Artem Fenkovskyi of Phase One Karma: “Cut the red tape and cherish your people”

Cut the red tape and cherish your people. We didn’t have any bureaucratic procedures even when we became a team of 73. As a co-owner of the company, I was directly involved in managing it. My door was (and still is) always open. Anyone could reach out to me and get an approval the same […]

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Cut the red tape and cherish your people. We didn’t have any bureaucratic procedures even when we became a team of 73. As a co-owner of the company, I was directly involved in managing it. My door was (and still is) always open. Anyone could reach out to me and get an approval the same day. This made us extremely flexible and fast in decision making and growth.

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Artem Fenkovskyi.

Artem Fenkovskyi is a co-founder and COO at Phase One Karma, a technological company building world-class tech products. Its previous flagship product Unicheck boasts over 1.5 million users worldwide and has been the first plagiarism checker to integrate with Google Classroom. In early 2020, Unicheck was acquired by the biggest edtech market player Turnitin.

Since the acquisition, Artem and his team have been focused on developing Loio, an AI-driven Microsoft Word add-in for legal document review and editing. This tool is built to boost the performance of at least 1 million legal professionals in the US and globally.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My pleasure! My career path started out when I found a job as a marketing intern back in 2008. Apparently, I was doing OK as I even got paid, which almost never happens to interns. But the economic crisis was in full swing and marketing didn’t seem like a steady job. That’s how I got into IT.

Six years and two jobs later, I joined Phase One Karma, a tech company led by the idea of building meaningful tech products, as a QA tester and one of its first employees. I was pulling a six-day workweek because I loved my job and genuinely wanted everything to run like clockwork. Focusing on the result rather than financial rewards helped me become a Project Manager and even a shareholder.

Today, another six years later, I’m a co-founder and COO at Phase One Karma.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Sure. It all started when we were developing our previous flagship product Unicheck, an online plagiarism checker with over 1.5 million users globally. It was acquired by Turnitin in February, 2020.

European and US schools, colleges, and universities were Unicheck’s biggest clients. Cooperating with them meant signing a huge number of agreements. Every time we had a completely unique contract to review. As a result, our in-house lawyers were swamped with paperwork. They wasted hours doing the robotic job of reviewing documents. They were looking for typos, checking dates and names, fixing styles and numbering. As the paperwork was piling up, our lawyers were becoming unhappier and less productive. It wasn’t long before our legal team grew from two to seven team members.

The idea to develop a mobile app to automate contract review came naturally. Its alpha version used artificial intelligence and natural language processing technologies. Our lawyers were thrilled!

Receiving such feedback and having expertise in text analysis from building Unicheck, we decided to go further and launch Loio. It’s a Microsoft Word add-in that uses AI to simplify legal document review and editing.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

We started working on Loio in February, 2020 — a month before COVID-19 hit the planet. By March, we had a team of 10 people and ambitious growth plans (after Unicheck was acquired, we had to rebuild our team from scratch).

The lockdown made us rethink all our processes. Some people see working remotely as a blessing, while others consider it a curse. Personally, I think that remote work requires far more focus and control than working offline, which affects team efficiency significantly. We became twice as slow as we were when building our previous product.

Growing and managing the team were the hardest parts of the adaptation to the new reality. There were times when all the candidates for a position would become unavailable due to COVID-19. But even when we succeeded in having the right person on board, it still wasn’t easy to build a brand new product as most team members never met each other in person.

Yet, we’ve been doing beautifully. We have kept our office open all the time. Once the lockdown was more or less released, we invited our team to work from the office at least twice a week. Creating a handbook, scheduling regular meetings, sending reports, and using team management tools like Team Gantt helped a lot, too.

So, I’ve never considered giving up — the whole adventure is just too good to let go of.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things are going pretty well today. This past summer we moved into a new office. It was built from scratch — the works started two weeks into the lockdown. Today, we are a team of 40 and still growing.

As for the product, it was released this past October and is already enjoying traction in the US. Loio has been featured among the top legaltech companies in New York by Welp Magazine, as well as among the finest legaltech solutions by LegalTech Hub, The Observatory (a comprehensive list of over 600 legal technology products powered by the global law firm Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe), G2 Crowd, Capterra, Crozdesk, Microsoft AppSource, and CrunchBase.

Also, we have started a blog to give legal professionals practical tips and advice on how to become more effective at their work.

More to come!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Our biggest mistakes had to do with team growth and management:

  • we would opt for people who are nice to talk to rather than true professionals;
  • we were looking for people asking for an extremely high salary as we believed their appetite for salary was the reflection of their abilities;
  • we would invite people to cooperate without having clear expectations and measurements of their performance.

Let me share a story. We started cooperation with an extremely highly paid CIO to solve all the issues we had in that area. Our expenses skyrocketed. But the issues weren’t being solved. The team kept growing while we didn’t have tasks for new team members. We were shown neither numbers nor other types of reports under the excuse of having a tight deadline or not willing to spend time reporting instead of actually working. All in all, we had little control over our own business. It took us eighteen months to finally wake up and smell the coffee.

But we’ve learned a lot. Here are my key takeaways:

  • extremely highly paid professionals do not guarantee you the best results;
  • no reporting is a red flag;
  • hire a professional only if you know these two things: clear performance expectations and measurements;
  • business owners should participate in business operations directly until they are certain everything runs smoothly.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Released three months ago, Loio is one of the freshest AI-powered tools for legal contract review in the market. It’s the only solution that combines all the key features and makes them available to users with several clicks. In contrast, each of our competitors has a part of this functionality, but no one has gathered all the features “under one roof” yet.

Another great advantage of ours is that we have access to the engineering talent pool of Ukraine (Ukraine has the largest number of IT professionals in Central and Eastern Europe). Having an extremely talented Ukrainian engineer on board is nothing out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley inviting a highly skilled IT professional to cooperate is next to impossible. All the best engineers are likely to work for Facebook or Google.

Last but not least is our extensive technological expertise which we acquired when building Unicheck. We are using the most advanced technologies and methodologies, which makes us extremely flexible and allows us to develop and scale our product fast.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

As a workaholic, I tend to work really long hours, which may be extremely exhausting. I know it firsthand as being a 33-year-old I’ve already had some work-related health issues. This made me learn to manage my work properly.

The best recipe for me is to switch activities. Nothing new here, but I know how hard it is not to forget to recharge yourself routinely.

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 am lucky to have two people who have made me who I am. These are my 8.5-year-old daughter Vera and my business partner Bogdan Pol.

I believe it’s worth mentioning that I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Everything I have I’ve earned working hard. But I found my true inspiration when I became a father at the age of 24. Since then I’ve been driven by the dream for my daughter to be proud of me and have everything she needs.

As for Bogdan, he’s the person I look up to. He’s a brilliant creator and a true leader who people gravitate to. On top of that, he’s extremely kind and sees the best in people until proven wrong. When faced with a certain choice, I ask myself what Bogdan would do.

Six years ago, Bogdan and I made a promise to be honest with each other no matter what. I value this promise as honesty is extremely hard to find in the business world today.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

As Loio is really young, I’d like to share our approach to building a huge customer base of over 1.5 million users for our previous product Unicheck.

It was a hard thing to do. We entered the market dominated by our competitors for decades. These products were already integrated with the internal processes of educational institutions we wanted to partner with. Offering to use Unicheck was like asking them to rip their heart out and replace it with something completely unknown and unpredictable. Naturally, they were reluctant to do it as potentially it could disrupt all of their well-oiled processes.

What helped us were our flexibility and the ability to focus. Partnering with even one educational institution would bring thousands of users at once. So, we did our best to prove useful for one client, react fast and create just the things they needed. That was our secret sauce.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

Loio is a SaaS (software-as-a-service) solution offering a free trial, as well as monthly and annual subscriptions.

We chose this model simply because our competitors have been using it for years. But we are ready to switch to other monetization models if we have data proving they are better than the current one.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.

I’d like to share three fundamental principles of building a successful SaaS.

Analyze, analyze, and then analyze again

You can’t overestimate the importance of researching and analyzing the needs of your target audience. When creating Unicheck, we didn’t pay much attention to research at first. This cost us years of wasted efforts. What’s more, our competitors that started out the same time we did, but dedicated much more time to doing research, grew much faster and got acquired much earlier.

But we’ve learned from our mistakes. With Loio, we take baby steps sticking to the fail fast philosophy. Extensive testing, incremental development, and collecting customer feedback are our main principles. We started with launching an MVP and now collect feedback from our users regarding every new feature we release — like AI-powered Highlights.

Invest in customer support and learn from customer feedback

As I mentioned before, in the era of Unicheck, we had to cross swords with giant players which dominated the market for decades. But we knew that our competitors’ Achilles heel were their slow customer support teams. Sometimes their users would wait for weeks to get a response. And that was our door of opportunity. Our customer success teams helped users find their way around Unicheck, but also assisted them in the use of other services. We were quick and responsive — and our efforts were reciprocated. That’s how we landed our first major client, which determined our further development as a company.

It’s safe to say that our product was mostly shaped by our users. Customers were eager to share their difficulties which our product could help handle and even put forward several approaches to solving them. Once/if the idea was proven to be compliant with our product strategy, we were quick in addressing users’ needs — usually, it took us a month to deliver a new feature upon users’ request.

Cut the red tape and cherish your people

We didn’t have any bureaucratic procedures even when we became a team of 73. As a co-owner of the company, I was directly involved in managing it. My door was (and still is) always open. Anyone could reach out to me and get an approval the same day. This made us extremely flexible and fast in decision making and growth.

The second part of the recipe is to remember that companies are built by people. It may sound cheesy, but this doesn’t make it any less true. “We cherish our people” — that’s the rule we live by. Also, we are lucky to have a wonderful People Operations Department that is great at knowing who will be the best asset to our company. Generally, we seek to cooperate with people who see their job as something more than just a job. In return, we give them every opportunity to grow professionally. You know what, it works beautifully.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would gladly start a movement to make high quality education accessible to everyone regardless of their financial and social status. At least this way an Indian Elon Musk and a Ukrainian Steve Jobs will have their shots at transforming the world.

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