Anton Yakovlev

CEO, Saex

Product: SAEX
A marketplace for exchanging business contacts
Vertical: Marketing
Tags: Web, Exchange, Verification, Sales leads
Stage: Launched in 2011
Co-founders: Nikita Rosenberg
Location: Palo Alto, CA

Born in Leningrad, USSR (now St. Petersburg). Studied English Language at St. Petersburg State University. Also Technology Adviser at PlainMark, a risk assessment platform for Android apps.
I’m not thinking about revolutionizing — maybe that’s my mistake. But what I am trying to do is identify needs and find solutions that can be scaled. I’m a problem-solver at heart, just trying to incrementally make things better. As the Chinese proverb says, a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.
Twenty years ago, I met a 53 year-old man who’d lost both his legs at least a decade previously. He had three children aged under five. And he asked me to teach him programming — in the middle of the Soviet Union! That inspired me a lot. He had such a young mind, was a great chess player, and very optimistic. He never gave up.
Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry (author of The Little Prince). I love his books, his life, and the way he lived. I was named after him, Chekov and Anton “Toni” Sailer (alpine skier).
I’ve given advice to a lot of young entrepreneurs in Russia. I always tell them, you should only run a business there if you have no other choice, because it’s so challenging. But in the U.S., the situation is totally different. The whole country is geared to work for entrepreneurs. Even if someone works for Google, he has something personal — his own website or a blog — and he’s thinking about how to monetize. At some point it becomes a viable business and goes all the way. That’s not the case in Russia.

I’ve learned the hard way to hold on to valuable domain names. I once owned dk.ru which could now be worth half a million dollars!

MY STORY


I.T. came into my life all by itself. The first time I ever saw a computer was at school in 1988 — the same time my teacher first saw one! As soon as computers started arriving into the USSR, there was a lot of interest in what could be done with these pieces of plastic. My peers and I started exploring, and we got all the computing books we could possibly lay our hands on, in Bulgarian, German, English — it didn’t matter! Soon we knew more than our teachers. I was spending 50 hours a week in the computer lab at school when I was aged 17, 18. And then while still at university studying English, I got my first clients as a programmer, including a Russian bank.

Early years as an entrepreneur

My first business was in 1995, publishing books. I later turned that venture into an online bookstore called dk.ru. 1998 saw the start of an economic crisis in Russia, and the end of my business. So then I created a studio with a couple of friends, designing websites.

In 2000, when the bubble burst in the U.S., the knock-on effects of that around the world also touched Russia. For a while I joined a large corporation, Reksoft, to weather the storm.

Russian economy founders

In 2003, I started a small investment bank which grew to 50 employees with offices in 8 cities. But by 2008, and the start of more economic turmoil, we were losing $200,000 a day. I couldn’t keep it going, but that experience taught me a lot about relationships, dealing with people, and loyalty in business.

It took 5 years to bring SAEX from the original idea to launch. We understood that a lead generation service was needed by Russian marketers — the question was how to fill the gap. The Russian market was growing really fast when we started out in 2006, then it shrank during a period of crisis and only after it rebounded could we launch.

Entrepreneurship vs. cooking

I see building a company like cooking a recipe — you use a lot of ingredients. We have a bit of technology, a bit of marketing. We built some pretty intellectual software to verify contacts and work out whether a human eye was needed to check them. That’s been essential for SAEX — not to rely too much on human labor.

5 years ago, I realized I needed to come to the U.S. I had friends working for Sun Microsystems and when I visited them, I thought — this is the right place to be. The Russian community here is very supportive.

Whitewater slalom champ

I haven’t only been inspired in my professional life. At the age of 32, I suddenly decided to do whitewater slalom (canoe/kayak slalom). In 6 years, I got a certification in the sport and became a champion in St. Petersburg. Whitewater slalom is sometimes called the most extreme Olympic sport but it doesn’t feel dangerous when you’re doing it. I’m thinking about building a course in the U.S.

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