Astound Commerce Comes of Age

A tale of serendipity, drive, and tenacity—Part Two in Astound’s ‘20 in 2020’ series

Twenty years ago, Igor Gorin, Roman Martynenko, and Ilya Vinogradsky made an enormous bet. They had successfully developed and sold the initial textbook business that had served as the foundation for their next chapter––the enablement of digital commerce. When the market shifted in the aftermath of the dot-com bust, the men and their business saw a growing need to support retailers and merchants. They set their sights on providing ecommerce services while simultaneously pursuing their dream of leveraging the internet as a medium for change––a way to improve people’s lives and revolutionize commerce forever.

From the very beginning, Ilya, Igor, and Roman brought enthusiasm, ambition, and a hunger for knowledge into everything they did. Their passion for building and testing––the living and breathing of their enterprise––fueled them as they worked, day and night, out of what Roman jokingly refers to as “the dungeons and attics” of Silicon Valley. Bringing to the table three very different personalities and skill sets, their differences were undeniably complementary. Although they disagreed and argued at times, their relationship and commitment to success allowed them to explore any problem and find a solution that would ultimately make their organization stronger.

In the late ’90s, when the dot-com bubble was still flying high, the three began to see that the maturity of the systems they had developed for Bookrun.com had surpassed the needs––and the budgets––of most of the independent booksellers they had been working with. Sensing looming changes in the market, the men sold Bookrun.com to Shop.com, a California-based comparison shopping service backed by Bill Gates and Amazon. The transaction allowed the team to retain the ecommerce solution and infrastructure they had designed for their own textbook business, and soon they transitioned into their next business venture: ecommerce services.

Values in Action

Reflecting on their core values, they began to map the DNA of their new business. They knew that digital commerce was a coming force and that they wanted to be a services organization, not a product company; their dream was to help companies re-envision themselves, to help them see that digital commerce could take them, literally, everywhere. Having taken Bookrun from concept to completion, the guys could already see that digital commerce was about creating ecosystems and partnerships. Yes, technology was critical, but not just for technology’s sake; it was there to enable businesses, and it needed to be made available on demand and provided as a service. This simple but revolutionary concept allowed them to quickly pivot to their next offering.

On February 11, 2000, Roman, Ilya, and Igor, along with their general counsel, Omar Jabbour—who continues to serve as GC and chief compliance officer for Astound—incorporated their business under the name Ecofabric. “Not an ecological fabric company!” as Omar sometimes jokes, the brand’s name reflected the group’s conviction that ecommerce is like a fabric that strengthens the relationship between brand and consumer. That philosophy would serve them well.

Ilya recalls that his first official day as CTO for their new company was April 1, 2000, but this was no April Fool’s joke, nor was what came next. By November 9, 2000, the dot-com bust had driven most internet stocks down in value by 75 percent from their peaks, wiping out $1.755 trillion in value. This stark economic shift did not dissuade the men from continuing work on the new ecommerce solution they were developing for the broader market. Instead, it propelled the entire evolution of the company. Recessions can often provide opportunities for new businesses, and the guys seized on theirs by leveraging their tireless work and the “luck” of being in the right place at the right time.

As an ecommerce service provider (ESP), Ecofabric hosted ecommerce clients and provided them with pre-integrated ecommerce tools, comprehensive support, and all adjacent integrated components as a complete service for retailers, marketers, and brands––much like an early version of SaaS. Due to the recent market crash, many companies that had heavily invested in their own systems and ecommerce platforms began to fold due to lack of financing and could no longer host their clients’ ecommerce businesses. These clients were essentially kicked off their host platforms right before the holiday season, which could have been financially devastating. Luckily the Ecofabric team was ready to offer their ESP solution to many of these businesses, and they were able to land their first regular ecommerce clients.

One such client, Michele Salmon, recalls working with the nascent ESP. “Igor and his company provided web services for Celebration Fantastic, a catalog company that I worked for, and helped us through a tremendously difficult time,” says Salmon. “They really came through for us in so many ways––not only with superior technology and guiding us along the right track, but in day-to-day client management and ‘hand-holding’ through our learning curve.” There were many such stories that year, with more than 20 clients going live in less than six months. These were primarily mail-order catalog merchants and brands looking to leverage the internet to take orders online in the first wave of ecommerce.

The men had fallen in love with digital commerce and with helping others achieve their full business potential through the use of technology and services, finding it exhilarating to be a part of such a dynamic field. There were moments of uncertainty and second-guessing, and early mistakes facilitated a continued evolution and regular evaluation of precisely what they were doing: what was working, what was not, where adjustments were needed, and what they should never do again. They began to hire and train talent while developing processes to further improve their service sets—all intending to expand the services their clients had come to depend on.

Despite the recession, business for this early iteration of Astound began to pick up. Ilya recalls that at one point, he and the guys were so immersed in launching sites that he and his girlfriend (who had married in November of that year) felt compelled to delay their honeymoon until January 2001. Upon arrival to their honeymoon destination, Ilya was greeted by the hotel concierge with a fax from none other than Roman, communicating urgent business matters that had arisen during the newlyweds’ outgoing flight. Ilya found a computer at the hotel and quickly worked to address the client’s needs. This was their existence: a living demonstration of their core values of integrity, respect, passion, commitment, teamwork, continuous improvement, and shared success. This authenticity allowed the men to build something bigger than themselves; they were creating a brand that customers trusted and that employees wanted to be a part of.

Shared Success

A defining moment in Astound’s history came in the form of the team’s collaboration with uBid.com, a leading online merchant for consumer goods and electronics with a unique auction-based pricing model where the final product price was set through an auction. The Astound team partnered with uBid.com to develop and launch its online superstore—which was by necessity a fully standalone store with its own supply chain, running independently from its original ecommerce technology and infrastructure. With this partnership’s massive scope, the new superstore had to be completely ready to take online orders by that year’s holiday season. The team had less than three months to create and implement a state-of-the-art superstore with millions of products, dynamic inventory, hundreds of supplies, a fully searchable and transaction-ready ecommerce site with hundreds of features including complex promotions, a “my account” feature, a loyalty program, and much more.

“Ecofabric performed nothing short of a miracle for uBid’s Electronics Superstore,” recalls Christian Feuer, CEO of uBid. “Considering the complexity of an extensive solution, with the number of products and very short timeframe, Ecofabric executed everything they’d promised smoothly and in time to generate sales for the holiday shopping season. The superstore launch was successful due in a great part to Ecofabric’s work.” Igor recalls of this crucial moment, “For Astound, it was a moment of validation. We saw that the extensive work we had put into developing services that brought value to our smaller merchant partners was bringing massive value at the enterprise level as well. This meant that there were no limits to what we could execute on and the type of challenges we could face. We never looked back.”

Another defining moment that helped shape the future of Astound and its founders was their relationship with Stephan Schambach, kindred spirit, beacon of innovation, and founder of Intershop, Demandware, and NewStore. Having each grown up with a passion for creating and building electronics in places where electronics were hard to come by (due to either a lack of availability or to prohibitive cost), as boys they would hunt down as many parts as they could, scouring thick catalogs and swapmeet-type markets, to obtain the bits and pieces needed to build their own gadgets. These creative pursuits sparked the boys’ imaginations and taught them, each in their own way, that anything was possible when one combined both vision and drive. When the men first met years later, Stephan running Intershop and Igor, Ilya, and Roman running their own organization, collaboration was inevitable. The four truly understood the future of SaaS and the promise of ecommerce services. Igor, Ilya, and Roman were the first partners as Stephan launched Demandware. Working closely in the early days (before Demandware’s acquisition by Salesforce), their collaboration, in part, helped establish what grew to become the driving force in the industry. It also cemented the model of shared success, Astound’s primary core value.

As Astound grew, the men needed to think about scale and the next stage of their business evolution. After experimenting with several approaches in 2006, the men launched their first international office in Kyiv, Ukraine. To facilitate the launch, Ilya began working across time zones so that he could collaborate “side by side” with the team of developers he had hand-selected, providing guidance and sharing his knowledge often until 4 a.m. As the core delivery team acquired the founders’ expertise and soaked up the company’s core values, Ilya was able to grow his team until, as he puts it, “they became better at the work” than he was.

Despite the two major recessions in 2000 and 2008, Astound experienced continued growth year over year and in 2011 launched its Germany office, which currently serves the DACH (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland) regions. In 2012, Roman and his wife moved with their two young children to Germany so that Roman could facilitate the launch. While abroad, Roman was able to build relationships in the German market and to plant the seeds of new business relationships that would, years later, come to fruition.

Taking Flight

The men understood very early that ecommerce would know no borders and would become a global force, so understandably, they also saw the importance of thinking globally while acting locally. After successfully launching offices across the US, the UK, Europe, and the Middle East, the men introduced the idea of operating companies (OPCOs) in 2015. Continuously striving to broaden Astound’s collective expertise, Roman, Igor, and Ilya engaged Lars Feldscher and Terry Hunter to take the helm of OPCO DACH and OPCO UK, respectively. The trio’s “being global by being local” OPCO model provided an elegant structure for balancing the varied needs within specific geographies, as well as the needs of particular customers within these geographies.

Roman, Ilya, and Igor continued to be guided by their clients, their values, and their vision of unified commerce services. The men understood the importance of the people behind the service and, as clients themselves, began their search for partners to complement and extend their service offerings. In 2018, Astound found their new partners. Further strengthening its capabilities and expanding its talent pool, Astound merged with historied agencies Fluid, a leading digital customer experience agency, and Groove, a top digital engagement agency, with top talent Vanessa Cartwright, Andrew Sirotnik, and Sean Dunn taking on key management roles within the agency.

Today, 20 years after the recession that unexpectedly helped a young company and its founders find their footing and their place in the market, we are facing another, far more extreme global crisis. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is posing new challenges to businesses and to daily life, Astound’s founders continue to live by the values that paved their way to success, enabling the company to continue to meet the needs of their clients and the market. And yet again, shared success, and digital commerce are at the heart of their winning strategy.

Roman, Igor, Ilya, and the growing senior executive team remain committed to ensuring that the ecommerce operations of the brands they work with can sustain significant increases in transaction volume and to providing these brands with strategic advice as to what they must now do differently. Astound has enabled hundreds of brands to deliver experiences that have become the fabric of the relationship between brand and customer. It is the consistency of story, experience, and delivery on “brand promise” that continues to let Astound and its clients cut through the noise, and triumph in the face of adversity.

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Alicia Lynch

Alicia Lynch is a senior writer on the Astound Insights team.

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