About 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 HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
Moscow hosts 75% of the country’s exhibitions and ICEF graduate and Exponic company head Ivan Nikolsky is certain that if not for the pandemic, the profits from this sector would attract a growing number of entrepreneurs. In this interview with Success Builder, he explained what a family business is, the challenges that small businesses in Russia face and how to boldly leverage networking connections with government ministers for maximum benefit.
Was it difficult to study at ICEF?
When I was 16, my parents basically told me that I would study at ICEF, that it was a great programme and that I’d earn two diplomas at once. I didn’t really understand what it was because I devoted almost all my free time to hockey and friends. They hired tutors for me, I pulled my grades up that year and got accepted to ICEF ̶ although I did wind up having to repeat my freshman year there. It was really hard to study. I think only about 30% of those who entered made it through all four years, but I stuck with it and finished.
How did your parents react to the fact that you weren’t very interested in this major?
They convinced me that I should get a basic education in economics, after which I could gain an understanding of taxes, management and business in general and decide on a direction in life. Of course, if it had been up to me, I would have gone to drama school to act in films. Jared Leto was my idol and I wanted to be like him in every way. But I studied finance and led nothing like the bohemian life of a rock-and-roller.
At what point did you think: Enough of this ̶ it’s time to start making money?
My first efforts were unsuccessful because I went looking for work in the wrong places. My classmates took jobs in teaching, consulting and banking but, in fact, I realised that there was an even greater bonus from my studies than my double degree, and this was the excellent skill for self-directed study that I had developed at ICEF. To pass my exams, it wasn’t enough to just attend seminars and lectures.
We had to know more than what was in the curriculum alone. We sat in the library discussing the material, checked out lots of additional literature and studied at home just to get the coveted ‘С’
I’m talking about those of us who were ordinary students, who didn’t shine at the Academic Olympics and weren’t the best in science. Some truly smart folks studied at ICEF, people who then pursued academic careers and now teach at top foreign universities. But all of us who graduated from ICEF learned how to structure our thinking, and this helps a lot in decision-making and in life in general because you know how to search for the meaning of various phenomena, not to mention sources of information.
The main thing ICEF accomplished was teaching us how to learn. In any baffling situation, you understand where to look for answers. But it is never easy to start applying this skill.
My mother worked as HR director at Kommersant for 19 years, so that’s where I got my first job. I had a great command of English and was very sociable, so she asked me to translate foreign articles for the editorial staff as a summer job. This was when I met Roman Rotenberg, with whom I played hockey, and we started a small sports nutrition business.
Did you think about a career in sports?
I started playing late, at age 10 or 11, and that didn’t leave enough time to become a pro. I trained with Sasha Ovechkin at Dynamo until I was 16, but I had to decide whether to continue with hockey or get a normal education ̶ and not one in which five out of six classes every day would be physical education.
I played a lot in amateur leagues until three years ago when I was diagnosed with a sequestered spinal hernia. This prevents me from putting everything into sports, and now I have a daughter and I need to focus more on her than on myself.
How did your studies go at RANEPA after graduating from ICEF?
My strong skills from ICEF enabled me to ace all my classes at RANEPA. I wanted to continue my studies because ICEF didn’t offer disciplines in business and business administration, whereas the RANEPA programme was very close to these applied subjects. Practicing businesspeople taught there. For example, someone who had been in charge of export for Wimm-Bill-Dann taught us international business.
My goal was to get an education that would be as useful as possible in terms of its application to business so that I could really go to work in the commercial sector, even though I was generally more inclined towards non-commercial projects and journalism. I didn’t think at that time about managing the business that my father had run for 30 years.
Why not? Wasn’t that the obvious choice?
His business was never an easy one, and it nearly ended in 2020 when field hospitals were set up in the exhibition spaces. While a student, I thought several times about going into his business, but it always ended in misunderstandings. The father-son relationship always eclipsed whatever suggestions for optimisation I had made as a subordinate. I couldn’t take the job seriously because I knew that my father was the director. What’s more, it wasn’t a very large business and at first I only wanted to move mountains.
Can you describe the family business phenomenon?
I can definitely tell you that when you plunge into the real sector, into a specific business, you find that nothing resembles the economy you studied at university.
That small businesses even exist in Russia is a phenomenon in itself, with entrepreneurs managing to survive in strange and unpredictable ways
The processes involved have nothing to do with business administration because small businesses are constantly trying to just survive and simply don’t have the opportunity to optimise. It is very difficult to develop a small business in Russia because the position of the authorities is such that all policy is aimed at demonstrating the uselessness of the sector. For this reason, small business is all about desperate courage and constant struggle. At the end of his career, my father wound up in debt and the anxiety had triggered cancer.
How was your work in journalism?
RIA Novosti was one of the best places I ever worked; it was very interesting there. I got the job as a result of my experience at Kommersant and networking. My former co-workers were developing the RIA Novosti press centre and were recruiting producers. It was necessary to monitor the news and bring in experts to participate in round tables and other events on the hottest issues. This is very creative work: you need to constantly come up with something, be inventive and expand your circle of connections. For example, I managed to invite a government minister to the press centre and gather an unbelievable number of journalists to attend. Everything was going fine, but I was limited to covering economics and sports and so I gradually came to a creative dead end ̶ and when you hit a dead end, you have burn out. I hurried to find something else for myself and my helpful contacts at the time led me to government agencies.
What are such jobs like for a creative person?
While at the RIA Novosti agency, I matured and got a sense of my future path. And because I mainly communicated with the press services, the transition to the other side of the fence seemed logical and like a significant career leap. At that time, the Ministry for the Development of the Far East (MDFE) was being thrown together quickly. The territory of the Far East is equal to the territory of Europe but has a population of only six million. That makes for lots of opportunities. At the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum I happened to shake hands with MDFE Minister Galushka and said, ‘I want to work for you’. I wrote up a plan for developing the Ministry’s press service and was hired. However, things didn’t go the way I had planned at all.
I was doing everything possible except developing the press service. It’s no secret that if you work in government agencies, and especially in ministries, you have to deal with horrendous bureaucracy. Just to get paperclips, I had to write up a memo, get approval from several people ̶ even though I was the department head ̶ then enter it in the electronic document management system, then wait a month for the official answer that there weren’t any paperclips. But the paperclips were actually in the room next door the whole time. How can there be any talk of developing the Far East when you can’t even get paperclips?! What’s more, at ICEF I got used to doing everything quickly and concisely and I just couldn’t get my head around that kind of disorganisation. But there were also some good things about the job: I traveled around the Far East a lot and ate plenty of caviar.
When did you suddenly realise that you are a creative person?
Sociability and creativity were hardwired into my genes by my mom and dad. I feel the need for creative fulfillment, but I find it in major undertakings in life, and not in a specific art form. When I was 16, the trend in education was towards economics, so it seemed like becoming an artist would be crazy and ruin my life. In some strange and phenomenal way, everything ̶ ICEF and RANEPA, journalism and the Far East ̶ makes up my biography as a non-artist, but I did my job well everywhere I worked.
And yet you still didn’t go to your father and say, ‘Dad, hire me’. What finally led you to the family business?
There was a time when, after working at Rusfond, the HR directors of various companies said I was overqualified. Once, a friend and I got to talking about my father’s company, Exponic. I laid out the state of affairs to him and he unexpectedly began persuading me that the business could become really good and profitable. The company was already quite large, but it had an internal problem: despite having a quality product, the marketing and PR were weak ̶ and this was simply because my father was educated as an architect and had no idea how to capture an audience.
I remember how I went to an Innoprom exhibition in Yekaterinburg where Exponic built stands, and a week later I found out that my father had cancer. It was clear that I had to assume the reins of the business that he had been running his whole life, and in the end, I didn’t regret it. I made a promise to myself to work with all my might for that company and develop it. In six months, I increased Exponic’s turnover in the exhibition market by 30%, even though I knew nothing about this segment when I started. I found it interesting, and I could focus on the business and didn’t have to worry because my father and his employees had my back. I created a new image for Exponic. Then my father left the business and everything fell to me. Now I had to learn what materials were used in the coatings and how a panel saw differs from a CNC milling machine. On top of that, the pandemic started.
What exactly does your company do?
We design and build exhibition stands and museum installations for exhibitions at Expocentre, Crocus, VDNKh and other key Moscow venues, as well as in other Russian cities. We don’t do any business abroad yet due to COVID restrictions. We also do exhibition consulting because many companies participating in exhibitions have no idea what the presentation process entails. Interestingly, the exhibition cycle is similar to the life of a startup ̶ from landing to finding ‘buyers’ and scaling. For this reason, experienced event participants order stands worth several million rubles and pursue a consistent policy of participating effectively in the exhibition because it will help them earn money.
Of course, there are also exhibition projects that are created as part of PR and GR strategies and do not set straight commercial goals. For example, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum and the Transport of Russia exhibition in Gostiny Dvor. With my expertise, I try to reach out to a wider clientele and explain to them that participating in such exhibitions can greatly increase their future profits.
What in general is happening with the exhibition market in Russia?
The market has a turnover of approximately $1.5 billion. More than 7 million people attend the exhibitions, which have a combined area of about 3 million square meters. What’s more, about 75% of all exhibition space is in Moscow.
are held annually in Russia with the participation of about 100,000 exhibitors
If not for COVID, we wouldn’t have to wait long to see annual growth. Fairs have existed in different forms over the centuries and this phenomenon is now the backbone of the exhibition business. The current trend is for everything, even things you thought would always be analog, to switch online and get digitalised. I’m convinced that people will never find a substitute for personal communication. Many exhibits could never be anything but a hands-on experience. Each time, we create something unique from scratch, and in this sense my work is creative, not for the mass market. In the end, when you see the stand you built at a major exhibition, you understand that it was all worth it.
How did you survive the pandemic restrictions and how did they transform your business?
One thing is clear: if these waves of infection and new strains continue, sooner or later the entire exhibition business will collapse. But I believe that we’ll return to normal life. I told my father and myself that the company has yet to reach the potential that was vested in from the very beginning.
Very few Russian companies established in the early 1990s are still operating. Even Gazprom is younger than Exponic, and we still have room to grow
We do everything we can to support and develop our business. My father made a heroic start. He sold his apartment to invest in the business, suffered major setbacks along the way and never gave up. The employees worked in the company for 20 years and themselves helped my father with money during crises. The level of trust and involvement among the team members is so high that you could safely call this a family business even if I weren’t a part of it. No international company has such dedicated employees.