Member Spotlight: Dmitry Koltunov
What are you currently doing day to day at Alice?
I am the Co-Founder and CTO of ALICE which means I oversee the development of the product. The job is really about maintaining momentum and facilitating effective collaboration. The product is constantly growing, and it requires Design, Engineering, Product Management, and Quality Control to work seamlessly together as they iterate. Everyone brings something essential to the table, and my role is to make sure we have the best cross pollination of ideas and are able to produce results. The company is about 50 people and the tech team makes up 30, so my day to day is generally full of meetings across a wide spectrum. For my team, I try to be a sounding board about ideas, process, and output. I ask a lot of questions and work to make sure we stay aligned.
How did Alice get started? What's the story?
The idea first came when my cofounders travelled around Asia together, they were frustrated by how outdated guest communication was… with language barriers, no mobile tools, and a complete lack of transparency into the hotel stay. Every industry was evolving, thanks to the advancement of cloud, social, and mobile technologies, and the hotel industry seemed stuck.
So we set out to create an application that would bridge this mobile gap by allowing guests to order food and services from all of their hotels, similar to what Seamless or Deliveroo had done with food delivery. In our research, however, we found mobile apps were just an access point into a new infrastructure for delivering service. In observing the likes of Uber, Amazon, Opentable, and other platforms, we found the true innovation was not the app, but the digitalization of all the services on the back-end, the staff or the services they offered.
Most hotels today are running outdated legacy systems, which are disconnected from one another. So we broadened our vision - not just to give the guest side a mobile offering, but to deliver a technology operations platform for all staff to work on together, from concierge to front desk to housekeeping, and even maintenance: An operations and communication platform for the whole hospitality industry."
You're also Director of the NYC Chapter of SLP. What is SLP, and why do both?
I’ve been a part of the Startup Leadership Program (SLP) for the last 7 years, and it’s been an instrumental part of scaling ALICE. The SLP New York chapter is 8 years old and has 190 members with over $100mm raised in aggregate. As a first time founder, I am constantly learning how to handle new complexity on the fly, and I have come back to the SLP community frequently for decision support.
SLP serves as an accelerator for the founder rather than the company, and thus fills a really important void for first time founders. Starting and leading a startup is really an oral tradition, but there is only so much that you can get from blogs, podcasts, and video series. There needs to be a dialogue and a discussion about the hard things. The best way to learn about the intricacies of startups is to be in a room with others who are also learning and some who have done it a few times over.
I got involved in SLP as fellow in 2012 after spending 2 years on a dead end idea, and joined the program with the hopes of avoiding another false start. The organization was single handedly the best professional decision I have made in the last decade. I learned the unspoken rules of the venture game, got a great introduction into the ecosystem of investors and service providers, and made some really great friends along the way. The people in my class have done some incredible stuff. From Frida Polli doing AI at PyMetrics, to Alex Besignano at Recombine and now Phosphorus, I was really honored to be surrounded by some of the brightest minds in NYC all thinking through the same challenges of starting and growing a company. As we all matured in our respective companies it is great to have this diverse group of founder to call on for help. Since the program is really about the founder, it avoids a lot of the competition that arises in traditional accelerators, and people become very close and transparent.
The organization is run by volunteers who are all involved in the startup community and have done the program in a previous year. After doing the fellowship in 2012, I was so inspired by the mission that I asked to be part of leadership. There are not many places that build such a diverse community all focused around helping ideas grow. SLP is actually a global organization, 23 cities, 2,500 fellows, and all grassroots. I've been to a few other chapters and somehow the group has kept the same DNA without putting time into PR at all. This is a really important organization and so I felt compelled to give back. I had always wanted to start a company but it took me 10 years to make the move. I credit SLP with giving me the courage and the foundation to venture out and so I want to keep giving back.
Who can join SLP? How does it work?
SLP is open to founders who are working on a startup in the early stages. We are focused on people before they raise a multi-million seed round, and before they do a top tier accelerator. The idea is to identify people with tremendous potential and place them into a community that helps them unlock it. We look for accomplished people that also have a giver mentality, and seek to be part of a community. The recruitment process seeks to find a match of core values as much as identify raw talent. Since we don't invest capital in these founders the ultimate goal is to curate a network where people want to help each other grow. We also aim for a diverse class in terms of ethnicity and gender, last year around 50% the class were women.
The program is both an educational group as well as a founder network. The programming is 22 classes that are uniquely crafted to build skillsets while deepening the community. Each batch runs from September through May, every other Tuesday and a few Saturdays. It’s a really nice ritual to get out of the day to day and get out and talk to other founders in a similar position as yourself. We try to get some really great speakers in the room and have had folks like Nihal Mehta, Jerry Colonna, and Charlie O'Donnell share their insights over the year. Getting to know your fellow founders over time and going through the high and lows of the entrepreneurial journey is a powerful and rare experience.
We do not do much PR and most of our Fellows are nominated by program Alumni. There is a lot of love in the alumni community for the program and we are constantly on the lookout for the next great group. But it’s not at all required to know someone in the program. Some of our favorite people actually found out about SLP through Gary's Guide or Charlie’s List.
What are your favorite spots to do work?
When we first started ALICE we were doing some great work out of the Nomad Hotel which still holds a special place in my heart. Later on I started off at Grind which was a good place to focus and get things done. I like coworking spaces that are more lively spirit, and have a more thriving startup community. My favorite thing about startups is that you get to choose your team, and so every day is a joy to come to work because we have rocking colleagues ... and a cold brew keg.
How do you achieve focus?
Discipline is one of the most important things that a startup should strive for. When building a product there is no shortage of ideas. We can dream up new product lines every day, and early on in ALICE we would constantly get idea whiplash. What we soon found was that nobody wanted to buy a half baked product. As the company grew we realized that the only way to make a meaningful impact is to commit to a few decisions over a long period of time, and fight distractions as much as possible. To do this we needed a clear rubric for decision making ... enter OKRs.
We had heard about OKRs from a few people at Google, and the best presentation I have seen so far of it was by Rick Klau at GV. The idea is pretty simple but powerful. The leadership defines 3 to 5 objectives that the entire company must hit and orders them in priority. Then each team comes up with 3 - 5 measurable key results that achieve each objective. At most there are 25 Key Results which all roll up. We found that the process of debating the Objectives and creating the Key Results pre-empted conversations that came later and tried to steal focus. Also having clear objectives made tradeoffs very tangible since we understood the impact of not doing something.
Ultimately the OKR process was just a structured way to acknowledge that resources in a startup are finite. There are only so many people, hours, and dollars. The only way to make a dent is to really focus on a few things and get them right. There is a great book about that called Essentialism that our team read for our Book Club. If there was one lesson on focus that I wish I could impart on the team retroactively is that it's better to finish one thing with your full force than to make progress on 10 things incrementally. It’s impossible to know how real your offering is until it's being used, and so the sooner a user tries it the better. This means creating focus, explaining it with a succinct and well socialized “why”, and fighting hard to keep it as distractions inevitably emerge.
Thank you Dmitry! Interested in joining SLP? Applications are now open for the SLP Class of 2017 - 2018. Apply here. Applications will be processed on a rolling basis and close on 8/15. Early applications have the best chance of getting accepted, so apply early!