Creating a Russian Skype?
Andrei Sviridenko, 44, the owner of Moscow-based software firm Spirit DSP. Source: Kommersant
The meeting with Andrei Sviridenko at Apple’s California office was attended by two not-very-friendly looking vice presidents and a dozen engineers. The company was preparing to launch its first iPhone, but the basic technology – voice and music processing – performed erratically. When a British developer failed to fulfill the technical request, Apple was advised to turn to the Russians. “It was a rush from day one. The project was to be completed in half the time in total secrecy. Money was not an issue,” said Sviridenko.
If laughter prolongs life, the 44-year-old owner of Moscow-based software firm Spirit DSP is guaranteed longevity. His laughter is frequent and contagious as he remembers both his triumphs and defeats.
The name of Spirit DSP is unknown even to most IT specialists, but anyone who has used an iPhone or HTC, Samsung, LG, ZTE and Huawei smartphones, have benefited from his expertise. For many years, Sviridenko has been building a company to lead the world in the field of transmitting speech, audio and video via IP networks. His big break came when the iPhone hit the market and every self-respecting manufacturer wanted to put out a smartphone with bells and whistles, with voice and video “as good as Apple’s.”
Andrei Sviridenko can be proud that his direct clients today produce more than 60% of all smart phones in the world. However, the pre-installed software market is becoming ever more competitive. So, in 2011 Sviridenko had to come out of the shadow of major producers and finally create a product aimed at end users: VideoMost, a multi-user Web videoconference service.
A rising star
Like IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, who got his start delivering matches and pencils by bike as a child, Sviridenko’s business also started with bike rides. With a classmate in Moscow State University’s Faculty of Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics, he developed an artificial intelligence program that could make a medical diagnosis based on a patient’s answers to a structured questionnaire. When Sviridenko went to Heidelberg, Germany as an exchange student in 1990, he visited local computer firms by bike to tout his software. Sviridenko’s efforts paid off: One German company bought a license from Sviridenko and his partner for 10 copies of the product for the then-staggering sum of $10,000.
In 1992, the former students registered the company, Spirit, set up an office in a rented apartment and hired a dozen of their classmates at a salary of $30 a month to make the second version of the program. Sviridenko was no longer programming; now, he was writing the product requirements. When they filled a 96-page notebook and it became clear that the team had enough work for the next 10 years, he suddenly felt bored.
And so he went to Japan, where one of his university classmates was doing an internship and agreed to represent Spirit. Although Sviridenko failed to sell Spirit’s artificial intelligence product to the Japanese, NEC Corporation offered to develop navigation software for it, including a satellite GPS receiver, vocoder and modem. According to Sviridenko, at the time NEC was what Apple is today – “the world’s largest chip producer and innovator.” The Japanese innovators were not deterred by a visit to the developer’s modest office in Moscow. “They looked at our single room and said, ‘OK, we trust you,’’ Sviridenko said.
It was through this negotiation with NEC – and the resulting $500,000 contract – that Sviridenko realized it was time to dump artificial intelligence. Sviridenko bought out his partner’s stake in Spirit and recruited a new team of programmers who were savvy in communications and navigation. However, after three months the project’s chief engineer, a professor and international luminary, declared that he was leaving for Germany to work for Siemens, taking two key employees with him.
This might have been the end of the cooperation between Spirit and NEC if Sviridenko had not called his father, also a professor and a luminary in the IT communications field, and asked him if he could recommend some specialists. Surprisingly, the elder Sviridenko joined the project himself. Spirit completed the order, although two months past the deadline.
After doing three projects for NEC, relations with Japanese companies became easier. In 1997, Spirit started developing “computer vision” for Toshiba videogame consoles, and communication and navigation software for Japan Radio Company, Iwatsu, Furuno and others. But in 1998, Japan was struck by an economic crisis and Spirit’s business there shrank in just six months: today it accounts for less than 5 percent of the company’s profits. But Sviridenko did not waste any time looking for new clients. Using his contacts in Japan, he started to visit international IT exhibitions.