My Early Life
I was born into a blessed Russian family in Azerbaijan on December 31, 1982. I am the second of ten children; I have four brothers and five sisters. My mother would probably describe me as a creative and curious child.
From a young age, I showed an interest in building things and taking them apart. When my dad came home with a small toy kitchen for my sisters, the kind with lamps and batteries in it, I took it all apart the next day. I wanted to see how it worked, but I couldn’t put it back together again. I was definitely a wild child, managing to run away from preschool on my own and finding my way home, a mile away.
Although I had the highest grades in my class, school was not for me. I dropped out in the seventh grade. When I was in school, I had no friends—not because I was a Russian living in a Muslim country, but because I was an introvert, and felt no need to seek friendship. I had one friend at church for about eight years, but eventually we parted ways due to our differing life philosophies.
My dad was a hardworking man; he had a day job and served as a pastor. Due to his busy schedule, I didn’t see much of him. My mom was a stay-at-home mom.
When I was six, my parents asked my older brother and I what we were going to do when we grew up. Almost prophetically, I told them I would build houses. My brother said he was going to watch me try.
Starting My Family
I first saw my wife Marina in a photograph. My relatives were visiting from North Carolina with a few of their friends. I quickly developed a friendship with one of their friends, a guy named Andrey.
After they left, Andrey and I started chatting through MSN messenger, and he would send me random photos of family and friends. One photo in particular caught my attention—it was of a mysterious girl. I felt an unusual stirring in my heart when I saw the photo. I wasted no time—I wanted to get to know her. I asked Andrey if he had her name and phone number, and he did—the girl, Marina, was his wife’s friend. I called Marina right after he gave me her phone number.
At the time, I was living in Toronto, Canada, and Marina lived in the State of Washington. Because I was waiting for my Canadian citizenship, I couldn’t fly out of the country to meet her. I offered her a plane ticket to come and meet me, instead. I sent her some of my pictures through express mail. I think she approved. Four seemingly long days later, she arrived in Canada. Four hours after meeting her, I proposed at the spectacular Niagara Falls. Two months later, Marina and I wed.
Our first son, Timothy, born ten months after Marina and I married, has a colossal and vivid imagination. A year and two months later, we had Daniel, usually the peacemaker and mediator in our home. And then there is Max, the silly, energetic one.
An Entrepreneur Early On
My journey into entrepreneurship began early. At the age of eight, I made my first sale. I sold my bike to the neighbor. My brother and I sold gum and cards to classmates. I began my true first paying job, wood carving, at the age of thirteen and enjoyed it immensely. After leaving that job, I worked as a carpenter for several years before moving from Azerbaijan.
A week before my nineteenth birthday, my family moved to Toronto, Ontario Canada, seeking a better life. It was a new beginning for all of us. Everything in Canada stood in stark contrast from my home country. In Toronto, I joined my dad to work as a kitchen cabinet installer. We worked together for more than a year before I chose to leave; I hated working for someone. My dad was upset with my decision and made it clear that I was on my own.
With little knowledge of the English language, I began to renovate homes. I called the business “Toronto Renovations.” The company expanded from just me to seven other employees in two years. Shortly after, I began building new homes and registered the company as “Incredible Homes.” In a few months, I joined with Eugene, a previous client of mine, who had just emigrated from Europe. He invested $140K in the company and received 50 percent of the stock. We built more than ten custom homes in the greater Toronto area. All went well until the financial crisis hit the housing market in 2008.
After a few months of brainstorming, Eugene and I came up with a simple business model. We started selling phone accessories and Garmin GPS on eBay. But it wasn’t that simple—working from Eugene’s basement, we had to list all the items we were selling, provide a detailed description of each, create decent pictures, fulfill the orders, tag them and print postal labels. The high advertising costs made it challenging to grow. With small margins and different marketing channels, including AdWords,shopping.com and shopzilla.com, we just weren’t getting the results we wanted from these sites. Then an idea came to me to create a website combining the services of shopping.com and Facebook. The majority of our clients were from the United States, so I moved to Portland, Oregon with my wife and kids.
While building my e-commerce business, I learned a few things about affiliate marketing. I continued becoming more familiar with this industry and made decent money—enough to cover all my personal expenses and some to spare.
I generated traffic to affiliate offers from cj.com and linkshare.com but realized I could make more money by focusing on niche affiliate offers from private networks. My revenue increased, and I took a risk and invested in the startup I called idooble.com, a social shopping network.
Entering the Internet Startup Era
To build my first Internet startup, I began looking for freelancers. I located a team of people in Minsk, Belarus, who agreed to build what I wanted for $5K U.S. Things did not go as planned; I ended up spending $12K U.S. without seeing any results. I traveled to Minsk to investigate the situation. One there, I recruited two of the developers to work on affiliate networking directly with me for a new company I founded in Belarus. In the first year, we grew to seven people, and in the second year, we expanded to twenty employees. I was financing my social shopping network, idooble.com, from my well-growing income in affiliate marketing.
Around that time, I had the privilege of meeting Sergey Burkov, the man who helped launch Google in Russia. He advised me to close my idooble.com startup, because he couldn’t see me obtaining millions of venture funding for the idea. We had 50,000 registered users, but no income. Our monetization model was not working out. I took his advice and closed the company. I decided that it the team in Minsk could help me in affiliate marketing.
After that, we worked on affiliate marketing related business. First, we built minimum viable products to use for our business, and then we planned to offer some of these service products publicly. We had ten companies test our services and received positive feedback from them all. This reaction motivated me to push harder and invest more time and money. That year, our team grew from 20 to 100 people, and we generated over $10M U.S. in revenue. It felt rewarding and incredible.
Although we were experiencing tremendous success, the time zone difference between the U.S. and the team in Belarus meant I was getting two to three hours of sleep each night and had no personal life whatsoever. In addition, my wife was raising our two sons and pregnant with our third. Between flying overseas every month, communicating with employees through Skype, and going to my office in Portland, I felt depleted and burned out. Communication through Skype was getting harder; I wanted a team I could work with in person and to spend more time with my family. I decided to close the office in Minsk.
Closing the Minsk office was a tough decision, but, in hindsight, the right one. It cost roughly $430K in fines and penalties by the laws of Belarus to close everything. There was an upside, though: my team in Portland was still on board with me, our expenses decreased, the profits increased, and my wife was happy with my decision.
I proceeded to close all services and products that we were building, except for the two that were profitable and generated good revenue. These were our affiliate network and our exit traffic network monetization platform. I quickly convinced a few acquaintances of mine in Portland to help me support the businesses.
Together with my wife and kids I moved to Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland, OR. We rented a house and decided to add some decor and personalized canvas prints to the walls to make it feel like our home. We realized that although we had tons of digital photos, we never had time to turn them into art.
After searching Google for canvas print companies, my wife and I ordered a few pieces from what appeared to be the most reliable company. In about a week, I received an email stating that my order was ready to ship. Another week went by, and then we received the package. The quality was unacceptable, so we shipped it back and went with a different company. Unfortunately, the quality from this second company was even worse than the first.
After sharing my story with colleagues and friends, I realized I wasn’t alone in my dissatisfaction with print companies. Everyone had a story to share. It was then my colleagues and I decided to investigate the situation a little more deeply.
At this point, I wondered if an overall lack of quality in service and delivery pervaded the entire industry. My team and I did some research and came up with a list of all competitors. We then placed over thirty orders for photo prints. After a month, we received all the orders. We experienced late delivery, expensive shipping, bad web experience, poor packaging, low quality materials and low quality printing. All these problems pointed to an undeniable lack of quality in the industry and a poor experience for the customer.
The industry needed to be fixed, and our team wanted to be the solution. This was the genesis of Finic.com. At that point, three of my colleagues and I left affiliate marketing to completely focus on Finic.com. The other two continued to grow our affiliate marketing to support and generate enough cash for the spending and investments needed for Finic.com
A New Beginning
Perhaps many of you have already read my post about the end of Finic.com. One and a half years later, I can say that it’s not actually the end.
We spent a little more than a year studying of the market, creating our team, starting production, and creating product. We squandered more than $1,500,000, but still couldn’t achieve our goals. We had created a great product—far better than any other on the market—but people couldn’t see that quality unless they placed an order. That made it tough to beat our competitors. Although clients who ordered from us became repeat customers, none of our marketing channels really worked as we would have liked.
After two to three months of great effort with Finic.com, we decided that we needed pivot and take a new direction. We began to brainstorm on our goals and where we were heading. It was more of a question of if we should pivot Finic or launch a new startup. By then, I had gathered a good team, and I didn’t plan to lose them.
I don’t remember the exact moment that we decided to start selling prints through photographers. It must have been after a few days of deep thinking and researching. I had become hooked on the idea of working with photographers, but suddenly we had the idea of creating a platform for photographers and their clients instead.
The platform that we envisioned would solve problems in the commercial photography market. For example, one of the biggest problems in that market is that while many photographers can produce amazing photographs, they lack the marketing skills or business acumen to attract new clients, maintain client relationships and provide a complete service. Photographers don’t want to spend the time researching, marketing, attending meetings, and managing payments and contracts. They want to do what they love. In a nutshell, this is how PICR was born.
You can read much more information about PICR in an article I recently wrote here. Read it to get a better understanding of how it can help you if you are a photographer, or if you want to hire a photographer.
Currently, we’re still doing high fives—we just completed development of the first version of the platform. We’ve also brought together more than 20,000 photographers who are excited to start using PICR.
Updated on 11/14/2015