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Oleg Mukhanov of SteadyPay: “Just breathe”

Just breathe. Things go wrong all the times, especially when you are building something new no-one has created before. Building a company is not easy — product issues, dissatisfied customers, difficult investor conversations, all that takes a toll on you and could be overwhelming at times. And it gets into your head, snowballing and blurring your vision. […]

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Just breathe. Things go wrong all the times, especially when you are building something new no-one has created before. Building a company is not easy — product issues, dissatisfied customers, difficult investor conversations, all that takes a toll on you and could be overwhelming at times. And it gets into your head, snowballing and blurring your vision. It could even put you in a dark place — ask any entrepreneur how their journey was. In moments like that — take a step back, slow down and just breathe. It will pass, it always does — and you can get back to building something amazing with the newly gained clarity and balance.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Oleg Mukhanov, COO & CFO of SteadyPay — world’s first subscription-based income smoothing service for the gig economy workers.

Oleg is an executive and an advisor to several start-ups, as well as an angel investor. Formerly an investment banker with UBS in London and a VC investor with Enso Ventures — where he invested in technology and biotech companies in Europe and the US.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I originally come from (then-Soviet) Russia, where I grew up in a city called Rostov-on-Don. My father was a scientist, so I spent hours with him building different machines, radios and doing various experiments. I loved building stuff and disassembling things to find out how they work. What was more challenging — is re-assembling them, so they still work. Safe to say I was grounded on too many times because of that.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, my mother and step-father had to adjust to the new reality quickly and became the first wave of entrepreneurs. They were working extremely hard, day and night, so I spent a lot of time in their ventures. I was doing the same thing I liked but now with companies — understanding how they work, what makes them successful.

I always felt I would be keen to go through the journey they went through, starting from scratch and that is why I moved to the UK around 13 years ago — and being living mostly here since then. I started my career in Investment Banking as it was what all the bright and hungry college kids wanted to do, and I wasn’t the exception. It was an excellent experience which taught me a lot. More importantly, it enforced my belief in the power of work ethics — of ensuring things are done no matter what, late at night or on the weekends.

Still, I shake off the feeling that I want to build something from nothing. Hence, a corporate environment wasn’t the place for me, and I moved to the VC, which was much closer to the real business. That is how I landed as the CFO / Partner of Enso Ventures. During my fantastic time there, there not only I invested in the companies but also assisted them as an executive and advisor — the part I enjoyed the most.

It was just a matter of time until I would make the leap and go full-on in the start-up world. That is how I joined SteadyPay — then a pre-seed start-up team of 8 people.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

At SteadyPay we are building the world’s first subscription-based income smoothing service — which allows gig economy workers have stability and predictability of a fixed paycheck. Income volatility is the biggest financial issue in the gig economy. It leads to a plethora of adverse knock-on effects — mental issues, debt spiral due to having to access high-cost credit and payday loans.

What people sometimes do not realize is that the gig economy is not just Uber and Lyft drivers. Around 50% of the developed economy workforce is paid by the hour, day, shift, gig — causing significant swings in their income. And those people are the key workers, the backbone of our economy — medical staff, hospitality and delivery workers, retail. The list goes on and on. These people are working hard and deserve the peace of mind and being able to focus on things which are important for them rather than how to make their ends meet.

Finally, traditional financial institutions are of little help. The gig economy does not have much by way of a credit record and automatically place in the sub-prime bucket. That means no products or overprice products. And that is not just about the price — we are talking complex fee structure with many hidden costs so you rarely know what you would end up paying.

We take all that pain away by offering a fully automated, app-based and subscription-based product. Fixed small and fair weekly fee — and we got you covered. Nothing else, so you can focus on things that are important for you.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Coming from a corporate and finance background, I was used to complicated products, big words and promises. Everyone in our team is very smart and talented — which led us to overcomplicate things at times. Hence, when it came to creating our first marketing campaigns, we created a lot of grand phrases. Examples boing “We protect you from income volatility” or “We are offering you financial peace of mind”. None of them got any traction with our customers. Zero — we couldn’t make any conversions on our app.

What we learned quite quickly is that you always need to look at things through the eyes of your customers. When was the last time you searched on the app store for a “financial peace of mind app”? So we had to scrap everything we have done. We engaged our early adopters in an open conversation to see what it means for them, how would they explain the service we are offing.

So the lesson is — get in your customer shoes to see the world through their lens/eyes and identify how they feel the problem.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who has been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I would say: I had a different approach — there are some people who I look up to and essential in my life like my parents and successful people across various industries. Not just in the start-up and VC — but in technology, finance, marketing and even music. I might not have met them, but read their books, interviews, listened to their podcasts. As a result, when a problem I need and advise with comes up — I would reflect and think, “what would x and y do in this situation”? This way, you implement the values and views which these people share.

I am a collaborative guy person, trying to find a consensus, even in some situations where it’s beyond the point of reasonable. Some time ago, when looking for a new key hire, we made an offer to a person who got accepted. Ultimately, at the 11th hour, this candidate decided to significantly renegotiate the terms, well beyond what has been agreed. While keen to get him on board, I took a step back and asked myself “what my parents would have done in this situation”? That gave me enough clarity to make the right decision and look for a new candidate who is more aligned with mine and ultimately, the company’s values.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is always disrupting good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I can give you a recent example from our experience at SteadyPay is the collections management part of the business. While we use our proprietary credit risk engine to make onboarding decisions, personal circumstances change, and people do unfortunately default on what they owe. From day 1, we wanted to disrupt the lending industry by being fully automated and app-based. We took the same approach to our collections.

But when people default on their obligations, it is likely due to certain things happening in their life. And these things are personal, close to their heart — rarely anyone would be proud of them. In these situations, the last thing they want is a barrage of automated messages and emails. That is why the decades-old approach of picking up a phone and having a human conversation works the best in 99% of the time. That is one of the examples when specific industries or aspects of an industry should be left as they have been.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Just breathe. Things go wrong all the times, especially when you are building something new no-one has created before. Building a company is not easy — product issues, dissatisfied customers, difficult investor conversations, all that takes a toll on you and could be overwhelming at times. And it gets into your head, snowballing and blurring your vision. It could even put you in a dark place — ask any entrepreneur how their journey was. In moments like that — take a step back, slow down and just breathe. It will pass, it always does — and you can get back to building something amazing with the newly gained clarity and balance.

Mistakes won’t kill you. Coming from a corporate environment, I was mortified with making mistakes and errors, as they usually bring you one step forward to the exit door. That could not be further away from the truth, especially in a disruptive situation. You are doing something new, something different — so you will make mistakes, and some of them will knock you down. But you will learn from them and become stronger, more polished and experienced like a pebble which is thrown around at the bottom of an ocean. Make mistakes — they won’t kill you. Yes, they might bring you down but only temporarily. Mistakes will make you better in the end.

Ask for help. I do not remember when was the last time my to-do list got shorter. It only gets longer. There are always more things to do than you have time in the day. Do ask for help — you won’t be of any use if you are overworked and burnt out. There is no shame in doing that — we are all human, and that’s ok. Focus on where you add the most value and ask for help on other areas. Back in my UBS days, I was working day and night, weekends, spending all of my time in the office. I tried to take on every project I could and was surprised to see that my first ever performance review was less than perfect. During this review, I was told “there is little pride on single-handedly doing ok quite a few things on your own. As for help and do those things amazingly together”.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Income smoothing is just a beginning for SteadyPay — we are here to shake up the entire credit market. Interest calculations, long application forms, hidden fees — we feel all that is the thing of the past. We want to turn the credit market upside down and create a whole new class of products — subscription-based credit. There is no reason why you wouldn’t extend it beyond income smoothing into other types of lending. The rest of the world is moving to the subscription model — and we are doing the same with the credit.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a profound impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

There are so many to remember! I do like books by Cal Newport — Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. They teach you to focus on one thing and do it exceptionally well rather than trying to be at five different places (both physical and digital) at the same time. Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris is a good distilled summary of his podcast capturing many great people from different industries. His podcast is great as well, and I am listening to it regularly. How I Built This with Guy Raz is a great podcast as well with many great business people talking about their journeys.

Final and most impactful book of the recent is Radical Candor by Kim Malone Scott. Those who have been in a corporate environment know how difficult sometimes it is to get to the bottom of what is going on in a company. This book highlights how important to be fully transparent and open with yourself and other people, across the entire organization. Thanks to this approach, we communicate all the developments in the company to the whole team, keeping everyone on the same page. No matter how good or bad it is at a point of time. That is the only way to build trust and commitment.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Walt Disney once said, “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” No matter how smart and hard-working you are, you won’t go far by yourself. You need to surround yourself by people more intelligent and more talented than you are to achieve really big things.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

These days people spend more and more time on their own, in isolation of their home or their ever-decreasing (real) social circle. That leads to good people getting various mental and physical issues. I have always been interested in sports, and it helped me to get through some dark times in my life. Everyone in sports is equal — no matter what is your gender, skin colour or background. We are there together and for each other. That is how I met my partner and many of my lifetime friends.

If I could get more people involved in an active lifestyle and do that together, socially — we can make a small step in the right direction of making the world a better place.

How can our readers follow you online?

My LinkedIn or Twitter @olegmukhanov, which I am just starting to use.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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