Those of you that know me will know I travel extensively across Europe in my current job. But not until last week did I make it anywhere near Eastern Europe. I started the week in Prague (beautiful city by the way) and then spent 3 days in Moscow meeting with various organisations...most of whom were banks.
Moscow still has remnants of its Soviet past as you would expect and the social divide is still vast. It feels a lot like China in that respect. In fact, I felt like I was in China...but no one was speaking Mandarin (I understand Mandarin so I should know). The main thing I took away from my visit is that Russia matters again. It seemed fitting that Vladimir Putin was named Time Magazine's Man of the Year for 2007 while I was in Moscow. I found out by watching CNN in my extremely expensive hotel room (not that I was staying in an expensive hotel by world standards - it's just how things are in Moscow...expensive for non-locals).
I'm not a social or political commentator so I'll stay clear of those things. But from a business perspective, it's not an easy place to work in. But it IS a place you can do business and it is growing at a fast pace. Here are a few points I took away from my visit:
- Forget about doing business in Russia if you cannot speak the language or if you do not have a local business partner to visit organisations with you. While most professionals in Western Europe can speak and understand English, this is not the case in Russia.
- Russian organisations don't waste time thinking about things and going through vast amounts of process (something the Western world is often guilty of...especially here in the UK). If they want to get something done, they get it done. Unfortunately, sometimes they can be hasty and go at 1000km/h when they should be going at 10km/h. I had to curb the enthusiasm of one of the organisations (they could speak and understand a little English) to help them plan things through properly rather than jumping straight into the deep end. Another organisation said to me "I want this now and where can I get it in Russian".
- Russia has somewhere between 100 and 1000 banks. I don't know the exact figure because different people were telling me different things. Most of these are small local banks and the only way to go seems to be consolidation or acquisitions. They cannot compete with the large international retail banks that are moving into Russia in the longer term and they know it.
- The IT landscape in Russia is still very new. But they have a lot of smart and educated people and are advancing very quickly (take Kaspersky for example). However, this means that many of the people you deal with in the IT departments are VERY young by our standards. Most of the so called "managers" I was talking to were only in university 2 years ago. I felt old (and I'm not...well at least I don't feel like I am).
- From an IT security perspective, they do care and there is movement. Fortunately for them, they are thinking about security up front instead of waiting until it is too late (like most Western organisations). But being so new to the IT area, this means there are a lot of "green field" opportunities. This can be a positive or negative depending on what solutions you are trying to sell.
- If you have encryption capabilities or technologies in the solution you are selling, forget about selling to state (government) organisations. They cannot put any encryption technology into their environments without first "ripping the solution apart" and looking at the internals. Then it has to go through a lengthy approval process which is almost always unsuccessful. I hear they are a little more lenient with Russian owned vendors and solution providers.
- Moscow's roads are permanently jammed...even more so than China. You cannot go anywhere during the day without getting stuck in a few traffic jams. Journeys that you expect would take 10 minutes always take somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour.
- Things are VERY expensive if you are not a local. My hotel cost 2-3 times the amount it would have cost me had I been in Western Europe or the USA.