As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Maxim Azarov.
Maxim is CEO and co-founder of Novakid — a global online school with an interactive digital platform, delivering personalized English lessons for children ages 4–12 by leveraging Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality. Maxim has been living between two countries (Russia and the USA) for most of his life, working for major IT and telecom companies like Cyber Vision, Digital Five, SMSC, Google and LG (cloud services), and running his own cloud storage company. But in 2017 he drastically changed his career and started Novakid, to use international knowledge and experience in technology development to help his own son and other kids around the world learn English, without the struggles he experienced himself.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
As for most kids in Eastern Europe, learning English in a public school was rather ineffective for me. So, when I grew up, I didn’t want my son to face the same challenges. That’s how the idea of Novakid was born — to provide an innovative online education platform to help all kids around the world master the English language at home with native speaking tutors.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I realized there was a gap in the market for products and services to help children learn English as a second language. The idea behind Novakid is to make the lessons fun and engaging through game-based learning. We also match our students with only the top, accredited and native speaking teachers in their field to ensure that children master the English language as quickly and easily as possible.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Well, there is a game called “The Hangman.” According to its principles we compiled some tasks for children on our platform. Turkish parents were shocked: “Are you showing our children a hanging scene?” We had to come up with another game instead of the “Hangman” — “Hungry Caterpillar,” which eats apples.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our purpose is to help cultivate global citizens of the future who live without borders by giving new generations better opportunities through exposure to international communication and by making them comfortable with using English in their childhood. Greater opportunities improve their chances of fulfilling a happier life.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
We are a socially driven company on a mission to give children whose native language isn’t English the best possible future with access to a wide array of knowledge. Our goal is to improve the world by fostering communication without borders for the 21st century. We believe that a world where children are able to use English as a common tongue to communicate and exchange ideas will lead to more peace and prosperity for all. We do this by engaging our students in fun and interactive learning, socially driven causes, and other activities that make them feel like they are part of a greater mission to make a difference in the world.
For instance, in April, we launched our #KidsTalkFuture digital campaign which invites children from all over the world to share their vision of a happy future for our planet. This reflects Novakid’s mission to not only teach English, but to also create new opportunities for children from different countries, giving them a chance to communicate in the same language and build a happy future together.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I’m a creator/inventor by nature, driven to build things that make a positive difference in this world to help scale things better. Once you have this as a guide, it’s easier to navigate through inevitable downs while not getting too carried away with the ups.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
One of the most difficult things was rejection while raising capital or looking for partners, especially when the company doesn’t have much cushion to survive. I personally switch to a “survival mode” in these moments, focusing only on actions that will get the company to see another day.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Things are going great. Today, Novakid has become a leader in the online ESL market in Europe, delivering more than 2 million classes to over 280,000 children around the globe. We are poised for exponential growth globally.
I believe that our team’s values of following our dreams and passion to make the world a better place have been an important part of Novakid’s continued success.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
1) Get a co-founder. This is a long journey, but a good partner will come in handy.
Novakid is the second business that my co-founder Dmitry Malin and I have started together. I’m more focused on the product, while Dmitry is focused on the operations, so we complement each other well.
2) Be conscious that it may not work the first time and you may need to pivot or even start a new company before you succeed.
My first business never took off as expected. After five years of trying, I decided it was time to start something new. Failure opens new doors to create a different path of success.
3) Launch fast, be nimble and adjust to the environment — most startups are killed by bad timing or a lack of market-product fit.
We launched the initial version of Novakid within five months after the start of the project. It was crude, a lot of things were done manually, but it validated the product-market fit and set us on a high-growth trajectory. If we waited longer to launch, we might have missed the timing to scale throughout the COVID lockdown.
4) Fundraise all of the time. Building relationships with venture capitalists takes months or even years. Start that process well before you need the money.
Our Round A took longer than we anticipated because before asking for money, most investors wanted to get to know us. With existing relationships, Round B was a much faster process. Even when we don’t fundraise we keep potential investors warm by sending them quarterly updates.
5) Hire globally, you don’t spend money on offices. Only recruiting talent from a single city or even a country is limiting. Remote global companies are the future.
We have employees from more than 10 countries. Hiring from a global talent pool not only widens our opportunity to grow the business with the best talent, but also makes Novakid a unique place to work for ambitious and talented people who want to work on international teams. Our employees spend less time commuting and more time with their families. This makes life more satisfying and allows “Novakiders” to focus on bringing their “best game” to their work. And the money we don’t spend on offices, we spend on nice “offsite” gatherings for our employees.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve had multiple mentors along the way. One of my first mentors was a more seasoned manager from Serbia who taught me, a self-absorbed software engineer, to see the world from different perspectives.
I’ve met brilliant people while working for Google, each of whom taught me a lesson or two.
I was also lucky to get mentors from our investors, who guided me through a brave new world of international finance (for me anyway).
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)
I would organize TED TALKS for kids, creating a platform for great speakers to get kids engaged and inspire the new generation to do great things in their lives.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn here, and also follow Novakid on Facebook and Instagram.