Starting up a business is hard. Doing it while in an active warzone is even harder. Ukrainian Entrepreneur Bogdan Romaniuk joins Gary Schoeniger for this podcast episode to share insights into his mindset as a co-founder of xTiles—a tool for visual thinking that helps people organize projects and ideas. Bogdan also lets us in on his thinking about solving problems and how being open to new experiences makes you more susceptible to “getting lucky” and finding new opportunities. Join this episode as they take us deep into this web-based organizational note-taking system for creative minds whose easy yet stylish user interface dramatically improves project organization. What is more, you can try and check xTiles’ free demo here.
Listen to the podcast here
Read the transcript below.
Inside The Mind Of A Ukrainian Entrepreneur With Bogdan Romaniuk
I’m speaking with Bogdan Romaniuk, a young Ukrainian entrepreneur who is working on a startup amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Bogdan is a Cofounder of xTiles, a tool for visual thinking that helps people organize projects and ideas. As a student studying Tourism, Bogdan did not see himself as an entrepreneur. He had a chance encounter with an entrepreneurial professor who encouraged him to follow his own path. As with other episodes, we don’t spend much time here talking about the particulars of his startup. Instead, we delve into the underlying beliefs and the circumstances to drive his behavior.
In this episode, we talk about his approach to startup and why he chose not to write a business plan or pursue outside investment. We also discussed the importance of being open to experience as a way to generate luck. We talk about the importance of failure, as well as the power of a compelling goal. We also discuss the impact the war has had on his team. Without any further ado, I hope you enjoy my conversation with Bogdan Romaniuk.
Bogdan, welcome to the show.
Thanks for the invitation. It’s a pleasure for me.
I’m excited to get your story. You’ve got a startup happening right now just a little bit South of Kyiv in Ukraine. There’s a war going on. I don’t want to make this interview all about the war in Ukraine. Part of your startup story is a testament to the human spirit, which is what entrepreneurship is all about. I want to get started by asking you how you got on this entrepreneurial path. Did you have mentors in your life? Did somebody inspire you? How did you get on this?
You won’t believe it, but I was inspired by my wife since I started a few years ago when I was a pretty young person. We met each other. At the same time, I met Max, who is the founder of my startup. It was two lines in my life which was super important to me. The first one was my girlfriend at the time. Now she’s my wife. The second line, it was my founder, Max. How I got into entrepreneurship, I met Max. We started to make one startup. It failed, but we get tons of experience, so much different challenges and so on. I was dreaming about something like this. I was looking for myself for a long time, but I didn’t even know where to watch. Literally, in one month, I found everything. Now there is my journey. That’s what I’m going on.
Let me back you up there a little bit. How old are you?
You’re in your second year of university. Are you thinking you’re going to go the university route, you’re going to get a degree, and you’re going to get a job somewhere?
My mindset about university is not like this at all. I don’t believe that people who finish university, successfully or not, that are going to get the job of their dream and then going to be happy. Sometimes it’s happened, but most of the time, people study and define themselves. In some cases, their future job will match their personality. Most of the time, they are going to find another job. I wasn’t dreaming about finishing successfully in university and then go into the job. I found what I want to do. I started to do this. I studied at university. By the way, I was studying Tourism. Far from startup, from the technical niche.
You don’t see yourself as an entrepreneur at this time. Is it safe to say that you’re not assuming that university is, “I’m going to follow the path that everybody else is following?”
Your then girlfriend now wife, how did she intervene in this story? How did she impact your trajectory?
She came into my life at the right time when I needed some support and inspiration. It’s accidentally, but that’s how it works. We start to move together. She’s a photographer. She knows what entrepreneurship is. She is a real entrepreneurship person. I start my line of life. We move in together now.
You were prime, but when you met her, you got a vision of like, “This is it. This is more of a self-directed life.” Is that fair to say?
I think so. Ever since, it’s matched at the time I understood what was going on and what’s my vision. I came to Max. When we had our first interview, it was in the office. We were talking for one hour or so. We were talking about, “Will I get this job or not?” We were talking things about life, entrepreneurship, what is my vision, what is his vision. I found out that I met a person that I want to work with and develop our mutual relationship.
Were you applying for a job? Is that how you met Max?
I was living in Germany for some time, then I go back to Ukraine and I decided that I didn’t want to travel anymore. I was traveling for a few years. I was studying abroad, working abroad, and then I’d go back to Ukraine. I then found a way how can I work abroad and develop my life in Ukraine. It didn’t match. I decided to stop there and try to find a job. I applied for it. It was a tech company in my city. I went there and left my resumé. They called me. That’s how it started.
Did you graduate from college at that point?
I’m still studying there.
You meet Max. He’s an entrepreneur. He’s your cofounder. It started as a job interview, as an employer-employee relationship.
When I applied for the job, I applied as an assistant to Max. I was working like this for two weeks and then we decided to create something new. We meet each other. He has an idea. I had a vision of how to implement it. We decided to try to make something together. We have been working on this startup for eight months. We started to get first users and so on and so on. We found another idea which is xTiles, which is something that we are working on now. We stopped our previous startup. We decided that we could do something more. Max is a complete entrepreneur. He’s teaching me a lot. He’s my mentor. I appreciate his help and every single thing he’s teaching me now, showing me what we can do. We’re learning together how to watch in the world differently.
You’re carving the path as you go. What was the original idea that you guys were working on? Why did you pivot to xTiles? We’ll talk about what xTiles is.
It was two different ideas. For the first one, we came up with the app for recruiters. There was a quality time and there are hard times for recruiters to find candidates, especially in a niche because developers were not available. We created a tool that will help find developers in some social media that recruiters typically don’t use. We decided that the market is too small to develop something more, to keep developing it. I’m not going to say that Max had this idea accidentally, but I was working in a previous startup completely at that time and he started to develop xTiles and then I joined him again in a new company.
How are you surviving while you’re doing this? How will you pay the bills? How are you paying the rent? How does that all work?
First of all, Max, who is the founder, he has a company. Many bills the company covers by itself. This is the first answer to why we survived with the first startup and the second one. The second answer would be we do not spend a lot of money. We’re trying to cook everything. Either it’s our mindset or of all start-uppers. We are trying to build a relationship with people as much as possible. We buy what we need to buy when we can do it in any other way. I’m going to give you an example. If we need some analytic tools, we’ll start talking with founders, make relationships, and exchange our ideas and tools.
Anyways, we both are going to have a win-win, because he’s going to use our tool and we’re going to use his tool. That’s how we build everything. Before building a startup, we started to build a network with more people who will advise us sometimes, advise how to not spend too much money, and so on. Otherwise, I’m not sure that we would survive.
Why choose this path rather than go get a job? Your friends your age, are they graduated from college and going off to get jobs? Why isn’t that attractive to you? Why did you not choose that path?
Different mindset. My family, we are super romantic people. My father is a singer. My mother is also a singer. We all sing.
You come from a family of artists.
I wasn’t the same person in school, in college. I couldn’t work well. I tried to do a lot of different stuff, but the service is boring. Work in a typical work as everyone is doing is super boring. It’s not about that you couldn’t do this. It’s about you’re not going to be successful in something that you don’t like.
That’s a huge problem. There’s a lot of people that follow that path where they go to college, they try to get the job that pays the most money, and then next thing you know, you’ve got a house and apartment to pay for and kids and a family and you don’t like your work. It’s a horrible place to be. A lot of people get themselves in that.
I have an answer to your question. I’m a lucky boy because I have met so much great people in my life. It started with my professors in the university to put me in the right direction and finished with my wife, Max, tons of genius people that I met during the startup journeys. I’m lucky because I met people who know how to work in typical work, and then I met people who know how beautiful it is to do something you like.
There’s a lot to unpack there. Tell me about a professor that inspired you. Do you have a particular person in mind? Can you tell me a little bit about that?
It was my professor. She was a woman entrepreneur. She owned restaurants in cities. Russia grabbed it in 2014. It was in the donuts. She has her own business there. She traveled to Ukraine, where we are all now. At the same time, she was an entrepreneur and she was a professor. I don’t know how, but we communicate in a different way because we know what we want from each other. She advised me on so much different useful things.
She advised me to go abroad and study for one year in the Erasmus program abroad. She advised me where I should work and where I should not work, which is the most important part. She didn’t tell me, “Bogdan, finish your tourism department and work in some firm.” She told me, Find the best companies that you can find in Ukraine. Find the best roles that you can find for yourself. Don’t just go and work for money to spend the time.” I still remember this word.
It’s almost like she was saying to you, like, “Honor yourself.” That’s advice we don’t get often.
That’s what I’m saying about being lucky because I met so many amazing people around me.
You’re also open to it. I’ve studied this. Psychologists call it fortuitousness. To the casual observer, it looks as if it’s random. The example that was Albert Bandura that he gave, you’re in an airport. You’re open to a conversation with a stranger instead of having your earbuds in and reading a book. You could call that luck, but there are these subtle little things that make the difference. Do you know this guy, Naval Ravikant? Do you follow him on social media?
I’m not pretty sure. Maybe I follow him somewhere.
He’s got an interesting character. He’s got a lot to say about the startup space. He laid out four kinds of luck. He said the first kind of luck is completely random. Something falls out of the sky and lands on your head. This is totally random. The second kind of luck he described as hustle luck. You’re out making things happen, and every once in a while, something goes your way. To the casual observer, there’s no difference. The third kind of luck he had was domain-specific luck. You’re in a space and you start to understand that and you can see opportunities that outsiders can’t see.
He also considered it as luck.
That’s what he’s getting to, is that pretty soon it’s like you’re manufacturing the luck. The fourth kind of luck he called reputational luck. You have a reputation for being fair, of having a good work ethic and being fair-minded and results-driven, and people start bringing you opportunities. People want to work with you, but it all looks like luck to the outside observer.
It’s a good skill.
Let’s go back to something you said about people who don’t understand the joy of working, the satisfaction that comes from creating something that other people find useful. People don’t see the difference. Either they create something specific, new, useful, and innovative in the market anyway. Marx wrote about this in the 1840s. He didn’t call it entrepreneurship, but he was very much aware.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Marxist, but this is interesting. He said, “Imagine that if you and I could exchange as humans as opposed to being factory workers, or as opposed to being employees. We would both benefit in two ways. Let’s say I make coffee cups. I would benefit by making that cup because by doing so, I’m going to manifest what’s inside of me on the outside.
I’m going to express myself whether I’m making a coffee cup or an app or whatever it is I’m building. I’m expressing who I am. I benefit in that way. The other way that I’m going to benefit is when I see that you find what I’ve created useful to you, I also benefit. It works both ways between us and then you create something that’s an expression of who you are. That thing is useful to me.
That’s what people don’t understand about entrepreneurship. Many people languish in jobs they don’t like unnecessarily. They don’t see another pathway out. Everybody else is doing it. They don’t believe in themselves enough. They have never been taught how to create value or whatever. The point I wanted to get back to what you were saying is that for many people, learning and work are looked at as necessary evil.
In your previous question, I have seen people didn’t see the difference because they don’t appreciate this feeling when somebody like what you are doing, when somebody is satisfied with what you’re doing. They don’t feel it because of different circumstances. Maybe they didn’t feel it anytime in their life. Maybe they don’t appreciate these feelings. This is something that differentiates people from entrepreneurs, typical employees, and people who don’t care about their life. What do you want to feel when you wake up in the morning and go into your office, to your office or your employee?
There’s a guy named Gary Vaynerchuk. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. He’s a social media guy. He’s an entrepreneur, in your face style. He said something once that struck me. He said, “If you live for holidays and weekends, your shit is broken.” I liked that. It’s a little on the vulgar side, but it’s straight up. That’s no way to live your life.
I’m happy that I’m not that feeling any time. I’m happy with people with whom I work with, with whom I’m speaking. We do not live in this life, from holidays to holidays, from weekends to weekends.
It comes back to like what your professor was encouraging you. There’s an aspect of entrepreneurship that’s perhaps underappreciated, which is the authenticity. Statistically, you and I are going to make less money in our lives being entrepreneurs than we would if we went the traditional employee route. Statistically, that’s true, but I don’t care, because I get to live authentically. I get to express myself. I get to decide what I do with my time.
If you choose this way of entrepreneurship, the people around you don’t care about money. That’s what I said to you in our previous meeting. Why should you earn so much money if you express yourself if people around you are happy because you are working in the same field? You’re thinking in the same or in a different way, but about important things.
You’re a part of a team that’s moving in the same direction, bought into the same vision.
You’re just part of a different team or company of people. That’s why we didn’t even care about money or so.
I hear that a lot. When I first started interviewing entrepreneurs years ago, some of them were successful and some of them had made hundreds of millions of dollars. I kept hearing them say, “It’s not about the money.” The first 3 or 4 times I heard that, I was a little bit perplexed. I was wondering to myself, “That’s easy for you to say. You sold your business for $300 million.” As I started to look at the literature and understand human motivation, I now understand what they mean. It’s not about the money. It’s about the meaning and the purpose. You’re creating something that’s useful. You’re creating jobs for people. You’re making an impact in the world. The money is an outcome of that.
It’s the signals that you do something right in an appropriate way, that people appreciate what you’re doing.
I don’t know about Europe, but in the US, there’s a casual contempt for entrepreneurship within higher education, college and university. There’s the idea that the entrepreneur is somebody who wants to exploit others for their own gain to try and make a lot of money. They’re schemers.
I’m not sure about the European system of education, but here in Ukraine, it’s completely different. Here, you can be a successful entrepreneur if you’re seventeen years old, developed your own idea and developing a typical café. The Ministry of Innovation in Ukraine, Fedorov, he’s an entrepreneur. He didn’t learn how to be a minister. He didn’t study how to be a politician, but now he’s famous and super successful in what he does. He’s an entrepreneur and he loves everything about innovation.
Now he creates so many valuable things in UA. He created an ID card on a smartphone, a driver’s license on a smartphone. That’s something about how to be an entrepreneur person in Ukraine. I don’t know if somebody can study hard to be this person. You can study how to gain this mindset. It’s inside a few. Either you are or you are not this person.
Human beings are no different than any other organism in that we’re all born with the innate capacity and the desire to become all that we can become. That’s in every living thing. We’re all like an acorn with the desire and the capacity to become this mighty oak, but that tendency can be easily thwarted.
I still don’t know why.
It can be thwarted by a job. Tell me what you think of this. That tendency is in all of us, but on the one hand, we’re opportunity-seeking, growth-oriented organisms, but at the same time, we’re stability-seeking, uncertainty-avoiding organisms. That creates this tension. Most of us default to the stability-seeking half of the equation. The trick is you need both. You want to sleep in the same bed every night. You want to have some routine in your life, but we need to be experimenting and exploring all the time in the margins.
For me, I didn’t think about these human beings from this point of view. It’s something interesting, which part is the bigger in your organization, the parts that want to be in a safe and stable place, or the parts that we want to move?
It’s a super interesting question you’re asking. I would say that the environment matters a lot. Behavior is a function of the person and the situation.
Ten percent are the parts that wants to move, 90% is environment.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Exposure to entrepreneurial activity early in life drastically increases the probability that you’re going to be entrepreneurial in some way in your own life. That’s already been established. What I hear a lot from entrepreneurs I interview is there’s some early experience in life. They were selling vacuum cleaners door to door. They were doing something with their parents when they were a little kid. They saw their parents had a side hustle or something. They saw that. Even in your own case, is it fair to say that once you get a taste of that freedom, even though your first idea with Max failed, but once that genie comes out of the bottle, it’s difficult to stuff the genie back into the bottle?
Yes. It was not even in the first meeting with Max. I strongly remember the first time when I gained my first money. I sold a few kilos of apple. It was a simple example. I was eight years old or something like this.
The science around that is super interesting because what you’re learning is control as opposed to helplessness. The science is interesting here. When you find yourself in a difficult situation or a challenging or unpleasant situation, let’s say, your brain reaches into your memory to try to decide whether this is escapable or not escapable, whether this situation is controllable or not controllable. It does this without consulting us consciously.
This all happens at the unconscious level. The brain decides like, “We can’t escape this.” It shuts down the attempt to escape it in order to conserve energy. There’s one psychologist, Martin Seligman, who put it like this, “Early experiences of control, selling apples when you’re eight years old, protect us against the ravages of uncontrollability later in life.
It’s a wild lesson that you gained in your childhood. It changed your life.
Tell me more about the apple experience. How did that come about?
I was living in a village. There is freedom everywhere. You can do whatever you want in the summer holidays and so on and so on. I was curious to do something like this. I literally went into a garden. I found apples. It was our garden. I go to our neighborhood and proposed it. She was like, “Give it to me. I give you the money.” It was my first experience. It was an unbelievable feeling. I didn’t even get it yet. That’s why I’m still working on startups. I want to feel it again, this amazing moment when you gain something that you didn’t expect or something that you work hard for, and then you the happy eyes saying to you, “Take this money. Thank you for the apples.” A simple example.
People misinterpret that. They think, “It’s all about money.” What people miss is that this is something Marx wrote about, the desire to fulfill human needs through our own effort is a powerful, motivational factor. It’s an essential part of what makes us human. When that is denied to us, when someone else tells us what to learn and do in exchange for a paycheck, I think it’s much more difficult to thrive under those circumstances.
It’s an important point. What happens? You’re going to college. You meet Max because you’re applying for a job and you realize you connect with this guy, “He’s an entrepreneur. I want to work with him.” You guys develop this startup. It’s not going anywhere. It was a startup to help people recruit developers.
After the startup failed, I talked with Max about it. He eventually told me like, “Bogdan, take it like this. It was an experience for you. It was a lesson. It was the one big lesson in your life. It doesn’t matter if we failed or succeeded. You’ve done it. You’ve done so much work. You get so much experience. Let’s move further.” We did it.
At least Max was teaching you to interpret this failure optimistically.
For me, it was a big fail. I was working strongly on the startup. I forgot about everything else. I forget about a lot of my good friends, some hobbies. I was just concentrating on two things in my life, relationship and startup. When some of them failed, you are a little bit destroyed. Max, that’s what we discussed. He thought me how to deal with unsuccessful situation, how to keep going, how to not stop and wake up in the morning. Good thinking about further a day.
I interviewed a guy. That’s going to be the next episode we dropped. He talked about belief management. We have to be aware of the story we’re telling ourselves because if it’s not a good story, you’re not going anywhere. You almost have to be delusionally optimistic at some point in order to keep getting up and marching forward. Here you are in the midst of the greatest war since the Second World War and you’re still marching forward.
I was so surprised when I started my journey in startups. I was so surprised by how strong people are. You fail your exam, for example, and you’re upset, but somebody failed a startup and he’s not upset. He’s just going on. I was so surprised by that. I started to change myself as well. People started to ask me, “Why are you always optimistic? Why are you always happy?” I wasn’t thinking about it like this. I was the same every time. A few months ago, I noticed it the same with Max. He was super strong and confident, as always. We would talk together one by one. He told me how hard the situation is for himself, how many hard decisions he had to take. After all, he told me the same words, “Nobody wants to see an upset boss. Nobody’s going to believe an upset person. You have to be strong every time despite any circumstances that are going on around you.”
You’re about 120 miles, 200 kilometers South of Kyiv right now.
Where’s Max? Is he in the same town where you are?
Yeah. We are all in one office. We came back to our office, so we were working together. Finally, we see each other every day.
You guys pulled the plug on your first idea and brushed it off, and said, “We’ve got this other idea. Let’s go forward with this.” One of the questions I wanted to ask you, now you have an idea, do you go try to raise money? Do you write a business plan?
No way. Never.
That’s a strong response. I want you to talk to me about that.
A few words about the first idea. I still believe that it’s good. A few weeks ago, I found good evidence. We found startups that made literally the same idea and they are successful. They raised money. That’s why I’m still confident that we’ve done everything right about the idea, but we didn’t have much experience to develop it. About your question about my response, I thought no way because I saw another side of how to do this.
I saw how to not spend money, how to not attract investors, how to not build a plan and then build promises to somebody that you’re going to do this, that you’re going to be successful. First of all, you have an idea, ask about it to other people. As soon as you get a response, “This is something interesting. Work on it. Show it to us. Let us work with it.”
It’s not going to take a lot of your efforts to build something valuable in two weeks. You build something valuable around your idea. MVP as we call it. You give it a try. People start to say, “Improve it a little bit. We are ready to pay.” That’s how you go in. You need money to pay your bills to buy some products, to build this product, but it’s not too much to say attract people who are going to invest in you or something like this. That’s why it’s to believe that you can bootstrapping your startup and not raise money in an early stage.
Here’s my theory, and I want to know what you think about this. Writing a business plan and pursuing investors is the wrong place to start. A lot of people advise that. The lack of money benefits you. If you have money, you can start barreling down the path of building the product without understanding the customer’s needs. You can buy the nice office and the new computers and the fancy chairs, and you don’t understand what the customer wants and need. I have come to believe that in the discovery phase, money is a liability, as is the business plan. Money is harmful.
I have my point of view about it. Remember the founder of Apple. We both know about him and where did he start. Remember Elon Musk, PayPal, and so on. He started at NSA. He was from South Africa if I’m not mistaken, and where he is now. The lack of money in the discovery stage of the startup of your business, whatever it is, it starts you how to survive, where anyone else couldn’t survive and do anything. We start you how to find a better idea, better ways to face some challenges and how to improve something without money. These people who start without anything are going to be 100% more strong than others because they already know how to work without anything.
There’s more to it than that. You can inject steroids into a chicken, but the chicken is not going to taste good. It’s going to be a little bit crazy. You’re talking about building something that’s robust. I’ve heard people talk about this. The culture in companies that take off quickly that experience this meteoric growth often creates a toxic culture rather than a company like Amazon, where they had to struggle for decades to become profitable.
So much time, but it’s so much experience.
There’s way too much emphasis on people saying, “Money is the missing ingredient for the entrepreneur ecosystem.” That’s wrong. The thing that’s missing are relatable social models. You need to see people you can identify with who are also succeeding in this.
Do you know how much money we spent on our first startup except of the salary of typical employees? Zero. We built a product and we started to get money from people with zero money spending. How? You can do everything with a relationship. Build a network around yourself, but build it naturally and organically. You will understand how to do it without money. You can have it two ways. You can make a review or you can have an article about your product. You got to pay $1,000 for it or you’re going to spend one week talking with a blogger, showing him the product, letting him believe in your vision, in your strategy, and then you’re going to have the same article with so much better response and explanation about your product. Money doesn’t matter in this stage.
Money makes you stupid and lazy in a startup context. If you can just write a check, you don’t have to pay attention to what people need. Even if you do have money, you should act as if you don’t.
This is two ways again about money. If you think that money can make some work instead of you, you fail. They’re not going to do this. In a proper way, if you do something valuable, nowadays, everything is money. Only this stage of money in a startup sense is important. As soon as people start to give you something in exchange for your services, you understand that you are in a good way. You have a checkpoint.
You validated it and you go forward.
You said a lot right there. I want to dig into a few clarifying questions. You said money is validation. Money is evidence of usefulness. I don’t think people get that, that you are acting like a detective trying to solve a mystery. The whole thing is you’re trying to make yourself useful to other humans and you’re trying to do it outside of a known system. You’re not an employee in a company where your boss is telling you what to do. Instead, you’re trying to figure out how to make yourself useful outside of a known system. That’s the only difference between an entrepreneur and a non-entrepreneur.
It’s super simple. Some people decide they want to be important and valuable. Some people decide, “It’s enough for me to work from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM and go back.”
I love what you said, it’s like the money is validation and it’s evidence of usefulness.
That’s what I believe.
That’s how you’re going about it, and then you use that money to develop the company. You call the bootstrapping. Client-funded development is what it is. You might decide to go find investors at some point, but you might not.
At some stage of the startup, you are waiting where you will get the first $1. We are in the stage now where we do the same again. We are waiting for our early adopters who believe in our mission, strategy, and vision, what we want to do, how we want to improve some part of work, when they will give a signal to us that we do in everything in a good way. You can’t believe how much we are waiting for it. This money will change our life, $10. The amount is nothing, but the fact is somebody believed in your stuff and gave you evidence. In substance, it changed your life. That’s why you go in to the office, you sit down at a computer and start to do anything to get this evidence that you are living for something. You’re not living from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.
Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776. We all live by exchanging. That’s a simple statement. Let’s break it down to what Elon Musk calls first principles. We all live by exchanging useful things with each other. The question now becomes, in my mind, what is the useful thing that you exchange? Why is it useful? To whom are you exchanging it? Most importantly, how do you learn how to make yourself useful? Are you assuming that, “Someone else is going to teach me how to become useful or I’m going to figure it out for myself?” Are you engaged in self-directed value creation or are you engaged in other directed value creation?
If you’re talking between two of us, and if you ask me this question, I don’t care about myself. I feel value in our product. That’s what I believe and what I’m trying to develop. Some people who build the brands around themselves believe strongly in themselves. That’s how they come up with they are branding their own business about it. If you’re going to ask me, it’s everything about value through the product and services that you can create. How we come up with it, we see something that doesn’t exist yet, but the problem exists. There is no solution, but the problem exists. This is simple things that entrepreneurs have to have to find in the world. That’s how it’s going.
Let’s unpack that. A lot of people want to be entrepreneurial and dream of owning their own business and the freedom or whatever they imagine that comes with it. What a lot of folks overlook is the fact that you’ve got to create value for others. You want to work for yourself. You want to be your own boss. That’s fine.
You want to make more money. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, but ultimately you got to serve other people. You got to make yourself useful. A lot of people fail because they think it’s about me. I want to open a business to make money. I don’t think the purpose of a business is to make money. The purpose of a business is to replicate and distribute useful things. If you do that well, the money will ensue.
This is one simple opinion from my side. Freedom is not about not to work on the boss or not to serve different people, not waking up ATM, for example. Freedom is do what you want to do where you feel yourself valuable. People who think, “I want to be an entrepreneur. If I will be an entrepreneur, I’m not going to work as everyone. I’m not going to work in a boss. I’m not going to wake up at 8:00 AM or so.” It’s not like this. You got to work 24 hours, 7 days per week. Entrepreneurship is not something that they expect. It’s not the freedom, free weekends, a lot of free time, coffee. It’s hard work. Freedom is not about the simple stuff.
There’s a nuance in there that’s worth bearing out in my view. You’re right. Work for you and I is a source of joy, meaning, fun, and growth, whereas work for someone else is a source of drudgery. We have to make sure we’re comparing apples to apples. You and I are thinking, “Thank God, it’s Monday.’ We’re not thinking, “Thank God, it’s Friday.” Work is fun. You’ve got to make sure you clarify that when we have that conversation. It’s a whole different thing. Also, the freedom thing, it occurred to me that the war in Ukraine is about freedom. You guys are representing something to the Western world. It’s a fight for your independence and your freedom. That point is not lost on me.
This is the picture that the whole world sees for a lot of time. This is normal for us. It’s not something about heroism or so. We want to be free. If it’s something unexpected for other people or other countries, it may happen. For us, it’s common. We want to be free. We will be free because we can communicate how we can live a normal life. It’s a common thing for us. We have to do this. We’re stuck on this stage now. It’s hard times, but we’re going to survive. We’ve got to make ourselves much better. We’re going to make us more innovative, more productive. We’re going to break this pretty soon. We’re going to live a normal life.
Let me pivot or transition from there. Your first startup with Max fails. He’s coaching you like, “Brush it off. There’s a lot to learn from this.” You guys are going to start xTiles, which I don’t know how you describe it, like a collaborative platform.
I’m not pretty sure that this niche exists already. We’re going to call it tool for thinking, because eventually, that’s what we all do inside of this application.
I’m eager to jump in to use that for my new book on writing because it’s about the entrepreneurial mindset. I’m working with a writing coach who sent the demo you sent me. I’m eager to jump into that because it’s complicated. I’m trying to organize a fairly complex idea into something that’s manageable. It seems like a tool that could be helpful.
We both know Jack Richie, the recruiter. I was surprised that he started to write his book in our applications. For me, writing a book is like some saint activity. It’s something that you can promote your app, like, “Jack, write your book in our application.” No, because it’s a secret. It’s a mystery. Jack started to use it. He said like, “Guys, this is something that I missed. I’m going to write my book.” We had a customer that called. He was surprised. He shows us so much valuable use cases. He expressed so much valuable feedbacks.
He discovered a new use case, how people can use it. That’ new good evidence for us that we do in some proper way. Even without money and investors, we don’t need somebody. Some investors believe in us. Some people who want to build our business invest believe in us. We want our customers, people who believe in our mission.
With that said, I was writing that in my new book. For the entrepreneur, evidence of usefulness is the holy grail, not a business plan competition win, not funding or approval or someone’s opinion that you have a good idea. When someone pays you, they’re saying, “This is useful to me.” What people say they want and what they’ll pay for are often two different things. That’s the tricky part. That’s why you’ve got to put a minimally viable product out in the world. People you don’t know will pay you for it. When your friends and relatives buy it, it’s like, “It’s cute, Bogdan. Here, I’ll give you a few dollars.” That’s a false positive. That’s not that helpful to you. It’s dangerous.
I interviewed these ladies. They both worked for the government in Washington DC in the United States. A few years ago, they both lost their jobs. They created a cheesecake company. They love to make cheesecake. They started selling it in their churches. They were making these cheesecakes. They got picked up by the media and a popular American television show, like daytime television. Ellen DeGeneres featured them.
All of a sudden, they’re getting thousands of orders, but it’s a false positive, because people are just buying it because they thought it was cute that they want to support them. They understood that. They said to me, “There’s a difference between someone who’s buying this cheesecake because they really liked the cheesecake and someone who’s buying my cheesecake because they want to support us.”
It’s good for volunteers, let’s say, but here’s the simple example. You remember Spinners. They were popular. How many months do they exist? Everyone forgets about it. It’s a quick way to raise money, but it’s not some that will give value. It’s not something that people will talk about after the years. This is dangerous if you want to build a business. If you want to build a business, you don’t have to play with it. You have to go step by step and get these thanks for words from people step by step, but without expressing too much.
It’s less about selling. It’s more about learning. That’s what you’re trying to articulate if I’m understanding you. It’s more about listening and observing than it is about trying to convince somebody to buy something from you.
In the early stage, it will probably do this for you. It’s not going to give you a lot of experience or anything else, which is profitable.
Bogdan, you guys, how long ago did you start xTiles?
We started in March 2021.
You’re still going to school. Are you still enrolled in school?
You’re going to school. You’re working on this startup. Russia invades Ukraine. How do you keep going ahead in spite of all this? Why aren’t you curled up in a ball in the corner?
Genius people are around me. Whenever a head’s down, somebody is near to support and say a couple of right words that are enough to keep going. School and university are interesting because of people, not because of this knowledge-gaining process. It’s interesting because of relationship and network. New events in Ukraine, even if it’s super bad, can be life-changing. I met some new people. You’re going to meet some new opportunities. You can help somebody to survive. You can feel yourself differently. Everything has their own meaning and value. All events in your life, they are super important for yourself. It’s up to you how you see these events. If you think it’s bad, it will be bad for you. If you will try to learn from it, you’re going to learn from it. That’s how it is. That’s what I believe in.
I studied this quite a bit. Resilience is the term that psychologists use. Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from failure to persist in the face of difficulty. The source of resilience is what psychologists call an optimistic explanatory style. Like the study in rats, they put one group of rats in a situation where the rats are getting shocked, but the rat figures out it can escape. It. There’s some apparatus that the rat figures out how to get out of the condition. They put another group of rats in the same condition, but there’s no way out of it. The second group of rat experiences adversity as inescapable. They put the rats in a situation where they can easily escape it. The first group of rats will easily escape. The second group of rats won’t even try. What’s even more astonishing is that optimism has this effect not only our psychology but our physiology, like immune function. People who are optimistic have lower all-cause mortality rates, lower cancer and lower cardiovascular disease.
Eventually, everything starts in your head.
I have a friend who’s a Special Forces veteran. He was a Marine Corps sniper who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq fed. He’s been through a lot of crazy things. He’s a prime example of this stuff. He grew up in a shitty situation where his step-mom wasn’t kind to him at all. He keeps saying, “It sucked, but it made me who I am.” That’s what I hear you saying. We’re struggling through this, but it’s going to make us stronger. It’s not going to take us down. That’s amazing.
Thinking differently about it. A lot of people in Ukraine, I’m not going to sit here and say like, “I’m a special person.” Everyone in Ukraine is thinking the same way I believe. I read a book from Robin Sharma. You probably know him.
I heard of him.
He said like, “Everything starts from the soul. That turns into work. Character creates your life.” As soon as you think in a positive way, that’s what you’re going to have. That’s what you will feel around yourself. It’s super simple, but no one believes in it.
There’s a Buddhist saying that goes like this, “Your thoughts on guarded can harm you more than your worst enemy, but once mastered, they can help you even more than your mother or your father.” I swear to you that’s one of the things I keep seeing consistently in entrepreneurs. There’s an optimism about them. To use the psychologist Martin Seligman’s language, the hope circuit is open.
I noticed that I’ve never seen a sad person in front of me when I’m talking about entrepreneurship and startups. I’m talking with successful people.
What’s interesting to me is part of my theory is this, people will look at you. They’ll look at Bogdan. They’ll say, “That guy is passionate. He’s hard-working. He’s optimistic. He’s driven. He’s going to be successful.” Not to take anything away from you, but I would say that’s a fundamental attribution error that they’re over ascribing your behavior to who you are as a person and they’re ignoring the situational factors that are causing you to act this way. Let me put it in a little bit differently.
I believe that the goal acts upon us. The goals we’re pursuing are compelling to us that we become optimally engaged. To the casual observer, it looks like that’s just who Bogdan is. If you put Bogdan in a corporate job, he’s going to become less excited. He’s going to become less dedicated. He’s going to work a little less harder. He’s not going to be as engaged. It’s interesting to me.
I remember a book from a German psychologist.
You’re talking about Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.
You probably read the same book.
This is amazing how he survived by being a super small, super calm person. He wasn’t so much enthusiastic and positive. He didn’t tell everyone like, “Be happy all the time.” It’s not about it. He survived because of his spirit on. Everyone else thinks that Viktor is super special and strong, but Viktor is just Viktor. This is who he is. He thinks differently. He laughs at life differently. That’s what you’re trying to say.
I’ll say it in a different way. I read a paper about this newly emerging field in psychology. It’s called prospection theory. These guys are saying that the only thing being comical is that Homosapien is not an accurate term to describe mankind because we’re not that smart. He said homo prospectus is a better word because what humans can do better than any other animal we can look into the future.
The name of the paper is something like Driven by the Past or Navigating the Future. They showed that when our brains are oriented towards a positive future when we’re striving towards something, our brains can access unprecedented problem-solving abilities that are not available to us when we’re engaged in routinized tasks.
This theory sounds like if you have a goal, your brain anyways will find the best way to achieve it. All that people miss, they don’t have a goal eventually in their life.
You took the words right out of my mouth. That’s a question I ask sometimes in my lectures. The only thing that separates an entrepreneur from a non-entrepreneur is a compelling goal. Are you striving to make something happen in your life or are you just letting life happen? That’s the difference. I don’t want to keep you for the rest of the day. I have no doubt that you guys are going to be successful. How has the Russian invasion impacted your ability to forward or has it? Has it impacted your family or your team?
Thank God everyone is in a safe place and everyone has a job. I’m not going to say that everything is perfect, but everything is good enough. About our team, we lost a lot of our teammates simply because somebody moved abroad. Somebody couldn’t work for a lot of time. If we’re talking about the effort in our team, one day, I set a mutual meeting. Finally, our team is perfect. Everyone is in the right place. Everyone is responsible for the right activity. Don’t get me wrong, but the circumstances made us stronger.
That’s pretty powerful stuff.
That’s how it looks for me. That’s how it may look for the people around us. After talking to smacks and different people inside of this, again, we all can understand how hard it is to make some decisions in these situations. Everything is not simple. There is no one side. If one side is that everyone sees, everything is good and optimistic. On the other side, it’s a lot of hard work and hard decisions.
Where can people learn more about xTiles and what you’re doing?
We are in a stage now where we validate our idea. We try and say to people, “We created something new here. Take a look if it’s something that fits your desire or expectations.” We make a lot of reviews and articles about us. It’s pretty easy to find it.
There’s a free demo. People can sign up and get a free demo and they could use the platform.
So far, we have even made a demo with our cofounders. They can talk personally to me, to our cofounders. There is a premium, so people can use it their whole life without claimants. I hope it will be helpful for our audience.
Having said what I said about the cheesecake, I still love to expose people to the extent we can to what you’re doing. Not to give you a false positive, but to expose your work and let people try what you’re using. Maybe you can connect with people that can collaborate and help push your idea forward.
Eventually, I’m not afraid of this false joining among a lot of users. Eventually, we learned how to work with it and analyze it, not how to avoid getting tricked by the big numbers or so. We have different metrics. Do not be afraid about it.
There was a famous physicist from Caltech. His name was Richard Feynman. He was talking about science. The same is true for entrepreneurship. He was saying the first trick is not to fool yourself. You’re the easiest person to fool when it comes to entrepreneurship.
This word comes up talking to other people. You’re super enthusiastic. You have an idea. You’re like, “We’re going to make a business on this idea.” You go in, outside, you are showing it, and people are like, “Bogdan, it’s good, but let’s stop and start from the beginning.” They show you 1, 2, 3, 4 reasons why it’s not going to work. You’re like, “Okay.” You have an idea again, but the only validation factor on the stage is talking to these different people, showing it and trying to make value for them.
You almost need this perfect balance. On the one hand, you have to be a little bit irrationally enthusiastic, but you got to balance that with a little bit of skepticism.
Balance is hard to predict. I rather would like to say that I believe in luck in this part, because I’m not a balanced person at all. I can wake up one morning with one thought in my head, another morning with another, and you’re going to say like, “Bogdan, you’re not a balanced person.” At some point, we built in successful businesses. We were doing something in a right way, even without this balance.
George Bernard Shaw had this great quote. He said, “The reasonable man conforms himself to the world, but the unreasonable man expects the world to conform to him. Therefore, all progress relies upon unreasonable men.” That’s how it goes. You got to be a little crazy. If you were totally rational, you would never start.
That’s what I’m talking about balance. Rational is a perfect word to describe it. For me, rationale is something about balance when you are a little bit crazy in business structure. You have to be completely crazy to let people believe in what you do in.
Thanks so much for doing this interview. I appreciate it. I’m grateful for your willingness to do this.
First of all, I appreciate your thoughts. It’s a ton of interesting insights from you. I enjoyed our conversation.