From selling shoes in the former Soviet Union to helming a billion dollar IT empire, Serguei Beloussov is not your ordinary Singaporean resident. The Russian-born Singaporean wears many hats including that of an entrepreneur, investor and speaker. He is the co-founder, a global data protection company and is the senior founding partner of Runa Capital, a technology investment firm, among other business ventures.
I sat down with Beloussov to find out how he amassed his empire, what role PR & marketing played and what his advice is to other entrepreneurs.
Escobedo: Like most entrepreneurs, you’ve surely faced your fair share of challenges. So what was the biggest obstacle you overcame when starting your business?
Beloussov: I faced many challenges. It’s good to have them and it is hard to single out one of them as the biggest but that one is usually in front of you at any given moment. People, movies, media — all tend to romanticize challenges for one reason or another, but there will always be challenges, as they represent opportunities. That’s just how this world operates.
But primarily, when you want to change the world around you, you first need to discipline yourself. And for me, that was always the main struggle. I always had difficulties with maintaining my health, doing sports, speaking better, being patient, reading the right books, controlling my bad habits, managing emotions, making unpleasant decisions and so much more.
For example, I just started learning Spanish and it’s very difficult for me to go through the lesson till the end. I find it boring, and I get easily distracted. I want to learn but the challenge is to force myself to go through a certain cadence to complete the lesson.
Your mind may want something but to get there, you need to do certain things in a disciplined fashion, and this is the main challenge – the main treasure of the world is inside yourself and it is never possible to manage yourself perfectly.
Escobedo: So, what motivates you everyday?
Beloussov: Well, I feel that there are multiple levels to humans’ existence. The basic level is where most people live — we live, have children, take care of our health, travel the world, read books, listen to music — it’s just life. Second level is where people are motivated by money, power or fame.
And the third level is when people want to get closer to God – that is what people said in the past. Now, it’s not a question of whether there is God or not, but this is the level where you want to understand the world and how it’s organized.
There are many books written about it and there seems to be an answer to every question. But it’s not true. There are still a lot of problems that we don’t know how to solve. To understand the world, you need to be engaged in it, especially when it comes to the extremely important and messy world of humans. And this is what motivates me.
Of course, I am human and I want to be famous, powerful and do all the things a human wants to do, but it’s the curiosity to understand the world better that motivates me the most.
Escobedo: Can you share a little more on how you started your current primary business, Acronis?
Beloussov: Acronis was founded in 2001 as a separate business unit of Parallels. In 2004 the company spun off as a separate entity, widening focus from disk management software to backup, and the business took off. I was always the largest shareholder but from 2007 was not involved in the business at all. However, in 2013, I was invited to take the CEO position and now we have aggressive plans to grow the company by more than 10 times in less than seven years!
Escobedo: Wow, that makes me wonder how you first came across the idea to start your own business?
Beloussov: I studied at the top science and technology university in the Soviet Union — Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in physics, and then a Masters in physics and electrical engineering, a Ph.D. in computer science and a Doctorate in Physics.
I finished my undergrad degree during a turbulent time in the Soviet Union. It had already collapsed and I did what every student had to do — did odd jobs and tried to make money. First, we started Unium, initially as a business helping high school students to prepare for the best universities. I later exited this venture but it still exists today and educates over 10,000 children! Then I had various unusual projects, I even sold shoes and Yellow Pages ads, as well as computer equipment in a coal-mining region of Russia in Siberia. Through that I got to co-found one of the largest computer hardware businesses in Russia by the end of 1992 — all while still continuing to study.
By 1995 I completed my Masters and founded Rolsen Electronics, a company which later became one of the largest consumer electronics manufacturers in Russia. In 1996 I came to Singapore. We needed ERP software and eventually we became exclusive distributors and later developers of mid-market ERP software package – Solomon Software, which was later sold to Microsoft. And then, in 2000, I founded Parallels, that needed storage management software and that is how Acronis was created. That would be a very simplified story of what actually happened.
Escobedo: So Serguei, how has the company’s marketing and PR efforts played a role in the success of your business?
Beloussov: As I mentioned, when I came to Singapore in 1996, I quickly started as an exclusive software distributor. I read a book about PR and we decided it was a good way to promote our business. We searched and recruited our first ever PR manager – an ex-Microsoft employee and that’s how it all started. It delivered positive results and soon became an essential part of a business model of all my ventures.
Today PR is more sophisticated than it was in the past. We now use social media, viral and other tools, have the ability to measure its effectiveness and even directly track its effect to revenue.
Naturally, PR is not a panacea for everything but an important part of the overall integrated marketing we do. Perhaps soon you won’t need PR and marketing people at all any more, as there will be AI doing the job for them.
Escobedo: Is there a criteria you use to focus your PR and marketing activities? Basically, how do you determine where to put your money?
Beloussov: Different goals require different approaches. Goals may be different, for example, building the brand, targeting investors, or looking for partners, so the activities are chosen appropriately.
Much of what we do is targeted towards our partners. Most of our partners are medium-sized and small businesses and they pay attention to what is said in the media. They need to know that they’re dealing with a company and people they can trust.
Escobedo: That makes perfect sense. Earlier, you mentioned your expansion plans to grow the business 10 times. I’m also curious how do you plan to scale your business by that much?
Beloussov: Acronis is already present in almost every region. Our software is sold in 150 countries and localized to 20 different languages. We also have offices in 16 countries, so geographically, I don’t think we can expand more than we already have. There are some regions where we are underrepresented, like Africa, South America or India but it does not mean we’re not there.
To grow our business, we rely on our partners. We have over 15,000 partners globally and the number continues to grow. We’re making products and solutions for end customers but the delivery mechanism is through a highly-functional multi-tier partner channel.
Escobedo: 15,000 partners?! How did you achieve that number?
Beloussov: Well, we make it very easy to do business with us (laughs). We have a very active partner recruitment program, which is on top of our products and services, supported by aggressive marketing and PR activities. We also encourage our partners to have their own partners. Our goal is to make it easy and profitable for all of them to do business with us.
Escobedo: So, do you provide any additional PR value for your partners?
Beloussov: A 100%, yes. We’re always looking for new ways to do joint campaigns together – offline and online. We always involve partners in our events and they support all of our press releases, providing us with valuable quotes and comments. We recently launched a guest blogging activity with our partners globally and found it to be very well welcomed. And naturally, we do joint events, workshops and tech talks – all to provide our partners with that extra PR value.
Escobedo: Sounds like you’re a pretty good partner indeed. So finally what advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Beloussov: There are over seven billion people in the world and many are entrepreneurs! So, it’s difficult to give universal advice to all of them!
But if I had to choose a few things, I’d encourage everyone to never give up, never stop learning and never expect that anything would be easy.
Sometimes people give up and stop trying. You need to also keep on learning. No matter what level you are, you have to learn. And so if you never stop trying, and constantly learning you would avoid making the same mistakes and eventually prevail, no matter how hard it would be!