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.
We talk with Sofia about her career path and how not to be afraid (repeatedly) to change everything.
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 pursue a career in marketing and went to work for an advertising agency. However, I quickly realized that advertising is not exactly what is portrayed in the film "99 Francs".
In parallel, she was organizing conferences TEDxKyiv, TEDxKNU. Through the people I worked with there, I got to Happy Farm, a business accelerator that was engaged in startups. It was a completely new and interesting world for me. There were many people with glowing eyes who do not sleep at night and believe that they are creating something cool. I liked all this very much - this is how my path to IT began. After that, I went to work in startups.
Then I joined 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, we had to take on many roles. But it was interesting.
I realized that I can quickly grow and pump in different directions in parallel. She was engaged in marketing, communications, partly in product management. One day I wrote a press release, the second - on my customer development, the third - I wrote posts on Facebook. This is a feature of working in startups - you fill many roles and thanks to this you can quickly try different things. But this is only in the early stages. Then the startup grows, builds processes and chaos becomes less.
LESSON # 1: You have to try different projects in order to understand in which direction you want to move.
Location: Kiev - 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 got to their student workshop, where we worked in teams - and our team won the competition. This was my first acquaintance with the company live 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 the possibilities are. Therefore, it is best 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 Kiev office and later moved to Dublin. But this is my story - you don't have to start at a local office to get into Irish. You can go wherever you want right away. When they open vacancies, both internal and external people can apply for it. I saw that there was a vacancy, I wrote to the team in Dublin. I had good projects from Kiev, I went through an interview and was quickly invited. However, one had 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 years old. Of course, I realized that emigration and tourism are different things. Everything was new, from culture to taxes. However, Google has a team to help sort out various issues after the move. I had to solve everyday problems, but this greatly tempered, made it adaptive.
Dublin is the European office of Google, with offices in 50+ countries. Therefore, every day I worked with different nationalities - it really improved my ability to build communication, cooperate with different people. There I saw how large international companies work from the inside. Google has perhaps the best internal processes in the world. Now, as a startup founder, 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.
Of course, many asked, "Why can't men [participate]?" In general, this was the start for building a community [of women's entrepreneurship]. Mentoring and being able to ask someone a few steps ahead of you on this is the most rewarding thing there can be. 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 is developing in Ukraine now.
Also Dublin-based Google has an innovative team that takes startups under its wing. I joined her and was involved in startups, which are still in the very early stages. During my main job, I worked with companies that have budgets, they know their customers. And within the framework of this program, my wards were very small businesses, so I could think about market research with them, how to do a customer survey - to deal with basic tasks. At that 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 stay in the role of a consultant.
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 postpone consumes a lot of energy. It just constantly spins in the operating memory, you think about it, and the further you delay it, the more difficult it is to do it. It is psychologically 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 that I was leaving, and worked for another month. It was important for me to stay on good terms with everyone. In fact, Google has an entire employee return program: you can leave and then return to another 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 came back twice, this is normal. We have to try different options.
It is difficult to take such radical steps and go nowhere, this stage is not for everyone. All your environment thinks that you are a little "bye-bye". My parents didn't tell me anything, but they were thrilled that I did so. Such decisions are socially discouraged. Nobody understands what was wrong, they ask: "What next?" Many people thought that I was going to another company - on 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 to work like an accelerator - and you begin to see those opportunities that you did not notice when you were in your comfortable environment. When I returned to Kiev, I restored all my acquaintances. My friend Vanya Pasechnik introduced me to my future co-founder. He was just starting a new project, and he needed a person to deal with the business side. And since I was unemployed, with a lot of free time and love for startups, a month later I became a co-founder of a startup - and that was already a new story.
LESSON # 3: Throwing yourself into uncomfortable areas is useful, but you need to be prepared for this. When there is nothing to eat and nothing to pay for the apartment, you will take on the first opportunities. And if you know that this is a reasonable risk, you can go in a new direction.
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.
We were driving a product for the first time and everything that happened depended entirely on us. We experimented a lot: we applied to accelerators, tried to raise money, we got clients. The first six months - it was absolute chaos. We didn't pay ourselves a salary. It was then that my money pillow was needed: thanks to it, I could afford to break into such an adventure.
I learned to sell my ideas, interview quickly, and hire employees. We fired our first engineer. I remember crying on the TechStars stairs (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 are not ashamed, then you are not growing fast enough. I'm not really ashamed, because this is an experience, a way of learning, but now I think: "We did it all somehow crookedly, chaotically."
We launched actively, in the minimum 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.
Participation in TechStars
TechStars is the acceleration program that was essentially our first success. Out of 1000 applications from all over Europe, we were selected among the top ten participants. This gave us the resources to recruit people, improve the product. TechStars also makes it possible to work with their partners like Intercom. This program gives a "tick" that your startup is ok. It helps in meeting potential clients and makes life much easier in general.
We are still in touch with the team and the director, who has become a mentor for us. We had the opportunity to work with a person who had much more experience. Having such a mentor helps a lot. Sometimes it is even more valuable than money because it helps to 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.
Location: San Francisco
Visa for people with supernatural achievements and relocation to the USA
I moved to the United States four months ago, a few hours before the start of quarantine. I now live in San Francisco. This is an interesting new stage for me. The move was a deliberate decision, because the preparation of my visa - O1 - took about 8 months. Such a visa is given to people with extraordinary abilities or achievements. So I have to prove that what I am doing is truly outstanding. Indicators of this are manifestations in the media, investments, participation in international programs.
My team remains in Ukraine. Being in the US helps to do partnerships here on the spot, so everyone benefits from that. Now we are 13 people, most of the team are engineers, which are managed by my partner. During quarantine, it is easy for me to communicate with the team, since everyone 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. Therefore, I have a strange work schedule. From 6:00 to 12:00 I have a connection with the Ukrainian team and European clients. Then I can do some business in the USA, with local partners. Sometimes I have calls at 22: 00-23: 00, when Ukraine wakes up and I am still awake.
Before moving, I was in America several times and realized that here is the largest startup community in the world. For me, moving to the States is a move to the "Major League". I feel like a small part of this ecosystem. Here it seems that everyone around has already launched 5 projects, of which 4 failed, and then raised 5. This gives a magic 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 risk it. 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 perceive the successful people around me as motivation, and not to compare myself with them. Of course, sometimes I am covered with impostor syndrome, but I learn to catch it early. It is necessary 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 resources at once. And you came from another country - and this is always more difficult by default. Therefore, I do not compare myself with others, but perceive 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 when 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 have not had their first startup, but several previous projects have failed. I like the culture here, fail is okay. If you don't succeed now, next time you will do better and faster. On the contrary: a founder who failed is much more attractive for investors here. Because he does not have a rosy idea that everything will be easy, he has already filled up the cones.
Failure is very helpful psychologically. If you failed, but got up again and started doing something, then you have character and next time you will do much better. People here talk about their failures very openly and I love it. I see the origin of this in Ukraine, but I would like to see 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. The act is more difficult than sitting on the couch and being afraid.
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