He made tens of thousands of euros from games at the age of 13, now creating robots for Nova Poshta. Pavlo Pikulin’s story
He made tens of thousands of euros from games at the age of 13, now creating robots for Nova Poshta. Pavlo Pikulin’s story
Tymur Vorona and Lena Leonova
owner of MC.today, Highload, ITC.UA, ITC Editor-in-Chief
Pavlo Pikulin has put all his childhood dreams into life by the age of 31 — created his own games, building robots and wins car races. He is a co-founder and Vice President of WhaleApp, one of the largest gaming holding companies in the CIS region, and the founder of Deus Robotics, whose robots will soon sort parcels at Nova Poshta.
In his interview given to MC.today, Pavlo told a story of a boy who loved programming, designed and sold websites when he was seven, was making tens of thousands of dollars playing games at thirteen, and millions of dollars at 24, and now that he grew a bit older, he supplies robots to Nova Poshta and wins Ukraine’s top karting competitions.
First website for $20 at seven
I have always been interested in creating new things instead of using ready solutions since I was a kid. After I played a couple of computer games when I was five, I asked my dad how to make my own game and what I need for it. My dad explained that all I needed to do was to give the computer the right command. I was impressed so much that I began reading adult books, do programming in BASIC and even created a simple game.
I had Internet connection shortly after it, again, thanks to my dad who was among the first Internet providers in Zhytomyr.
I earned the first money in my life when I was seven. In 1996, one of my dad’s customers, a Zhytomyr notary, wanted to have his own webpage, a so-called promo site. There were no web programmers in the city at that time. He asked my dad who said that I was fond of software development, and referred the customer to me. This is how I made the first $20 in my life.
Two more customers followed the notary: a consulting company and a computer dealer. They did not have any particular website requirements, so I developed HTML code in Notepad and created graphics in Paint. Once I had to “code” on A4 sheets: my parents took me to the countryside for my summer vacations, and there was no computer there. I imagined the website in my mind, wrote the code down on paper in order not to waste time, and entered all data into my computer once I returned home.
I sold game artefacts for thousands of euros
I started developing software for Windows when I was ten, after my dad gave me a Visual Basic book signed “To my dearest son on your birthday”. I still have it.
The Visual Basic book given to Pavlo by his father on his tenth birthday
New knowledge helped me earn good money for the first time in my life. I wrote a bot for playing Fight Club browser game (where two characters fight with each other on the browser screen, and players need to choose body areas for hitting and blocking. — Editor’s note.). The bot allowed the characters fight with each other without human intervention, and players could earn game credits for wins.
I found a bug to cheatingly reassign credits for one character, to buy artefacts and then sell them for real money: one artefact could bring a couple of thousand euros. I could buy a ten thousand euro car at 13. But no one would sell a car to a 13-year teenager, so I bought servers to deploy my own version of Lineage 2.
All Russian-language servers had the first-generation chronicles (the historical events on which a game is based. — Editor’s note.) The third-generation chronicles were not publicly available. My Wind Of War server was dedicated to the third-generation chronicles. I launched the new version and released regular updates — very few developers did it.
The first users were from l2.wnet server where I had 12 clans including 300 people. The word of mouth then did its work. People were sharing information about a fully functional server with regular updates.
Lineage was a kind of my business training in terms of economics and conflict resolution. I then managed clans (groups of users playing a multi-player game in the same team. — Editor’s note.): making hundreds of people coordinate with each other is like building your own business.
In games, you “hunt” people just as you do in business, explain your clan’s advantages to them, distribute responsibilities. Then I realized you can defeat any enemy, no matter how much wealth they have, even if you lack resources but can organize people’s work the right way.
Games have prepared me for adulthood. I remember making an alliance with another clan to seize a castle. The battle began, and those I made an alliance with massacred my clan completely. It was a betrayal.
I also made money by selling Lineage artefacts. The basic artefact version was traded for 300 euros, but they could be improved, and so the price increased. A lot of wealthy people played on my server — lawmakers, bank top managers, etc. Some of them could spend 5,000 euros at a time.
It cost me nothing — I could generate unlimited quantities of artefacts on my server by pressing one button. I remember our meetings in Kyiv downtown: there were around 150 people at the first one. I thought: “Who are all these people?”, when I first saw that crowd? But I was an absolute undisputed leader for them.
I opened a computer club, when I was 19, and had to carry a gun.
I was fond of games and often visited computer clubs, where I saw lots of shortcomings:
- poor quality mice;
- uncomfortable chairs;
- lame graphics cards;
- limited choice of games;
- no options for having a tasty snack;
- no regular cyber discipline tournaments.
So I wanted to open my own computer club which would be free of all these defects. I even developed my first business plan at the age of 13, but I only managed to implement it five years later, when I had enough money.
I opened my club at the age of 19. Lineage was losing its popularity and was replaced by the World of Warcraft. I thought I could do more than just administer game servers, so I focused on the computer club.
I invested in this business everything I earned in Lineage — $70,000 (I now understand I could have made a million there if I had more experience). I rented a turnkey club, with maintenance to be paid separately, in Podil, a district in Kyiv downtown, and all necessary equipment. We opened in summer 2008, and the global financial crisis happened in September.
The rent was in hryvnias in the contract, but we verbally agreed I would pay in dollars. The rent doubled due to an increase in the exchange rate, and there were fewer customers. The owners of the premises did not want to make compromise and began to harass me and then my parents.
It was a difficult time. I even became a member of public order squad to protect myself: the police gave me a gun, which I carried everywhere. Once I came up to my car and I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was painted all over and the tires were cut.
Then I realized I needed to give up offline business and go online. I sold the equipment that had lost a lot of its value; I only managed to return $15,000 of $70,000 I had invested.
Failed the first game, but reached VKontakte record high and sold half of Plarium business
I have had a dream to make my own game since the Fight Club. After the club closed, I thought it was the right moment: I convinced my friends from Lineage to invest $30,000 in my new business.
The game name was With Fire and Sword. It was created by a team of three guys in my apartment.
I wanted to create something like Lineage 2, but a browser version with a top view, similar to Diablo 2. I didn’t like the game when it was ready. We decided to redevelop it over and raised additional $60,000. This was not enough, and then the investors ran out of money.
Surprisingly, we were able to make money in a completely different niche. VKontakte gained popularity with users who actively downloaded games and apps. We wanted to know how it all worked, and I with a software designer who worked with me at that time, decided to create our own app.
Pavlo Pikulin’s desk in 2008
Unlike the game, the app had an immediate success. It was Restorer, an image editing app. You take a friend’s photo, create a funny hairstyle, or add an axe in the head or do other crazy things. VKontakte wall was introduced in January 2010, and we were the first developers to make the most of it. The social media users were actively posting on each other’s walls images processed in our app.
We sometimes had up to 200,000 downloads a day. It was the VKontakte record high which I believe no one has hit so far. We had up to 1 million unique visitors a day; we made around $30,000 a month from advertising. We subsequently developed some more apps for sharing animation and gifts with friends. We released a total of 23 apps for 25 million users.
In order to generate more revenue I created a banner network for exchanging ads within my apps and invited other VKontakte apps to join.
It was when I was noticed by Plarium, then the largest VKontakte game developer. They bought all my ads, after a while they offered a partnership in the development of their games, and bought half of my business some time later.
I started creating my own games in partnership with Plarium in 2010. I always completed them, unlike the very first game, which was never released.
My games ranked top in the United States, which remained unknown in Ukraine.
We started making games using Flash for VKontakte in partnership with Plarium (Flash is a tool for creating online animation. — Editor’s note.). Among them was War of the Worlds strategy, which was on top of VKontakte game ranking list. My team now included 20 people, and we made half a million dollars on this game.
My team moved to a 200 sq. m office in 2013. We developed Battle of Zombies games there. Everyone is discussing Reface App, which topped the US App Store. But few people know that Battle of Zombies also ranked first in the strategy category in the United States. We did not tell anyone about it.
Battle of Zombies was the best free strategy in the US in 2014.
Our gimmick was that we were the first to make a versatile engine for Android, iOS and online browsers. Besides, if other companies needed three teams to create a product, we could do it in one team. We made around $5 million from Battle of Zombies.
Plarium founders sold the business in 2017. Ilia Turpiashvili, one of the founders, bought some game studios and invited me to join WhaleApp, the newly established holding company, as a partner.
I agreed. The market is getting increasingly competitive. You could not any longer release games created by a small team from whatever was available. Each profitable niche with interesting game mechanics had been already taken, and the quality of games was getting better every year.
We currently have a 5,000 sq. m office and five studios in three countries.
I decided in 2017 it was time to build robots.
People prefer simple games and want to relax rather than sweat. I like creating complex products. Games are a great way to make money, but only if you do something much sought after. At some point, I wanted to do something I liked myself.
I have been interested in artificial intelligence and robotics since I was a kid. I developed a license plate recognition system and even offered it to the government when I was 15. With my system you could write a text on a piece of paper, bring it to the laptop’s webcam to read and convert it into words and sentences. I could not sell it at that time.
It was difficult to build robots in the early 2000-s: they were only made in the United States and Japan. The manufacturing process was time-consuming, and the components were expensive. I revisited this issue in 2017 and realized a lot had changed over the years. Components have become much cheaper and could be easily purchased in China. Building a robot has become tens or even hundreds times cheaper. I thought my time had come.
I thought about the types of robots I wanted to make. I was interested in every area, except for the army — I did not want to work with the military for ethical reasons. Then I analyzed the niches that had already been taken. He identified construction as the most developed industry. The global construction revenues were over $10 trillion in 2017. Approximately 30% of this amount account for internal finishing works.
There were no good robots for finishing works, and I decided to try to build a parquet polishing robot. I thought it couldn’t be much more complicated than a robot vacuum. I was wrong.
Everyone doubted, but I said: “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure everything works perfectly”
The first thing I did was to write to all my friends. Mykhailo Rybak is one of them. He taught software development at a comprehensive school, then moved to Los Angeles to work at Google. He told me there was already Hacklab, a Kyiv-based robotics laboratory.
I visited them, met the engineers who founded Hacklab and invited them to work with me. They were skeptical for a start saying: “It’s very difficult, you need a lot of money.” I told them: “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure everything works perfectly.”
This is how I hired my first engineers to build mini-prototypes. I also invited some talented software designers I had worked with in a gaming company but then each of us continued to move in different directions for various reasons.
This was my initial team: two engineers and two software designers; we gave the company a name — Deus Robotics. Pavlo Sheliazhenko joined me six months later as a partner of the project. He had worked at Google head office for eight years before he returned to Ukraine to build robots. He currently administers the technical aspects of Deus Robotics business.
It was not easy for us to start because the robotics market was still emerging. There were no finishing robots either: we were pioneers and ruined more than one parquet flooring before we got it right.
I remember our robot did a better job than a human during the initial testing. We had a blind test: we asked a specialist to polish half of the test parquet flooring. The second half was polished by our robot. We then invited three independent experts to evaluate the result. Two of three experts rated the robot’s work higher.
But we could not sell the robot. Construction companies were violently opposed to robots because they were afraid of losing contracts. They also wanted all-in-one robots since it would be easier for them to plan their workflow. Obviously, we cannot build so many various devices. This would be far too expensive.
I think we were a bit ahead of our time. But I still believe in construction robots: they will replace human finishing work in a few years.
Nova Poshta contacted us to order their first sorting robots
My attorney introduced me to Nova Poshta COO. She studied MBA (Master of Business Administration. — Editor’s note) with him. She told him I was building robots. Nova Poshta got very interested because they had been thinking how to automate their processes.
The company attended multiple exhibitions to look at Chinese and European robots. The company did not buy them though. Why not? First of all, because they are expensive. The minimal price of a Chinese robot is $12,000 or 20,000 euros for a European device; we sell similar robots for $6,000.
Deus Robotics at Nova Poshta exhibition
Second of all, service is important for the company. Nobody needs a robot that cannot be maintained. It would cause critical business losses. Besides, we offer cheaper robots than our competitors and provide maintenance services in Ukraine, an optimal solution.
We began developing logistics robots, in particular, a sorting robot, when we had received on order from Nova Poshta. It is designed to pick up parcels, identify their destination and take each of them to the right part of the warehouse.
Deus Robotics sorting robot at a Nova Poshta warehouse
The robot reads the barcode to identify the type of the parcel and then connects to the database which directs the device to the right part of the warehouse. We estimate Ukrainian companies can return their investments in robots over six months to one year.
In addition to Nova Poshta, Epicenter also got interested in our robots. We are currently negotiating with Rozetka, Ukrposhta and Ukrspetssviazok. I have already invested $700,000 in this business.
We assemble robots in our small laboratory in Kyiv. We have five engineers who can build 10 devices a month. When our monthly production reaches more than a thousand robots, we will consider outsourcing from China.
I am raising $2 million in the first round of funding. We are planning to use this money for building a production facility. We are negotiating with some private Ukrainian investors and Rinat Akhmetov’s SCM Advisors Fund. I then expect to scale this business to Europe and the USA.
Seven challenges I faced during robot development
- The quality of Chinese parts is the biggest problem. There may be all different items in a 10-piece batch.
- Hardware is always unpredictable. You give a command to the wheel to spin by 2 m, and it spins by 2 m 5 cm, meaning that a robot’s movement is never perfectly even. Or you give the command to the wheel to spin, but it does not spin at all.
- We use the LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). — Editor’s note) to ensure that robots do not collide with humans. If a robot is exposed to sunlight, phantom dots can appear and the device may see non-existent objects.
- We can build and put a robot into operation, but the equipment will partially malfunction because of signal interference. Our robots are in a metal casing which blocks Wi-Fi signals, so we had to add an external antenna.
- We haven’t had the opportunity to have long-term testing of our parts yet. I guest there might be unpleasant surprises in the future.
- Building robots is expensive and time-consuming. It is impossible to create a quality product in this business over a short period of time. It doesn’t matter how much resources or money you have.
- Many people express concerns about the risk of losing their jobs because of robots. A total of 20 thousand people do the sorting of cargoes and parcels in Ukraine. I don’t think there will be fewer jobs; instead people will have other roles. Sorting robots are twice or even three times more efficient than humans.
A place where I manage not to think about games or robots
I went karting in 2014 for the first time. It was the only activity during which I did not think about work. There are always thoughts about work in my mind. I think about work while skiing at high speed, holding meetings, skydiving, etc. Karting, however, requires high concentration.
You can easily fly off the track if you are distracted for a split second when entering the next turn. I completely re-energize and rest mentally after a couple of hours of racing.
I won the Ukrainian Cup in sports karting in 2015. Actually, I have won all Ukrainian competitions I participated in and represent Ukraine at international karting championships each year.
Pavlo Pikulin at the World Karting Championship
I think I can achieve high results and make my dreams true in any area, be it website development, games, robotics or karting. The key to success is: it must be extremely interesting like in childhood.