Andrey Kudievskiy – Founder & CEO, Distillery

Andrey Kudievskiy is the founder and CEO of Distillery, an international full-service software design and development company based in Los Angeles. He is tech-minded, business-focused, and always coming up with new ideas to make his own business – and others’ businesses – better. Within five years of starting his career in tech at the age of 19, Andrey had established his first company and played a key role in creating a successful cloud synchronization startup that was sold to a Fortune 500 company. His current company, Distillery, helps startups and enterprises to accelerate, scale, and thrive with services related to app and web development, product strategy, analytics, UX/UI design, security testing, and IoT. In 2017, Distillery was honored to be named to the Inc. 5000 and win several prestigious awards, including a Gold StevieⓇ International Business Award, a WebAward, a Gold San Francisco Design Award (DRIVEN x DESIGN), and designation as one of UpCity’s Top Software Developers in the U.S.

Tell me about your early career.
My early career showed me that I was driven to achieve. I finished high school first in my class, and I graduated from college with a degree in computer science and a 4.0 GPA. After starting my software career as a project architect, I was rapidly promoted to a senior engineer managing a team of ten. At my next company, I was hand-picked to establish a Russia-based company for a long-established Swedish software business. Ultimately, I was lucky to quickly find and learn from some excellent mentors and leaders in my first few jobs, and they – along with my father, who’s supported me and inspired me throughout my life – helped me find the confidence and drive to believe that I could found and run my own successful business.

How did the concept for Distillery come about?
In 2008, when I was only 24, I founded my first software development business, Rus Wizards, back in Russia. As we grew more successful, it seemed increasingly apparent that if we wanted to prosper as an international business, establishing a U.S.-based presence and headquarters was going to be crucial. The first U.S.-based incarnation of my business was WeezLabs (founded in 2012), which is the business that has now morphed into Distillery. Throughout, my overall motivation has been to develop a strong team and a growing business that consistently delivers clients the benefit of our top talent, international perspective, and wide-ranging mobile app and software expertise.

How was the first year in business?
It was humbling and scary. Before moving, I’d been diligently saving money so that I could sustain the business in the U.S. for a few years, in case things were slow at first. Unfortunately, I grossly underestimated the cost of living in Los Angeles. During the first year, I didn’t pay myself a salary and blew through my personal savings. Fortunately, however, we began to establish our reputation in the U.S. and start making money, so I was able to avoid taking on debt.

What was your marketing strategy?
We knew we needed a stellar website. Fortunately, Distillery’s website proved effective in generating leads that converted into actual projects. I also knew that I had a fantastic team of software engineers. In fact, back in Russia, our clients liked to refer to us as “wizards,” which was the inspiration for the name of my Russian software business, Rus Wizards, as well as for WeezLabs’ name. So I trusted that we’d be able to generate business based on referrals and overall word of mouth. But the full truth is that I didn’t have a fully-formed marketing strategy. Early in my business, I wasn’t focused on building a strong sales and marketing organization. I’ve since corrected course, and it’s now an area of the business that gets a great deal of my attention.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
By our second year, 2013, we were getting on the right track and yielding enough revenue – around $1 million – to be able to hire more people. In 2014, we achieved revenues of $2 million, and we doubled that figure to $4 million in 2015. By 2015, however, we’d increased headcount too quickly to keep up with our revenues, and we had to scale back our workforce. In 2016, we made $5 million in revenues. Ultimately, between 2013 and 2016, we started to reach our stride, achieving the 298% three-year revenue growth that earned us the rank of #1365 on the 2017 Inc. 5000.

How do you define success?
Success is about having a positive impact on the world, and about doing work that somehow enriches the world we live in. Personally, I know I’ll have succeeded in my business when I can walk out of my office down to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, talk to ten people at random, and learn that at least five of them have one of Distillery’s apps on their phones. At that very moment, I’ll feel that my mission has been accomplished. Because there’s no greater joy in life than to see products you’ve created enhancing people’s lives on a daily basis.

What is the key to success?
I think a big part of being successful is finding and empowering the right people that can help you be successful. To make Distillery successful, I focus on finding people I feel I can trust. Then, I give them responsibility, trust, and support their decisions, and check in regularly to see how I can help. I also actively seek out advisors who provide me with objective, seasoned guidance about how I can continue to improve my business.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
To ask for help. Truly, that’s it. Like many entrepreneurs, I used to think I could figure out how to do everything myself, and that I didn’t need advice. I couldn’t have been any more wrong. Now, I make it my business to surround myself with the smartest, most capable people I know. When you do that, miracles can happen. There’s no shame in asking for help and advice!

What are some quotes that you live by?
“No pain, no gain.” I even tried to buy the nopainnogain.com domain, but the price tag was too steep. I also love Master Yoda’s quote from The Empire Strikes Back: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

What are some of your favorite books?
From a professional standpoint, I can’t recommend Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup highly enough. In fact, I ask that every single Distillery employee – whether they’re a UX designer, a developer, a marketing assistant, or whatever – read the book. It gives them a strong understanding of the language and methodology we use to drive our projects. From a personal standpoint, I’ve always loved The Count of Monte Cristo. There’s just something in that book that kept me dreaming about adventures and compelled me to re-read it three times – twice in Russian and once in English.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
One of my toughest days was the day I realized I had to initiate layoffs in the company. It was particularly tough because the layoffs resulted from my lack of foresight in maintaining a proper balance between sales and execution capacity. We had done some preemptive hiring so that we’d have the execution power we needed to deliver against my sales projections for a new high-price-tag product that we’d pushed to the market. As it turned out, my sales projections were overly-optimistic, and our revenues couldn’t support our payroll. While it was a tough lesson to learn, the experience has helped me know the importance of building a strong sales organization and keeping sales slightly ahead of delivery capacity.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I have an inner drive to create and achieve. I am an entrepreneur through and through, and I honestly never stop thinking about building businesses. And I am not just passionate about building my own businesses: I’m eternally full of ideas on how others can improve their businesses. That’s why I thrive on running a business that provides services that help entrepreneurs and enterprises to build and enhance their own businesses.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Don’t hesitate to ask for help and seek out mentors, especially among the entrepreneurial community. Most entrepreneurs – including me – wouldn’t have gotten where they are today without the help and sound counsel of other professionals. Because of that, many of us consider it our duty to support the next generation of entrepreneurs. I also highly recommend that any new business put together an advisory board. Your advisors should bring skills that extend and complement your skillset, and be professionals who’ve already succeeded in their own businesses.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.