What is ololo, who is it for, and what problem are you solving for them?
ololo is the city of the future for digital nomads in Issyk-Kul and is in the process of being established. Issyk-Kul lake is the largest lake in the Kyrgyz Republic, a former soviet country located in Central Asia. At 1,609 m (5,289 ft) above sea level, it is also one of the world’s highest saline lakes.
We aim to shape the cultural, business, and creative landscape of the Kyrgyz Republic and Central Asia. Currently, ololo is a group of companies with more than 50 employees. The team operates a network of 7 co-working spaces in Bishkek, Osh, and Issyk-Kul, including a large business centre and a start-up accelerator.
Our mission reflects a problem of our society — and I think it applies to all post-Soviet countries — that fear pervades everything. People are afraid to do what they want to do. They are afraid to be themselves, to look deep inside themselves and thus find their way in life. Our mission is meaningful but is also simple: “less fear, more love”. We encourage people to do what they love: to enjoy what makes them happy, to seek, to try, not to be afraid.
ololo has a very liberal, but at the same time effective, corporate culture that does away with stereotypes. We believe that the development of a creative economy and a creative class in the country will contribute to its development. The activities of ololo are aimed at developing and supporting the creative class.
We support the idea of living and working in Issyk-Kul and encourage our residents to do so. To this end, we have developed a ‘workation’ concept for existing residents that combines the opportunity to work alongside the mountain lake Issyk-Kul, including an exciting programme of activities. For example, we have organised Zumba, yoga, and art classes at our venues in the past.
The idea of working with other professionals in different sectors gives people the opportunity to collaborate with others who have different backgrounds, talents, and knowledge. It gives people the opportunity to learn from others outside their work bubble. In the Digital Nomad City, we will build a community that combines work, travel, and adventure. For example, for USD 100 a month, residents will get access to all ololo spaces in all three cities.
Issyk-Kul is a great place to create a digital nomad city, both in terms of weather and budget. In our country, you can experience all four seasons of the year and engage in seasonally appropriate leisure activities ranging from summer sports to winter sports. And the affordability will be a nice bonus.
How and why did you come to found ololo?
It was the product of a thoughtful process and reassessment of values that began when I was the director of one of the largest travel agencies in Central Asia. Everything started when I left the director position after 12 years of building a successful career. I took time out to rethink the future. For the first time in a long while, I was consciously living my life. I devoted time to my beloved children, wife, and my personal development.
One of my hobbies is playing the piano. My piano teacher dreamed of building a school where children would be taught to really love music. Anyone who knows Soviet teaching methods knows that there was a lot of shouting, violence, and pressure in teaching. Somehow it got to the point where no one thought it could be done differently. Then I started thinking about the idea and realised that it could be done differently. This was the first step towards creating ololo.
We started developing the idea with my wife Ainura and my friend Atai Sadybakasov, who later became co-founders. The initial idea was to open courses for adults, an idea our friends believed would fail as you cannot build a business on music lessons. Our response to their doubts was to officially register the company.
We launched everything using limited resources, as we support the “lean start-up” concept. We treated this venture as an experiment and realised either it would succeed as a real experiment, or it would fail. Hence, the whole project’s budget was KGS 10,000 (approx. USD 120). The idea was to create the number one art academy in Central Asia with a minimal budget. We didn’t have a detailed business plan or financial planning. We simply decided to be frugal, to buy only what we couldn’t live without, and set very simple goals.
By the end of the first month, we already had 66 clients. The premises were overcrowded, so we thought about finding additional space, and we were offered an old kindergarten. The building was too big for a studio and it gave us the idea of building a co-working space. We wanted to gather interesting people and projects under one roof.
What do you see to be the main advantages and disadvantages of founding and growing a ‘frontier’ business?
Speaking of advantages, first of all, at the SME level, the Kyrgyz Republic is a very libertarian country. There are almost no rules here. It is easier for us to start any new idea versus the West. Secondly, the competition is very low, so it is easier to become really big in any sector. You grow very fast if you execute well on your business plan.
On the downside, in Kyrgyz Republic, it is very difficult to sell your business, and business valuations are very low due to the higher risk premium. Therefore, it’s also very difficult to attract investment, and people are less optimistic about the future of the economy. People tend to make profit in such markets and then invest that money somewhere outside their own country. It is very difficult for businesses to attract local investors because those with capital usually come from traditional sectors or are corrupt people you prefer not to have onboard.
What is the key to successfully managing a team across multiple cities and locations?
One of the three key values of the ololo culture is a flock structure. We are trying to build a flock of small teams that make independent decisions, instead of building one big whale where there will be a traditional hierarchy and any decision has to be taken three or four steps up each time. So if you want to build a successful business in a volatile market like Kyrgyz Republic, anti-fragility has to be in the DNA of a business.
Businesses in the Kyrgyz Republic have to be prepared for all kinds of shocks, such as revolution, nationalisation of enterprises, ineffective government measures against pandemics and so on down the list. You simply have to build a business that will survive under any circumstances. It’s not just about managing a team in different locations; it’s about building an anti-fragile structure. Thus, the flock is the most anti-fragile structure. We like to explain to new team members that what we are trying to build is a murmuration.
If you could give young entrepreneurs in frontier markets one piece of business advice, what would it be?
Dream big from day one. Regardless of where you start, the undeveloped local economy is an opportunity because you won’t face competition. If you dream big, you can realise something bigger. When you set a goal, keep in mind that at some point you will inevitably go beyond your market. So from day one, create a company that is globally competitive.
What is the most important source of value-add (aside from capital) you seek from an equity investor?
We are looking for partners who can help us grow. Partnering with an investor with a great reputation and good connections can help us expand into new markets and build a city for digital nomads in Issyk-Kul. This is a very exciting new concept we wish to share with the world and at the same time, it will help Issyk-Kul’s economy transition to one that is not just based on the summer tourist season. Finding an investor who shares our values and our passion for our mission is also essential for us as this is the only way ololo can build a long-lasting partnership that will last through thick and thin. This way, ololo hopes to bring the idea of “less fear, more love” to as many people in the CIS, and the world, as possible!