Graduated from the HSE Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics, specialising in precision engineering.
In 2007-2008 he led the My Circle social network on Yandex.
In 2011, with his brother and a group of like-minded people, he launched the social service 'Budist' in which strangers give each other alarm calls. It covers 1.5 million users and drew investment of $2.5 million.
He later launched a spinoff dating service, Zang.
He is currently working on the Wakie app, an international version of his initial 'alarm clock' in California, which was released on December 10, 2014.
«The worst thing you can do in launching a project, is think about money»
About the project
How does one find one's niche in life and do what comes easily as well as bringing happiness? You need to put to proper use the knowledge that you have gained both from your studies and life experiences. In the project entitled 'Success Builder', we talk to graduates from the HSE working in an interesting business or unusual profession. These entrepreneurs share their experiences revealing the challenges they encountered and how they made the most of opportunities which came their way.
A great idea is not enough for a startup; you have to be persistent in your search for investors, never give up, and find talented engineers ready to solve random technical issues for the sake of an ‘idea.’ Grachik Adjamyan, who is a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of Electronics and Mathematics (MIEM) and the creator of the projects Budist.ru and Wakie.com, tells Success Builder how he overcame a number of hurdles in building his startup and headed to Silicon Valley to find investors.
How did you get the word out about your project?
We were lucky in this sense; we have an inherently fun and unusual project. And it is not so much that we drew attention to it – it all happened by itself. We never promoted the project and never spent money on advertising. The first news source to pay attention to Budist.ru was Echo of Moscow (Ekho Moskvy), which talked about us just three days after the project launched. On the fifth day, some TV channel did a piece on us, and then the online media got a hold of us. It turned out that the audience found out about the existence of our ‘alarm clock’ on the first day, and the journalistic interest has not died down since. A sort of freebie fell into our lap, while other projects are finding it more difficult.
working ‘alarm clocks’ on Budist.ru
In that case, is it possible to call your project the outcome of fleeting luck?
Sometimes you are lucky, and sometime not; whoever sticks it out and fights every day wins. So luck offers smaller chances and short-term effects, but this too can be ruined by a lack of motivation, professionalism or dedication. If you look not at a specific moment, but at a 5-10 year chunk of time, then luck might not mean so much. And when I say ‘we were lucky,’ I mean that the idea itself is exceptional and works for us, but we have done our part and invested a huge amount of time and effort into it. The last ‘bang’ happened in December 2014, when we finally launched the iPhone app Wakie in the States. Silicon Valley was swimming in news about Wakie; several well-respected resources such as Techcrunch.com wrote reviews on the app and brought it a lot of press. Again – we did not do anything aside from simply launch Wakie.
Had you worked with applications before that?
In 2011, the website Budist.ru, which had just been created, was only a site, but a year later we made an iPhone and Android app for it, followed by a Windows Phone app, so Budist has been a site and a mobile application for several years. In 2014, we launched the international equivalent of an alarm clock – Wakie, which we decided to make exclusively a mobile app so that people approached the app correctly. Wakie also has three versions for mobile platforms.
Might Budist.ru also be called a dating site? What was the initial purpose of the project?
This is just an alarm clock, nothing more. You set the alarm, and a completely unfamiliar voice wakes you up – or the opposite, you wake someone else up. We thought up a social alarm clock that has been built on a simple concept – when you are nice to people and they are nice to others, and they to others, then kindness will make a circle and come back to you through strangers like a chain letter. This is an environment for people who do not have to know each other to genuinely help one another out of kindness. Budist.ru works around the world and often connects you to people who live far away and whom you know nothing about. This if full anonymity; they interrupt you for a moment and then you never hear from one another again. From a dating standpoint, this is a very bad service.
What if people want to contact each other afterwards?
Communicating with investors was just a test. You have to have a crazy amount of will to continue going and asking until they agree.
How did you resolve the resource’s technical issues? After all, you are not a telephone exchange.
We tortured ourselves for a long time and then looked for someone to do this for us – first we were given estimates of millions of rubles and timeframes of between six months to a year. But ultimately we found one guy who said, ‘I don’t know how, but I’ll think of what I can do.’ We gave up and blew him off. He came back a week later with a project prototype of the telephone system that we needed. This was an absolute miracle and we have been working together ever since. We got lucky again – we were able to find the right person with whom we could create this entire platform.
Before creating Budist.ru, you had 10 years of experience working with web projects. What did you learn from them?
We just had orders for websites. We got together a great team of people that are good at what they do and know what it takes to do a job well. We had a lot of technical experience – we had made about 100 totally different sites. In this sense, it was also easier for us than for many of the people who try launching their startup without experience, a technological understanding or a team. We were only able to make websites, and we had not worked with mobile applications at all, so we began with the Budist.ru site; it was obvious that people set their alarm clock when they are already lying in bed and looking at their phone.
Naturally, everyone encounters a lot of failures on their way to success. The only person who does not make mistakes is the person who sits and does not do anything. Living a life of fulfilment being in a dark pit, but still moving forward and solving one problem after another little by little – this is largely the essence of entrepreneurship.
How did you look for investors, and what motivates people to invest in such a project?
Investors can be motivated solely by the desire to earn. They came to us themselves. After an article was published on Forbes’ website, our first business angel wrote us and gave us $300,000 two weeks later. Our next investor – the company Delta Capital – found us at some conference, came up to us, discussed things, and gave us $2 million. Investments have always come fairly easy to us, so in this sense we did not do much searching. It’s just that with Budist.ru we stood out among other projects. We went to investors with other projects, but with no result: they dragged things out and did not give us an answer. Communicating with investors was just a test. You have to have a crazy amount of will to continue going and asking until they agree. You have to understand that investors are people that want to invest their money in order to get it back with a huge payoff. If you can show them the future – if you see how your product can become important for humanity and prove this to potential investors – then you have every chance of getting the money.
There are virtually no projects that started in Russia then went global. That's the main feature of what we're doing.
What does the initial amount look like for a startup like Budist?
The worst way to start a project is by thinking about money. You might not spend a penny. You have to start with effort and try out even the smallest possibilities; you have to launch the product to the market and be certain that someone needs it. Without this, raising investments would be dumb in the majority of cases. We did this, and as a result our entire studio was working entirely on Budist. We did not take new clients, which allowed us to keep focused on our best idea. And at a certain point it time, we were out of money and were not taking new orders. I even wanted to sell my car, but we figured up that this money might only be enough for six days of the project. It was right at that time that our first investor wrote.
So an investor invests – what is the payoff?
A project might be profitable without earning anything. For example, initially the creators of Instagram did not know how they would make money – they just made something good without knowing how to earn anything when Facebook bought them for $1 billion. The same thing happened with YouTube – the site had $30 million in losses one month when Google bought it for $1.6 billion. There are sometimes projects that start to generate revenues immediately, while others have a longer road to go on; social services like Budist take the second route. Facebook and VKontakte had not made money for several years before they started to show earnings. Ours is a similar story – we are a completely free service and we pay for all the calls our users make. The same setup exists at Wakie, but unlike Budist.ru, there are additional paid services here. You can, for example, purchase a premium account, and the length of conversations will be increased, as one minute is often not enough for people. There are also other additional capabilities in the package.
Can the app be downloaded in Russia?
A limited functioning Wakie – calling and waking someone up – works in all countries. But only users in six countries can actually receive the calls: the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
What made you move to the U.S.?
It became clear that it was pointless to make the Budist.ru project work with only a Russian audience. We looked at statistics and found out that the project had huge potential. We knew that we needed to take a step into the world, put Budist on standby and focus exclusively on a global product. In resolving this task, we made Budist a paid app, which cut the number of users considerably, but distracted us less. Wakie will become the main and only product of its type in the world, while Budist will disappear in a year or two. This is why it was necessary to move, literally.
– the highest amount an app developer can charge on Apple's store
Did you find an investor there or sell the idea?
I simply bought a ticket and came to California to look for foreign investments. The entire team stayed in Russia. We are entering new markets, and it is also important for us to know how people in different countries view our product from a psychological standpoint. It is important to communicate a lot with people, gain feedback, and adjust the product since we built it knowing only about Russian users. Here I have completely immersed myself in the environment. I am of course very pleased that I made the move to relocate – we might not have had the successes that we do now. And Wakie is in a good stage of development; there is a lot of talk about it and numerous articles have been written. We have thousands of new users join ever day.
There are practically no projects that would be born in Russia and enter the world. This is the main particularity of what we do.
So what is the difference between the mentalities of the Russian and American audiences?
There is no real difference globally – all people are pretty similar. But we still have no culture for spending money on things online, while U.S. users spend 20 times more there than in Russia; there is simply a culture of paid music on iTunes, while we listen to it on VKontakte. Many people are surprised in Russia – who needs strangers calling you in the morning? It turned out that there were about the same amount of displeased and interested individuals in the U.S. and Russia – 70% of happy with the idea. You have to understand what format to ask for people’s telephone number in; in the U.S., people are used to writing it somewhat differently. These small nuances create the overall user experience after which follow obvious conveniences, comprehensibility and product satisfaction. To obtain useful results, it is necessary to be in the environment for which you are making your product.
All dating services are built around written interaction, and I think that’s outdated.
California has what Russia would call a negative sign – people smile too much. If you randomly catch someone’s eye on the street, he or she will automatically smile, while in Russia it would be, ‘who are you and why are you looking at me?’ I am learning to understanding that there is nothing wrong with this. On the one hand it is clear that this is an artificial smile, but a happy mood in society says, ‘I think you’re good until you prove that you’re bad.’ According to the rules here, this is how it should be – overall social comfort.
Has anyone tired to copy or steal the idea from you?
They tried to copy, and they are copying us right now. But we do not mind because the product is very complex, and it is impossible to copy the most complex thing about it without thinking of something new. We spent three and a half years on this. For now the ‘thieves’ are also thinking, ‘we’ll progress even further.’ Competition is good. It is a cool stimulus to move forwards and develop. When there is no self-motivation, your efforts to self inspire die down; imagine a race where the runner is always alone and there are no world records. At a certain point, the runner will stop because there is no target. We are moved by what we see users react to. Hundreds of thousands of people write, ‘I’m happy and I’ve been walking around with a smile on my face all week.’ This is what motivates us.
How much time does it take to create an app?
What you are able to release on the market and what you want to create are two different things. We made the first version of the Budist site in three months. It looked awful, but we had to start with something. Wakie’s development took half a year, but it is important to remember that the project was done with three years of experiences under our belts. Usually it takes a year or a year and a half for such an app. What is more important is how much time you spend on the project’s ‘version zero,’ what is called the Minimal Viable Product (MVP). That is, you have to create something and show people in order to find out who even needs the product. I do not think one should spend more than three months on MVP.
You also own the app Zang; is this an offshoot of Budist or something independent?
This is actually a dating resource, our daughter project. You see people nearby and all you can do is anonymously call them through Zang. And if you have a good call, you can talk afterwards or in the worst-case scenario never hear from one another again.
people use Budist.ru
Why did you decide on calls? After all, writing a stranger would be simpler than calling. This app is for the brave souls out there.
Because all dating resources that are built based on letters are, in my opinion, out-dated and have problems. When people meet in text form they can talk for several weeks without really understanding anything about their interlocutor – who is sitting there writing, a hairy old guy with the name Ilona17 or a beautiful girl? A voice exposes the person after just 1-2 minutes, and you understand immediately whether you are compatible or not. And this cuts two weeks down to two minutes of live conversation. This is what the product is all about. It is always scary walking up to a beautiful girl on the street – maybe she is waiting on her boyfriend… You understand that the person might not be happy to see you, which creates a psychological barrier. On Zang you also ‘walk up’ to a stranger, but if you call this person, that means he or she said they want you to call. You definitely know they will not tell you to get lost. And that beautiful girl you would not walk up to on the street will not turn you down – that is why she is here on the app to begin with.
Is your educational background related to what you do now?
I have had my own business since I was 16. I founded my own website development company even before I studied at the institute. But when I got into the institute, I knew that I would acquire what I did not have access to before – not so much knowledge as soft skills, like a strong mentality, communication skills, the ability to be part of a group and other irreplaceable social skills. Education provides new friends first and foremost, as well as a sense of being on your own two feet and being in a group of like-minded individuals. I was not the best student – I met a few teachers right on exam day – but everything worked out. MIEM is a sort of template for life that gives you the ability to think and communicate with people.