Communication and soft skills. Of course, if a startup has raised money or has a profit, it can just hire a professional PR manager or agency like Interstellar Digital. But while the team is small, founders should be able to talk to business angels and VCs, onboard new team members, etc. Networking is gold.
Patience. Sometimes you need a year to get the first profit. Be calm and keep going!
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Lobanova, founder of Interstellar Digital agency.
Maria Lobanova is a former journalist, contributor to several media, PR-manager for international markets, founder of Interstellar Digital agency. She has done PR for different types of startups: from twisty game console to cryptocurrency exchanges. Back in 2016 she also started to invest in cryptocurrencies and later met Vitalik Buterin, founder Ethereum, in Moscow at one of the closed tech-meetups.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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?
I began my career as a journalist in Moscow, Russia, where I wrote for major Russian media outlets, such as Kommersant, Inc. Russia, GQ, and InStyle Russia. After several months in the internal politics department of Kommersant newspaper, I was invited to Moscow City Hall to promote several educational and HR projects. I did campaigns for many important Moscow City Hall projects, including the “Internship in Moscow City Hall” program (we had to do that PR campaign from scratch).
After two years of working in the Moscow City Hall press office, I switched to the tech industry and during the last five years, I have done PR for different startups: from twisty game consoles to cryptocurrency exchanges.
It’s a funny story about how I switched to tech from politics. After two years in Moscow City Hall, I was growing increasingly bored. I felt I hadn’t been engaging in meaningful work.
I tried to create and run my own media site (lifestylermagazine.ru), but it was not successful and traffic was low. I needed an investment.
Meanwhile, one of my friends founded his own startup, moved to Silicon Valley, and raised money for his project. Now he is listed in the international ranking of “Forbes 30 under 30”. His lifestyle (meeting famous entrepreneurs, surfing in the Pacific Ocean) seemed perfect for me. Once, when I left home at 6 am to be in the office at 8, I left him a voice message on Whatsapp about how I envied him and wanted his same lifestyle. He said, “Come over, we will find something for you here.” But I was too afraid to go to the other side of the world with no clear plan. But after two weeks, that friend of mine found me a remote job at one of his friend’s startups. That was a new chapter in my life. I was part of the tech community from then on.
Back in 2016 I started to invest in cryptocurrencies and later met Vitalik Buterin, founder Ethereum, in Moscow at one of the closed tech-meetups.
In 2017, I organized the Cryptospace Moscow conference. About 3,500 people came to the conference, 59 speakers from all over the world spoke in front of them. Real industry stars were featured at the event, such as Ted Lin, the Chief Growth Officer of Binance (the largest crypto exchange) and Simon Dixon, CEO of BnkToTheFuture.
In 2020, I have decided to start my own agency — Interstellar Digital, focusing on PR, marketing, and VC.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I wanted to help one European-based crypto exchange with PR and there was the US-based VC fund wanting to invest in this exchange. That is when I realized that I need to create my own agency already.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My partner Kyle was one of those people. He is a CMO of one of the most ambitious DeFi projects. And he was like: you need to register the legal entity to scale; you need to sign contracts with different companies.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In the near future, I believe I will start to attract investments for startups and do PR for those startups to make sure they will grow and bring liquidity to the investors. I think this is a win-win. That is what not many agencies do. Most of the time it is just purely PR or purely VC. It’s never both. If I fulfill this thought, I might be kinda unique in the industry. Attract investments and then make sure to spread the word and attract new users to the startup.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think I have a talent to gather people together so they can network and close deals. I have organized a few crypto meetups in Moscow. I was proud to invite speakers to Cryptospace Moscow — back in 2017 it was the biggest crypto conference in Russia so far and many important announcements were made by industry leaders there.
Recently I moved to Miami and organized a crypto meetup here. So, for example, the CFO of bitFlyer (one of the biggest Japanese crypto exchanges) and Bitcoin2021 organizers wanted to meet each other and at the meetup they had a chance to talk and maybe seal the deal about a partnership. That is the kind of work I enjoy doing.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
First of all, my spontaneousness and readiness to say “yes” always. I lived in Budapest, Hungary. Then friends of mine told me, “Come to Miami, the tech industry is starting to thrive here.” I came and it was definitely true! Miami tech week was the biggest event since COVID came into our lives; many major media wrote about it.
I also had a chance to meet the Mayor of Miami recently and tell him about our newly built Miami tech community. How? My friend Liz told me “there will be cafecito with the Mayor for tech people.” So I went to Miami City Hall basically not knowing any details.
Another good quality I have is courage. To say “yes” to starting my own business, to moving to Miami, to anything really.
The third one would be empathy. I can always listen to people and understand their needs, that is why I work in public relations and communications. And if not, my friend, I would not have become a part of the tech community so soon.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
“You should build a career in a big corporation or public institution” — that is what my mom told me. I am happy that I did work at Moscow City Hall, but I wish I dove into the tech-startup world even earlier.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I was founding the company, I always had the fear that I would be left without clients, that now I am on my own in the great big blue ocean. But all my fears were crushed once I started to work. I do not really search startups to work with, they find me themselves. And that is essential to know for everyone who harbors doubts about starting the business.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies did you use to help overcome those challenges?
I just wrote in my organizer what can happen in the worst case and the best case scenario. In the best case, I will be the founder of a world-renowned PR and VC firm. So that has fought all my fears and insecurity.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
King Solomon was once asked which sentence will always be true in good and bad times and he said: “This too shall pass.” You should always remember that. Once I felt like my personal life and my career were at the lowest point, so I chose to go to Sri Lanka and try to find my inner zen. And it helped! After I returned, everything kicked off!
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
VCs prefer to invest in projects with good traction and established MVP. They also like to take equity stake and later exit and sell the equity to a big corporation. So it depends on what the young founder is looking for. It might be faster and easier to raise money with the VC, but then they should be ready to give up some part of the equity and give someone else the power to make decisions. If the founder wants to go on their own path, then bootstrapping might be a better choice.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Self-confidence in the founder and courage. There will always be people who say “it’s not an innovative idea,” and VC funds can certainly refuse to invest in your startup. You should believe in yourself and continue toward the final goal.
- Flexibility and ability to adapt to change. In a world where the pandemic can ruin plans and businesses, it is essential to be ready to adapt to changes. I have consulted some startups on how to fully switch their services online when quarantine and lockdown became the reality everywhere.
- Communication and soft skills. Of course, if a startup has raised money or has a profit, it can just hire a professional PR manager or agency like Interstellar Digital. But while the team is small, founders should be able to talk to business angels and VCs, onboard new team members, etc. Networking is gold.
- Patience. Sometimes you need a year to get the first profit. Be calm and keep going!
- Planning and organization. Draw a roadmap and follow it! I’ve seen a few cryptocurrency startups, which raised money on ICO, promise investors many things but failed to meet roadmap deadlines and were unable to keep up with the changing industry requirements, so they finally collapsed. Do not repeat their mistakes!
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think the most common mistake is not reinvesting the first profit, but spending it. This is a good way to ensure that the business will never scale. If the CEO is careless, he would rather give himself a bonus and buy a luxury car. This is taking the fast track to nowhere.
And if we talk about PR, the common mistake all the founders make is thinking that the fact of creating a startup is interesting in and of itself. No, it is not special, especially for top-tier media. Thousands of startups are born every single day. You need to have a unique and interesting story, that’s what makes you special.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellbeing when starting a company?
Finding a work-life balance and never saying “no” to your friends when they ask you out. Maybe limit your work hours, as you work at the office. Install time-limit apps to limit the time you spend on Trello, Jira, or other team-management software.
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 start an “intro flashmob”. So as soon as you need an intro to someone, you introduce the person you ask for the introduction to two other important people. Let’s grow our network together!
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to meet Delian Asparouhov and Pavel Durov in person. Delian basically started the tech movement in Miami and Pavel is the most famous Russian entrepreneur. I would also love to meet Jennier Lawrence or Blake Lively, just because of their incredible energy.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow Interstellar Digital here:
You can also follow me at my personal social media:
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!