Yaroslav Azhnyuk, a President and a Chairman of the Board at PetCube: “Always think big”
TechUkraine: Being one of the most proactive Ukrainian tech founders and entrepreneurs, the loud voice of young national innovative leaders, especially shortly after the full-scale invasion on the 24th of February, last month, the President Zelenskyy awarded you the Ukrainian Order of Merit, 3rd grade. What does it mean to you? Tell us more about the initiatives you launched to support Ukraine in the time of war, including communication with the global tech community and Silicon Valley.
Yaroslav Azhnyuk: It’s been an honor to be awarded the Ukrainian Order of Merit.
Definitely, when you’ve received an award like that, I think about all the team effort that went into it; my colleagues across multiple organizations — Petcube, O0 Design, Spend With Ukraine — who worked on a number of initiatives that were recognized in the effect of this Order of Merit.
It’s collective work, and I have the honor of receiving it on behalf of these teams.
There are a lot of people who do a lot for the country and deserve awards. How the award works – someone has to recommend you, And if I have the opportunity, I’ll recommend some people who have done amazing work for Ukraine and the free world.
I will name some of the things we’ve done, which are pretty public.
Spend With Ukraine is a website and movement that works as a showcase gallery for some of the most prominent products, companies, and services made by Ukrainians, which ordinary people worldwide can buy. Products are in different categories: consumer electronics, fashion, home, lifestyle, accessories, apps, like the world’s best fitness app (BetterMe), and so on. So Spend With Ukraine showcases the best companies made by Ukrainians.
We show that one of the ways to support Ukraine is, in fact, buying products made by Ukrainian companies. And by the way, these products are world-class. So one discovers them, buys them, and uses them. By supporting these companies and products, they help Ukraine fight for freedom.
So it’s one of our initiatives we launched very early, in April, together with my business partner Andriy Klen. It’s been pretty popular all over the media — BBC, Guardian, CNN. Inc.com, etc. — major global press wrote about it. Millions of people contacted the initiative across many platforms, tens of thousands of clicks, And we confirmed purchases from Ukrainian companies.
Another initiative is called Keyboard resistance. It’s an open call for everyone in Ukraine who is not using automatic rifles but might use keyboards as a weapon to fight for Ukrainian freedom:
- communicate the information to the world about real things happening here, on the ground,
- about actual reasons why it’s happening, basically the facts, not the interpretations,
- lobby and reach out to politicians across the world to ask for what Ukraine needs.
Many similar initiatives served across the country. As a continuation, some of my friends, entrepreneurs, use their connections in the USA to directly reach out to the members of Congress to have a conversation with them and tell them what’s going on and how they could help.
Obviously, the US government has been extremely helpful in this resistance that Ukraine has been holding for the last 8 months.
It’s a few of our initiatives, and I think it’s enough for now.
TechUkraine: Recently, you announced that Anastasia Kukhar will become the new CEO of Petcube. You have been leading the company since 2012, running the business in wartime; why did you make this decision, and what are your priorities now (business and other projects like the great one Spend With Ukraine)?
Yaroslav Azhnyuk: Yes, that was the major news for Petcube and me personally. We have a new CEO. Anastasia hasn’t come out of nowhere. She has been leading the sales team for the last 1.5 years, and during that time, she has shown herself as a great leader and person capable of leading the company on her own.
- I’ve been looking for someone to take on this role for some time. I’ve had this role for 10 years, so I thought it was time to take a break.
- The second major motivation, the tipping point, was the war in Ukraine that started in February. I felt I could do more for my country without being limited by my operational duties at Petcube.
That’s why I think it’s the moment for the transfer; I’m happy that we had a person who was ready.
Actually, before the final decision was made, Anastasia served as preparing to be, as we call it, the “second-in-command” to the CEO. It’s the process we were trying to implement across the organization, and the war definitely accelerated that.
We started thinking about this a couple of months before the war, that some critical functions should have a second-in-command. Major tech and governmental organizations have that. In the startup world the second–in-command policy called the “bus factor” [a measurement of the risk resulting from information and capabilities not being shared among team members, derived from the phrase “in case they get hit by a bus.” It is also known as the bus problem, lottery factor, truck factor, beer truck factor, bus/truck number, or lorry factor].
In a time of crises like war, it definitely makes sense to have a policy for a case when something happens to the CEO.
From my experience, I’ve seen many times when a person comes to a role, and if the organization is well run & managed, many good practices and processes are established. The person brings a fresh look and new positive practices, adding them to the whole process. And some old, inefficient methods go away.
So I fully expect that it will happen with the CEO role in Petcube, and Anastasia will be a much more successful CEO than I was able to be.
Obviously, I’m not leaving the company, staying involved in the everyday life of Petcube.
TechUkraine: In a comment for the Financial Times in May, you said: “In my companies and across the board, there is not a single organisation that is not working hard for the war effort.” The Petcube team works in Ukraine, the US, and China, selling products globally. How does the team tackle the wartime challenges?
Yaroslav Azhnyuk: I see that all Ukrainian entrepreneurs and and the tech community that I work closely with, are doing their best in multiple directions:
- Companies consider their skills and expertise, and apply those to help Ukraine, the Ukrainian military, her government or diplomats, or other branches of the Ukrainian state.
- Massive volunteer and donation movements.
We’ve done that at Petcube, and our logistics team has been managing all the volunteering activity in Ukraine. Across our organizations, we set up a donation fund to which Pecubers can donate. Individuals decide what percentage of their salary they would like to donate if they choose to. That money would go directly to the fund, distributed according to the needs of military units that our organization or sister-organisations support.
Or, if we don’t have requests from those, we simply donate the money to those efforts that we like how they operate. For example, NGO KOLO was established by a group of Ukrainian product managers very early at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. They are pretty productive, so we are working with them in military efforts.
TechUkraine: A few weeks ago, sales of your well-known PetCube cameras launched in London. What’s next for PetCube in terms of scaling the business?
Yaroslav Azhnyuk: We’re not just launched in London, but in Selfridge & Co, a legendary and well-known high-end department store chain in the United Kingdom. We are happy to be there.
Now Petcube is available across the European Union, North America, the US, Canada, Australia, and a few other markets.
What Petcube offers as the company is a bunch of cameras along with the software that together allow people to stay connected with their pets, remotely observe what those are doing and talk to them, treat them, or play with them with an interactive laser pointer. So our company portfolio currently has four cameras with different features. We also offer a few services, including:
- Petcube Care – cloud video recording,
- Online Vet service – telemedicine service,
- Emergency Fund, which is similar to pet insurance where for a small monthly subscription fee you get up to $3,000 covered in case of emergency.
All of these hardware products and software services are constantly improving. Some new ones are about to be launched soon.
Petcube devices are both smart and beautiful. I believe that design is one of the defining features of our brand. And software services create a lot of value that our users love massively and use all the time.
We are working on new devices and new services. But there’s nothing I can announce before the launch.
The way we think about what will be next: we just listen to what our customers want, what they need, what they would like to improve, and what challenges they have as pet parents. And we work to resolve the most prominent of those and the ones we feel could add the most value.
And obviously, we can’t wait to launch Petcube sales in Ukraine, which was in our plans for this year until the russian invasion happened. Hopefully, we’ll do that next year after the Ukrainian victory.
TechUkraine: In December 2021, you joined fintech startup Fuel Finance as a partner and co-founder. Which insights could you provide about cooperation with the team and CEO Alyona Mysko?
Yaroslav Azhnyuk: Fuel is one of the three companies I’m taking care of, along with Petcube and Oo Design.
Fuel is a company that is very dear to my heart and solves problems I personally struggled with for a long time. It’s financial management for companies. It’s an area that most startups and founders are pretty bad with, and it is often a sort of an overlooked area, as it looks unsexy. Most people can say they dislike accounting, taxes, etc. When it comes to P&L statements, cash flow, plan-fact analysis, and unit economics, the founders are really not good with all that, and I wasn’t either.
For the first seven years of my company, I hired people who managed that stuff for us. We outsourced the concern, and I supervised them without a deep understanding of the domain. So when I discovered Fuel, they provided exactly the tools for financial management and planning that we needed.
The product is a financial management system from the present, not from the past.
Most of us deal with spreadsheets, emails, and files like “September final,” “super final,” “super final++,” etc. It usually takes up to 20 days to close a financial month, and the financial information is never at your fingertips, and when it is, it also may have plenty of mistakes. Many founders and managers were struggling with it.
The reason is that financial management tools for smaller companies were not invented since Excel 40 years ago.
Fuel brings financial management to the modern age, implementing best practices, spreadsheets, graphs, and dashboards, all of which are managed on the back end by our software.
It’s our mutual vision with Alyona, the founder & CEO of Fuel, my business partner.
It has been a very productive partnership so far. I am involved part-time with two key responsibilities The first one is helping Alyona run the company. VCs usually say they bring a lot of value, save money and help you a lot, but I recollect that in 99% of the companies I talked to, it’s not really the case; the founders are not as open with VCs as they are with cofounders. Why? Because everyone has different interests. When you are a cofounder, you have mutual trust and you play on the same team. And it was very productive for both of us. The company has been growing incredibly well.
Just over the last 4 months, we doubled in revenue and, in a very steep growth trajectory, attracted significant interest from investors.
The most amazing thing about the Fuel is the NPS [Net promoter score] which is 87, completely unheard of. It shows how much people love it.
Most new Fuel customers come following recommendations because Fuel solves their financial management issues at 10% cost of similar solutions (compared to hiring someone to do the job). And the result is a couple of times better because most of the aspects are automated, they stick to the best practices, and so on. We support our clients in terms of recommending them what to look at, how to structure their dashboards, advising on key parameters or avoiding mistakes that most companies make, and so on.
It’s the combination of software and people who have successful financial management careers, and who understand how the clients need to use the software to avoid financial mistakes.
It’s a sort of Fuel’s mission to help companies avoid bankruptcies and financial mistakes that should not have happened.
We believe that as we make financial management accessible to tens of thousands of early-stage startups worldwide, we significantly contribute to the global economy and GDP by preserving the growth and saving the value created by entrepreneurs.
Fuel definitely has the potential to be a multi-billion-dollar company.
TechUkraine: What do you think about the Ukrainian tech ecosystem and the potential for the tech sphere in the near future? What has to be done to enhance it?
Yaroslav Azhnyuk: It’s an interesting question. I think that the tech ecosystem is the global tech space, with all entrepreneurs and companies all around the world.
I see different buckets of participants: companies, media, associations, other support organizations, etc.
Historically, I’m not deeply involved in any association, but I definitely see myself giving back to the community.
But I don’t feel the need of any association to facilitate that. I guess it can be relevant to those associations I’m unaware of. A lot of good things have been done with media, tech incubators, etc.
I believe that great founders and great companies will find a way to market and find capital. It’s not a big issue.
The real challenge for any tech ecosystem is to start thinking globally, applying their skill, which is often very good, to solving large-scale global problems.
Because only they [large-scale global problems] are large enough and have potential solutions impactful enough to be funded by the venture capital. And that is something I think is lacking in many startup communities; it is just as relevant to France, Germany, or Japan as it is to Ukraine.
It is good that we have a large market (like the USA or, generally speaking, the global west) that is open and perceptive to innovation, a market with all the financial instruments, like venture funding, and adequately working rules of the game, like legal systems, with which everyone knows how to work. Such markets allow us to pursue and be successful at solving genuinely tough problems. And that’s why all technological miracles of the last centuries were possible: steam engines and printing presses, semiconductors, smartphones, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, etc.
My call for all tech entrepreneurs is
- Always think big. Think outside your local geographical community. Doing that will bring much more value to your local community than if you only thought about the local and created for it.
- People should be open and optimistic, help each other, assist at some point, and be open to giving back.
TechUkraine: Could the industry become the driving force in rebuilding Ukraine? What are the pillars for it, in your opinion?
Yaroslav Azhnyuk: I don’t believe in techno-utopianism, which is basically the point of view that the tech industry and software can solve everything. It is not true. We’ve seen a lot of progress in software worldwide over the last 50 years. But the world is much more complex.
If we are speaking about rebuilding Ukraine, we’ll also need culture, actual builders like architects, industrials, urbanists, philosophers, etc., and all kinds of smart people to build the future..
The pillars would be intelligent and passionate people in every industry, society, and sphere of life. They would come together with genuine passion and ambition, with their ideas and visions, communicating well and finding partners around the world, definitely around the free world, which would have faith in those ideas and support them with experience, capital, and otherwise help those visions come to life.
So technology definitely will play a significant role, but it’s not just technology alone.
I think the unique role of tech might play as the Ukrainian tech ecosystem is more globally integrated than any other Ukrainian ecosystem. It serves the global markets.Having connections, we should spread to other industries, like small farms and agriculture, to raise investment outside of Ukraine, to help some artists, builders, and philosophers think wider and spread ideas, and meet counterparts around the world.
I think it’s a way to go and the direction we are already following.
I am really optimistic about the future.
Huge thanks to Mykhailo Gavrylyuk for the support!