Marina, tell us a little about yourself and your background.
My name is Marina, I was born and raised in Russia and I’m currently 29 years old. Until 25 I lived in Russia, I studied Mathematics and Economics at Saint Petersburg State University and this is where I met my co-founder who later also became my husband, Dmitry Pistolyako.
In 2011, he offered to start a company together because I was really interested in studying languages and he liked that my English was so good. I had some experiences studying abroad, so he was like: “why don’t we start a company that would help people going study abroad and actually save money?”. Back in Russia, if you went to an agency and ask for a trip to learn languages somewhere abroad they would charge you around $300 USD just for their services. We decided that we’re going to do that for free and just leave on commission the schools pay us.
In 2013, we realized that the only way to scale everything was to build an actual booking platform. Starting offices like offline locations through Russia would be really challenging, it requires traveling, it requires me being present in different cities at the same time, so we decided to start building the online platform. Dmitry was able to find a tech guy who was working part-time for us, it was really expensive, he charged us something around $1,000 USD and it was just 2 hours a day.
In 2014, we realized that even if we were able to build the platform that we imagined in our heads, we would run out of money before we would need to market it. So, we decided to start fundraising and we had some attempts fundraising in Russia and Europe but they were unsuccessful. People mostly told us: “no one is interested in traveling and studying languages, there’s no market”, though we knew there’s a $20B according to recent stats. It’s composed of $12B for language travel and $8B for accommodation (when people book and travel to learn languages). That’s why we decided to move forward and start talking to American investors.
What does LinguaTrip do? How did you come up with this idea?
LinguaTrip is basically an Expedia for language travel. We came up with this idea because we already have an offline model of this company and we realized that there’s no major player on the market who would do the same but online.
What you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others?
There are several things that I’m really proud of us:
I consider ourselves not only a study abroad booking platform, but also a media company that produces a lot of free and high-quality educational content for people. We do a lot of our own content, which helps us market a lot.
We haven’t raised a lot of money, to be honest. However, we’re currently cash flow positive and we’re generating revenue. We were also able to offset a lot of costs by outsourcing a lot of work to Russia since we have this language advantage. Otherwise, hiring people in America to do all we need would be impossible without having to raise millions of dollars.
How powerful and influential has it been to go through 500 Startups? What’s the biggest lesson you took with you?
Our journey through 500 Startups has been one of the most powerful experiences. It opened us a lot of doors, we were able to move to the United States, to get press and to meet amazing people. It provides a lot of growth for a business. People became interested in us, before, we were just another startup from Russia trying to build something, and now we have the credibility of a top Silicon Valley accelerator’s startup.
The biggest lesson that we took was actually understanding that there’s no single person in the whole world that will be able to tell you how to run your company and how to market your product. If you think that you can hire a marketing growth hacker, and he’s going to tell you “you should do this, this and that” to build a multibillion-dollar company, you’re totally wrong.
Everything that generates a hockey stick growth, anything that differences you from your competitors needs to come from you because you’re the one who’s passionate about your product, you’re the one who understands the problem and the one who created this whole thing. And I think a lot of people think: “oh, I need to raise a couple million to become successful” but actually all you need is to invest your time and energy into looking for new ways to market your product and to work with the best people in the industry.
And yes, sometimes you need that money. Especially if you’re a hard worker startup if you’re doing a lot of research. But if we’re talking about companies that don’t need a lot of development I think your best shot is getting this initial investment and then trying to figure out how you would actually generate money.
Has it been a smooth road? What were the biggest business challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?
Business isn’t a smooth road. Every morning I wake up and I’m like: “ok, what’s some of today’s problems”?. Everyday something happens, especially because all our team is remote. It’s not like you’re sitting in the office all the time.
We started as a 3 people team, and there was a year, I think it was 2016 when we grew from 10 to 70 people in a year. It was a lot of growth, we weren’t ready to grow in terms of people like that. Now we’re coming up with KPIs for everyone and having clear work instructions. We’re trying to not hire people unless we’re 100% sure nobody else in the company can do their job.
So yes, having a structure, working with people, hiring and firing, these are all lessons we’re still learning.
What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your entrepreneurial journey?
For any business, I would say, if you’re truly passionate about the idea, then do it. If you think it’s just another trend and you kind of like it but it’s not yours, don’t do it, because you’re going to fail. Even if it’s the brightest idea in the world, you’re going to encounter so many problems building it out. You need to be really in love with that you’re doing.
The first hire should be your assistant and after this, you should create the structure of the company, and this doesn’t mean people, this means functions that you’re performing so you can know what to delegate and think “who could the next person be?”.
Sometimes you think you need to hire people, and when you hire them, and you don’t know what they should do because you don’t have any functions or work instructions.
How do you see yourself and your ventures 10 years from now?
I don’t have a clear vision in terms of what I will be doing or where I will be, but I know that my vision for life is always to do things I’m passionate about. If I’m not passionate about something I either delegate it if it generates money or I just stop doing it completely if it’s just wasting my resources and energy and it’s not bringing anything back.