In work and life, Ilya Brotzky follows opportunity — wherever it takes him
The VanHack CEO reflects on how he grew a community of 250,000 tech workers — and a thriving bootstrapped business.
Find the profile of llya Brotzky, the CEO of VanHack, on LinkedIn and a few things will stand out. You’ll spot an above-average number of Recommendations. You’ll see countless photos of international travellers landing in various Canadian airports. Most strikingly, however, you’ll notice that when he posts anything, an army of international fans — he has a whopping 38,000 LinkedIn followers — are there to Like, comment and engage with him. It’s indicative of the passionate global community that Brotzky and his co-founder and wife Giselle Guimarães have cultivated since they founded their tech talent recruitment company back in 2015.
Now six years old, VanHack1 will do more than mid-seven figures in annual revenue by the end of 2021. It’s a tidy sum for a primarily bootstrapped company in a province where the announcing of multi-million dollar funding rounds for local startups has become the norm.
While Brotzky is bucking that trend, he admits that in the past, he wanted to raise money. “It’s not like we’re all high-minded and like, ‘Oh, we don’t need investors,’” Brotzky told me in a recent interview. “I tried to raise money… investors didn’t want to give me money. They said, ‘This is a lifestyle business or this is a services company.’” They thought it would never scale. “The customers were more excited about the product than the investors were,” Brotzky recalled. “So, we just focused on the customers.”
Brotzky always took that mindset, that he should follow and focus on opportunity where it shows itself — whether that’s been new countries or new companies or shunning investors for customers. And now, as he reflects on the business he’s built and the lives VanHack has changed, it seems as though that mindset — to focus on customers, who have now become VanHack’s community — has proven to be the right one.
For Brotzky, the business of helping people transcend borders is personal. He’s an immigrant. He moved from the Soviet Union to Israel when he was two, and then to Vancouver when he was five. He grew up in Canada then went to university in the United States where he completed a degree in applied economics and management at Cornell University. When he graduated, he got three job offers — one in India, one in China and one in Brazil.
He chose the latter and took a job with mining company Vale S.A., which brought him to Rio de Janeiro. The job was fun, sure, but he really liked the country he was in. “I worked at a mining company where I was doing some interesting things. But really what I fell in love with was the culture of the country,” he shared. “And I definitely felt in 2010 a lot of positivity and energy happening there.” It turned out that it was too good to be true. Because unfortunately, his bosses sent him to work back in Toronto, Canada.
While he made many connections at Toronto’s frequent networking events, he missed Brazil. He would do anything to move back, and he did just that. “My love for Brazil and what was going on in the country actually led me to quit my job and move to Rio,” he told an audience at a recent Toronto speaking engagement. “So I actually gave up this really well-paying job and went to volunteer at a slum in Rio as a kind of a business development salesperson for a nonprofit, which led me then to work for a startup accelerator where I started meeting a lot of software engineers and technical professionals.”
It was during this adventure back to Brazil that the seeds of VanHack were planted. During that move, Brotzky worked at multiple startups, including his own side project called Brazil Career Blueprint, which was meant to help people move to the country he loved. “Everything you need to know about getting your dream job in Brazil in one spot,” is how he promoted the project on a Facebook page, which is still live. Brotzky apparently had things backward, though. He may have wanted to go to Brazil, but just as many Brazilians wanted to leave, he learned. “When I was doing this, all my Brazilian friends actually were telling me I was doing it all wrong,” he shared. “I was doing this all backwards. I should be helping Brazilians relocate to Canada.” He would land on that service, eventually.
Fast forward to Canada Day in 2014, and Ilya had eventually moved back to Canada. Leap-forward another year and VanHack was born, not yet as a recruitment agency, but as an online school to help talented international developers improve their English, practice interviewing and acquire the skills they needed to get hired by employers.
The business was humming along, but then 2016 arrived and became a big year on multiple fronts. VanHack was receiving around $3,000 a month in revenue, the sum of the $65 fee VanHack members paid for the company’s services. But then the company’s trajectory changed dramatically when Brotzky was introduced to Greg Smith, the co-founder and CEO of Thinkific. The short version of their story is this: Smith asked Brotzky how much it would be to have VanHack recruit an engineer for him. Brotzky, having never worked in talent recruitment before, made a number up on the spot: $2,000.
“I remember that we did a webinar with a bunch of our candidates, and Greg presented Thinkific to them,” recalled Brotzky. “Then one of them ended up getting hired — this guy named Savio, who's actually still with Thinkific. Today, he's like one of the team leads now.” After Savio was hired, Smith emailed Brotzky asking for an invoice. “I was just like, ‘What? How did that happen?” Brotzky remembered. “That was pretty eye-opening because it was a lot less work and more revenue.” For the candidate, company and Ilya — the intermediary — it was a win-win-win. “So I started thinking more and more about how we can work with companies directly for recruiting,” Brotzky said.
The business had a potential new customer segment, but it also had a new hurdle. Despite the obvious domestic tech talent shortage in Canada, many tech companies were still resistant to hiring abroad. There was a bias against people who didn’t have work permits or Canadian experience, Brotzky has said. “Not everyone wanted to go through the visa process,” he explained. “The companies didn’t want to put the work in.”
It wasn’t all the companies’ fault. “The visa [process] was just so arduous,” he recalled. “You had to basically prove why you're not going to hire every single person who applied who is Canadian, and you had to prove why they were not accepted versus the person you've hired from abroad. It was a whole headache that a company just wouldn't want to deal with. So only very few companies, like Clio and Thalmic Labs, and these kinds of more progressive tech companies… would go through the process.” Programs like the Global Talent Stream Visa, which allows employers to quickly bring tech talent into the country, as well as the Provincial Nominee Program, did not exist yet. But instead of waiting for the Canadian tech market and policy landscape to shift, Brotzky thought about where he might tap into the market and hunger for hiring international talent. He considered where else he might find more paying customers like Smith. He looked across the pond to Europe, and there he went.
Europe was a source of new customers. It was also a source of small, but meaningful amounts of capital that came as equity funding from a rapidly growing form of startup support organization: the accelerator. Brotzky got to know these types of organizations during his time in Europe because VanHack participated in three of them back to back to back. First, there was Startup Chile, then TechStars Berlin and then Fit 4 Start in Luxembourg. All three gave VanHack between $40,000 and $50,000. Only TechStars took equity in the company in exchange for the money. “All of those programs were really helpful… giving us funding without equity, but also connections and growth into new markets,” Brotzky said.
One of the first European customers VanHack secured was Farfetch, a luxury goods retailer headquartered in London. Brotzky remembers meeting their team at Web Summit, the global tech conference that now takes place in Lisbon. They would go on to hire at least seven developers from VanHack. “I remember one day in December 2016, waking up, and we made two hires in one day,” Brotzky reminisced. It was thousands of Canadian dollars. “I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ Insane.”
When VanHack’s team members see a successful candidate get a job and move to Canada, they know how special it is. “It’s something that a lot of our team members have been through,” Brotzky says. Two of those team members that have been integral to VanHack’s success are Tiago Maximo and Julia Favere.
Tiago has technically been a VanHacker since day one. When Brotzky had the initial concept for VanHack, Tiago developed the first version of the software the firm uses — for free. In a way, it ended up being a pre-payment for what Brotzky would do for Tiago a few years later. You see, Tiago was in Canada to study English, initially. He then went back to Brazil to apply for a study visa to attend BCIT. That visa request was denied three times. He and his wife changed their approach. She applied for a study visa and he applied for a work visa. This time around, Brotzky wrote a letter on behalf of VanHack supporting his application. The visa was finally approved. “It was a very long process, you know, like almost two years,” Tiago told me. “But at the end of the day, Ilya helped me a lot with that hassle.” Tiago is now VanHack’s CTO, overseeing a team of 10.
For Julia, the story follows a similar arc: a connection with Ilya, some volunteer work, and a courageous move into a new country. It was 2015, and Julia was taking a break in her career, deciding which country she wanted to move to. A mutual friend from Brazil introduced her to Brotzky. They had a call, and he sold her on the “the big, beautiful things about Canada, Canadian culture, diversity, the opportunities for immigrants,” she told me. He convinced her to come to Canada to explore and relax. The pair had lunch in March 2016 near English Bay, and it was at that lunch that Brotzky shared details about VanHack. “He founded VanHack in 2015, so it was super new… and we started to chat and he asked me, ‘Hey, Julia, you’re a tourist here in Canada. Would you like to be a volunteer for VanHack?’” She had a background in HR. She was from Brazil. She thought, “Why not?”
Like Tiago before her, she joined as a volunteer, then graduated to contract worker as she was studying at BCIT, and then became the company’s full-time head of talent success. “The company was just me, Ilya, Giselle, Tiago, and now we have more than 50 people, so now it's hard to memorize the names of all our people inside our team,” she laughed, “but it's so super nice to see this trajectory, the improvements in our platform and the growth of the company.”
It took VanHack five years to make 1,000 hires. Brotzky says they could hit 500 in this year alone. In addition to a solid team, as Canada’s tech ecosystem heats up and remote work flourishes, VanHack has an especially in-demand product.
“COVID has been huge for us,” Brotzky admitted. “At first it was really tough. You know, everyone stopped hiring… and in a span of two weeks, we had all of our customers basically pause things.”
It used to be really hard to convince people to hire from abroad, but the fact that remote work has essentially broken down borders and put people and companies on “the same playing field is really nice,” he said. Another factor accelerating his business is the fact that every company is digitizing or becoming a tech company. “Demand for tech talent has increased too and those factors together have made it so we're able to kind of almost be on the same level as local candidates,” he noted. In other words, Canadian companies are viewing local candidates and international candidates through the same lens. “There's no unemployed local senior developers, so companies are starting to look elsewhere for talent.”
Despite the fact that his business is essentially in a period of hypergrowth and ripe for investment, Brotzky is in no rush to raise any money. When pushed on this, he explains: “For me, I don't want to have a bad experience… I'm very cautious of bringing someone on board because right now I'm in a spot where I control my destiny.
“I don't have anyone telling me, ‘Hey, let's increase revenue or let's do that. And I don't know, this might sound arrogant, but I like that I've reached the point where I'm in control and have the freedom to do what I want. And I'm worried that if I bring on investors, that might change. That's why we're not raising money now.”
To put it more simply: “The business is doing well,” he said. “So we don't need to.” Perhaps he’s thinking back to when he was trying to fundraise to scale before. The solution then was instead to double-down on the people already giving him money: his clients. Based on what he’s said in public and in private, it’s clear that it's this approach he’s most comfortable with. And why not? It’s served him well so far.
He might suggest other founders consider this strategy too. Indeed, he already has. Speaking to an audience of entrepreneurs in Toronto in May of 2019, reflecting on what he’s learned through building his company, making mistakes, and fighting off copycats, Brotzky had this advice for entrepreneurs: “Really, the most important thing is that no one is you — and that is your superpower.”
There’s Snapchat versus Instagram and Uber versus Lyft, he said. “There's competition everywhere – and as long as you keep your eye on the customer and make sure that you're doing the job for them,” he continued, “good things will happen.”
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Disclaimer: VanHack was Vancouver Tech Journal’s first-ever founding partner, but this feature is unrelated to their agreement.