From scavenging parts in post-Soviet Russia to global tech entrepreneur: Meet Andrew Filev

Business Support | Growth | International | Interview | Technology

Andrew Filev Ceo of WrikeAndrew Filev’s digital workplace platform Wrike counts Airbnb, TGI Fridays and Hootsuite amongst its customers. With over 2 million customers in over 140 countries, Wrike has set the benchmark for SaaS platform.

Here, Andrew tells BLM about growing up in post-Soviet Russia, founding a global company, and using technology to reshape the workplace. 

Can you tell me about your background?

I was born and raised in Russia during a turbulent time in the economy. The Soviet Union collapsed when I was 7, and I came of age in the 90s, when the country was just trying to modernise and rebuild itself. Like a lot of kids during that time, I became passionate about computers, but because we were relatively poor in a country where owning a PC was a luxury at the time, the only way I could satisfy my passion was to learn to build my own computers out of whatever components I could salvage, trade, or barter for.

Ultimately, both the technology and the resourcefulness I had to learn led me down the path towards entrepreneurship. I started my software career in high school, founded my first company in college, and have been an entrepreneur ever since.

What was the inspiration for founding Wrike?

My first company was a professional services firm, and we had teams of software developers in several countries. We had some exciting clients and were doing great work, but ultimately, I found that the speed of our growth was limited by how quickly we could collaborate.

We were primarily communicating through email and using spreadsheets to track the status of projects and tasks. I quickly discovered that adding people to a project would often have the opposite of the intended effect, slowing the project down rather than speeding it up. It became nearly impossible to report the status of projects to our clients accurately.

It was the early 2000s, and as I saw the first wave of cloud technologies, I saw an opportunity to build a shared workspace for our team that could keep everyone in sync and make everyone’s lives easier. This idea ultimately turned into Wrike.

Do you think that growing up in post-Soviet Russia has influenced your approach to business? If so, how?

When you grow up in a place that’s defined by scarcity, you learn to appreciate that constraints breed ingenuity. That lesson has helped me time and time again as an entrepreneur. I believe in testing everything, and never going “all in” on an idea until it has a proven return. I also learned to value what you do have – and that’s why I believe so strongly in having outstanding customer service and support, so you keep your customers happy and dedicated to your brand.

If I go back to my earlier years and compare that childhood with my kids’, there wasn’t a lot of media and digital entertainment. Instead of a plethora of TV channels, YouTube and video games, our total access to digital entertainment was limited to a couple of hours of cartoons a week chosen by the central TV station. We had to entertain ourselves.

I was a curious kid, so I read every book I could find, and learned about everything I could. This intellectual curiosity is still with me and helps me to continue to improve myself and the business. I also played chess. It beats doing nothing by a huge margin, but it’s hard for it to compete with Fortnight and other games kids can play today. Chess taught me a good business skill to think a few moves ahead of your market and your competition.

Can you tell me about the process of scaling Wrike to over 2 million users in 140 countries?

They say it takes seven years to be an overnight success, but for me, it was nearly twice as long. I started bootstrapping the company in 2006, and we didn’t raise a series A round of investment capital until 2013. We were able to bridge that gap by treating our customers like investors and relentlessly focusing on their satisfaction. For me, bootstrapping was important because we were trying to define a new category of technology, and I wanted to sustain customer success to be our north star rather than fast revenue growth.

Now, we are at nearly 800 employees, and they are spread across seven offices in six countries, with many remote employees around the world. That global footprint helped us move fast, localise in multiple countries from the get-go, and support customers 24/7 no matter where they were.

What have been some of the challenges? What have been the highlights?

The highlights for me are always the success stories. That includes the success stories of our customers who have used Wrike to do everything from building cars, to launching rockets, to producing films and TV shows, and designing amazing products we use every day. I love the feeling of lacing up a pair of shoes and knowing they were created using Wrike or starting up my car, and knowing our technology was a part of building it.

I also love the success stories of our staff, many of whom have had amazing careers at Wrike and have become a big family that stretches around the world.

The challenges are usually ones of prioritisation, alignment, and timing. There are so many opportunities to do more and better, and so many ideas coming from employees and customers, that it’s impossible to do them all. It’s so easy to say “yes,” and so hard to say “no.”

As the company grows, alignment also becomes critical. If your sales team pursues a specific vertical, while your product is expanding the platform horizontally, while your ops team is doing an unrelated significant back office re-engineering, they all will miss critical support from each other. So timing and alignment become an essential exercise that goes hand in hand with prioritisation.

Do you have any advice for founders looking to expand into multiple countries?

If you’re a SaaS company, you can take the first steps without ever leaving your office. Start small by localising the product interface, then the most critical content, and see what kind of uptick you get in registrations from that country. If it works, build from there – you’d be amazed at the traction you can get from a single person writing emails, ad copy, or blog posts targeting a country or region. You can even use a crowd-sourcing platform to let your users translate the UI of your app into different languages.

What is the impact you hope to make with Wrike, both now and in the future?

There are a few levels of impact that I think about, but they are connected. The first is the quality of life effect on individual users of our product. When we hear stories about how Wrike helped them earn a promotion, achieve work-life balance, or bring a floundering team into a state of excellence, that’s really inspiring to me.

The other impact is the organisational impact on the companies that use Wrike. When brands tell us they delivered a new product early or under budget, or won their customers’ loyalty because they had superior execution, or developed an exciting new innovation with the help of our platform, that’s also a huge impact that I’m proud to be a part of.

In the future, as we introduce new levels of AI and automation to the platform, we can unlock even more success stories like these. Wrike has the opportunity to change people’s lives.

What are some of the main challenges facing employers when it comes to managing teams?

One of the most significant emerging challenges is the expectation of flexibility from workers, who frequently rank flexible hours and the ability to work remotely as top factors for their happiness. As millennials start families and settle down, accommodating flexible and remote work will be even more critical to attracting and retaining talent.

Enabling a culture of flexible and remote work requires the right tools for collaboration, visibility, and accountability. Remote teams often need further context when they work, because you can’t swing by someone’s desk and ask for a quick clarification on something. It’s going to take a deliberate and proactive investment from businesses to ensure tools are adopted and utilised to keep teams working effectively from anywhere.

What are some of your top tips for efficient work management?

I think an efficient worker is one that is well armed with the information and context they need to do their jobs, so I believe in over-contextualising in communication. If something lands in your inbox, you shouldn’t need to schedule a meeting to figure out what to do with it. Instead, the processes should be well defined, and all the information you need should be clearly included. Such contextualisation makes collaboration seamless across locations, departments, and organisations. A shared, digital workspace is necessary to keep execution at a high level.

Transparency is also a critical element of work management, and that includes top-down transparency (managers understanding the progress of work from their teams) and bottom-up transparency (employees understanding high-level goals so they can prioritise work effectively). Transparency is a cultural value but needs technology to power it.

I also advocate for automating routine work and administrative tasks as much as you can. Free your brain for cognitive, strategic work.

Finally, I say measure everything and understand the impact of your work. You can’t optimise your activities unless you know which programs and projects are moving the needle for your business. It’s essential to track your effort so you can report on the impact and return on effort.

What are you passionate about outside of work?

I’m passionate about helping other founders, especially the underdogs who are trying to bootstrap high growth businesses by solving significant problems for their customers.

In the last few years, I’ve spent some time competing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and also led a robotics team. Lately, I’ve been focusing on being a dad. I have two boys, and we love to camp and play sports.

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