accustomed to adaptive delivery of content. For example, in eCommerce or eLearning, there's something that a person needs to consume or select. It's assumed that people choose what suits them best. Consequently, there's untapped potential to find and improve interactions with users.

But actually, the most important thing is to find ways to learn more about the user. Because usually, when we ask someone to explain something, people explain poorly, inadequately, or just not what we expect. Not deliberately, it's just how they are. And if we can find a way to understand what the user actually meant, this could become a huge area for investment development within existing products and for new products as well.

Overall, as I mentioned earlier, AI opens up the possibility of creating products that simply streamline dozens, or hundreds, of routine actions into a single button press.

8. What are some common hurdles businesses face during their digital transformation journey, and how can they overcome these challenges?

The main problem is that the decision-makers are often different from those who actually execute the transformation, and they often have entirely different motivations, with these two groups rarely intersecting. Those making the decision to transform do so not because they understand the necessity but because everyone else is doing it, or it's trendy, or it's simply time. Because of this, goals and results often diverge, leading to wasted time and money. Unfortunately, this is unavoidable and occurs everywhere. Senior executives are often disconnected from reality, and this applies to any transformation in any large company. Therefore, the main problem that I see is not a technical aspect but is the lack of interaction among different participants in the process.

The second point: even if senior executives and transformation implementers are on the same page, if the process occurs separately from those who actually use the product, it can become a significant problem. In my view, such situations have always existed and will continue to do so. This can be avoided through the company's internal culture, openness to customers, understanding of who the consumer is, who the senior executives are, and by surveying those who implement the transformation.

By the way, many of those affected by the transformation may end up losing their jobs. Therefore, it's crucial to also keep in mind that people impacted by this transformation must be offered a viable alternative; otherwise, they may begin to sabotage the process.

9. Looking five years into the future, how do you see technology further changing the landscape of eTech, and what steps is your business taking today to stay ahead?

Potentially I see significant support from artificial intelligence. There are many things that we cannot solve now with AI because it is still in the initial stages of development. Nonetheless, AI involvement should become cheap and routine within 3-5 years, I think it's achievable. This will eliminate many routine functions that required complex user involvement or were impossible due to the technical costliness of simulating AI work.

For example, in our current educational product, users generate a lot of data that is currently impossible to utilize. However, AI can take working with this data to another level, reducing the need for user involvement in the learning process practically to zero, and everything will happen automatically. I believe that with AI, this is achievable – as the user progresses along the educational path, AI will analyze each user choice and suggest options for further progression, offering them to the user, who can either agree or reject the option. But most likely, in 90% of cases, the user will simply agree with AI.

Well, that was my last question. Thank you very much for your answers, it turned out to be a very informative and interesting conversation.  

Thank you for such interesting and deep questions!

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