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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 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.

As businesspeople say: ‘If you’re doing what you really love, your business will succeed.’ This idea has guided SUP-club.ru founder and director Maria Smirnova. In an interview for Success Builder, she explained how people over 30 can overcome the fear of making life changes, how to make a customer happy in five minutes, where to go surfing in Moscow, and why it’s no longer shameful to be a political scientist.

You have a lot of business experience. What is your formula for success?

They say some people are like train engines and others are like wagons. Some people want to make things happen, show initiative, invent, put into practice, and others prefer just coming to work at 9:00 and leaving at 6:00. I’m the first type. I am more comfortable managing and implementing projects than working for somebody else. They say that success is the ability to rise above the ordinary. But I think success comes from doing ordinary work well. It might sound trite, but success requires the very set of skills found in textbooks on marketing and management.

I don’t much care for the word ‘success’ because most people understand that to mean ‘makes a lot of money,’ as though it makes you better than others and someone to envy because you’ve ‘made it’ in life. The question to ask is: ‘Does what you do make you happy?’

In which areas can people with degrees in political science find work?

We studied political PR at the Faculty of Applied Political Science and after getting my Master’s, I completed the NIMA Dutch Institute for Marketing continuing education course developed in conjunction with HSE. This qualified me as a marketing specialist. Then I noticed that the same techniques are used whether you are ‘selling’ a candidate to voters or goods to customers. That’s when I realized that my training was universal and widely applicable in commercial PR and marketing in general. I think graduates of our program can easily work in journalism, PR or advertising.

When you were in your freshman year, how did you imagine your future profession?

I remember when I was in my last year of high school and my parents helped me decide what to study in college. The criteria were that it shouldn’t require math and that the university should be close to home. That led me to the Faculty of Law at HSE. When I entered the preparatory courses, I understood how challenging this university was. I failed the entrance exam twice, which was disappointing, but on the other hand, I realized that law was not my calling.

It was the mid-1990s, a difficult time in our country, and I sincerely hoped that I could improve life in Russia through my work

Political science seemed like an important field and, in its own way, romantic. HSE had just opened the Faculty of Political Science and I was accepted. My studies helped me to mature and look at life more realistically. Prominent politicians spoke at our faculty, and by communicating with such people as Irina Khakamada, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Aleksandr Shokhin, students were immersed in current political processes.

But looking at the elections and political chaos in our country, I concluded that I would not be able to help people as a politician or political scientist. To the contrary, I would only be deceiving them. That was disappointing.

Now the political process has completely changed and there is nothing shameful about working in this field. Public relations are fairly honest, transparent and professional. I don’t rule out one day returning to work in my chosen field.

What is the most valuable thing your education has given you?

First of all, I constantly feel grateful to HSE for expanding my horizons. When I came here at the age of 18, I had no idea of how people live in other countries, what an entrepreneur does, or how the creative class or middle class lived. My classmates were all so different and interesting and in many ways opened my eyes to life. Communication with my instructors was of tremendous value — they didn’t just teach me various subjects, but shared their worldviews, their personal and professional experience. I didn’t just come to a university, but landed in a different environment that raised me to a whole new level. This is where the schoolchildren of yesterday begin to define their outlooks and paths they can take in life.

Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

What did you have to go through to come up with the idea of starting your own business?

I tried countless professions — I started as a courier and in two weeks’ time had risen to sales manager. That was the start of my happenstance career in marketing. I worked several years in telecommunications. I was good at it and it paid well. From there I switched to IT and opened a web studio. But at some point I became extremely dissatisfied with what I was doing. I’ve always wanted to be of benefit to other people and not just sell them something. At this stage, I was lucky to fall in love with standup paddleboarding, or SUPsurfing.

As soon as my husband and I got into this sport, I wanted to promote it. This led to the idea for a business. By this time, I already had a good handle on how to do business, so it was easy to switch from IT to SUPsurfing: the processes involved are similar in any commercial undertaking. While continuing to manage the web studio, my husband and I opened an online store for SUPsurfing equipment.

What if it hadn’t worked out?

We didn’t risk anything because we already had a working business. But the SUP-club.ru really took off and became a money-maker, so I sold the web studio. For the last three years, our family has been living on the income from the SUPsurfing business.

I know lots of people who lost their drive after the age of 30 and who won’t risk trying anything new. They are stuck in jobs they don’t like and have resigned themselves to it.

Turning your life around 180 degrees is a luxury that few people give themselves

I have a family and face the same challenges that most people do, but I want to do interesting projects and I’m thankful for that.

How did you learn about SUPsurfing?

My husband and I encountered this sport in 2012 in Fiji when it was not very developed in Russia, to put it mildly. It was extremely difficult to purchase a board here and we realized what a wonderful mission it would be to develop this great sport in Russia. We wanted to show and tell everyone about SUP (which stands for ‘stand up paddle’). We opened an online store and club and everything fell into place quickly, in part because of the experience I had gained in management, marketing and sales. In only one year, we became the leaders in our field and the largest SUPsurfing retailer in Russia.

Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

Why didn’t the web studio become a special business project for you?

One of the reasons I wanted to get rid of the web studio was my customers’ total lack of know-how. In order to have good clients, I had to first educate them. People wanted to build an online business without knowing the first thing about it — but how is that even possible?

If someone asked me to help work with their site’s developers, I would usually say, ‘Do it all yourself. You are the business owner and, in the end, you’ll have to know how your site, the social networks and search engines work. If you rely entirely on hired help right from the start, your business will never make it.’ And when I did speak with programmers, I spoke with them in their own language and understood exactly what they needed to do.

You will never become an authority for your employees if you yourself are unable to do the job you are paying them to do

I am more comfortable with an online store. We do what we understand best and our product is very simple. Our customers master it in five minutes. And most importantly, we make our customers happy immediately. They buy a board, come out riding with us, send us letters about how they spent their summer and become our friends on social networks. This provides tremendous motivation for our business and for life in general.

How can a person start SUPsurfing?

For 20 years now, people around the world have been standup paddleboarding on municipal water canals and reservoirs and SUPsurfing will be an official sport at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. It is now the most popular type of surfing in the world because it is the simplest. Every other type of surfing takes a long time to learn and requires special natural or technical conditions such as waves, wind or winches. And you can SUPsurf right where you live, spending money only on the board and paddle. Plus, it’s very convenient: the boards are usually inflatable and the paddles collapsible, making the whole thing very easy to tote.

You will hold a major SUP festival in May. What can you tell us about it?

The Zavidovo SUP Challenge is the first major competition that we decided to hold. We have long enjoyed watching the Nautic Paris SUP Crossing held on the Seine in the center of Paris — in winter no less. We wanted to do something similar in Moscow, to paddle past the Kremlin and admire Zaryadye Park and the river embankments. But that turned out to be an incredibly difficult task. The Kremlin has strategic importance and nobody can simply float past it. Numerous permissions are required. In addition, the Moscow River is a commercial area, and it would take enormous effort from city officials to stop ordinary river traffic for even one hour. For now, our team is only preparing for this hellish organizational quest. For this reason, we decided to hold the first competition in Zavidovo National Park in the Tver region.

This is the site of the Ivankovo Reservoir, the Moscow Sea, numerous small rivers and, of course, the Volga. In short, it has lots of different water routes and distances. It also offers infrastructure for a comfortable stay: hotels, camp sites and good roads. We created the event not only for the competition: an entertainment program includes food, dance and workshops. There will even be mini-competitions for children.

Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

Will you hold special competitions for HSE graduates?

We actually thought about it! In addition to individual competitions, there will be team events for company employees and university students. Each team must have at least five members and I would sincerely love to see people from HSE take part.

With few bodies of water, harsh winters and restrictions at every turn, Moscow is not the best city for SUP. What to do if you want to SUPsurf in the capital?

The water canals in Amsterdam are also not the best for SUPsurfing. They are extremely dirty and the area is unsafe. Surfers carry absorbents in case they accidently swallow some of the canal water. The ecology in Moscow isn’t that bad and catfish and crayfish live in the Moscow Canal. The city actually has many bodies of water and there is a pond in almost every park. The bigger problem in Moscow concerns legal restrictions on SUPsurfing.

SUPsurfers in St. Petersburg somehow managed to get permission from the authorities to paddle along the canals at eight in the morning, but the same thing is strictly forbidden in Moscow. I tried to raise this issue one year ago with the Department of Environmental Management. I wanted to work with officials to draw up a map of the various bodies of water in Moscow so that surfers and the officers responsible for inspecting small vessels would know exactly where SUPsurfing was permitted and where it wasn’t.

You have learned a lot in life. Would you advise future HSE graduates to continue their academic education or to become self-educated?

Both are important. The Internet makes self-education very accessible. Internet technologies are changing at a breakneck pace and it is simply impossible to stand still. If you don’t keep learning every day, you’ll find yourself on the outside.

I can’t remember a single day when I wasn’t learning something. Even while driving, I often listen to webinars

Now we are switching to the so-called ‘digital economy’. It is a whole system into which you must integrate. And every year the government presents new challenges to businesspeople and it’s a lot of work to adapt your IT systems to the new demands, study the latest laws, give your employees the new tasks, and so on.

As for the larger learning process, I would really like to have a more systematic education. I’m thinking about getting an MBA or going to graduate school. That knowledge will provide the foundation for any projects I undertake in the future.

I would also like to share my experience with students. I have already worked as an IT teacher for various online schools and conferences. Now I would like to earn a graduate degree to teach in a university, especially at HSE.