Immigrants of Tech- Ruslan Nikolaev
Updated: Feb 2
Meet Ruslan Nikolaev
Our newest feature Immigrants in Tech highlights incredible stories of newcomers who are making a big impact in the Canadian tech ecosystem.
Ruslan is the Co-founder at Float, a Canadian success story we’ve been excited to partner with. Ruslan saw early on the challenges companies face with spend management and expense reporting and together - with his co-founder Griffin - founded Float in their final year at University of Waterloo. Here he shares more about his foray into entrepreneurship, why his family chose Canada and advice for newcomer entrepreneurs.
What's your story?
I originally came from Russia. I came to Canada when I was 14 years old. My parents effectively moved me here for high school first. I did that in Hamilton for like five years, it's like a boarding school for international students. Great experience. Very international, there's actually very few Canadians there. And then after that school, I went to University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University to study the double major BBA & Computer Science program.
It’s an interesting question, I think there are a lot of reasons behind it. But the biggest one is, my family was assessing a couple of countries I think at the time, a lot of Russian kids go to Europe because it's closer to home and things like that, but I think the biggest thing was to go to an English speaking country and look for opportunities there because, in Russia, there's a small majority, especially in University and above. In North America, the university is where education really picks up. We also had a family friend here in Canada. So that's why my family kind of leaned towards coming to Canada versus any other country. It's also, I think, substantially cheaper to come to Canada than to go to places like Europe or the States or other schools.
So I think all of those factors together were pretty much the reason why they decided to send me and my sister to Canada.
What led you to choose Canada as the place that you wanted to build in?
The big theme of my mindset was to start a business out of university, and I was in one of the best places to be, at least in Canada, as far as studying business and building a tech product goes. So I felt like the one decision going through my mind was ”Do you have a good chance of building a successful business by being here?” And I think the answer is that between Toronto and Waterloo, there's an amazing community there of people that have done this before. Even if you think about Shopify and how they built their office in Waterloo and how many startups have come out of here, there’s a great support system and community.
So, long story short, I think there are basically two options: the Y-Combinator program and move to the States or you stay in Canada, focus on this market and the US and you build the business between Waterloo, Toronto, and Vancouver. We understood the customers in Canada better because I already lived here for 8 years and felt it would be a distraction to move just to start a business when you already have a network and support system in this country. And you have equal opportunity to actually succeed here in Canada versus going to the States - how do we set ourselves up for success in the right environment and surround ourselves with the right people?
We also felt we wouldn’t be substantially left behind with the talent we have in Canada - we know the market, and the problem we're trying to solve, and don't want to start anew elsewhere. Founders at YC shift their focus to the US market as that's what they know best. We wanted to solve a problem for Canadians.
We started out of school, and took a semester off validating the problem space with customers - we got free space from the Accelerator Centre (AC) to work out of there. We did get an AC grant for emerging startups which was helpful. We raised a pre-seed right after that - you need money in order to get to banks - this helped us build partnerships with the right institutions.
We built the product in early 2020 and met Rob (our CEO) a year later. Griffin and I have both done sales and acquired the first 100 customers ourselves. We were at a point where we had a functioning product - spent time with IT and legal to figure out how to build a finance product in Canada. Had to build that infrastructure in order to issue our first card. It was the MVP of what we have now and then the goal was to ramp up customers and actually build the business and the team. Rob's introduction was very valuable as he'd been through this growth stage journey multiple times. That's when we started recruiting the other functional leaders on Float.
What advice do you have for newcomers who are looking to break into the Canadian tech ecosystem?
It's hard, I've spent a bunch of time in Canada, and what really helped is the community in Waterloo. The key was to find that community of startup people that is passionate about building - the AC, DMZ, and other startup ecosystems. It's hard to start without a network/cofounder. Flock towards those communities and spend more time with them.
When you come to the country you have to understand the life and culture and hang out with the locals. It was actually really challenging when I first came to school and to hang out with the Canadians vs the Russians since the culture is so different. Understanding the cultural differences, maybe even focusing on that first versus building your business right away. Especially if you come from a place that's further away from North America. That’ll probably be my advice. Just kind of spend more time learning the culture, the country, the people here first.