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E-Contenta CEO Zoya Nikitina today’s expert in the internet technologies sphere. Zoya took the time to talk to the journal’s readers about what mistakes young entrepreneurs are making, how to achieve great results in the IT sphere, and why girls shouldn’t be afraid to get involved in the high-technology industry.
— What were you doing before you decided to start your own company for the first time?
— When I was studying in the tenth grade, I decided to enter a journalism school held at a television channel and radio station in the city of Suma, east of Ukraine. And my career took off just like that. Right away we were entrusted to host live shows. It was something special indeed. Studying at that school for that period of time ended up determining what type of business I’d get involved it. For a long time I wanted to be a journalist. But then, after I figured out that I wouldn’t be allowed to embark on a noble fight for the truth and that it would be no safe endeavor to boot, I decided to shift my focus to PR and entered LETI majoring in public relations.
While I was studying, I worked doing PR and marketing in different companies. The first place I worked was large SPA holding holding company Katod, which owned a chain of auto shops. The director there decided that they needed a company newspaper with an edition of 100 thousand copies. I wrote pieces about car batteries and tires and then turned them in to be printed in the night time. It was a really exciting job.
After that I worked as the head of marketing for an official Mazda dealer at which point I decided it was time for me to start my own business. That business, which I named Specia, was a full-cycle advertising agency. I was 25 years old when I started it.
— How long was your agency in business for? What was it like starting out?
— We worked for about three years. It was an experience that I really enjoyed, but I made a lot of mistakes. Every time I got money (and I had more than enough clients), I didn’t spend it efficiently — I hired new people, moved into a bigger office, and bought fancy furniture, including an orange chair, which was a proud possession of mine. Of course, that ended up being a bad decision, since that money wasn’t used to create additional income.
What I should’ve done was stop and think a little more carefully, but then it was 2008 and on came the economic downturn. The bank where our clients’ money was being held was liquidated and I ended up owing money to half the city. Nothing in business is more important than your image and reputation. That is, of course, unless you’re planning to fly away and live in Goa for the rest of your life. For that reason, I took out a loan and I spent a long time paying back my debts. Fortunately, I managed to “break even” by the end of the year. I was really fortunate, since many large companies weren’t able to get themselves out of a hole. At that point I thought I’d never have my own business again.
— What led you to the IT industry?
— At first, I didn’t know a thing about internet technologies. I couldn’t tell IBM from Microsoft and didn’t really understand what software even was. I had a lot of difficulties with English too — I was really out of practice. However, I was hired to be the head of international marketing at an IT company called Reksoft, which deals with software development. Nobody there had any idea how hard it was for me. I needed to learn the ins and outs of a new business sphere very quickly and brush up on my English at the same time, which I spent long nights working on.
On top of that, I always had to ask my colleagues stupid questions about where the software is coming from that we were working on. It even got to the point that they requested the CEO to fire me. However, the boss trusted me and things turned out better. As time passed by, I managed to catch up with my colleagues. I worked at Reksoft for about four years (first in the marketing department and then in sales) and after that I moved on to work at an international IT company called Veeam, where I handled marketing development in Northern Europe and South Africa.
— What made you decide to start another business? What was E-Contenta’s main focus?
— At the start of my career, I was inspired by the media industry, creative PR, and marketing. I know how their operation mechanisms are structured. A very important stage of my business had to do with the IT sphere as well. And that’s how I got the idea to create my own business at the junction of internet content, journalism, advertising, and automation. It entails a cloud recommendations service for media companies, a special program that connects up to a website or mobile app and helps you determine ahead of time what visitors of a media resource would like to read, watch, or listen to. I nurtured my project idea for several years while simultaneously assembling a team. E-Contenta made itself known for the first time in November of last year.
— What was your first project?
— The first client I acquired was Bookmate, which provides a subscription-based e-book reading service. Now, every new user that downloads the app receives recommendations created using our algorithm. When the system is able to understand what time of literature you enjoy reading, it’s pretty easy to give you advice. If it’s your first time using the service, then you’ll need to be hooked and drawn in by something. We take a lot of factors into account in formulating relevancy for what books to recommend to subscribers: gender, age, education, address, and a lot of other things. We get these data off of social networks and other sources.
— Did you originally decide specifically on this business model? Did you have any other ideas for developing the company?
— No, not right away. It was a rough draft we had. Our first project, before we did b2b, was b2c. We integrated Facebook and Amazon via API and provided an operating scheme as a middleman. A previous-generation E-Contenta user, registered through a social network, would receive a selection of books from Amazon and if he was interested in something, he would visit the store’s website and we would get a percent of the sales. We later realized that the scheme wasn’t paying out well and we modified our methods for b2b.
— What kind of staff did you have working for you and how did you manage to put it together?
— I worked on assembling a team for two years. First, I hired on a programmer from Reksoft. Then I decided to invite some employees from a small IT company to get keyed in on the idea and start collaborating with them; however, their own business was always number one for them. After that I had some failed endeavors and then a friend introduced me to Nikolay Simon, a professional in the RTB sphere. He was inspired by the idea and started working with me. He also helped bring in a prominent mathematician Aleksandr Petrov, who worked on creating the algorithms we needed. And now we’ve got ten people on our team.
— Who is able to become your client?
— We work based on a b2b model and we’re concentrated not on collaborating with super giants up there with Amazon and Netflix, who could spend millions on studies and technological development, but with companies from the medium-sized segment. Our potential clients are firms in the content business: video and book services, such as Vidimax.ru or Mybook.ru and, of course, online media. We’re definitely attracting some interest, but some potential partners still doubt whether they need to transition to high-technology content yet.
— What have been some of your challenges?
— At the moment, the market is in a state of transition: people already realize that they can’t persist operating the same way they did before while at the same time they don’t have trust for new technology yet. Traditional media companies still don’t know how to make money using new technologies and are losing out some of their audience, which is getting swallowed up by social media. Right now, anyone who has access to the internet has the ability to share, participate in creating content, and offer people what they have. In order to stay competitive on the market, media companies need to take new approaches. If somebody visits your site and doesn’t see what he needs the first time he visits, you will most likely lose him.
— What was your startup capital?
— We didn’t have startup capital per se. We used our own funds instead. The numbers indicated to us that launching the company, including business trips and salaries cost about 40 thousand dollars. Then we got an investor.
— Where does the income for your company come from?
— We get our income from subscriptions to our services. However, when we first start working with a company, we offer them to try E-Contenta technology for free. We do a pilot project (we only need money for the technical integration of our website’s mechanism) and we record the metrics before using our algorithm and after. According to those numbers, we are able to see how well our recommendations are working. Then, to continue using E-Contenta, they have to pay (between 20 and 90 thousand roubles per month, depending on various factors). Companies can use our recommendations engine however they want: on their site, on a mobile app, or in subscription letters.
— What objective have you set out to achieve for the next year?
— I would like to accumulate some expertise working with different content companies and try to consolidate our collaboration with media companies. We also need to implement some projects abroad, since the Russian market is pretty constricted at the moment.
— Are girls able to stay competitive in the “male-dominated” high-tech industry?
— Women will never be the same as men: our mind, body, and hormones are all composed differently. Who says “different” is equal to “worse”. It’s important to recognize our differences and learn to use them to achieve the goals that we have. Then everything will come naturally.
Source: Ponedelnik, the daily internet journal on careers, business, and education, March 4, 2015. Written by: Anastasia Butina. Photos by: Andrei Razumov