Zoolatech Founder on Finding Talent Beyond Borders
Custom software developers Zoolatech – based in Palo Alto, USA, with development offices in Eastern Europe and Americas – provide custom-built mobile and web development solutions for a variety of clients, with engineering talent based all over the globe. We caught up with CEO and co-founder Roman Kaplun ahead of last week’s Dot LA Summit to talk about the company’s explosive pandemic-era growth, how COVID helped sell clients on the fundamentals of remote work, and why LA can’t seem to train engineers quickly enough.
Zoolatech CEO and co-founder Roman Kaplun
dot.LA: Managing a largely remote workforce is a fairly new thing for a lot of entrepreneurs, but it’s been baked in to Zoolatech’s process since the very start. You even still have some staffers working out of Ukraine. Can you tell me a bit about your approach to working with a lot of developers who are currently offshore?
KAPLUN: As a company specializing in offshore development, we have solid experience and established processes to deliver remotely and with distributed teams. During COVID, we doubled down on this experience. Our teams from the Americas, Central Europe, and Ukraine work as one well-organized mechanism: they share responsibilities and organize daily work in the best way to adjust to the status quo and deliver no matter what.
From the client side, the goal is to have these kinds of workflow changes go unnoticed, and we are proud that whether it's working from home, bombshells, or refugee camps, our Zoola people put all their passion and effort into get things done on time.
dot.LA: A lot of companies are already doing this on their own in-house. “Well, we have our team here and then we’ve got a team in Manila or Poland or whatever.” What are some of the advantages to coming to a company like yours, where there’s architecture already set up for that, as opposed to just me as an American founder going overseas to round up my own team?
KAPLUN: We can do it a lot faster. Our team has 20+ years of experience in this market and we understand the culture. And by understanding the culture of our client and culture of the people we hire, that makes it a lot easier for us to basically to do everything a lot faster. So unless you are a Microsoft or Amazon or some other large company that wants to invest in each market, and basically built your own recruitment team, HR team, your own marketing team, basically invest into infrastructure over hiring and running these kind of teams, then the next best option is to work with a company like ours, that understands the market, the people, and has all that infrastructure in place.
dot.LA: What is it like to manage a company where some of your colleagues are working basically around the clock?
KAPLUN: It requires a variety of skill sets, but most of all, it depends on culture. At Zoolatech, we’ve focused on building a culture where everyone feels heard and supported. Sometimes, that means getting up at 5 am or working late into the night, but on the other side, we try to give people enough freedom to manage their time as individuals.
It’s most important that we share the same values, and that we feel confident that staffers are going to fulfill their promises. Those are the two essential points. But otherwise, it’s challenging and fun: we get to know people from different cultures, languages, and mentalities worldwide.
dot.LA: That's got to be a challenge, too, to constantly be focused on bringing in the right people. You've grown so quickly, to 450 staffers in just over four and a half years. I'd love to hear a little bit about that.
This is a word of mouth kind of business, in terms of our clients and employees. Zoola is Hebrew slang for a place that, once you find it, you don't want to leave. So we like to say that this concept applies to our both employees and our clients. We treat all our clients with respect and trust, so they want to stay with us, but even more importantly, we also treat our employees in the same way. So we have a very mature HR practices in place and we help our employees to grow their careers, and we invest into that. And then word of mouth creates a positive reputation for us in the markets in which we work.
dot.LA: That's a lot of growth in a few years, especially considering it's not a product that just blew up in the marketplace. It's consulting, you're finding new clients, you're growing that organically. To what do you credit the fast growth of this concept?
KAPLUN: Yeah, we signed 40 clients in about five years. A lot of it is just having a professional network of people I've worked with before. COVID has also opened up the concept of remote work. Our industry has existed for a long time; companies have always outsourced work offshore. But before COVID, the most challenging question that I had to answer was: “How does it work in a remote environment?” Everyone said, we like to have our teams co-located, everybody in the same office and so on. So I had to sell this idea of having a team remodeled, that it was okay to have some workers remote. COVID helped with that. I don't have to sell people on the basic concept that this works.
Also during COVID, a lot of money was invested into the economy. A lot of companies received funding allowing them to tackle new projects, so the demand for engineering talent in the U.S. went up. Due to limit availability of engineers stateside, companies had to go offshore. So we were in the right place, at the right time, with the right clients and the right proposition. A lot of our clients were growing, so that resulted in our growth.
dot.LA: You mentioned that before, that part of the success of Zoola and what you've been doing is this lack of available engineering talent in the U.S. Economics 101 would teach us, if there's a huge demand, supply should be going up. Why do you think it's not and, why aren't more Americans becoming engineers to take these readily available engineering?
KAPLUN: In the United States, you can go to college and major in pretty much anything. You can become an architect, an electrical engineer, a healthcare provider, and you're going to make a decent living. Yes, if you’re a software engineer, you're probably going to make a better living, but it's not 10 times more than the other options. In Eastern Europe and Latin America, the situation is completely different. A person working in tech will be paid 10x compared to the majority of professions because engineers can work remotely while others depend on the local economy.
So, the path to success is fairly clear there. Go into technology and you can be successful. So you have a larger graduating class, and a lot of people going into that field. I think this is a big difference. So there’s basically a limited supply of engineers here, it creates more demand for it, and so people have to go offshore.
dot.LA: We think of tech companies as specialized in some ways. It's a fintech company or we're doing Web3. And for Zoolatech, regardless of what the client needs, you're there to build the tools. I'm interested in that decision not to specialize and how you make that work in a practical way.
KAPLUN: A lot of technology companies choose to build their own software solutions as opposed to purchasing them. There are many tools on the market that you can purchase, but some of them are very big and very complex and require a level of integration and customization that is beyond to what you actually need. Also, a lot of our clients are aiming to distinguish themselves from competitors, or to disrupt their industry, so their requirements can’t be covered by simple ready-solutions from the market.
So we decided to specialize in custom software development, whether it’s apps, platforms, integrations or otherwise, we tailor everything to client’s needs.
There are some companies that produce microchips. Their microchips can be used in completely different products, from TV to fridges. We are kind of that company - we produce custom software for different companies.
dotLA: Is there a case study you could walk us through as an example?
KAPLUN: So for one major North American retailer, we made their Android app. 80% of their customers are on the iOS on iPhones because they are slightly upscale, so they're willing to spend more money on retail. Most of the people are on iPhones, but they can’t ignore Android entirely. It’s about 20% of the market for them, so they have to have it, but it’s not a top priority. And so Android is not a top priority for them, but it's very important. So it was a great opportunity for them to give this to us and basically say okay, you guys manage the Android entirely, just follow the iOS.
For a San Francisco fintech company, we brought together their Mortgages platform. They were getting into new business. They started as a student loan refinancing company, and we played a large part in building that software, and when they expanded it into mortgage financing, we built that platform out for them completely. The lesson learned from that is that was, the closer we work with the companies, and the more trust we build with their technology leadership, the more responsibility they give us and then the better independent results that we can provide for them.
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