The Founding of HyeTech
Back in 2011, four Armenian entrepreneurs—Nerses Ohanyan, Levon Budagyan, Ben Toker, and Sidney Minassian—found themselves in the same co-working space in Sunnyvale, California. As four technologists with busy schedules, they found it difficult to connect with other technologists in the Bay Area’s Armenian community, as the community’s events were not usually organized for members of similar industries. Their connections with fellow Armenian technologists were usually made by meeting the few Armenian colleagues they had worked with throughout their careers. “Interestingly, it was a breath of fresh air to have other Armenians around you that you could spend a lot of time with,” says Nerses Ohanyan, one of the founders of HyeTech and a senior vice president at Vineti. The group began to expand as the four of them started to invite friends from their networks to join in on lunches. The criteria for who to invite was simple: “If you think this person would be interesting for us to meet, invite them.” The lunches would typically start with a conversation about what was happening in Armenia or in their local community, but would quickly evolve into a discussion about the latest tech releases, or new technology trends in Silicon Valley and what business opportunities could arise from them. This low barrier of entry, and the fact that the participants had similar backgrounds and interests, proved to be successful as the group quickly grew to some 30 people in a matter of months.
As the group began to take form, they organized their first “brainstorming session”, a full-day event during which the community would gather and give feedback on other members’ start-ups. The event also included talks on a variety of topics, ranging from sales and enterprise B2B businesses, to social media marketing, all given from members of the community who were experts in those areas. The career trajectories of the participants of that first brainstorming session have been extremely successful. Two of the entrepreneurs presenting that day were Davit Baghdasaryan, who would go on to become the co-founder and CEO of Krisp, one of Armenia’s fastest growing start-ups, and Vahe Kuzoyan, the President and co-founder of Service Titan, a company that was valued at $9.5 billion last year. “We love to think that we’ve played a small part in accelerating that success, in pushing people more toward entrepreneurship, in pushing people to utilize the network better, the resources we have better,” says Ohanyan.
Maturing as a Global Network
“Is this going to go anywhere?” is a question that the community began asking itself after the initial success of gathering people and organizing events during the first year. An idea arose to do a showcase, where both early-stage start-ups that had just developed the first iterations of their products, and more well established companies that had already succeeded in capturing market share and raising investments, would come together to present what they were working on and share their stories. The first showcase was organized at Roger Strauch’s incubator, Roda Group, in Berkeley. Strauch, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, was one of the early mentors to HyeTech.
Among the start-ups at the initial showcase were entrepreneurs who over the last decade have reached significant success with their start-ups, such as Armen Berjikly (co-founder of Kanjoya), Levon Budagyan (co-founder of Aarki), and Henry Khachatryan (co-founder of IRL). The showcase was also attended by Armenian entrepreneurs from Russia, Tatul and Hrachik Adjamian, the co-founders of Wakie, and Gevorg Sargsyan, the founder of Plexonic, who flew in from Armenia to participate. All of a sudden, HyeTech’s network expanded past the borders of California and gained a more global reach.
The participants of HyeTech’s events shared a similar culture, as opposed to other Armenian organizations, that wasn’t just their national or ethnic culture. It was a professional culture of networking that existed in Silicon Valley, and was shared with the growing global tech entrepreneurship community.
Bringing HyeTech to Armenia
With Gevorg Sargsyan now being a part of the HyeTech network, the following year a trip was organized to Armenia, with 5-10 members flying from the United States to come and engage with the local tech scene. Sargsyan organized a networking event with some 40-50 members of the industry. “Al Eisaian [co-founder of IntelinAir] had done a start-up mixer, like a month or so before, that attracted a lot of people… we kept building on what Al had started,” says Ohanyan. An example of tangible value that was created from the connections made at the event was an entrepreneur from Armenia being introduced to a member of the Apple App Store team, who advised them that the idea they were working on would never be approved into the App Store under the current iteration, saving them months or years of work and time. Over the next five years, as these types of events became more common, several organizations that are key players in Armenia today, such as Granatus Ventures, HIVE Ventures and SmartGateVC, began to form and launch, in part thanks to connections made through HyeTech.
The biggest event that HyeTech organized in Armenia came in 2015, when the network came together to organize “Create Together”, a 200 person event that involved lectures, pitching competitions, and Armenia’s first hackathon, where teams spent 24 hours at Picsart’s offices working on their projects. Create Together was attended by 20 Californian-Armenians, who got the opportunity to visit places such as Impact Hub, Picsart and CivilNet. The start-ups that participated in the pitching competition had the opportunity to receive feedback from veteran entrepreneurs and industry professionals.
Entrepreneur Immersion Program
From the Create Together event emerged the idea of the Entrepreneur Immersion Program (EIP), which is now in its third iteration. The program involves bringing entrepreneurs from early-stage start-ups from Armenia to Los Angeles and the Bay Area for ten days. During the trip, participants visit Silicon Valley start-up accelerators such as Y Combinator and 500 Startups, as well as visit the offices of companies such as Facebook and Google. The program also includes a demo day, where the start-ups participating can showcase their products to the community, including to investors. The stated goal of EIP is to help its participants have more effective communication and networking and develop a more entrepreneurial mindset. Alumni of the program include Expper Technologies, Circa, EarlyOne, EasyDMARC, Heltun, and Coin Stats. This year, HyeTech EIP, scheduled for July 14-24, is organized through SmartGateVC and Globally.
In past iterations of EIP, participants have only had to pay for their airfare to California. The rest of the costs were covered by the program, which was fundraised from the community to finance it. The cost for the first year was approximately $30,000 US, 50% of which was raised from community members in the United States, and 50% from Armenia. “Armenian entrepreneurs were not only willing to help other entrepreneurs in Armenia, but there was enough money in Armenia already to support its own progress,” says Ohanyan.
Start-ups operating in Armenia’s tech sector, for the most part, do not compete with one another for market share. More often than not, they are working on different problems, and are attempting to compete in a global market. It is ultimately in the interest of the local industry for more people and companies to gain valuable experience and connections through a program like EIP, and bring that back to Armenia, even if that value is not a direct benefit to the supporters. Those familiar with Armenia’s start-up ecosystem will also agree that there is often a sense of comradery and shared purpose among its members, which is natural for an ecosystem that is still as young as Armenia’s.
The Value of Networking
It is difficult to quantify the value of any network. In the context of a network of tech entrepreneurs and professionals, one metric that can be measured is the financial value of the start-ups in the ecosystem. “If you want to financially quantify it, being on the order of magnitude of millions in the first year, to, I don’t know, maybe close to a billion five years later, and now it’s close to $20 billion plus,” said Ohanyan.
As Armenia’s start-up ecosystem continues to grow after its record-setting year last year, HyeTech will need to find its place in that growth. A few months ago, when Armenia saw large numbers of Russians emigrating to Armenia, HyeTech organized a networking event where Yerevan-based deep tech start-ups showcased what they were working on and what positions they were looking to hire for. A few hundred people participated in the event, a significant percentage of them being Russian engineers and tech professionals who were interested in knowing what opportunities were available to them in Armenia.
Interestingly, HyeTech has also managed to shatter the stereotype that Armenians have a difficult time effectively working together, or that they don’t help one another. “My entire professional experience has been Armenians helping each other,” says Ohanyan. HyeTech intends on expanding its model to other industries as well, particularly science and media. Science and media, just like technology, have the added benefit of impacting a wide array of industries. “It is really important for us to have a good voice and know how to articulate our values, and articulate all the work that we’re doing,” Ohanyan explains. “Because then you can use that to acquire other people from other networks, other industries into this network.”
The story of HyeTech should be viewed as a case study in the value that networking organizations can create for both their members and the ecosystem they operate in. In analyzing HyeTech’s story, there is a clear factor as to why it has succeeded more than other Armenian networking groups from other professions. Silicon Valley, the place where HyeTech started, arguably has one of the strongest networking cultures in the world. HyeTech has successfully played a role in exporting that culture to Armenia, as can be clearly observed in the abundance of tech events in the country year round. Effective networking, along with correctively aligned incentives, in some ways can be a silver bullet for growing industries. “That’s what shows you everything else, that’s how you learn everything else,” says Ohanyan.
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