Russian Time Magazine

From a locksmith in Russia to a businessman in Silicon Valley

San Francisco. Newsman, TV employee, life coach. For more than eight years, I worked for major Russian television channels. I enjoy revealing peoples’ unique personalities through interviews as well as telling success stories.
When a person engages in life correctly without being afraid of trying new things, life has its way of giving presents—even the most unexpected ones. Whatever the outcome, the result becomes a step to a new level. Ruslan Gafarov is just one of those who often receives such gifts. Whenever he is down, he keeps his chin up, and he never toots his horn when ending up at the top.
- Ruslan, tell us please about the businesses you currently own?
- We, San Francisco Innovation Hub, are the innovation infrastructure for businessmen support and development around the world. Most of our audience is Russian-speaking, but we also have customers from Europe, South America, Brazil, and Austria, who are themselves reaching others. We used to work with Vienna University of Economics and Business, which brought in guys from China, Africa, Australia, Peru… In order that our customers are able to incorporate useful knowledge and skills, we are creating a crash course program for them. This is a weekly program where businessmen or managers visit Silicon Valley to adopt the best practices from businesses established therein, changing the business context in all other parts of the world. We study business models, management, venture investments, and the way start-ups raise money.
The second trend is management consulting. I wrote several books about organizational culture, and my team and I assist businesses from different countries in implementing advanced team management approaches.
And the third trend involves venture investments: the way money is invested, and the things venture investors pay attention to. We cut deals with partners–from SpaceX to various deliveries.
- Who are your key customers?
- 80% of our audience are businessmen, all self-made. Namely those who made business from scratch. They have tried many things already of which they are tired, and they want something new. And they get it from us. Like what? Inspiration from other people!
For example, when our customers interact with people who used to work with Steve Jobs and are currently dealing with venture investments, controlling billions of dollars, a concept of what the future will look like is developed among them (the customers). They are inspired by communicating with successful people, recalling the ambitions that were deep in their heart at the dawn of the business development. It seemed to them that they had come a long way and that their fellow citizens are staring at them as if they’re gods. But suddenly they realize that they are nobody. Managers from Google or Facebook earn more and still are the first ones wearing sneakers without breaking into a sweat.
As a result, our customers gain a fresh approach to what they do. Einstein would say that a problem cannot be resolved at the point it was caused. I would repeatedly ask myself why in Russia or the countries of the former Soviet Union can you not do what you can do at Silicon Valley? Once I found out that Google costs more than the entire securities market of Russia, I realized that none of my fellow citizens know the way things work. Until you come and see and talk with such people who know the inner workings, it’s impossible for one to understand how things really work. Our customers from this place right here (the Valley) are beginning to see new business strategies. Upon completion of our crash courses, many of them have moved to America, launched their start-ups, opened new businesses, and now are very successful. Firstly, their mentality changed, and a new approach emerged. Secondly, they obtained certain tools and started networking, which began helping them resolve the tasks which they formulated when completing the course.
- And how did everything begin? Five years ago, you moved here with your family. But how did you get the idea to start such an endeavor?
- Let me begin right from the start. Since my father used to work in a criminal investigation department, I initially followed in his footsteps. I graduated from the Ministry of the Interior School, and at the age of 18, I started working in criminal investigation. I worked there just for eight months. My education and working experience made a certain impact on me. At that age, people are not yet permitted to drink wine, and as for me instead of drinking wine, I would investigate murders, wear a gun, wait sitting in ambush, deal with drug addicts, and witness tough stuff. At that time, my peers would pass exams, study at institutes, spend time with their girlfriends, go to movies, etc.… Due to this adult-type beginning, I quickly realized how the world works. At least on such a basic level. And you come to the realization of not only the things you learn at the institute, but the way things really are in practice. You see all this corruption and cronyism. Then, essentially, you understand that in order to grow in the organization, you must become just like them. Because the main thing that determines your growth is not how effectively you do your job, but by how well you please someone. I thought it was unfair. I felt like I was smacked in the eye. It took me eight months to realize that it was not my cup of tea, and I had to quit criminal investigation forever.
- And did you suffer depression at that moment which you described in social networks?
- Yeah, I had a plan to work in that area all my life, intending to change the world for the better, but it turned out that no one needed it. At the age of 19, I started to work as a taxi driver. After being a taxi driver, I worked in a public utilities office, first working together with roofers, then with locksmiths and plumbers, subsequently, being promoted to chief engineer. At the same time, I entered an institute to receive a second higher education in the field of economics. Why? To have something else to fall back on. Then I decided to learn how to work with people. If I learn how to manage people, in the future it will be much easier for me to deal with others. There is only one step between a locksmith and a hobo. These people are very hard to motivate because they are upset with their life; they’ve tried many things, but nothing came of it. That is why they work in the public utilities office people lived in despair. Things are different in the USA. Plumbers work and earn an average salary of 5-10 thousand dollars, living in their own houses, and they have nothing to complain about… I decided to teach these disenfranchised people how to motivate themselves… But first I had to learn how to motivate myself.
- Higher education does not provide such knowledge. Where did you learn such things?
- I was invited to work in Amway—you probably know this company. Cosmetics, household products… I had a university classmate who at that moment worked at State Automobile Inspectorate, and his father was the head administrator of some minor district. They invited me over, telling me there was some business opportunity. Since I used to work as a taxi driver, any opportunity pleased me, especially coming from these acquaintances of mine. When I arrived, they told me about Amway. Okay, I listened to them, but I did not want to be involved. Still, they kept on recommending some books to me—audios—and I then I began reading everything, starting from Think and Grow Rich by Bodo Schafer, Carnegie, right from scratch, you know…
- You mean that you learned some useful things from Amway, never working there?
- Yeah, by the way I know many people who learn from Amway, yet never sign up with Amway (laughing). The followers of this company inspire well. At that moment I did not understand what to do to begin thinking differently. I had no one to consult with. As for my family, my father used to drink a lot since it was hard for him to reconcile his life with the things he dreamed of when living in the USSR and with how things really were in reality. As a result, he drank himself to death. My mother sewed all her life. So, there was no one to give me good advice. And the environment was the same – locksmiths who worked in despair. You are poor, and you fail to understand how to move on... And it was then when I started to read books, thinking over the strategies of those people who wrote them. And I realized, okay, what would they do? Why not try to do the same? In any case, I had nothing to lose…
There was a moment when I reached the bottom, and I began to think why should I live on? Something kept me from falling. Suddenly, I decided that it was worthwhile living to see what future technology would look like. I was always interested in that. Imagine, at that moment, the reason to live was for technology, and now I am in Silicon Valley! Back then in 2012, how could I have imagined that I would be here? No way could I have imagined it!
To fulfill my dream, I started to read a lot. I learned from the books that I should attend trainings. Reading is good, but you have to get acquainted with people like you. Working in the public utilities office, I could hardly find any highly intelligent people! Places to go? Library? Where in Ufa could I find people who thought differently?
- And you went to Moscow?
- No, at that time Moscow was something unreal to me. I had neither money nor connections. But at that moment, because of Amway, I took a train to visit Moscow for the first time. Amway followers and I went to Bodo Schafer’s training. From then on, I clearly understood that I should be surrounded by energized people. I attended Forexclub training to learn how to trade in the Forex market. They do not place you on the market, and it is like a casino. But they tell some smart things during the training, about the way macroeconomics works.
At the university, I was surrounded by people who wanted something from life. After work every day, I would go to my classes. Simultaneously, I worked in the public utilities office. Therefore, my environment changed. I would not say that those people were interested in communicating with me. Who goes to get a second higher education in the field of economics? Bankers, for example. And here I am from the public utilities office and a former criminal investigation employee. That was all a miss! It was difficult for me to communicate with them... At a certain point, I got acquainted with one mate who called me to work at the bank. I was interviewed and employed. In the beginning it all seemed unreal. From the public utilities office to the bank?! How is that possible?
- That is unusual!
- Yep. As a result, I managed to get my bearings there. The bank employees are much more motivated, not working from a place of hopelessness. They are considered good experts, being vied for. I was promoted in the public utilities department: roofing foreman, plumber, chief engineer. The same went with the bank, where in a year I was transferred to a more highly paid position. And then, in fact, I became a deputy head. I had about 20-30 subordinates. That was how I was involved in economic security throughout Bashkiria.
Now I realize that I always subconsciously wanted to wind up in a more successful environment than before. And I managed to retrain myself quickly, listening, looking at the things others did and undertaking something.
- Tell us about your quantum jump from the bank to Silicon Valley.
- I would monitor my bank colleagues. They considered themselves the smartest ones who had made it in life; and they had nothing more to achieve. Such was the ceiling: making a career with a good salary and probably become a manager. That was enough for most of them. It was unacceptable for me.
I kept on attending the trainings (which were quite few in Ufa). As for the trainings which I wanted to attend, one had to go to Chelyabinsk or organize a session oneself. But I had never done one myself. At the same time, I could not pay 100 thousand to the coach when my salary was 18 thousand. For this reason, I decided to arrange a training – let everyone chip in, and I would be able to take part myself. There was not even a way to earn money but just learn myself on equal terms with others.
I invited Vadim Shlakhtin, who was a coach. I found him on VKontakte. Back then in 2010 without any target in social networks I would just choose friends from Ufa on VK, sending private messages to everyone: “Hi, I am Ruslan. I am going to bring this coach. Let us meet and talk if you want.” When I met people, it was hard for them to refuse me, and I do not know why—maybe that was because of my face (laughing). For some reason, all of them immediately agreed. I even managed to earn some money during the first training, though I did not plan to do it. On top of everything, I earned the same amount as if I had worked at the bank for three months. These sessions were not popular with the community. Those who attended trainings were considered like cult-goers.
All this inspired me, and I completely focused on it while simultaneously working at the bank. That was how I worked in 2013, combining my bank job and training arrangement.
- Then you began growing within these trainings?
- Yes, we started holding these training sessions in other cities. As a result, our business grew up to 40 cities in 8 countries. We began making a franchise. When I started arranging trainings in Ufa, I gathered all the names of advertising agencies from the yellow pages and approached them saying, “I have a coach and you have advertising spaces. You come to my trainings for free, and you provide me with ads.” And they agreed. I—with a face like mine—wearing a tie and a suit, went to the office. What did I look like? Apparently not like one who is going to conduct the training. They would become worried at once. Maybe I was a tax officer or someone else… And when I told them I had such an offer for them, they were delighted with relief and most often agreed. Thus, a large base of the partners was formed, who were promoting me, for which I paid no money.
- Tell us about your first visit to America.
- At that time, I went to study in Skolkovo. As for my program, one module should have been conducted in America. But since after 2014 all these political moments began, they canceled this module, which I wanted to hold so badly. Actually, I joined them because I wanted to travel to America and to see the way business works there. And so, I decided to go myself.
My wife and I for the first time visited many cities in the United States – New York, Miami, Nevada, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and others—all in three weeks. I took a trip around Silicon Valley, visiting the garage of Steve Jobs, because I had read all those books about it. And when I saw it, I even shed a tear. Here I am a guy from Ufa, standing at the garage of Steve Jobs. I thought at that moment flying to Mars is possible if I, a locksmith from the public utilities office, am able to get here to the garage of Steve Jobs. It was just unreal. Even then I wanted not just to see it as a tourist from somewhere on the outside, but to get to the inside. I sent the following proposal to my Instagram subscribers: “Next time I am here, I want to make a program like this: get into Google along with other companies, and look at the way people work there, talking to them. Venture investors, startups, and corporate employees will be speakers of this program...” I did not know yet how I was going to make this a reality, but I already had 100 leaders, who wanted to come with me. As a result, ten of them paid money, and I began thinking of the way to implement what I had envisioned. It was complicated, but thanks to the job which I did in Russia, I knew man of many people in similar fields, and they knew me. When I worked in 40 cities in 8 countries, everyone had respect for me. That was because to them the things I seemed unreal for the time. Thus, I found some useful people via my contacts online and offline. Then the first ten people arrived in the USA and visited New York, Vegas, Valley, and LA. I much enjoy talking to people, not just from the point of observing, but visiting Zappos, Google, UN, etc.
And then I decided that this is what I wanted to do. This is my place. Here you don’t have to buy expensive cars or watches so that you count for something. There are very successful people here, who at the same time are quite ordinary. In 2018, we finally moved to the USA. I am always interested in the fact that people intend to help me themselves. Namely, so that they can participate in my programs and, in return, promote me. Anyone can advertise for money. Therefore, I managed to create a community where people strike up useful acquaintances, which I did in Russia and keep on doing it here. I realized that there are many people who have been living in the US for 30 years without knowing each other. And I get them to know each other, and they are happy.
- What do you think about all these events which have sprung on us for the last few years? How are they affecting us? Was it all for the better?
- When I came to California, I realized I was living under an illusion. Everything around me was simulation. The task of such simulation is to provide us with certain lessons–there is no black and white, right and wrong. It is all united. Black and white is like 1 and 0. One cannot see only 1 or 0 just like we cannot see the road in the woods if you look only at some certain trees. We should see the entire woods, and then we will be able to realize how to get out of it, seeing the shortest and most direct way. Often before I realized it, I used to focus on some problems. Here is the problem, and I am trying to figure it out. Or otherwise, when something good happens, I get euphoric. Once you deal with such emotions, you lose connection with reality. You live in a different world and stop monitoring everything which really takes place.
When I realized that there is no right and wrong, I began perceiving everything as though from a distance. And now my answer regarding my attitude towards current events! All these are lessons which we should accept, learning something, creating something new, including technology and different approaches. Becoming more responsible and realizing how we should further live in a different manner.
I wish everyone was able to adapt to new circumstances, safely go through personal lessons, and keep harmony deep in one’s soul no matter what.