About the project «Success Builder»
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.
With the transition online, basic education is experiencing a crisis even while specialised education is becoming more interesting and personalised. The Rebotica project has been successfully riding the digital wave with career guidance programmes for children that help students make independent choices about their future. Rebotica founder and HSE graduate Alexander Kiselev told Success Builder how the HSE incubator cultivates entrepreneurs, where to gather data on the education market, why Minecraft is useful in classes with schoolchildren and what you need to know to launch a startup.
How did you settle on your field of study and professional pursuits, and how did you choose a university?
I’m from a small provincial town in the Chelyabinsk region where I studied until the ninth grade, and in high school, I was accepted by the Specialised Educational and Scientific Centre in Yekaterinburg. I wanted to study in a big city because it offered more opportunities. I ended up at Bauman University by chance. With my grades and academic achievements, I could also have gotten into the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, but I submitted my application late. I entered robotics and immediately appreciated the strength of the intellectual community.
I chose this field because there is no way to not to be interested in robots — it is really an attractive field. While a student there, I started visiting schools and telling the kids about technology. In addition to the fact that working with robots is cool and exciting, I was eager to give students an understanding of what they could do in life and where they could gain the necessary knowledge.
What mistakes did you make and which problems do school students face now when choosing their own future path?
Before I entered university, I had no experience working with robots and knew nothing about programming. I was good in math and physics but had no clue about the 'hardware' side of things. My classmates at Bauman were great. They were really into technology and achieved a lot in that area. For example, one of my former classmates is now the director of the very successful wheel.me startup in Norway.
The problem with vocational guidance is that students in middle and high school are focused more on passing their state exams. The basic education industry would take a major step forward if it would give some meaning to this whole process, explain the nature of various professions and tell students where they can study for those fields. It is obvious that people with a mastery of digital and technologies, product managers, IT specialists and designers are in demand now. We need to explain to students that these are promising fields that they can find work in both in Russia and abroad because the world is moving in this direction. They just need the facts — not personal consultations.
Students can participate in simple IT projects, create websites and programme their own robots — in a word, take the first meaningful steps towards a profession. Even if the student becomes a doctor or bank clerk, they will definitely need digital skills and a practical understanding of how to work in the digital paradigm. The IT industry holds tremendous promise right now and everyone knows that the technology race will not end in the coming decades.
If the parents and the student have reached a decision, then another important stage is to find out firsthand what the universities offer, who teaches there, which majors they have, what career assistance they can provide, how their graduates are faring, and so on. It is extremely advantageous for universities to get the right applicants with whom they can build a strong community. And over time, the university’s prestige increases as its graduates achieve success. Nobody could provide that information when I was making my choice, and it wasn’t available from reviews, university websites or ratings.
What prompted you to pursue your own projects instead of working for a company?
During my second year of studies, I realized that I wanted to create and promote something of my own and started developing my own projects. My team and I developed software that helps build the optimal trajectory for agricultural machinery and, as a result, we won the Umnik (‘Smart Guy’) competition from the Bortnik Foundation. Although that project did not lead to a tangible form of success, it was an important experience by which a purely scientific approach was paired with real market needs and the potential for advancement.
What exactly goes into developing and maintaining business skills?
The coolest and most successful projects in the world come from people who simply cannot imagine doing anything else. With Rebotica, I initially wanted to realize my potential by investing the product with values that matter to me and not to promote someone else’s ideas. I am always driven by an intuitive need for self-realisation. When someone says that they became a business person so that they wouldn’t have to work for a boss, that’s untrue — you have to look deeper.
Even in your own projects, you have numerous ‘bosses’ — clients, colleagues and investors to whom you tailor the processes
It is normal to think about freedom from bosses when just starting out as an entrepreneur. At least, that provides an incentive. In order to start your own business, you only need the desire, which is gradually joined by determination, perseverance and the ability to learn from negative experiences without losing your personal ambition. Through this difficult process, you strengthen your best qualities and discover something new for which there is a demand — because it is pointless to reinvent the wheel. The HSE Business Incubator really helped me get a sense of who I was as an entrepreneur. The knowledge it gave me became the foundation of my project.
In terms of career guidance, does Rebotica work with schools or is it a stand-alone service?
In Moscow, regulatory restrictions make it extremely difficult for educational startups to integrate into the school system’s main curriculum on equal footing. That’s why Rebotica focuses on the extracurricular education sector where cooperation is possible, though even this is not without its challenges. What’s more, specific financial relationships are required. Moscow accounts for approximately 30% of Russia’s extracurricular education market and more than 80% of students study in ordinary public schools. That’s a huge audience that I would like to tap into.
I first had the idea for Rebotica in August 2017 and then spent a year immersed in the details trying to find a business model for this difficult market. We have been working actively since August 2018, and that year we launched classes in 17 Moscow schools. By the next year, we had 35 operational classes and about 15 more preparing to launch. The market for offline classes in Moscow schools has changed a lot: even parents are not allowed to attend school meetings, and children don’t attend private extracurricular activities. This has prompted us to shift quickly to one-on-one online instruction with teachers.
What is Rebotica and what does it offer children?
I started out with robotics and the idea that you could build education and future careers around it. The idea then transformed into a more holistic approach that shows children other promising fields in addition to robotics. These include 3D modelling and programming that provide an understanding of modern professions that students can try their hand in right now. The Rebotica curriculum enables school students to make an informed choice about their future profession, and not just take a wild guess. Not everyone has to be a computer programmer, but you have to try it first to be sure it’s not for you. We have taken the most popular and sought-after areas and adapted them for classes with children, adding elements of games. These include media, IT and design. With the shift to distance learning, we’ve had to put robotics on hold because Zoom is clearly inadequate to that task.
The children make their projects according to a certain system, obtain results, gain a grasp of the profession and think about their future career. Before starting, the child chooses the area that he or she is interested in and later decides in which direction they would like to progress. If they like filming, then video blogging; working with images, then 3D modelling; building things from blocks, then Minecraft, and so on. By making these decisions independently and seeing the results, the student forms an individualized path of study. In my view, this is a very unbiased ‘school’ experience.
How do you determine which fields would be better or worse for a student? Also, how old are your students?
As the project progressed, we moved away from high school students because, by definition, our programme cannot compete with the standardized state exams students must take during those years. And parents figure that it’s better for their child to score 250 or more on those exams and qualify for a tuition-free education than to spend their time on programming or design or some such. Some people might disagree, but I had no desire to wage a long and expensive uphill battle to prove otherwise. That is why we now work with children in the first through eighth grades.
Of course, they are too young to learn about management, hard skills or, in many ways, soft skills, and to form a definite worldview. Therefore, we choose subjects with practical applications that are currently developing and in-demand on the market. We break down each lesson in those subjects into very simple tasks that someone 10-12 years old could handle. Then we confirm that the student has the necessary tools to accomplish those tasks. For example, now, anyone can make a website. We always try to set a goal for the child: What is that site for? What does he want to say in it? Why does it work the way it does? As a result, the student learns not just to do something, but also to do it thoughtfully and with purpose.
In selecting tasks, we proceed not only from subjective considerations. We first study the statistics of portals like hh.ru, analyse market demand for certain fields and measure salaries and companies’ prospects. We then put together a set of competencies that children should develop to be successful in those careers and break them down into very simple tasks and projects. We select tools for our educational programme that are accessible to children and we try to combine it all with game mechanics. All children love to play! If a child loves Minecraft, then we let them play it with a purpose.
As far as I know, schools in the West devote a lot of attention to developing soft skills and a portfolio of sorts that helps students when applying to university. How could a student’s experience with Rebotica contribute to such a ‘portfolio’?
We focus more on children’s personal development, although the projects we offer provide their first amateur experience. We do not work with European universities. We offer no certificates or any particular benefits for a classic portfolio when applying to European universities. We are planning that step, but are now a small business focused on growth.
Most Rebotica students are from nine to 14 years old, the age when they draw a distinction between what they “like” to do and what they “should” do
For example, it is easy to force a child to attend music school in the first grade, but in the third grade, they won’t go if they don’t want to. The child has personal interests at that age. We build approaches to personal development based on those interests and activities that they like doing.
Of course, in terms of laying the foundation for a future career, it is very useful for students to take part in Junior Skills competitions and Academic Olympics. These items can be an asset to a portfolio when applying to university. However, our goal is not to get the child to go to university, but to make sure they make the choice themselves and realize at what they can excel at.
If you were satisfied with your education at Bauman University, why did you decide to continue your studies?
As soon as I decided to start my own business, I realized that I needed more education. I ultimately decided that I wanted to oversee technological development. I looked at tons of different master’s programmes and chose HSE Univesity and ended up applying only there. The Corporate Research, Development and Innovation Management programme matched my needs perfectly. I wanted to learn how to build technology teams and create products that would be in demand on the market.
However, the Business Incubator was the most useful. In this programme, I learned about a cool startup competition that provided what turned out to be a great deal of practical experience, and through which it was even possible to win a startup grant.
I decided to offer my project to the Business Incubator but I didn’t expect it would change my life so much
Master’s programmes provide very fundamental and, sometimes, overly academic knowledge, even in applied fields. But I needed practical, strategic and specific knowledge. I had already done scientific research and launched two startups based on it. But now I had a new project, Rebotica, and I needed certain business skills. It appeared just as I entered the master’s programme and it coincided with my personal experience of making a conscious choice, so I clearly understood what contribution I could make with it, but I didn’t have enough knowledge of how to do it.
How does the Business Incubator help in implementing a project?
It helps not with the implementation of the project, but with shaping the entrepreneur’s personality — that is, it literally ‘trains your brain’ and focuses your thinking on business. The Incubator helps you understand what the market is, to define goals and learn to work with data. If you make something and want to sell it, but you can’t measure the results in numbers, then there will be no results and the work process will turn into chaos.
Under the supervision of experienced entrepreneurs in the Business Incubator, you can perform mini-experiments with results that you must interpret and, most importantly, from which you gain an understanding of the cause-and-effect relationships involved. Instructors share tools with you that have universal application to other projects as well. It is very valuable to get advice from a seasoned entrepreneur who has dealt with revenue flows and personally made mistakes that you can learn from and avoid.
What is the main shortcoming of the Russian market for extracurricular education? What is in demand? How did you study the market?
I studied EdMarket research and reports and analysed existing projects on the market. But what turned out to be far more important was understanding school students, how they think, what their needs are and so on. At the start of the Rebotica project, I got a job as a teacher of extracurricular education at an ordinary school. I was in my first year of the programme at HSE at the time and came up with a school workshop in which I told kids about technologies. I worked and spoke with the kids to understand what could make them change, and how. That work also gave me an inside look at schools and an understanding of the education market.
Working at school, I gained insight into educational trends and the mechanics of how children interact with their studies and their parents
Starting from the third and fourth grades, the children themselves play a significant role in the choice of extracurricular activities. Once the child shows an interest in something, the parents can start exploring options. Our ability to explain to kids how we can direct their interest into something with real-world applications became the underlying idea and even the competitive advantage behind promoting the project on the extracurricular education market.
After our workshops, kids would go to their parents and say, ‘Mom, Dad, I want to do robotics.’ Based on the size of the school’s student body and how many kids took my course, I got a sense of how successful the project could be in practice — or in business terms, how many clients I could get by spending a certain amount of time and reaching a specific audience. This gave me a quantitative outlook for my project as well as an approximate financial return from the Moscow market.
The Rebotica project is not all about money and earnings. Do you consider yourself a mission-driven businessman? How would you describe the social benefits of your project?
Rebotica is primarily a commercial project, but it does have a mission. We want to make the younger generation informed, happy and competitive. It is a myth that children are completely dependent on their parents’ opinion. Children can draw the right conclusions, act independently and achieve success.
With online education moving online everywhere, how do you cope with the total transition to digital?
The online format turned out to be more effective than offline for us because we can conduct classes personally. Before that, we also tried group lessons, which required a slightly different course structure to develop teamwork and communication skills. These are very important qualities for a child’s personal development, but our basic goal is to help the child identify his or her professional interests. In this sense, personal instruction will be more effective and so the transition online has been a major boost.
Working online allows you to collect data. We know how long each lesson lasted, whether the teacher was late, what the child did and so on. This data enables us to draw the right conclusions and improve our product.
What advice can you give someone planning to launch an educational startup?
The best thing is when you listen to yourself and realize that this is the only thing you could possibly do. If you are on fire with an idea, you have to focus on the goal: do you want to make money with it? How much? Maybe you just want to do a socially worthwhile project or develop personally doing what you like most. Your financial goal determines your market. It is impossible to build a $100 million company in a stagnant $20 million market. Or else you can identify a market need and get your idea from that.
Then, having formulated the idea, you need to start communicating with users and move quickly to test the product. At first, you need to do everything quickly, crawling if you have to, defects and all and without worrying about negative feedback from users. You need to offer your product as it is. This will give you a great understanding of the project’s prospects. The sooner you learn from people what they really need, the better you can package your idea, sell it and popularise it.
Is Rebotica your only project, or do you have others in the works also?
I am completely focused on this project and don’t plan to do anything else. I believe in it. It’s my passion. I see that Rebotica has promise and so I want to try to make it into a large company. This is especially the case now that user habits have shifted.