6 Lessons I learnt launching a web project in Moscow

This post recently got featured on siliconrus.ru, and boy did the Russians hate it! As usual, my critique of VK seemed to upset them and the verbal abuse wave has begun! 

Ever since I arrived in Moscow I have always wanted to launch some kind of website, I'm not sure why, but the idea always held huge appeal. The problem is, I could never find one that felt right for me (not counting England-Moscow of course).

Finally that changed  when I when I got started on a new project. It's taken almost a year of preparation, endless e-mails, bug testing and content generation, but I launched Zdrav Sila last week. It’s a supplement cost comparison tool with an article base that gets updated every week.

Here are some things I picked up and recommendations along the way for anyone else interesting in getting something online in Russia.

                                               01 Find the right programmer/developer

Everything hinges on this and it’s probably the most important step.
While I can make a website using different CMSs and I know some html and CSS, I knew that I’d need someone to get this thing done right. Not only did I want something that looked decent but the comparison tool would need a lot of special coding.

In theory it’s simple, but in practice, this tool has been a royal pain in the ass and it’s still being tweaked on a weekly basis.

So, on to the programmer. The first lesson you learn in Russia is to always ask for recommendations.
If you need a doctor, a urologist (especially a urologist!) or dentist, make sure the first thing you do is ask you Russian friends to recommend.
Way too many scammers and unscrupulous workers out there, way too much potential for disaster.

In my case, I talked to the person who did an e-commerce website for my GF’s mum and she put me in touch with someone that she said I could trust and who had the necessary technical chops.

Books like The 4-Hour Workweek (great read btw), recommend using Indian programmers to keep costs down, but I didn't feel comfortable with it this time around, although I will be using an Indian programmer for an app I'm planning.

                                                         Trust that the person can do the job is key.
I knew a very switched-on Russian businesswoman who’s first online venture (a kids clothing store) failed miserably because she chose the wrong programmer.

She went for some low cost student type to save rouble, but the site took so long and there were so many bugs that she just couldn't get her business started. Plus, she had quit her high paying banking job and was missing out on around 10 thousand dollars a month in salary. Ouch! 
But it didn't have to be that way. E commerce sites are not hard, really.

She ran out of money ended up working as a prostitute on Kursky train station, leasing her body out in exchange for Rolton noodles...

Just kidding, but she did have to sell the site before it even did a dollar of business. Now think of all that lost income in salary because some programmer couldn't get his shit together.

Keep in mind, It’s not like the West were you can just Google what you need and expect normal, trustworthy results.
Here’s a good example: I found a guy to do a logo on Google and what he designed was perhaps the shittiest thing I've ever seen in my life. I actually keep the drafts because they’re hilarious. I sometimes just look at them to boost my mood.

                                                                      The apple one is particularity fantastic

So, I’ll reiterate, make sure you get someone who can do the job and do it on time! Which brings me to the next point.

                                                              02 Plan your time

Frankly I don’t even know how my project has ended up taking so long, but I don’t have anything at stake and still have my day job.

However long you think it will take, it will probably take longer - keep this in mind and don’t rush into quitting your job or anything.

At one point, nothing much was happening for a good few months because I wasn't pushing the issue, but then of course, I had to step things up.

                                                03 Be persistent with your programmer 

I got things back on track once I started calling him every Monday for progress reports. He had to admit that he had delegated some stuff out and it just wasn't getting done. Now, I was putting pressure on him, and he was then reapplying that pressure elsewhere.

You don’t need to be a pushy dick or anything, a couple of calls a week is enough. He knew that a call was coming and he’d have to justify himself again if the job wasn't done, which made him step up his game.

After that, we got the breakthrough that we needed and that should have come earlier and work was back to 100%.

Now I don’t need to call him any more and we get stuff done by e-mail, he's done a great job of everything and the when things did slow down, it wasn't really his fault.

04 Focus on effective communication with your Russian developer

Whether you're speaking English or Russian, most likely, e-mail will be the main form of communication, this is fine, although can be hard to describe accurately the things you want.

If you don’t know how, learn how to use  print screen and some basic Photoshop to make a little mock-up of what you want, this way, your developer knows what you are  getting at.

If you're totally not technical, get at least a little bit technical, so you at least kow what you're talking about.

But, don't blast your programmer with endless e-mail.

I keep an ongoing Evernote list of things to add, change or modify. Sometimes I’d spend an hour crafting a monster 15-point e-mail with screen prints and everything.
But he’d only change like 4 things and forget about the rest, so I’d have to resend things which can get a bit confusing.

    Here's a screen shot of my part of the ongoing list. Crossing things off is super satisfying 

To keep things simple, I send him three things at a time and nobody gets overloaded.

                                  05 Watch the cost

Creating a website really doesn't have to be expensive, it all depends on your needs.

I know one web businessman who got literally millions in investment money for, basically,  a paid  subscription dating website. On the other end of the spectrum, Reddit was started on $500. 

The basic build of my site cost 45,000 roubles. So far, in total, excluding advertising, I've probably spent about 120,000 on it, maybe more. I could easily spend another 50-100 thousand on it, just expanding the comparison tool.

I've made other decent, simple function sites on various CMSs and they've cost around 2500 roubles.

Shop around and if you have a friend familiar with programming, ask him/her what would be a ballpark figure.

If you are reasonably serious about what you want to do, don’t go mad on cutting costs. You can get a lot of stuff for free online (torrent download Photoshop, cough cough) but sometimes you’ll want to pay decent money for a decent job.

                                          06 Launching

A lot of people think differently about websites than other products, they have the ‘build it and they will come mindset’. Well, yeah, doesn't work.

You have to SEO optimize but you also have to give your site a little PR love.

The best way to start is FB and Vkontakte.
Running campaigns is a piece of cake and quite effective. Keep your groups interesting and engaging and don’t just spam things from your site. Now if only things were so easy on VK!

                                      BONUS: Chaos advertising on VK

My attempts and advertising on VK pretty much highlight Russia’s love for bureaucracy. What took 15 minutes on Facebook, has taken close to two weeks on VK and I'm still failing HARD!

First off, my add campaign was getting rejected because VK thought I was selling GM products and there’s some law on advertising that shit.
So I contacted support there and explained that I don’t physically sell anything.
But, because my site contains links to sites where people can buy these kind of things, I had to delete all the links to my site in the group.

I correct that error and then get a new one about grammar. That’s right, grammar. I couldn't understand what was wrong so I began the tech support dance again.
Problem? I had misspelled тогда (тгда). So, I correct that, resubmit and wait 5 hours for approval.

Next e-mail, rejected again, this time a grammar mistake involving capital letters. So I go through the same process once again -  confusion, tech support and waiting. Problem? The second sentence starting with Тогда  wasn't capitalized! (why not just point both the misspelling and lack of capitalisation in one go?)

Keep in mind this is all time wasted when VK could instead be making advertising money of me, a potential customer.

Each time this happens, I have to wait ages for support then ages for the campaign to be rejected. The difference between FB and VK is like the earth and sky.

My newest error is a different one. I'm told I need to provide certificates for selling supplements (remember, I don’t sell them!) and that if I have adverts or links to places, then I need certificates from them, for literally thousands of products. As you can imagine, that's basically impossible to do. 

thanks again, VK!

When you live here for a few years, you start to understand how Russians are so good at finding ways around things. For so many years, they've had bullshit, bureaucratic,  unintuitive systems forced on them and the only way to get on, was to find a way around the system.

So that’s what I'm doing now. I'm renaming the groups, getting rid of the direct links. I’ll grow it under a different brand until I have a decent number, then I’ll re-brand again. 

This daily back and forth on VK brings an memory to mind.

When I was a small kid, about age 4, I saw a Saturday morning program on TV about reproduction. At some point, the program started talking about how sensitive the male genitalia were (bear with me). 

For some weird reason, as soon as I heard this, the first thing I did was charge up the stairs at full speed, run into my parents’ bedroom, launch myself into the air and flying punch my dad square in the nuts.

                                                                                       Take that dad!

I have no idea why I decided to do this and I don’t remember what happened next (although my dad remembers the ballshot vividly to this day).

Cutting to the present day, for me, going on VK and sorting this shit out is just like getting one of those flying ball shots, day in, day out. I could have doubled or maybe tripled my traffic by now if not for beloved VK.

As it turns out, I wasn't able to place my ad because a person needs certification to advertise and sell supplements in Russia. Ok, great. Of course, I don't sell anything and thus can in no way get a certificate. If that isn't some retard level logic, I really don't know what is.

What do the haters have to say about that one, egh? I can't advertise my site until I provide a certificate for something which I don't have. Super solid logic.

In conclusion
Apart from the VK fiasco, things have been pretty smooth, never expect things to go completely according to plan.

If you lift weights, speak Russian and like articles on health and fitness and getting a good supplement deal, head over to Zdrav-Sila and throw some love my way on  FB.

Also, if you are launching a site in Russia, you might want to get help with localising the content into Russian, for help with this, check out the Russian translation services by PoliLingua

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