Yura Lazebnikov — about the worst business advice, sustainable development and TECHIIA's vision

Yura Lazebnikov — about the worst business advice, sustainable development and TECHIIA's vision

Big interview with the founder for Valiant CEO.


Let's learn a little about you and really get to experience what makes us tick – starting at our beginnings. Where did your story begin?

My story begins in 1989 when my parents bought me my first computer.

Traditional professions were losing their market value. It was difficult to understand what knowledge and skills will be in demand. Probably my parents were hoping that I would learn to program. And it really might be the case, but instead, I really enjoyed playing games.

Not only did these games entertain me, but also immersed myself in parallel universes. And before computers came into play, those were the books that had such an impact. My reading has always been a little cinematic. I was imagining each described scene in all colors, sounds, and smells. So games carried this on for me - except that the smells were not conveyed.

But my parents' hopes came true in some way. In the early 90s, games were very different. In order to launch a game, you’ll have to gain some decent sysadmin skills. Therefore I was learning while playing.

My love for games didn’t disappear even when I entered the university. On the contrary, this hobby helped me find like-minded people. But there were also some unpleasant moments.

One time I almost found myself expelled because I did not pass the laboratory tests, control tests, I missed the exam dates. Only a miracle, communication skills, and learning helped me fix it. Since then, I know for sure that you can negotiate with everyone, or almost everyone if you really need to.

It turned out that some teachers themselves do not mind fighting on the virtual field - and giving a good grade if the student beats them. Others demanded exceptional knowledge, no compromises were made. Since then, I have known a lot about how the brain works. For example, you need to alternate cramming with physical activity, repeat the material today, tomorrow, and in a week - so the brain understands that this is not random information, but something important.

Not all of my fellow students who were in the same almost-expelled situation were able to monetize their hobby. But I was and still am able. Together with business partner Oleg Krot, we manage the TECHIIA holding. It unites companies that develop IT products, manufactures licensed merchandise, organizes esports tournaments, and venture investments. But it all started with games.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I don't believe in the self-made concept. Any successful person was helped by other people: parents, friends, teachers, work colleagues, good (as well as bad) bosses. And I am no exception. At every stage of my life, I have met people whose help is invaluable. But if you ask about one particular person - it would be my wife, she always finds the right words to support me or supports me with no words at all when it is so important.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. What's the worst advice you received?

I was lucky with intense innate curiosity. And it never allowed me to be satisfied with one opinion only, even from a very significant person. I usually ask several experts the same question. These can be people of different worldviews and decision-making approaches. I can ask a question to a theoretical scientist, a practical businessman, and even a futurologist.

The worst advice, which I did not take, was back in March 2020 and sounded something like this: "Wait a couple of months, soon everything will be as it was before”. These words belong to several businessmen I know who disdained conservative forecasts. Today we all know that it didn't take only a couple of months. And I understand how important it is not to wait for the problem to be solved by itself. It will never be solved by itself. To freeze and simply wait is an extremely bad strategy.

During the time that we could just “wait”, our company hired new developers, gained new clients, and supported the existing ones. Many customers of our IT products found themselves in a difficult situation - because of the lockdown, they were unable to provide services to their customers. No clients - no money to pay for our services. We did our best to reduce, postpone or somehow revise their obligations, to help our customers go through the crisis.

Another terrible piece of advice that I didn't take: don't rely on business plans and strategies. The argument is that real business is very far from beautiful presentations, lectures by theoretical teachers, and optimistic analytical forecasts.

I completely agree with the latter. Business is like a turbulent mountain river, like a tornado - a novice entrepreneur will always have what to deal with. But it is impossible to leave the strategy, plan, and forecasts aside. Drawing out these documents allows us to crystallize an understanding of who we are and where we are going. Of course, any idea should face reality as soon as possible, and maybe even face some changes. But your strategy is like a guardrail on the roof of a high-rise building. It is a very dangerous activity without such a guardrail.

Moreover, once you understand that the company needs investment, the value of “these boring presentations” becomes very clear. Your potential partner will willingly listen to your real-life stories, but it is crucial for this person to see everything in numbers: who are you, what do you do, what are your values, how is this reflected in your work and reports, how you fulfill your financial plan, how adequate are the forecasts of your analysts and whether they generally coincide with reality.

Resilience is critical in critical times like the ones we are going through now. How would you define resilience?

For me, resilience is about reacting to changes in time. Whether it's about your health or some anxiety in the team. Perhaps some team members need a rest, or switch to another task, or spend half an hour feeding the ducks.

I do really like people who do what they like and do it well. But even labor of love can take all your power. Our company has a flexible system of vacations and days off. A person can take a day off or two when needed. Sometimes, when the situation requires, employees can take a sick leave immediately. And we understand it - may not have the understanding that he or she is sick or extremely tired as the first thing in the morning. And I am happy that employees do not abuse this flexibility.

What is most important to your organization—mission, vision, or values?

I can’t single out one thing only. For me, separating these three components is the same as choosing between right and left hand, between ears and eyes. A healthy body contains all the components. We can’t say that blood is more important than muscle.

Our mission is to change the world for the better where we can. We want to provide services of the highest quality in terms of convenience, creativity, speed to each of our clients anywhere in the world. At the same time, we have a sustainable development strategy, we have joined the UN Global Compact, we adhere to corporate ethics.

All our companies create excellent products: IT solutions in various forms, merchandise, entertainment video content, startups that are selected and developed by a venture studio, infrastructure facilities that we are building in different parts of the world. Every day we work so that as many people as possible can enjoy each of our companies’ results.

Such an ambitious mission would have had no chance if we had not had values that are close to every employee. Respect for the cultural identity of everyone we interact with allows us to understand and be on the same page with people from all over the world. As a result, we know for sure that there are no boundaries - the world is big and small at the same time. Time and attention to each region where our products are presented have been converted into regular customers. And clients have brought knowledge and emotions into our lives that cannot be obtained with the help of new technologies. Although new technologies are very helpful in being flexible.

Our vision is living today while thinking about tomorrow. That’s why we created a venture studio. It monitors the startup market, selects the most interesting projects, and welcomes them to cooperation.

We don't accept just ideas, because their value is not that remarkable. Only market and customer-proven solutions can get our support. We do not buy beautiful words or presentations, but a working mechanism.

Delegating is part of being a great leader, but what have you found helpful to get your managers to become valiant leaders as well?

You can keep learning delegation all your life. Back in the day, I was thinking: "how can a third party run my business? This is my brainchild, not someone else's. Another person will not take care of it as much as I do. What if he/she will do something wrong and break everything that I've built?”

This is something any founder thought of at a certain point. But each day of trying to run everything on your own turns you into a person drowning in the ocean of operational tasks. An international company cannot be built in such anxiety. And the larger the business grows, the more tasks (and, as a consequence, control) have to be delegated.

Surprisingly, each of our companies has benefited from new CEOs. Yes, hired managers do not have parental feelings about the business. But there is a calm and sober view of things. And at a certain stage, it is much more useful.

You probably think about how to make hired managers become profound leaders. It’s simple. Hire smart people and not interfere with their work. Do not bother him/her a hundred times a day with questions and suggestions, do not indicate how to live and work. If this person is hired for a high position, then he/she definitely knows how to run this business better than the founder.

We check the results by taking the manager out of the process for several weeks. If a team without a leader works, as usual, it means that the CEO has built the processes correctly and properly assigned responsibilities. If the absence of a leader ruins the team performance - things are bad.

How important do you think it is for a leader to be mindful of his own brand?

The concept of reputation is closer to me rather than the concept of personal brand. People interact with people, not brands with brands. Obligations must be met clearly and in a timely manner. This is extremely difficult for a beginner.

Not all contractors, for example, pay for your services right after they received an invoice. Suppose you expected to use this money that has not yet been received to pay salaries. But since the transfer has not been received, there is nothing to pay from. These are the conditions of our task. The way you will find how to fulfill obligations to all parties in a timely manner and in full, that solution is that very reputation, your personal brand. Resourcefulness, negotiability, ingenuity, clarity, and transparency are what every businessman should work on, whether he/she is a beginner or not.

How would you define “leadership”?

A leader for me is a human magnet, in a particular way. Such a person attracts the right people to work with, generate ideas with, reach new goals with. Those who are not the right ones for this, as I have noticed, quickly fall off. A deep understanding of your business, a willingness to easily talk about it at any time of the day are essential components. And, of course, the desire to interact with people - to listen to them, and to answer their questions.

It seems to me that leadership means more than a definition from Wikipedia, a business textbook, or the intuitive behavior of a person claiming himself/herself a leader. This is a willingness to experiment, bizarre decisions, but most of all - a willingness to be responsible for all these decisions, including failed ones.

At the beginning of our conversation, I shared a story about how I was almost kicked out of the university. It was a good lesson in responsibility for being too careless.

What advice would you give to our younger readers that want to become entrepreneurs?

First, make your homework on time and don’t skip the exams :)

Secondly, always check the documents, analyze clients and contractors. Especially clients.

Any international bank, as part of its Know Your Customer (KYC) program, will ask you a million questions about the origin of not only your funds but also your client's funds. International organizations are fighting money laundering and tightening banking regulations. The result is that banks take longer to investigate new users, as well as their partners.

If you are not planning to enter the international market just yet, take this advice anyway. Your partners may include companies that are already using KYC. If they question the legality of something on your part, they will not become your client.

Third, don't overestimate ideas. In your head or even on paper, it can be revolutionary. But it's worth introducing your ingenious innovation to reality. Let the consumer assess the need for the product, to help you identify weaknesses. You will definitely face shortcomings in the delivery method, use, payment, anything. After a consumer test drive, you will be able to clearly assess whether the idea is worth implementing right away or better be postponed until better times.

Fourth, always conduct customer research. Yes, you have heard this many times. This point is closely related to the previous one.

Talk to the person whose problem you want to solve. Contact such a person, explain what you are working on, ask questions. In our experience, people are often eager to help. On one hand, they are sincerely and benevolently disposed towards those who create something necessary. On the other hand, you are trying to make life easier specifically for them.

Fifth, try not to get upset when you realize you made a mistake. It's not bad to make a mistake, it's bad not to draw the right conclusions. However, making the same mistake twice is even worse.

What’s your favorite “life lesson” quote and how has it affected your life?

Love what you do and do what you love. I do not remember who’s quote is that, but this phrase runs like a red thread throughout my life. I hope it works for you as well.

Original article on valiantceo.com

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