“The only formula of success is Business = Life”: Interview with Ajax Systems’ CEO, Aleksandr Konotopskyi

Often called the ‘Apple of security systems’ because of their innovative proprietary technologies and beautiful design, Ajax Systems is an IoT company that develops high-tech security systems with smart home capabilities. Their product line includes 33 devices for the ultimate protection of premises from burglary, fire and flood – all manufactured in Kyiv, Ukraine where the company’s HQ and R&D are also based.

We recently spoke with Aleksandr Konotopskyi, Ajax Systems’ CEO and founder about how Ajax was founded in 2011. He was greatly influenced by a business trip to China where he saw people creating high-level technology. This inspired him to think that he could create things in Kyiv that are just as good, for example, a smart wireless security system that would replace the faceless ‘white boxes’ on the walls. That is how Ajax was born.

Fast forward to 2021, Ajax has now over 900,000 users in 120 countries across the globe and is recognized as an award-winning wireless security system in Europe. It has over 1,600 employees on board, doubling in staff size from 2019 to 2020. In 2019, it attracted over €8.4 million from Horizon Capital to ramp up global expansion and it previously received €840K million from the SMRK venture fund in 2015. This month Ajax was included in the list of 30 Best Startups by Forbes Ukraine, in 3rd place after Gitlab and Grammarly.

Here’s our interview with Aleksandr, where he spoke of his entrepreneurial journey, Ajax’s future, and also gave advice for fellow founders.

You started your journey into entrepreneurship at 21 – could you walk us through your story? What first got you into entrepreneurship? Have you always been a ‘creator’?

I was studying at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, and my dream was to become a good engineer and find a job in Germany. I was really focused on engineering but when I was in my second year at University, my father died, so my priorities changed. I clearly understood that I needed to start working hard immediately if I wanted to achieve something in this life. So, I started to work after classes. During the next couple of years, I tried various jobs: unloading wagons, working as a technical and business journalist, marketing campaign supervisor, radio planning engineer. But throughout all that time, business seemed very attractive to me. So, when my friend offered me to join his business and sell some alarm systems through the internet, I left my job at the telco and dived into entrepreneurship.

The funny thing was, at that time, we started 2 businesses (alarm systems web shop and 3D design studio). I was going to spend half a year with the alarm systems and later move into 3D design. Since then, 13 years have passed, and I am still with alarms. I used to change jobs every half a year, or year. But after launching the security business, I’ve spent 13 years almost with no changes. I’ve realized that business is exactly what I love, and that’s where I have found my passion.

The web shop I set up with my friend was Secur. It’s a leading Ukrainian distributor of security equipment working with top brands in the industry today. However, back then we only dealt with Chinese products – the quality of which was, at that time, often lame – causing us problems. I had talented fellow engineers from University, so we decided to try to develop an alarm on our own. This is how Ajax was born exactly 10 years ago.

Do you have any advice for first time founders?

1. Focus on MVP, don’t build spaceships
2. The idea is nothing, execution is everything
3. Don’t spend too much time on bullshit around startups: rounds, smoothie, investor            pitches, conferences, etc.
4. Spend more time with your customers and team instead
5. Work hard and always believe in yourself – sounds simple, but not so many people in the world can actually do this

Do you have a motto or a saying that inspires you?

“The design is not just what it looks like and feels like. The design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago, if you could?

Believe in yourself and move faster. Your doubts just slow you down.

What do you think will be the next big digital transformation in the next 3-5 years?

AI is crazy. It will penetrate deeper and deeper into our everyday life. We are moving to the next level of tech in every aspect: business automation, home automation, dating, manufacturing, logistics, etc.

What would you say to someone leaving school now, who wants to start their own business?

David always defeats the Goliath. So be smart and fast. And don’t be afraid of the big boys. Like the saying goes: “Amateurs built the Ark, professionals built the Titanic”.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs on maintaining a life-work balance?

I believe that work-life balance is a fairy tale. From what I see, the only formula of success is Business = Life. 24/7/365 is the only way to be successful in a modern competitive world.

What has been one of your biggest failures, and what did you learn from the experience?

It’s hard to choose one. I am a champion at failures 🙂 But here’s one I remember the best of all. In 2011, we were hurrying to release a new feature for the customers. And we failed. Even worse, the batteries in our detectors started to discharge rapidly because of the software failure. We found the bug and sent replacements to the customers, but because of this incident, some of them were refusing to work with us for the next couple of years.

This was a painful lesson. That day one of the main Ajax principles was born: “We never release sh*t”. I realized this very clearly and decided that I don’t want to bring another sh*tty product to this world just to make some money.

You are based in Kyiv. What is your opinion on the environment for creating a tech company there? 

Kyiv is brilliant because of its numerous creative people: engineers, developers, designers, marketing specialists, etc. On the other hand, it’s a good place to have a factory as labour cost is reasonable, and you can find quite a lot of manufacturing specialists here. Besides, this is in Europe. If you ask me whether I would change the place for my business if I had a chance, the answer is no. Kyiv is one of the reasons why our business reached its current high stage.

What differentiates Ajax from its competitors?

User experience. You can put Ajax and the competitor system side by side, and it will be immediately obvious what is what at a glance. We care about everything – the quality of hardware, design, best possible software practices, deep new technologies, etc. Here’s a short answer: our NPS (Editor: Net Promoter Score, customer loyalty and satisfaction measurement) is 87.5%.

Speaking of the professional security market, we can say with no false modesty that Ajax has revolutionized it completely, offering new market standards for mobile app-to-server communication speed, system configuration depth that did not exist before, etc. We became the first mobile-only professional alarm that could be fully set up using just a smartphone, simplifying and speeding up the overall installation process dramatically. And all this without compromising the reliability of the system.

The beautiful design of Ajax devices also plays a vital role. Inspired by the Apple philosophy, we aimed to create an authentic solution that would embellish any interior in contrast to typical faceless “white boxes” on the walls.

And, of course, our innovations set us apart. For instance, for Ajax hub, which is the brain of the system, we’ve designed our own real-time operating system OS Malevich. It doesn’t crash, cannot catch a virus and provides us with a greater level of security as compared to other widely used solutions. Or, for example, Jeweller, which is our main know-how in radio technology, lets us achieve the best communication range in the market while preserving energy efficiency – batteries in Ajax detectors live up to a record 5-7 years.

Ajax was founded in 2011. What do you consider your most significant milestone?

As we’re growing quite fast, we are changing the company almost every quarter. New people, new processes, new challenges. The most important milestone is the current milestone. Here and now. For example, right now Ajax has become really multinational. As we’re trying to avoid becoming another boring corporation, our goal for today is to improve the management system and to proceed to another stage quickly, and we restructure internal processes almost every day now.

How did you finance Ajax up until this point? Do you plan to achieve additional funding in the future?

We are financed from our operating profit. We attracted funding once in 2015 of $1 million from the SMRK VC Fund. From that time, we didn’t raise any other rounds. In 2018 Horizon Capital bought SMRK shares for $10 million, but it was a cash-out deal. We are thinking about an IPO, but until that, we don’t plan to attract any other investment.

What are your plans for further international expansion?

Recently we’ve been actively working on developing the MEA region. We have branches in Dubai and South Africa. We also plan to launch solutions for North and South America, Australia, and Asia this year.

You team size doubled from 812 to 1600 between 2019-20. How was it growing the team at such pace? What are the challenges and surprises you encountered? What tips do you have for building a solid team?

Fast growth is a nice problem to have. I would say, this is a kind of drug. What people usually do in a year you need to do in a month. I really love this speed. Challenges are everywhere: the new level of management, lots of new people, lots of new processes, lack of communication, and so many more. Here are a few tips:

1. People are more important than processes
2. The best team building is not when you drink together, but when you create something together
3. Spend more time on the ground, and less in meeting rooms
4. Clean the office from corporate bullsh*t and build true things
5. Give people the power to make decisions and please be ready to pay for their mistakes

Diversity in the team – yes or no? Why?

Diversity is absolutely a must. Different people do things differently, and you never know which way will be the best in the end. This is why we decided to make Ajax multinational, and now we are actively onboarding people from different parts of the world. We give them the power to make decisions and allow them to change the company. Different nations have different strong suits, and I am really happy we are building this new environment all together.