“The US market is undoubtedly huge and ruthlessly capitalist. You can have even a raw product to establish yourself here, but only if it has obvious advantages over existing solutions. This way, you will always find your client and be able to earn more than you spend”, 一 says Serhii Dovhopolyi, the founder of the accelerator FeelGoodLabs. However, becoming a part of the US market is the primary goal of many Ukrainian startups. But how do you accomplish it, and what do you have to prepare for?
Founder: Serhii Dovhopolyi
Location: Kyiv (Ukraine)
The accelerator and its founder
Serhii Dovhopolyi is not only the founder but also the author of many acceleration programs within the project. He calls himself an evangelist with alternative education. Serhii started his career in the digital business in 2006. Two years in, he earned his first million. Now he owns several digital companies, is a commercial director and board member of Delfast, and is a partner at the Inventure Investment Group. Serhii works and lives in the USA, but he is also actively involved in developing the Ukrainian IT industry. Serhii Dovhopolyi also acts as a business consultant, mentor, and lecturer in training courses.
“I enjoyed communication with entrepreneurs throughout my life,” says Dovhopolyi. ‒ “My life experience is formed from a lot of time spent consulting and talking about new markets. Then, a few months later, these people would thank me for helping to grow their business. I always have an inner urge and passion for helping someone reach the top, to be a part of it.”
In 2014, Serhii started his work on creating a private business accelerator FeelGoodLabs. Initially, the company was based in Dnipro, but 2 years later, it moved to Kyiv.
Now the FeelGoodLabs accelerator offers startups a permanent support program based on practical work with experts. The program’s purpose is to determine individual goals and then ‒ test and implement them. The focus is on startups that seek further development and eventual scaling.
The program consists of 20 classes for 80 hours. The whole training course lasts 10 weeks, all classes are online.
During the course, startups follow the path from testing hypotheses to sales. Interactions with mentors ‒ successful business practitioners ‒ help determine the market value of a startup product. In addition, the FeelGoodLabs accelerator has powerful networking. Thanks to this, every project can find potential customers, partners, and investors as soon as entering the training period.
“We help find investments. Usually, we choose one project from each cycle and invest our own funds in it. For projects that show traction and can be objectively interesting, we promote them to our networking to attract investment and find alternative funding. Many startups we worked with eventually received grants”,一 shares Serhii Dovhopolyi.
It’s worth noting that the accelerator courses aren’t free. Usually, startup founders initially have to invest their own money in the creation and development of the project. However, according to Serhii Dovhopolyi, there always are beginners who expect to receive external financial support without making their own effort. A position like that speaks of not that serious intentions of the entrepreneur. These partners tend to show they might not be reliable and hardworking enough. The money paid for participation in the training program covers administrative costs and goes to the paychecks for mentors and curators.
According to the site, training at FeelGoodLabs costs much less than the thousands of mistakes made by beginners.
Acceleration during the war
Even though the war had been going on for 8 years in some territories, the full-scale invasion of the Russian army was a real shock to all Ukrainians. There’s no way anyone could be prepared for that. This is mainly why most companies and industries got their large number of projects frozen. Still, the business must go on, although it takes time to explore the new reality and adjust. The FeelGoodLabs accelerator is also working on this. Since it’s impossible to conduct high-speed acceleration programs in the thick of war actions, they were temporarily suspended until quieter times.
According to Serhii Dovhopolyi, FeelGoodLabs most likely won’t return to normal next month. And yet, shortly, a unique acceleration program will be launched ‒ based on survey data from Ukrainian IT entrepreneurs.
Still, the FeelGoodLabs team doesn’t waste time being idle. “The accelerator team is now focused on helping Ukrainian Armed Forces and our fellow citizens. We help with evacuation from warzone area to the countries of the European Union; also we buy equipment for the military and humanitarian aid, etc.” 一 Dovhopolyi comments.
Despite the struggle of the war and volunteer impulses, Serhii advises startups and IT entrepreneurs to not forget about their businesses. “If you aren’t defending Ukraine with machine guns, working is your best option. Work even harder and more”, — motivates Serhii Dovhopolyi. In his opinion, sanctions against Russia open up many new opportunities for Ukrainian IT specialists.
“The war will end sooner or later (better sooner, of course). After that, a large-scale rebuilding of Ukraine will begin. Many russian products that worked for our market will indeed be replaced ‒ 1C being a good example. Therefore, I advise you to work in this direction ”,
– the businessman explains.
Also worth noting that Ukraine now has robust support from Western countries. As a result ‒ our business isn’t left out of foreign partners’ attention. Serhii Dovhopolyi believes that now our startups have much more chances and better grounds for entering foreign markets. “In the EU and the US, Ukrainians have the right to work and do business; our foreign friends and partners are now open to cooperation and eager to help. But you still have to build your business with your own hands; it’s a no-brainer. At this point, the window of opportunity is open, but it must be entered as well. And regarding customers: now, the vast majority of foreigners fully support Ukrainians and are ready to buy from Ukrainian companies. But, again: the issue of production, logistics, etc., must be thought through on your own,” ‒ said Serhii.
When the war is over, who will be accepted into the program?
Despite the paid basis, not everyone willing to enrol will have access to the FeelGoodLabs course. Only startups at the Pre-Seed stage can get into the program, but the main decision will be taken based on the quality of the team. “The team is the first thing we pay attention to how motivated it is, how well it understands its own actions, and how adaptive it is because everything is moving very fast in startups. After that, we evaluate how much the team is ready to invest in themselves,” ‒ explains Serhii.
In addition, the accelerator founders are themselves looking for participants. In particular, Serhii regularly checks out projects interacting with the Ukrainian Startup Fund.
The activity of beginner startup creators is also essential. People who often get noticed and persistently promote their projects have some kind of bonus. Their relative popularity and activity indicate their high motivation. Partnerships with people like that are usually effective, and these people typically get a call.
“We look at any new project and simply ask the founder: what has changed in the last half of the year? What is your trajectory for the future?” 一 Mr Dovhopolyi comments.
When doesn’t acceleration make any sense?
Most startup founders are invested in acceleration, but, as it turns out, not all our applicants need it. There is a big difference between the idea of any action and actual practice. Serhii Dovhopolyi advises beginners to start with creating a solid team. Without it, participation in the acceleration program doesn’t make sense. “When one wants to do one thing, and the other has completely different plans when people in the team have no synchronization or no common vision for the project whatsoever ‒ they usually don’t need any acceleration until they can find a way to communicate and work in synergy.” — Mr Dovhopolyi continues. He also states that in 2017, the FeelGoodLabs accelerator had 80 startups enrolled, 60 of which were disassembled right during the program. The reason was simple: the lack of synchronization within the team and the wrong role assignment. After this case, the accelerator management started inspecting startup teams more closely.
Serhii includes startups that never opted for marketing research or had poor timing, among other common reasons for failed acceleration. If the product is irrelevant to the modern market, it’s not worth any effort. “One big IT outsourcing company in Ukraine has once launched a medical CBD-related product on the US market. They had a certain customer in the United States, and based on their demand, they created a mass-market product. It ended up with them spending a big chunk of money on it, probably half a million dollars.” — Serhii Dovhopolyi tells. The product was created to fulfil the individual needs of a particular person from a specific region. Its features didn’t meet the demand of potential customers. While the product was under development, the US market had undergone many changes, and many startups already had similar products for most clients’ demands. The founders eventually realized that their product completely lost its relevance when the company was accelerated. “The founders came to my office and said: we’ve calculated our expenses and decided to get over it.”— Serhii cites. Therefore, there’s no point in accelerating a product without solid marketing research and economic forecast.
The US market: how to scale?
According to Serhii Dovhopolyi, you really need to live in the US at least for a while to develop a business there. Before entering the US market, many startup founders expect to use the Ukrainian market as their sandbox. Well, this approach doesn’t work for several reasons. “The United States and Ukraine markets are completely different, — Serhii explains — Even if you nail something perfectly in the Ukrainian market, there’s a high chance it will be irrelevant for America. There is a completely different perception of things.” Startups annually attract billions of investments in the United States. For investors, the founder’s origin makes a big difference. “Even if you come strictly for business, you are still perceived as a tourist. But the moment you open a representative office, even if it’s in coworking, you get an entirely new attitude,” 一 says Serhii. According to him, people who’ve never been to the United States shouldn’t count on American investments. The only exceptions are American investors of Ukrainian origin. However, this option is not realistic if the product hasn’t yet been tested in the US market. According to Serhii Dovhopolyi, founders who plan to sell the product in the United States need to book their plane tickets as soon as possible. A crucial interaction with the American market must begin at the stage of project validation.
Serhii emphasizes: that it’s impossible to study the subtleties of the market and the mood of potential partners online and not from one’s personal experience. Mr Dovhopolyi cites the case of Delfast, a company that assembles and sells electric bicycles. He tried to launch a B2D sales channel in the United States for some time, but it just didn’t work. Then, Serhii and the other founder of the company Daniel Tonkopiy went to the US to talk with potential dealers and present their product correctly. After personal acquaintance and physical testing of the goods, distributors agreed to sign a contract. All the while, Serhii learned about legal aspects and studied local nuances of the market.
FeelGoodLabs Accelerator: What’s Next?
According to Serhii Dovhopolyi, the acceleration program in Ukraine has already been launched. However, the local market is not very developed, and the community of IT specialists is quite small. There also are relatively few startups. Therefore, FeelGoodLabs plans to expand into the African market. According to Serhii, the local market is similar to the Ukrainian. In Africa, many skilled professionals are well-trained in digital business and have good prospects. So, yes: FeelGoodLabs is adapting its program for African startups.
On the other side, Ukrainian IT professionals shouldn’t be carried away too much. Demand for Ukrainian digital projects is growing rapidly, but it still has to do a lot to catch up with progressive countries’ pace. Recent successes should inspire profoundly active and creative work. All in all, an unstable economy calls for creativity to be a proper solution.