Left Google nowhere: how a Ukrainian woman created a successful startup and moved to the USA - ForumDaily
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Left Google nowhere: how a Ukrainian woman created a successful startup and moved to the USA

Ukrainian woman Sofia Shvets worked at Google in Kiev and Dublin for three years, after which she quit her job and went nowhere. A few months later, she co-founded the Let's Enhance startup. In its first month of launch, it became Product of the Day on Product Hunt, received 100 registrations, and was featured in TechCrunch and Mashable. Now Let's Enhance clients are the UN, the Government of Canada. And Sofia received a visa to the United States for "people with supernatural achievements" and moved to San Francisco, writes Wonderzine.

Photo: instagram.com/sofishvets

We talk with Sofia about her career path and how not to be afraid (repeatedly) to change everything.

Location: Kiev

First projects: AIESEC, TEDx, Ecoisme

I grew up in the small town of Kirnasovka, Vinnitsa region, where several thousand people live. Even at school, I understood that I needed to go to Kiev to build a career, because there are more opportunities. Therefore, my task at the age of 16 was to pass the exams well, which I did.

But when it was my turn to choose the direction, I had no clear idea. Few people at the age of 16 really know what they want to do. Especially in a dynamic world where new professions appear every few years. Therefore, it is difficult at this age to choose a career for life. Moreover, there can be several careers.

Therefore, I am grateful to the parents who gave advice to choose a general direction, and then orient myself. So I decided to go into the economy with which I can go into finance, management, marketing. I entered the Kiev National University, and this was the beginning of my professional path.

While studying at the university, I worked as a tutor, was engaged in translations. During this time, I had about five projects that gave me different skills. For example, I joined the AIESEC organization, where we did youth projects. At first I was engaged in marketing there, and then I launched PR courses. That is, my first project was at the age of 18. It was a great opportunity to learn how to negotiate partnerships, to attract people. Just call and ask someone for something. Of course, there were many refusals. But it was a kind of entrepreneurship under the brand of a youth organization.

I thought I wanted to build a career in marketing and went to work at an advertising agency. However, I quickly realized that advertising is not exactly what is depicted in the film “99 Francs.”

At the same time, she was involved in organizing the TEDxKyiv and TEDxKNU conferences. Through the people I worked with there, I ended up at Happy Farm, a business accelerator that dealt with startups. For me it was a completely new and interesting world. There were a lot of people there with sparkling eyes, who don’t sleep at night and believe that they are creating something cool. I really liked it all - that’s how my journey in IT began. After that I went to work for startups.

Then I joined the startup Ecoisme (a Ukrainian startup that created devices to save energy consumption at home - Ed.) to launch their Kickstarter campaign. I joined the team at the stage of chaos: we worked in the apartment of co-founders Anton and Sasha Dyatlov, and we had to take on many roles. But it was interesting.

I realized that I can quickly grow and pump myself in different directions at the same time. She worked in marketing, communications, and partly in product management. One day I wrote a press release, the second I worked on customer development, the third I wrote posts on Facebook. That’s the thing about working in startups—you wear a lot of roles, and because of this you can quickly try different things. But this is only in the early stages. Then the startup grows, builds processes and there is less chaos.

LESSON # 1: You have to try different projects in order to understand in which direction you want to move.

Location: Kyiv - Dublin

Jobs at Google

I liked Google: I studied how their processes were built, watched films and read books about the company. At the university, I attended their student workshop, where we worked in teams - and our team won the competition. This was my first acquaintance with the company in person and I really liked it.

But I got to work at Google quite by accident. Even when I was working in startups, a vacancy was opened in the Kiev office. I submitted my CV and forgot. It was just such a "call to the universe" from me. About two and a half months later, a recruiter called me and invited me to the office.

The interview was very interesting: they asked what was interesting to me, what I wanted, and I had something to tell. Only when I had an interview with the CEO of Google Ukraine, I thought: "Wow, this is already serious."

LESSON # 2: We can never guess what opportunities are out there. Therefore, the best thing is not to be afraid and not to think again: “Am I qualified enough?”

I worked at Google for almost three years. She started in the Kyiv office and later moved to Dublin. But this is my story - you don’t have to start in a local office to get to the Irish one. You can go straight to where you want. When they open a position, both people inside the company and outside can apply for it. I saw that a vacancy was open and wrote to the team in Dublin. I had good projects from Kyiv, I passed the interview and was invited quite quickly. However, it was necessary to wait a long time for a work visa and generally go through the legalization process.

Then I was still studying in parallel at the magistracy at KNU. So I went to the head of the department and said: “I'm going to Google in Ireland. And I may graduate from university, or I may not. I already have a job " (laughing)... But I was calmly transferred to an individual training schedule, I flew only to defend my diploma.

I moved to Dublin when I was 21. Of course, I realized that emigration and tourism are two different things. Everything was new: from culture to taxes. However, Google has a team that can help with various post-move issues. I had to solve everyday problems, but this greatly strengthened me and made me adaptive.

Google's European office is located in Dublin, with offices in 50+ countries. Therefore, every day I worked with different nationalities - this greatly improved my ability to communicate and collaborate with different people. There I saw how large international companies work from the inside. Google probably has the best internal processes in the world. Now, as the founder of a startup, I partially apply the practices I saw there.

At Google, I was involved in marketing and helped startups launch campaigns and enter new markets. I had a cool team and a great manager, Nina, with whom we also decided to launch the Women's Empowerment Program for women entrepreneurs. At that time, Google already had programs to support women, such as Women @ Google. However, they were not implemented in Ukraine, although there was a request. We decided to make a project in the format of courses and help Ukrainian entrepreneurs.

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Of course, many asked: “What, men can’t [participate]?” In general, this was the start for building a community [of women's entrepreneurship]. Having mentorship and being able to ask someone a few steps ahead of you on this is the most rewarding thing ever. When you have an example, you see that everything is possible and you can make 10 fewer mistakes. You are not alone - you already have a support environment. I am very pleased to see how the culture of mentoring in Ukraine is now developing.

Dublin Google also has an innovation team that takes startups under their wing. I joined it and worked on startups that were still in very early stages. During my day job, I worked with companies that have budgets and know their clients. And within the framework of this program, my students were very small businesses, so I could think about market research with them, how to conduct a customer survey - do basic tasks. At this time, I realized that I wanted to work with the product - it really energized me. I wanted to try to work on something of my own, and not remain in the role of a consultant.

Photo: instagram.com/sofishvets

Location: Kiev

Leave Google to nowhere

Leaving Google and going nowhere was a difficult decision; I made it for about six months. But at some point I realized: any decision that we put off consumes a lot of energy. It just constantly spins in operating memory, you think about it, and the further you delay it, the more difficult it is to do it. Psychologically, it is very difficult to lose something.

The point of no return was that I realized that I would regret more if I didn't try than fear for the potential risk I was taking. I was 24 years old, I did not risk anything except my time. I have no family, no children; I answer only to myself.

In many ways, I relied on my inner feelings, but I approached this decision rationally. For example, I made myself a money airbag. So I had a reserve of money so that I would not work for six months when I returned to Kiev. I gave myself this time to think about what was next. I understood that with my experience in Google and previous projects, someone would hire me. I spoke this thought to myself in my head. But this fear was not about money. It was the fear of making a mistake.

In the end, I went to my manager, said I was leaving, and worked for another month. It was important for me to remain on good terms with everyone. In fact, Google has an entire employee return program where you can leave and then come back in a different role. That is, there is no such thing that you leave and that’s it, you will never be able to work at Google again. There were people on my team who returned twice, this is normal. We need to try different options.

Taking such radical steps and going nowhere is difficult; this stage is not for everyone. Everyone around you thinks that you are a little “bye-bye.” My parents didn't tell me anything, but they were excited that I did it. Such decisions are not socially approved. Nobody understands what was wrong, they ask: “What’s next?” Many people thought that I was going to another company - Facebook, for example. But I said that I really don’t know yet.

When you throw yourself out of your comfort zone, your brain starts working like it’s on an accelerator - and you begin to see opportunities that you didn’t notice while in your comfortable environment. When I returned to Kyiv, I restored all my acquaintances. My friend Vanya Pasechnik introduced me to my future co-founder. He was just launching a new project and needed someone to handle the business side. And since I was unemployed, with a lot of free time and a love for startups, a month later I became a co-founder of a startup - and this was already a new story.

LESSON # 3: Throwing yourself into uncomfortable zones is healthy, but you have to be prepared for it. When there is nothing to eat and nothing to pay rent, you will take the first opportunity. And if you know that this is a reasonable risk, you can go in a new direction.

Location: Kiev

Launching your startup

We had three co-founders, but one left a few months after launch, leaving two of us. We were the founders of a startup for the first time, so a lot was incomprehensible. All my previous experience was irrelevant, so I had to quickly figure it out.

This was our first time driving a product and everything that happened depended entirely on us. We experimented a lot: we applied to accelerators, tried to raise money, and we got clients. The first six months were absolute chaos. We didn't pay ourselves a salary. It was then that I needed my financial cushion: thanks to it, I could afford to break into such an adventure.

I learned how to sell my ideas, interview quickly, and hire employees. We fired our first engineer. I remember crying on the stairs of TechStars (an accelerator for startups. - Ed.) that we are such bad founders and cannot hire a normal team. There were a lot of failures and successful moments, but all this tempers.

There is a rule in startups: if you look at your product a year ago and you’re not ashamed, it means you’re not growing fast enough. I’m actually not ashamed, because this is an experience, a learning path, but now I think: “We did it all somehow crookedly, chaotically.”

We launched actively, in a minimal version, on Product Hunt (a site for finding new new products. - Runits). Since the technology we are working on is new, we have become the "Product of the Day", received a lot of traffic and mentions in the media. In the first month, we have 100 registered people. Cool that there was such a viral effect, but it had its pros and cons. We were not ready for this, since our product was in the minimum version, we had a lot of things wrong. The site was constantly falling, there were no payments. It was as if we jumped on a high-speed train and changed wheels on the go.

What is Let's Enhance? It is a platform that automates image processing using artificial intelligence. It helps to improve the quality, color using neural networks. Now the platform has more than 3 million users and about 10 million photos are processed monthly.

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Location: London

Participation in TechStars

TechStars is an acceleration program that was essentially our first success. Out of 1000 applications from all over Europe, we were selected as one of the ten participants. This gave us the resources to recruit people and improve the product. TechStars also gives you the opportunity to work with their partners like Intercom. This program gives a “tick” that your startup is ok. This helps in meeting potential clients and generally makes life much easier.

We still communicate with the team and the director, who became a mentor for us. We had the opportunity to work with someone who had much more experience. Having a mentor like that helps a lot. Sometimes this is even more valuable than money because it helps you avoid mistakes.

Later, we realized that we have a professional audience, so we started working directly with the business, thanks to technology that allows us to automatically process content in large volumes. Now we are integrating into marketplaces, working with media providers, print companies. They process hundreds of thousands of images for us through the platform not in manual mode, but automatically, using neural networks.

Photo: instagram.com/sofishvets

Location: San Francisco

Visa for people with supernatural achievements and relocation to the USA

I moved to the USA four months ago, a few hours before the quarantine began. I currently live in San Francisco. This is a new interesting stage for me. The move was a conscious decision, because preparing my visa - O1 - took about 8 months. This visa is given to people with extraordinary abilities or achievements. Therefore, I need to prove that what I do is truly outstanding. Indicators of this are manifestations in the media, investments, and participation in international programs.

My team remains in Ukraine. Being in the US helps with partnerships here locally, so everyone benefits. Now we are 13 people, the majority of the team are engineers, managed by my partner. During quarantine, it’s easy for me to communicate with the team, since everyone has switched to remote work. When everyone is in the office, and one person is remote, it is more difficult psychologically.

The biggest challenge for me is balancing the 10 hour time difference. That's why I have a strange work schedule. From 6:00 to 12:00 I am in contact with the Ukrainian team and European clients. Then I can do some business in the US, with local partners. Sometimes I have calls at 22:00-23:00, when Ukraine wakes up, and I am still awake.

Before moving, I visited America several times and realized that here is the largest startup community in the world. For me, moving to the States is a transition to the “major league”. I feel like a small part of this ecosystem. Here it seems that everyone around has already launched 5 projects, 4 of which failed, and then raised 5. This gives a magical kick to move faster.

For me, moving to the USA is a decision similar to how I left Google. I am still responsible for myself. You can always go back, but you can take risks. And even if I reach not the top, but at least the average level here, this experience will be useful. It can be brought to Ukraine and adapted there.

Here I learn to take successful people around me as motivation, and not compare myself to them. Of course, impostor syndrome hits me sometimes, but I'm learning to catch it early. We need to shift the filter of perception of the situation and remember that we all start from different points. Perhaps this person was born in the Valley, he had access to all the resources at once. And you come from another country - and this is always more difficult by default. So I don't compare myself to others, but take it as, “Oh, this is a cool person, what can I learn from him to become better?”

LESSON # 4: Comparing yourself to someone is not a bad idea as long as you think about what you can learn from that person and be open to new things.

In fact, the environment in the Valley is very supportive. If you do something, it already deserves respect. Most of the founders I met here were not already in their first startup, but had several previous projects that had failed. I like the culture here, failure is normal. If you didn't succeed now, next time you will do better and faster. Quite the contrary: a founder who failed is much more attractive to investors here. Because he doesn’t have rosy ideas that everything will be easy, he’s already hit his stride.

Failure is very useful psychologically. If you failed, but got up again and started doing something, it means you have character and next time you will do much better. Here people talk about their failures very openly and I like it. I see the beginnings of this in Ukraine, but I want there to be more of this. Because a person who does at least something - a business, a blog or any other activity - is already cool. They say that 85% of people watch, 10% comment and 5% do. Taking action is more difficult than sitting on the couch and being afraid.

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