28 years old.
Skyeng. The largest online English-language school in Russia.
100 million , the value of the company following its latest investment round.
A degree in physics and experience of working for a microfinance startup.
“If you have a problem, then there is a solution.”
None of the Skyeng managers are professional educators. Georgi Soloviev does not believe that this is a requirement for managing an educational project. The goal of the service is to connect students and teachers, to bring teacher training experts into the process, and to ensure a successful learning outcome. Georgi himself graduated from the Department of Applied Physics at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), and he originally wanted to become a scientist. He was no less interested in the problems of ageing and prolonging life. But one day he found that he urgently needed to improve his English for an internship in Europe. Where should he look to find a decent teacher? There was no convenient online platform. The only options were Skype and mounting his own random Internet search for a teacher. Georgi improved his English, and the idea of an effective educational platform started to take shape in his mind during this time. But before it assumed its final form, Soloviev decided to abandon his scientific career and try his hand at finance.
He set his sights on the Russian office of Goldman Sachs. He bombarded the company with letters until a senior manager agreed to a meeting during a coffee break. The willingness of the physics grad to disrupt the existing system made an impression. Soloviev was sent to work at the microfinance startup Kassa365. He happily agreed to take the post of assistant director, which only came with a salary of 15,000 roubles, because he didn’t consider it to be a job, but a program of study that came with a stipend.
During this time Georgi lost any sense of extreme reverence for the world of great opportunities. However, unlike the hero of the movie The Wolf from Wall Street, he resisted many temptations. He even turned down a job offer to become executive director with a good salary. He already knew where he wanted to apply the experience he had gained.
In 2012, Georgi became infected with the idea of founding an online school with three friends at MIPT and Bauman Moscow State Technical University (BMSTU). Together they received a grant of 400,000 roubles from the State Fund for the Promotion of Innovation. This was enough to develop the basic algorithms. After preparing the platform for launch, in the spring of 2013 Soloviev decided that it was time to part company with Kassa365. But they did not just let him go. His former boss, having learned why Soloviev was leaving, agreed to invest 30,000 dollars in his project. Soloviev was able to use this money to develop a pilot version of Skyeng.
He also left with the preference, so characteristic of investment bankers, of building out the company himself: if you build a company, then it should be worth a billion dollars. In October 2013, the Skyeng founders received 300,000 dollars from Alexander Laryanovsky, Yandex Director for International Development. At that time, the service had 30 teachers and 200 students. In January 2014, Laryanovsky joined Skyeng as Director of Business Development.
As Alexander recalled: “Operational profitability was already visible on the radar. But the first thing that I appreciated was the fact that four active young people, who thought in a systematic way, wanted to radically transform modern education by founding this school.”
The investment allowed them to launch the new Vimbox education platform, which would allow each student to access a virtual classroom with an online textbook, a video link, homework assignments, and an archive of completed lessons. In 2014, Skyeng’s revenue reached almost 40 million roubles. Two years later, the company was earning the same amount in the space of a month. The company invested the profit in improving the platform and creating mobile applications.
“We tend to keep our voices down around here,” Soloviev says as he shows us a room where three dozen engineers and programmers are busily working (there are special booths for those who need a private area). Nearby is the teacher training department, which is responsible for training the teachers themselves in online teaching techniques and how to properly communicate with students. Now the school has 3,050 teachers. The Vimbox platform uses markers to monitor the quality of their work, such as, for example, time spent on explanations and exercises.
Skyeng’s revenue in 2018 is expected to exceed 1 billion roubles. How does the company’s founder feel? Soloviev shrugs his shoulders: only that everything is going as it should. He tells us frankly: “We became nervous only when someone made us an offer to buy the company for a lot of money. They brought in the special effects to try to persuade us. But we eventually turned down the offer.”
For Georgi and his partners, this project is the ticket that will secure them entry into the big leagues of global business. They are convinced that they will achieve their goal. The company took its next step in January 2018. The school entered into a deal with Baring Vostok, the largest group of private equity funds investing in Russian assets. The most immediate objectives include introducing their teaching methods in the classical system of school education and setting up a platform for teaching mathematics. And in the future, Skyeng infrastructure will be able to work with any subject, up to and including entomology and the study of Esperanto.
But what about the dream of immortality? It hasn’t gone anywhere. As Soloviev says: “I stay abreast of developments on the topic. In the scientific world, the discussion no longer focuses on whether a radical extension of life is possible. The only question is when it will happen. For me, Skyeng is only a stepping stone to the next level of opportunity that will allow me to solve problems of such magnitude. So, what do we need to reach the next level? Authority, experience, a team, and money. In my opinion, all of the items on this list are achievable.”
Ivan Prosvetov, Laboratoriya Odnazhdy, special article for SPIEF MAGAZINE