Irina Lebedeva Has Perfected the Art of the “Bootstrapped Startup”

Published on July 28, 2021

It can be a challenge for women founders with “non-Western” names to get funded at early stages of their project. But the good news is that if you have a great business idea and a team, there are still ways to market your product and create disruption and value for millions of users across the world. That’s exemplified by Irina Lebedeva, who has been a product manager in tech for over a decade, graduated with a degree in Sustainable Development and now specializes in launching new ventures that are quick to go to market. And the last three years? She has been focused on blockchain and crypto projects


Here’s a deeper look into the trials of this serial entrepreneur — an immigrant that has launched a number of successful projects despite being rejected by — in her words, “practically all” — venture investors. Her take? Hack it, and make money the “old-fashioned way” through sales. 

Grit Daily: Where do you start when it comes to conjuring up viable business ideas?

Irina Lebedeva: I start with the overall strategy. Provided that you choose your goal wisely and have the right resources to achieve it, your chances of success are pretty high even if you have to pivot from your original idea down the line. Basically it all comes down to two factors: creating a Minimum Viable Product using as little development resources as you can and being able to get first clients with a zero budget by using strategic partnerships, for example. 


This can help you stay independent from VCs and angel investors who are often too demanding when you need them. Closing a round of investment can take from 6 to 12 months, and most projects fail to get funded. If you are a female founder and an immigrant who doesn’t have a record of success in this country your chances are basically zero. But this doesn’t mean your project cannot succeed, though! 


You simply will be much better off using these 6 to 12 months developing the first version of your product and getting the first clients or users, and make VCs approach you themselves later down the line when you get your metrics right by having a product that is already in high demand.

Grit Daily: So how do you minimise development involved in the first version of the product?


Irina Lebedeva: This depends on each particular product. When it’s a service, you don’t even need to develop anything, you just need to focus on onboarding the first clients and then scaling it. For example, you can use the existing functionality of Instagram and Whastapp to provide consultations or educational services. 


Often you do not need to create a complicated platform or mobile app, you just need a landing page, where your potential clients can put in their contact details, for instance. A product is a tool, so development of the MVP is not your end goal, focus on the cash positive business instead, and your happy customers are at the core of it. 


But if you are sure the mobile app is the solution, again, you don’t have to develop it! You can create a clickable design in Invision, show it to your first users and then use this design and their positive feedback as an MVP to get funding from angel investors. You can have a perfectly designed app for less than $2k if you use outsource designers. Developing an app will cost you at least $20k and will take more time (up to six months instead of 1-2 months). With proper testing the app can cost you $200k. Investors do not care how much money you have spent developing your prototype, but they eagerly invest in successful scalable businesses.


Grit Daily: How can you simplify development of something worth millions of dollars? 


Irina Lebedeva: Well, first, you need to verify if you actually need a platform, or a landing page/chatbot will suffice for an MVP. The more aps you have, the more complexities you create, which can shoot you in the leg once you start testing the product on real users. Put simply, involve no more than one full stack developer for the prototype, if you can. When it comes to mobile apps, for example, one native iOS developer can develop both the interface and also simple backend using firebase. So you can actually have one person doing design, frontend and backend, because native interface 


Secondly, you focus on what really matters, this will also make your product more sustainable in the long run. At Teamkraft, which is a social sports app, at some point we needed to develop a system that could track and verify user data and reputation across sports and across countries. At that time, the majority of companies would have developed their own non fungible tokens to launch collectible items. This process, however, cost them millions of dollars and took at least  a year to develop a prototype while hiring the world’s most expensive developers. We decided to keep things simple and start by storing hashes of data on the blockchain, which would make it immutable and verifiable. 


This approach of using blockchain as a database was extremely quick in comparison to developing, for example, an ERC-721 token, and was also extremely cheap. This allowed Teamkraft to have a prototype ready in mere months without any additional developers and financing. Further, because the transaction costs were much lower, it allowed for an overall more sustainable business. Morale of the story: you can build apps without hiring an army of developers if you simplify your prototype by focusing on what really matters to the consumer and eliminate the noise. 


Grit Daily: We got the prototype. What’s next?


Irina Lebedeva: Marketing is one of the toughest parts of early stage projects. Prototypes require thousands of dollars, but marketing costs can be in the millions. This is why optimising the marketing costs is one of the core skills of Founders and Product Managers. 


At Xfinite, which is a crypto entertainment platform (“Netflix on the blockchain”), we didn’t start the acquisition of users with raising dozens of millions of dollars through private sale or ICO like other blockchain projects did. The product itself started with developing strategic partnerships, including a partnership with Eros Now (India’s major media company with over 220M subscribers) and scaling to over two dozen international content partners even before we got any blockchain development done. Morale of the story: you can build an outreach of hundreds of millions of users even if you do not have any marketing budget!


Grit Daily: So you can launch any product and market it to millions of people without any financing. What are the venture capitalists for then?


Irina Lebedeva: Once you have your product ready, and start scaling the number of customers or users, you can start talking to VCs and angel investors. Now you will have the data for them to be able to assess your product in terms of valuation and future cash flows. 


At this point you have all the chances to get funded no matter who you are, where you come from, what projects you have had in the past. This might not sound like a shortcut but this is one of the very few sure ways to building a successful venture project even if you have no access to financing.


Looking to get together with startup enthusiasts like Irina? Take a look at the upcoming Congressional Startup Day, August 11 in Tampa.

Sophia Platt is a Columnist at Grit Daily. She is the founder of The Bridge Conference aimed at closing the gender gap in the funding space by connecting international LPs to women GPs.The Bridge is the first world's conference focusing on women-led, high-growth venture capital funds. The mission is to bring inclusivity, diversity and equal gender opportunities to the funding space, where less than 10% of the decision makers are women.

Read more

More GD News