Give Me Your Tireless
The immigrant experience is alive and well: Witness Michael Samoilov and his cutting-edge Internet startup
Talk about the "American Dream" and it sounds like the oldest cliche in the book. For me, it's just a faint, distant melody hummed by my immigrant grandparents at the turn of the century. But to a Russian-born entrepreneur at the cusp of a new one, the phrase still pulses with promise.
Since he was a little boy in Russia, Michael Samoilov, now 29, yearned to make it in America. "It was natural for me to want to be an entrepreneur," he says, "because it is one of the expressions of anti-Soviet mentality." When Michael was just six, his father, a chemical engineer, emigrated to the U.S. Two years later, he sent for his wife and son, but the Soviets wouldn't let the "refuseniks" leave for nine more years. By the time the family was reunited, Michael was an independent 17-year-old, unwilling to listen to a father he hardly knew. He got his own place, studied English, and swept floors at a local Burger King. "Then I moved up to mopping," he jokes. He wanted more out of this new life, and more he got -- a scholarship to California Institute of Technology, a PhD in physics from Stanford University, and a cushy job in finance at Goldman, Sachs & Co. As a student, he did financial consulting at Stanford's business school. He also tried to launch two software companies.
When I met Michael last February, he was participating in a new American rite of passage -- raising capital for his year-old Manhattan Internet startup, Javu Technologies Inc. -- and telling his story on Money Hunt, a public-television show for entrepreneurs.
Later, I visited Javu's spare, modern office on the banks of the Hudson, where Michael, CEO and president of Javu, works with two employees and his two 23-year-old partners and vice-presidents. There's Dmitry or "Dima" Shklovksy, an old family friend Michael took under his wing when he arrived here alone at age 18, and Max Orlov, who came from Moscow in 1991 with his family in search of a leukemia treatment for his little sister.
As students at Cornell University, Max and Dima worked together on a highly theoretical multimedia editing product. Like Michael, the two friends, both of whom have master's degrees in finance, had caught the entrepreneurial bug before they left Russia. Teaming up with Michael, they licensed Cornell's technology and in January, 1998, launched Javu. Their goal: to develop JavuNetwork, a sophisticated set of Web-based tools to let anyone edit and post videos online without extensive technical knowledge or fancy equipment.
Like so many Internet hopefuls, Michael, Max, and Dima are gambling that their new product, now available in so-called beta, or test, form at videofarm.com, will transform an industry -- and perhaps lead to a public offering. Of course, this fantasy has become as American as Burger King, but it's a true sign of making it in a new land when you can dream the same dreams as anyone else, no matter how ambitious or improbable.
Still, Michael and his partners fight a curious set of stereotypes. First-time visitors demand to play chess and go drinking. And when Javu's business plan called for using programmers in Moscow, investors balked initially. "I think there's still a stigma in people's minds left over from Soviet times that Russia is evil," says Michael, who shed his Russian name "Misha" to fit in.
Ironically, Michael's ties to the land that brought his own family so much grief now make Javu's future possible. Javu employs a team of 10 top-notch software developers in Moscow, for a tenth of what they would cost here. And thanks to time zone differences, Javu never sleeps. From what I can see, the three partners don't sleep much, either -- when they do, it's often on the office futons.
Even if Javu isn't the next Internet sensation, I don't doubt Michael and his partners can weather any rough times ahead. As he tells me: "After you do a startup on your whole life, starting up a company is a cakewalk."
By Robin D. Schatz
This article was originally published in the June 28, 1999 print edition of Business Week's Frontier. To subscribe, please see our subscription policy.