From chief nerd to entrepreneur
Silvia spoke with Gleb Urvanov, one of Hotovo’s most well-known faces, to find out the story that led him to where he is now, and what keeps driving him forward.
You’ve been involved in a range of interesting activities and projects since your student days. What fascinated you most about software development?
I’ve always been very attracted to creativity. As a third-year university student, I was already devoting myself to scientific work and writing scientific articles, and in my fourth year I started curatorial work with other students, and collaborated with the robotics laboratory. I then worked at Moscow University’s Faculty of Cybernetics in the Department of Computer Science. I really enjoyed working there. I was the first in the country to work with technologies similar to Neuralink. I also brought knowledge from foreign scientific articles to our work and had the opportunity to apply experiments.
It sounds very progressive, what made you decide to leave your home country?
In Russia, things work differently than elsewhere in the world when it comes to deciding where to work. As a student, you’re allocated to a “target group” from which you are then assigned to a job – either for a corporation, a state administration, or a selected state company. I was supposed to work for a state-owned hardware company, but I didn't want that. However, luckily the university had the opportunity to influence this. Since I’d started very early in terms of my work and progression, and was already an asset to the country and the university, they took this into account and allowed me to decide independently what roles/companies to pursue.
I have always primarily been interested in trying to apply and develop solutions. But developing something is very difficult if you do it alone and in isolation; collective integration and cooperation with other companies, countries and regions is needed. So with this in mind, I decided to look for work in Europe, and eventually settled on the best - Košice!
That's how your journey with Hotovo started?
Yes – while still living in Russia, I spent about three years looking for a job abroad, but I was always rejected. So I eventually decided to just come to Slovakia – even though I didn’t have a particular idea of what to do or how. About two weeks after I arrived, I put an ad on an internet job portal and was approached by Hotovo the next day to come in for a chat. And here I am 🙂
Why did you decide to go to Slovakia?
I have my own personal ranking of countries in the world that I believe to be the best to both live and work in. Number 1 for me is New Zealand, Portugal is number 2, and Slovakia was number 7 – specifically Košice and Žilina, although it’s actually risen to 6th place as it’s already improved a lot since I moved here.
But when considering where to move in Europe those years ago, I considered all different aspects of what I wanted and needed, including the bureacratic stuff I’d need, as well as how quickly I’d be able to relocate, and Slovakia was the winner. And having decided, I didn’t think much more – I just made the decision to go.
How do you rate Slovakia after living here for several years?
I consider Slovakia a very good country to live in. I find it hard to find a downside.
If you follow the political situation, you’ll realize that every country has its own problems. Apart from that, if you consider the standard of living we have here, Slovakia ranks very highly.
On average, we have a sufficiently high average salary, good conditions in banks (e.g. for mortgages) and we are in the EU, in the Schengen zone. Compared to e.g. Germany, Austria or the UK, we also have very good terms regarding taxes and business. To be honest I’d say that the only thing missing from Slovakia is the sea – if it had that, it would be the best country in the world.
It’s been six years since moving to Slovakia and joining Hotovo, and during that time you’ve gone through the positions of developer, team leader, and even started your own business. How did everything gradually transform?
I started as a developer, and also dealt with tests and application logic. Very soon I moved into the position of team leader for a new project. Basically, the team structure was quite flat back then. Then with the next, bigger project, I took on more responsibility still – it was pretty busy, with a lot of varied and different work.
At the same time, I also had my own projects and initiatives on the side, which I liked to develop and share with my colleagues. Crypto was a core focus for me on this front, and over time, one such project grew into a separate business.
You're referring to one of the spinoffs of Hotovo, the Block Unison company, right?
Yes. Hotovo was also a dev house for crypto projects. At that time, we dealt with this project within Hotovo’s crypto stream. But over time, the whole thing transformed into a separate company, and Block Unison was created.
Generally, Hotovo supports and takes on work in topics that people in the team are interested in. I consider it a great benefit that I had the opportunity to start my own business with the help of Hotovo.
You are also co-founder of the Mangata product company. How is this related?
With Block Unison, we served as a dev house and addressed customer needs for crypto projects. However, the deeper we got into this world, the better we understood and recognised both the benefits and the problems being encountered. This then gave rise to an idea for a new product.
We presented our ideas to one of our American partners – they liked the idea, and decided to invest in our new product. Two years have passed since then, and the two-person company has become a team of 20 people.
What is this product about?
Mangata is a decentralized cryptocurrency exchange with an interface similar to a centralized one. We take the best of both worlds – clients don't have to worry about their cryptocurrencies because they have full control over them, and they also pay smaller fees for it. At the same time, we protect clients from the volatility of the exchange rate, which can otherwise be exploited by malicious bots to rob the client.
In what form have you managed to get the product so far?
We are currently in MVP (minimum viable product) status, supporting a limited amount of tokens. We are constantly developing it and moving it to a higher level. We will launch it on another platform later on.
So can we still call you a Hotovo guy 🙂?
Absolutely! In fact, the aforementioned companies also have their headquarters in Hotovo. It’s crucial for me that these companies operate in a perfect environment for collaboration, and that I have the opportunity to come to the office every day. I really like spending time with the great, smart and creative people I've met here over the past six years, and I like them very much on a personal level. I wouldn't change this setup for a second, and I'm not even thinking about working from home.
You’re focused on several different technologies. How do you manage it?
I deal with different topics, but they are actually very interconnected. New technologies are more often created through the combination of several things, and not by the development of just one topic or area. Through experience, I have come to the conclusion that if you immerse yourself in one topic only, you may invent a new algorithm or a new method, but if it’s not connected to another field, it will not be of practical use. For me, a broad-spectrum focus is the only way to move forward and develop.
Since I know the strengths and weaknesses of a wide range of technologies, I can better judge what will work and what won't. All this contributes to product development. For example, especially in the crypto world, you often hear the combination of the buzzwords “blockchain” and “AI”. But if broader aspects don’t also match, then the combination of only these domains may not work 100% correctly for the given product. I therefore always want to maintain a broader overview, so as to find suitable and beneficial combinations in which we can make the most interesting forward progress.
You share your knowledge around the world, giving lectures at conferences and other events. Is there a particular event that stands out? Have you met anyone you admire in person?
At my previous workplace in Russia, reporters from several countries – including China and Brazil – visited me, and my projects were discussed and broadcasted on their television networks or written about in their magazines. I also lectured in Sochi as the youngest speaker at the international robotics conference.
But it was only after arriving in Slovakia that my activities became truly international. As a speaker in both San Francisco and Amsterdam, I had the chance to meet Vitalik Buterin, the creator of Ethereum – the second most popular cryptocurrency in the world.
I’ve also spoken at conferences in Bratislava, Prague... However, personally, I prefer to give lectures here in Košice.
Taking into account the business and product I mentioned earlier, that we built completely from scratch, I consider moving to Slovakia to be the biggest success in my life (satisfied smile).
What are your plans for the future?
I definitely want to continue to devote myself to Mangata and make it a world-famous project that will forever be connected with Slovakia, and to a certain extent with Hotovo.
Will you reveal something about your private life?
I would very much like to have kids with my wife. Unfortunately, this aspect of my plans forces me to say goodbye to Slovakia. This is because the children would have Russian citizenship and a complicated bureaucracy would stem from it.
For this reason, we’ve decided that our next life will be in Portugal.
Well, there’s another reason too… the sea! However, Slovakia will always be a home to me.
What do you like to do when you’re not working? Your wife works with horses. Are horses also your hobby?
Oh no, I am really very afraid of horses. Once in a while she makes me come to the stables, but I still feel that they want to take a piece out of me, and it’s really a huge stress for me!
I really like to travel, get to know new countries and meet new people. I like to study modern things or technologies that come and change our life. I also play airsoft. We have very good airsoft fields here in Slovakia as well as a community of players. Even players from abroad come here for big games.
Now maybe a little more seriously... Have you noticed any changes in behavior towards yourself, especially in connection with the war in Ukraine?
I was born in Moscow and I also have Russian citizenship. However, I am Mongolian by origin and belong to the Mongolian minority. But unfortunately, yes.
I can't say much about it, because the way the world works now is that, as a citizen of Russia, I will be punished for any opinion I publish. If even one inappropriate sentence is found, I will no longer be able to receive the necessary papers from the Russian side. And if I don't get the papers in time - I will be expelled from Europe.
Dissidents from Russia cannot express themselves freely because they are not sure that they will be allowed to stay safe in Europe - the opposite is happening. Many countries are now discriminating against people because of the color of their passport, which is the same as discrimination based on color of skin - we are not choosing either of these.
What comes to your mind when you hear “Hotovo”?
The first thing I think about is the friends I have made here. I think about the time we’ve spent together and the nice experiences. I don't think of Hotovo as work. I don't even know how to describe my feelings better.