Evgeny Tchebotarev

Evgeny founded 500px, global photo-sharing marketplace, which raised over $25M USD from Andreessen Horowitz, ffVC, CAA, and was acquired by VCG in 2018. Evgeny is currently serving as Chief Growth Officer at Skylum Software and is based in Taipei, Taiwan.

 
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Evgeny Tchebotarev talks about his journey as a founder and the hardships they faced when 500px was starting out. He also shares what he sees differently since moving to Asia and how we can gain a more positive perspective in our day-to-day lives.

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When I was asking friends about allies for this movement, your post on Hacker Noon came up [The Founder’s Battle for Mental Health]. Could you tell us more about just how you got here [500px to Skylum]?

Alright. When I was studying in university, I moved to Canada when I was sixteen. At Ryerson, I was basically studying business and it bored me a little.

I thought, “I’m a hobby photographer, I like photography.” I took some pictures. They are horrible pictures, but I did it anyway. I thought, “There has to be a place to share them to get feedback on my photos and see other people's photos.” The problem was that when I searched for any place to share there was none.

That was the time before Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram. So basically, not many things existed on the internet in terms of photography back in 2004. I was part of the platform called LiveJournal, which is a log-in platform similar to WordPress today. I just created a community for people to show their photos and customize there a little bit.

Soon, we had kind of about 1,000 people that were watching, commenting, and sharing their photos. From that, 500px was born. For the next five years after I launched it, it was basically a hobby of mine. I graduated, and in between those five years, I was spending maybe 2-3 hours a day on 500px.

I finally graduated, started working part-time jobs, and had some bad job experiences. After that, I thought, “Wow, maybe I can’t work for somebody else. Maybe I can be my own boss.” 500px at the time had about 3000 people. It was small by standards back then, back in 2008. But a friend of mine who was a developer, we thought, “Maybe we could make it work.”

And in 2009, we basically started working on that together out of his apartment and my apartment. For eight months, we rebuilt the platform and we launched it. I was working full-time at this. My partner was working part-time because he had to work.

And for the next year, we tried to build it into something bigger. We had a lot of resistance from the people outside and they were saying like, “Why do you need this when there’s Flickr?” And we just kept on going. We would present at some pitches and some events and people would be like, "Oh, we don't need that.”

We would go back to our Starbucks or apartment and just kept on working. Eventually, we'd stop going to those events because the response was always the same. If you are small, people don't really care about you and when you are big, you don't care about them. It’s kind of an interesting power dynamic that we had.

By 2011, it started growing really fast partially because I convinced my partner to go all-in. He quit his job and as soon as he did, he started dedicating more time to 500px. We would start on building new features, making it better, faster, and so on.

And so the press noticed what we were doing, the investors started noticing what we were doing. In mid-2011, we raised our first funding and hired our first employee. We kept going until my partner got fired by investors in 2014. I left three years after that. And in 2018, the company got acquired by one of our later investors out of China.

 

That is such a whirlwind journey. In those moments where you were small at the time, where there were naysayers… What helped you push forward in those moments of adversity?

Obviously that's upsetting when you hear that, but that actually keeps me going.

Not that I have to prove something to people, but kind of like a challenge, like rising to the challenge sort of thing. I used to joke that I am basically unemployable in the normal field because my skills are so deep tied to the start-up. Like doing everything okay without actually excelling in one particular thing, unlike specialists for big corporations.

And that for me was like, “Okay, there's nothing else that I could do.” So, we just kept doing what we're doing and that's part of the journey. There's a lot of ups and downs, when things break. When things start up, you feel very much connected to the product.

I still feel very much connected even though the company is no longer mine. There's other people running that for last couple of years. I still feel connected like they took my baby away. I guess normal part of the parenting process.

 

Yeah, I can resonate with that. My brother and I felt so connected to the companies we built. That surprised me; how emotional the founder journey is and how much we cared. It felt my child or my baby that I was nurturing for so many years.

I'm learning to deal with that. For me, it's just kind of like, “Look, I did my best. I presented my case, but it’s out of my hands because it’s not in my control anymore.” Basically, you know like on the airplane, people who are afraid of flying? I am afraid of flying too, when the plane starts shaking, for example. For me, it’s like, “Well, do I have control?”

And the answer is no, I'm not a pilot. I don't have to control the wheel. So, all I can do is relax and that's it. That's how I approach the start-up or even business right now.

My current flow is that I cannot force people to do something. I can present my case and I let people decide for themselves. Whether they like it or not. Whether they want to work with me or not. And if they decide no, that's fine. Because that's out of my control.

My control is to present the viable case for them and that's what I try to do. But outside that, it’s up to them.

 

Yeah. Just hearing you mention that, it’s such a healthy attitude. In our industry, I know we attract a lot of Type As. I used to joke I was a recovering perfectionist. Control, controlling everything, is such a big stressor for so many people on our industry.

This attitude, this mindset that you have about doing your best and accepting that… What has shaped that? What has shaped that philosophy?

Life experience. Back in the day I would get very angry. Like, “Don't get it my way.” Or if somebody would say no to a business proposal or something, I would be like, “How could they do this to me?”

Sort of thing. But it's a childish thing. Well, these people I am talking to, they have their lives today. My company and my participation in their life is probably less than 1% of their day. Probably less than 1% of what they are thinking about me or the company.

But for me, it’s 100%. That's the same thing that's happening with start-ups in general. We tend to listen to investors. But for investors, they have so many start-ups. For them, we are less than 1% of their brain that they dedicate or they are thinking about.

 

There's a post that you made six years ago. You wrote about mental health, about what it really feels like to be a founder and the mental and emotional toll. You saw first-hand in our industry, with our community and the conversations that we have with other people.

What do you see that we could do better, as the industry, around mental health?

Part of what I wrote is that, there's a bit of two-faced character situation. If somebody asks you, “How things are going?” We always answer, “It's amazing. It's great. It's going well. Everything is up and to the right. We're growing. Customers are happy.”

But in reality, this is sort of like the “fake it until you make it” moment. You know, sometimes you go to work and you know you have to downsize three to five people. Mind you, those are human beings with families. It's probably not the end of the world for them, hopefully, but it's a very tough thing to go through.

With many people, I think it really depends on where they are in terms of not their mental capacity, but their compassionate capacity. Whether they can understand that this is a business.

Sometimes you have to, and this is the hard part - you have to lie to them in the face that everything is going great and then make those hard decisions.

And that's what's tough. We tried to change it, we were talking about how can we change things in the industry. We try to be very transparent, to the point of being painfully transparent. One thing that we did for example, was we shared our revenue numbers and money in the bank. Every week, it was gathering everyone in the company.

 

Oh wow. That's very transparent.

We shared everything. We shared a lot. And what happened was, people were so scared. They would see that there is not enough money in the bank to last two, three months. There is only money for a couple of months left and they would be opening up their LinkedIn and updating their resumes. Not everybody is mentally prepared to take that thing.

As a result, we would share less of that sensitive information just to protect people from extra stress.

 

I’m curious then… as a founder, we have to make those tough decisions. To keep the business going, even though we care about our people. When you look back at your journey, what has been such a support for you?

I would feel the connectedness with people who are going through the same things. Not necessarily sharing, but just being with people.

My girlfriend at the time, her father passed away. My father was very ill at the time. I didn't know how much time he had and that brought us together. We became more kind to each other.

And my good friend, his father passed away as well. We don't have to talk about things because he knew was it was like and it was enough. In meetings with other startup founders, they would share the same things that we were going through.

Like, “There's money from investors coming in late. An important customer just bailed or you lost a senior member that is very important to the team.” To know those things, that other people are going through the same… It was great because at least I'm not alone.

 

I absolutely loved that. There are so many ways to receive support and it doesn’t mean having to bare all. It can be surrounding yourself with people who have been through the same thing. Being seen and heard, even without words.

What about things that you do for yourself? What are things that you do maintain your physical and emotional being?

For me, back in the day I meditated. That would help. I am probably bad at this, but it helped me personally. I also would keep a short diary of things. Not just things, but my feelings.

I don't know if other people do this or it’s childish, but I would write things like, “Oh, this made me angry and I just wonder why. Or this makes me anxious about something.” And when I put it down on paper, the feelings or the issues were just not as significant as before.

On the physical thing, I basically moved out of the Toronto the last 3 years. I'm hoping to come back, but for me, that was quite significant. I just wanted to change because Toronto is small. I lived 5-minute walk from the office. And my start-up was my life, so that consumed me 24/7.

And so, I moved to Asia. That would be 3 years in March that I would be here.

 

When you look back at your journey in the tech industry, what has shaped that? Or has that looked different since moving to Asia?

I guess I'll answer it differently. I had a chance and I got a visa to live and work in San Francisco. I rejected that idea twice. For me, it was just too sterile and it was like a bubble. I didn't want that. I wanted to see real challenges of real people was real problems. More substantial things.

That's what I found in other places. In Indonesia for example, places that are struggling to get from the real economy to the developing economy, you see that people are having “real” issues. You know, $60 can mean whether a kid would go to school or has to stay on the farm to help parents.

If they stay on the farm, they will never get education, never have a chance to do anything more in life. All it takes is like a couple of nice lunches in that area. That brings a different perspective. Tokyo is obviously not where people are struggling, but I tend to travel to places where I can get to see real life.

As a person, it gives me ideas for potential future businesses. One of my passions is to build an educational platform for kids in developing countries like Indonesia, for example. I'm hoping that I'll have a chance to start that up before it’s too late.

 

I love what you shared about, I felt really humbled. In Toronto, where we have so much in comparison to the rest of the world, we can lose perspective. I know in my grandparents’ generation, they had to worry about war. Leaving their homes just to find safety.

We also have a tendency to ruminate a lot of it. What we don't have and what we can fix, all this things. I would love to ask you a question about fulfillment and meaning. When you think about your life, what gives you fulfillment now? And maybe, what's a parting message or food for thought for our community?

For me, I'm lucky to have the opportunity to be patient and to find the right opportunities. The company that I'm with right now, that took a while to go through companies where I wasn’t as connected to the founders or the mission. And so, I would be on and off or we would not even get through all the talking part of a conversation.

It took probably, more than half a year to get to know this company, Skylum, the one I'm with right now. You have to know the founders, to understand that they share the same ideas with me. And it give me a lot of freedom to actually execute a lot of things that I like. Part of that is community building. Like a lot of trust.

That was the last three years, just looking for the right opportunities. Being patient, talking to everybody, being open to writing random conversations and random emails. As you might imagine, yours might be included in that as well. Because you never know what comes out of that. If I have time, I am happy to do that. I'm happy to standby with people to know them because that’s how we start our experiences basically.

Maybe that change of place gave me the chance to be more generous with my time than I was even in Toronto. Because even in Toronto, it just kind of like everyone wants to have a coffee. It's a successful start-up and at some point I'll have to say, “Keep it short.”

Locally, I am in a place that's fine. Since I'm in a place that's far away, less people are willing to fly to Tokyo for a coffee. Some still do, but not as many as I hope.

 

Amazing. Well, thank you for making the time to do this with me. I love your messages of openness, patience, and trust in others. And for being willing to be part of this movement.

No worries at all. Wonderful.

 

 
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