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“How to avoid burnout.” With Mitch Russo & Vasiliy Ivanov

The difficulties that we faced provided us with extensive experience in managing the business and changed our outlook on the value ​​of the people to the company. We strive to maintain our values, and the company has an internal policy that all employees must comply with. Our mission is to create modern security and productivity […]

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The difficulties that we faced provided us with extensive experience in managing the business and changed our outlook on the value ​​of the people to the company. We strive to maintain our values, and the company has an internal policy that all employees must comply with. Our mission is to create modern security and productivity solutions for corporate and personal use, while also ensuring a high-quality standard of living for our employees.


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 Vasiliy Ivanov, the founder and CEO of KeepSolid. KeepSolid is an international product development company that builds cloud-based security and productivity solutions for more than 21 million global customers. Some of the most popular products developed by KeepSolid include VPN UnlimitedSmart DNSPrivate Browser, and others. An industry veteran with over 15 years of experience, Ivanov holds a master’s degree in computer science and has an extensive background in software development and project management.


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?

Since childhood, I have been interested in creating. Back then I did not even suspect that all people can be divided into creators and executors. But I constantly felt a desire to create.

I got my first computer at the age of 13. As is often the case with teenagers, computer games captured me. By the end of school, I had started to think about using a computer to create something, not just to consume content. I tried out various kinds of design, creating electronic music, website coding, programming, etc.

While studying at the university, I realized that what I was learning wasn’t the kind of knowledge that I needed, so I got a job in a company that was developing graphic products. It was interesting. I figured out the basics of software development and decided to try my hand at creating my own startups. There were many attempts, and each one taught me new experiences. My understanding of what I want from my partners and what ideas interested me was gradually growing. And so I ended up founding KeepSolid.

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

In my case, there was no such moment. I had tried to create products again and again, with different people. Sometimes, we would disagree regarding the pace of work, or about how we saw our future. Now, when I think about why I didn’t stop then and what prompted me to just keep on making new attempts — I guess it just didn’t seem like a problem then, I just kept on trying.

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?

There was one such moment. KeepSolid was growing swiftly, so we were recruiting a lot of people every month. Unfortunately, I overlooked the fact that our hiring system was beginning to fail. We began to employ individuals who did not meet the company’s values, or whose work was not of an acceptable standard. This led to huge financial losses for the company, and it took several years for us to eliminate the issues and recover.

You see, when a young company like ours makes almost no savings, preferring to invest everything in development, it is very important to understand what kind of people you’re working with, and whether you can trust them. In our case, we were losing about 40% of our monthly income. We had to part ways with a large section of our staff. But, most importantly, those who did not really care about the company and who had been taking advantage of us began to leave.

I expected that we would recover from this situation within a few months. But the scale of the problems was such that it in fact took almost two years for us to turn things around. For two years, we had been trying to focus our efforts on getting out of the crisis and saving the company, instead of striving for ambitious goals and prospects.

During this period, I considered giving up, leaving, and doing something else. If we had listened to the majority of business consultants, we would have had to close the company, record our losses, and look for new projects.

But we decided to keep the company operational, especially because by then we already had many millions of users who trusted us and who we did not want to fail. For me, this consideration was more important than money. I provided a service to users, they paid money for it. Besides, how could I start something new, knowing that I had failed? We did not give up!

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

We now have over 21 million customers worldwide, and we have just added a new sub-product called DNS Firewall to our flagship project VPN Unlimited. We update this product daily. DNS Firewall identifies different categories of content for which the user can allow or deny access to their devices. One such category is adult content. Users can block this category on their home router to protect children. If you can imagine, our team of moderators has had to review the entire internet to update this category. They have reviewed thousands of adult content sites!

We are also in the process of creating several new products that are very important for the future of the company. I’ll be revealing more information about them in the near future.

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?

When answering such questions, I have the feeling that I am the most boring person on the planet! I can’t remember anything funny that relates to the development of the company. My whole career consists of persistent attempts to create a worthy product.

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

Compared to our competitors and modern startups in general, we stand out by not working with investors. The financial difficulties that we had due to the errors I’ve mentioned could have been easily fixed by third-party investments.

However, if we had gone down the investment route, the experience would have been completely different. Then, probably, instead of studying corporate culture, I would have picked up many financial terms and operated based on them without truly understanding that a company is people, communications, culture, and work results.

The difficulties that we faced provided us with extensive experience in managing the business and changed our outlook on the value ​​of the people to the company. We strive to maintain our values, and the company has an internal policy that all employees must comply with. Our mission is to create modern security and productivity solutions for corporate and personal use, while also ensuring a high-quality standard of living for our employees.

For us, internships arranged by our staff for students proved to be an important source of new specialists. Students learn very quickly when they are properly interested and motivated, and having them there soon began to benefit the company.

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

Eliminate from your life all that stops you. Try to identify people who make you feel worse, or who cause you to become even more stressed due to their negativity.

Burnout is often associated with ineffective activity, when something is not clear, or a large amount of effort produces only a small result. Take control of such situations and don’t allow yourself to remain in them.

Also, every successful leader should have their own hobbies. Hobbies should differ from what you do at work. This lets you free up your attention from the problems that you focus too much on, so the next day you’ll be able to take a fresh look at your tasks.

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?

For me, my wife has always been such a person. She supports me in my endeavors, no matter how risky they are. Her analytical mindset allows us to discuss important tasks and find solutions.

Along with that, as I changed my attitude towards people (seeing fewer bad things in them and focusing more on their results), I found myself to be surrounded by more and more interesting people, with whom I can talk both about business and the spiritual side of life. I highly value this — we find topics that go far beyond ordinary material values. Such friends provide great support — no matter how difficult things would seem, simply chatting with them raises my spirits and helps me open up again to new achievements.

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?

VPN Unlimited currently has more than 21 million registered users.

1. Step one — stand out. We started this product at a time when almost all of our competitors demanded more money if you wanted more traffic or a better connection speed. So the word ‘Unlimited’ in the name of our product was chosen to emphasize that we provided the service without restricting traffic and speed. Users only paid for the duration of the subscription. This allowed us to quickly grow our product and user base.

2. Our second step — simplify, do not complicate. All of the products that we were able to successfully launch on the market were released very weak and poorly functional in the first version. But this allowed us to quickly test the ideas and adjust the products. And in fact those products that we developed for a year or more did not show significantly better results at release. For example, VPN Unlimited was first released in October 2013, only supported iOS, and only offered two servers — in LA and the Netherlands.

3. Last but not least, step 3 — hire great people. You don’t need cool technology when you have cool people. Technologies cost almost nothing; it’s the people who create them. If you do not have the right people, you can’t handle it. Make sure to find the best specialists and reliable partners. Then your business will resemble a game, since it will be more fun, and will provide more opportunities for you to reach your goals.

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?

We provide our services using a subscription model. For products such as VPN Unlimited, we also provide extra features for an additional fee.

We used to sell our products via a one-time payment. This model proved to be unsuitable for products where the service provided constantly required additional investments. Besides, the subscription model is interesting because it provides additional opportunities. We can experiment by selling our subscription on different platforms, by offering additional products to active clients, etc.

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.

1. Teamwork. I have experience of mountain hiking and I can say for certain that creating successful products requires a similar high level of trust.

2. Strategy. Despite the desire to release a trial version on the market ASAP, we always have a plan in place on how to proceed after that.

3. Team culture. It is the team leader that forms the corporate culture. Peter Drucker said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and it really is true. A product has no chance of succeeding — even with the most fantastic strategy behind it — if you let an inefficient culture develop in your company.

4. Do not be afraid to experiment. You will always be criticized by those who are jealous or cannot create a successful product themselves, but you will be supported by fans, real users and those with a lot of experience.

5. Find out how marketing and PR will allow you to promote your product, and start promoting it.

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. 🙂

It would be education. I can see that the modern high school system is not coping with the demands being made of it. A large number of graduates decide that they want to get a different education, or they are still looking for what they are interested in. Education has turned into a business, but has forgotten the basics: for a student to strive for learning, they need to be interested; for a student to become successful, they need practical experience as much as theory; for a student to develop their environment, they must be captivated by the idea of ​​creation.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/vasiliyivanov/

https://www.facebook.com/wasiliyivanov — here I communicate in my native language.

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