Looking back on it, from the day I was born I was raised to become an entrepreneur. My mother was a scientist, and my father was a “businessman”, which was used then in exactly the same way as “entrepreneur” is now. They both had PhDs from the Soviet Union, which is actually a further degree above the Western PhD, and could only be awarded by a special government agency. This academic background meant that not only were they incredibly knowledgeable, but also that they understood the value of a research-based approach to life.
From the moment I could speak, and could ask questions, they would teach me anything I wanted to know. If my question was due to a lack of knowledge, they would plant a seed of the answer, and then suggest a book I should read to get the rest of it. If, however, they felt I already knew enough to answer my question, they would carefully guide me towards working it out by myself. They never let me take the easy option, and never took the easy option themselves by just telling me the answer – they knew that their approach would help me become an inquisitive person with a passion for learning and a desire to find my own answers.
By the age of four, I had learned about the concept of school, and since in Russia school only starts at the age of six, I wanted to set up my own. My mother got me a desk, some books, and a bell, and I would ring the bell and make her play school with me. She would teach, and I would learn. By the time I got to the age of six, and went to apply to the top school in Moscow, which since it was the Soviet Union was simply called “Number 32”, I already had a very specific expectation of how school should work. According to my mother, although I don’t remember this myself, I walked out of the interview part-way, annoyed that the mathematics teacher didn’t know how to integrate, and that none of the teachers spoke English.
My mother turned me into a life-long learner, but it was my father who turned me into an entrepreneur. As a child, he would ask me who I wanted to be, and like all young boys, I would answer “a businessman, just like my dad”. By the age of eight my English was fluent, and my father, who has never learned to speak it, began to take me to meetings to interpret for him. At first the people we would be meeting would laugh, and find the whole situation rather amusing – after all here was this tiny boy wearing a suit and talking about important matters with a strong Russian accent. But slowly they would come to realise that, in fact, this approach provided my father with an indirect intuition into their thoughts, as well as an important negotiation barrier. As the years went by, we learned to act as a team, with me both translating and providing my own input into the discussions.
By the time I started my first company, I had over a decade of experience of business meetings, board meetings, negotiations, and business in general. The experience was in an industry that I wasn’t interested in, and at a level I was unlikely to experience any time soon, but the skills that I had gained were directly transferable to running a small startup company, and would have taken me years to acquire if I did not have them already. I had in every way been groomed, most likely without my parents realising, into becoming an entrepreneur.
I often think about what I would do when raising my own children, and have distilled it down into a few points:
Firstly, like my mother, I will never tell them the answer to a problem that they can work out for themselves. I will instill in them a desire to constantly learn more, to want to understand how things work, and to always be solving problems.
Secondly, like my father, I will let them participate, at any age, in all aspects of my business life, to give them the amazing advantage of a decade’s worth of experience by the time they are ready to start something themselves.
Thirdly, I will only ever speak to them in Russian, so they are fluent in two languages from birth. Making me learn English was the single most valuable decision that my parents made for me, and knowing Russian is proving extremely valuable now. They need to be given the same opportunity.
And finally, I will let them choose their own path. My parents never forced me into anything. My mother guided me into following in her footsteps and studying mathematics at university, and my father did the same in turning me into an entrepreneur. But they never forced me to do this – the choice was always mine. An entrepreneur always has to forge their own path, and this is how they taught me to live life, right from the start.