John Uke has dreamed of being involved in business since his childhood. To that end, he studied at Babson College, one of the coolest US schools, where students are required to start a business during their studies; he taught programming and digital photography; he started his own programming school in San Francisco: Hacker Coding Academy; he founded NewVo — a website where you can share fashion tips; And, finally, he has decided to create GameTree — a recommendation website for gamers. But this time John chose Kiev as his launch pad, because he believes that the Ukrainian capital is the best place for a business startup. Here he’s is looking for and choosing programmers, and also plans to open an office for his startup.
AIN.UA editors spoke with John about why he chose Ukraine to launch an IT business, and about how the Ukrainian IT community is perceived abroad.
Why did you decide to take up a new project and get it started in Kiev?
Roughly 4 years ago I was working as a IT recruiter in San Francisco at the company Bridgegate. My work consisted of finding the top CTO for companies like Google or Playboy. A month after I started work I taught myself how to code and I had an idea come to me for an algorithm that could make accurate predictions on the basis of what people like and don’t like.
I myself have been a gamer almost my entire life. I grew up on games. It’s a lot cooler to play with someone, and our slogan is like “Find your own”. Games are an excellent reason to make friends. You know, in a game you cooperate, compete, and see how your friends behave in stressful situations.
GameTree is a recommendation platform. Here you can rate games and complete personalized tests to receive friend suggestions or game suggestions. So while you play online, you can invite a friend to hang out. Or if you don’t have enough people to play a board game, or if you need one last player for a DotA team. It works for both online games as well as console game, mobile games, board games, and even VR.
We’re still working on the product, preparing for a beta, and that’s why I came to Kiev.
It’s an excellent place to find IT talent. Not long ago I was at an event where Brad Kam spoke, the CTO of Talkable, which is a company that got into Y Combinator and has a development center in Ukraine. He said that the community here is asking the coolest questions he’s ever heard.
The programmers here are just as smart as in San Francisco, but it’s so much easier to connect with them when you aren’t also competing for developers with Amazon or Google. It’s easier to talk about job openings with someone who gets roughly 20-30% of what Google pays its developers, and who isn’t being bombarded with the same number of offers as American programmers. Here in Kiev I can hire 3-5 professionals for the same money that would go to the wages of one in the US.
“The very coolest statue that I’ve seen is the Founders of Kiev”
Living here is good for business. And it seems to me that the entire world is now looking at Ukraine more favorably than in the past. I have a lot of Ukrainian friends in San Francisco. One of my neighbors, Andrey Zamovsky, is the founder of Ambisafe. He’s an incredibly brilliant developer, a genius about everything related to cryptocurrency. He created and sold the company, and he can code faster than I can print 🙂 I really like the Ukrainians that I already know. So it seemed to me that I would also interact with people here just fine, and that if I moved my lifestyle wouldn’t change too much.
Ukrainians, I believe, are also a bit more optimistic and energetic than the citizens of other countries of the former USSR. And that’s important for a startup team. The level of English fluency in the IT community is high, because Ukraine is a leading country in terms of IT outsourcing in Europe, and perhaps in the world.
So I considered all of these factors: salary and education level. What’s more, every door here is open to me, because I’m an American. I receive all kinds of invitations to meet with investors, venture capitalists, potential employees. People even offer to advise us and interview candidates for free. In San Francisco I would have to do a ton of work before I would attract such attention. It feels like I found a buried treasure.
And people here are truly friendly. I once sent out offers to Ukrainian data science professionals, and within just 24 minutes I had three interviews scheduled, while three others politely replied that they were not interested in the offer. I don’t know whether this has to do with the fact that I am from the United States, or if the business culture here is simply different, but in America it’s difficult to get through to programmers with such skills, and they are constantly being pursued by tiresome recruiters.
One of them replied that he is not currently looking for work, but would like to found a community of data science specialists in Kiev. He agreed to meet and offered to help in finding and hiring employees. From the outset the IT community has been much more friendly toward me than I ever could have imagined. People are trying very hard to help.
We have a small startup budget — my personal savings and money from family and friends. Here the money is worth 3-5 times more. And considering how many talented developers you can find here, for me it was a very simple “black and white” decision to travel to Ukraine and choose myself a team. Right now I’m looking for technical cofounders, and data science and web development experts, who know more about these subjects than me.
Did you consider other countries?
First, I really do have a lot of friends here. Second, if I was searching for the ideal location for an IT startup, it would be Kiev. It is highly underrated. It is entirely a “first world” city, but prices are 80% lower than in San Francisco.
But most important of all is the local high-tech scene. The techies aren’t just smart. They can think independently. The reason I’m not looking for developers in China or India is that generally the programmers from there do not think independently, they perform tasks. I’ve done outsourcing with lots of countries. The work of professions from Eastern Europe does not have to be monitored in the smallest of details. They can extend the product with their own ideas. You don’t have to write up instructions for every case.
Aren’t you afraid of how much corruption and bureaucracy we have here?
As far as I’ve heard, corruption has gotten better here. The Talkable’s CTO says that he’s done business here long before the revolution and that after Maidan the level of corruption dropped.
What can you say about the standard of living here?
Regarding the infrastructure: the roads, of course, are much worse and for some reason people aren’t used to wearing seat belts in cars. The quality of the Internet is the same. I can’t say anything about the level of medical care, but I’ve heard that it’s much cheaper than ours. Gyms are quite expensive, but they’re still cheaper than in the States. Overall, the cost of living for me dropped by 70% compared with California, and by 80% compared with San Francisco, while my standard of living remained the same.
Do you plan to start a company and live in Kiev?
I’m definitely going to set up the headquarters here. The product will be developed here, maybe the design, and partially marketing and sales. We’ll have a sales team, business development team, and marketing team in California.
Here in Kiev I was amazed by the level of openness, friendliness, and even fluency in English. I’m tempted with the thought of staying here and making Kiev my home for a long time. I’ve lived here for just a few weeks, but my standard of living is already what it was after a 4.5 year career in San Francisco. But ultimately these decisions will depend on what is best for the business.
I flew here with a ticket for a return flight, because I wasn’t sure whether I would want to stay. I’ve already let that ticket expire and extended my lease agreement for six months.
This article has been translated and reprinted from AIN.UA with the permission of the author Olha Karpenko and John Uke because we at Performance Lab truly believe in advantages of outsourcing and happy to share this story with readers of our blog.