Interviewed by Paula Pärnaste
Sofiia Shvets is the founder and CEO of Let’s Enhance. Coming from Google, she has seen close up how to guide complicated processes and has experienced the importance of good culture. As a person, her passion is people. As a founder, she has taken on the challenge of applying machine learning to creating great visual content.
Nowadays, she runs her 9-person startup team between Portugal, UK, and Ukraine: “Kyiv is my home, and it’s where all the dev power is!” And it's also where we met Sofiia - in one of the cute cafes in Kyiv, located right underneath the LIFT99 Kyiv Hub, to discuss Ukrainian tech scene and her journey as a founder.
We build state-of-the-art AI tools to automatically enhance images and produce commercially ready visuals at scale.
And how would you explain it to your grandma?
It’s a smart computer that redraws images just like a designer – like a designer inside a computer.
What’s one thing people should know before they talk to you?
I’m very open-minded. Don’t overthink – just come and talk to me!
What did you do before founding Let’s Enhance?
I’ve been a fan of startups and technology for quite a long time, around 5 years. I was working with a few different startups as a marketing specialist, launching Kickstarter campaigns, doing communications with journalists, and creating strategies. It was fun and I enjoyed it a lot.
Last 3 years before Let’s Enhance I spent at Google, helping companies to scale and grow with all range of Google instruments. I was living in Ireland and mostly worked with business founders and the C-level.
When you spend 80% of your time with entrepreneurs, it’s hard to not become passionate about starting your own thing. At some point, I joined Google for Entrepreneurs program that's helping very early stage startups to validate their ideas and launch their product.
And it was a changing moment when I realized - yes, I definitely need to do something. So it was a very organic path for me to jump from startup experience to corporate experience to starting my own company.
How did the early days of Let’s Enhance look like?
It was very chaotic, very exciting and very stressful, all at once.
We started out in October 2017 as a team of 3 founders, renting chairs at a coworking space. We worked full-time with no salary for the first 6 months, validating the idea and launching the startup.
When we launched the first free version of the product we started gaining lots of traffic and users – much more than we were prepared for. The website crashed all the time, we received lots of messages from the users, so all of us were working 24/7 doing customer support and fixing the bugs. It was quite a mess, but that’s pretty standard for an early stage startup.
And how did you fund it?
When I was still working at Google but already knew I wanted to build my own startup, I started saving some money. So did my cofounders. We were prepared that for some time we will not have salaries.
That’s something I’d recommend every future founder to do. Startup life is very stressful by nature – without any savings, it will be triple stressful. So you need to prepare to feel a bit more comfortable.
How much has the product changed since the early days?
The product has changed a lot. We first built the product as a B2C platform. After some time, we realized we could bring a lot of value to companies, and switched to B2B, which is a very different process. You need to build a very sustainable product that can work with large volumes.
The expectations are also much higher than from the user’s perspective when it comes to speed, quality, and consistency. And the scaling process is very different as well.
What’s the next big milestone for your team?
We’re developing the company in a few different directions at once. One of them is creating a smart retouch tool for product and real estate images. That requires a lot of research because the needs are once again very different. We’re working with a few companies already. Succeeding in that direction is the next big milestone for us.
In one year perspective, we want to make it self-serve, so any company that needs such a solution can do it automatically on the website without any manual processes.
What’s an achievement that you’re really proud of?
One thing that I'm extremely proud of as a CEO is the very transparent and open culture we’ve built. And that we’ve managed to set up the processes for the team to work remotely. I know how important culture is from my experience at Google. I was dreaming of building this in our team since inviting the very first employee on board.
Another one is that we got accepted into Techstars London and relocated there 7 months after founding the company. That was a big recognition that helped to confirm that what we’re doing is needed.
What’s been one big event that has grown you as a founder?
One of the most painful lessons for us was when we had to fire our first employee after just 1,5 months of being in the team.
We’d hired a senior engineer - exactly what we were looking for, judging by his expertise - but he turned out to be culturally too different from us. He had a totally different vision for the product and he was blaming us for doing everything wrong.
The decision to let him go was hard but it showed us how important is to hire your type of people who believe in the vision, and how important it is to start building the culture from day 1.
We lost time and money but it was a very important lesson for us that led us to change the hiring process completely. I’m now doing the cultural fit interview straight after the first screening. This is the most important indicator to determine if someone’s a match or not. I truly believe that you can teach a person and make them a great fit professionally, but if you don’t share the same values it’s almost impossible to make it work.
What is your unique expertise/skill?
I love sales and working with clients. Business development is my strong side. I truly believe that a CEO should close the first 20 deals to understand the clients’ pain points and objectives. All the things we're building, we’re building because somebody needs it. I’m still doing lots of user interviews.
Besides that, I’m strong in understanding how the international community works, how to operate in multicultural and multinational teams, and how to build processes. My experience in Google is extremely helpful now as I have a clear understanding of how big companies work, why they acquire startups and why not.
If you weren’t a founder, who would you be?
I’m very interested in sociology and psychology. I really-really enjoy finding insights about your customers and then implementing them onto products. So I think I would enjoy working as a UX designer.
If it was outside tech, I’d say I’d be an architect.
What else do you do besides building Let’s Enhance?
Honestly, running my startup takes almost all of my time. But I'm pushing myself to do other things as well, including sports. I really like cross-fit and cardio exercises. It creates a lot of endorphins and reduces the stress that you get from working.
I also go to art exhibitions to escape from the tech bubble. That’s one of the reasons I really like London – there are so many amazing galleries. London always makes me happy.
How do you feed your curiosity?
I just go out and try things. For example, I’ve always been curious about design, so when we were just 3 founders with no designer, and needed some design elements, I used to watch tutorials on YouTube and test it out parallel in the tools. That’s the best way!