Personal relationships can often be a catalyst for success, and that has certainly been the case with Astound Commerce, which was built on them at the time of its founding two decades ago. The company’s three cofounders, Ilya Vinogradsky, Igor Gorin, and Roman Martynenko, immigrated as teenagers from what was then the Soviet Union to San Francisco, California, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was a time of profound global and personal change, and theirs is a tale fueled by talent, drive, and serendipity. The bonds they forged with each other and others along the way drove the young men to master emerging technologies, kill the “side-hustle” game before it was a thing, survive and thrive through two major market crashes, and go on to run the largest privately held digital commerce agency in the world.
The founders of Astound Commerce met each other within a year of separately immigrating to San Francisco during their formative high school years. Bonding over shared cultural and life experience, a foundation of friendship was laid that would inform the bright yet challenging future the men were destined to share. After the three friends graduated from high school and went off to separate universities, they remained close. During their final college year, Igor, Roman, and Ilya teamed up on an entrepreneurial project, and the starving college students developed an idea: to build a business selling textbooks online at a significantly lower price than the college bookstore and dropshipping from the publishers directly to customers (primarily, cash-strapped college students). Amazon had sold its first book only one year earlier.
After graduation, Roman and Igor continued to develop the nascent business idea. As Ilya was finishing his masters in computer science at Stanford University, his two pals approached him with a proposition: they wanted to make a go of this business, “for real.” For Ilya, this was a thrilling prospect. He had been working on desktop applications like Quicken and QuickBooks, and the promise of developing and implementing new web-based applications using the latest technology while building a viable business with his longtime friends was beyond compelling.
While still working at their corporate jobs with powerhouse companies—including Providian Financial and Intuit—during the day, the friends turned to their burgeoning business after hours. By the summer of 1999, they had their first direct-to-students site, Bookrun.com, running on a DSL connection from Ilya’s living room on a server that Igor had put together himself. Ilya built the site and wrote the code from scratch. Meanwhile, Igor and Roman worked on building relationships with dropshippers, publishers, and book distributors—Ingram Content Group, and Baker & Taylor among them. As the business grew and developed, the relationships, technology, and infrastructure that the team established during this pivotal time would prove to be serendipitous as well, for little did they know, the dot-com bubble was about to burst. Due to their hard work and sacrifice, the men had unknowingly put themselves in a perfect position to withstand the sudden market changes.
When the tech bubble burst in the year 2000, the companies that Igor and Roman had worked for after college began to feel the effects of the crash, and many of the venture capital-backed firms that had dominated the space were shutting down left and right. With venture capital funding drying up, the operational mindset of executives and investors wholly changed. Many dot-com companies ran out of money and went through liquidation. But thanks to their ingenuity and drive to succeed during the downturn, Bookrun.com’s cofounders continued to build their emerging enterprise and move the business out of Ilya’s living room and into an actual data center. Their first real office was barebones, with picnic tables from Costco used as desks and chairs and computers purchased at a bankruptcy liquidation auction, all while being powered by a neighbor’s electricity by way of an extra-long extension cord.
While all available resources were directed toward building a client base and maintaining business operations, there was no money to spend on basic expenditures like heat—so the skeleton crew of first employees took to creative methods to improve their working conditions, such as using an enormous propane-fueled warehouse space heater and donning gloves with the fingertips cut off so that they could type and stay warm. The group took turns making runs to the shipping facilities to do package routing and process returns, as they spent day and night at the data center and the office making it work.
To be sure, it was a tumultuous time for those working within the space, with industries that support Bookrun.com, such as advertising and shipping, feeling the impact as well. However, Ilya, Roman, and Igor were able to endure the crash, bond as teammates, and continue to prove themselves to their families, the industry naysayers, and each other.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Astound Commerce origin story, and learn how the three friends continued to pivot, evolve, and thrive in a challenging economic climate.