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Interview: Max Lysak of Mate academy

Max Lysak is the co-founder & Chief Growth Officer at Mate academy, a Ukrainian EdTech startup turning anyone with the drive into software engineers. We had the pleasure of chatting with him about the story of their growth, the current situation with the war and where they want to go next. Max also gives us his advice for startup founders and his vision of education in the future.

Tell us about yourself. How did you end up in the startup world?

It wasn’t much of a choice, it was rather an obsession. Early in my career I wanted to build tech products but I couldn’t find people to do it with.

That is how the idea of Startup Depot came up, a co-working for founders to tinker with their ideas. It was one of the first co-working spaces in Ukraine and also a business incubator where we tried to help innovative projects be realized. Afterwards I was a co-founder at IT Arena, which became one of Eastern Europe’s biggest tech conferences.

And what were you doing previous to Mate academy?

While working on Startup Depot and IT Arena, I met a lot of investors. One investor from the US shared with me a problem that he couldn’t solve for a long time. And I made his idea happen. So I raised an investor round for this fintech startup idea and moved to live in the US.

Unfortunately, that idea didn’t find product market fit, so in the end, it didn’t succeed. But in the US I met my partners from today – Roman and Anna. At that moment Roman worked as an engineer at Google and Anna was doing an IT school project on her own. That’s how we met each other and together transformed an IT-school project into an Edtech startup – Mate academy.

In a nutshell, can you break down for us what Mate academy is and how it works?

Mate academy is an EdTech startup with a mission to help 1 million people become software engineers worldwide. We are determined to change how education in Computer Science works.

Our main product is a technological LMS platform with automated processes where people learn coding. We provide the knowledge and skills required to get the first job in tech. Just in 4-6 months, 100% online. As a business model, we use the Income Share Agreement. It means that education is free until employment. After students get the job in tech they pay a percentage from their salary for 2 years. We have already placed more than 2000 students worldwide.

What have been your biggest achievements so far?

Firstly, we’ve changed the lives of 2000 people by helping them get a career in tech.

Secondly, we not only continued to operate and grow our team during the full-scale war but even started to operate globally and opened an office in Poland. Even despite such challenges as blackouts, and working at the bomb shelters we could still grow and help people get new jobs in tech.

How do you assess the startup ecosystem in Ukraine at the moment?

Pre-war time was booming. I’ve seen lots of great projects being started. We historically lacked angel rounds in Ukraine, and only those who could bootstrap their companies survived. Typically a startup in Ukraine was raising funds only after it reached $10k MRR. But it was different in 2020-2022, there were deals. Partially thanks to governmental support from the Startup Fund, which I think did a great job.

With war, everything changed. Unpredictability which it brought made many people stop doing their own thing and find a job to be able to support themselves and donate to the army. Now we try to hire ex-founders because they are the best people to work with.

How are you coping with the war? Is there some advice that could be useful to other Ukrainian startups?

Mate academy donated $220,000 to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and humanitarian support. Our employees help individual battalions by purchasing and delivering bulletproof vests and other necessary items. For all those who join the Ukrainian Armed Forces since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, Mate academy provides training free of charge without paying any interest on salaries.

On the other hand, we grow new developers, engineers, and others related to IT specialists that help to keep the Ukrainian tech labor market afloat. State universities in Ukraine can’t train enough young quality specialists who could suit all market needs. That’s why we keep up to date with all tech trends and requirements from companies to give our students the best experience and skills. As a result, our employment rate is 85-90%.

In terms of advice for other Ukrainian startups. Think globally. Build your products and distribution in multiple geographies. Become more anti-fragile. Tough times produce great people. Grit mode on. Onwards!

If you could change one thing about the Ukrainian startup ecosystem for better, what would it be?

More angel rounds. Repeat policies that Estonia and Israel did in their countries to foster entrepreneurship.

Let’s talk about education. Many believe the state of education to be outdated and more relevant for the industrial revolution era than today. But alternative education systems have failed to materialise in the mainstream so far. How do you see education changing in the next years or decades, and what role can startups play?

Education will be subject to power laws. Students won’t learn from the best/only math teacher in their city/village. They will learn from the best at operating their language thanks to phone and wifi access.

Also, a lot of changes will be the result of AI’s impact. Especially in terms of personalization and global access. I just share some of my predictions.

Artificial Intelligence will automate operation routines for teachers and give them more time to do their primary work of teaching without being bothered with administrative tasks.

Moreover, AI will be useful to help teachers make the program better based on students’ progress. It can point out places where courses need to improve. For example, AI will be able to identify when some students miss specific questions. By alerting the teachers, they know they have to reteach the material because the students don’t understand it yet.

One more crucial thing, AI will ensure that educational software is personalized for individuals. Something like custom-tailored education through AI. That is why teachers will help students only when they need it.

For students, AI-powered chatbots can work as assistants to provide answers to their queries at any time. It means 24/7 access to feedback for them.

And, for sure, we do not need to underestimate global access thanks to AI functions.

Implementing such features as AI translators in educational classrooms can become globally available to all students through AI tools, even those that have hearing or visual impairment or speak different languages.

What’s in store for Max and Mate academy in 2023?

  1. Building a strong leadership team (maybe hiring more ex-founders)
  2. Donating heavily to Ukrainian Armed Forces
  3. Becoming more anti-fragile by building distribution in other geographies (helping people built career in tech in many countries)  

When it comes to personal goals I want to hit a gym 3x a week and return my sleep to pre-war quality (It got substantially worse in the last year and I need to fix it to operate on a prime level). I track it with an Oura ring.

What is the best way for people to stay updated with the latest from you and Mate academy?

Follow Mate academy social media channels. I’m not writing much these days, but my Mate academy co-founder Roman Apostol is doing a great job at what we are up to in his Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

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