About the project
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
You don’t have to invent a new business model, but can simply take one and use it on an existing market with a smaller project that will work for the benefit of the Russian economy. This is what HSE alumnus Pavel Mokrushin, the owner of the café chain Brusnika (Lingonberry), did. He tells Success Builder why he studied at HSE after Moscow State, as well as how what he does is better than the warm chair of a clerk and how the small café is able to survive among the 66 restaurants on Maroseyka Street.
Why did you study at HSE after Moscow State University’s (MSU) Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics?
After graduating, I asked myself what to do next – work or study? Of course study. Plus I had been recommended for MSU’s post-graduate programme. At MSU, I studied everything about dimensionless quantities, while my friend defended his dissertation on ‘Zero.’ It seems like everyone’s got brains after finishing the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics, but applying yourself in life is difficult, so I decided to study economics. I looked into the New Economic School, which I also got into, as well as the economics faculties at HSE and MSU. I went to HSE’s website to see what kind of education the university offers and understood that I want to manage, not be a mathematician who calculates models. Sure, a lot wouldn’t have been built or done without mathematicians, but I understood that operations management is more my thing. It’s something that’s more relevant today. That's how everything was decided with my current education.
If everyone has their own business and develops the economy by creating jobs, this will be the way towards Russia’s recovery
Are you now able to compare how these two universities are different?
I noticed inherent differences mostly in the system of education. HSE has module-based learning – 2 months and then straight to exams, meaning you have to study the whole time. At MSU, you could say that students ‘live happily’ until the end-of-term exams, though of course the end of the term is no picnic. In December, for example, students have to remember what was going on at the beginning of September. At HSE, everyone is constantly studying, and if you go to all of the lectures, you can take exams. But I can’t say that the module-based system makes things easier. I remember I was really surprised when even people who studied diligently were almost expelled because Alla Fridman didn’t want to count their microeconomics exam.
restaurants were operating in Moscow in November 2014, and there were 2,778 left in January 2015
You truly get a hands-on education at HSE, and you can apply your skills starting straight from tomorrow. The first thing that made me happy about first-years was that they all find management positions. Another factor to students’ success at interviews is their high mastery of foreign languages because of HSE’s exchange programmes. If you want to study at the Sorbonne, then go, and if you want you can go to Leiden. And this isn’t just an effective atmosphere and language study, but the most hands-on learning in order to become a specialist in your field. This is why many of my classmates went to work abroad after graduating from HSE. And what’s more is that they all found jobs in their respective fields. After the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics, I got used to the fact that everyone’s got brains after graduating, but it’s hard to apply yourself in life.
So why aren't you in London working as a successful clerk?
Well I meet my successful classmates sometimes and they envy me because I do what I like every day. Like I’ve already said, I initially didn’t want to do something unrelated to my field. And the position of ‘successful clerk’ who works in a large financial company – like a mathematician who gets a grant to do some calculations for a project – is not exactly my thing. My element is business, and it’s actually a very creative field. You create jobs, plan cash flows responsibly, and take on risks. It’s all very captivating.
After finishing HSE, I worked at the Central Bank for a year. I didn't like it. There were billion-pound profiles – this is very boring. Maybe my business is small today, but it will be medium-sized tomorrow, and big the day after. Production is the real sector of the economy. It’s the little we’re able to export to the international market with Russian restaurateurs like Novikov, Zelman, and others.
Brusnika, for example, doesn't resell, but produces. We make everything ourselves. If everyone has their own business and develops the economy by creating jobs, this will be the way towards Russia’s recovery.
How favourable was our economic situation for you in starting this business, and which risks still exist?
Russia can be divided into Moscow and not Moscow – these are two separate countries. This concerns both demand for products and operating costs like rent and wages. Moscow has one of the highest rents in the world, and as a result any misses with the target audience will result in a business’ imminent death. Almost anything opens and closes on Maroseyka St. Only proven chains that all of Russia knows remain, and we are happy to be among the few that do. This means our product is competitive. This is largely why Maroseyka in particular was chosen. This is actually not a street, but hell. There are 66 restaurants and cafes here. All possible chains have been here, there are no residential buildings, there are tons of offices, and all traffic consists of pedestrians on Maroseyka that are not likely to return tomorrow.
All accomplished businessmen are optimists who never threw their hands in the air and leave after encountering the endless heap of small and large problems
But we thought, if we’re going to be competitors here, then we have every chance of starting a chain. Now we’re opening up a store on Prospekt Mira, where there’s much less competition, a large residential foundation, offices, right on the main street, and a signed ten-year rental agreement. We’ve factored in all of the mistakes we made with Maroseyka. Really, in business, not having optimism might be the death of you. Yesterday they turned of the electricity for 12 hours, six months ago there was a fire, the water is shut off often… Something happens every second; the café is like a living organism. All accomplished businessmen are optimists who never threw their hands in the air or left after encountering the endless heap of small and large problems.
Did you have experience in business before Brusnika?
I had worked as the CEO of various companies for ten years before Brusnika. I started not too far from here – at the Oceanarium on Chistoprudny Boulevard. Under my leadership, the company turned from a small store into an Oceanarium that not only carries out the complex task of installing marine aquariums, but also releases books and journals and holds excursions. Then I got into clothing. I was a director with absolute financial power. The group was a success and able to open several expensive clothing boutiques. I simultaneously gained restaurant experience and even managed to open a clothing production facility, which is very difficult to maintain in Russia. And I understood – production is where I need to be. But producing what? Food.
ЧWhat about the format you've selected for the cafe and why is it more like a store?
This was the idea of my wife and business partner Yulia Artemeva. We do everything together. She thought up the name and format – an urban café where people can stop in for a bite to eat. The main idea is that there’s a small markup for high quality food, a democratic atmosphere, and a very pleasant design. Everything is set up in windows here, and people can take what they want and sit down without waiting for a waiter. There are a lot of options at the café – baked goods, main courses, fruit drinks… 250 types of food overall.
Visitors spend 25%
more time in a café if slow music is playing (<73 beats per minute), and the establishment earns 15% more revenue than when there is faster music (>91 beats per minute)
Where did you find your first business investments?
I took my business plan to my group mates from HSE and found investors through them. We started with a vision of opening several Brusnika cafes at the same time – in this business, volume is important. We fine-tuned the format for a year and focused on Maroseyka, and now one more location. I hope everything will be quicker in the future.
How quick was development?
We didn't see profit until after a year, not the six months we were planning. Then we spent a long time looking for a second location, nine months, and we spent another five months harmonizing the contract. We’ve faced various difficulties, but we fix our problems and try to move forward. At the same time, we learned through the Alumni Association that HSE needed a food service operator for its new building. It would have been wrong to let such an opportunity pass us by – not because I didn’t want to let my alma mater down, but because this was a different business direction that is very relevant nowadays. The earnings are less, but there’s less risk; after all, people will buy 10-ruble tea no matter what. The project is complex. There were managerial mistakes, and we are very thankful to HSE leadership for giving us a chance to fix our mistakes.
If you put beef on your menu, especially kosher beef, I’ll eat there every day.
We've already planned on adding beef, and there will also be a lot more fish. But we haven't factored in kosher certification costs.
What other new things can students expect at Brusnika?
We are working on updating our desserts and bakery selection. We’re buying a large hearth oven as we speak, so HSE will always have fresh bread soon. We already make pizza, for which we’ve also acquired a special oven. These are all capital expenditures that we’ll return after some time, but for us, working with HSE is above all a bridge to a new line of business. We are planning to go to business centres and continue operating Brusnika cafeterias in new locations.
You’re not only connected with your alma mater through the cafeteria. I know you are involved with the April Conference as well.
At the end of last year, Evgeny Yasin sent out a message to HSE alumni asking them to sponsor the April Conference. We have rather modest possibilities for doing this, but when we got the offer, we knew we should respond. We provide the conference with baked goods, water, coffee, tea, etc. We weren’t trying to get sponsorship – we simply wanted to help. So we’re thankful to HSE for selecting us as the operator of the new building’s cafeteria, and we hope to grow further with HSE and its buildings. We’d also like to take part in interior work; we’d like to make cafeterias more cosy and home-like.
By the way, what happened to the legendary pole in the cafeteria?
The rector said move it, so we moved the pole. We took the equipment apart at night and relayed everything on the floor and voila. In the name of Yaroslav Ivanovich.
Tell us about invisible management. I think there are certain ‘things’ to conducting business that clients don’t suspect whatsoever.
There aren't really any special ‘things,’ but there's an economics to the process. The number of seats, table turnover (which we now have at an average 20 minutes), the target audience, rush hour – this all has to be factored in. We weren’t able to do exactly what we wanted to at Maroseyka. Turnover’s not exactly right. The tables are also used for negotiations, students like to sit for a long time, and girls can sit there for hours on their laptops.
This is why we didn’t order soft couches for those who like to hang around. Instead we put in chairs and benches that are less comfortable for two-hour ‘sessions.’ And we dabbled with the lights so people have to squint and leave after eating. We also closed the router and messed with the speed. But unfortunately we have neighbours with unlimited traffic, and it’s hard to reach an agreement with them. Only in New York do they write ‘no laptops’ everywhere, while people in Moscow would find this outrageous. Also, the tables are close together. And if you decide to come here at night to have a quiet dinner, students will swarm and start looking at their Instagrams and laughing loudly, and you’ll leave. This is also an uncomfortable factor. But these tricks aren’t our invention – McDonald’s grew because of this.
Does your cafe have a certain atmosphere? Or on the contrary, do you get rid of it for turnover?
No, we don't destroy the atmosphere. It's just that we aren't running a restaurant. We have a pleasant café where you can eat a high-quality raspberry tartlet, for example, that will be a lot cheaper than at other places. We have a café-store. There’s merchandise here, as well as windows, and an atmosphere. But this atmosphere is made for people who want a 30-minute lunch or an evening dessert, not an hours-long visit. The atmosphere is my wife Yulia’s doing. It is something complex and intangible that consists of a variety of factors – scent, lighting, music, and people who don’t go to the cheburechnaya across the street. Of course everything is balanced as concerns profit. Our guests are 80% girls, and as a result there are tons of desserts. But really, men also stop by during their lunch break.
The cafe is called Brusnika (lingonberry), but are there lingonberries on the menu?
There's lingonberry cheesecake, lingonberry pie, lingonberry meat sauce, and lingonberry juice. Sweet, sour, and bitter; a berry with character – that’s our project.