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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.

HSE alumna Daria Rebenok and her husband founded the online service Grabr, which combines Daria’s love for shopping and travel. This service allows clients to place orders with travellers who agree to bring back an item that cannot be purchased online from a certain country. In the latest edition of Success Builder, Daria talks about the magic of shopping, the different aspects of Silicon Valley, the importance of Russian programmers, and the future of the remote employment market.

Are you a shopaholic?

Yes.

For you is this is lifestyle and philosophy, or just a character trait?

For me shopping means inspiration. I like passive shopaholism. I used to be able to spend hours looking at things on online stores, as well as in magazines and beautiful showrooms, and I would also read fashion reviews. This was my form of aesthetic relaxation.

 

$6 mln

in investments is how much Grabr achieved within two years

Source: Daria Rebenok

 

What was it that brought about a product like Grabr?

As strange as it may sound, it was not so much shopping as a passion for travelling. My husband and I have visited 70 different countries. When we moved to San Francisco, we started missing Spanish food, which is something you can’t get there. This was one of the things that gave us the idea for the service. This is why the main source of motivation was our love for travel and the experiences we’d had in different countries, rather than just the aesthetics of the products. The memories and sensations that come from travelling are what pushed us to create Grabr.

What are your users like? Romantics? Travellers?

We have different types of users. Ideally we would like to see romantics – dreamers who want to buy unusual things from all over the world. On the other hand, travellers for whom helping is a lifestyle will be making purchases for people not just for the money, but because they want to meet someone new and are ready to help. These are the kind of portraits we painted for ourselves at the beginning. In reality, though, our clients are pragmatics who buy things because they are cheaper abroad. There are also people who use Grabr just because they can’t buy something in their country, or because they have unique hobbies or are just collectors. They need incredibly diverse things. Finally, there are those who value the atmosphere of an item itself, an item that they get from the hands of a traveller. This is the magic for them.

What about eBay?

A lot of things on eBay cannot be delivered to Russia, and overall delivery there is often longer and more expensive. Plus you know how everyone really ‘loves’ Russian Post… The things that eBay and Amazon deliver to Russia represent only 5% of what people can actually buy. This doesn’t concern just Russia, but countries around the world.

What would you say about your role on the Grabr team? Are you a manager or a visionary and inspirer?

Our roles are clearly broken up. My husband is the inspirer. He’s responsible for the global vision and development of the platform. He’s also in charge of our team of developers. I am responsible for marketing, studying user experience, and developing the business in international markets. Grabr has four offices – Moscow, New York, San Francisco, and Buenos Aires – and there are over 40 full-time employees.

How did you jump from international relations to digital technologies?

I focused more on politics than economics. If I had been smarter and more experienced when I started at HSE, I would have chosen management, economics, or business. But who knew?

When I graduated and found a job at Ernst & Young (EY), I realised that I wanted to be closer to business and gain experience at an international company. It turned out that large corporations are not my thing, but it’s an excellent experience that shows you how and why you should work quickly, as well as in which conditions you can survive as far as speed and decision-making are concerned. You learn how to avoid making the wrong decision and how not to complicate things. It’s not a bad idea for HSE graduates to gain some experience at similar companies their first year after graduation. I’d also recommend that they find smaller, more interesting companies – startups where you can learn faster. Now I am absolutely certain that corporate foundations and processes are not my thing. It’s all too slow in terms of career development.

Silicon Valley and investors love people who have failed once, twice, three times in their business

Back when I was gaining corporate experience, my future husband got the idea for his first startup Mywebroom, a virtual reality content aggregator, and secured investments from one of Silicon Valley’s top angel investors. Then he suggested that I go to San Francisco with him, and we took the risk. There’s a different energy there. Everything is created for experimentation, and if you want to learn and try something new, there is every opportunity to do this there. I didn’t have any experience building a business, and I taught myself by looking at case studies. The Valley also has a ton of workshops, tech conferences, and meet-ups for those launching startups, and you can always find whatever information you need. It was a combination of self-teaching, burning desire, and the resources that the Valley gives you for growth. We didn’t have anything when we moved there, just an investment of $50,000 which we spent creating teams and launching the project.

What experience ended up being the most important?

The best experience is when you learn something yourself. There are concrete tasks but no instructions on how to solve them. The main thing is not being afraid of failure and treating your mistakes as the coolest experience you are able to get. I learned this myself, and Silicon Valley also teaches you this. The Valley and investors love people who have failed once, twice, three times in their business. And I hire the kinds of people who have walked in my shoes and are ready to grow further. These employees are the cream of the crop.

How was it ‘converting’ from Muscovites into residents of San Francisco? What was most difficult about this process?

When I got the opportunity to move to San Francisco, I wasn’t worried about how this would take place. I didn’t know when the move would happen, under what conditions, or when we would be able to return. But this only stoked my interest.

The hardest part is leaving the environment you are used to; you have tons of friends, relatives, acquaintances, and there’s always somewhere to turn to in difficult times. But in San Francisco, there’s nowhere to go, and it’s just embarrassing to return to Moscow if something doesn’t work out. Everything there happens a lot more quickly than in Moscow. You understand that no one there needs your knowledge or expertise because it’s a totally different world that thinks 10 times faster than you and has a completely different mentality. It’s like another planet. I was always a perfectionist, but in Silicon Valley I came to the painful realisation that all of my accomplishments were nothing compared to what people do there and how they think. It’s sobering, and it forces you to return to earth and work, work, work. A lot of people brake down and return. Only a few achieve success there.

Photo by Ksenia Tsertsanova

What sort of things did HSE instill in you both professionally and personally? Despite the fact that you actually had to teach yourself something new…

The classes on business culture and business processes in the U.S. really helped. I actually joined Ernst & Young because of my interest in international business culture. I came to HSE when I was 15, and everyone was older than me. I had ambitions, and when you understand that you know nothing and have to bang your head against a wall all over again, you grow up fast. Academics at HSE are difficult, but after six months I was at the top of my class and understood that if you want something bad enough, you can achieve it. Everyone whined, but I liked having four exam periods a year. These are periods when you have no time to relax, can’t put anything off, and are always under pressure and encountering deadlines. This is exactly what startups need. Startups mean constant deadlines; if you don’t carry out your idea today, it won’t be relevant tomorrow because the world will be completely different.

I didn’t study at any other universities. At HSE, people take a great interest in you if you want and are able to learn. HSE has every opportunity for growth. If you don’t want to grow, then farewell. I am grateful to all of my teachers who were strict. Truly, only the strongest students end up graduating from HSE.

 

>$7 mln

was Grabr’s turnover in 2017

Source: Daria Rebenok

 

What is your best memory from HSE and what was your favourite class?

It’s not just a memory, but reality – my friends. I am grateful to HSE for the close friends it gave me. These are truly intelligent and interesting individuals. One of them, Ilya Kolmogorov, became someone I turned to for help when we first thought up Grabr and were looking for a team of developers in Moscow. He was the first person on the team. He knew the startup culture from the inside out, and while he was a student at HSE he worked on the project Theories and Practices. There were only 25 people in my class, and we are all friends to this day. Currently, six years after graduation, everyone has already achieved great things. Some have top positions at leading American companies, while others are TV hosts, as just a few examples.

Are you all able to stay in touch and talk?

Technology helps. We’ve had a group chat for around seven years already. First we were on WhatsApp, then Telegram, which have allowed us to stay in constant contact. It’s not easy setting up meetings because one person lives in Spain, another in London, and I myself in the U.S., but we still keep in touch. Grabr has an office in Moscow, so I now have a reason to visit home more often.

Do your friends use Grabr?

They are actually its main critics, for which I am grateful. Our friends support us on all fronts. Even when it comes to things they can buy themselves, they still order through Grabr.

A little about business prose. How much does it cost to launch a project?

A startup is an unorthodox model, particularly in Silicon Valley. There is no specific recipe or amount of money to start. All projects are unique. Of course you have to have seed money in order to hire people, rent an office, and invest in marketing and development. You carefully calculate a budget for specific tasks, the maximum for 12 months. The main thing is to do everything as planned and tick everything off the list. In our case we grew faster than planned. We needed more from the budget, and over the course of a year we raised two rounds of investments. The project started turning a profit from the very first transaction.

I believe in the remote employment market and don’t think people should be afraid of being freelancers. They will always have work

How long did it take to bring the product from planning to launch?

We first got the idea a year before we started working on Grabr. We talked with our investor for the first project, and he really liked the new idea and spent two months convincing us to go for it. We were scared because in the Valley it’s difficult and extremely expensive to build a team of programmers, but fortunately Russian programmers are the most talented, and we found them in Moscow and got to work. It took around six months for us to launch, and now we are two years old.

You were nominated for the 2017 startup of the year award by RBC. How do you see the project growing in the future?

In 2017, Grabr travellers delivered products to 137 countries around the world. We only have, however, eight key countries where we invest in marketing, develop activities, and see a concrete connection between travellers and buyers. We won’t make it to 100 countries over just two years, but our goal for the year is to enter into another four markets. This means including them in our work, investing resources there, and hiring people who will focus on developing new areas and localising service. The employees that we hire serve as company ambassadors and will organise events, work with the media, and run marketing campaigns. And if a market achieves a certain level of turnover, then we will start thinking about opening a new office in the country. At first we had offices in Moscow and San Francisco, but over the last year we opened additional offices in New York, which has a huge number of travellers, and in Buenos Aires, where we manage operations for all Latin American markets. This year we are planning to enter the markets of Uruguay, Colombia, India, and Hong Kong.

Photo by Ksenia Tsertsanova

What is the most popular country currently?

Argentina and Brazil, which frequently order things from the U.S. and Europe. When we launch in Asia, though, it will definitely be the winner.

How do you hedge risks? Did you have any negative precedents?

The level of responsibility is the same from both sides; if the traveller doesn’t deliver an item or delivers the wrong thing, they don’t receive money. When a buyer places an order, they pay immediately, but the traveller isn’t paid right away – the company insures the funds.

How do you feel about cryptocurrencies?

I think it’s a very logical addition to our service. We have over 400,000 users from different countries. It’s not convenient for them to exchange money into dollars or link their bankcards, and people want the ability to pay with bitcoin. We’ve thought about launching our own cryptocurrency that would be linked to our loyalty programme. This would allow you not only to pay for a good, but to exchange this currency for tickets or free lodging as well, and it would let you form your own network within the service. But for now we have other priorities for development.

 

 ~450  000

people make up Grabr’s user base

Source: Daria Rebenok

 

How is your loyalty programme structured?

There are separate campaigns that are currently only in the U.S. where we help get the traveller enough orders so that the money they receive fully covers their trip. We have carried out around 700 test campaigns in which people travel for free. Our goal is to automate the process for receiving bonuses and entering into a partnership with airlines so that travellers can receive additional deals and privileges when purchasing tickets if they deliver goods through Grabr.

What plans do you have for your own development?

I really want to go to Stanford and get my MBA, but I have to find the time. I think I’ll be able to find time for this after another two rounds of investments.

What does the future of the market look like to you?

Our company is international, and a third of our employees work remotely. I believe that there is a lot of talent and a lot of specialists who don’t necessary need to be in a certain location, sit in an office, and imitate the work process. It’s enough to build up processes correctly, and everything will work efficiently. I believe in the remote employment market and don’t think people should be afraid to be freelancers. They will always have work. At the same time, people can allow themselves to develop, learn, and travel. These are the very people who will develop the economy.

What recommendations would you make to HSE based on your progressive experience in Silicon Valley?

I’d like to see HSE invite more experts from the Valley, the U.S., and Europe – specialists who are able not only to give lectures, but also to work in business and teach you something based on their own experience and mistakes.