David Yan is a man of many talents and unparalleled energy. Born in Yerevan in1968 to an Armenian mother and a Chinese father, in his lifetime he has already built a global high-tech empire (ABBYY), developed the first pocket computer for young people (Cybiko), created a new-generation management system for restaurants and hospitality services (iiko) and a mobile payments system (Platius), opened an art café and four other venues in Moscow, launched an educational foundation (Ayb), published a book (“Now I Eat All I Want!”), designed a home for his family, earned a Ph.D. in math and physics, starred in a TV show, organized flash mobs and partook in countless other business and philanthropic initiatives as co-founder, co-investor and adviser. He has even derived the “happiness formula” and knows how to achieve immortality.
For such an accomplished visionary, David is disarmingly soft-spoken and casual, sporting jeans and a hoodie and at ease with any tricky question thrown his way. He is confident, thoughtful and eloquent. 100 LIVES caught up with David at a local coffee shop in Portola Valley and asked him about his modus operandi and about what makes Armenia special.
Interview by Anna Arutiunova
100 LIVES: Every time you venture into seemingly unfamiliar territory with a new project, you end up succeeding. What makes you so confident in your ability to succeed outside your comfort zone?
D.Yan: I am not terribly afraid to make mistakes. I don’t really spend time wondering what happens if I fail. There’s certainly some enthusiasm, some confidence at the beginning. It partly has to do with my student years at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT): people who go through this “boot camp” aren’t easily intimidated. It's a kind of “offensive reconnaissance,” if you will. If everyone errs on the side of caution, nothing will get done.
But, of course, no man is an island. There is no army of one. There must be a group of enthusiasts, people who egg each other on, who support and inspire each other’s confidence in a common vision. I never launch a new business on my own.
If your idea doesn’t seem to resonate with anyone at some point you also lose faith in it. If no one wants to join you in battle, you probably shouldn’t be fighting it. YCombinator [the most commercially successful seed accelerator in the world] recently analyzed data about the companies it worked with: startups valued at over $100 million had two or three co-founders.
100 LIVES: In a number of interviews you've mentioned that no business can succeed if turning a profit is its main goal. As a Silicon Valley-based investor and startup adviser today, do you still believe that to be the case? Sometimes people approach you with their pitches and you must evaluate their commercial viability.
D.Yan: Commercial viability is not about making money, it's about something else. It's about doing something that someone else needs. I think it was Steve Jobs who once said: “Make the world around you better, and the world will take care of you.” That’s just another definition of marketing.
An entrepreneur's or a businessman's goal, just like that of any other person, should be to do something for the benefit of others.
100 LIVES: Do you have a dream? In the Soviet times you dreamt of jeans and sneakers. What about now?
D.Yan: Sure, for example the Ayb School…I very much understand Aram Pakhchinian, who dropped what he was doing and moved to Armenia to head the school. I dream of setting up a school that will graduate people who will change the world for years to come.
There are simpler things, of course…Like finally building a house.
100 LIVES: Where is your home? Or are you a citizen of the world?
D.Yan: Even though we now live in the Silicon Valley, our home is still in Moscow. Here in the United States we'll be nomads until we build our own house. It won't have vertical walls or right angles. The city has already approved this blueprint – we were quite worried that a building permit would be denied for such an usual construction. But the local authorities said it was the most beautiful project in the town's history.
100 LIVES: Do you consider yourself Armenian?
D.Yan: I do. I consider Armenia to be my homeland. I also consider China to be my homeland. Actually, I have three homelands: China, Armenia and Russia. I grew up in Armenia; I graduated from a school specializing in physics and mathematics in Yerevan. If it weren't for my school, I would never have met Gagik Grigoryan or my classmates, who made me want to apply to MIPT. Ashot Aslanyan and other seniors from the Institute would come and teach us physics. Thanks to them I was admitted to the Institute, and if that didn’t happen, there would have been no ABBYY, no Lingvo, no FineReader. Without Armenia, at least half of me would be missing, and I would have been a completely different person.
100 LIVES: What exactly does it mean to be Armenian?
D.Yan: I think the Armenian blood I got from my mother gave me that almost physical need to constantly launch new projects. My Chinese blood, on the other hand, makes me want to finish what I start.
100 LIVES: Are you trying to balance being romantic and pragmatic?
D.Yan: Chinese heritage is not exactly about pragmatism, it’s more like having diligence in your blood. I see it in my father and I see it in Chinese students at local schools and colleges. There’s a characteristic that is common to all of them. Once you start, you do the work and see it through to the end.
100 LIVES: So are there certain characteristics that set Armenians apart from other people?
D.Yan: Of course. Initiative is one. Creativity and a convergence of various art forms is another. I think on average, more people in Armenia are drawn to different art forms than elsewhere. And this is very important, because this convergence gives Armenians a certain kind of unique genetic advantage. They need to make use of this advantage, but for that people need to work as a team, to learn to take pride and joy in collective accomplishments. It is very important for initiative to end up being transformed into something that will outlive you.
That is why what Ruben [Vardanyan] does is very important, because that's basically the focus of his project: to learn to do something together, jointly, as a team. Being an outstanding individual is a very important quality, but by definition it is the opposite of collectivism. In that sense, the people who are doing something in Armenia are extraordinary individuals. They are world-famous artists and musicians. But it's like keeping a bunch of tigers locked up in the same cage: it's very hard to get them to do something together.
100 LIVES: Ok, that's romantic, but let's talk reality. In your highly inspirational graduation speech at Ayb, you talked about the students having to go out and change Armenia and the world. How do you imagine them doing it in real life?
D.Yan: In the same way I do it, Ruben does it, my friends do it.
100 LIVES: So you want them to launch startups?
D.Yan: I want them to accomplish something in life and then give back to their homeland. The Armenian people have preserved very strong internal ties that last a very long time, maybe forever. People can emigrate to the United States, to Russia, to France, but something will keep nagging at them until they do something for their country. I see it in myself and in my college classmates: they deem it necessary to come back and do something for their country.
100 LIVES: Is the concept of “homeland” important?
D.Yan: Absolutely, it is of utmost importance. It's an irrational feeling you have. It's dualism.
On the one hand, many of us are citizens of the world, we speak many languages, partake in international projects, travel a lot. But the more borders get erased, the lonelier one feels, as strange as it sounds.
You can send a text or Viber message anywhere in the world, to people on other continents, but what you need is something else, something more real, something you can touch. A foundation. You start realizing that easy comes, easy goes.
You come to Armenia and see Mt. Ararat; you see the churches dating back to the fourth, seventh, 12th centuries, the black volcanic tuff covered in moss. You go inside and you see the carvings, you see the light streaming through the windows, you realize that that light has been there for hundreds of years. You attend a service and realize it has been held in the same way throughout the centuries. And you realize that WhatsApp, Skype, Viber – all those are great, but there is something that you can actually touch, and it makes it that much more valuable.
100 LIVES: There's a theory that because their ancestors survived a Genocide, Armenians have a genetic “victimhood complex” that affects their mentality. Do you believe that it exists, and if so, does it need to be cured?
D.Yan: On a scale of one to ten, I would place it as a five; some people have it, others don't. Some people are just like that: they complain about bad dentists, about losing something, about someone always doing something wrong, about being offended.
100 LIVES: Even in the United States, when you say: “I am Armenian,” the usual response is: “I am so sorry about what happened to your people.”
D.Yan: Yes, that happens, though it maybe only happened to me once in my lifetime. But if it happens, Armenians certainly have to build their national brand based on something else.
100 LIVES: Based on what?
D.Yan: Based on achievements, I think. On positive, constructive, scientific and artistic accomplishments.
100 LIVES: A successful brand should attract attention, investment and people to Armenia.
D.Yan: Yes, probably. I think the main goal of building up a brand is self-discipline. I think the brand “Germany” disciplines the Germans themselves, from within. Those who do not exactly conform to the national brand have to catch up somehow.
Same with the Chinese, who study and work a lot. If you do not conform, that's strange, you start looking at yourself differently. If a brand like that exists, it can help people with Armenian heritage rise to the occasion.
Now I am thinking about cause and effect, but you don't really want to lose face and fail expectations people have from a brand if you are proud of it. Those who attended MIPT have these tiny pins, barely noticeable, that they are very proud to wear. It's for people “on the inside.” But we all need role models.
With regard to the outside world, I am not sure if there is a negative connotation associated with Armenians in France, for example. What does the world know about Armenia? I would be interested in commissioning a research study in different target regions to understand what the world presently thinks of Armenia. And then doing another survey three years later and seeing if these opinions have shifted in the required direction. But do we actually want them to shift? Maybe everything is fine as it is. I am a man of precise sciences in the world of marketing and PR, and I believe that if a goal is attainable, it has to be measurable.
At present we certainly need to popularize the brand within the framework of specific industries, like tourism, at least. We need to single out a few facts about Armenia and make sure that the biggest possible number of people learns about them. With regard to the banking industry, it would be cool if Armenia suddenly became the near eastern Singapore or Hong Kong. In this sense, Armenia has a lot of historical and cultural capital to be traded. Maybe it makes sense to collaborate with Pixar, with Disney, to put out a cartoon where the story takes place in Armenia. That's how people found out about Madagascar.
In any case, this is a very complex sphere that requires very heavy machinery and a well-orchestrated effort over many years.
100 LIVES: Many people emigrate from Armenia, and having a strong Diaspora helps in that you realize that you will move to Los Angeles and find your own people there.
D.Yan.: That is both good and bad. On the contrary, this gives young people the motivation to learn to program, to become artists. It may all play out well: the possibility of attaining a dream – an annual salary of $150,000, working at a big company in the Silicon Valley – all this will thrill and excite young minds in Armenia, and they will get hungry for knowledge…
100 LIVES: And then they'll leave.
D.Yan: Not necessarily. It's a dynamic process. If many successful people leave and build up capital while their relatives remain in Armenia, that will be a process. That will be integrating Armenia into the world economy. Why can't Armenia turn into Israel, where living standards are lower than in the United States, but opportunities exist that allow many people to live a wonderful life there? An enormous number of Jewish people live outside Israel, while their country is in a state of war.
100 LIVES: But once they leave, not that many people come back.
D.Yan: The time just hasn't come yet. The quality of life that people have seen elsewhere and that they want for themselves and their children doesn’t match up now, but that can be fixed. The scale is currently tipped, but it will even out with time. If good educational initiatives, a good infrastructure and high-quality healthcare appear in Armenia, then given Internet availability, more and more people will want to spend more and more time physically based in Armenia. In today's world it doesn't really matter where a person is based and where he or she works from, those hurdles have nearly been eliminated. Most meetings take place via teleconferencing.
I do not exclude the possibility that a time will come when we want to move to Armenia for five or ten years to live and teach there. Our projects – the kids and the companies – will have grown up and become independent, they won't need constant supervision.
100 LIVES: In five years, what could possibly make you think “Why don't I go live in Armenia?”
D.Yan: It's very simple. A man wants to live life in such a way as to change something in the world, that's just human nature.
So if we work for the sake of making the world a better place, the question is: where exactly can we change it? Some of us arrive at the conclusion that our influence can be bigger in small countries. Should you go to China and try to change everything there, like Jack Ma? Seeing the fruit of your labor is very important, you want to see the way your work affects the fates of other people, the fate of the country, the fates of industries.
You may have a lot of different options, but you are invited to come to Armenia. You keep rejecting the offer, asking yourself: “What am I going to do there?” But you end up going, and when you arrive you realize that the architecture is gorgeous, that the people are great, the streets are beautiful, not to mention the nature, the fresh fruit and the food. But most important are the eyes of those children who listen to you openmouthed, who stick around at school with you till nightfall, poring over math problems, seeking you out and asking you questions. And you think: where else am I going to find people like that? Where else am I going to be able to transmit information to so many people who will definitely do something with it?
And you think, ok, I'll stay for a year, for two, and then you realize – this is what's worth living for. In this sense, even if in just some parts or enclaves of Armenia the quality of life starts nearing Western standards, it will be worth it.
At that point it would be radically easier to attract scientists and businessmen from other countries, because their labor would be perceived in a very different way. At first it will be education, then, a few years later, it will have to do with college and professional school, and then – with young companies, with startup hubs, with business accelerators. New people will come who will share their experience not with fifth and seventh graders, but with these same students when they start launching their own companies at the age of 25. These people will talk about ways to turn a small company into a global product with millions of installations the world over. Some of these companies will have a market value of over $1 million. They’ll be traded on global stock exchanges and will open offices abroad, setting the wheels in motion. While politicians do their thing, we have to take a field, start plowing it and planting seeds, and everything will grow.
Images: David Yan at UWC Dilijan, October 2014, Pan Armenian.