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Female Russian Tech Entrepreneur Talks Startups

Starting up your own technology business is never easy and with foreign investments in Russia dwindling it has become even harder. Ayesha Salim speaks with Russian mobile tech entrepreneur, Yoanna Gouchtchina, about her company ZeeRabbit and the current challenges for startups in Russia.

It is a dire situation for startups in Russia. Putin’s conflict with Ukraine and its hostility towards the West is putting off investment in Russian tech companies. New laws are being passed to restrict internet freedom and it seems Russia is sliding backwards. The last technology Russia successfully launched globally was Tetris. This was in 1984.

“It’s a pity that there is no consistency. The country invested in IT development for 20 years and now we are basically going back and killing everything,” says Yoanna Gouchtchina, a mobile tech entrepreneur and founder of ZeeRabbit, an app that allows brands to promote and sell their merchandise directly to gamers.

Gouchtchina is talking by phone from the new office she has set up in Berlin. She is one of the tech entrepreneurs that was impacted by the political change in Russia which influenced her decision to move her company to Berlin.

“Before there was other waves of funding coming from foreign funds and investing into Russian startups but now because of the political situation nobody wants to invest anymore.”

Born and raised in Russia to a Russian Polish military family, she moved around the country a lot. She says the constant moving shaped her character for picking up and starting new things. By age 16 she decided to go on an exchange program in the States to learn English. She was supposed to go for less than 12 months to complete her final year of high school and ended up staying for eight years.

“I came back when I was 24. By age 26 I opened my first business and had another business partner. Together we opened an investment consultant company and worked with businesses that wanted to come to Russia and get established and we successfully did that for six years,” Gouchtchina tells me.

“Then things changed. The country changed, the climate changed, businesses stopped coming because of the political things that were going on.”

It was around 2011 when Gouchtchina decided to get serious about starting her own business. But first she needed some time out and decided to enrol in a doctorate program in Business Administration. She didn’t finish the program but she started putting together her business instead.

Her business, ZeeRabbit, is an app that serves as a communication channel for brands with users. Sponsored by brands, users collect points for their in-app gaming activity to claim rewards in real-life: “The simplest technique would be that you play ten levels in a game and at some point based on your achievement level you get a message from a brand saying, for your achievements in this game you can get a 10 dollar reward from a brand,” Gouchtchina says.

Why this particular product? “I am a very heavy mobile user and I noticed there wasn’t alternative to in-game advertising,” she says. “I noticed it was mainly banner advertising in different forms and shapes. But there was nothing to give the user an option to exchange it for something valuable.”

Gouchtchina says ZeeRabbit has reached around 11 million devices. She is hoping to develop the product in the European and US market. Although she has set up base in Berlin, her initial plan after coming back from the US was to use her knowledge in Russia. But she says it’s not the easiest place to build a business and the political situation is hugely affecting startups.

“There is very little possibility to get funding anymore. And that’s basically what startups need in the beginning stage. Before it was difficult but now there is not a lot of internal funding at all,” she says. “In the IT industry I think there are going to be a lot of companies like us that will be moving from the country and they are already doing that. So I think we are just in the first wave but there’s going to be more.”

Most businesses in Russia are traditionally run by men so for a young businesswoman to succeed in technology is a bit of a rarity. But for Gouchtchina, the challenge is less about being female but being an entrepreneur in Russia in general.

“Although it is a very male dominated business society, I think if you have the right idea and you are serious about what you are doing, you can definitely get ahead.”

Why the move to Berlin? “We looked at different places in Europe but as far as the environment, prices and having access to creative talent I think the combination of that is very good here.”

I ask Gouchtchina if she would ever consider moving her business back to Russia if the political situation ever improved and she says “no” without hesitation.

“We still have an office there that we are going to maintain because of the clients we have there. But in terms of starting a new business there or further development of a product we will never go back for this.”

Gouchtchina is coy about what she has planned next after ZeeRabbit but she is excited by the wearables market, particularly for female entrepreneurs: “I think there is a huge niche for female entrepreneurs in [the] design of wearables. For example in the [female jewellery market] only females can really come up with ideas that will be used. I think a lot of those things are going to end up being developed by female entrepreneurs,” she concludes.

 

Ayesha Salim is e-Content Writer at IDG Connect

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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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