“We’re very pro-Ukrainian. Now, I’m in Lviv. This is my choice. And building a company in Ukraine is also my choice”. Interview with Yuriy Zaremba from AiSDR

AiSDR was co-founded by two brothers Oleg and Yuriy Zaremba in August 2023. The startup develops an AI-powered tool that will create personalized email marketing campaigns and arrange meetings with potential customers. At the end of November, the startup received $3 million in an investment from Y Combinator, Flyer One Ventures, and SID Venture. Now, AiSDR has team of 12 people who are located in Lviv and have already served over 60 clients.

AIN.Capital talked to Yuriy Zaremba, CEO and co-founder of AiSDR, about the process of creating the startup during the full-scale invasion, his previous experience in developing AXDRAFT, the recent investment, and future plans.

How did you come up with the idea for this startup? What was the reason and motivation behind it?

AiSDR is my second company while AXDRAFT was my first. The idea for AiSDR came from my own experience in sales. I would create hundreds of email campaigns that didn’t receive responses, hire people to write those email campaigns, search and book appointments, fire people, and look for ways to automate sales outreach. When GPT-3 and GPT-3.5 came out, I started testing them for creating email campaigns, but the results turned out not good enough. The emails were oftentimes too long. When GPT-4 was released, I tried using it to write an email. That’s when I realized that it could work.

I always feel responsible for an idea, and that’s why Oleg and I decided to apply to Y Combinator. For us, Y Combinator was a transformative experience. We went there with only an idea. We had nothing – no product, no customers, nothing. But maybe if they were interested in the idea, then we’d trust the idea and start a new company.

Yuriy and Oleg after their first Y Combinator experience for AXDRAFT. Image: AiSDR

I immediately understood that the market for this product is huge and this is something worth fighting for. We applied to Y Combinator, but didn’t receive any answer. Then on the last day of application review, we received an invitation to an interview.

The interview went well. Moreover, some of the partners already knew us from our previous company AXDRAFT. To take part in the program, we had to fly to the USA. We didn’t know this because the previous program was remote. I was able to fly over because I had a reason for postponing my military service, allowing me to go abroad, however Oleg didn’t have one. 

2 days after the interview, we received the invitation to join Y Combinator’s batch. That’s when AiSDR was born. We started planning the journey, building the product, and traveled to California. Within a month, the product was ready, and we even had several pre-order contracts already signed. During the first two months, we signed over 20 contracts for over $200,000 in annual revenue. And then I realized that this could become a really big company.

What difficulties did you, as a startup founder, encounter in the process of creating a startup? Has the war against Ukraine affected your product plans, and how, if so?

The full-scale invasion had been underway for well over a year before we started building AiSDR, so we were able to adapt quickly. We already had experience with our first company, AXDRAFT: we’ve had to set up satellite Internet, relocate and evacuate the team, and rebuild the entire business. This experience helped us understand the rules of the game and all possible limitations.

We didn’t consider building this company in another country. We’re very pro-Ukrainian. Now, I’m in Lviv. This is my choice. And building a company in Ukraine is also my choice. We immediately rented an office in Lviv. At the same time, the entire technical infrastructure of the company is located abroad.

The fact that I have the ability to defer military service and can travel abroad allowed us to join Y Combinator and receive funding from foreign investors. When you sit in front of them, it gives them confidence that you can manage the risks, even though the company is operating in Ukraine.

Oleg and I complement each other well. Oleg deals with the technical aspect of the company, and I deal with the business aspect. I don’t know how to write code at all, but I deal with fundraising and I know how to sell.

AXDRAFT, your first company, was launched in 2017. How would you describe the difference between the process of starting a company then and now? 

It took AXDRAFT three years to reach the business metrics that AiSDR has achieved in 6 months. The first reason for this is that AXDRAFT’s trajectory changed when we got to Y Combinator, whereas AiSDR started with Y Combinator. There was no product or no customers. Just an idea.

The second reason is that AXDRAFT started with the Ukrainian market while AiSDR started from the USA. All our clients are foreigners. This is good for the company due to the macroeconomic situation in Ukraine, but as a founder, I’m still happy that AXDRAFT is a technology that meets international quality standards while being used by top Ukrainian companies. I hope that AiSDR will leave its mark on the international market so that everyone knows that it’s a Ukrainian company.

AiSDR was founded in August 2023, so what are the results: metrics, income, or any clear indicators that can be evaluated?

Currently, we have over 60 clients and we’re constantly growing. Most of them are medium-sized companies. We add an average of 10-15 customers every month.

You are a lawyer, and your first startup was developing legal products. How does this experience help you now in managing AiSDR?

I believe that a legal education is the most useful for several reasons. First, it teaches you to think in a balanced way and to look for arguments in favor of the appropriate position. Second, and probably the most important reason, it teaches you how to convince other people. And this skill is incredibly useful in business. When I left the law firm and started working for AXDRAFT, I stopped being a lawyer by profession and became an entrepreneur, which is first and foremost a salesperson.

My legal experience helps me negotiate with clients and investors while drawing up and using privacy policies, terms of use, and contracts with clients myself. I don’t need to hire in-house counsel, and this gives me more freedom. I look at the contract and clearly understand possible risks to me from a business perspective, and as a business owner, I have the ability and knowledge to consciously accept that risk.

Recently, AiSDR received its first investment of $3 million. How quickly did it happen? And do you think it is more difficult for Ukrainian startups to attract investments during this period of the full-scale war?

How difficult it is to attract investment depends on how exciting your startup is. There are startups that can spend months on fundraising but to no avail, and that’s not because they’re from Ukraine, and it’s not because of the current VC landscape. It’s because the startup doesn’t have fundamental metrics.

The lack of English is the key factor that limits Ukrainian founders. If you can’t sell your company’s shares well in English, what else can you do?

Another factor is they often focus only on the Ukrainian market. Even before the full-scale war, the Ukrainian market for foreign investors was too small in terms of capital intensity, and now it is almost non-existent.

And the third factor that appeared as a result of the full-scale invasion is that the risk profile of Ukrainian businesses increased. Previously, it was possible to say “It‘s my startup, it grows well, and it sells in Europe and the USA.” This was enough for fundraising. 

Now, more questions are asked: Where is your team located? Where are the founders? Who can meet with clients in the USA? How many people from your team could be mobilized? It is this extra layer of complexity that raises the risk profile of a startup.

In the past, you have also mentored startups and founders. Is this activity interesting to you now?

I started mentoring after selling AXDRAFT. At that time, I had much less pressure to grow it, both internally and externally. Now, I only have the time to focus on one company.

What about your team? How many people are working in the startup? If you’re looking for new employees, name the positions.

Our team consists of 12 people, and we’re headquartered in Lviv. Undoubtedly, we plan to expand the team. Currently, we’re looking for two QA engineers, as well as a middle software engineer. We‘re actively growing, but in a controlled manner. We’re not one of those companies that waste money.

Recently, AiSDR received an investment. What’s next? Tell us about your future plans.

We will use the funding to reach Series A figures on the revenue side. That’s over $2 million in ARR. Hopefully, we’ll do it by the end of this year.

As a product, we want to become a true AiSDR – a tool that can communicate with prospects and book appointments at the moment of intent across multiple channels. Now, we can do this only by email, and in the future, we plan to expand to other channels (messages, calls). Additionally, we will begin to more actively monitor intent signals.