Keep communication clear and open: This is especially important during difficult times because your team will sense that you are hiding something from them and will find it hard to trust you. Furthermore, they could have some ideas or solutions to the problems that you are trying to hide from them. Naturally, some things will go wrong and when you share bad news with you employees, if you have a strong culture built on trust and respect, they will support you and the company forward and in some cases, provide their personal resources for the company.
As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexander Lazutin.
Alexander is a young founder of app-based start-up ICarta. Starting with a vision to build a tool with which one could share their contact details as quick and easy as a handshake, he assembled a team of talented tech experts to translate this vision to reality. This is how the app ‘My ICarta’ was born, a lean build that focuses on the core needs of a networking professional.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?
Upon graduating from university, I stepped into the ‘real’ world and as with many graduates, my future was uncertain. Having received many rejection letters from large companies that I thought I wanted to work for, I was stuck. The number one thing I wanted was to gain experience, it was to meet and interact with professionals in many fields and to find out how I could make myself useful in the industry and more importantly, to have an impact. For this, I decided to stay in London and started a job in the city. London, being so diverse and thriving was the perfect place to meet many interesting people, so I attended every professional networking event I could.
When at these networks, I saw a problem. People eagerly talk with each other and then attempt to exchange contacts to continue their interaction. Business cards were the traditional way of personal advertising but it was not practical in the digital world and many people knew this. The alternative was to write down an email or find someone on Linkedin, there and then. This was too much fuss and very time consuming. Here, I believed that some tool that lets people transfer their contact information, much like a business card but in digital form, phone to phone, no need for an extra piece of kit. This is when the journey of ICarta began.
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?
For sure, I made many mistakes and as with most, it didn’t seem funny at the time. The one to pick out was when I thought that I could do it all myself. I believe this is something most people can relate with and should learn from.
Coming from an economics background, I was never a fan of coding, nor was I any good at it. When I was searching for developers, I had a thought that I might not need to hire anyone and could do the job myself, at least up to MVP level. After coming home from work, I’d sit at my laptop deep into the night watching through coding lessons and practising alongside. Within a couple of days, I grasped the concept and had a raw version of the app available to test. I was pleased with my progress and determination but after reviewing the concept a few days later, it was pretty bad and very ugly.
From this, I learnt that the quality of product has to be top standard. In such a competitive business, I will need specialist in each area to help me build this to have any chance of succeeding.
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?
Of course, I’ve been lucky to receive support along the way from several people to whom I’m very grateful for. Choosing a particular person, I’ll say my good friend from university, who shares my spirit for entrepreneurship and doing what you truly enjoy. Our desire to make an impact on the world unites us and we often share ideas with each other and have done a few projects together. He was never part of the ICarta team but always supported my ideas and gave sound advice. We would send voice messages daily, discussing some projects, ideas and strategies going forward. One day, we talked for 7,5 hours over the phone!
Even though we now live in different countries, I visited him a few times and it fired great inspiration inside of me to make progress and be purpose driven. I’m incredibly grateful for the moral support.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I totally agree with this statement. The purpose is your ‘why’ which should resonate with you far beyond the product or service which you are selling.
Our purpose is the same today as it was when we started. Our app’s purpose is to bring people together, for real. To make them connect in real life instead of an avatar through social media. As a company, we are very fond of connections, as many people say, your network equals your net worth. That is very true, even more so, people around you in life bring meaning to your life and what you do.
Some of you may know this, others yet to experience the difficulty of starting something when you don’t know anybody. It’s very difficult and can seem impossible. We want to make it possible, we want people to build their networks, leverage synergy and this way, bring more meaning into their professional and personal lives.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
This has some relation to our purpose. As a team, we make every team member feel safe and secure within the team. This is hugely important because then, each person can face external challenges fully without being anxious that someone will stab them in the back. To bring about this unity, our team share our values of connectivity, synergy and trust. We trust every member to perform their respective tasks for a greater result as a whole team. If someone has a problem, another team member will have their back and support them because in the future, whatever you give, you will receive in return.
Personally, I believe in connecting on a personal level with every member of the team. This greatly increase trust in a company and though we are not large yet, we will continue with this approach without sacrificing quality for quantity. Oftentimes, I say to my team that this is their product and encourage them to take ownership. This helps greatly as any problem can be split among several members making it easier to solve.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I think most entrepreneurs going through their first difficult years consider giving up and I’m not an exception. However, it’s important not to be afraid of failure, sometimes, failing can lead you down paths that you would never have taken had you experienced success straight away. Looking back after a few years, there’s a high chance that you will be grateful for your failures.
For myself, I’m 100% certain that if I fail, I will never regret trying to make this work. The only thing that I will regret is not putting in enough effort into my work or backing out and not taking the risk.
Honestly, if you believe in what you are doing, believe in the purpose of your business, it will drive you. If it doesn’t, I suggest reconsidering your attitude towards your purpose.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
More than anyone, a leader has to focus on the team outcome and never their own personal outcome. This is because a leader leads by example and if he/she focuses on themselves first, their team will do the same and it will not be strong. Often, during challenging times, a leader will sacrifice their own personal resources and time towards their team and the company.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Besides focusing on the purpose of the business and staying together as a whole, remember to have fun. Sometimes the most motivating thing is a joke or a mini party to get people to have fun and enjoy their time, not just professionally, but also personally.
In a start-up, the future is always uncertain, so we focus on enjoying what we are doing now and not getting stressed about what’s to come in the future. After all, the future is our imagination, the past is our memory, all we have is the present so enjoy what you’re doing.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Best thing is to be open and honest. Your team need to trust you and you have to earn their trust by being honest and open with them. For sure, there are bad news and it’s wise to expect that some news will not be so good, if you are sincere with your team, they will trust you no matter what news you bring.
Similar story with the customers. We all know companies make mistakes, just like individuals, and the best thing the company can do is own up and take responsibility for your actions. Companies that do this are a lot more respected than those that only own up to good things.
Important- in all cases, never shift the blame!
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I’d say this is the beauty of entrepreneurship, one of the reasons people chose this kind of job. There’s some resemblance to an army general planning battle strategies during a war, nothing is certain and every minute, the situation can change.
For me, I try to stay as agile and flexible as possible. Things change and the ability to adapt to new circumstances quickly is essential. For example, during the pandemic, a networking app that requires users to meet wasn’t practical for a few months, so we started a new line of business called ICarta Technologies, where we utilise the team’s talent to build tailored technology solution and application for other businesses. This diversifies our work and opens new opportunities for collaboration.
To sum it up in one line, ‘remain on your toes to adjust to change at any given moment’.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
When doing building a business, remember to have self-discipline. This is vital because no-one tells you to do anything, you have to be the initiator. As a leader, you have to pass this self-discipline onto your team constantly, especially during turbulent times, when it’s easy to lose motivation. A key part of self-discipline is taking responsibility for all your actions and for their effects as well as your whole team’s actions. Leaders never moan to their team, they must stay strong and hold their head high thus setting an example for others.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The most common scenario is diving into layoffs. As soon as sales drop or the economy took a rough turn, businesses often turn to cutting their employee count, treating them as liabilities while forgetting that employees are their assets. Even more so, these are the people that built and run the company, they are the ones behind the brand, not names, logos and merchandise.
Second reaction is panic, when leaders panic, this creates a wave of stress amongst all, employees, investors and customers. Strong leaders never panic, no matter how difficult the situation.
Third mistake during difficult times is to try and cut costs wherever possible without realizing the importance of some of those cost and this has a treacherous effect on the quality of products. This is especially true if you are cutting costs in your core business.
Lastly, if things do go wrong and the business goes bust, remain with your head held high, support your team as much as you can but learn to lose with dignity and respect.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
I find it most effective to try different types of businesses during turbulent times. History has shown that great companies have emerged post economically difficult periods. During the pandemic for example, the consumer trend had changed and for most, businesses had to get online to remain afloat. This was a great time to test our services line of the business and partner with global corporations.
Don’t be scared to go against the trend and take a risk during turbulent times when everyone else is risk-averse.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Take Responsibility: I put this number one because without doing this, a person is not a leader. In fact, I’d say it’s a cowardly act to not take responsibility for your actions and in the case of a leader, your company’s actions. Leader’s that take responsibility for what they do are more respected especially when they own up to failures. It’s easy to take responsibility for success, but difficult to admit failure and this separates true leaders from those who pretend.
Lead by example: As the saying goes, ‘practice what you preach’. A great example of this for me is Peter the Great, former tsar of Russia (1682–1725) who lead his country to become a major European power, built a strong navy and developed the famous city of Saint-Petersburg. I use this example because when building ships, Peter worked alongside his workers and engaged in the physical work himself. This is very rare for a monarch to do the work but I believe this signifies the traits of a true leader who lead by example and not just by giving orders.
Sacrifice yourself to the company, team and mission: This shows true commitment to the cause and like enthusiasm, cannot be faked. Recently, I read a book called ‘Delivering happiness’ by Tony Hseih, and I admire the way he invested all his personal resources and put it all on the line for a company and mission that he believed in. This was Zappos some 20 years ago, when they were struggling, later, they managed to reach $1bn in sales and join Amazon. As for myself, I invested into ICarta from day one, and spent most of my income earned from my job to build the prototype of My ICarta.
Be confident and never lose hope: There’s an old saying that a ‘fish rots from the head’, the same happens when a company disintegrates, it starts from the top. A strong leader is not someone who stands on the pedestal, it is someone who holds their head high in spite of defeat and in the face of uncertainty. Things can change very quickly, and those that come out on top, battle until the very final whistle. Of course, this is far from easy and takes a lot of courage and inner strength.
Keep communication clear and open: This is especially important during difficult times because your team will sense that you are hiding something from them and will find it hard to trust you. Furthermore, they could have some ideas or solutions to the problems that you are trying to hide from them. Naturally, some things will go wrong and when you share bad news with you employees, if you have a strong culture built on trust and respect, they will support you and the company forward and in some cases, provide their personal resources for the company. Honestly, when you get such support from your team, it is one of the best feelings and I believe this atmosphere is more important than your market cap.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favourite life quotes is an ancient Chinese proverb that goes like this:
“Learning is like rowing upstream, not advancing means you drop back”
This is very relevant in business where there is a lot of competition, and in life too. I remember competing in track a few years ago, I had to always be on top of my game to win races, if I didn’t put in the hard work in training, people that I was beating before, end up beating me a year later and I would have to double the work to catch them up.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can test the basic version of My ICarta from App Store and Google Play. The website is www.myicarta.com — here you will also find the links to the app in relevant stores.
To check out our services, the website for ICarta Technologies is www.icartatechnologies.com
We have a Linkedin page and Instagram channel too which we are currently growing.
My Linkedin is Alexander Lazutin.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!