Yura Lazebnikov TECHIIA’s co-founder had a great chat with Adam Mendler, CEO of The Veloz Group where they discussed the start of entrepreneurship, how to find business ideas, and important guidance for leaders.
Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Yura: Thanks, Adam! I think many will agree with me that all experience, without exception, helps to grow a business. Even the one that might look insignificant at first glance.
For example, at the age of six, I got my first computer. My parents expected me to learn to program. But, of course, I played games instead. I was lucky that my parents perceived this hobby as a natural process, and did not kick me out from my computer.
I must say that the games were not what they are now - we were having to put some effort into launching them, so it was necessary to understand the hardware and programs :) 30 years later, together with my business partner Oleg Krot, we manage the international technology holding TECHIIA with 10+ companies and 1000+ employees. Looking at what our business has become, I am sure that the love of computer games and my parent’s support of my natural curiosity has definitely made an impact.
I tried to start my first business back in my student years. I always had a lot of ideas that I generously shared with businessmen I knew back then. Many of these ideas were later implemented. However, I was not part of it. I've learned a good lesson that the idea by itself is worth nothing. It is important to be able to prove the viability of such an idea: to create an infrastructure, make tests, identify working and non-working points. And this is the first thing we ask from guys who apply to TECHIIA for investments.
Adam: How did you come up with your ideas and know they were worth pursuing?
Yura: I have always dreamed of creating a multinational company operating all over the world. There were no boundaries in my head since childhood. But it didn’t happen in one night. No treasures or casino winnings.
In the 2000s, I met Oleg Krot. At that time, the areas of IT and integration were starting their growth in Ukraine. And we had the necessary competencies and the ability to find the right people. So we have joined forces. At first, these were simple tasks for hundreds and thousands of dollars. We have developed a reputation for performing more complex tasks, including the ones from abroad. Banks and insurers sought advice on IT infrastructure. Gradually, we reached a turnover of hundreds of thousands of dollars - for that time it was good money.
In parallel to that, as kids of the late 20th century, we were completely into games and esports. And it’s because of these interests we’ve started organizing local esports tournaments, and keeping our hands on the pulse of the industry. In 2012, we were offered a sponsorship for the first time. We realized that esports is an upward wave, and our "hobby" can turn into a business. This is how WePlay Esports has emerged.
At first, we were investing in this business with earnings from other areas, we built the infrastructure, simply because it was a long-standing passion. And this was exactly the time I’ve learned my next lesson. One time, just right before our upcoming tournament, we had a call from potential sponsors from the UK. They were ready to buy an integration during a broadcast for $50,000. And then they have learned that we have no other office, except for the one in Ukraine. So they transferred us to their Kyiv branch, and the offer went down to $1000.
This story and the next crisis in our country have taught us that any business needs to be globally oriented. Create and produce where it’s profitable and distribute it anywhere in the world. Therefore, today WePlay Esports is an esports media holding with offices on different continents, with its own arenas in the USA and Ukraine. And we are planning projects in China and Brazil.
The same story is with other businesses, and they all emerged organically. For example, we made a cool service for managing LAN gaming centers and cyber arenas for our personal needs and then realized that we’re not the only ones who need such a service. That’s how the Enestech company and its product SENET were created. We needed to sew high-quality merchandise for the tournament - so we created WP Merchandise! with its own production and distribution network. We needed a team to create software, but we didn't find someone who did it well enough - we created a service company called JMind. The same is with our IT integration and construction assets. In addition to that, we have the new technology projects in which we saw a perspective.
By 2019, there were more than ten companies, and it became difficult to manage them separately. We were spending a lot of time and ran into the ceiling in regards to the operational work. Therefore, we decided to unite all businesses in the TECHIIA holding. And this was my next lesson: if you want to grow, you need to be less and less involved in tactical decisions but make more and more high-level ones.
To manage such a company, you need a team of proactive, passionate professionals. And we have such a team. Oleg and I set a common vector, invest in new businesses and attract companies that become part of TECHIIA.
Adam: What advice do you have for others on how to come up with and test business ideas?
Yura: There is no specific advice for coming up with business ideas. But curiosity about life helps a lot. You feel a lack of knowledge, skills, money - and you look for ways to fill this gap. Or you run into a problem and look for a solution. And you do this by yourself, nobody will give you specific instructions.
Here one can argue that anyone, faced with a problem, is trying to solve it. But entrepreneurs are the ones who, in a sense, are looking for these problems - and not only locally but also globally. What request does a certain audience have and what options are there to satisfy it? How to create a new service combining two industries and who will benefit from it? The entrepreneur is looking for opportunities and niches that others don't see.
For example, TECHIIA recently acquired Culver Aviation, a company that manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles and provides services based on the data they collect. This is a very prominent service in agriculture. A UAV with a good camera, for example, allows you to quickly make accurate plans of the area, determine the exact borders and relief of fields, and help agriculturists when monitoring plants. Consequently, farmers can save hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Similar plans and data are provided by satellites and copters. But satellites do not provide such accuracy and cannot take pictures at any time needed. And copters do not give such flying speed. That's the niche for Culver Aviation. And this is just one case.
An idea, of course, does not become a business by itself. There are in-depth client studies and focus group tests to link ideas with reality. Yes, sometimes intuition is enough. However, intuition is not magic, but lessons learned and experience gained when you are so deep into a topic that the brain itself provides you with possible solutions.
Adam: In your experience, what are the key steps to growing and scaling your business?
Yura: A strong team is in first place for sure. It is impossible to grow a business while you are stuck in an operational routine.
I concentrate on strategic tasks in which I am most effective, and for the rest of the roles, I always look for the right people. My job is to select (or to grow, which is even better) CEOs of our companies, to convey values, and to actually search for and create ideas, and attract new businesses. I motivate the C-level to be guided by the same principle. Their job is to hire the right people for specific tasks. It is crucial that we all share the same mindset. It is impossible to build a big business without reliance on people, mutual respect, and trust.
Nest is the access to foreign markets. Each of them has its own rules of the game and ethics. Yes, you can register a business anywhere, but it is important to become “one of the boys” for the market. To do this, physical presence is a must. Be where the game is. Therefore, for example, we chose Los Angeles as a place for one of the WePlay Esports arenas - after all, most of the entertainment content is being produced there. Therefore, I myself have been living here for many years now.
Adam: What are your best sales and marketing tips?
Yura: I recommend everyone to learn their customers and their pains inside and out. And for this, you need to be in constant contact with these customers specifically in the market where you want to operate. This is kind of an addition to my previous answer.
For example, our method is as follows. We take our C-level manager that we know for a long time and trust and train him/her for the new market. He/she learns the language, the culture and becomes a kind of bridge to a new country. Further, his/her task is to select local professionals for operational tasks: business development, sales, support, content creation. He/she is looking for the best people who have grown in this market and know it perfectly. They know everything - from cultural nuances and negotiating hints to prices and useful contacts.
This is a lesson learned from our own mistakes. For example, our company Enestech entered new markets with an English-language version of the product, but the Brazilians, Turks, and Vietnamese did not feel good about it. Or even worse: you write to a potential client via WhatsApp (an app that’s quite ordinary for you), and he/she does not read the message for weeks, because he/she, for the most part, uses another messenger, the one that you’ve never heard of.
We eagerly use the services of local consultants, often several of them with different approaches, to have a full picture of the market.
Adam: What should everyone understand about the world of esports? What do you believe are the most important trends leaders should be aware of?
Yura: Esports has long been a serious business. The pandemic has only increased its popularity. For example, during the lockdown, esports tournaments were the only ones that could be shifted online. We realized that the covid has been here for quite a while, therefore, for a year and a half, WePlay Esports has been working in the no-offline-viewers format. Esports, like no other industry, was able to make this shift in no time.
The audience is also growing - now almost half a million people worldwide watch esports competitions. These are loyal fans, young people who grow up playing computer games, and classic sports fans.
Newzoo predicts that the esports market will grow up to $3.5 billion by 2027 - three times today's number. More and more money is coming to esports: back in 2019, Deloitte determined that the share of venture capital among esports investors worldwide was 56%, and it is growing.
Yet another case is the integration of non-core companies into the esports segment. For example, luxury brands (Louis Vuitton), car companies (BMW, Honda), the insurance industry (State Farm Insurance), and retail companies (Walmart).
Esports has long been our passion. And as a holding company, we generally follow global trends and invest in assets that clearly have the future. These are drones, e-commerce, automotive, data storage, and processing.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Yura: In my opinion, the defining ones are reaction speed and flexible thinking. These are the basics for an entrepreneur - to be able to instantly react to changes and adjust the management approach to fit the situation. Different market situations require more authoritarianism, or, on the contrary, more democracy. We give maximum freedom to local CEOs, but sometimes you have to immerse yourself in operational activities.
As soon as you focus on one thing only, you are trapped. You should always monitor the situation. It is hard, but there is a lot of freedom in it.
Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams?
Yura: Look for those who are into the things you do. Their contribution should be properly awarded, but their interest cannot be bought for money. In this case, the person is driven by a common goal.
For example, even at the hiring stage, we find out where and how a future colleague wants to grow and whether we can provide him/her with everything needed. We check whether we share common values at a special stage of the interview. We minimize bureaucracy, give freedom in the expression of ideas and their implementation. Companies grow, and this is a great opportunity for everyone to express themselves.
Another piece of advice is to encourage studying and training among employees, motivating them to learn something new. This is one of our basic values because all the businesses of our holding grow rapidly, and we are in constant need of managers for new projects. We try to cover these needs as much as possible with our own staff. We strongly support the holding's professionals to exchange competencies, failures, and best practices among colleagues - this is exactly why TECHIIA was created. We provide our employees with a 50% cost compensation of external specialized courses.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Yura: It’s hard to limit them to three, but I’ll do my best.
The first one is to learn. This is a natural need for homo sapiens and the primary need for an entrepreneur. It's not about taking course after course or running for an MBA. Your job is to keep curiosity on and excited about how much more you will learn.
The second is to select the right people. You can become an independent genius artist or a talented writer. But when it comes to business and management, you cannot build a large-scale company on your own. It is important that people share your values. After all, even Stephen King has literary agents, publishers, and a wife who kept him from ruining his first successful novel and his writing career in general.
And the third key skill is to be able to work with your brains. Jira or Trello, gadgets, prints, emails, and boards are tools. The task of an entrepreneur is to connect the incompatible, react to things that happen in the world daily, think outside the box, not be afraid to generate something new, and convey it to the team. And be ready for bumps and bruises, there’s going to be a lot of them. An entrepreneur is someone who knows how to make money on ups and downs.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Yura: Do what you love. Love what you do
Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Yura: Thanks for the conversation! And to all your readers - dare to look beyond.
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