Forbes Gets To Know Elena Beloshapkova And How She's Changing The Future Of Work

Forbes Gets To Know inspace's CEO Elena Beloshapkova And How She's Changing The Future Of Work

Having a conversation with the founder of inspace, Elena Beloshapkova, is a bit like having a conversation with a technical specialist: “The signal from one device [to manage the office] interrupted the signal from another. We thought about how we can reduce the interaction radius to a minimum. To do this, we even wrapped the devices with foil until realizing that we were trying to reinvent the NFC technology [ a set of communication protocols for communication between two electronic devices]."

Over the past 15 years, Elena has worked as a Development Manager in furniture companies, become a supplier of foreign brands’ tables and chairs, and build her office furniture brand in Russia. When her interest in flexible offices grew due to the pandemic, Beloshapkova managed to attract 80 American and Russian clients and raised about $ 1 million in a year.

Photo by Alexander Karnyukhin for Forbes
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Elena is well versed in technical details because she was born into a family of physicists. Planning to follow in her parents’ footsteps: she entered the physics department of Moscow State University.

Throughout her studies, she spent time working in a laboratory however, she realized that she didn't enjoy doing research. She quickly changed course - got a job as a consultant in a real estate agent and received a second higher education degree at the Graduate School of Business of Moscow State University. After training, she worked for several years as a development director at furniture companies Mebeus and KS Buro.

In 2013, Beloshapkova launched her furniture business, the Fresh project. Ideas for Offices (abbreviated as Fresh). For the first time, she supplied Russian companies with office furniture from European brands. Fresh's clients were the Russian division of Cisco, Bank FC Otkritie, oil and gas holding Total, etc. In 2014, according to Beloshapkova, Fresh's revenue amounted to 45 million rubles, profit - 4.5 million rubles.

In 2015, prices for European furniture jumped, and it became unprofitable to work on a dealer model. Beloshapkova thought about starting her own production and began to produce furniture at contract factories in the Moscow region. Things went well. In the first year, Fresh equipped the offices of the construction company RD Construction and KidZania, and by the end of 2016, earned, according to the founder, 62 million rubles in revenue and about 6 million rubles in profit. In 2017, the indicators reached 84 million rubles and 11 million rubles, respectively. About 80% came from the production of office furniture according to our drawings.

In late 2017 - early 2018, Beloshapkova's clients became interested in tools for managing their offices. “We suddenly realized that we were creating beautiful office spaces, filling them with modern furniture, but the clients did not have the software to manage these spaces effectively,” the entrepreneur recalls. "It felt like a new market to me, much more scalable than furniture."

She contacted overseas companies that were creating office management tools. Companies such as Condeco, Robin, Eden, Verge Sense, etc. They installed or embedded special devices into the desktops that track the presence of an employee in the office. In addition to the hardware, the companies offered software to their customers that allowed employees to book workplaces and meeting rooms and the employer to see which areas in the office were in greatest demand.

At first, Beloshapkova wanted to supply this equipment to Russian customers. “But it turned out that their products cost so much money that they didn’t create any savings for the customer,” she says. "Condeco's solution for 200 jobs cost more than $ 200,000. This is a large sum even for an American client, not to mention a Russian one." The existing players really offered either expensive solutions, or were still working on creating the hardware, agrees with her words the executive director of the Praktik coworking network Vladimir Dorofeev.

Then, in the summer of 2018, Beloshapkova decided to create her solution. The demand for an inexpensive device in the United States was higher than in Russia, so she decided to build a company in Boston. Since August 2018, Elena has lived in two countries - in parallel with the registration of the company in Boston, she was thinking over the configuration of desktop devices and the first employees in Russia.

The eponymous company Fresh. Ideas for Offices Beloshapkova registered in Delaware in February 2019. The project itself is called fresh connect. In June of the same year, at the Future Offices conference in Moscow, she presented her prototype based on iBeacon technology. This 3D-printed device needed to be embedded in a table and a software prototype with a basic set of functions (booking a workplace or meeting room, searching for colleagues, analyzing office occupancy). Several tens of thousands of dollars were spent developing the prototype from Beloshapkova's funds, earned from the sale of furniture.

The conference participants loved her idea however, many potential customers were unsure about the need to embed devices into the table. In addition, even a high-quality battery in such devices had to be changed every three years. “These are unnecessary actions that no one wanted to perform,” the entrepreneur sighs.

Beloshapkova, with a team of programmers and engineers, took up the development of a new device, for which neither a battery nor a hole in the table is needed. The team didn't know where to start. Their idea was prompted by a bug that had the first fresh connect prototypes. When the devices were located close, they "interrupted" each other's signals. The team tried to reduce the radius of their interaction to a minimum and realized that the technology for this already existed. “Contactless payment with a mobile phone, for example, worked with NFC,” says Beloshapkova. "We decided to apply this technology to our office devices."

In October 2019, fresh connect presented its second prototype with the same basic software at the Ascent conference in New York. By February 2020, the entire product was finalized - a platform for an employer with access to office analytics and applications for employees. Beloshapkova financed the whole development. By that time, the investment had reached $ 135,000.

In the spring of 2020, the entrepreneur began to carry out pilot projects with companies to which she had previously supplied furniture and look for new clients in Russia and the United States. Demand, she stated, was high: “I had calls from 3 am to 11 am. We communicated with completely different customers - from America, Great Britain, Russia”.

“Several companies in the United States have doubled their business, in London, flexible areas have also almost doubled, and in India, almost tripled during the pandemic”
- Denis Efremov, principal of Fort Ross Ventures
The pandemic played a big role in the development of the project: "If before the market grew by 30% per year, then in April 2020 the demand grew by 300% " Employers have realized the complexity of a completely remote work format and 100% office schedule, confirms Dorofeev from Praktik. At the same time, he says, the demand for the hot-desk has grown when an ecosystem is not assigned a specific desktop, and he can book anyone. “Several companies in the United States have doubled their business, in London, flexible areas have also almost doubled, and in India, almost tripled during the pandemic,” Denis Efremov, principal of Fort Ross Ventures, confirms the growth in demand in numbers. Each device costs the company 2,999 rubles, and the annual software subscription - 375,000 rubles. Fresh connect started receiving its first money in July 2020. The main clients are Russian companies - Aurora Group,

Alfa-Leasing started a pilot project with fresh connect for 30 jobs at the end of 2020. The launch took two weeks, but the project itself dragged on for three months instead of the planned one, says Artem Kosolapov, IT Director of Alfa-Leasing: “For example, when choosing a place for a specific date and time, the system reported whether it was occupied or free. The process should have looked different in our eyes: you enter the date, and you see that it is free. Plus, several problems surfaced: for example, not all employees' phones support NFC. " Fresh connect has improved the program. Now Alfa-Leasing is satisfied with the partnership, says Kosolapov. The company plans to sign a one-year contract with the startup.
With substantial market growth and demand from companies, Beloshapkova was able to attract the first small investments - a total of $ 100,000 from the New York Chai Angels fund ($ 50,000 in May 2020, the same amount in April 2021). The startup's assessment in the last round was $ 12.6 million, says Beloshapkova. The fund decided to invest because it considered fresh connect “a very effective solution that many companies will want [to acquire]," Chai Angels investor Rajiv Kapoor told Forbes. According to Beloshapkova, fresh connect raised money in the safe note format (an agreement with the possibility of obtaining a share in the startup capital in the future). Beloshapkova used the funds to improve the software, expand the team and attract customers. From July to the end of 2020, fresh connect brought in $ 375,000 in revenue, says the entrepreneur. Operating profit was about 50%, and it was fully invested in growth. And from January to May 2021, revenue amounted to another $ 625,000.

The company has equipped with its devices the Russian offices of the advertising network Httpool, Leroy Merlin, Twitter, Spotify, and the American office of the neurobiological startup Neurable (Beloshapkova does not name other American clients, referring to a non-disclosure agreement). The new monetization system helped to increase the indicators: from May 2021, the project began to take from 149 rubles per job per month, and the equipment was installed free of charge. “Thanks to this, even small companies for which we were previously too expensive were able to start working with us," says Beloshapkova.

At the beginning of the year, the startup changed its name to inspace, as fresh connect in the US market was associated with fresh products. At the same time, the team began to attract the "first full round" - for $ 2.5 million. The entrepreneur has not yet disclosed the expected composition and details of the round but specifies that it will close it in the second quarter of 2021. “The project is worthy for us to study it more closely," a partner of the Leta Capital fund said in an interview with Forbes, refusing to give detailed comments. “The hybrid office market is changing. Large companies like Google or Twitter are becoming clients of such projects," Denis Efremov from Fort Ross Ventures commented on investor interest in inspace.

In 2021, Beloshapkova expects to reach a revenue of $ 3.6 million. Efremov considers these plans quite realistic. The market itself drives the project, and he says: “In the Facts & Factors study, which was conducted before the pandemic, the flexible office market was valued at $ 32 billion in 2019 and was expected to grow at an average annual rate of 18% until 2026 to $ 107 billion. that growth can be much more tremendous, and on this wave, inspace can also grow significantly."

Forbes Author: Ksenia Demidkina
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