Interview: Valery Tsepkalo, Director of Hi-Tech Park in Minsk
August 17, 2016
Mark HillaryI recently visited Minsk in Belarus as a guest of IBA Group. They were opening a major new facility in the city to expand their capacity and to boost their cloud capabilities globally. The new IBA Group facility is located inside the Belarus Hi-Tech Park (HTP), a venture partially funded by both the public and private sector to help boost the wider IT industry in Belarus.I met up with the HTP director Valery Tsepkalo to ask him about the technology industry in Belarus and how the park fits into the wider development of an industry that is rapidly changing and expanding. Initially I asked about the park itself and what can be found at the HTP in Minsk. He explained: “We have been operating for a decade now, but it’s not just IT park facilities, it is also a wider concept of the companies and the park – like a representation of the entire IT industry. It’s like a club. Belarus is quite a small country and Minsk has most of the national IT industry so this park pulls everyone together and offers some physical infrastructure. We have the administration of the park here and our offices, but also a business incubator, education centre, and the individual company offices.”After we talked, Valery gave me a tour of the incubator. It was an impressive area where the HTP offers office infrastructure to startups at a very low rate to help get them started and potentially become full-price HTP customers.“We have 153 companies in the HTP with 24,000 software engineers. All of the companies are independent and all are privately owned, the government has no stake in them. We [the HTP] are an agency of the government and have an agreement with the member companies so they can take advantage of a special tax regime. We do demand an annual audit and an update on the companies every three months so our members are very open with their information. It’s important for potential clients to see this level of transparency in the IT industry. Big companies like Epam or IBA have their own international reputation, but being here helps the smaller member companies to build trust,” Valery explained.So the HTP offers physical infrastructure, but also offers a chance for many people in the same industry to work in close proximity, creating opportunities for networking and sharing information on business trends. I asked Valery if the HTP is involved in the global promotion of the technology industry. He said: “Yes, but we don’t usually promote the HTP alone, we create delegations with our companies so other business owners can see the companies that are using the HTP. Often we work with chambers of commerce or our embassies internationally to create events that promote cooperation. When you are one part of the wider industry it gives everyone more clout than just promoting the HTP alone.”This is an interesting point because many IT associations find it hard to get companies to cooperate when promoting their national industry overseas. Naturally every individual company is pitching for business, so the harmony they need to promote a region together can be hard to find.Valery explained that when they talk to overseas customers there is a requirement to sell both the capabilities of the IT companies and Belarus itself: “We need to sell both the country and company. When we had quite strained relations with the US and Europe we asked clients to come and visit. Even if their view is not favourable based on the media then they quickly found that the reality is very different. It’s a normal country with no real difference to Greece or Slovakia. Clients that come here see a normal European country with hard working people. The best marketing is just to do a good job for your customers.”The political image problem is something that cannot be ignored in Belarus. The nation has famously been called “the last dictatorship in Europe” by many commentators in the European and American media, so how can the companies in Belarus deal with such a negative media portrayal? I asked Valery if the general problem of how Belarus is perceived has been reduced now there are several important companies from Belarus working internationally. He said: “It’s one reason yes, but politically most western countries realise that this political situation is better than our neighbours, like Ukraine. At the end of the day whatever you like or dislike about the way that countries are run, at least if you have people there that you can negotiate with and you know that there will be good outcomes then it is better [for everyone]. In our part of the world the legal system is not quite like it is in the UK; it was basically just criminal law after the Soviet Union ended, but we are well on the way to improving this.”It’s true that the IT market in Belarus is growing fast. Valery described some of the latest statistics from the HTP: “[In recent years] we were growing 30-40% a year, but it’s a bit less at present with about 20% growth in revenue. The latest figure was about $800m (USD) which is 46 times the entire IT industry here in 2005. So after just nine years of activity we have made an enormous difference – we plan to pass the $1bn figure this year.” He added: “The park is growing at about 3,000 new people each year and this has been a consistent level of growth for about the past five years. It’s a really good growth rate because [the industry analyst] Gartner suggests that most IT markets are growing 3,4, or 5% and in the last year the global IT industry actually declined by about 1.5%, yet here we are still growing at over 20%.”Traditionally the IT outsourcing market in Central and Eastern Europe was all about serving companies in Western Europe, such as the UK and Germany, and being able to offer lower prices, but with a highly-skilled workforce. However the entire IT and IT services market is changing at present. I asked Valery what changes he is seeing from Belarus: “The service companies are moving to offer sophisticated complete business solutions. One of our companies is building the front office for eCommerce companies because many traditional retailers need to fight experts like Amazon – if you can’t match this kind of online service then you are lost.” He added: “The startup culture is an interesting trend too, like Viber [phone app similar to Whatsapp] for example or World of Tanks [battle game produced by Wargaming], one of the most popular games in the world right now. These companies start up and build a product rather than working for clients. Many companies like IBA Group have created start-up garages so their own employees can test out new ideas too. I remember when some of these products launched and they were very local, but many of these products have gone completely global.”I asked if the app store business model had changed how IT companies in Belarus are delivering their services. Naturally the Apple and Android app stores have created an opportunity for IT companies to develop services anywhere and immediately have a global distribution platform available.Valery said: “The app store model has definitely changed the market and allowed some of these companies to go global quickly. Even ten years ago I couldn’t expect results like this. When Wargaming entered the HTP they had about 30 developers and now they have over 2000. But now they are not just located here, they have teams all over the world.”The HTP in Minsk, Belarus is a mix of trade association with physical infrastructure and some government support, but it is clearly supporting a young, vibrant, and fast growing industry in Belarus. What is really interesting though is that companies you might just think of as ‘European’, like Wargaming or Viber, have their origins in Belarus. It’s certainly a market that’s still growing because there is a local culture that is supportive of seeing every ship rise on the same tide.