From IT developer at 18 to CTO in the US at 22. The story of a programmer from a little town in Ukraine

Yev Rachkovan grew up in a small town in the Cherkasy region, Ukraine, and has already had an eventful career for a 22-year-old guy. At the age of 18, he worked as a full-stack developer at a Ukrainian IT company, then joined the US startup Scrimmage as a co-founder and CTO, and completed the TechStars accelerator program. To participate in the program, Yev overcame many obstacles: he lived in a refugee camp near Frankfurt, crossed the border with the United States through Mexico, survived an armed robbery in Indianapolis, and now lives with his fiancée in India in the hope of returning to Cherkasy.

Meanwhile, the startup co-founded by Yev has already raised over $1 million in investment: about $100,000 from friends and family, $120,000 from TechStars, then another $600,000 from the Eberg Capital and IA Ventures investment companies, who recently backed the project with another $300,000.

In this interview with the AIN.Capital editor, Yev shared how he became a developer, left Ukraine shortly before the full-scale invasion, why he didn’t like living in the US, and how TechStars changed his life.

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Yev Rachkovan. All photos in the interview were provided by the interviewee.

I was good at only two subjects—English and math.

And, as in any typical Ukrainian family, if a child is good at English and math, they go into IT. I’ve had a computer since I was six and loved playing games, so I was all for it.

I grew up in Chyhyryn district, Cherkasy region. So, after the 9th grade, I studied software engineering at the Cherkasy State Business College. My parents were stringent, so I went wild when I left the house. On campus, I spent all my time playing games and doing anything but studying.

I completely wasted the first two years and realized that this was not the life I wanted. So, I started actively learning programming. In about six months, I seemed to become the best student in the class.

After the second year, we had to have an internship. Many people faked it, but I did it for real to take advantage of the opportunity. I was a trainee at Interlink, an IT company. It’s a local company, also known as Software Planet Group. They have offices in the US and Lviv, with about 100 employees, so it’s relatively small.

I did the internship there. Everything went very well—we made our first commercial application. And I was invited for an internship. I was the youngest there—I turned 18 on the first day of the internship and was the first to be hired after that.

The company specialized in full-stack development, so I became a full-stack developer.

I worked full-time for the next two years. In college, those who worked in their specialty were allowed to skip lessons. We had to pass the tests only. I did not continue my studies after college, so I have only a secondary education.

When I was 19, I already had a year of experience as a programmer, and… I was burnt out. I realized I could keep living the way I was—in 20 years, I would have a $5,000 salary and secure my life. I got bored.

I started reading self-development books like Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and actively learning English. And when you learn English, you have to read English literature. This immersed me in the world of entrepreneurship, startups, and the American Dream, all that stuff. I was inspired by Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, who was at the peak of his popularity (before he bought Twitter).

I was working as a programmer and wanted to transition smoothly to product development.

I talked to my managers at work, and they recommended that I become a PM. I took a few courses, but our company didn’t need PMs so much. I worked on one project but was given minimal competencies and had no room to grow. There was a stage when I had a lot of business ideas. I proposed many different changes, but the company rejected them all.

I started working on my thoughts while still working at my job. It was always an iterative process: I’d come up with a platform, make a document, describe it, find a team, and… drop it all. Then, I’d develop a new idea, find a team, launch a small website, and drop it all. There were about six such cycles before I quit and decided to engage in my projects fully.

I was 20 years old. As a person who is 90% self-taught, I saw that what is taught in colleges in IT specialization is not always relevant. It was the only problem I saw then, and I thought I could solve it for all because I had solved it for myself.

I wanted to create a decentralized education system for IT professionals. The idea was to allow people who have learned without a university to get a full-fledged certification without going to university. That is, if you have read 50 books, you know more than people who have graduated from university. So why aren’t they recognized like people with diplomas?

I moved to Kyiv, found a co-founder, and we worked on it for about six months.

As a result, I realized that I was a great programmer but a lousy businessman.

I managed to build and launch the platform but couldn’t sell it or organize marketing. I ran out of money, returned to my hometown, and started freelancing to save money and come back to this idea.

I managed to find a project pretty quickly. I knew that the company I was working for was selling us for $50/h, and I realized that I could easily bid $30/h, which would be a competitive rate.

A gambling startup approached me. I didn’t want to work in gambling but couldn’t refuse, so I asked for more money. It would be fine if they refused, but I would work a little and earn some extra cash if they agreed.

And they agreed.

That was Matt and Dan, my future Scrimmage co-founders.

They turned out to be very cool. They studied at the University of Pennsylvania, the Ivy League, and then worked on Wall Street as business analysts. They developed a framework that helped them bet on sports and win. They managed to make 40% profit annually, which is really cool. So they decided to create their own startup: something like a sports betting investment fund. They wanted to collect investors’ money and multiply it by investing in sports betting. To do this, they needed an IT platform.

They raised about $100,000 from their relatives and started looking for programmers who could do it all. Before me, they had 32 different people who coded something and left. I became their first full-time IT person.

I started pushing the project towards web3 because it was all the rage at the time. But it didn’t work out with web3. Therefore, we pivoted again and turned to the Gamification Loyalty Program. We have packaged our application in a B2B White Label Solution that betting companies can integrate into their own to make a loyalty program for customers. We have already launched the first integration, and we need at least 15 more or an integration with a top player to attract a seed round of $1-2 million. But in the future, we plan to go beyond gambling and enter other branches to democratize loyalty programs for all businesses. First of all, e-commerce.

I offered to become a co-owner and CTO.

I read somewhere that this is an ideal option for people like me: first, become a co-founder in someone else’s startup, gain experience, and then start something of your own.

At Scrimmage, I was a back-end developer at first, then I started working on the front-end, took on more responsibility, and became a kind of team lead. At some point, I was already deciding whom to fire, whom to hire, and how to develop the product.

Matt and Dan agreed, gave me a share of the company, and cut my salary. That’s how I became a co-founder and CTO at Scrimmage.

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At that time, there was already news that Russia was gathering troops around Ukraine. No one was somehow worried about this in Ukraine, but they were already preparing for World War III in America.

And so, one Friday night, when I was in Kyiv smoking a hookah and programming, I got a text from Matt. “You are our Co-Founder. We can’t risk so much. Grab your bags and come to us.”

On Saturday, I was on my way to Poland. My classmate, with whom I had spent the first two years at college, lived in Poznan. He sheltered me for a while.

In the winter, we got accepted to TechStars.

I wanted to get there very much, but with American visas, everything is very, very complicated. We were supposed to start the program in three months, but there was a 6-month queue to get an appointment at the US Embassy in Poland. I decided to look for a place with no queues. I read that there was an excellent embassy in Switzerland.

And so I took a train, but instead of getting to Zurich, I somehow accidentally joined the Ukrainian refugees and went with them to Berlin.

They just asked me, “Are you from Ukraine?” I said, “Yeap.” And they said, “Go there.”

So, I ended up first in one refugee camp and then moved to another in a small town near Zurich. They settled me with 20-30 others and were even ready to give me a grant at a local university that covered my educational and living expenses. But I refused. The lady who organized it said I was the dumbest guy she had ever met.

While deciding which embassy to go to, I got very sick. I was ill for ten days; it was awful, and all I wanted was to return home.

Disappointed, I returned to Poland and started going to a local coworking because working from my classmate’s house was inconvenient. There, I met Vira, a refugee who also dreamed of moving to the United States and knew some Ukrainians got there through Mexico.

I decided to try to cross the US border from Mexico with her.

At first, I had doubts because there was no guarantee of success, and it’s not a very official way, although you don’t have to climb any fences, as Americans often imagine.

My co-founders were terrified: They were afraid that I would be involved in some drug cartel, and they would never see me again. But there were no other options.

We traveled to Mexico through Poland, Portugal, and Spain. Mexico was not as scary as my co-founders had imagined. In addition, people had already organized a camp for Ukrainian refugees who’d like to go to the United States. We joined them, signed up for a digital queue, spent the night in a hotel, and crossed the border the next day.

Everything was fine. They didn’t ask for anything, just my passport. So simple. I could not believe I would pass, but it was not very popular then. Only a few did it so.

It seemed like my dream had come true. I had been wanting to get to the US for so long!

But America disappointed me.

I rushed to Texas. My co-founders live near Austin. So I just bought a ticket and flew to them. But I didn’t like it in Texas—it was very hot, impossible to breathe.

When the time came for TechStars, we moved to Indiana (the program takes place in the state capital, Indianapolis). The accelerator invested $120,000 in us, and we wanted to save money, so we rented a place far from the city center.

It turned out that our neighborhood was a local ghetto. And one beautiful Saturday night, I was robbed.

My co-founders worked in a coworking space. I wanted to go for groceries on my bike. Right after leaving the block, a car stopped in my way, and several black men got out. One of them had a gun. They took my backpack with my passport and phone and left me without documents in the United States.

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Later, I realized that living in the USA is too expensive. In my first startup, I had a co-founder from India. While we were still working together, we started dating online. However, there was little chance to meet for real—she was in India, I was in Ukraine, so we broke up. But she suddenly came to Los Angeles in the fall of 2022 to study at a college. We met again in Los Angeles. I wanted to be with her. So we started living together.

The rented apartment in Los Angeles was the most expensive in my life. We paid $2600 a month plus about $500 for utilities. We lived there for three months and realized that we couldn’t afford it. She came from a low-income family, and I had only a minimum founder’s salary of $2000.

She decided to leave the college and go home. I decided to go with her. But there was a problem.

My passport was missing, and I couldn’t leave the United States.

The only agency that could restore it for me was in San Francisco, so I decided to live in California for a while to visit Silicon Valley.

I had to live there for six months until I got my new ID. So, I decided to take everything I could from the Valley. I took courses at Stanford, visited Hacker House, attended several networking events with entrepreneurs, joined a community, and visited Mountain View. It was cool but expensive. Living in the US is very cool, but only when you have reached a certain level of financial independence.

After moving to India, our investments increased, and so my salary did. My girlfriend and I got engaged, and now we live in India. $2000 per month is enough to cover all our family expenses.

I don’t like India, it’s a terrible country.

The food here is delicious, but the streets are a mess. Everything is dirty; there are no sidewalks. For the first few months, I thought I would get hit by a car—there are simply no rules here. You show your hand to cross the street and… run.

Also, cows are a problem here. They are sacred animals. You can’t kill them. But people keep them as long as they give milk. When a cow gets old, they let it into the wild, which is why stray cows roam the streets in India.

I want to return to Cherkasy.

After joining Scrimmage, I hired my friends to the team. We now have four programmers. All of them are Ukrainians. Three of them are from Cherkasy, including me, and a junior girl is from Chernihiv.

I dream of an office in Cherkasy, on the bank of the Dnipro River. As soon as the war is over, I will return. Ukraine is the best country I have ever visited.

I’ve come a long way. I’m 22 now, and I’m a CTO at the US startup. And although I work full-time at Scrimmage, I still dream of changing the education system in Ukraine. I want Ukraine to be among the top ten economies in the world by the time I die. I have several projects that I am working on for this very purpose. For example, I share my experience in the tech industry on Kavun UA and help people find co-founders in the US market. I hope there will be more people who will not just code but also build startups in Ukraine. Although it is a risky path, it is necessary for economic growth.

I want to build a startup accelerator.

I think Ukraine lacks institutions like TechStars. TechStars changed my life, and I turned from a programmer to a tech founder there. I met fifteen other companies there. We worked in a shared office every day, and we went to dinner parties for each team once a week.

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Matt, Dan and I also organized such a dinner. We listened to lectures, talked to founders of top companies like Dropbox, and built a product mindset.

I think it was a turning point in my career. And now I want to change other people’s lives the way they changed mine.