Lockdown in a Tech Startup with Alexander Kozhevnikov

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Daniele Busato

The Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview recorded in June 2020, Julia Skupchenko meets Alexander Kozhevnikov (Moscow), the co-founder of Voxi AI, the voice assistant for taxi services, and Daw Software, a contact-tracing solution developed during the pandemic. He shares that with the lockdown the number of taxi rides went down by 80% which reduced the demand for Voxi AI with their current clients. But it was balanced out by the inflow of taxi companies that had to arrange their call centres in a new digital way.

With the Daw Software, Alexander and his business partner identified an opportunity for contact-tracing software back in January when the first news of the pandemic came. The app now has over 50 000 downloads in Italy, Spain, India, and Brazil. Alexander also shares that the support network that he gets from the startup incubator of the Higher School of Economics was an essential part of that success.

What do you do as a business?

Alexander: For the last eight years I’ve been in the IT industry and for the last two years I am a co-founder of Voxi AI service. We help taxi companies get their orders via phone by our intelligent voice assistant, so we help to automize their call-centres, via voice and sometimes via text.

Do you work with Uber or against Uber?

Alexander: Good question. Everyone thinks that phone calls are dead now and that the huge amounts of orders are processed by Uber apps. It will probably come as a surprise when I say that around 60% of all taxi orders in Russia are handled via phone-call. So I would say that in this case we actually help companies like Uber with their phone orders.

Taxi-business has been severely hit during the lockdown. How did that, in turn, affect your own business?

Alexander: When the lockdown began, I remember we lost about 80% of the calls, but in the next two months (April and May) the number of rides went back to normal. I also have several interviews with potential clients with whom we had had several conversations for the past year; we were ready to offer them a commercial for the new lockdown economy because there are some exceptions in Russia: the situation for our business was not so awful.

A popular joke in Russia these days is “Who is driving the digital transformation in your company? CEO, CIO or COVID-19?”. So taxi companies began to look for a site of voice-assistant or any other digital solution because previously around 70% of all taxi companies in Russia worked only with human agents; they really did not want to use our voice-assistant and would say to me whenever I was trying to sell them our solution “Why do I need this? I can just hire two more agents and all of my problems in scaling up my business will be solved”. Right now, they also have some problems with the organization of the whole call-centre in their houses (around 90% of all human agents that used to work in call-centres just work from home now).

Finally, we have the same amount of money from our customers, because the amount of rides is getting low, but the amount of orders handled via our voice assistant has increased.

And where does Daw Software come in? Is it related to Voxi Al or is it something new?

Alexander: Before the lockdown economy, Daw Software was just a software outsourcing company, and on the base of that company we started to build Vox Ai. During the lockdown, we found that also new orders of any kind of outsourcing of software development became low because everyone was cutting their budget. However, we found new possibilities in the lockdown market and discovered that there are many articles and possible solutions in case of contact-tracing. Contact-tracing helps you find out if anybody in your company or family in the entire country were in contact with each other, and by getting this information health-care or just commercial organizations can find out who exactly needs to be isolated. This is fundamental to contrast the diffusion of the disease, but it is also important not to lockdown everybody for no reason. The solution that we have developed, a contact tracer, helps organizations to find out if there are cases of COVID-19, and to distinguish between who needs to be isolated and who can continue working. This helps companies from being forced to shut down.

How did this idea come to you and how did it develop?

Alexander: It began in January. I got a call from the co-founder of Daw Software, and he sent me a link regarding what was going on in Wuhan, China. He suggested that we could help with dealing with the epidemic, while also commercializing the solution. We did not have any experience in launching any kind of solution in China, so it was a challenge for us. For the next months, during January and February, we launched our solution and were ready to deploy the several app stores in China (the main issue with mobile apps there is that there is no Google Play, so the main way is to get them to local stores). We also had a few interviews with different possible partners in China, and finally, we found one and signed a contract with him. He was the last stage to release our application, and it was a commission by the local ministry of communication. Every application in China needs to be commissioned by the ministry, and it was completely changed the next day: our web domain “.cn” in China got banned, and I still don’t know how to deal with this because our provider of web-demand just stole the web domain. I don’t know about nowadays, but three months ago Contact Tracing was in property of Ministry of Informatization, so it was very strange to see the local ministry knock us out.

So in China Daw Software didn’t work too well. Did you manage to sell it anywhere else in the world?

Alexander: Seeing that the virus spread all over the world, we launched our application in Google App. During March and April, we worked hard to get new users and participated in different hackathons and events, and even reached the finals of UNESCO hackathon called “CodeTheCurve”. We partnered with IBM and SAP and were in the top four participants. By May we had about 50.000 installs of our application, most of which in Spain, Italy, Brazil and India.

What is the outlook for the next few months for your two companies?

Alexander: With Voxi Al I have the same plans as the beginning of the year: we have a strategic partner in Russia, one of the biggest taxi companies here, and we’re just continuing our work and trying to increase it by adding some new features. Some of them are real innovations in their cutting-edge, for example, we are working on a feature that creates seamless voice conversions between persons, to make it simpler to work in call centres between different agents.

In regards to Contact Tracer, just one week ago we released the enterprise edition of our solutions and right now we are working on our first sales in Russia and in the USA. Our solution is becoming the new normal for companies in their infrastructures in order to survive through the COVID crisis.

You have been part of the incubator. Do you want to tell us something about that?

Alexander: I have a co-founder who has a strong tech-experience, Andrej. One year ago Andrej and I passed through the incubator of the Higher School of Economics in Russia, and I have previously participated in several accelerators. I think the methods of the Higher School of Economics incubator are more natural in the case of entrepreneurship: an accelerator is not just about following the lecture, seeing how to make sales and marketing. This incubator is more natural because if you have any issues, you can just take out your laptop and ask it for assistance, and within an hour they send you help. The main thing (and the only thing) that you really need to get your accelerator or incubator is simply a network of beautiful people, who can help you with all of these things. This incubator helps a lot in this way, and also some contacts from the other startups will help me in those things; for example, yesterday I had a conversation with one of the participants of the incubator of my batch and he already helped me with two contacts with two different corporations in Russia. I really appreciate it.

About the Guest

Alexander Kozhevnikov is a co-founder of Voxi AI and Daw Software. He made his way from software to business developer. VoxiAI is a voice assistant for automation of call centres like taxi services and food delivery. https://voxiai.com

Contact Tracer for Business is the enterprise solution to save your business from shutdowns and financial losses. https://contacttracer.us

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.