Singapore is internationally known as a popular destination of choice when it comes to starting a business. All it takes is a stroll down Orchard Road, a major shopping street, and you’ll no doubt bump into people from all over the world who have immigrated to the Lion City to set up shop.
Still, it must take something special for a born-and-bred Russian to move out from the motherland and fly halfway across the world to reach the island-state. For Serguei Beloussov, founder and CEO of data protection firm Acronis, it was an obvious choice informed by what started off as a student’s typical summer job.
As an adolescent, Beloussov was still in love with the hard sciences, and wanted to go to the University of Turin to pursue the study of physics. He fondly recalls taking a summer job with a company selling PCs assembled from components in order to earn money for that trip.
Little did he know, Beloussov turned out to be quite the salesman, and eventually became a partner in the company. He got his first taste of success in what would eventually become one of the largest PC and electronics retailers in Russia, a company called Sunrise.
It was only eight years later that the Singapore connection materialized. “By that time, we already had a purchasing company in Singapore, sourcing PC components for our business, so Singapore was an obvious choice for starting my next business,” Beloussov explains. He clearly was, and continues to be, a huge fan of the city-state:
We already knew it – it was stable, wealthy, had a reasonable tax system, was well-connected to the rest of the world, and hospitable to new talent. Freedom of global travel provided by the Singaporean passport was a great bonus – visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 170 countries and territories makes it one of the best in the world.
The rest, as they say, is history. 2014 marks the self-made entrepreneur’s twenty-first year building, growing, and leading multinational tech companies across three continents – North America, Europe, and Asia. But the road he chose to take as an undergraduate was by no means smooth.
A serial entrepreneur is born
Beloussov spent two years at Sunrise establishing its operations across Russia. By the time he left the company in 1994, it had 10 subsidiaries in all of the country’s major cities. Armed with this experience, he founded his own electronics manufacturing company, Rolsen, together with his partner Ilya Zubarev.
By 1997, he had built Rolsen into a company raking in several hundred million dollars in profitable revenue. Beloussov founded another company called Solomon Software SEA in 1996, which was eventually sold to Microsoft and is now known as Microsoft Dynamics.
Here’s the astonishing part: he brought each of these companies to profitability within a year of their respective founding.
Ironically, Beloussov says that he managed to achieve this in part because of a lack of external funding. “The companies had to be profitable because they had no external funding, and so had no choice than to be profitable,” he says.
With a string of successes under his belt, Beloussov turned his attention to Singapore in 2000. It was then that he founded software development company SWsoft.
SWsoft – which dealt in server automation and virtualization software – was pulling in a respectable amount of revenue in the early days, and was eventually renamed Parallels in 2007. A year in, storage management system Acronis was born as a business unit internally. The latter was then spun off into a separate entity in 2003 for better focus, according to Beloussov.
“By that time, SWsoft was focused on service providers with automation and virtualization products, and Acronis was focused on storage management,” he says. The focus of Acronis moved into data protection solutions not long after.
At that time, it made sense to him, but Beloussov soon found himself running into trouble on the Acronis end, which culminated in him taking a backseat as a passive board member there. The trigger: a disagreement he had with another board member over an initial public offering.
“The root of disagreement was timing for IPO – I thought we were not ready to become public, but others wanted an exit,” he explains. Besides that, Beloussov adds that they also disagreed strongly on several aspects of the company’s overall strategy.
Looking back, Beloussov now feels vindicated. “In hindsight, the timing for IPO was completely wrong – we would have become public just before the crisis in 2008, and original shareholders would have suffered.” He does, though, recall feeling very stressed about the situation, which sucked some of his energy, but also spurred him to work even harder.
Not surprisingly, the setback did nothing to slow the progress over at Parallels. From 2007 to 2009, Beloussov grew the virtualization company into a member of the US$100 million revenue club, and it has been growing rapidly since, though he declined to reveal recent figures. Last we heard, the serial entrepreneur had announced that Parallels was nearing an initial public offering, though those plans haven’t yet materialized.
Return to Acronis
As it turns out, Acronis was out of sight but not out of mind for Beloussov. After two CEOs tried and failed to grow the backup and recovery specialist company, he decided to step back into the driver’s seat midway through 2013. With that, Acronis also opened its international headquarters in Singapore last month.
Given his wandering ways, many have wondered whether his move into the CEO position at Acronis would be permanent. His answer is a resounding yes. “This is a question many people ask, and I have no plan to leave Acronis,” he states.
“And, it is important to note, that I am not always moving from business to business – at any given point of time I am focused only on one project, spending more than 75 percent of my time on it.”
What’s Beloussov’s new goal at Acronis? “Turn it into multi-billion dollar business, with 50 percent of that revenue coming from the Asia-Pacific region,” he reveals. Yes, you read that right – that’s billion with a b.
Doing everything, one thing at a time
It seems that the Singaporean national isn’t one to forget his roots. From 2010 to 2013, he dipped his toes into the venture capital scene with the launching of three VC firms. After starting up Runa Capital to fund IT startups, Beloussov returned to his first love of the hard sciences with the founding of the US$100 million Quantum Wave Fund. He followed that up a year later in 2013 with PhysTechVentures, a venture capital firm with US$30 million in its pockets to support early-stage startups with ties to his alma mater, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.
With such an impressive portfolio, a common question that Beloussov faces is how he manages to wear so many hats at one time. This answer lies in focusing on a project at a time. “In truth, I am not wearing many hats […] Everything else is portfolio managed for me by other people – I am just a chairman or board member,” he reveals.
Another is how he manages to achieve success after success in his businesses. To him, doing business is really not that difficult. “As one of my long-term Korean partners told me, business is simple. Whenever you need to pay, try to pay as long as possible and as little as possible; and whenever you need to get paid, try to be paid as soon as possible and as much as possible,” he says.
Now that money is no longer a concern for him – and ceased being so a while back – what’s keeping him around?
“One of the most important reasons is curiosity about how the world of people is organized, and the desire to make it better,” Beloussov replies. Or simply because, as he adds, he “could not keep still.”