Founder Stories: Kirill Bigai, Preply
Interviewed by Paula Pärnaste
Kirill Bigai, the founder and CEO of Preply – one of the most outstanding startups in Ukraine - is on a mission to bring the efficiency of learning to a new level. Preply’s team has been growing fast in the last years and they just opened a new office in Barcelona, with plans to grow the team there to a 100 people over the next year and a half. To make it happen, they hired Yara Paoli, the former VP of Growth at Skyscanner, and Philippe Meriaux, the former COO of Happn (no pun intended).
What is Preply?
Preply is a global marketplace for online language tutoring. Our mission is to help people to be prepared to speak confidently in a foreign language. Simply said, we connect students and tutors from all over the world over video calls.
What’s one thing people should know before they talk to you?
I’m a very direct person. So when I hear some information I like it to be structured and easy to understand. Sometimes people start talking and keep talking and talking without making any sense.
What did you do before founding Preply?
I was an Intelligent Network Engineer at Ukrainian Vodafone. It sounds sophisticated but basically, I was responsible for telecommunication servers and software that was built as a network over the core network. The intelligent network allows operators to provide value-added services like pre-paid accounts with a variety of tariff plans, voicemail, location-based services, and others. I really wanted to switch my career to software development and build some software myself. It wasn’t necessarily about being a developer but more about building a product company myself.
Then I found Terrasoft. I liked them a lot and I was really lucky to get a job there. It’s a Ukrainian CRM provider, quite popular in Eastern Europe. They had just sold the first product to Yandex and I joined to work on a new project as kind of a product manager.
I was trying to understand what business processes they had then, and how could we automate these processes with our BPM'online (Business Process Management Online), it was then a new cloud product by Terrasoft.
I learned how to deal with customers by doing interviews, trying to understand what they really need. I also understood different processes in Yandex organization and was able to apply our software to these processes. I was working a lot with the software team – it was a very valuable experience. That’s also when I started to build my own startup as a side project.
And how did Preply start?
The first idea for a startup was born in the middle of 2011 when I was still working at Vodafone. It was a different startup but that led to Preply. I was figuring out what I wanted to do for the next 10 years, what was going to be the success for me. I knew the direction was software and starting my own company. The startup movement was quite new in Ukraine but I’d read a lot about different tech companies including the stories of Google and Facebook. Facebook was still new in Ukraine back then.
I found a special startup course that had great lectures explaining what is Silicon Valley, how it was created, why it was created, what is venture world and how it all works. They also explained what is a product, finances, marketing... It was only touching the surface but it was a good start. By the end of the course, everyone had to come up with a business idea.
During this time I was struggling to find a Chinese teacher. And I’d faced the problem before. After I graduated from university I realized my English was really bad. I was looking for a teacher but it was just a nightmare: there were not enough teachers, no native speaking teachers, and also the schedules didn’t work for me.
My idea was to create a platform that would solve this problem. It wasn’t the idea of Preply yet but of my first company FindGuru – a marketplace for booking a variety of local group classes.
So I had an idea and then I met this super energetic guy Alexey. We both wanted to start a company and he said: “Let’s do your idea – it seems more simple.” So we decided to go for it.
Two months later we presented our idea to an accelerator and afterward, they decided to invest. It wasn’t a huge amount, just $20K, but it was enough for start. After 5 months in Terrasoft, I decided to quit my job and do this full-time. It was a tough decision because I loved my job – but I also felt that I can’t make a different choice.
Unfortunately, we failed in 4 months… And then we started Preply.
How did the early days of Preply look like?
We started Preply in May 2012 with a bit different team. It was 3 of us: the CTO Roman and the CMO Dmytro from my first company, and myself. Very soon we also hired our designer Sergey.
We raised $180K as seed round, built a product for the US market and went to Boston. It was a very interesting experience, but we clearly had to keep working on product-market fit and iterate on a product. We also relied heavily on paid channels which - with a bad product-market fit - made it very expensive to grow. At the end of 2012, our burn rate was very high and we had spent almost all of the round we’d raised. So, we made a tough decision – return back to Kyiv. American dream didn’t work out.
Winter 2013 was probably the hardest time we have had with Preply as we didn’t have our North Star. We simply didn’t know what to do next. We kept brainstorming almost every day for a month. Our discussions were all revolving around the US market and different business models, marketing channels. We tried to test some of them, but it wasn’t very effective. Especially as it was also when our CTO left to work for Google in NY.
At some point, our designer Sergey spotted a demand in Ukraine via Google and it was quite enough for a test. It looked like a good way to iterate cheaply and then to scale to the US. Dmytro became the CTO of the company and we offered Sergey to become a cofounder.
In March 2013, we launched a new Preply – a marketplace for English tutoring.
We spent 2 years bootstrapping. Just the 3 of us. There was about $40K left of the previous round, so we had some salaries in the beginning. Until we ran out. We still didn’t have much revenue so we had to stop paying our salaries for 4 months. We were surviving off some money we made on the side. I, for example, did some consultancy in SEO that I had learned on my own. It was 2 years of struggle but it was also enjoyable and fun. Then we started paying our salaries again – $100 each per month. That became $200, and step by step we had an ok salary to survive.
And then the Revolution began.
When the revolution began in 2013 we were building Preply during the day, growing the customer base, doing customer support, and in the evening we were on Maidan square supporting Ukraine – the movement to EU.
It was quite a rollercoaster I’d say – very intense emotionally. You pay yourself $200 per month, there’s a revolution happening... it was crazy! Here in the center [exactly where we’re now having breakfast, downstairs of Preply’s office] we just had another war between the police and the people. It was lots of fire, lots of dark smoke, because at some point police started firing and people started burning car tires. You started every day with reading the news – and every day the news was horrible: how many people had died overnight, some absolutely crazy statements, police attacks during the night on Maidan. And then you go to work to keep your company running. And again Maidan in the evening. It was tough.
What is another achievement that you’re really proud of?
The team. We’re continuously growing the team and I’m happy with those people that we’ve been able to attract to Preply. We currently have 20 nationalities in a team of 90. We believe that if you want to build an international product, you have to be diverse inside. Like your customers – with different backgrounds, different nationalities, different approaches.
Name one failure that has grown you as a founder?
The biggest mistake I made during my first try, is that we didn’t have a good balance within the team – we had 3 engineers, 2 business people with very different visions. It didn’t work very well. And we didn’t have a designer. When you want to do a quick prototype and build the ideas fast you need to have a full-stack team.
Another big lesson was learned when choosing investors. There’s a big difference between the good investors and the investors who are nice people with money. I would be very smart in choosing investors who bring in the knowledge and experience your company needs, who challenge you. The moment we started attracting good investors is the moment we started growing at a different pace and became a whole new company. It also helped me to become a better CEO.
What is the next big milestone for Preply?
We’re in a good position to become number 1 in our space. That’s the big milestone for this year.
What is a unique experience that you have?
I have a degree in engineering and a degree in economics. As an engineer I understand how things work, the economics degree taught me how to capitalize on it.
I was very lucky to go to a school with very high standards in math, physics, and chemistry. It really made me as a person. It’s not even about the knowledge but the way of thinking. There are many skills you develop during life that you don’t think would become useful. Until they do.
Also, soccer played a significant role in my life. It’s a very fast-paced game. Your brain has to analyze so much information in every single moment of a game – follow the ball, coordinate your movements, predict what is the next move of your opponents and teammates. You also have to have good stamina and acceleration. And I was playing strategy games – gaming helps to develop your brain a lot.
If you weren’t a founder, who would you be?
Software engineer. Or maybe I’d be in entertainment. When I was young I loved different types of music – I mean, I still do!