Izhevsk native Taras Polishchuk, nominated for the 30 Under 30 Forbes rating, is one of the founders of the London education startup Oneday, which in May this year raised £4.7 million from European venture funds. In his long, but captivating interview with Kommersant UK, he talked about his new project, which has already gone through several pivots, addressed the question of who actually needs an MBA, told the tale of how he came to London, explained what he likes about Britain and told us what books helped him to develop business thought.
How did you end up in London? Izhevsk is your hometown [the capital of the Republic of Udmurtia, 600 miles east of Moscow]. Five years ago, you were attending international conferences in Moscow.
My career began at Talent Equity Ventures (TEqV), a narrowly specialised venture capital fund with Russian roots. We dealt with investments in new technology in the areas of HR and education for several years. First of all, we looked for investment on the Russian market, but we quickly realised that there were very few startups in Russia, especially in our industry and that there wasn’t much to invest in, so we soon switched to looking for opportunities abroad. We ended up forming a portfolio of nine projects from all over the world; we had several in Silicon Valley, several in Europe and two in Russia.
Could you name any of your British investments which have turned out well?
How does a venture capital fund work? Typically, a maximum of two out of every ten deals are successful. Out of ten investments we made, four of them ended up being successful and they were acquired by larger companies. We also used to have a company in Britain, but it has closed. Whilst I've been running this fund, we’ve managed to build up a valuable network in the areas of HR and education. I started to think about how to monetise it and I began to organise events dedicated to new technology in the industry. We held these events for HR professionals, to instruct their community, as well as for investors and the founders of startups in the industry to introduce them to each other and help them get involved in investment deals. I did that for several years. We built up quite a good event company which held around 40 events a year, in San Francisco, Hong Kong, London and even in Australia. We gave training in HR technology and innovative solutions. Then, one of the fund’s partners who I worked with had the idea for a new project; a fitness app called Sweatcoin, which would motivate people to be more physically active.
The restaurant owner Roman Zelman told me about it. The idea is that physical activity is materially awarded; you earn points literally for every 100 metres you walk.
He was one of our investors, as I recall. Anyway, the founder of Sweatcoin, Anton Derlyatka, was my friend and partner and he invited me onto the team. For several years, I was Sweatcoin’s Operations Director. We scaled it up from scratch. When I left, there were more than 50 million users, and now there are more than 100 million. It was a global success story, you could say; we managed to become one of the most popular fitness apps in the world. Returning to the question of how I ended up in London, well, Sweatcoins’s headquarters happened to be in the British capital. At the time, I was living between Moscow and Lithuania; that’s where my events company was based. I had to make the move to London to head the Sweatcoin team. So, four years ago, I applied for a global talent visa, which I managed to get, and here I came. I continued to head the Sweatcoin team, and I started several businesses at the same time. I still have one of them; it's an e-commerce project which is involved in the sale of PomaBrush electric toothbrushes and various oral care accessories. Two and a half years ago, I launched Oneday, and now it is the main focus of my activities. It takes up most of my time.
Let’s talk about Oneday. In an interview with Kommersant UK, Evgeny Chichvarkin said that some people are born to become serial businessmen. He affirmed that he had no education in business himself. People need MBAs because… well he said it was to find sexual partners, but that’s just his sense of humour. Most likely, they need it for networking. How, if at all, would you counter his comments? What’s the point of an online MBA if you don’t see a single living person? I understand that there are an awful lot of online MBA programmes, and I’m not calling on you to defend them all but at least say a word in defence of the idea.
What Chichvarkin is talking about is an eternal question; are entrepreneurs born, or do people learn to become them? I think that no one has a clear answer to that. I’d rather say that although anyone can become an entrepreneur, the next question is the scale of the business which they can create. Practically anyone can run a simple kebab stand or a straightforward e-commerce business. However, to build a multi-billion dollar business or anything on a global scale, you need to have exceptional inborn talent, leadership and communication skills as well as a great acumen for risk-taking and related abilities.
I suppose everyone can learn to read and write, but not everyone can write great books.
That’s a good analogy.
You have a good head for business and you’re not afraid to take risks. When did you realise that you were gifted in this area? I understand that thirty-somethings are less traumatised by a Soviet upbringing. They weren’t constantly told, “Don’t meddle, don’t get involved!”. Back then, “speculation” was considered a criminal activity.
I have always known that I wanted to be a businessman and be involved in some kind of commerce, but not necessarily be an entrepreneur. I have always been interested in finance, business management and setting up enterprises. From the age of 12, my favourite magazine was Forbes. I read every edition. Kommersant and Vedomosti [a leading daily Russian business newspaper] have been my favourite publications, literally from childhood. I have always been interested in how businesses function, but I didn’t especially see myself in the role of entrepreneur. It has never been some kind of dream or a goal I was working towards. I got into enterprise more or less by chance via the event business. It was an easy way in, I didn’t have to start from scratch with a complex tech project which is hard to scale up. Organising events is a fairly simple business. I earned money by performing simple actions which lead to certain financial results.
Were your parents involved in business?
My father has several small clothes shops in Izhevsk. But my mother works for a salary, also in a shop, only in Moscow.
All the same, your dad is an entrepreneur, so something genetic is probably involved. It seems to me that most people have such a high intolerance of uncertainty that they wouldn’t even risk opening a kebab stand. Let’s get back to what kindled your initial attraction to business; you went to the Moscow State University (MSU) Business School, what did that give you? Education at the MSU [the largest and oldest university in Russia] has always been a little behind world trends. It’s not as practically orientated as educational establishments in Britain. On the Oneday site, I read that what you offer is all practice with no theory at all. Does this mean that the complicated theoretical base which features on all MSU courses isn’t actually necessary?
Look, I did go to the MSU Business School and it’s very different from all the other departments at the university. I went to a few lectures at the economics faculty and they’re just miles apart. The MSU Business School is built more around the American education system. To start with, a large proportion of the courses are optional and you put together your own course…
Is it a modular system?
Yes, it’s more of a modular system. The second thing is that teaching takes place in small groups of 12-15 people. There are no mass lectures. Teaching is case-study based. So the education on offer at the MSU Business School was still quite practical. Principally, it gave me a basic understanding of the different financial instruments, which means a very good understanding of the fundamentals of bookkeeping and resource management within a business. Often, the financial subjects weren't necessarily based on the Russian accountancy method; they also showed us the principles of how it works in the US, or in Britain and so on. So it was clear straight away how international business works.
Does that mean that when you relocated, you had no particular difficulty understanding how the local legislation works, how to pay taxes and how to open a bank account?
After I had arrived in Britain, I opened a bank account and my own company on the same day. I had wanted to open an account a month before I arrived, the only thing I had left to do was show them a rental agreement as confirmation. They couldn’t open the account until the agreement had come into force, so that’s why everything happened on the same day. My journey as an entrepreneur in Britain began precisely at the moment when I arrived and moved into my new home.
What do you like about running a business here? How is Britain different from other countries?
I’ll start by saying that I have experience running a business in Europe and also in the US. Our investment portfolio was predominantly in the US and I often held conferences in the States; that was our biggest market, so I have a good understanding of how the business market works over there. As for Britain, overall, my first three and a bit years in England have been amazing and I’ve had great feedback. I think it’s a super-convenient country to live in. The Brits have found a wonderful work-life balance; they aren’t as relaxed as continental Europeans but at the same time, they aren’t such crazy workaholics as the Americans. It’s just the right balance. The venture capital ecosystem is not badly developed, which means there are more unicorn companies in England than in other European countries. There are a lot more investors here as there are tax rebates for them, plus England seems a more familiar jurisdiction to many American funds. This means they are more ready to invest here than in France or Germany; those countries do have their local specifics, not to mention the language; so there are masses of extra barriers. So from the perspective of building some kind of global or venture capital business, England is the best country in Europe. If we compare America and England, then probably, the US is a bit better for business, because the market and the ecosystem are larger and there are more professions available to hire, but from the point of view of lifestyle, the livability of cities, the environment, the accessibility of places for leisure, prices, working times, urban infrastructure etc, England beats the US hands down.
Many people who have previously lived in Moscow and other large cities of Russia complain that it’s not so comfortable here as delivery is slow and you can't buy medicines anywhere without a prescription.
I haven't had those problems. I have often heard similar complaints, but I don't really understand them. First of all, here, there is Amazon, which has next-day delivery and there’s Deliveroo, which delivers food in 15 minutes. Also, there are dry cleaners who take your clothes in the evening and deliver them the next day, so there are many responsive services available around the clock. Secondly, I live in Shoreditch and in our neighbourhood, if you really want to eat ice cream at two o'clock in the morning, there's no problem getting it and they'll also sell you a kebab at five o'clock in the morning. If you're rich and you want services, go to Mayfair, lots of things are open there in the middle of the night. And if you want a beautiful, orderly little village, then go to Essex.
Let's get back to Oneday. How did you manage to attract such a volume of investment this year? What pitfalls were there along the way?
There weren’t really any pitfalls. I’m a great advocate of pivotal moments. In the world of startups, the word pivot means a fundamental change in the strategy and direction of development of your company or product, based on the data and feedback you get from the market. Actually, we have made a full pivot of this kind three times. The company and the ideas we had two and a half years ago were dramatically different from what we’re doing now. We started as a mobile application which aggregates and curates free educational content with a general focus on the creative economy and enterprise. Let’s say you’d like to become a Youtuber. We can aggregate educational content about this topic and use it to create some kind of educational trajectory. Instead of buying a course, you can just aggregate free content about the topic and curate the most relevant. Next, we realised that people weren’t using the content to study. Instead, it was more of an entertainment for them and, as the content was free, they weren’t ready to pay us to aggregate and curate it, as they could have found it on the internet anyway. So the added value was insufficient. Our users said to us ‘We don’t just want you to give us content, we want there to be some kind of experts who we can discuss the topic with so that they can help us’. So we added to our application a marketplace on which you could search for experts. We started to test it and, a few months later, we realised that these talks were rather haphazard and they tended to turn into “coffee chats” with no clear structure. We had to create a structure and make it part of the education programme taken by the users. So we “pivoted” to a structured education programme focused on the subject of entrepreneurship. A few months later, we got accreditation for this programme and made yet another pivot to the MBA in enterprise format, catering to students who were launching their own businesses and doing their MBAs at the same time. Effectively, our product had changed very significantly three times, but I believe that it was the right strategy; when you respond to the demands of the market and change your position and product based on the feedback you have received.
From a purely psychological perspective, did this happen fairly easily or is it a painful experience?
If you understand that you're ready for it and that these are the rules of the game; that you have to do it all the time and on the hoof, then the pivots happen much more easily. Some believe that if you have used an idea to raise capital you should see it through no matter what, because otherwise, everyone will think that you're a bad person who lacks persistence, but this is the wrong approach. It leads to people wasting years of their lives trying to enact ideas that are just not going to work.
Sometimes, things happen differently. For example, Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book and no one wanted to publish it, but then, suddenly, she became a millionaire. So persistence in your aims and the promotion of an invention can bear fruit. Or do you believe that it’s not worth bending over backwards to launch an online product if you realise that it’s not in demand?
You have to be very sensitive to the signals from the market. I even have a framework, a ready-made IT model for fast development, which I use to think about this. How should the decision to make a pivot be taken? Three questions must be answered. The first is whether I have found something out over the last year, while I've been working on the project that would have made me reject it a year ago. Let’s say I have noticed a legal limitation or found out about a competitor who has just raised a billion dollars that I hadn't known about a year ago. The second question is whether I have any hypotheses that I want to test. What is entrepreneurship? It’s when, at any moment, you have 10 to 20 ideas which you can test, to move your project forward. As soon as you run out of these ideas, and you don't know what to test next, it’s time to make a pivot. The third question is whether this business still lights my fire. Any product or project should solve a problem encountered by users and it’s better if the founder has some degree of personal passion for solving this problem. If, over that year, I have lost my passion and I no longer find the topic captivating, that would be a reason to change something.
Incidentally, has the recent launch of ChatGPT onto the market affected you at all?
It’s had a rather positive effect. We now use ChatGPT as a basis for the creation of different tools which help our students to achieve results more quickly. It reduces the barriers to enterprise very appreciatively. Previously, it took three weeks of your life to create a landing page, but now ChatGPT can generate a site in an instant and you can immediately start testing it with users. And you don't need to do any market research; while it used to take several weeks, now the same result can be achieved in two days. So it is more of an enabler, which is bringing down the barriers to enterprise, which is very good for us. We are all about bringing enterprise to the masses and making it accessible to a large number of people.
Apart from business, what do you feel passionate about in life? What do you do in your free time?
I don't really have that many hobbies. My favourite pastime with my wife and my friends is exploring London. That’s what we're always doing. My only hobby is travelling. I have to go away somewhere at least once a fortnight. Right now, for example, we're in Cornwall.
What’s your favourite place in London? Where is it best to do business?
There’s a really cool vibe for startups in Shoreditch, which is why I’ve settled there. I also like our office in the London Bridge area. That place is buzzing, there are a load of really exciting projects going on.
Please tell us in more detail about the Oneday project. What’s the state of play right now? How many people are studying? Who are your mentors? Are there any big names?
Things are going great. More than 2,000 people who have studied with us have been able to launch their businesses in one way or another. There are currently 25 people in our team and I think that, by the end of the year, we will have grown to about 50. We're actively growing, we're scaling up. Right now, our main focus is MBAs, but later we plan to launch a baccalaureate programme as well. We’d like potential young entrepreneurs to have a fully-functional alternative educational route so that they can start doing interesting projects at the age of 18 rather than hearing which king of England got divorced or married and so on.
People also need to know these things as well, a universal education helps to give birth to new ideas. Or are you against universal education in itself?
I think that 80% of it is useless. Naturally, things related to general knowledge are needed, but they shouldn't take up as much time as they do at the moment. It’s all gone too far. For example, in the US, people study English literature for four years and then, when they graduate, they have debts of $200,000-$300,000 for their education, and employers don’t need them, so they end up earning $40,000 a year.
Yes, they call qualifications like that “Mickey Mouse degrees”. But you are very well-spoken. That’s probably thanks to a university. Or is it your own work?
I read a lot as a child. I don't think it’s related to my university education.
What has influenced you intellectually? Has a book, film, or an experience of culture shock affected either your personal life or approach to enterprise?
I have many favourite books. I could try naming several of them which I’d recommend everyone to read; I like business literature most of all, such as Hard Things about Hard Things, Effective Executive, and Zero to One by Peter Thiel. I suppose all startup founders consider that one their bible.
What about Nassim Taleb?
That’s more pop science. I prefer literature about enterprise, startups and business. Taleb writes more about the macro. The big picture. I also really love biographies of different founders, including the biography of Steve Jobs, that’s one of my favourites, as well as Hatching Twitter, about the appearance of Twitter, and Delivering Happiness, which is a biography of Tony Hsieh.
— Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk?
Probably Elon Musk. If you had asked me a year ago, I would definitely have said Musk. Zuckerberg has earned himself a lot of brownie points for his pivot to the Metaverse. He's being heavily criticised for it at the moment, and maybe it won’t work out, but the size of the balls that you have to have to do what he did on the scale of a public company is an outstanding achievement. It’s like doing a U-turn at 200 miles per hour. But out of the both of them, Elon Musk is cooler all the same, because he’s decided to take on what are, in his view, the biggest problems humanity faces and he's made very successful steps towards solving them.
What personal qualities does an entrepreneur need? Some believe that people with psychopathic tendencies tend to succeed in big business, as they are fearless, lack empathy and can make tough decisions. Does business of the new type expect a more humane leader?
That's a difficult question. I have a favourite expression in English: “Not because of, but despite”. Actually, I think that psychopathic impulses hinder people's success. On the other hand, their psychopathy gives them a strong motivation as they are trying to escape from a traumatic experience, problem or imperfection. It’s clear that if they were effective emotional communicators, they would be more successful. So you have to distinguish the causes from their effects and the accompanying phenomena.
Does this mean they have to reach rock bottom to have something to push off?
I’d probably divide people into three groups; people who, psychologically, are running away from something; some trauma, imperfection or problem. Some have different complexes. The second type of people are running towards something. They have some kind of vision, mission, or desire to influence the world, which they feel every day. The third are people who like the process itself; they like to run. I suppose I’d put myself into this group; I just really like doing business and solving problems from day to day and seeing how things go. But the biggest group is people who are running away from something.
What would you advise to fledgling businessmen and startup founders who have come to you, or are yet to come to you via Oneday? What mistakes do people most often make during the first stages?
It’s difficult to answer that question briefly as there are so many recommendations to give. If I only gave one, it would probably be “start as early as possible”. The older you become and the more advanced you are in your career, the more difficult it is to start your own business. First of all, you have taken on responsibilities and the more of these you have the harder it is to start again from scratch and take on the risks of a startup. This is probably the main reason. The second reason is that the younger you are, the more energy you have and the more you want to do things with your own hands. I can already say that by thirty, you want to delegate more. Some tasks seem beneath you, but actually, in the first stages of starting a business, you have to do absolutely everything yourself. But very often, this drive to do everything yourself is gradually lost, especially by 40, and that reduces the chances the startup will succeed. If you’re smart and you found a startup or any business, the chances you will succeed are most likely from 5-10%, no matter how hot you are. It follows that if you want to be sure of succeeding, you have to make a lot of attempts. And each attempt at business takes two to eight years. Consequently, the more chances you have to make those attempts, the more likely you’ll achieve success. So my first and final recommendation is to get into business and enterprise as early as possible.