I had the pleasure to interview Alexandr Safonov. Alexandr is the CEO & Co-Founder of BUTTON Wallet, a messenger-based software solution for trading and buying digital assets. Alex is also the Ideas Man and Leader of the Blockchain Initiative at Youth Research Platform at Lomonosov Moscow State University. His team launched an analog of MIT Media Lab called YRP which creates clusters of innovative technologies like VR/AR, Machine Learning, Blockchain. During his free time, Alex likes to share his experience of developing innovative startups and skills of communication with geeks and ambitious students. He’s launched 3 projects in the Blockchain Initiative: open and close voting, DAO charity with organizations’ reports of costs, confirmation of the debris by the token.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
InMay of 2017, when Bitcoin (BTC) was at ~$3,000, a friend said this was an extremely interesting thing. I bought $5 worth of BTC and in one hour I sold it because I hadn’t realized it was real money. After selling the $5 stake, I decided to do more research. I thought this was interesting and so I looked into blockchain tech as my curiosity grew. I started to follow the price of BTC and when I was at a hackathon, I saw what others were doing with blockchain and thought it was fascinating. Since I did my first communications in Telegram about Bitcoin, I had the idea to do a multi-currency wallet within Telegram.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
After MIT PlayLabs, we were trying to fundraise the whole summer. In late August, we had about $6,000 left. We got the idea to release BUTTON Wallet without funding because investors are all gone in August. We internally established that we don’t need money to have a product. We ended up raising money the following week, luckily, but it was great that we came to this realization of releasing a product without any money. Money is helpful when you are super early, but it should not be vital.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
The team is everything! So our team spent a lot of time working together. We entrenched ourselves in the Telegram ecosystem and run our communications on Telegram, focusing on the product all the time. We all went to some hackathons together as a team and worked both on tech and business sides to move the company forward. We have had positive experiences together while meeting key partners.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1) I wish somebody would have told me that I would not have time for anything else other than my company. I learned quickly when you’re starting a company, and you’re the CEO there’s not much time for anything else, you don’t have much energy for anything other than in your company. I realize not all CEO’s are students, I had to balance my school life and my work life. I had deadlines to meet with my exams for school and my projects for work. This made school 10 times more difficult.
2) I wish someone would have told me finding really good people is really hard and just because you have money to hire people, doesn’t mean you will find the right people. I learned quickly managing different people is hard because you have to manage different personalities in different ways and there’s a lot that goes into that like you have to be a psychologist and realize how people communicate differently and operate.
3) Being a CEO, I wished someone would have told me how challenging it would be for my own personal growth. Early on, I was forced to focus on bettering the language barriers I faced, being from Russia, which made me better a professional because at the time I didn’t take into account that this was going to be something that would be required of me.
4) I wish someone would have told me how much I was going to need other leaders to bounce ideas off of and just talk about things that are happening in real-time. I am thankful that I do have that network. I usually discuss practical methods on how I understand the world and my own personal growth. This has helped me understand more and more as time goes on. Having a network with whom I can discuss with other leaders and CEOs of their companies to get different perspectives has been very important in managing my own business.
5) I wish somebody would have told me before I started a company that when you are raising money it can take longer than you anticipate. Raising money has also become part of my full-time job. In 6 months, I spend 40 hours a week just to raise that money and as CEO of the company I still have to do all my actual work on top of all of it.
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 met Rachael McCrary in Los Angeles at the StartupBoost accelerator. She was a mentor to our cohort. She had been a crypto investor and helped us with our pitch and our deck for demo day. We practiced our pitch several times at her house and she became extremely familiar with Button. Soon after, she started to help us out with the American legal business processes and regulations. She is now the COO of Button and is a vital part of the company. She helps me with the legal and business process but also team dynamics and culture.
Another person I’m extremely grateful to have met is Denis Efremov. I met him while I was in an international tech competition called Microsoft Imagine Cup, which we won — the Moscow chapter. He was also an alumnus of Lomonosov Moscow State University, my university. He was a mentor there and he helped explain to the judges what we were doing. When we started BUTTON Wallet, he became a mentor to the team. Denis helps with the Russian part of our business. Denis and Rachael continue to be personal mentors to me and I’m sure throughout the life of BUTTON Wallet and beyond.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Currently, I have a goal to get BUTTON Wallet to 5 Million users and eventually to do an IPO.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I hope to have children that can be proud of me and to have built a DeFi bank that helps people all over the world that they can be proud of.
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!
I’d love to start a movement for education where I can share my knowledge of how people can educate themselves on entrepreneurship and in business. There are entrepreneurs with good ideas who might not have the means for funding college and could greatly benefit from a business crash course. Perhaps, I could spare them some mistakes by telling them what I’ve learned and build a curriculum around this.
How can our readers follow you on social media?