P2H, an American IT company with Ukrainian roots, started as a design-to-HTML conversion service. These days, it assists, among other things, in digitizing public services in Saudi Arabia. This year the company turned 17 and has accomplished quite a lot since it began. AIN was recently able to set up an interview with the founders of P2H – Dmitriy Breslavets and Dmitriy Kucher – and it was quite informative.
We discussed how they set up their business when they were only in their twenties, the challenges they have faced over two decades in the business, the way the company has changed from a successful McDonald’s-like assembly line into a flat organization, and their life during wartime.
Another quick note about this pair is that their colleagues often refer to them as DB and DK so we decided to do the same.
What brought you into the IT profession? How did the company start?
DK: Physics, Math, and Programming – those were the subjects I was interested in even when I was still in school. The first computer programs that I wrote analyzed experimental data collected by one of my relatives who worked at the B. Verkin Institute for Low Temperature Physics and Engineering in Kharkiv.
I had almost made up my mind to pursue an academic career but was lucky enough to realize just in time that IT attracted me way more. Besides, in the early 2000’s it was something entirely new – a window into a world of opportunity.
DB: I first familiarized myself with programming at school in Kharkiv. I was part of a group at the Kharkiv Young Pioneer Palace that wrote programs in BASIC for the BK 0010 computer and stored them on cassettes.
After that, I started attending the lyceum “Professional”, which I still remember very fondly and look upon as a defining period in my life. Then, I became a student at the Kharkiv National University of Radio Electronics. The 90s were a tough but very exciting time for me.
When I first met DK, I was working part-time as a private tutor and also developing and trying to adapt for the school system my electronic assignment book project. We shared the same strong dislike for “sovok” (inefficient, Soviet-style approach to doing things), bugs, and hard-coding, so decided to create something where all those bad things would never have a place.
DK: Our company’s first office was an Internet cafe in a basement in Saltivka (a district of Kharkiv). We not only rented the premises but also the computers. Later, when we managed to save enough money to buy our own computers, we moved over from the basement to my grandmother’s apartment in order to save on the rent. We basically lived from client to client, hardly able to make ends meet.
What do you consider to be the company’s first success?
DK: The launch of PSD2HTML.com, which is how our company got its name, was a game changer. We had been searching for an original idea and discovered a niche that, on the one hand, promised a lot of demand and on the other hand, allowed us to set up a bug-free development process.
In addition, it was the first “out-of-the-box” solution for an IT service that we know of that provided a flat rate and a fixed timeline. All that our clients had to do was place an order in the evening (EST), submit their PSD designs, and get back pixel-perfect HTML code the following morning. That is when the first clients started reaching out to us. That gave us a lot of motivation.
DB: Very soon, we faced a problem: there were more orders than we were able to handle. We hired every available professional, so that a few months later there was no free markup developer left in Kharkiv.
In January 2007, we launched our training program. That was long before the get-into-IT rush. Over time, we managed to improve the program considerably. At first, it took us 6 months to train a junior developer, two years later we were able to cut the noob-to-junior developer training time down to just 1.5 months.
That allowed the company to ensure predictable growth. As a result, we had more than 100,000 clients in 17 years. By the way, our first client is still with us.
How has the company changed since that time?
DK: To be able to serve the enormous number of clients that reached out to us with straightforward projects, we built an “assembly line.” The company had a rigid hierarchical structure. There were no teams but “layers” of professionals. Every order went through those layers end-to-end: the managers accepted the orders, the markup developers converted designs into code, while testers checked the quality and delivered the projects to clients. For a few years, it worked fine and we were able to reach all the goals we set for ourselves.
DB: However, the projects grew in complexity and the requests became more complicated. The hierarchical “assembly line” was no longer functioning as smoothly as before, and we decided to move in a completely different direction – to switch over to a holacracy.
We were confident that the decision-making freedom would motivate a team to improve the product. It did work, but only for some teams. As time went on, we finally chose a flat organizational structure, cutting down the number of managerial levels and reducing the red tape.
This gives all the required freedom to those who need it while providing transparent and clearly defined processes for the rest. Judging by the feedback from our colleagues, they feel very comfortable working in this format since it enables them to realize their professional potential.
DK: Let me add that we have evolved along with the company. The move from a rigid hierarchy to a flat organizational structure and transparency is impossible to make without personal evolution. I learned to value the people I work with. Just 6-7 years ago, that was a big problem for me.
What is the company like now?
DK: Thanks to our good reputation, many clients come to us on recommendation. We serve a wide range of clients – from small digital agencies that order “out-of-the-box” solutions to large enterprises and state companies. For example, we have a client for whom we develop e-government projects for Saudi Arabia.
DB: When that client first reached out to us, one of his projects was already in the active development phase. The client was planning to use Java, but there was a task that none of his contractors was able to handle. That caused a standstill in the development process.
The most interesting thing happened next. Our professional took up the task and delivered a solution in just one weekend, but in Ruby instead of in Java. As a result, the client decided to hand the entire project over to us.
That gave birth to our team which specializes in digitizing public services in Saudi Arabia. Over 5 years of collaboration, we have understood that working with a client from a Middle East country is something entirely different due to a specific culture, traditions, and ways. This is certainly an interesting and invaluable experience that will allow us to expand our activities to the markets of other Middle East countries in the future.
How is the company coping with the war?
DB: When the war broke out, both of us had already been living abroad for four years. First, it was the USA and then Portugal. We were here, in Lisbon, on the 24th of February too. I woke up in the morning and saw a bunch of messages on my phone. I read them and woke up my wife Ira, saying, “Wake up. It’s war.”
DK: The 24th of February was kind of a blur for me. I remember how I remotely guided the first evacuation convoy with some members of my family out of Kyiv; how I planned the route so that it was a long way from potentially dangerous places; how I followed the news, etc. At that moment, our colleagues – those who were in relatively safe places – were already helping those who were in war-stricken areas in every way they could.
DB: The following two weeks rushed by like one day. Every day, we took care of the most essential things, from finding and renting evacuation buses to guiding cars with our colleagues and their relatives along the safest routes toward Western Ukraine.
More and more of our colleagues got involved in the evacuation efforts. Those who could work picked up the work tasks that their colleagues couldn’t handle. Looking back, I can say that I am proud of the way the whole company acted during that trying period.
DK: Certainly. I saw the crisis bring out the best in all of us. For example, some people picked up their colleagues from the suburbs in their own cars and brought them to the evacuation buses despite the shelling and gunfire all around. All that made a strong impression on me.
By the first week of March, a great number of our colleagues and their families had to leave Kharkiv where the largest office for P2H used to be located as well as other towns and cities that were being shelled by the aggressor.
Most of the people settled down in a hotel in Lviv rented by the company, which is still a temporary home for many of our colleagues. With time, some people moved to the EU countries while a small group returned to their homes.
At the moment, around five of our colleagues are still staying in really dangerous areas not counting those who are fighting for Ukraine in the Armed Forces and Territory Defense Units.
DB: As for our clients, they started to write to us from the very first days of the war offering their help from providing financial aid to accommodating our colleagues in their homes. We received and are still receiving words of support and solidarity from them.
What are your guiding principles for building teams?
DK: A company is above all the people who make it up. We have a set of values that define how we form teams. Among these values is the willingness to take initiative, be open, think critically, and so on.
However, there is one, in addition, that I put above the rest: your work must bring you satisfaction since you spend a sizable part of your life doing it. No perks can make up for wasting your time on work that you dislike.
DB: I can’t agree more. Striking the right work-life balance is very important. In fact, we are for a balanced approach to everything: a healthy hobby, healthy perfectionism, constructive criticism, etc. If someone shares this view, we will work well together.
At present, P2H continues walking down its development path with confidence. We are planning to expand both of our divisions. In addition, the company’s founders are in constant search of new business niches that allow us to create our own products.
The company has recently launched a digital platform for a contractor referral program. At the moment, the project is being tested inside the company. The platform provides access to the program not only for the company’s professionals but distributes rewards among all those involved in a successful referral.
A large number of program participants makes the talent sourcing process more effective and creates a ground for expanding a network into an IT community.