Graduate of 2003, with a major in Economics and a minor in Business Administration, Aziz Soltobaev is now a proud owner and founder of an innovative and successful e-business company in Kyrgyzstan. His experience and secrets of surviving in the modern world of business is a real case study for those who consider themselves entrepreneurs.
Do you think that entrepreneurship can be learned?
In my case, I guess it is in my blood. At the age of seven, I was gathering apples and apricots in my grandmother’s garden and selling them at the market. When I was 9, I borrowed from my father a truck full of cattle feed, which I then sold to farmers in Sokuluk region during the summer break. One summer, I was selling soft drinks on the railway route from Bishkek to Balykchi. Later on, I sold a newspaper on the weekends.
What does money mean to you?
It is just a means of realizing dreams and plans. Money does not affect the way I live, wear or do things. One of my dreams is to build an astronomical observatory and restore the planetarium in Kyrgyzstan. I would like to be involved in more educational projects.
What was your path to entrepreneurship? Can you say you are enjoying it?
During my University years I was involved with SIFE, working on the Kyrgyz Business News (KBN) Project with a BA student Mirhat Alymkulov. We gathered business and economic news, compiled a digest in English, and disseminated it among our subscribers worldwide. In 2001, together with Zulfia Abdullaeva, we founded the “Intelligent Translation Service” as part of the “Intelligent Club”. We collected translation requests and distributed them among 30 students. Essentially, we were helping students pay for their tuition. In spring of 2002, I prepared a business proposal for the food-processing industry and won the National Business Plan tournament. It was recognized as the best project in agriculture-related field out of 100 applications. That summer, I had an internship in Moscow as an operations manager, read Robert Kiyosaki books and decided to try myself in business. When I returned to Bishkek, my friend Konstantin Bondarev and I launched a pancake business and called it “Bifast”. It was supposed to become a fast food chain like the Russian “Teremok – Russkie bliny”. Our kiosk was on the Sovietskaya-Kievskaya bus station. We were in business for one year, after which our project failed, because local people preferred to eat samsy and hamburgers rather than pancakes. I had a lot of fun working on all of these projects.
What role did AUCA play in your life?
AUCA changed my life and I am grateful to my alma mater. It was a great transformation from an ordinary high school graduate to a proactive, goal-oriented person. I met most of my best friends at this University. AUCA defined my way of life.
Do you miss the good old times at AUCA?
University life was one of the brightest times in my life—sleep-less nights preparing class projects, the small Kitchenette, lines at the computer labs, troubles with university server during computerized final exams, and talking in the library. I remember when, together with John Atwood and Co, we were repairing benches next to Marx and Engels. It was fun.
Please tell us about your current business project, i.e. Sveto-for.
I worked as an investment analyst after graduation and completed several business projects. Nevertheless, my brother and I decided to find out an optimal business model that would be compatible with our background. After an in-depth market research that took us six months, we decided to launch the online store Svetofor, which was unveiled on August 31, 2004. Originally, we were selling books. For the next few years, we dedicated 90 hours a week to this project. Today, it is the leading e-commerce company in Kyrgyzstan. We also engage in some trading activities with Hong Kong.
What do you do in your free time?
Periodically, I take a vacation and go to China to study its language, culture, and economy. I really like this county, and I believe we can learn an important quality from them– these guys know how to work! I greatly admire their work ethic. I also like to meet and talk to interesting people over a meal. If any of the readers propose something interesting, I would like to meet and share a meal.
If we could introduce you to anyone, who would it be and why?
George Soros. I am very thankful to this person and his activities in Kyrgyzstan. I have been actively participating in Soros Foundation programs such as the Debate Program, the English language resource center, where I myself learned English, the library of School of Future Elite, and the Economic Club where we played different economic games.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
I am a fan of Warren Buffet and from his essays “Lessons for Corporate America”, I follow his advice to top managers. He asks, “How would you run company if you knew it would be your only source of income for the next 100 years?”
And what does it mean?
It changes your perspective of how you should run a business.
Do you plan new business projects?
We plan to expand the existing business and revive some of our previous projects. Additionally, my team and I are looking for a business project that would interest investors from the Silicon Valley.
And what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Never give up! Believe in yourself and others will follow you.
Is there anyone you would like to thank who has influenced you greatly?
My group mates: Akmal Malaev, Erik Mambetakunov, Umed Temurshoev, Rustam Khalikov, Ruslan Karabukaev, Olga Rusina and everyone who participated in group projects with me. I greatly enjoyed class debates with other students and teachers, joint class projects, and case discussions. I am much obliged to my leadership skills mentor Natalia Slastnikova, my Organizational Behaviour teacher Camilla Sharshekeeva,my lifelong teacher Aleksey Kolpakov. Also, I would like to thank Munara Myrzabaeva for knowledge in macroeconomics, Bruce Wilson for strategy formulation lessons, Jamilya Sopukeeva for Investment Analysis, Raymond Linsenmayer for Corporate Finance, and AUCA’s financial committee for scholarships. I could not imagine myself today without their great contribution to my life.
What challenges did you face as an entrepreneur?
When we did business in Kyrgyzstan, we had no ties, connections, or a good uncle in the law enforcement. We were amongst the many AUCA graduates with Western business thinking and no understanding of business in Kyrgyzstan. In the past seven years we have experienced hostile take-over attempts, several criminal cases, numerous lawsuits, unjustified and non-sanctioned “inspections”, arrests of goods in customs, attacks on private property, and once, there was an attempt on the life of my closest partner in Kazakhstan. This latest event was one of the reasons why we temporarily suspended business activity.
Do you have a slogan which keeps you moving in the most stressful situations?
Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is the book I live by. My slogan is his expression, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
What would you say to the current AUCA students if you were to address them in a speech?
Do not think on the scale of “Begemot”, but let it be something more global. You are capable of much more than you think, and you can develop your potential in.