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.
As reported in Forbes, DeckRobot attracted $1.5 million in seed round investments this fall. Solo founder of the project and HSE graduate Anton Urbanas, aka Tony Urban, promises to simplify life for office workers by automating PowerPoint: now AI will create the slides. In this interview with Success Builder, Mr Urbanas explained why mathematicians are in demand in the U.S. right now, what could save office staff from sleepless nights with PowerPoint, how a startup can survive ‘imposter syndrome,’ whether it is easy to be a solo founder and how to start converting ideas into money.
Did you enjoy studying at the HSE Faculty of Economics?
There was no better bachelor’s programme in economics in Russia in 2008. I studied at a special French school in Moscow, and in the 10th grade went to an outside school where I focused on math and began preparing specifically for admission to HSE. When I met other students who had studied at special math schools, I understood that it wasn’t enough just to be the best in math at a special French school. I focused seriously on getting into university and had to choose between studying management and economics although, I admit, I chose based on which was closer to home. Despite this random aspect of my selection process, I am very happy that I studied at HSE University.
Economics students usually follow one of two paths — IB or consulting. Did you try pursuing a third path?
Yes, I tried. I started by renting out apartments during my first year of studies. I earned 20,000 rubles on the first deal and felt insanely rich. After my second year, I took an internship at UniCredit Bank where I immersed myself completely in the corporate world. That was draining because it is excruciatingly difficult for me to get all my work done in two hours and then just act like I am working for the rest of the time. I am hyperactive: I need tasks to accomplish and results. Then came my first experience at A.T. Kearney, and later in a Russian consulting firm, with its harsh working conditions, crazy deadlines and round-the-clock work schedule. But I knew that outstanding people worked in this segment and that they were getting very good salaries. In the end, I actually liked consulting, although I had previously considered investment banking the ultimate corporate dream.
In my fourth year of studies, I got a job at McKinsey. This came about because our team won the McKinsey case study championship and we were offered the chance to apply for internships. On the one hand, I was upset because I had to become a trainee all over again. But on the other hand, it offered great prospects and cool assignments. I began working full-time at McKinsey in 2012 and despite pursuing my own projects at the same time, I only quit officially in 2017 after I was already in the States.
At this company, you have to work for three years to become an associate. Then your salary doubles and you can transfer to a foreign office. I aimed for this goal and when the time came, I transferred to the office in Boston — which turned out to be a very difficult place to work. The problem is that Boston is a hub of higher education in the U.S. Harvard, MIT, Boston University and more than a dozen other universities are located there. At the same time, we had only 40-50 employees at the McKinsey office in Boston, as compared to New York that has approximately 1,000. The result is cutthroat competition for those jobs. I spent one year there, quit, and stayed on to live in New York and work for myself.
They say McKinsey is a great school for anyone who works there and that it’s worth more than gold on your resume. Why is that?
Yes, it really does look good in Russia. In the States though, the tech giants now carry more weight than the large consulting firms do. That’s why the technology sector is somewhat dismissive of consulting firms, business schools and everything else based on soft skills rather than quantitative knowledge. It really is out of fashion. Presentations, slides and strategies don’t stack up against innovations that are actually changing the world right now. I have a friend who graduated from the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics at Moscow State University and then the Stanford Business School. In order to catch the eye of the top venture funds in the States, he was advised to emphasize his mechanics and mathematics degree over his business school degree. Science is definitely trending.
Add to this the fact that attitudes have changed towards large corporations. They are conservative and inflexible. They force employees to wear ties and work according to a particular schedule, regardless of the results. But it’s a bit easier for those arriving from a famous brand. ‘You’re coming from McKinsey? That means you’re not here to wash floors! Welcome.’
Overall, any large international company instils the manners of ideal work culture. What's more, employees become accustomed to working hard and working well. McKinsey offers many advantages such as paying for your MBA, in-house training, mentoring and immersion in the international environment and various industries. If you want to, you can develop quite a bit at a consulting company’s expense. For me, though, probably the main item on this ‘menu’ was the knowledge that, unlike most professions, a top-rate consulting firm develops your intellectual abilities.
A process of intellectual degradation sets in after graduation: you take in very little new knowledge and have little need for mathematics
The rare exception is an academic career. For that, you continue loading your brain with even more complex tasks and get used to finding food for it to consume. McKinsey gives you a high level of useful intellectual stress and you have to switch gears constantly from petrochemicals to metals or from healthcare to public administration. It gives you a huge dopamine rush.
How did you manage to settle in the States?
When I transferred to Boston, I was already thinking of staying permanently. I received a work visa and then used that to obtain a green card, although the process can take up to five years. Honestly, I have never seen a single person who wanted to live and work in the U.S. who was unable to manage it. There are tons of ways to stay legally. The main thing is to not be afraid and just take simple, systematic steps to make it happen.
The fact that I opened my own company sped up the visa process. It was much easier than I expected. I was just dying to get out of the hierarchical system and cut all of that to a minimum. So I got out of consulting and launched a medical startup called GoCarrot. By the way, you can start a company online in the States.
At that point, you already had experience with one startup.
Yes, back in Russia in 2014. The Russian Central Bank had begun an aggressive policy of tightening regulations for banks because it was afraid a bubble would form, and this caused a gap to form on the market between banks’ capabilities and real demand. My business partner and I created a trading company that did not operate as a bank because it cost $1 million to open a bank at that time. However, our company offered to buy needed goods in instalments in order to avoid the onerous financial sector regulations. When everything was ready and we received our license and agreed on investments, the Central Bank responded to the currency panic in the market by raising the refinancing rate to 17%. That destroyed our business model and ruined our chance to become market participants, but we gained an extremely interesting experience.
When and how did you realize how much effort is involved in working with PowerPoint, and when did you decide to optimize the process?
I had suffered a complete financial collapse and decided to try out one idea. I have a friend who came up with very simple macro (plugin) for Excel that he sold for an enormous sum. I thought that if such a trifling thing was worth so much, I should come up with something like that as quickly as possible. I graduated from the Faculty of Economics and studied macroeconomics, statistics and regressive analysis to land a prestigious job, so why should I then have to stay up at night preparing PowerPoint slides? Something was very wrong with that picture and I wanted to correct this imbalance.
There are two problems with PowerPoint. The first is that it requires users with no artistic ability to visualize how the finished slide should look. Ideally, a designer who understands the laws of concise graphic presentation would do that work. But that would require companies to have a department of designers at the very least, and then another department of project managers to check their work. This is not an option.
The second problem is that PowerPoint is a ‘one size fits all’ program. Microsoft has a monopoly on the market. Everyone from housewives and schoolchildren to investment bankers use PowerPoint, but only one standard interface is available for their very different needs. Because Microsoft is not in danger of losing shares, it has strategically chosen not to divide the product into a pro version and one for ‘ordinary folk.’ In fact, the company does not receive high-quality feedback from users because its products are designed for absolutely everyone.
How to use DeckRobot
We differ from Microsoft in that we focus completely on solving the problems of specific users. Our goal is to make PowerPoint a convenient and fast tool for office employees. We developed the DeckRobot plugin for PowerPoint using AI that employs preloaded, custom-made algorithms. For example, they might be algorithms for a specific company. The employees only have to come up with the content, the logic of the presentation and a draft of how it might look. This frees them up from many hours of tedious work.
Was it difficult to deal with all the technical issues without a background in these subjects?
It’s great when a startup has a technical founder who is not the CEO, because the CEO’s task is to lead the company, not to develop a product. Creating a good-looking product does not automatically lead to financial success. McKinsey taught me how to become adept in new areas. And the knowledge I gained at HSE helped when interviewing potential employees. Even though I had C’s in econometrics, I now have a deep understanding of how mathematical models and regression analysis work, and I can determine exactly how strong a candidate’s background is simply by asking a couple of very specific questions.
The point of business is not to invent a machine learning algorithm, but to understand which of the existing technological practices have an application to the clients’ specific needs
Of course, I am not a researcher on our team. We have hotshot fellows with PhDs who suggest which solutions to use or improve. But my experience enables me to understand which of those ideas can work and which can’t.
How did the DeckRobot idea turn into a potentially popular product?
The first thing every startup needs to do is to understand exactly whom they are targeting with their idea — practically right down to their first names. I spoke with potential clients in what is a very important stage called custom development. In response to the product landing page, you need to get the reaction of the market and understand how to solve the particular problem, what’s needed and whether your idea meets user demand. I saw teams that took a million in seed investment, locked themselves in a bunker for a year and came up with a brilliant app that got only 100 downloads per month.
After that, you make a working prototype, show it to people and get lots of feedback. Some of our clients backed out early because the product wasn’t everything they had wanted. But when we went back to them a year later with an improved version, they were satisfied. Sure, it’s all important: the team, culture, business partners, investors and values, but all of that comes later. First, you need to find what’s called the 'product-market fit': are you providing what people need? In other words, you test out whether this brainchild of yours is viable.
How much time does a startup need to get through the difficult trial period? What are the difficulties it faces?
Personally, I was plagued by ‘imposter syndrome,’ which ended only with the second round of surveys and the realisation that people really like it. There are deep doubts because you’ve got so much, maybe even everything on the line. When you create a startup, your main motivation is freedom from corporate slavery. You start to believe in yourself: ‘I really can run a business. I won’t end up homeless or, worse, a cog in the huge corporate machine.’ At first, you feel bad because you are involved in what seems to be nonsense, even while your colleagues advance in their careers and their salaries grow. It’s a question of opting for comfort versus temporary discomfort for the sake of a dream.
My aversion to office work did not arise because the companies I worked in were bad or because I felt underappreciated there. I don’t like corporate structures and bosses in principle because the only real way to advance in your career is to make friends with your superior and invite him or her to lunch or coffee so that they’ll ‘see potential in you.’ These doubts caused me a lot of pain when I was just starting to develop the idea.
When you create a startup, the thing that always saves you is faith in yourself and the belief that what you’re doing is needed. The main thing is to get past the negative reviews and look at them as a means for improving your product. Don’t listen to advice from those who never take risks. Just keep plugging away. The market we launched into is small, but our competitors (ThinkCell, Prezi, Templafy) have revenues in ten figures. At first, you feel frustrated, but after one and a half to two years, you begin receiving M&A offers for your company.
At what stage is the project now?
DeckRobot is currently expanding its customer pool to include Japan, India, Brazil, the U.S., Canada, almost all of Europe and a small part of Russia. We sell them licenses for employees. DeckRobot is in a rapid growth phase. It’s growing faster than I can keep up with or adjust to, and this is a major challenge for me. I have to expand our team by 400% in two months and in Q1 2021, we’ll have to increase the number of employees by 400%-500%. You have to be sure that all the processes you’ve worked out don’t fall apart while you’re scaling up — and that the quality doesn’t suffer. We are switching from being a startup to a regular company with a chief operating officer, a financial director and an HR director, and all of this requires constant reorganization. At the same time, you carry a great deal of responsibility before your clients, investors and employees.
Do you have a partner for managing everything?
I’m a solo founder. A lot of people have joined our top management. We have an unusually large option pool, which I created specifically so that we could get the best people on the market. DeckRobot is an attractive product for people who want to work with clear results. The company’s stock is already worth an impressive amount, and this figure will grow 5-8 times larger during the next round. My fellow managers are well aware that they cannot earn that much in a corporate career.
Is it true that any self-respecting startup needs to have an office in San Francisco in order to get clients?
Yes and no. You need to have a management team and at least one founder in San Francisco. If you’re here, you position yourself as a U.S. company. Your whole management team is located in California, although the development team and other employees who are somewhat in the background work from China, Russia, Ukraine and India.
Maintaining staff in San Francisco is expensive and even dangerous — Google could outbid you for your engineer at any moment
On the other hand, it’s far better having your whole team in one office. You can afford this when staffing costs are only a fraction of the $20 million you receive from the latest round of investment. What's more, venture investors don’t like putting their money into projects outside of San Francisco because then they have to fly off somewhere. It’s sort of like, ‘I don’t invest in companies whose offices take me more than 90 minutes to reach in my convertible.’ Everyone agrees that Zoom is great and working remotely is very convenient, but people are social animals and their communication is more productive when they speak in person, when they can see, smell and touch each other.
Startups usually don’t last long. What would you like to do next?
Startups last up to 15 years, then they either transform, get sold or shut down. Its lifespan is a function of the degree of responsibility taken toward the venture investors. In the best-case scenario, after you take the money, the company goes public and everyone makes a lot of money. However, 70% of the time your idea is sold to another player, most often one of the ‘GAFAM Five’ — Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple or Microsoft. I would prefer to take the company public. For me, money is just a level of freedom, not for consumption. Accordingly, the more I earn, the more things in the world I can change for the better.
Why did you have to go to the U.S. to build the kind of life you wanted?
Any move expands your boundaries. You don’t necessarily have to move to the States. In my case, that’s just how it turned out. When you’re just travelling, your cultural conditioning limits how you experience life. But if you move to a different environment, your native and adopted cultures merge and broaden your outlook. And the greater the difference between those cultures, the greater the insights gained. Moving from Belarus to, say, Japan would be enough to completely blow your mind. It awakens entirely new skills and behavioural patterns in everyday life, communication and aesthetics that you never knew existed. For example, in the U.S., nobody will tell you that your work isn’t up to par. Instead, they’ll say, ‘Looks good, my friend.’ But you get the message from the tone of voice. What they’re actually saying is, ‘One more project like that and you’re gone.’
Everyone knows this, but I can confirm once again that the United States is the friendliest country for immigrants. It’s not that they’re waiting for you with open arms, but that they couldn’t care less where you’re from or what sort of accent you have. You are free to achieve success in whatever field you want, whether its politics, business, science or whatever. It’s difficult to explain, but compared to the UK or Moscow, you notice it only after you’ve lived here for a while. Americans still remember that they are a nation of immigrants.