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'Business Should Be Enjoyable, Otherwise You Should Give It Up'

Ivan Sergeyev was the first to graduate from the ICEF bachelor’s programme in 2001. Now with 15 years of work experience, he has had the chance to try his hand at a lot of different endeavours. He’s worked for western investment banks, served as a managing director for the online clothing and footwear store LaModa, and been an entrepreneur. Ivan is now one of the founders of the children’s clothing manufacturer Bambinizon. Below, Ivan tells the ICEF news service about his time as an ICEF student, and he discusses his current career and plans for the future. 

Knowledge Acquired at ICEF Still Helping Today

I decided on a career early, and when I was in seventh or eighth grade, I already knew it would be in economics. My father graduated from the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, and my grandmother worked at a bank. You could say that we have a dynasty going. I grew up in this atmosphere, so it was never a question of what I wanted to do.

ICEF was something new, interesting, and unknown. It wasn’t scary applying to the programme without a ‘story.’ The opportunity to simultaneously get a degree from a strong foreign university without going abroad and from an equally strong Russian university (HSE was of high standing back then too) outweighed any pros or cons. Plus, I was drawn to the fact that instruction took place in English, though I’ll admit that English was the hardest aspect of ICEF at first. I had to get a tutor to improve my skills.

ICEF taught me to learn, understand, and swallow large volumes of information. The institute provides you with friends and knowledge, and it’s strange for me to sometimes hear from my classmates that they do not use the knowledge they acquired at the institute. Everything I learned at ICEF has come in handy, right up to the programming course we took our first year. I then used this knowledge for 10 years as I optimised my work at the bank.

Not Losing Your Chance Is Key

After finishing ICEF I took the route that is typical for a graduate – I started working at a smaller Russian bank in the economics department, after which I moved on to the Dutch investment bank ABN AMRO. I worked in their corporate finance division, where I helped prepare and carry out mergers and acquisition deals. I had a clear plan in my head about how to build a career – get into the banking system, figure out exactly what I wanted to do, and then pick a bank.

Everything was going according to plan, until a friend asked if I wanted to opened up an online store in Russia similar to one of Europe’s largest online retailers, Zalando.de. He was the CEO of the startup and was putting together a team. I ended up being the first person he called. We had an investor and financing, and we were tasked with creating an online store and building a business. It was the end of 2010, and the banking industry had been in decline after the 2008 crisis. It took me all of one day to decide on leaving the bank. Of course, I thought about it that entire day, but I figured that I would always be able to work at a bank, but this kind of opportunity was one in a lifetime. We called the company LaModa.  

LaModa and KupiVip

I was one of four managing directors at the online clothing and footwear store LaModa. I was responsible for shaping our activities, hiring managers, and putting together a team of buyers. Later, in 2011, I met the founder of the online store KupiVip Oskar Hartmann and joined his team. At KupiVip, I was the director of development and responsible for buying stock from a brand in Italy. I also controlled what we imported and processed orders and clothing sales through the online store. Alongside of this, I expanded our office in Los Angeles. This was an interesting and rewarding experience.

Those Strange Entrepreneurs

When I was a college student, I thought entrepreneurs were somewhat strange individuals. I didn’t understand why they worked in business, and I was convinced that I needed to find some international company and work there. But then I got my fill of that. While working in corporate finance, I had to constantly talk with people from different businesses, evaluate their companies, keep track of how they developed their business, etc. It took time before I understood I wanted to be an entrepreneur. It was more of a gradual realisation. Change is in our nature, and my own views changed significantly after 10 years.

The main thing is for business never to become a headache. Because if that happens, then a person subconsciously starts trying to get away from business. I believe that business should be fun and enjoyable. When I worked in an office, I only experienced this kind of enjoyment occasionally when I would finish a specific task, but now I enjoy working in business everyday since I’m not just an observer on the sidelines, but a direct participant in the process. It’s important for me to create something with my own hands, and the theme of a business is not that important – the same principles apply everywhere. The main thing is for people to find your product interesting. But in my case, I still worked in clothing, and now all of my efforts are aimed at developing the company in its production of Bambinizon clothing.

A Non-coincidental Meeting

I don’t believe in coincidences. I think that if you have a strong desire to change something, the universe will meet this desire halfway. Under the condition, of course, that you don’t just ‘torment’ yourself and really move towards achieving your goal. Then the right meeting or situation will present itself.

I took my first steps in entrepreneurship while I still worked at the bank. I opened up a women’s lingerie store in my neighbourhood, and the store ended up lasting three years until I sold it since I practically stopped controlling the business. Before that I hadn’t started any businesses. But I built that store from the ground up.

Since then, I strove to find something of my own, and I looked at different business ideas and startups. I randomly met Alexandra Kravchenko-Berezhnaya, who was looking for money to develop her idea of producing overalls with a pull-through fastener from the neck to the middle of the back and with a flap that lets you change your babies diaper without taking it completely off.

Alexandra not only thought of an original solution, but she was also able to sell a few thousand samples, and this is the best indication of one’s entrepreneurial talent. At the beginning, I only consulted Alexandra on financial issues, but then she asked if I wanted to run the business together. Now she is the company’s art director, and she handles the product assortment, creates new models, and is responsible for the product as a whole. I’m in charge of the business’ strategy and development, and my personal job is to bring the business to the large players on the children’s clothing market. We are still just growing, but we’ve achieved some great results.

Bambinizon currently produces around 20,000 items per month, and the company’s revenue in 2016 exceeded 50 million rubles. This year we need to more than double this, if not more. We need to prepare to enter the European and American markets, for which we’ll need to get a certificate and develop a business plan. We are now preparing patents and registering our trademark in Europe, America, China, Japan, and Israel. So we have big plans.

How does one become a successful entrepreneur?

The first rule I developed for myself back at LaModa is that if you have an idea and have decided to pursue it, don’t wait until tomorrow – you need to act now. When people start saying, ‘let’s think about it,’ this is the end of a business. The second rule is to count your money. No matter how materialistic that might sound, you often get the urge to spend money on nonsense. You have to calculate each step and consider all possible alternatives. You have to remember that something might not work out. Are you ready to write a mistake off or not? Or maybe you spent your last bit of money on this mistake and there will be nothing with which to write off. If you have a financial cushion, you can try things out, which can be a useful experience. Third, it’s really important to maintain control over your business’ key processes. When you don’t control the process, the entire system becomes wobbly. It’s necessary to try becoming as independent from employees as possible. Whatever can be automated should be automated. Fourth, it’s important to work on a team at the owner level. Alexandra and I had a difficult time adjusting to working side by side at first, but now it’s clear who is good at what. We have learned to listen to one another and develop the best joint opinion. And finally, don’t be afraid of difficulties. Our warehouse with overalls flooded once, and this wasn’t the only difficulty we have encountered. It was rough. Looking for money, talking about nothing, constant doubt, etc. – but I couldn’t just throw it all away. We wanted to reach some sort of logical conclusion. Difficulties present themselves along the way to make a person understand what they need and don’t need. That might sound grandiose, but you have to earn the result you want to achieve. 

P.S.

I spend my free time training with my wrestling coach. It’s something between aikido and classic wrestling. It helps avoid that feeling of internal panic, and it clears your mind and gives you an inner silence and calmness. You might not know how something will end, but you can still have a clear sense of what has to be done. That’s the main thing. I used to do show jumping, play tennis, and ski. Now I only have time for wrestling.

Bambinizon takes up 95% of my time, but I still work with the company orangecapital.ru as a finance and economics consultant. It’s a way of going back to my previous life, a little part of me still in the banking and financial sphere.

Anastasia Chumak, Exclusively for ICEF HSE

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49

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