Driving Disruption: Sergiy Korolov Of Railsware On The Innovative Approaches They Are Taking To Disrupt Their Industries

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Empathy: Building strong relationships with team members, partners, and clients is essential for success. Empathy, the ability to understand and connect with others on a personal level, has been invaluable in fostering these relationships. One instance that stands out is how we supported our colleagues in Ukraine during the war in 2022. This wasn’t just about logistical assistance but also about showing genuine care and concern for their well-being. By being empathetic, we strengthened our team’s bond and solidified our commitment to each other’s success, even in the face of adversity.

In an age where industries evolve at lightning speed, there exists a special breed of C-suite executives who are not just navigating the changes, but driving them. These are the pioneers who think outside the box, championing novel strategies that shatter the status quo and set new industry standards. Their approach fosters innovation, spurs growth, and leads to disruptive change that redefines their sectors. In this interview series, we are talking to disruptive C-suite executives to share their experiences, insights, and the secrets behind the innovative approaches they are taking to disrupt their industries. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sergiy Korolov.

A seasoned tech entrepreneur and engineer at heart, Sergiy Korolov has been a passionate advocate for product thinking throughout his professional journey. As the Managing Director of Railsware, he leads the team together with his business partner, Yaroslav Lazor, in building exceptional — “damn good” — products. His impact has been crucial in turning the company into the product development powerhouse that it is today. Railsware’s suite of products, including Mailtrap, Coupler.io, and Titanapps, embodies the company’s ethos of changing how businesses are managed through high-quality software. Besides being the driving force of the company’s products, Sergiy is a proud father of three.

The core philosophy that underpins Sergiy’s and Railsware’s work is the power of craft — a belief in the relentless pursuit of personal and professional growth. This idea goes beyond business strategy, operations, and creating great products; it’s about nurturing a community of individuals who love their work and are eager to share their knowledge. His leadership and vision ensure that Railsware remains at the forefront of product development, making a difference in tech and business management.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Thrilled to be part of this interview series — thanks for having me! Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, let me share the backstory about what brought me to my specific career path.

I can call my journey straightforward. Already in my teens, I understood that I was an engineer at heart. Some may blame genetics, as I’m a namesake and a distant relative of Sergiy Korolov, a famous Ukrainian spacecraft designer and a mastermind behind the first human Earth orbit mission. My fascination with technology and craft also comes from my parents: my father was a rocket engineer, and my mom worked on building math models. One may say my career was predestined to be in tech. So that was a self-fulfilling prophecy — I enjoyed physics and math at school and got interested early in programming.

Now, with over two decades of experience in the IT industry behind my back, it feels like I’ve seen it all. I’ve been an engineer and a product owner, founded a company, and became a business leader. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to help steer Railsware and turn it into a powerful product development force. This journey has already lasted for 15 years and still feels just right, as I can do what makes sense and what I love. That is, crafting damn good products with similar-minded people who share my passion for constant growth.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What truly sets Railsware apart is our unique approach — a fusion of the product studio model and our culture built around an unwavering commitment to quality and innovation. We seamlessly blend the service and product development aspects of our business, creating an environment where growth is efficient and balanced. But our standout feature, without a doubt, is our resolute focus on staying true to our vision.

It goes beyond words, it’s tangible in all our operations. Let’s talk bluntly and discuss money, for instance. We’re proud to be a bootstrapped company. This means we haven’t sought external investments to propel our growth. Money, for us, isn’t the end goal; it’s the fuel that drives us to grow even more and enhance the quality of our products and services. Despite tempting offers from investors eager to acquire our products, we’ve declined them, choosing instead to pursue our vision of becoming a billion-dollar business on our own terms.

However, what truly makes Railsware special is our outstanding team. We’re exceptionally selective in our hiring process, and the payoff is remarkable. Our workforce comprises truly talented and motivated professionals who are deeply passionate about what they do. This level of dedication means we don’t need to resort to micromanagement or endless calls to get things done. It’s a matter of trust and shared purpose.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I would say that success is hardly a recipe with well-defined ingredients. Instead, it is a mix of various elements spiced with luck, circumstances, habits, and more. Certainly, specific qualities are crucial for leaders.

Resilience. The world of business is rife with challenges, setbacks, and unexpected obstacles. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from these difficulties, and it has been a cornerstone of my success.

We had an unfortunate chance to test our resilience and the strength of our processes under extraordinary circumstances during the tragic events of winter 2022. Russia invaded Ukraine, our homeland, where a significant portion of our team resides. In the weeks following the invasion, many of us directed our efforts to help colleagues in Ukraine. We organized logistics and evacuation routes, found temporary lodging, and provided various forms of support. Despite this challenging shift in focus, Railsware continued to operate seamlessly. We are immensely proud that all of our teammates reached safe places, underscoring our ability to weather even the most difficult storms.

Engineering Mindset. You may say it’s obvious when an engineer promotes an engineering mindset. Yet, it’s essential to scale it up beyond actual engineering. That’s why we design and build all of our processes and operations as engineers. For instance, I’ve built several HROps as products — thinking about its users and making sure they get the best experience from the first moments of interactions. The same logic applies to other functions, too. Now, we’re training our legal team to approach contracts as products. That is, to start with block schemes and cover edge cases through charts and diagrams. Later, it is much easier to get a high-quality contract by translating the logic scheme into legal language.

Empathy: Building strong relationships with team members, partners, and clients is essential for success. Empathy, the ability to understand and connect with others on a personal level, has been invaluable in fostering these relationships. One instance that stands out is how we supported our colleagues in Ukraine during the war in 2022. This wasn’t just about logistical assistance but also about showing genuine care and concern for their well-being. By being empathetic, we strengthened our team’s bond and solidified our commitment to each other’s success, even in the face of adversity.

These three character traits — resilience, engineering mindset, and empathy — have been integral to my journey as a business leader and have significantly contributed to Railsware’s success. I continue to nurture and encourage them in our team as we navigate the ever-evolving business landscape.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

When building great products, it’s always about what NOT to do instead of what to go for. The list of what seems to be crucial is always endless. Prioritizing a fancy but non-essential product or feature can cost you money, time, and a chance to disrupt the market. What’s worse, in most cases, you can’t tell whether a decision was right or wrong before you walk the path to the end, right? The same goes for company management. Often, the decision-making process can paralyze the whole team, whereas, in our industry, decisions need to be made fast.

Because we often can’t make a 100% ‘right’ decision, we decided to opt for the one supported by data. At Railsware, we invented our own tool to help us define the most important things and deprioritize all the rest. We call it BRIDGeS. BRIDGeS is a framework for decomposing a problem into atomic components and considering them from many different angles. When you see all the data in front of you, you have fewer doubts, and the decision-making process becomes less challenging.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. In the context of a business, what exactly is “Disruption”?

I’d define disruption as an innovation that enables you to perform tasks faster, cheaper, and more efficiently. Disruption isn’t always the result of a new, groundbreaking technology that people have never seen before. Often, it can be a process optimization or its reinvention using existing technologies that people in a particular industry ignored before. When we inspect many well-established domains that have existed for more than 50 years, we can clearly see the room for improvement or even disruption in almost all of them.

How do you perceive the role of ‘disruption’ within your industry, and how have you personally embraced it? Is it a necessity, a strategy, or something else entirely in your view?

I’d say that the tech industry experiences disruptions almost every day, and that’s precisely why we can adapt so fast. Just think about it — the first personal computer was created about 50 years ago, and today we have AI that easily passes the Turing test. Everything in between these two events represents true disruptions that are now taken for granted. For instance, the emergence of the assembly language and later development of more sophisticated programming languages, the boom of open-source, etc.

Now, you might think that to build a successful tech company, you need to invent new things every day. The truth is, you don’t. As mentioned before, to disrupt an industry, sometimes, all you need to do is optimize it. This is how all three Railsware products were created. We saw some room for improvement, experimented to help us solve an issue, and then shared the result with the world.

What lessons have you learned from challenging conventional wisdom, and how have those lessons shaped your leadership style?

When we entered the game in 2007, the majority of the tech firms in Eastern Europe operated in a similar way. These were primarily consultancy teams that ‘rented out’ developers and other specialists to clients using the pay-per-hour billing approach. While we could have followed the same path, we chose a different approach. Selling resources is a straightforward but challenging-to-scale business, so we sought an alternative. We decided to learn, improve, and provide more added value to our clients. Instead of ‘selling’ specialists, we offered high-quality end-to-end development services honed through creating and promoting our own products.

Equipped with this know-how, we were able to develop many outstanding digital products that became unicorns, such as Calendly, Brightbytes, and many others. Our focus on value and our commitment to bringing more to the table allowed us to elevate our rates and charge three times more than the average development team from Ukraine or Poland.

Disruptive ideas often meet resistance. Could you describe a time when you faced significant pushback for a disruptive idea? How did you navigate the opposition, and what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

I can’t say that I face significant resistance at the company these days. I believe it’s because we invest heavily in hiring the right people — exceptional specialists eager to grow in their primary domain and related areas, individuals who align with our culture. Everyone at Railsware is self-motivated and driven and doesn’t need constant oversight. When something needs to be done, I know it will.

At the same time, we have to make dozens of decisions every day, and it’s natural for people to have differing opinions. In such cases, we use BRIDGeS and other tools to help us consider the problem from various angles and arrive at a well-thought-out, joint decision. It’s not about who’s the boss here. It’s about making an informed decision and setting aside all biases. I can attest that bringing updates or changes to the team is much smoother when you transparently explain the brainstorming process from behind the scenes.

As for our clients, transparency and honesty are the keys to fruitful collaboration.

What are your “Five Innovative Approaches We Are Using To Disrupt Our Industry”?

In the first place would be the tool that lets us make informed decisions. That’s BRIDGeS, our decision-making framework. BRIDGeS is a highly visual way of dealing with information, providing an overall picture of an issue in just several hours. The framework follows a clear flow: decompose the problem, prioritize every aspect to determine what truly matters, and then choose or create a solution for the most crucial aspects while ignoring the rest. As we all know, you can’t do everything perfectly, so some things should remain ignored.

The second approach is our “theHeart” approach that we came up with while working on product ideas. Before writing a line of code or drawing a mockup, I want to know what’s going to be at the heart of a product — its main purpose and how it will help people. On the winding road of product creation, designs, features, and even teams can change, but not the heart. This serves as our lighthouse to guide us.

Let me explain how these approaches work together. When Tope Awotona, the founder of Calendly, reached out to us, he had a list of more than a dozen features he wanted in Calendly. After a BRIDGeS decision, we extracted the core idea of the future product — a simple page where users could see consultants’ available time slots and book them. And that’s what we created first.

However, releasing a product is just the beginning. The real work starts when your solution reaches the users’ hands. To choose if, where, and when to pivot, I turn to my most-used tool — data-driven everything. I like to gather as much data as possible before making a final decision. Yet, you should be careful with this one, as you can get stuck in research for months. The main rule for me here is to ditch my biases and be open to hearing experts’ opinions and other facts.

The decision-making process becomes easier over time, particularly when you work with people you can rely on, as is the case with my team. We specifically choose T-shaped specialists, the kind essential for propelling startups. When specialists grow in a variety of domains, they can work independently and deliver outstanding results. To build great products, I want everyone to participate and understand their work deeply. This not only enhances communication within the team but also fosters better ideas and outcomes.

At the same time, managing a group of self-driven, highly motivated individuals is no walk in the park. Traditional hierarchical tools don’t suffice. To build a robust team where people tend to stay for 5, 7, 10, and even 15 years, we employ tools such as regular feedback sharing, freedom to pursue what you believe is most important, and the ‘do what makes sense’ rule that helps us eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and defend our ideas.

Looking back at your career, in what ways has being disruptive defined or redefined your path? What surprises have you encountered along the way?

For me, being disruptive means choosing a challenging yet thrilling path that others might shy away from. When starting a business, I knew we would do things our own way and might encounter resistance on various levels. And indeed, we did. Our hiring process is different, our approach to working with clients is different, and our company management is different. Not everyone appreciates it, but we never caved and continue to move forward.

Beyond professional accomplishments, how has embracing disruption affected you on a personal level?

I tend to apply similar approaches to both work and my family, though not all of them, of course. What I mean by that is I listen before making any assumptions. I don’t compel my kids to do things that make no sense just because society expects certain things from them. Instead, I give them the freedom to make their own choices and learn from their mistakes.

In your role as a C-suite leader, driving innovation and embracing disruption, what thoughts or concerns keep you awake at night? How do these reflections guide your decisions and leadership?

The foundation of Railsware relies on trust, freedom, common sense, and a product-centric mindset. This blend, coupled with a relatively flat company management structure, allows me to feel relaxed and confident in my team. I don’t need to micromanage them; they can operate effectively without my constant intervention. This freedom extends to the point where I can comfortably go on vacation without my laptop, ensuring quality time with my family.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d champion something simple yet powerful: product thinking. Whether you’re starting a business or any task, just think about its Heart, the core aspect, and what you ultimately want to achieve. It keeps things clear and helps you stay on the right path. Embracing the idea of approaching everything with a ‘product thinking’ mindset makes our efforts more focused and efficient!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn. Also, I often share my thoughts on the Railsware blog.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.