As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing interviewing Vlad Krishtop. Krishtop is an investor and serial entrepreneur. He is the founder and CEO of a conglomerate, which includes an investment company “Second Working District”, an IT company ”Konstruktor Service”, and a number of start-ups that focus on areas such as AI, AR, FinTech, Healthcare IT, etc. Since 2011, Krishtop has been living in the U.S., working on his projects in Silicon Valley.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Istarted my first enterprise when I was still in middle school. My older sister was the official CEO of my company (because I was still too young to officially lead the company), and my classmates were my first employees. My first businesses included operating a video salon, reselling office supplies and trading stock.
After graduating from high school, I considered working for an investment company in my city, but when I applied for a job there, they didn’t hire me. In retrospect, that setback turned out to be a good thing. I had no choice but to focus on the development of my own company, soI went ahead and created the largest IT-business in our town of Uralsk. This story has quite an interesting twist because a few years later the investment company in question had fallen on tough times, while my business was booming. Subsequently, the director of that company (who hadn’t hired me years before) became interested in being employed by my company.
So, I was an entrepreneur from childhood. What has changed is the scale of my business — it grew from the video salon in a small town to the international conglomerate it is today, with headquarters in Silicon Valley.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Since I became an entrepreneur at 11 years old, my biggest challenge first leading the company was lack of experience. Starting a new business, especially when you are very young, can be a dangerous venture; you have tons of enthusiasm but very little knowledge. You can make mistakes that cause legal problems, potentially ruin your business or even your life. Nowadays, as I operate a number of tech companies including a space start-up, the potential cost of a mistake is as high as it can get.
The lesson I’ve learned from it is that you must aim to amass as much knowledge as possible about your chosen business. If you lack knowledge about something, read a book on the subject or hire a good advisor. You need to understand all the processes of your company and you have to know your numbers on a fundamental level.
Moreover, you also need to learn to analyze external factors, such as the situation of the market, your competitors, and the economic forecast. One of the biggest wake-up calls for the business world happened during the 2008 Recession. Our company, as well as many others, was affected by this crisis. It was then that I fully realized the importance of analytics. For the past few years, I begin every morning by talking to our analytics department. This has helped me predict quite a few changes in the market, and therefore take advantage of them.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
There is often a debate about whether entrepreneurs are born or made. I’m a supporter of the theory that some talents are purely innate; no matter how hard you try, not everyone can become Steve Jobs or Beethoven. I think that some of my success also has to do with nature.
It’s not enough, however, to be born with certain talents — you also need to have the right environment. When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to go to a great school and to compete with the smartest children of my town. Another important external factor was that the Soviet Union had already collapsed by the time I started my business, and I was then free to trade stock (which had previously been illegal).
Last but not least, I think that none of these factors matter if you don’t possess the internal qualities that will help you capitalize on your innate talent and your environment. I believe that the most important qualities for that are strong willpower and a great work ethic. It goes without saying that you also need to have good health.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Know your numbers and understand the story behind these numbers. It will help you to avoid mistakes and grow your business.
2. Analyze global trends that could affect your business. If you open a coffee shop in a small town, don’t limit yourself to the level of that coffee shop. Learn everything you can about the industry in your country and the world. This will help you understand the bigger picture and to make better decisions.
3. Read as many books relevant to your business as you can. If you don’t know something, find a book on the topic and read it.
4. When developing a strategy, always plan a few versions to suit different possible situations, and always plan for the worst-case scenario.
5. Make sure to relax and recharge when necessary. Otherwise, at some point, you just stop being productive.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I partially addressed this issue in my previous answer — I think that to avoid “burnout”, it is crucial to regularly take some time away from work. When you are the leader of a business, it can be a hard thing to do because you feel a huge responsibility towards your company and the people working for you. In the first few years of my business, I was working 24/7 and, as a result, I was “burning out” every six months or so. I took my first beach vacation only after I had already become a millionaire.
Looking back, I realize that I was too harsh on myself and that in the long run, it had a negative effect on my business and my life. Now I make sure that I maintain a good work-life balance. I’m not just talking about taking vacations — it is also important to relax on the weekends. By “relaxing” I don’t mean lying on the sofa and watching a TV show. I prefer to stay physically active during my time off work; traveling and exercise always help me to recharge my batteries.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve never had help from anyone powerful — it was always ordinary people around me who made the difference in my life. My mother helped me to get into the best class in the city, which provided me with a great environment in which to grow. I had a history teacher, Gulsum Aubikerovna, who truly believed in my potential. She told me she knew that I would become an entrepreneur, and sometimes she also trusted me to teach some of her classes which helped me gain confidence. Back then I didn’t have many people supporting me or believing in me, so her support was crucial.
I am also very grateful to my advisors who helped me grow my business, in particular, Yuriy Chekalenko who has been working for us for the past 15 years. At this point, we’ve become not just colleagues but great friends!
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
For me, personal and professional development are very connected. My personal values are constantly being reflected in my business. For example, I’m very interested in art, and my knowledge in this area has helped me create better designs for my products.
I am constantly working on self-improvement in areas such as health, productivity, spirituality, and others. One of my main goals is to gain a better understanding of the laws of the universe. This helps me make accurate predictions, which are important for making the right investments and creating great products.
In a nutshell, I constantly push myself to develop both personally and professionally, so that I can become a better person and entrepreneur.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I think that at this stage of my life it’s still a little early for this question. I don’t think I’ve reached my peak yet, but I definitely hope to make a difference. The main goal of my business is not just to make money — it is to conduct my philosophy through the products I’ve created, and to change the world for the better. To give you an example of what I’m aiming for: I am very inspired by entrepreneurs such as Peter Thiel or Steve Jobs. You cannot simply call them the CEOs of their companies; they are inventors and philosophers who changed the world.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
My choice would definitely be to help talented youth. There are a lot of smart and motivated people who simply lack opportunities. They may be struggling financially, or they might just not have access to the right environment. I myself grew up in a poor and small town, so I have experienced these struggles myself and can relate to them.
I am currently working on a project that has as one of its main objectives to help young people fulfill their potential. While working on this project, I was especially inspired by Montmartre — a Parisian district that for centuries has been a center for artistic life. At this point, it is too early to give all the details, but it will basically be providing talented people with a creative environment and the tools they need for professional growth.
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