Tech is reshaping the world - Connax is making sure it’s secure

We met up with Ilya Sokolov, CEO of Connax and discussed the events and projects that led to the founding of a company that plans to revolutionize the way iot devices are secured.


Icebreaker (IB):

Hey, Ilya! How´s your summer been?

Ilya:

Hah, what summer? The last few months have not been that sunny, but I guess that´s the case in the Nordics. But besides that, I´m doing fine. I´m having my first anniversary living here in Helsinki coming up.

IB:

Oh nice, congratulations! How has the first year in Helsinki been?

Ilya:

It has been tough, probably the hardest year of my startup career. And I´ve started that career when I was 13!

IB:

Wow, that´s quite a head start! What have you been up to before Connax?

Ilya:

Well, I started working in a clothing factory that my family owned when I was 13. It was quite an interesting experience, although I didn’t get paid because my parents wanted to push me to work hard. Eventually, I decided that I didn´t want to work for my parents and ran away to Joensuu in Finland, where I sold my old stuff and started a company called Istle. We were designing a GPS-based anti-theft device for bicycles, which started out well but eventually didn’t succeed. From Istle we created a small spinoff, Avionicus, which was one of the first online tracking applications.

IB:

Interesting, what was it like working at a factory at such a young age? Do you have any stories that you still think about from back then?

Ilya: 

It wasn’t big back then, so it was easy to manage. The main idea of my parents was to get me involved in all business processes, so I would know how the business works. In 10 years I worked in almost all possible positions starting from a shop assistant, then embroiderer and ending up becoming the CMO. 

IB:

How did you end up in Helsinki?

Ilya:

Our spinoff Avianicus did quite well, but it was hard to monetize the idea. After a while, I decided that it was time for new ventures and continued my studies in industrial design. Towards the end of my studies I got proposed to join an independent research group studying embedded sim cards here in Helsinki, and so I ventured here. After two years of research, we felt that we needed to put the R&D into use. Connax was developed from that research.

IB:

What was pushing you to found Connax in the first place?

Ilya:

We saw a huge opportunity gap in the sim card market. Our team had worked in the telco industry, and during that time noticed through technical recommendations that the whole industry was being pushed towards eSIM. As there weren't many providers at that segment, we decided to become one.

IB:

Tell us a little bit about your team?

Ilya:

I met  Dmitry in 2014 at one of the Skolkovo meetups while he was presenting a concept of “Cloud SIM card”. Back then I was working on a project focusing on GNSS trackers together with Vint Systems and Istle, and I was interested in technology that could replace SIM card in GNSS trackers. From then on Dmitry and me have started a joint development of the eSIM concept. But soon we realized that our competences were not enough, and there’s a need for a top-class team for developing smart card OS side. This is when Vitali Samurov, an experienced embedded developer from Intel and a SIM specialist, Alexander Cohen and Ilya Saveliev, both experts in Smart Card OS architecture and implementation, had joined the project.  Since then we’ve been remotely working together, successfully researching and developing embedded software. Then we’ve got even more developers onboard when Fedor Sorokin, Ivan Mitrofanov and Egor Tyahti joined the project.

IB:

So you were sort of pioneers in the area. How has it been?

Ilya:

Well, embedded sim cards aren't as revolutionary as they're promoted. The hardware is quite the same as in regular sim cards; they're just a little bit smaller. The difference is that the eSIM cannot be taken off and you switch the operator with the application. The operators don’t want to cooperate because the client isn´t locked to the current operator. The biggest operators are already operating with eSims, and don´t want new companies to enter the market.

IB:

How does Connax overcome this obstacle?

Ilya:

We’ve decided to focus on segments that mobile operators have lost from their scope. And unlike the current providers, we personalize the sim cards during their production. Traditionally you would have to ship these sim cards to special facilities to do the personalization, but through automatization we can skip this phase and cut the cost to a tenth of what it used to be. As roughly half of the price of the sim card is based on personalization, we're shaking the status quo by removing steps from the production chain.


IB:

That sounds quite ambitious. No wonder it has been the toughest year so far. How does entrepreneurship at Connax differ from your previous ventures?

Ilya:

Well, all my former businesses started pretty smoothly. Connax has been very different as it is so much more complex and technical product that we now have to put into really simple words so that our customers understand what it is and what it does. In addition to that, we're going to take down some major players in the current market, so I bet it won't get any easier either.

IB:

Has it been worth it? Would you recommend the same route you have taken?

Ilya:

Although I've had to work crazy hours, I feel perfectly comfortable doing so because I'm working with things I like and am good at. As Steve Jobs said, “We’re here to put a dent in the Universe. Otherwise, why else even be here!”. The same applies to me.  Starting a business just because of the fame or money will eventually break you, and after a few years, you'll probably quit. If you´re thinking about starting a business, make sure you can stay motivated during the ups and downs.

IB:

Sounds aspiring! And in which role has Icebreaker been during these ups and downs?

Ilya:

SALES. As I mentioned before, the biggest challenge for us at Connax has been to create a clear picture of what we´re doing and offering, and the guys at Icebreaker have helped us a lot to turn this complex thing into a more understandable product. And even though we think we have made everything perfect, the support from Icebreaker have improved our product even further!

IB:

Any tips for others thinking of starting their own business?

Ilya:

Firstly, be open with yourself. If you don´t realize when you´re right and when you´re wrong, it will be almost impossible to improve yourself further and correct the mistakes. Being clear about your skills and knowledge is necessary for achieving your goals, which leads to my second advice: never forget your goals, dreams, and passion, no matter what happens. This will help you to get over any obstacle on your path. Bear in mind though that the goal shouldn't be the money but contributing to the society through things you like to do; money is merely the consequence of doing these things right. Thirdly, I encourage everyone to “study through life”. In every situation, there is a lesson to be learned, and this applies to business life as well. This is related to my first advice; If you can recognize the situations in which you are wrong and why the mistakes have occurred, you can improve yourself in these areas and overcome any mistake and flaw you encounter!


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