Entrepreneurial Resilience and Tech Evolution: A Dialogue with Vitalii Shatalov

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In this insightful interview, we delve into Vitalii Shatalov‘s remarkable journey, tracing his evolution from childhood curiosity in programming to becoming a successful tech entrepreneur.  

StartupReporter publishes a new article in the series “Startup Journey: from 0 to 1.” In this series of articles, we aim to present founders not only through their innovative projects but also by discussing their personalities and the team.

Oleksandr Komarevych (OK): – How did you get into programming?

Vitalii Shatalov: I’ve been involved in IT since childhood. I was given a computer, which was quite weak. If anything, you could still do stuff on it, but it couldn’t handle powerful games, so I didn’t get to play them.

OK: – What kind of computer did you have?

Vitalii: – Most likely, it was a Pentium second generation. Everyone else already had the third or even fourth generation, and they could play games just fine. But I didn’t have that luxury, so I had to find something interesting to do. I remember when my mom, a teacher, invited one of her students who worked as a programmer to our house. I asked him how I could write games myself. He gave me a book on Pascal on a floppy disk and the Pascal development environment. He told me to give it a try.

So I started doing something. I didn’t understand the steps needed from the beginning to the point where you’re coding games, but I wanted to keep going. Gradually, I learned how to create games, and then, when I got access to the Internet, I became curious about creating my websites.

Since then, a lot of time has passed, but there was a period when I was only 13 years old and started programming. I learned JavaScript, HTML, and PHP and began creating my own websites. I even sold melodies at school. I found people who wanted MIDI-format melodies on their phones.

I published these melodies on my website, but access to them was only with a password. I sold passwords for 3 hryvnias, and people who bought passwords could download the melodies they liked.

OK: – Where did you get such entrepreneurial skills?

Vitalii: – I’ll try to explain, though I’m still determining myself. It all started with a need for money. I began with small business ideas, like selling hamsters, and then, with the advent of the Internet, I started selling melodies and ringtones. A significant turning point was when I became interested in computer modding, which included installing neon lights, water cooling, and overclocking processors. My interest grew into a hobby, and I learned more about it.

I contacted the owner of a modding resource through ICQ to learn more. As a result, I was offered to write articles for beginners in this field for $20 per article. Compared to my mom’s salary as a school teacher, which was about $100 monthly, it was quite profitable, especially for a teenager.

My articles were about creating computer lighting without real neon and using tubes and resistors to prevent overheating. I bought a Dremel tool for making cuts on computer cases and continued to write articles, with my mom helping to correct language mistakes. I received about $25 per article and wrote two articles per month.

After completing the 9th grade, I entered college, where I focused on programming. Modding took a back seat, and I became more interested in game development, especially for online platforms.

I wanted to undertake a large project and talked about it to everyone in my city, Svitlovodsk. I didn’t have a mentor at that time, so I learned from my mistakes. I noticed messages were asynchronously loaded on VK and used them in my projects. This helped me learn through practice.

At 17, I started working as a developer on Delphi, dealing with accounting software. After watching the movie “The Social Network,” I was inspired to create a social network similar to Twitter. It became popular and grew organically to about 250,000 users in three years.

When I moved to Kyiv to study and work, I showcased my social network as a portfolio. However, I decided to work in outsourcing because the product companies I approached did not inspire confidence due to their location. After a year and a half of outsourcing, I realised my ambitions and ideas should have been valued. So, I decided to look for another company and found Genesis—a product company where I could realise my ideas.

Vitalii Shatalov, CEO & Co-Founder at Futurra Group
Vitalii Shatalov, CEO & Co-Founder at Futurra Group

OK: – Why did you wait a year and a half working in outsourcing before changing?

Vitalii: – I’m still determining. I was afraid to embark on developing my product. I procrastinated and worked on projects that interested me at home. After work, I would come home and work on my social network, while the job was just a means of earning money for me. Later, when I realised I wanted to work on something different and innovative, I began paying attention to other companies. I understood that there were both outsourcing and product companies where I could realise my ideas.

OK: – What prompted you to make changes in your career? Was there someone who pushed you in this direction?

Vitalii: – My career shift resulted from a change in my social environment. When I moved to Kyiv, I made new friends with whom I discussed my projects and ideas. They inspired me to think I could work in a company where I could develop my creative ideas.

Another factor was learning about the existence of ConnectUA, the first Ukrainian social network, while I was in college. This gave me confidence that I, too, could create interesting and important products.

I learned how to hack ConnectUA and sent them letters pointing out the flaws in their system so they could fix them. I hoped they would take notice of me and offer me a job, but they have yet to respond to my letters.

After a year and a half of working in outsourcing, I saw a job opening at ConnectUA. By then, I was already working on my social network, so I decided to try it. I successfully passed the interview, but by then, ConnectUA had already been acquired by Genesis, becoming part of their first project. ConnectUA was closed, but the brand remained.

I told Genesis about my social network, and they offered me a job related to media directions in portals of different countries. I joined them as a developer. There, I realised that many things I did intuitively for my network could be learned from the Internet, especially regarding user engagement and retention. I learned a lot of new things and decided it was better to gain experience in an already successful business than to develop my network.

I shut down my social network one evening after making a backup. Many users asked on social media why it wasn’t working, but I let it go.

At Genesis, I grew professionally with many ideas for improving processes. I was regularly given new areas of responsibility. At one point, I was told that we were parting ways with my manager and was offered to try myself as a product manager.

I was both a product manager and a programmer at the same time. My job involved forming teams and developing media services for various online portals. Initially, we focused on music and then expanded to horoscopes and videos. I worked on this for about a year.

After that, I worked on launching a social network in Nigeria aimed at young performers. This idea arose while I was working on the music part of the Nigerian portal. We constantly received messages from Nigerians on Facebook asking for help to become stars because they had their music tracks. I delved into this issue and realised many Nigerians dream of becoming popular performers, rappers, or singers.

I learned that young Nigerian performers can promote their works through Google without violating rules if they are not signed to a label. Analysing Google search queries for Nigerian musicians, I found they were quite popular and actively searched for.

I approached my manager in the Kyiv office with a proposal to create a social network for Nigerians. He replied that if I quickly tested the idea, it would be worth trying, but if it took a lot of time, it would be better not to start.

I took on the promise to create a social network in 10 days. It was launched, and Nigerians started publishing their tracks, communicating with fans, and registering as stars or fans. The service was similar to Twitter but with music and Google ads.

Then, I decided to launch my dating service. I wanted to create an analogue of Tinder, but I didn’t know it existed. The idea was that people could communicate based on their location. A friend told a story about how he wanted to meet girls on the bus but got embarrassed and dreamed of an app to help him.

I pondered this idea, started working on it, and approached the Genesis manager. He said it was a good idea; although Tinder already existed, we could try to create something similar.

The project didn’t become an analogue of Tinder, but it helped me understand how client acquisition and monetisation work in the USA.

Later, I felt professional burnout and began thinking about my future career. I decided to leave Genesis, explaining that I didn’t intend to move to competitors.

OK: – Did you quickly decide to leave the company?

Vitalii: – Yes, the decision came spontaneously, although I had thought about it for some time. It became clear to me one morning. I remember I was at a meeting, and I had a headache in the morning. When I woke up, I felt unmotivated and started to think that something needed to change; maybe even resign and pursue something of my own.

I wrote a resignation letter stating that I didn’t want to discuss my decision.

Over a month, I handed over my responsibilities and team to another manager. In the first two months after leaving, I devoted myself to writing articles about mobile development and planned to turn them into a blog, but I couldn’t make money from them. Then, I started thinking about what kind of business to build.

I decided to create apps that could grow organically. My plan was to develop many apps that could naturally attract traffic, such as a recipe or advice app. It really worked. Later, I began to look for ways to implement more ambitious ideas. That’s how I met my future partner.

We conducted many tests, looking for what could work.

OK: – Tell me how you chose ideas for development.

Vitalii: – It all started with simple ideas. For example, I noticed how Snapchat used geolocation filters. Since Snapchat wasn’t popular in Ukraine, I created an app solely for geo filters.

The idea was to use data from Foursquare to add information about establishments where the user is located. For example, establishments could register in the admin panel of our app and add their logos. We hired many designers to make it interesting and attractive.

We could distribute the app through businesses, which would decide which promotions to create filters for and when to use them. The monetisation was based on partnerships. Initially, we wanted to test how it all worked and if there was any interest.

We collaborated with companies like Coca-Cola, the TV channel “Novy Kanal,” and various event organisers.

The collaboration with the “Novy Kanal” TV channel was successful. We devised an idea for a New Year’s promotion where, by pointing the camera at a TV with the “Novy Kanal” logo, our app would recognise it and activate a feature.

At the same time, I analysed which apps were in demand in the US, as I had experience developing apps for Android. I noticed the growing popularity of Android apps that protect against viruses and clean up unnecessary memory. The Android operating system gives developers a lot of freedom, so they add various services that sometimes slow down the device.

We decided this niche was interesting and launched an app to optimise Android.

Initially, we entered the African market, where retention rates were low. Later, we decided to try the US market, where the metrics were much higher, signaling to us that it was worth working in this direction.

However, we encountered problems with the app with filters for “Novy Kanal”: one of the libraries we used did not pass the App Store review, and we couldn’t release a new version in time for New Year’s.

After that, I decided to close this app and focus on developing Android apps that showed good results. After discussing this with my partner, we decided to focus on it.

Our company, Futurra Group, began its journey by releasing the first Android app, which started generating revenue.

We developed various apps and significantly grew within a year, reaching 5 million installations in first-tier countries like the USA.

We built direct relationships with Facebook and Google, testing various development directions.

OK: – It’s fascinating how you went through numerous tests and experiments, starting from curiosity in childhood. Tell me, how do you work with your team and motivate them?

Vitalii: – The main thing in working with a team is to find people you can trust and with whom you’re willing to go through thick and thin.

When you find people genuinely interested in results and want to achieve the goals you can rely on, they often exceed your expectations.

It’s important to take the time to choose a team and find people you can easily communicate with. If there’s a colleague with whom it’s difficult to find common ground, it leads to a loss of work efficiency.

An ideal team member is someone with whom you can discuss ideas at any time, who is open to feedback and can provide constructive criticism.

Once such a team is formed, it’s effective to set short-term goals, such as three months or half a year, depending on the specific direction you’re taking.

A basic business should have some movement so you can understand how it works and make forecasts for the future. However, when the business is already functioning, and ambitious goals arise, many changes need to be made.

Sometimes, you can’t be sure if every person on the team is a professional in everything, and sometimes, you make mistakes. To understand how the team is developing, we use weekly checkpoints.

Basic discipline within the team is essential. Only some people in the team are super performers, and adding someone who isn’t and doesn’t control them can drag down the rest of the team.

It’s not about bureaucracy but discipline through weekly checkpoints. When you agree on something, it should be done. If something goes wrong, the reason it’s not working must be discussed immediately, and the approach needs to be changed.

Also, what you’re working on is crucial. For example, if we were outsourcing, it would be difficult for me to attract people currently in the Futurra Group team because they’re interested in creating something non-standard rather than just completing tasks on demand.

OK: – How would you describe your team in one word?

Vitalii: – I associate my team with a honey badger. This predator has very thick skin; most wild animals fear it because they can’t harm it. If a honey badger is attacked, it can defend itself well. You wouldn’t think by its appearance that it’s better not to mess with it.

This analogy is because we’re a small team, but we take on big challenges. In our 7 years of existence, we’ve experienced many tough moments that only brought us closer together as a team.

honey badger
honey badger

OK: – Tell me about the product you’re currently working on.

Vitalii: – We’re working on a subscription-based tutoring service called MathMaster.

We noticed that tutoring, especially in subjects like math, is very expensive in the US. So, we decided to create a service offering consultations and problem-solving assistance for a fixed subscription fee. Our service is based on AI and math experts.

AI solves simple tasks automatically, and for more complex problems, users can reach out to an expert via chat.

The average time to solve a problem is 4 minutes, even though tasks vary in complexity.

When creating MathMaster, we entered a niche we hadn’t worked on before, which was an interesting challenge. We were curious to try ourselves in a direction where not only technological solutions but also operational work are needed.

At first, we needed to learn how to establish effective operational activities. One of the main questions was how scalable our service could be.

We realised that the key factor is engaging experts. When traffic increased, we found there weren’t enough experts: if users waited more than 4 minutes for a response, their satisfaction decreased. So, we decided to increase the number of experts.

We developed a platform for recruiting experts. They undergo math tests and complete test tasks, and then we decide whether to admit them to the team.

Right now, we’re rapidly hiring new experts – about 100 experts in 2 weeks.

We’ve gone through several stages of studying and improving expert compensation and have found the most effective model.


OK: – Tell me about the product team in Ukraine and your vision.

Vitalii: – I’ll tell you an interesting story about how our company shifted its focus from document scanners to something new. We initially developed scanners in 2016 and again in 2020. During these changes, we were looking for challenges and new opportunities.

We realized that we wanted to change our approach to business, and this required readiness for changes within the company. We considered  ​​creating a new product that would require a larger team and be truly innovative.

To convince the team, I gave a presentation in which I argued that such an approach could be effective and bring great value. I even drew parallels with big companies like Facebook, Uber, and Google. This sparked interest and support within the team.

So, we decided to change the direction of the company’s activities, which required significant efforts and changes in our work. Everyone was ready for this challenge.

On February 23, 2022, we left the office with a clear understanding of our tasks for the next day, which were related to mathematics. But the next day, the war began, and the top priority became the safety of our colleagues.

We started a new life in conditions we didn’t plan for and focused on evacuating employees to safer regions of Ukraine.

We resumed work roughly two weeks after the start of the war. Interestingly, no one forced people to work—they themselves expressed a desire to return to work to distract themselves from thoughts of the war.

We focused on developing MathMaster. At first, it was difficult due to the situation in the country, but after 3-4 months, we returned to the office, and our productivity increased.

Futurra Group office
Futurra Group office

Our team consists of half technical specialists, such as developers or data analysts, and half non-technical ones—marketers, product managers, designers, and others who are not involved in programming.

In our company, decisions are made through coordination between different departments. Most non-technical specialists have experience working in the big four consulting companies, where they work with numbers and have a knowledge base. We invited them to join us because they analyse existing things in consulting. At the same time, in the IT industry, there is an opportunity to create something new and quickly see the results of their work, which is very attractive.

In consulting, there seem to be many revisions, and people often work beyond the norm, not always understanding why they need to do it. In IT, working on a product, you see its result and the impact of your work.

Our vision is that in the USA, we currently rank fifth in terms of the number of users among math Q&A (questions and answers) tools. We have a clear vision of how to grow further and have already started working on a new scaling plan.

Our focus is on the quality of experts. We are currently testing their capabilities of handling complex tasks and building a database of experts capable of solving them. As a result, we have a new monetization model where users pay a fixed price for solving complex mathematical problems in addition to the subscription.

We started with English-speaking countries but are testing other markets, such as Turkey, and we see great potential. We have developed translations in two directions from English to accelerate the task-solving process.

We are currently testing markets in Europe and plan to expand our operations to Asian markets by the end of the year.

Our experience and understanding of educational systems in different countries are expanding, especially after interacting with competitors who share their understanding of different cultures. For example, in some Scandinavian countries, children are not given homework; they solve all tasks at school. This information is valuable as it helps us better understand and adapt to the needs and peculiarities of different educational systems.

After conversations with our competitors, we learned many details about educational practices in different countries, which helped us plan our products and strategies tailored to specific needs and cultural peculiarities.

Futurra Group team
Futurra Group team

OK: – You’ve shared a lot of interesting information about the company and the product. Tell me, what books did you like so much that you could give them as a gift to someone else?

Vitalii: – Thank you. I’m happy to share the books that I particularly enjoyed:

“The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. I revisited it when building Futurra Group. This book helped me through tough moments in business development.

“The Bezos Letters” is not as cool as the previous one, but it stuck with me with the phrase “Hire people you admire.” This is important for building an effective team.

“Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders” by L. David Marquet. The book is about the captain of a nuclear submarine who turned the worst team into one of the best without changing its composition. He addressed the issue by developing leadership qualities among his team members. This book inspired me to create a culture of autonomy and accountability in my team.

“My Life and Work” by Henry Ford is a classic on efficiency and innovation in manufacturing.

“The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox – an innovative approach to managing business processes.

“Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization” by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright – is about understanding and utilising culture within a team to achieve success.

These books have given me valuable knowledge and ideas that I apply in my work.

OK: – What is your favorite app (not yours, not email, not news)?

Vitalii: – It’s Reface. It’s a lot of fun when my friends and I joke around by sending each other videos in which we swap faces. It always brings a lot of laughter and positivity.

OK: – The last three people you communicated with today?

Vitalii: – My neighbour, a product manager, and a PR manager.

OK: – How do you imagine life in 100 years?

Vitalii: – Imagining life in 100 years, I believe that the world we see in science fiction movies, where everything is automated, filled with robots and flying cars, will become a reality. The world will become more democratic, and technological development will help create a society where knowledge and progress are paramount. Progress will evolve like a telescope, where each subsequent magnifying lens brings us closer to the truth.

With each passing year, especially with such rapid technological advancements, everything will change even faster. Progress and knowledge will dictate the rules. Creating comfortable conditions for understanding the world, as done with OpenAI in the USA, will lead to impressive results. This will enable a broader application of democracy and ensure universal access to knowledge and opportunities.

OK: – Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you wanted to talk about?

Vitalii Shatalov: – Actually, there is one topic I’d like to discuss — our approach to hiring and staff development. In our company, we often hire people without specific experience. Our principle is “learning by doing,” learning through practical experience.

We look for people with great potential who can solve complex tasks. With the availability of information on the Internet, we allow newcomers to learn by doing real work tasks. This approach helps quickly adapt new employees and develop their skills, including involving them immediately in the work process with “combat” tasks. This way, they adapt faster and become effective team members.

OK: – Thank you for the interview. It was very interesting.