Vadim Polikov | From Immigrant to Founding and Exiting Multiple Businesses

Vadim Polikov is a serial entrepreneur with several companies that he has founded, grown, and sold. His first company was American Journal Experts. They edit research papers and international research so they can publish them in top tier academic journals. The company still exists today but Vadim has exited the company in 2008.He also started a venture-backed company in the residential solar installer space called Astrum Solar and sold it for 54 million to Direct Energy. 

Vadim’s current business is Legends of Learning, which believes that by working with our human nature to learn through experience and play, we can accelerate the pace of learning for humanity. It has over a million monthly active users.

Vadim Polikov, the CEO of Legends of Learning, joins John Corcoran in this episode of Smart Business Revolution to talk about his entrepreneurial journey of founding and exiting successful businesses. Vadim shares how he started from founding his first company that does academic research and review, to creating and selling his first foray into solar installation, and how he built his current academic learning company.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • Vadim Polikov talks about his background in engineering and interest in entrepreneurship, and how he started American Journal Experts
  • How Vadim handled the review of research papers and incentives for graduate students 
  • What Vadim did with the proceeds he received from the sale of the research company
  • Vadim talks about why he entered the solar energy sector, how the company was affected by the 2009-2009 economic recession
  • Vadim discusses the eventual sale of Astrum Solar to Direct Energy and what he did after selling his solar installation company
  • The similarities that Vadim has noticed in his businesses
  • How the coronavirus pandemic has impacted Legends of Learning and what Vadim is most excited about with the business
  • The role Vistage has played in Vadim’s entrepreneurial journey
  • The people Vadim acknowledges for his achievements
  • Where to learn more and connect with Vadim Polikov

Resources Mentioned:

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Episode Transcript

Intro  0:14  

Welcome to the Revolution, the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, where we asked today’s most successful entrepreneur to share the tools and strategies they use to build relationships and connections to grow their revenue. Now, your host for the revolution. John Corcoran.

 

John Corcoran  0:40  

All right. Welcome everyone. John Corcoran here, the host of the Smart Business Revolution podcast where I talk with CEOs, founders and entrepreneurs of companies and organizations like YPO, EO, Activision Blizzard, Lending tree, Open Table, X Software, and many more. I’m also the co-founder of Rise25 where we help connect b2b business owners to their ideal prospects. And first, before we get into this interview, I want to give a big shout out to Ed Robinson, who I had on as a guest few weeks ago as a Vistage Chair. Go check him out on LinkedIn. He’s a very smart guy and check out that episode as well. And he introduced me to my guest today who is the Vadim Polikov. He’s a serial entrepreneur with several companies that he is founded, grown and sold. First company was American Journal Experts, which still exists to this day, but he’s exited it. They edit research papers of international research so they can publish in top tier academic journals. 


He also started a company in the residential solar installer space called Astrum Solar, which is venture backed, and he sold that business business for 54 million to Direct Energy and had hundreds of employees and multiple losses along the way. And his current business is Legends of Learning, which believes that by working with our human nature to learn through experience and play, we can accelerate the pace of learning for humanity. So it’s a really interesting one that has over a million monthly active users.

 

But first, before we get into this interview, this episode is brought to you by Rise25 Media and Rise25 helps b2b business to get clients referrals and strategic partnerships with done for you podcasts and content marketing. If you’re listening to this, and you’re thinking, you know, what should I start a podcast? Well, I’ve been doing it for 10 years and I say absolutely, I think everyone should have a podcast. And if you have a b2b business is even more valuable as well. So to learn more about strategies, get some inspiration and ideas on how to do it to get clients referrals and friendships go to rise25media.com or email [email protected]

 

Alright, Vadim, so I have to say, you know, I interviewed Ed and he just raved about you. He said you got to talk to Vadim, an amazing guy. And you have an amazing background. First of all, you know, you got an interesting background because you are studying at Duke, and you’re going to get your PhD in engineering. And then you’ve also got this interest in entrepreneurship. So you’re simultaneously an academic, and you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re also an immigrant because your family came at age six from Russia over to the United States. Right. So who are you? Who do you think you know, do you think? Do you think that’s just a part of who you are? Do you think you’re part entrepreneur, part academic part? You know, interested in a wide range of people. I’m constantly fascinated with people who have these different elements to their personality.

 

Vadim Polikov  3:32  

Well, when you figure it out, can you please tell my parents? Oh, happy because they’re so confused.

 

John Corcoran  3:40  

They thought I was on their mind because I’m a lawyer turned entrepreneur. So you know you’re a PhD in engineering

 

Vadim Polikov  3:46  

together and have them discuss how their kids were confusing them. Yeah, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur.

 

Ever since, you know, the growing Part of the American dream is to start a business and grow it and build something of your own. My parents came over because they were excited to build that. Unfortunately, they needed to support a young family right when they got here with no resources, so they had to work in the fields that they were trained in. But the conversations that we had around the dinner table were about what inventions could we do and how can we turn those inventions into businesses? I think that stuck with me all as I was growing up. I think your question about, you know, am I a researcher, am I an entrepreneur? What got me interested in this? I think since I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, I thought, you know, just for people watching Shark Tank, you think, Oh, I gotta come up with some widget and then I have to patent it. And then I have to start a company around that. So I thought, well, I guess I need to get a PhD and come up with some patentable medical device or biotech idea. My PhD was in biomedical engineering. And that’s the way I’m going to start the business. But that’s not actually how it turned out. The way it turned out was I realized that you didn’t need to have some sort of patentable product or, or do or widget, you just needed to do something different than what other people were doing. solve a need that was out in the marketplace. And you could innovate in business models in the way you acquire customers in the way you serve customers. You didn’t need it. patented new medical device, you could just go out See what the needs are in society and find something that really speaks to you.

 

John Corcoran  6:04  

And it sounds like that’s what happened with American Journal experts. So was it that you were at Duke at the time? You’re getting your PhD, you’re probably surrounded by other internationals, international students that are there. And did you just realize that there was a need for editing?

 

Vadim Polikov  6:25  

Yeah, so as a grad student, you read a lot of research papers. And the language of research nowadays, is English, right? This that’s the dominant language. If you’re a researcher in the US, you don’t think twice about it. you publish your research in English, and you go along with your career. If you’re a researcher in China, in Brazil, in Germany, or anywhere else in the world where English is not the primary language, that’s a real part of the struggle is communicating your vision. Search in a foreign language in a way that others can understand it without losing the thrust of the research. So I actually remember the moment when I came up with the idea I was sitting outside, beautiful North Carolina weather, reading a research paper, you know, top tier journal. I don’t know if you know, but there’s journals that are kind of tiered with the highest quality journals. Getting the very best papers. So I was reading a paper from a top tier journal, and it was riddled with grammatical and spelling mistakes. And it would be kind of like reading Time magazine or reading the New York Times and finding grammatical mistakes all throughout. You’re thinking, how could this be? You know, why isn’t anybody checking this? Why isn’t the author fixing this and I understood that, you know, The author probably had amazing research that this journal wanted to publish. But the journal didn’t have the resources to fix the article. And I grew up editing my parents written documents, right when they needed to go out and find a new job, I would edit their resumes or their cover letters or applications because I was the native English speaker and they were the, you know, the immigrants that come to the country. So I thought, wow, this is a really big problem. And I bet that we could, I could solve this problem and grow it into a big company by creating what was essentially a two sided marketplace. On one side of the marketplace would be researchers around the world who would submit documents to our company. And on the other side of the marketplace would be graduate students and postdocs and professors at top tier US universities, who were both experts in the research That was being written about and also native English speakers. And that’s really important because you can’t just grab any old native English speaker off the street to read a really arcane, you know, molecular biology paper, it’s got its own language of its own right now that was kind of the innovation is have have this two sided marketplace where you have researchers on one side who are native English speakers with your subject matter experts and researchers on the other side, who are trying to publish in English language journals. And we’d like their broken English fixed into proper English, but they don’t want the content of the paper changed.

 

John Corcoran  9:45  

Now, when I think of good markets to go after, for a business, probably broke graduate students trying to get an academic paper published is probably not the first one that comes to mind. So that’s amazing. That you built this big marketplace into consumers exists to this day. Was this a hard market to go after? Or did you find that? No, there actually were people that are obviously willing to pay for this kind of service.

 

Vadim Polikov  10:14  

There. The thing that you got to understand is if you’re a researcher your entire life revolves around being able to publish your research, researchers go into academia, not for the money, but for the thrill of excitement for the prestige of being first for the uncovering of new things. And the only way to really get ahead in that career is to publish your research. If you don’t publish, you perish. And a researcher will spend on average about $100,000 in the course of publishing a single paper, that’s their time, laboratory equipment. to graduate student time, this is all of the things that go into that, you know, 6000 words, you know, the five to 10 pages that’s going to get published and communicated all throughout the world. So they were spending $100,000 putting together a paper. This was their entire careers focused on publishing these papers. And we were offering a service for about $100 to turn that paper from something that couldn’t get published to something that could get published in a top tier journal without changing the content, which is the most important piece because it’s their research. And we’re fixing their broken English. So if you’re already spending $100,000 on publishing a paper, an extra hundred dollars is not going to bring you nothing to worry about today.

 

John Corcoran  11:56  

Exactly. Now, building a marketplace is not easy. Especially in the early days, what was it like in the early days? How did you get people on both sides, the editors, and also, you know people to submit their papers.

 

Vadim Polikov  12:09  

Oh, so first of all, I had an incredibly talented co-founder, you know, 5050 co-founder, named Shashi, who runs the company to this day. And he was, I was, I was the product and market and business side of the house, and he was the tech and kind of building that, that technical infrastructure side of the house so it was a really great partnership, where I really understood the customer and really, he really understood the technology so it was built on a very powerful tech platform that he built out and scaled. And then the other thing you know, with the two sided marketplace, the hard part is getting both sides to show up somehow,

 

Unknown Speaker  13:01  

right? In an equal numbers or an

 

Vadim Polikov  13:03  

equal number. Right? Well, so I think we innovated in recruiting the researchers through digital advertising. And through what is probably pretty standard today. But, you know, Google was just beginning back then, with AdWords and email marketing was just beginning back then. So we could release small amounts of marketing dollars out into the ether, I pick up the small number of researchers and quickly hire the grad students on the other side. And so we kind of load balanced this growth where we’re constantly increasing both the research for demand and the graduate students supply. And I remember, you know, as an entrepreneur, you got to get started somehow. And when you start, you’re really scrappy. And this was the first business that I was really building to scale. And I remember we needed to hire, I was the first reviewer, but of course I from the very beginning, we built this platform, so it could go beyond me. So I kind of understood how these different processes would work. But now it was time to recruit grad students. So I reserved a room and the Duke engineering building, I put fliers up and I said, you know, American Journal experts, hiring for graduate student editors. And I said, I put all these things to make it look like we were big and serious. There was a dress code to show up. Make sure you bring your transcript and and you know, all the ins information that you would need to fill out a nondisclosure agreement. And you know, just really serious stuff. And these graduate students, they showed up and they were dressed really nicely, and they were dressed for a job interview, right. And I was up there on the stage and we were presenting, like, this was a big company that we were expanding into Duke. And, you know, we were hiring these grad students. And of course, this was the very first presentation ever. And I had Shashi, my co founder and Hannah, my girlfriend now wife, who was also taking, you know, so it just, and we were all dressed up in business attire as well. And I remember talking to these editors years later, saying, you know, what did you think? When you walked into the room for the first time they said, Oh, we thought, really serious. We this was a huge company that We were really lucky to be, you know, getting these, these reviewing jobs. So they create pretty well for a grad student but it was just kind of it was so, so interesting that we were this little scrappy, you know, thing that we were building out of our dorm room. But at the same time we were trying to act big and grow that side of the house just as much as we grew the researcher side, and did you increase the prices because like $100 doesn’t seem like a would go a long way. We did increase the prices, as we were able to provide more and more value by raising the quality bar, you know, the very worst reviewer we’ve ever had was named Vadim Hawk. I was the first and definitely the worst reviewer. Everybody else was much better after me and we kept on increasing the quality. There were a lot of incentives for the grad students. And postdocs and professors to turn in high quality edits. And so as the quality increased and word got out, we were able to raise prices pretty significantly. But again, there’s if you’re spending $100,000, what’s an extra hundred or 200? Or even 300? To get your research published in a top tier journal?

 

John Corcoran  17:23  

How did you incentivize them to like, did you grade them on how well they reviewed it?

 

Vadim Polikov  17:32  

Yeah, we had a managing editor position, which was a company employee whose full time job was reviewing the editors. So it was a QA process and those gray h paper, each edit was graded and those edits, those grades went into a formula that resulted in a score for the reviewer and that means that They were able to get more jobs

 

as a reviewer and the more lucrative jobs, the,

 

the ones that might be

 

closer to their area of expertise. And so, you know, if you’re making good money as a grad student and you want as many papers as you can get, well, you know, if you do a good job on the Edit, then then you’ll get more. Now, this was what I’m describing to you as what we built back in the day. I think it was like 2004 2005 2006 timeframe. It’s much more professionalized and efficient nowadays. I haven’t really been part of that business for a while, but Shashi really turned it into a very professional organization. But yeah, we were able to raise prices because of the higher value we are providing.

 

John Corcoran  18:53  

And I know you It isn’t public what you sold it for, but when you sold was it enough that you could just retire at that point or was it? You know, not retirement money? Exactly.

 

Vadim Polikov  19:07  

I suppose I could have retired. But I am not the kind of person who plans to retire.

 

John Corcoran  19:14  

Clearly not because you move on you start a solar company, completely different industry, but no one takes you from.

 

Vadim Polikov  19:19  

Yeah, I’m interested in making an impact. Yeah. And for me, the money is important because it gives me the, the fuel or the tools in order to make a bigger impact with the next company. Yeah. So I took 100% of the proceeds from AJE and put them into starting Legends of Learning. So I asked him solar, and I actually did exactly the same thing with the proceeds from solar.

 

They’ve gotten into building Legends of Learning .

 

John Corcoran  20:00  

and anyone along the way saying you’re crazy set aside some money for yourself.

 

Vadim Polikov  20:06  

Yes, I’m sure Ed has said that at some point there and others have as well. But, um, you know, I think this is the way that I get excited. This is what kind of drives me and makes an impact. You know I I live a happy, comfortable life. My wife has a nice stable salary and if if I if my company went under well that’s okay because we’ll, we’ll we’ll still have

 

John Corcoran  20:47  

you find some way to make

 

Vadim Polikov  20:48  

our house and we’ll have our kids be able to eat there.

 

John Corcoran  20:53  

So why did you go to solar then you will go to solar installation to

 

Vadim Polikov  21:00  

I went into solar because I got excited and concerned about the global warming challenge. And my personal philosophy is I would like to solve big social challenges through entrepreneurship and through enterprise and by building a company or an organization that can make a difference. And so when I looked at the challenge of global warming and how that could be solved through the market, renewable energy is a great way to do that. It’s it’s something that people can make money on, while at the same time, helping the environment and helping reduce our global warming

 

John Corcoran  21:51  

footprint. And did you have any mentors at this time to teach you the ropes in this brand new industry they didn’t have experience in previously.

 

Vadim Polikov  22:02  

Um, to be honest, we, I kind of jumped into it without knowing much about it. But at the time when I jumped into it, which was around 2007, nobody had any idea what to do in this industry was a brand new industry. There was a lot of interest in renewable energy, but nobody was actually doing anything, which was, you know, my frustration and why I started the company. I was frustrated by the fact that I saw commercials on TV with fields and fields of solar panels, you know, by companies saying, oh, we’re now green. But when I looked outside in my neighborhood, I couldn’t see a single house with solar panels on top. And I said, Well, why is that? You know, why? Why can’t we put solar panels on every roof? Clearly, there’s some greenwashing going on, where you know that you can put out a nice PR piece, but nobody’s actually doing anything. So I’m going to do it. And we went out there and I recruited two of my closest friends to be co founders. One I rescued from being a lawyer, and then a corporate firm. And via doing good work of mine, one of my life goals is to rescue as many lawyers as my wife is a lawyer.

 

And, and the other was my college roommate, who was the most brilliant engineer I’ve ever met. So he was going to be handling the installation. And my lawyer friend, whose name is Josh Goldberg. He was co-founder with me then he’s a co-founder with me at Legends of Learning. So we’ve been working together for a long time. He’s a fantastic dealmaker. He brings people in And helps make deals happen. So he was going to be helping me on the sales side. And I was going to be doing the general business scaling. And here we are. I’ve got a PhD in biomedical engineering. My friend Josh has a law degree. And my friend Ben, who was going to be running operations has just come out of the military and was babysitting ICBMs and in the Air Force, so neither of us had any expertise whatsoever in solar or even home improvement. And here we are on a roof, trying to figure out what to do with all this racking and solar panels. And we hired a consultant who had been doing installations up in New York for a few years. We said, Hey, we’ll fly you down, and we’ll pay you A bunch of money for a day, or actually for two days, and you just show us how to do an installation.

 

John Corcoran  25:06  

Just, in other words,

 

Unknown Speaker  25:07  

well

 

John Corcoran  25:08  

just show us how to actually perform the service, I guess. Yeah,

 

Vadim Polikov  25:12  

yeah. So the very first installation was at Josh’s parents’ home. And their roof barely leaked, because this consultant actually knew what he was doing. And the second installation, which was just us, was on my parents home, and they’re definitely leaked because we didn’t know we were doing back then. But luckily they and my parents had no choice in the matter. They were going to buy a system from Astro solar. And that’s that’s how we we got started and got much better much faster, bringing cool Installation experts in

 

John Corcoran  25:55  

and you found it right headed into your note at the time, but headed into the 2008 2009 whole meltdown How did that affect the business?

 

Vadim Polikov  26:06  

You know, solar was on its own trajectory.

 

Vadim Polikov  26:12  

It was an exciting technology, a lot of money was pouring into the technology and into the venture capital space around it. And so the prices of the panels were dropping like a rock, the incentives that the states were putting up and the federal government was putting up, work increasing. And so the consumer offer was really quite good. So it really was that the challenge was educating consumers and doing and acquiring customers in an efficient way. Because it took so much time and effort and money to educate a consumer that yes, this really is a great deal. You will make a lot of money on this, and you will be green and you will love it. And so for a lot of people who had maybe grown up in, in the 70s, or the 60s, and we’re thinking, I’ve heard this story before, you know, how’s this time any different? that education was expensive. We actually, I think, got a bump from the meltdown because a lot of really talented people were available to be kind of like right now.

 

Vadim Polikov  27:35  

Kind of like right now. That’s right. So if you had the resources, the capital to hire, then you could hire really great people. And we were able to hire amazing people into Astro solar, which of course fueled the rise. And why do you think that you know, you end up selling it seven or eight years later.

 

John Corcoran  28:01  

For 54 million what were the couple of reasons why it was so successful in a crowded market with a lot of other, you know, installers out there.

 

Vadim Polikov  28:13  

I think that your residential solar was and remains an execution challenge. And so therefore it’s an execution play for those who can execute better, who can run their businesses more efficiently, who can motivate teams of installers to do a great job, and those will, will work and will win out. I think anyone who runs a home improvement business or any sort of contracting business will recognize solar as a very similar kind of business. The one candidate, the one twist, there is since it was such an immature market, so In early stage of the market, that you had to be super nimble when it came to managing inventory, managing physical offices and teams, and also finding and managing finance options. When I talk about what we had to deal with back in the day, I think people today you know, even what is it maybe 10 years later or are shocked. We were panels that you would rely on would be in stock out of stock, tariffs on tariff just all the time. So we would be constantly shuffling inventory and getting on the phone with Chinese suppliers and having them arguing that we should be the ones that got an airship something over to us right away and finding alternatives to Two parts that were absolutely necessary. You just don’t have that sort of problem in existing industries. You know, if you are doing window installations, you’re just not expecting glass to be out of stock, right? Yeah, right. You’re doing roofing, you know, roofing tiles, okay, like you might, you might go a little short on inventory, but there’s always another roofing tile available. And that just wasn’t the case. And the same thing with financing. So one of the things that allowed us to succeed where others failed, or had trouble is, we were innovative when it came to financing options. We brought in constellation energy, which was a large utility at the time, king of the first deal of its kind ever to help us with creating our own leasing program and we built up our own loan programs. Again, this is something That if you’re a traditional contractor or home improvement, you’re not building financing programs, you’re enrolling and financing programs that are being offered by major banks or major finance companies. Those just didn’t exist because solar was not a bankable asset backed. It’s different now. And I’m glad it’s different now because more homeowners can enjoy solar for even lower prices. But it was definitely a challenge.

 

John Corcoran  31:34  

And when you exit you sell it to direct energy in 2014. How did that come about? Was that where you planned and positioned it for sale? Or did it come out of right field?

 

Vadim Polikov  31:46  

Well, so this was a venture backed business, which means we had external investors coming in and doing minority investments. So we did a series A with constellation energy ventures. series be with a group of solar and energy focused VCs. 

 

And when VCs come in their expectation is you are going to sell this at some point. And no one is surprised by that, you know, you go in raising money from VCs knowing you want to grow this business to be really big. And hopefully at the end of it, you’re still going to own a small share of a very large pie and that’s okay. Right? If you build a billion dollar business, and you only own 3% of it at the end, well, that’s still $30 million, not something to cry about. So it’s your, as an entrepreneur, you’re expecting to be constantly bringing in investors constantly growing the business, and your ownership is diluted along the way, but that’s perfectly fine because you own a small share of money. Larger pie. So we have investors who expected us to exit at some point we expected to exit at some point. And so when you have a venture backed business like this, you really have two options. One is to raise more money and continue growth. And the other is exit through a sale, almost always to strategically acquire or some sort of, you know, some sort of purchase by a larger company. Of course, we all hear about the IPOs. And that’s what everyone strives for. But most of the time you get acquired before you get to the IPO stage. So anyway, you have two options, raise more money from VCs or sell your company. And you’re always evaluating those two options based on what are what’s available to you. So if an offer comes to the table, and it looks like, yeah, we can probably grow the company to be that valuable in three or four years. And it’s just the trade off. Do we want to take the money now? Or do we want to continue to grow and sell it for even more than three or four years. So, at the time when the direct energy offer came in, there were, there was a lot of interest in residential solar companies, we had a lot of interest in general, and direct energy, put in a great offer, and they were a fantastic partner that was going to be able to scale the business to be much bigger. So we took a look at our options and thought, look, we need a big capital partner to keep growing this. We can keep raising money from the venture capital community or we can grow this company and make the kind of impact we want to make by being a part of a much larger organization. So We decided to take the direct energy offer.

 

John Corcoran  35:03  

And how did you? How did it work for you working for the larger company? Did you feel like you fit in there? Or did you just kind of bide your time until you had your turn out and go on to start your new thing?

 

Vadim Polikov  35:18  

Oh, so whenever a smaller business is acquired by a larger business, I’ve heard this from many entrepreneurs, you know, there’s always a transition period because the larger business needs to be a little bit more careful, a little bit slower moving. And there’s always a new kind of political structure via to find yourself in. And I love the building aspect of it. starting something from scratch and growing it to be really big, and I love being my own boss. So when we were acquired, I Told direct energy look I’m here to stay and help transition his company. I don’t plan to remain here in the long run but I will be here for as long as you guys need to get this business on solid ground. And you know, I think I ended up staying for about nine months. And at that point it had transitioned to the new operators where we found a home inside of what was then their Home Services Unit and I was able to say Okay, you guys, take my baby and I hope you grow it and I’m going to go off and do something else.

 

John Corcoran  36:44  

And at this point, are you burned out and ready to take a break? Or you know, did you have the idea for Legends of Learning already and ready to move on to your next thing excited about the next thing or or you know, needing a break after many years of growing these couple of differences.

 

Vadim Polikov  37:01  

I was excited to start something new, but I didn’t want to rush into it. So I spent the next year basically doing two things. The first was I wanted to help grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem in my area in the Baltimore DC area. I love entrepreneurship. I think it is the engine of America. And I believe very much that if you can, you should start a company. And so I wanted to help the entrepreneurial ecosystem and get to know it better. So the way I did that was I became an angel investor. I joined some Angel groups with other Indian angel investors. I talked to startup companies in the area, they went to incubators and places where new entrepreneurs were hanging out. And I helped new founders I invested in, in a bunch of new companies as an angel investor. And I just, I felt like I was getting to know the entrepreneurial ecosystem better and playing my part in trying to grow it. The other thing that I did was try out a few business ideas that I had been kicking around in my head for a while. So I had a few ideas that we’re half formed. And whenever you have a new idea, you really have a lot of research to do to make sure that it is something viable. And a few of the ideas that I had thought about, I found were not viable based on the research that I was doing, but then this idea around using games To teach and creating a marketplace of game developers that would make educational games and building up teachers and students, community, again, a two sided marketplace that could use those games in the classroom that the more research I did, the more I found that there was a real need in the market, there was a real opportunity. And it was something that could grow to make a really big impact. So every checkpoint was checked off. And at some point, I said, Okay, this is time to bring the gang back together and start this new company.

 

John Corcoran  39:48  

And, you know, it seems like each of your businesses are very different, but correct me if there are ways in which you see similarities between them because you have the editing business which is a marketplace to these two sides. You’ve also got a business now, which has two sides as well. But then the solar installation business. So what’s the through thread between all of these?

 

Unknown Speaker  40:13  

I think

 

Vadim Polikov  40:15  

a thread that runs through them is around sales and marketing, customer acquisition. How do you reach customers in a new and unique way? When it came to American Journal experts, we were pretty innovative when it came to digital marketing. Like I mentioned, email marketing, Google marketing, there were some other other channels that we were pretty good at. And we were able to acquire customers in a way that others just hadn’t tried or hadn’t, you know, hadn’t been able to make work. At Astrum Solar, we knew we were the very best at acquiring customers. And that meant a truly unique customer experience when it came to lead generation, marketing, and then the sales process and then the project management process, and then the referrals that came from that. So we did a, I think, a really unique and great job when it came to acquiring customers in the residential solar space, which turned out to be the name of the game. But it turned out that whoever could acquire customers more efficiently was the winner. And the same thing here with Legends of Learning, I think we really focus on creating a product that speaks to users. That helps us acquire a large number of students and teacher users. It speaks to what the districts that we sell to need and we work with these Game Studios around the world. To help deliver that product. So from what I said earlier, you don’t need a patented, you know, essay or medical device, or new mousetrap, you just need a different way to reach customers or a different way to to build something or a combination of business models that have never been put together. So even if it’s a new industry, there’s a lot of similarities about just how you do business, you still need marketing and sales and operations and product. And so I think that those insights were carried across all three companies. And all three companies also relied on very solid tech infrastructure. All three businesses are really kind of not supposed to be tech businesses but they are under the hood. They were all tech. 

 

John Corcoran  43:08  

hmm. And now with the whole shelter in place, we’re recording this in July of 2020 Coronavirus, pandemics still unfolding. With kids being sent home this spring. How did that affect Legends of Learning?

 

Vadim Polikov  43:24  

Well, allegedly learning finds itself in a very unique situation where we offer engaging remote learning in the classroom, at home and directly to the student and the parent. So we have three modes where the teacher uses it in the classroom with all the students in person. The teacher assigns assignments where students can do it at home, on their Chromebooks or wherever

 

And there’s also a mode where the student can play Legends of Learning games and the experience that we have. They’re more of like a commercial game type of experience, but it’s still a learning experience. And so it’s something that parents can make available for kids and kids can sit there and instead of playing fortnight for endless hours, they can be learning math or science for endless hours and they love doing it. So we find ourselves in this really unique situation where we have a product that can be very helpful for the schools and school districts that are facing a lot of challenges. So the very first thing that we did when Coronavirus hit was we made all of our premium features available for free to schools and school districts. And that obviously hurt on the revenue and new sales side but It was definitely the right thing to do. Our partners, teachers or districts were really struggling with what to do. And so we spent a lot of very, very long days and nights onboarding districts and teachers onto our platform for free so that they can get back to learning. And so now coming into the new school year, districts are trying to figure out what to do. And we have a product that works really well for what they need. They have some budget challenges, because all government entities have budget challenges right now. So in the short run, we don’t know whether this is going to be how this is going to shake out for us. But in the long run, this has definitely accelerated the transition from, you know, textbooks and worksheets. to digital adaptive, engaging courseware on devices. Yeah, that’s enough. That’s gonna be a great thing for us in the long run.

 

John Corcoran  46:11  

I have a six-year-old who has been using his iPad to learn reading and everything. It’s really amazing that we’re the ninja adaptive, it’s amazing to see how some of these tools can really teach our kids in a really effective way much better than workbooks much better than, you know, worksheets, that sort of thing. Did you have to because it was a new model. Did you have to are you still figuring out what the monitor the monetization play is? Have you had to seem like you had to pivot that a little bit because of Coronavirus.

 

Unknown Speaker  46:49  

Well, so we, uh

 

Vadim Polikov  46:54  

We made our platform available for free for the last school year because Teachers and students and schools were just unprepared for it. Right? They had to send their students home on a Friday and not come back on a Monday and like, there was no time to adjust. Yeah, they had some time to adjust. And so now we’re we are, we’re back to charging. We obviously didn’t raise any prices or anything like that. And mostly we are focusing on supporting the districts that have been using us for a while. And one of the nice things about our businesses, as districts use our product more and more, they realize it can be used in more and more situations. So they tend to be more committed. And we grow our content based on a regular basis as well. So we now offer K through eight math and science and will continue to increase our product offering. So we monetize by selling, you know, a premium version to school districts. And we also monetize by selling parents subscriptions beyond the free play that students can do on their own. And those subscriptions are, you know, fun things that make the student want to play even longer, which means learning math and science even longer. So if you know if your six-year-old came to you and said, Hey, Dad, can I play this math game? You know, that’s a pretty easy answer for a parent. Most of the time, parents are getting, you know, Hey, can I get an extra 20 bucks so I can buy that cool skin for a fortnight? Yeah,

 

John Corcoran  48:51  

and I watch that stupid cat video on YouTube. Right,

 

Vadim Polikov  48:55  

right. So, you know, parents are used to the

 

You know, used to carving out some small share of their wallet for entertainment purposes for their kids. Yeah, you can download this app, you know, it’s, you just had your birthday like, here’s, here’s a present. But if you come to parents and set and the student the kid comes to the parent says, Hey, I really like playing this educational game. Can I play it more? Would you buy me a subscription for I think we charged something like 10 bucks a month. You know, so I can so I can spend more time learning my math and science. Again, that’s a pretty easy answer for parents.

 

John Corcoran  49:44  

What are you most excited about with this business as we head into the second half of 2020.

 

Vadim Polikov  49:51  

Um, I’m excited by how this business has matured into something that we described. Anyone can learn anything, anytime, through experience in play. We, we humans are built to learn through play. We’re not built to learn through book reading, right? Something somebody has to teach us for many years, how to sit down and read a book. And it’s just not a natural way for most people to learn. Some people pick it up pretty easily but for most people, that’s just not how we’re built. We want to play, we want to experience our world, and games can provide that. So it doesn’t matter to us whether we are teaching a third grader math or an eighth grader or science, or a warehouse worker how to be safe in a warehouse or a cafeteria worker for how to be safe with food or how to be a pro at Microsoft Excel. Any way that you are learning anything that you are learning can be taught more effectively through experience in play. So we see this platform evolving, to be able to offer game based learning experience based learning to anyone who wants to learn anything. So you know, it’s where we started in K 12. And we’re going to continue to focus on that area. But we just put our first corporate e learning app up on the App Store, we have a bunch more coming in the works. Higher Ed is another area you know where you can learn econ one on one with your textbook, but you might actually learn even better if there’s a if there’s a supply and demand game that you can play and

 

John Corcoran  51:54  

understand the gray man, that sounds so much better than the way we had to learn as kids. Seriously That’s great. That’s cool. Well, second to last question. So I know you’ve been involved in Vistage. So what role has that played, you know, not just Vistage, maybe other groups as well. But, you know, being able to gather with other entrepreneurs bounce around ideas, has that been helpful in your journey?

 

Vadim Polikov  52:20  

It’s been super helpful. I love this message. I’ve been a member of EDS group for a year now, when I was at Aspen solar, I was a member of a different Vistage group for maybe two or three years. And what I love about it is hearing about other people’s businesses, understanding how their businesses work, and then seeing the patterns across businesses. So as we’ve talked about, I’ve been in a bunch of different industries and you can start seeing patterns that are true about business in general across different industries. So this just gives me yet another way to see how, how does an insurance business work? How does a crane operator work? How does a mortgage lender work? How does a plumbing business work? All of these are different and unique, but they have a lot of similarities. So when you start looking at how other businesses work, it really helps to shine a light on how you’re doing your own business. And it gives you a kind of food for thought and saying, Why don’t I do it that way? or What is it about that business that is unique, and maybe it’s not so unique? Maybe I can take some of the lessons from there. So I’ve had a great time in this village and learning about other people’s businesses and I find a lot of satisfaction trying to help other entrepreneurs, because I get helped in return.

 

John Corcoran  53:59  

That’s great. Let’s wrap up with the last question I was asked, let’s pretend we’re at an awards banquet, much like the Oscars of the Emmys, and you’ve edema receiving an award for lifetime achievement for everything you’ve done up until this point. And who do you think, you know, in addition to family and friends? Who are the mentors? Who are these shares? Who are the, you know, part of VCs? Who are the business partners? Who are the people you would acknowledge in your remarks?

 

Vadim Polikov  54:23  

Uh, yeah, I mean, we’ve talked about some of them, but, you know, people who have been with me through the ups and downs of these businesses, and it’s easy to look back and say, Oh, look, we were successful. We grew this business, we sold it and it’s a two sentence story, but in that those two sentences are a lot of challenges and sleepless nights and venture backed businesses are unique in that they are going out of business all the time. They are burning cash. And so it’s a real challenge. So I’ve had An amazing time working with my co-founder at AJ Shashi mcnary. He’s an incredible business person. My co founders, Ben and Josh asked him solar. And now my co founders here and budgets are learning as well. That’s, you know, folks, mastermind Josh and Sandy who came over and then Aria, who was a lifelong friend of mine, who was a teacher before he joined. He joined Legends of Learning with me and Sean, who is a principal at a school as well as a teacher. So we really kind of understand how teachers work because of the co-founders that came along. And I guess you said in addition to friends, to family and friends, but you know, I live my life in a very real key way, by starting these businesses that could, you know, that could topple at any moment and they’re venture backed and they’re trying to grow super fast and I come home and all that noise goes away because I have a very supportive and stable family and my wife is the breadwinner in the family. She works for clean energy nonprofit and brings, you know, brings home the steady income that allows me to be a crazy entrepreneur.

 

John Corcoran  56:35  

Sounds like my home situation. Yeah.

 

Vadim Polikov  56:37  

So I’m really really thankful for my home situation that gives me the license and the freedom to take risks.

 

John Corcoran  56:46  

That’s great, legendsoflearning.com is the website. Where else can people go to learn more about Vadim or connect with you?

 

Vadim Polikov  56:54  

You know, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn and yeah, Check out legendsoflearning.com. Hope somebody out there starts a company as a result of hearing this.

 

John Corcoran  57:10  

Yes, certainly you gave lots of great ideas. All right. Thanks so much, Vadim.

 

Vadim Polikov 57:14  

Thank you, John.

 

Outro  57:16  

Thank you for listening to the Smart Business Revolution podcast with John Corcoran. Find out more at smartbusinessrevolution.com. And while you’re there, sign up for our email list and join the Revolution Revolution Revolution Revolution. And be listening for the next episode of the Smart Business Revolution podcast.