How an American sold the company worth USD 1.4 billion and launched Ukrainian start-up

john sung kim ukraine us start-up

The founder of the service for email tracking JetBridge John Sung Kim, in an interview with MC Today, on why Ukraine is the Silicon Valley 15 years ago.

American businessman John Sung Kim lives in two cities – Kyiv and San Francisco. After selling his company, Five9, with a capitalization of USD 1.4 billion in the US, he moved to Kyiv, where he assembled a team of developers and, together with his Ukrainian partner, he was developing a start-up for the automation of sales and marketing of JetBridge.
According to John, the world’s best restaurants and a lot of talented people reside in Kyiv, but entrepreneurs often lie to investors and do not know how to develop a business, and employees do not trust their superiors.
No democracy and freedom of speech: why did I leave San Francisco
Before I started JetBridge and moved to Kyiv, I founded and subsequently sold two start-ups in the US – Five9 and DoctorBase. On the day of the IPO, Five9 raised $ 350 million, now it’s a company with 600 employees and a capitalization of $ 1.4 billion, its shares are sold on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange.
In San Francisco, I have a big house, a lot of good friends and an incredible network of working contacts. But after the sale of the second company, I realized that after 15 years of non-stop work I want to leave California and go on a journey.
By 2015, I earned enough money not to look at the price tag in any city in the world, and for me, the most important considerations were freedom and cool people around. And if with friends in the United States everything was fine, then with freedom things were much worse.
Here in the US, you cannot talk openly about your thoughts and views, and should carefully choose every word. Same situation with your political views. If you publicly admit that you voted “for the wrong” politician, you might lose your job.
I did not vote for Trump, and I didn’t think of him as an idiot, but if I had voted for him and admitted it on Facebook, then I would have had problems on the stock market.
What kind of democracy was that? My engineers secretly voted for Trump, and after his victory, they arranged a secret party in San Francisco.
In Kyiv, there are excellent restaurants, delicious beer, and a snow at Christmas.
Ukraine is not an ideal country, but there are freedom and diversity that are lacking in California and Western Europe.
When I first got to this country, I visited Kyiv, Lviv, and Odessa, and was amazed at how different they are from each other. If you are tired of Kyiv traffic jams, then you can go to Odesa to lie on the beach or relax on the weekend in Lviv.
It might sound crazy, but I’d chosen Kyiv in many ways because of its great restaurants. I do not know how to cook, but in Kyiv it’s not a problem, there are plenty of places with delicious food.
They say that you can do nothing there without speaking Russian or Ukrainian, but for me, it is not a problem. Most of my interlocutors speak English.
Recently I have hired a tutor to learn Russian, it’s interesting and fun. Now I’m talking exactly like the Russian mafiosi from the movie about James Bond.
Americans think that it is dangerous here, there is a war, corruption and everything is bad. To correct it, this year I will certainly bring American venture capitalists to Kyiv, I’m going to show them Unit City and Kyiv, which is on par with Budapest, Lisbon or Warsaw.
The only thing I do not like about the country is the situation with the elderly. It feels like nobody cares about them. In Paris or Barcelona, elderly couples are well dressed, seniors go to a cafe and drink cappuccino, and it is clear that the state supports them.
Here they do not look either healthy or happy. I’m worried that if you didn’t make enough money in IT, then later on, you can be left without any help and support. I hope that in the future this will change.
Employees do not trust the founders of companies
I see the potential in Ukraine and I think that Kyiv will be the next Berlin. There are many young and intelligent IT engineers, marketers, product managers, designers and talented university graduates. But for global success, Ukrainians need to adopt the experience of Western companies.
Twice a year I drive my team to the Silicon Valley. There they communicate with colleagues from Google and Facebook, venture capitalists, and successful entrepreneurs. And if one day they leave my company and decide to run their business, they will have direct access to people from the Silicon Valley, and they do not have to start everything from scratch.
Not all Ukrainians like the Western approach, many of the things common in California are unacceptable for Ukraine. In the Silicon Valley, each startup employee owns a percentage of the company through an option.
For Ukraine, this is an alien concept. Employees do not trust the owners of the company, and the owners of the company do not believe the employees. Many Ukrainians in response to an offer to get a stake in the company said: “This is not for me. You are a foreigner, I do not like you. “
When I hired the first employees in Kyiv, I asked the engineer: “Would you like to receive $ 3000 per month without an equity participation or $ 2500 with an option?” And he said: “Give me $ 3000. Option won’t feed you. ” It was difficult for me to understand this because in the long term it is cheaper for me to pay $ 500.
I tried to explain that in the Valley we do not feed on options, bwe buy houses on them.
Now I invest only in projects where employees have options, as do all funds and investors in the US.
No venture capitalist ever gives money to a company 100% of which belongs to one person.
Ukraine is full of successful teams, and I hope that the situation will change when their employees start buying houses in Chicago or apartments in new buildings in the center of Kyiv.
I came to the Silicon Valley 15 years ago, when there was no startup culture, and desperate and daring people started their projects. This was the beginning of the revolution. Now the same revolution is happening in the Ukrainian business sphere, and I’m happy that I’m standing at its source.


Image credits:
Source: MCToday.


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