Interview with Roman Mogylnyi, Co-Founder & CEO of Reface
‘A startup is not a sprint, it’s a kind of Iron Man in which your leg is broken, and you will be lucky if the second will not break too’ — Roman Mogylnyi, Co-Founder & CEO of RefaceAI about his entrepreneurship journey and company’s culture.
RefaceAI the creator of Reface app, based in Kyiv, Ukraine, was founded in 2011 by Roman Mogylnyi, Oles Petriv and Yaroslav Boiko. Since 2018 they have been working with face swapping.
Their aim is to help marketing, advertising and branding industries creating personalized content. RefaceAI plans to collaborate with the streaming industry for changing the way it looks. And they want to contribute to transformations in digital/media production/marketing fields.
A-Players Recruiting talked to RefaceAI’s Co-Founder & CEO Roman Mogylnyi about his life principles, the main focus, current team and attitude to achievements.
ABOUT FAMILY AND UPBRINGING
I was born in Crimea to a family with a versatile background. My mom came from Kazakhstan and my dad — from a small town near Kherson in Ukraine. When I was 2, we moved to Kyiv, and my parents started literally from scratch: strangers to all, they rose up together.
I had a strong role model when I was growing up, and it was the first stage before everything that I have in my life now. My dad owned a business (in the agrarian area) from my childhood, and later my mom started to follow this path too. I witnessed how they were investing themselves and hard-working day by day. Perhaps, it was a great luck for me to be born to such a family with ‘entrepreneurship spirit’, where you have no indulgences or chances to blame your failures on external reasons. Done is better than perfect, of course, but not for you. Being raised like that — colossal merit of my parents.
I was my own person always: nobody reviewed my homework, for example, I just reported about my achievements and heard ‘not enough’ for an answer. Yes, it was hard to realize that everyone expects more from you, but I turned it into my superpower. Now, I understand that my parents were absolutely right in their approach.
They support me at all my endeavours and, of course, now they are satisfied with the result. However, their message is permanent: headway has been made, but you can do even better, and it’s not the time to relax. I agree with that. Moreover, I’m sure that I’m just getting started. This is the way station of one long and magnificent road.
Everyone has childhood dreams. I looked at my father and wanted to become a person like him. For me, his way to run business was so appealing, it seemed so easy (oh, my childish naivete). But I know firsthand now, that it was tough in practice.
ABOUT THE PACE OF WORK
Obviously, when you go to the USA, especially for the first time, you find yourself thinking about relocation. Especially when you lead a great technical company, this thought runs with a vengeance. In general, I believe that temporary relocation is a good idea and don’t deny that it might happen to me one day. For instance, to California, with its dynamics and right surrounding. At the same time, New York is an extra fast state for me, albeit very inspiring. When you’re walking around about 5 o’clock in the morning with your jet lag, and see a taxi near Ernst&Young’s office taking home its workers — you understand very well, that we have a pretty slow and soft pace in Kyiv. LA is more relaxed, of course. But SF is a good matchup: a huge concentration of great minds that inspired me and a relevant speed that is better than fluidity.
I think we should be more active in Kyiv. For me, it’s very important that my team is driven by our products and ideas. As a result, we don’t need to artificially increase the working dynamics and create motivation programs. When interviewing potential candidates, I look for this tempo. I expect them to be passionate about providing high-quality work in a fast-paced environment.
Key people on our team hold their positions because I don’t have to push and motivate them. They clearly understand what they’re doing and why they spend their time here. They endorse the authenticity and viability of our product, they’re inspired by it and inspire everyone around them. They are hustlers, and they don’t know the phrase ‘I can’t do it’. They are not dreamers but doers.
I’m sure that ideally employees should be self-motivated. For instance, at our company you can take time-off anytime, you don’t need to track sick days, and overall we laugh at archaic bureaucracy. In doing so, we have full loyalty from our team and build everything on mutual trust, despite our scale.
ABOUT THE TEAM AND FIRST PROJECTS
We’ve been working together with my team since 2010. We started with Oles (now he is our CTO), and later Yaroslav joined us (COO of RefaceAI). We are all graduates of the National University Of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and I’m convinced: you should choose a university responsibly. Knowledge is essential, but you could learn what you need by yourself. The people around you, friends, and the spirit — that’s what you get from the right university. I found my best friends and faithful partners in those times, and we’ve been going forward for more than 10 years.
Alongside our studies, we tried to run our own projects. Initially, we had a sushi-delivery business. For months, we were only sleeping 4 hours a night and handled all aspects of the business: handed out flyers, made sushi and delivered them. It taught me the importance of going through all stages of business, starting from nothing and slowly building it up. It was a successful project for a bunch of 19-year-olds. It was 2010 outside but you could already make an online order from our web site — incredible in those days. We parted ways with a few partners, but Oles’ and I understood we work well together, and we are here to this day.
ABOUT HIS ROLE AND EMERGENCE OF REFACE APP’S IDEA
We started early enough, in 2011, to do experiments in Machine Learning. It was quite a theoretical sphere, but even back then Oles’ suggested that we should go this way. We opened a ML-studio, took on external projects and even worked with Hollywood post-production.
We had computer vision and natural language process direction, and even now we have some systems that nobody has replicated after 3 years — which seems like an eternity for ML. The main ideas of the product’s implementation come from Oles’, and he’s a genius at it. Some people probably write code better than him, but he understands the value of his work and looks at it from a business perspective.
2014 and 2015 brought more practical implementations of ML, and as a consequence, we created more products. We had the idea for Reface application in 2018. We found partners, identified their business pains, and invented ways to solve them. First partners came from networking. 5 years ago we had a specific track record of successful projects, gathered an expert, technically robust, and tight-knit team. Many of our colleagues started with us, grew up professionally, and now we have one of the most reliable ML teams in Ukraine and even far beyond it. Some of them have been here 6–7 years and I appreciate them.
At RefaceAI, I do everything other than writing code. I prefer dividing roles the following way: those who are developers should perform their ‘art’ at maximally comfortable conditions, and I should help them to understand where and why we move and solve all their problems. It’s a perfectly working system — all issues stop at me.
We have fundamental values we’ve built our team on. They help to prevent any potential problems in the bud: we’re like a family first, we have strong mutual trust, we stick together, and we’re honest with each other. There is a more or less flat hierarchy, and everyone can come and talk to me about anything. I use my veto rarely and if I do, I do so with a clear line of reasoning.
During the start of the pandemic, I did everything necessary to keep a regular income for my team. I brought them together for an online meeting and we had a frank conversation. Yes, there are difficult times, but we trust each other, and despite the new working format, we won’t cut their salaries. It’s a ‘new normal’ life, and there’s no reason we can’t still work efficiently remotely. And that’s what’s happened.
ABOUT CURRENT TEAM AND PRODUCT
I built a business where I can feel comfortable every day. Each of our co-founders had experience at large companies, so we understood clearly that we wanted to build our own business on very different principles. My background at a big media-holding played right into my hands, and I made things correctly for our team. We created the best place to work. Yes, I’m very lucky to get to this point leading 40 elite professionals who put their trust in me. If you want to build not a soulless machine but co-elevating culture, you should move through a personal approach and right incentives, without intimidation or penalty systems.
We discussed all our rules at the start and still live by them. At one time, we had the goal to grow this business financially and make it our full-time jobs (because we worked at 2 companies in parallel). We reached it, started to hire a team, and scale our exciting product. RefaceAI is not a ‘cool cover story’ about guys who had been working together a while and sold their company for a lot of money. This is the story where they had been banging their heads against the wall so long that eventually a door formed. Perseverance and fortune.
We transformed our idea a lot of times, found market fit and lost it, but the main principle remained unchanged. We wanted to invent an impressive and useful system which is needed by people and simultaneously difficult to replicate. We launched our applications and services, running in different directions, and tried several options. But the core has always been our team that could make great things together.
The thought of giving everything up occurred from time to time. But I’m too stubborn for that. I’m sure that we can manage anything, and my team gives me faith and confidence. I can be tired and half-asleep, but when I get to the office, I understand that all difficulties we met before were absolutely worth it. I want to create something really great. If we, as a bonus, will leave a mark in the history of development — it’s going to be incredible.
Now, Reface application is one of the brightest products on the market. We work with GAN (Generative adversarial network) — it’s the latest wave in ML, but not many companies use it only Faceapp and Snapchat. We managed to upgrade it to a high-level quality and use it in production. We formed the strongest ML team in Ukraine, and I mean both professionalism and human qualities equally. 2020 is the year of deep fake, and we broke into it absolutely prepared.
LUCK FACTOR AND CURRENT FOCUS
We’re not at our peak yet. Yes, we’re moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. And there is no end point. I’m never ‘good enough’, and this is a beneficial character trait for an entrepreneur. I have the motto ‘Better, faster, stronger’. Whatever I do — I can do it better. In retrospect, you can always find some shortcuts. But if I had the opportunity to live my life anew — I’d live precisely the same. I work with the best ever people I’ve met, and I appreciate everyone.
I believe that if you do something right, then useful contacts, chances, and help come to you by themselves. The opportunity presents itself, the stars align, and you’ll get acquainted with the right people and mentors. Do your duty, come what may.
Now my main focus — work and my health. I don’t believe that you can have a happy family, excellent health, and a successful business all at the same time, and I calmly accept this fact. It’s the sort of sacrifice I made, and I don’t complain. At the exact moment when we started RefaceAI, I realized that everything would go this way. Currently my full focus is on developing our team and product.
I handle my state of health too: a few times per week I play basketball, visit my gym, workout, etc. It helps me reload my mind and unwind. Also, I read fantasy and ‘non-work’ books for relaxation, play PS like anyone else, and even started some painting practice during the quarantine. But I all rarely have weekends without working. Meeting with my friends has become a rarity and I’m very grateful to them for understanding. But lucky me: I’m working with my friends, and they’re great people who also tolerate me. Of course, we had controversies and even thought about shutting down the company, but we were fortunate to grow up and develop together. You do your best, do everything within your control, and then you hope for the best.
ABOUT MAIN PRINCIPLES AND DISCIPLINE
I would like to teach my future child my main principle: nobody in this world owes you anything. You’re responsible for your life and if something goes wrong — it’s just your responsibility. If you do something, you should do it 100%. If you want something and you really need it — you should do everything possible to reach it. You can’t rely on anyone except yourself. You should do your utmost to get what you want, to be happy, to know everything you need, and for your life to go your way. Everything that happens to you — it’s the result of your previous actions. Don’t drop your hopes and don’t give your fate into someone else’s hands. This is exactly what I’m doing now: building my life by myself, and I’m absolutely happy to be at my current state.
I’m intentionally suppressing my weak sides — it’s discipline. Because how can I motivate people if I don’t believe in myself?. I can’t allow myself to come to the office slacking, weak, without faith in myself or in them. Now is the time when I can’t show weakness at all. You often want to make a decision based on emotions, but in these moments you have to stop yourself, step back, and think with your head about the correct course of action. I have developed this skill in myself consciously and am grateful for it.
My superpower is an ability to put together impressive teams and make sure that whatever they do, it will be done with the best possible result. All thanks to talent, vigilant discipline, and a bit of luck. I had a million situations where things could go wrong, and I wouldn’t be at today’s point. But I got lucky.
Those who run their business should always remember: we’re all just people. Remember where you started and when your first success happened. You should never judge others, which is so prevalent in our culture. You have no idea what that person sacrificed to reach this point.
ABOUT LIFE IN THE STARTUP
Yes, I believe that after working for a long time as an employee, you still have a chance to start your own company. We have the opposite problem. Many startup founders in our country are very young, they don’t have enough business and life experience. They haven’t had time to go through difficulties that we’re supposed to go through, and then a few million of investment just drops on their heads. How will they manage it and what will it cost: perseverance, money (or rather, its loss), the speed of learning?
Balance is important and you shouldn’t just wait for the perfect time to dive into entrepreneurship. I believe that you need to jump on the train and learn by ear. After all, if I had right now an interesting and well-paid job, and knew how much I would have to bang my head to run my own business — would I make such a shift?
Anyone who decides to take the path of a startupper should understand that this is a long journey full of sacrifices. No one guarantees there will be a success at the end. Money alone can’t be a motivator, but neither the grandiloquent idea of ‘changing the world’ or doing something really cool. I think you should do what you like. So at some point you won’t wake up in the morning and find that you have no answer to the question ‘Why am I doing this and what am I wasting my life over?’. A startup is not a sprint, it’s a tough marathon with a lot of obstacles, a kind of Iron Man in which your leg is broken, and you will be lucky if the second will not break too.
I always imagined having my own business and helping numerous people, or even changing their lives for better. At the same time, there have always been people next to me who looked in the same direction as me. Over the years, I can confidently say that I’m living that dream. And the coolest thing is that I don’t stop here, I’m at the very beginning.
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