How to grow a small agency into a global digital leader with 100+ members: Artkai’s way, interview with Artem Tsymbal

Artem Tsymbal founded Artkai in 2014 and in less than 10 years he grew his startup into a very successful company with over 100 people. Artem is originally from Ukraine and is now a digital nomad living in different countries like Poland, Germany and Portugal. He is the Head of Design & Co-founder of Artkai. He is pursuing the EMDIEL program at ESCP Business School.

What is Artkai?

Artkai, co-founded by Artem Tsymbal and Dmitry Taranyk in 2014, began its journey as a modest design agency.. The initial idea was to help people create beautiful products. It was a very small agency and they explored small tasks such as covers for books, posters, PDF presentations, white papers etc. Artem states that in the initial days they were trying to understand their strengths. They decided to focus on websites. And then they moved to mobile applications. Soon they started to expand into many areas and attracted bigger clients. Fast forward to today and Artkai is now a team of over 100 people. Artkai manages customer centric development for different companies and helps their clients build mobile applications, websites, and some internal systems. So the company is built around the concept of digital consulting. Artem is meanwhile pursuing the EMDIEL course at ESCP Business School and later in this article he describes how taking the EMDIEL course helped him further develop interesting projects at Artkai.

Artkai began as a startup only 9 years ago but today it’s an established business. At Artkai, teamwork is at the core of its philosophy, a sentiment deeply echoed by Artem and the company’s leadership team. Together, they strive to maintain a vibrant startup culture, fostering an environment of continuous innovation. Artem and the company’s other top executives have preserved the startup culture , and they try to reinvent the company every year. Artem believes that it’s quite important for every company to inculcate this startup spirit and explore new niches and serve new markets.

How did Artem get motivated to become a founder?

Back in 2014, Artem was working for a digital agency as a designer, in a routine 9 to 5 job where he designed projects for an advertisement agency working mostly with big brands. Dmytro Taranyk, a close friend of Artem, convinced him to switch from this 9 to 5 job as an employee to become an entrepreneur. Dima was one of the most famous antitrust lawyers in Ukraine. He was working in consulting, and was a partner in a famous Ukrainian law firm. Dima convinced Artem to become more of a manager than a designer. After Dima’s inspiration, Artem was motivated and he decided to create a design agency and focus not on advertisement, but more on design, then product design. Dima helped Artem set up the company and became a co-founder.

Dima was also Artkai’s first and only angel investor! He also helped Artem with clients and service, and helped him develop a consulting client-oriented mindset. A design agency is often just people who love design and create beautiful things. But this consulting mindset helped Artem to start solving problems for the clients. And that’s why Artkai switched from just the design to design & development and design & development of products. So they started to help clients to solve their problems through design and development.

How did Artkai find new clients in the early days?

One of the first clients of Artkai was Artem’s co-founder Dmytry Taranyk. After helping Dima they started to work with other small companies and with acquaintances. The breakthrough came after they published their portfolio. A Ukrainian woman who had moved to Chicago invited them to help her agency with website design. Over time they provided more projects to Artkai. In the very beginning, they were focused on the Ukrainian market and wanted to change the Ukrainian market to make it more client friendly. Client service was not a very strong part of the Ukrainian digital advertising agencies so they wanted to change it. After working for some time with the Chicago agency, Artkai had more cool projects in their portfolio and their clients started to recommend them to other clients and this word of mouth marketing helped them get many clients. This network made Artkai more of a US centric company and even after 9 years, over 60% of their portfolio is US based companies, and also European companies. They also used an Upwork account to do small jobs for different clients. These clients were so satisfied that they kept providing bigger and bigger projects to Artkai. In the end, it reached million dollar budget projects. Artkai has this tenet even in their values- that “Big things have small beginnings”. So they are always trying to help clients with something small, which gradually becomes bigger.

How has Artem financed Artkai and helped it grow all these years?

Artem never wanted to take VC money and was focused on bootstrapping the business. His co-founder’s angel money was the only investment they had and so the growth has been fuelled by the company’s own earnings. Artem states that it’s always a mistake to believe that your yearly budget accounts for all the expenses. He noticed that at the end of the day, the company’s costs would become two to three times bigger than what they had planned initially. So he recommends every founder to have at least 2-3X of their initial budget to survive. Artem highly recommends newcomers to choose this business because a consulting business or an agency business doesn’t need much capital investment in the beginning. The barrier to entry is quite low but it helps to have some savings in your pocket or angel investors to help out.

At Artkai, they reinvested almost all the money they earned back into the business. And that’s how they were able to grow without any venture investment. Artkai’s main portfolio is still with US clients and some European ones. Now the company is expanding its presence in Europe, US and they have a brand new market – the Middle East. Artem says that the EMDIEL program helped him realize that it’s a big market. He went on a trip to Dubai, Abu Dhabi & the United Emirates and met some people from Saudi Arabia. That led to Artem’s realization that it’s a booming market that has huge potential and a lot of resources. The Middle East is looking for the expertise Artkai provides and the company is eager to expand into this market.

Who are the key team members?

Artkai started as a design agency but they realized along the way that it’s not enough to do just the design, but there is a need to work as a customer centric development consultant to better help its clients. Artem states that the two co-founders of the company decided to invite two more partners. Kos Chekanov now works as the CEO and the main salesperson. Egor Shakala is COO, a technical and operations expert. They pivoted the company to make it more about a full cycle development – so they help clients from research to product launch. Also, some team members have remained with the company from the very beginning, at least for 6 to 8 years, and are now key members. Artkai’s team, including the heads of sales, delivery, and the technical director, are highly talented and dedicated. Their strong partnership and expertise played a crucial role in helping Artkai expand to 100 people, even during challenging times like the global pandemic and the Russian full-scale invasion. Their unwavering commitment is a significant factor in the company’s ongoing success and resilience.

Why a consulting agency makes sense

Artem notes that consulting is a very ancient profession and back in the day even kings used to have consultants. The profession has survived for thousands of years and it’s still viable. He says that the right mindset is important. Some people want to change something in the world and have a clear vision. Some individuals have a clear vision of what they aim to create, develop, or change, making it ideal for them to develop a product and launch their own startup. However, there are others who are still in the process of discovering what they want to change. These individuals often find their inspiration in helping others, and over time, they gradually uncover the specific area they wish to impact. Or they actually don’t want to change anything- they just like people, and just keep helping people. This different type of mindset is required for consultants and Artem states that is geared that way and enjoys tackling different tasks all the time.

People who create a product, usually work with one big challenge. Of course, they have other tasks they’d need to tackle, but still, there is one big goal and vision. However, as a consultant, you think more about people and their problems, and you become an expert in some field. You need to know what’s your expertise & what you’re helping people with. Artem gave the example of one of his clients who was a consultant in a Big 4 Firm and helped a lot of people with tax consulting. And then he identified some problems inside this tax industry and started to develop products to sell them to those consulting companies. He was amazingly successful with that initiative. He still helps people, but on a bigger scale, not for small startups, but for huge consulting companies. According to Artem, this is a good way to become an entrepreneur, you start from the business consulting part and then find the problem and create a product.

The most promising industries right now according to Artem

Artem says that these days he works a lot with Web3, Crypto and DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations). These are big industries according to him but there’s also an ongoing crypto winter at the moment with a downswing in the crypto industry. AI is the big thing that everyone is flocking to. But Artem believes that Web3 and the concept of decentralization is something that will grow a lot more in the next few years. As Artem is from Ukraine, he emphasizes the importance of Mil-Tech or Military Technology. Mil-Tech is booming due to the Ukraine war and other geopolitical events and has suddenly become a huge market. All European countries, such as Germany, Belgium, Netherlands etc. are reinvesting into their military to modernize it and make it more tech-savvy. 

Also, health is a huge issue due to the aging European populations and health tech is becoming a very prominent thing. Another big industry is Cybersecurity. Of course, everyone is afraid of AIl taking over the jobs. But Artem says that we will still need cybersecurity. At least to protect us all from AI! So cybersecurity is growing rapidly. And another interesting sector is agro tech or agricultural technology. Humanity still has a lot of issues with food and we still have a lot of hungry people around the world so this is an industry that is developing quite quickly.

The challenges of choosing life as an entrepreneur

Life as an entrepreneur always has a myriad number of challenges. Artem is originally from Ukraine, and a large number of Artkai employees, almost 70% of them, are still based in Ukraine. It’s a huge challenge to work in a country plagued by war. Artem notes that the slow down of the globalization trend may also hurt business. Due to changes in politics, countries are now starting to work only with people inside the countries and economies are becoming more and more closed. So this is a challenge for Artkai to work remotely with different countries to establish this connection. Every culture is different. And many countries are nearshoring things and trying to scale back and localize operations. So this is a big challenge that Artem and the rest of the executive team is thinking about. Artkai is considering establishing at least sales offices in every country to tackle this challenge and have a base for their operations in every territory instead of doing everything from a remote location.

Artem’s motivation behind enrolling for the ESCP EMDIEL Program

Artem is currently writing his master’s thesis as part of his EMDIEL studies and exemplifies how student life can be managed while working in his own company. He is extremely motivated and happy to have chosen EMDIEL that he says opened his eyes to even more opportunities. His main motivation to join EMDIEL is the fact that he loves to learn. For Artem, it’s an incredible pleasure to understand and learn about new things. In his interview with Supriyo from the Blue Factory team, Artem explained what an important role learning had played for him. But also, he says that along the way he realized that even though his company is quite successful, it still feels to him more like they got lucky with this success. He doesn’t know exactly how the company’s growth got to this point and also whether he could repeat this success. He wanted to conceptualize it and understand the process behind it much better. 

Artem’s idea was to link his practical knowledge to a theory because its the path he took when he was learning design on his own. When he started to learn design he was doing it in a simple way, but then he delved into the works of the biggest minds who had actually invented such things like UX design. He says that connecting all his projects to this knowledge really helped him. Today, Artem is a certified UX specialist and he’s certified by Don Norman, the inventor of UX. Artem thought he could take the same path and even though he was an entrepreneur himself already he could still learn about entrepreneurship from a more theoretical perspective. This allowed Artem to take his knowledge that he had already acquired and link it to the great theory of the big minds in the field of entrepreneurship. His search for this led him to find the EMDIEL course and he understood that he could juxtapose the theoretical and practical aspects in the best manner with the help of this deeply engaging course at the ESCP Business School. Artem highly recommends the program and he says, “I would recommend every entrepreneur to try it, because it really helps you to understand the business from the theory perspective and become more effective and successful”.

How did the EMDIEL program help Artem as an entrepreneur?

According to Artem, “In EMDIEL every moment was an ‘aha’ moment”. He says that the “Effectuation Model”’ showed him a better framework to start new ventures and thereafter he used effectuation to launch some new products inside his company. Also, Artem used the ‘intrapreneur’ concept to select some people inside his company and build their intrapreneurial skills. Another EMDIEL feature Artem really enjoyed was the trips to different economies – during every module they visited a new country and enriched their knowledge about that country. Artem says that during his visit to Italy he expected the interconnected family business networks in Italy but he was very surprised to discover the numerous startups in Milano. He had expected Italians to be good at building beautiful cars and furniture and good at making delicious pasta but he discovered that Italy has excellent FinTech startup. Visiting mathematics schools in Milan and meeting with founders there helped him discover the Italian ecosystem. Now Artem wants to go to Milan to establish a FinTech project.

He had a similar experience in Dubai and the Middle East. When he visited Dubai as a tourist several years ago he had loved seeing the big buildings but hadn’t really understood the country. But after the EMDIEL trip to Dubai, this changed totally. He talked to local professors, local businessmen, visited several offices and understood the economy and the mindset of the people. The realization dawned on him that his company should also invest in this market. Artkai has now gained new clients from the Middle East and is cognizant of the huge potential there. There is a slowdown in the European economy and a consequent difficulty in Europe to fund new ventures. However, the Middle Eastern market is doing much better and filled with new opportunities. Artem says that this is one of the core strengths of the EMDIEL- you can spot new opportunities in different places! Artem also appreciates the diversity of his EMDIEL cohort. EMDIEL helped him meet people from all over the world – Africa, Asia, Europe, Eastern Europe etc. During the EMDIEL trip to Dubai one of the EMDIEL classmates who was from Saudi Arabia helped the group understand this region even better and they got a much better taste of the local culture, the food, even their way of thinking! 

Artem has already been discussing future projects with his EMDIEL colleagues and marvels at how easy it was to connect with so many different people from all over the world thanks to the EMDIEL. Artem is confident that his EMDIEL network can help him with many future projects and the strong connections he made during EMDIEL will remain with him forever. 

What’s next for Artkai?

Artem has a lot of plans for Artkai going forward. He is super thankful to René Mauer and Matthias Mrożewski from the JB-Say Institute who invited him to travel to Warsaw to discover the Polish startup ecosystem. Although it is a neighboring country to Ukraine, Artem hadn’t expected it to be so developed and advanced. He discovered that Poland invests heavily into tech and is very receptive to the digital consulting industry. Artem wanted to work more with this market and after his trip he  began to search for partners in Poland. After a few promising meetings he finally found a good match. So, Artkai is entering a significant phase of its journey by joining the Euvic Consortium, one of the largest IT consortiums in Poland. This partnership is marked by Euvic acquiring a part of Artkai, signifying a strategic expansion into Ukraine with Artkai as their pivotal partner in this endeavor.. Euvic has a large base in the European Union but also has strong offices in the UK, the US, Sweden, Middle East etc. With Euvic, Artkai would also be able to expand its presence in all these countries. Artem attributes the EMDIEL program for inspiring him to take this step. A year ago after the EMDIEL trip to Warsaw, he called his business partners and they decided to work more with Poland. In a year they were able to establish this promising partnership and Artem is excited for the next phase of growth of his company.

Message to aspiring entrepreneurs from ESCP

Artem Tsymbal’s journey in expanding Artkai into a global digital engineering team of over 100 people is rooted in his unique approach to building a company. He believes that starting a consulting agency is a viable path for those without a clear startup idea. By focusing on areas of strength, whether in business strategy, marketing, branding, design, or development, entrepreneurs can begin by offering help to others. Artem’s strategy involved attracting individuals to join Artkai by instilling trust and empowering them.

He values concepts like effectuation and art thinking from the EMDIEL program as essential tools for smooth venture establishment. Artem’s journey was significantly influenced by conversations with open-minded and entrepreneurial individuals. 

He expresses special gratitude towards his friends and business partners Dmytry Taranyk, Kos Chekanov, Egor Shakala, and the top management team, whose support and collaboration were instrumental in his journey. 

The ESCP community also played a vital role, helping Artem and his company achieve an important new milestone. Their support was essential in turning business dreams into real success. This shows how important a supportive community and working together are in growing a successful global business like Artem’s.

This article was written based on an interview conducted by Supriyo Panda from the ESCP Blue Factory team.