First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Sergey Kotlov: Comparing to many others out there, we’re doing quite well. I’ve been working remotely from my home office for the last few years, so COVID didn’t change our daily routine. We live in Portugal near a park, so during the quarantine, which wasn’t very harsh here, we regularly went out for a walk with our newly born baby daughter. From a financial point of view, there was no change either. On top of that, all our relatives and friends are fine and healthy, so yes, we’re doing good.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Workshop Butler
Sergey Kotlov: I graduated from university with a degree in Applied Mathematics in Economics; however, I didn’t work a day in this field. I’ve always loved web development, especially high-load services, which were my specialty for the first five or six years of my career. I worked as a developer, then team leader, and, finally, project leader.
During that time, I invested deeply in the area of happiness at work, which led me to a CTO position at a startup called Happy Melly, an experiment launched by Jurgen Appelo, a thought leader well-known in the agile market. At that time, we experimented with a business model for Happy Melly and supported another business of Jurgen, called Management 3.0. It worked pretty well; more and more people wanted to take licensed classes. However, the original tool used for managing the business wasn’t good and flexible enough. We decided to develop a new one, and after a while, I started working on it myself.
We added a number of features to the tool during the next two years, and other businesses similar to Management 3.0 started using it. I saw a business opportunity, came to Jurgen and suggested that we run a product business out of it. He wasn’t interested in it but suggested that I should do it on my own. This is how Workshop Butler started.
How does Workshop Butler innovate?
Sergey Kotlov: First of all, we work in short iterations and try to run as many experiments within a limited scope of time. Obviously, you cannot do it without trusting your team. We’re a small group of professionals, and it helps a lot.
Then we listen to our customers and pursue the big vision I have in mind :). I personally try to speak to as many customers as possible, which gives me various insights into their needs.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Sergey Kotlov: We provide services for training organizations that were hit hard, so we were worried at the end of March and April, looking at the number of cancellations. The less training events our clients run, the less money we earn.
By the end of April, we realized that we were doing fine. We were actually growing compared to the last year! It wasn’t as big as we expected, of course, but even this rate of growth was good news.
Now we’re back on track and see the number of training events growing, though they’re done online now, so we plan to add some features for online events in the nearest future.
On top of that, we increased the team’s size, realizing that the time of crisis could be a time of great opportunity if we’re brave enough to act.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Sergey Kotlov: In March/April, we experimented with a side project, investing some time and money in it, looking for an additional source of income. After playing with it for a while, we decided to drop it and focus exclusively on our main product. It seems to be the right decision.
The main lesson I learned is that it’s okay to discard an idea you’re working on if it doesn’t play out as expected. No matter how much time and effort you’ve already put into it.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Workshop Butler in the future?
Sergey Kotlov: I read, walk, and spend time with my baby daughter. I found out that spending time with my loved ones is the best way to relieve any stress. In addition, I also try to have some personal time during the day, usually in the morning, when I go out for a walk, drink a cup of coffee, and just enjoy a slow morning. I prefer to leave my phone at home so I can think and dream without any distractions.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Sergey Kotlov: We have a number of competitors in different fields, depending on the type of customer we’re talking about and the tasks they are trying to solve.
What sets us apart from others is that we work closely with various types of training companies, giving them a tool that allows them to connect with each other. So we can slowly move from one type of customer to another, putting them all together on our platform. That’s how we plan to stay in the game and, consequently, win it.
Your final thoughts
Sergey Kotlov: In these times of uncertainty, the biggest advantages any business could have are flexibility and the ability to experiment fast. You cannot achieve that without a team you trust and customers who trust you. We have both, and I’m confident we’ll see the results soon enough.