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.
In 2012, HSE alumnus Evgeny Koudryavtsev opened the football school Championka for pre-schoolers. At the school, kids are able to develop social skills and a ‘sense of the ball’ using Western methodologies. In the latest edition of Success Builder, Evgeny discusses the advantages to such an approach, as well as how Harvard does athletics and why a businessman should be athletic.
What led you to Harvard Business School?
In 2008, I began working at the private equity investment firm TPG Capital, where I spent three years. This is the largest American fund with a Moscow office, and after you've spent several years with the company, it oftentimes sends you to business school. I got into several business schools, including Stanford and Harvard, but I ultimately decided on Harvard. I wanted to learn something new and expand my horizons using real cases from different companies.
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I got the idea to create my own sports project while I was still at Harvard. They are major proponents of entrepreneurship there, so I also wanted to start something that was in line with my interests, and when I got to Moscow, I thought mostly about football because I had played at the Spartak sports school in Novosibirsk since I was five. I continued playing on the HSE team and then the Harvard team. But when our kids were born, I thought about combining the two – kids and football. So I started looking for various ways to launch a business in this field, and I met with someone from the U.S. who founded the company Soccer Shots, which does exactly what we’re doing today. This is why when I returned to Moscow, I made the decision to start the company after three or four months. That was three years ago.
Were you involved in sports when you lived abroad?
We had football tournaments at Harvard, and there were student groups as well. We went to play in different cities. I love sports. It’s a part of my life, and I think that sports played a certain role in forming the person I am today. At Harvard, there’s a certain social approach towards sports, and I agree that when people – in my case, children – enter an athletic atmosphere at an early age, especially with team sports, this has a huge impact on the formation of character, social qualities, and on overall development. This is exactly why we tell parents at Championka that we are not an exclusively professional football school; we also instil in children a love for sports from an early age. This is our concept and our message.
What are HSE and Harvard's attitude towards sports overall?
When I was getting my MBA at Harvard, I realised early on that everyone was extremely ambitious, so this might be why they were so active; after all, this impacts business to a certain extent. I played squash and football, but they have nearly every type of sport you can think of there, and this sports culture receives active support. Harvard also has good sports complexes that are totally free. Overall, there’s not a huge difference between Harvard and HSE; it’s just that we don’t yet have a social education, so to speak, which is developed through team sports. This is something that really brings people together. As a way of forming a student and alumni community, this is emphasized at Harvard.
I love sports. It’s a part of my life, and I think sports played a certain role in forming the person I am today
How do you differ from ordinary football schools?
On the one hand, what we do might be viewed as something unprofessional, but our methodology is aimed mostly at teaching a child to feel the football, and we are very effective in developing this sense. We believe that the drills, discipline, and pressure placed on a child at ordinary football schools is not always the most effective teaching method. You should also make learning fun.
Historically, Soviet and Russian football schools have been more focused on physically preparing students. A good football player is the one who’s strongest and runs the fastest, the logic goes. At German and Spanish school, the approach is a little different. They give a child their own ball at age three or four so he or she can learn to really feel the football. And this sense gives the child a head start in terms of both competition and technique. Spanish and Brazilian football players are much more technical than Russian because Russia focuses on physique and running. We try to develop children’s skills using a more modern approach, emphasising technique.
children from 33 U.S. states participated in Soccer Shots last year
We borrowed our partner Soccer Shots’ methodology, which is based on the best practices that exist in the U.S. We started with this, but after we gained access to the German methodology that is promoted by the German Football Association, we implemented all these methods into one so that our trainers are able to partially adapt them to the needs of our Russian clients. This is how we ended up with our final product – a smorgasbord of American, German, and Russian techniques. You have to take a special approach with Russian clients, and there are certain things, like social codes, that don’t quite work here. For example, our American colleagues have an exercise called ‘Rob the Bank,’ during which balls are placed in the centre, children encircling them, and upon the coach’s signal, the kids run to the centre, get the balls, and take them back to their ‘homes.’ When we tried this exercise out at a state-sponsored kindergarten, the head of the school watched and became worried: ‘They’re teaching kids to rob banks!’ she said. After that, we decided to make some adjustments.
How did you develop your business plan and take it to investors? It seems like you were successful.
We didn’t have any investors our first two years, and all financing came from my own savings. The business plan changed over time, and we are adding to it and improving it to this day. We initially rented out space and launched a franchise after a year, which is an entirely different business model. But now we are more actively working in gymnasiums, and we’ve found certain ways of working with the state sector. Plus, our main goal has changed. Now we’re building our own football centres. We already have two – one in Tula and one in Bryansk. As a business, we are developing, growing, and testing out various activities. Some things work, and some don’t. In December 2014, we raised our first funds from investors to launch the franchise. We saw that there was huge potential here, but we also believed it would be possible to give some momentum to entrepreneurs in other cities who were excited about this idea.
Surprisingly enough, investors were really interested in our idea, which is why we selected two investors out of five – a foundation controlled by Petr Zhukov, also an HSE alumnus, and Endemic Capital. We liked the idea of working with them most.
There's one type of business, the franchise route, and there's another – renting out gyms and having classes there. Why didn't you start with the first one right off the bat?
A business where you hold your own classes requires fewer financial resources to launch, but at the same time you have to have really good management skills in order not to stop at just 20 locations, but at 50 or even 100. As concern franchising, it’s something much more long-term, and it requires more investments in marketing in order to win the trust of those who might end up acquiring a franchise. But ‘long-term’ is an interesting business plan because you have the backbone of the business, and additional investments into the development of the project will be less significant than initial investments would be. Your main task with a franchise is to make sure all franchises are happy, and then we can use new funds to build an even better product, which will lead to an influx of new franchises. It’s a closed franchising cycle that is aimed at reputation. It is more costly, though.
If we could work in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the same way a school operates, this would be a quicker way to see returns, but it’s important here to build a system that allows you to expand and increase the overall size of your business. Above all, you have to hand select top-notch people and train them. We currently have 10 trainers in Moscow, for example, who have all studied our methodology. A good trainer is one of the rarest resources on the sports market, and in order to grow your business, you have to train people, which takes time.
We have a junior trainer who worked as a salesperson in a store, but always dreamed of becoming a trainer
What kind of investments did the franchise require?
Around 10 million rubles. But sometimes much less is needed. We were just planning to bring a finished product and team to the market in a shorter period of time.
So do your franchises also train the trainers?
As a management company, we help train trainers on our special programme so they are able to carry out classes in any city in Russia. This is a mutual process – together with the franchises, we participate in selecting, training, and monitoring candidates after a trainer starts working, and we make sure they are always improving their qualifications and the quality of their work. We have a ‘secret shopper’ programme, during which one of our ‘agents’ takes their child to a class and evaluates the quality of the lesson. This helps us make the training sessions better and more effective.
In what capacity do you work with football brands and professional teams? How do you attract PR attention?
Firstly, we work with the Spartak academy. We have an agreement with them under which they accept the best kids from our network for their academy. Spartak also helps us organise various events, as well as excursions to their stadium. We have a similar setup worked out with St. Petersburg’s Zenit. We try to do what both parents and children find interesting, and we bring in well-known authorities in the field so kids can get inspired and interested, so they can develop a deep passion for football. That is the Championka spirit.
You usually see women working with pre-schoolers, but you have men working with them. It’s already great that they are professional football players, but they’re also pedagogues, which seems like a rarity.
Championka centres have been opened all around Russia.
Can you talk a little more about the methodology your instructors use? As I understand, this is the main product of your business.
That’s correct – a requirement we have for our candidates is a pedagogical or physical education background, as well as experience working with pre-schoolers and the ability to play football at the professional level. This is why we opened up an academy that gets trainers to the necessary level. Everyone plays football, but being a trainer is something more – it’s a calling. We have a junior trainer who worked as a salesperson in a store, but always dreamed of becoming a trainer. It’s hard getting work experience at a school, and on top of everything else, they don’t pay well. But we give our staff the opportunity to do what they love for a good salary, and they become an integral part of the project. Now this junior trainer understands children really well, and this is our contribution; we give both children and adults the opportunity to realise their dreams.
Do you still play for HSE?
I don’t play football there anymore, but I’m in regular contact with alumni. A lot of my friends and colleagues are also HSE alumni, and we keep in touch. Sometimes I need my friends’ help as well. For instance, we wanted to bring in a strong marketing specialist, and someone recommended an HSE alumnus who currently works for Pepsi and has helped us tremendously. There is a friendly support network among HSE alumni and students, and it would be great if this could become a sort of university-wide community that everyone knows for its quality. As for Harvard, people really rely on this there. Harvard has a strong alumni database, and people’s responsiveness is much higher because your alma mater is a force you take with you, and you understand why you pay so much for an education.
How does football impact a person’s life? What does it offer?
Before going to HSE, I was training five times a week. I therefore spent a lot of time on a team, meaning there were a lot of conflicts I had to learn to resolve. You have to give up your personal interests sometimes since you don’t want to let the team down. Football is not an individual sport where everything depends only on you. It’s important from the sense of one’s character, discipline, sense of solidarity, and tactic during critical times. And if you remember that a healthy body means a healthy mind, then it becomes clear that sports are an important aspect in business as well. Everyone at work is very active and looks great. Nowadays, this is part of your social status: being athletic means being successful. This is a good trend, and we’ve become part of it.