It would be difficult to define the “average” startup founder story. The space is filled with so many diverse and creative individuals, and inspiration can come from many different places. For Ilya Brotzky, his motivation came from a seemingly inherent entrepreneurial spirit and a history of travel as an immigrant since he was two years old.
Moving from the Soviet Union to Israel, then onto Canada before going to University in the US, and later relocating to Brazil, Brotzky is a world traveler. It’s a lifestyle he’s always enjoyed, but there are challenges that can come with being an immigrant.
For Brotzky, the journey to founding his company VanHack had its twists and turns. Ultimately, his perseverance and dedication to addressing crucial issues with job seeking and hiring provide an inspiring tale.
Since 2015, Brotzky has been building VanHack, a leading international tech recruiting company focused on connecting tech talent with jobs around the world, whether remotely or by facilitating moves abroad. The platform offers a variety of features such as hiring events, mock interviews and assistance with visa and the relocation process if a candidate accepts a job in another country.
How Early Challenges Inspired New Solutions
“I was the lemonade stand kid. I had a recycling business when I was six. I would go around and knock on people’s doors and ask to return their bottles and pop cans.” From an early age, Brotzky’s entrepreneurial spirit shone through. As he grew and finished university and entered the workforce, he never lost interest in running his own business.
“I’ve always been that networking guy who would make introductions, and I really like getting to know people,” he says. Brotzky interest in networking and connecting people helped him in his first endeavors in sales and marketing. His most formative experiences contributing to the founding of VanHack came when he left university and moved to Rio de Janeiro. After a brief stint at a mining company, he started working at a tech startup accelerator focused on connecting Brazilian startups with American investors.
These startups focused on Ed tech and Brotzky found himself as the only international at the company. “They put me in charge of sales and fundraising for some of the companies.” In his sales position Brotzky met many tech professionals who asked questions about Canada, as they found out he’d previously lived there. Many had an interest in possibly relocating from Brazil and this sparked an idea in Brotzky. Simultaneously, he was working on a side project that he called “Brazil Career Blueprint;” a way for him to assist his foreign friends with moving to Brazil. When Brotzky shared his project concept with his Brazilian friends, they suggested he also consider helping Brazilians move abroad for work, and there the very early stages of growing what is now VanHack began.
“When I was moving back to Canada in 2014, I published a really simple and poorly designed, very ugly landing page in Portuguese that said something like, ‘Hey, do you want to learn how to code and come to Vancouver?’ Hence the name Van-Hack.” From this early site, Brotzky came in contact with people who were interested in moving and had coding skills but did not possess confidence in their English abilities. Brotzky decided to come up with a solution and created an English school for developers which he called VanHack Premium, (now known as VanHack Academy). This feature helps educate skilled developers in English and provides a talent pool of candidates that employers can connect with.
What Challenges Come with Founding a Company
While Brotzky certainly had a passion for the work and concept, he wasn’t sure if this idea would turn into a successful business or be just a neat side project. “At the beginning of the company, I was honestly in a not-so-good place in my life. I had two startups in Brazil that didn’t work out. I was living at home with my now wife and moving in with my parents.” This split Brotzkys focus, as he was more concerned with landing a stable job and getting back on track, “When I started VanHack, I didn’t really take it seriously,” he says.
However, the challenges he faced led to some critical lessons that Brotzky suggests every startup founder should know; his most important one is summarized in two words, “Vested Equity.” “I gave three people who I barely knew equal shares of the company…Each one of us had 25%.” Brotzky explains how this caused a lot of frustration and heartbreak early on, as he began to realize the potential success of VanHack.
“These people aren’t the right people to be working with.” Is a thought that would continually plague Brotzky as he realized his treating VanHack like a side project led to him hiring anyone with a little enthusiasm. Today, he understands the importance of this early period, “Big big lesson learned in that who you work with and who you partner with is extremely important,” Brotzky says. Later, he would eventually be able to let these people go, but not without a lot of difficulties.
How did Brotzky grow VanHack early on
The early days of a startup can be incredibly frightening, especially figuring out how you will obtain your first customers. I asked Brotzky what his approach to growing VanHack early on was. “A lot of calls and a lot of content.” He started making incredibly niche YouTube videos and doing interviews, with a focus on Brazilian developers who wanted to move to Vancouver. This intense focus might seem limiting for some founders, but the approach helped Brotzky establish an early strategy and pursue it full-heartedly. “I was able to go to Facebook Groups like Vancouver for Brazilians and other social media pages that were interested in developers who wanted to move to Vancouver, he says.”
While he notes that social media was a great avenue for providing educational content, his networking background also enabled him to make a large volume of calls. He would talk to any developer interested in moving and listen to their questions and give them advice. In the early days of VanHack, he mentions that they would actually introduce developers, such as those who graduated from the VanHack Academy to companies for free. “I just wanted success cases for our school. People who graduate from Harvard get hired at Goldman Sachs, kind of thing.” He would also talk extensively with employers, learning what they wanted and needed from developers, and getting advice that he could pass on to help developers get hired at their company.
His networking didn’t stop at calls, however. He would also frequent meetups, at least two or three a week, where he would connect with employers. After a period of time doing this exhaustive networking, he realized the potential success that could come with charging companies for reliable connections to employees.
Where has VanHack found success?
Now, this pursuit is where VanHack makes most of their money. While VanHack is free to use for job seekers, employers pay when the company hires someone through VanHack. “It’s very much a performance model. If we don’t deliver, there’s no charge,” he says.
VanHack has also made a name by specializing in hard-to-find senior and leadership roles, where landing the top talent, or anyone at all, can be difficult. “I would say there’s more developers who want to move to New York or Berlin or Toronto than there are in those cities right now, especially looking for opportunities.” This makes VanHack an invaluable resource for connecting companies with the talent they need but might not ordinarily consider.
On top of this service though, the VanHack Academy is also a success. Here, developers can learn English and soft skills that can serve them in interviewing as well as other procedures pertaining to getting hired abroad. “We offer 32 hours of live English classes with a native speaker, which is a combination of behavioral interview and technical interview skills.” VanHack Academy also helps review these developers’ LinkedIn profiles, and their resumes and offers personal advice on how to prepare and get hired for their jobs. This includes a “database” of content they can watch and use to improve their skills.
The service speaks for itself, and with almost 2000 people hired through VanHack (20 – 25% of which come from the academy) VanHack is accomplishing the goal it set out to achieve. Not to mention, this academy is also just as useful for the skills learned, as developers can go on to get hired outside of the VanHack ecosystem. “It’s really cool to see people just have that confidence after a few weeks or a few months of taking the classes.”
Brotzky shared a touching story of when he returned to teaching classes for VanHack Academy during the start of the pandemic. While he had been a teacher during the early days of VanHack Academy, an unforeseen situation called for him to reprise the role for just a little longer. “And I think, there was a month period where there was always the same group of people joining and I became friends with them,” he says. Of these three people, Brotzky would tell me that two would go on to get hired in Toronto and one in Vancouver. He even still has coffee with some of them from time to time and gets to catch up on their lives. “That was really cool, to see them have success.”
Advice for people wanting to build their own SaaS business
With Brotzky’s burgeoning success with VanHack, I wanted to know what advice he would offer to similarly interested startup founders in the SaaS space. “I think the biggest advice is, you don’t have to build, sell it first…Start selling as soon as possible and start talking to customers as soon as possible.” With Brotzkys early effort with intensive networking, it is easy to see why he values this approach so much, and it provides an important lesson for a skill that some founders still undervalue to this day.
After this point, Brotzky also offers advice on hiring great HR professionals early on, particularly if you’re interested in scaling. Brotzky feels that this role is undervalued in many startups now and that the earlier you can implement them the less time “fighting fires” you will need to spend in your early operations.
What’s next for Ilya Brotzky and VanHack?
With all of the work VanHack is already accomplishing, I wanted to know what was next in store for Brotzky and VanHack, and it appears they will still be quite busy in the near future, building “The world’s first global mobility platform, to help you with the entire visa process post-hire.” He notes how there are a lot of global mobility platforms out there, and even recruiting platforms, but unifying these services together to streamline the entire hiring and moving process is an invaluable tool for employers and employees alike.
For someone whose own life has been filled with travel, and for whom the immigration experience presents a familiar challenge, Brotzky has made an incredible effort to provide valuable solutions for global tech talent.