Mastering the Art of Expansion: Alex Illyash about his Road to Growth

In this eye-opening interview, we talk with Alex Illyash, a serial entrepreneur from the Czech Republic, about his foray into the Polish market, his struggle with expansion, and the lessons he's learned in building the right team. Alex and his team have successfully developed software solutions for restaurants to boost direct ordering, with the goal of becoming the go-to front office solution for restaurant-guest communication. Discover Alex's experiences, his company's resilience during difficult times, and the invaluable lessons he shares for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Michał M. Kozłowski: Ok, so you got your funding, and you decided to go north. Why Poland?

Alex Illyash: Yes, it’s not such a hard decision for us because we are from the Czech Republic and the CEE region. We have our second office in Ukraine; there are a lot of people in Ukraine and Poland, so we have a mix between countries. The culture is pretty much the same, so it’s  obvious. There are many expats, the salaries are pretty much the same. If you go to Germany, for example, there will be three times higher salaries, and behavior will be a little different from one in Central Europe, so it’s straightforward. And other markets, like Croatia for example, are just too small.

Michał M. Kozłowski: I was thinking about this comparison because, in Poland, we have this stereotype that the Czech Republic is more connected to Germany than to Poland. Have you considered going to Germany instead of Poland to play for a bigger prize?

Alex Illyash: It’s really about the budget. If we had the budget, we would definitely try it. We raised just 1.5 million, so it’s not like something big; we would spend this money pretty fast in Germany. Even Poland wasn’t easy, so we were really burning a lot of money for six months, not showing good results. It makes sense for us to learn on the cheaper market.

Michał M. Kozłowski: So you value having a longer runway to experiment and test out some solutions, rather than making a more risky decision to go to a bigger market and either succeed or crash and burn within six months because you’d be out of cash.

Alex Illyash: Exactly.

Michał M. Kozłowski: So, tell me about entering the Polish market. How did you approach hiring people and getting clients here? Could you tell me about this? Please share your story, and feel free to share some mistakes as well. I find that success lessons are not universal – something may work for someone and not for someone else, but mistakes are pretty universal.

Alex Illyash: Yes, I wouldn’t say it’s a mistake; it’s more like learning by doing something. What we thought would be enough was to hire local top management, give them the product and the budget, and let them handle it. That didn’t work, because no one knows how to do it except of you. If the top management starts testing hypotheses in the market, they’ll just go through the same mistakes as we did already on our home market. There’s nothing like a different mindset; maybe there’s a 10% difference, but the basic principles are the same. So you don’t need to reinvent the wheel for each market. You should simply create a playbook of what is working in the original market and implement it in the new country with local people. Do not create new approaches for new markets because they’re essentially new hypotheses that you haven’t tested in your market. You end up having new people, new hypotheses, and a new market – too many questions. But when you take your existing strategy, which is working, and you know it because by doing 100 calls, you’ll arrange 20 meetings and get 10 clients, you can adjust it for the new market with just a 10% difference, and that’s fine. For example, in Poland, we may send emails instead of making calls, or run PPC campaigns. Do what’s working for you in your market with local people.

What we thought would be enough was to hire local top management, give them the product and the budget, and let them handle it. That didn’t work (…).

Michał M. Kozłowski: Ok, so who do you hire?

Alex Illyash: Hiring abroad is pretty hard. When you hire people in your country, it’s not difficult to understand them. In a foreign language, it’s not that easy to recognize whom you are dealing with. So, from my experience, it’s best to start working as soon as possible and spend less time on onboarding. Just hire and start working the next day, and get feedback on the people by working with them as soon as possible. This is really when you realize whether this person is a fit for you or not, not during the questions that you’re talking about on a Zoom call.

Michał M. Kozłowski: Even right now, I see you working with your team here in Poland. You’re really entrenched in it, on the front lines with those guys. Is this something that comes from that experience – that you need to be involved?

Alex Illyash: Yes. It’s the same as with children. They learn by doing what you are doing, not by explaining. When you’re working in a new market, it’s the same. For example, in Poland, people don’t speak fluent English, as you may know, so you need to show by your example as well because not 100% of the information is understood.

Just hire and start working the next day, and get feedback on the people by working with them as soon as possible.

Michał M. Kozłowski: So, your advice would be to hire people quickly if they meet your criteria, work with them, and help them grow?

Alex Illyash: Each startup is different, and no employee will do it better than the founder. It’s about coming to a market for three months, and if there are some differences, you will realize it, see it, and adopt the necessary knowledge. It’s okay for you to have challenges in the Polish market. Not only that, but it’s also about how you can keep growing consistently, not just one good month and another not so good. It should be sustainable.

Michał M. Kozłowski: So, you’re talking about how to maintain good results consistently?

Alex Illyash: Yes, not just one good month and then no results, followed by changing the people. It should work by itself, and that’s the end goal. Right now, it still needs involvement from my side and my partner’s side. There’s space for improvement.

Michał M. Kozłowski: Do you feel like global economics influences how fast you can grow right now?

Alex Illyash: The harder times are for the restaurants, the better for our product. We help them save money in their restaurants, from 2,000 up to 5,000 a month, which is about 20,000 to 30,000 a year. When restaurants have enough money, they’re not looking for something new. When they’re suffering from the situation in the market, they’re more open to talk and discover.

Michał M. Kozłowski: Were you actually able to leverage that with your clients? Are you able to use it to fuel your growth?

Alex Illyash: We approach them and ask them, “Tell me how many orders you have, what is the average order amount?” and calculate how much we can save them.

Michał M. Kozłowski: This seems to be a recurring theme in our conversation – focus on numbers. You preach the same things we tell our startups – “numbers-driven storytelling,” “startups are businesses, not science projects.”

Alex Illyash: Yes, absolutely. Focus on numbers and business.

How you can keep growing consistently, not just one good month and another not so good. It should be sustainable.

Michał M. Kozłowski: Okay, so tell me, with your perspective of over a year, do you feel that choosing Poland for your next step was a good decision for your startup to grow? Or, given the chance, would you go in a different direction?

Alex Illyash: It’s a tough question. I still think that we can grow significantly. You can’t launch a new market remotely; you need to go there and learn by doing.

Michał M. Kozłowski: So you’re refining your strategy to tap into this. You believe there’s gold there, but you haven’t struck the vein yet.

Alex Illyash: We are picking up small pieces of gold in the market now. We are connected with pretty big chains of restaurants, and we’re growing. We just need to fight for each restaurant, but we’re able to do it. It’s working and showing results; we  need to scale it more and make it repeatable with newcomers. Meanwhile, we’re expanding to other markets as well, learning by opening new markets simultaneously. Each market will have some unique aspects that will work for them, and we can learn from those.

Michał M. Kozłowski: You have more testing fields. What other markets are you opening right now?

Alex Illyash: We are launching in the Baltics. We launched in January this year in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. They are doing pretty well.

You can’t launch a new market remotely; you need to go there and learn by doing.

Michał M. Kozłowski: Do you think you will be going for some funding soon?

Alex Illyash: Yes, we are now raising capital for expansion. This capital will allow us to become profitable and keep growing.

Michał M. Kozłowski: So you’re based in Prague, Czech Republic, and have been in business for 10 years. Tell us more about your company and its history.

Alex Illyash: Our company, established in 2020, is my third venture. The fun fact is that all the companies I started are still alive and working, which is a good sign that we’re not just trying things but building real businesses. I sold my first company, and while the second one was hit by COVID, it’s still making money. We create software as a service for restaurants that helps them increase direct ordering. We show restaurants that it’s possible to sell online and make big revenue. Our goal is to bring revenue back to the restaurants and allow them to communicate directly with their customers. We provide them with smart solutions, including online ordering, QR code table ordering, and payments. Our end vision is to become the main front office solution for restaurants to communicate with their guests through all necessary channels.

Michał M. Kozłowski: So it’s a 2020 company, established during the COVID times. I had a mentor who once said that the difference between good companies and great companies is that great companies have an offer that is good when times are good, but it becomes great when times are bad. Do you think that applies to your company?

Alex Illyash: Yes, I agree. The harder the times, the better our solutions work.

Michał M. Kozłowski: Ok, we won’t take up any more of your time, unless there’s anything else you’d like to share or any key lessons you’d like to give to people who want to reach where you are now.

Alex Illyash: I would use your quote: “Startups are businesses, not science projects.” Just use that same mindset to be successful. Use it in recession years because the next few years will be tough times but also offer amazing opportunities.

Michał M. Kozłowski: Alex, it was great to talk to you. Best of luck with your future endeavours.

Alex Illyash: Thank you, Michał. It was a pleasure talking to you as well.

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