Not a household name in Western Europe or the US, Oleg Tinkov is an icon of entrepreneurship in Russia. The creator of five completely different and completely successful businesses that have amassed more than a quarter billion US dollars over the last 12 years, Tinkov could easily claim himself a visionary genius, uniquely gifted with insight into consumers, business and opportunity. Instead, last year he published an autobiography entitled “I’m Just Like Anyone Else”. Humble? Perhaps. Encouraging? Certainly. Insightful? Let’s see.
Born the son of a miner in the coal-producing town of Polysayevo (300 miles north of the point where Russia meets Kazakhstan and Mongolia), Tinkov assumed he would follow his father’s footsteps into the tunnels. But before he even entered the Mining Trade Institute (from which he departed for business before he graduated) he had already written the preface to his own business fable. The first 50 rubles he earned was in the 6th grade, working in a furniture factory. The next was working in a pasta factory. From there, it was bottle collection – a particularly good business in the Soviet Union during the early 1980s as even returnable bottles were in short supply.
Part 1 – Importer
As a working student, Tinkov spent his spare time cycling competitively. When team training took him to an athletic camp in Tashkent, he found blue jeans available for 35 rubles. He entered the import business abruptly, spending the entire sum of his liquid assets to buy four pairs (at the inflated rate of 50 rubles once the Tajik jeans seller realized his enthusiasm) and proceeded to resell the jeans for 200 rubles a piece when he returned home to Polysayevo. Through high school and university, Tinkov imported and resold goods that included Russian caviar, toner cartridges from Europe, Tajik mohair scarves, American computers, televisions from Singapore by the container-load and even Russian automobiles – flying them across the country in military planes to sell them at a profit.
Part 2 – Founder
And so, by the time Tinkov opened his first American style brewery restaurant in 1998 in St Petersburg, he already had 15 years of entrepreneurial experience across a number of industries and countries. One of the first Russians to import modern marketing and management practices from the west, Tinkoff expanded to become Russia’s fourth largest independent beer producer, delivering 20 million liters of lager by 2002 from his Pushkin brewery near St Petersburg. By 2005 Tinkov had opened ten brewpubs, owned a growing share of the Russian market for premium ale, and was exporting to Europe and America. In July 2005, Tinkov sold the Pushkin brewery and the Tinkoff brand name to beverage multinational InBev for more than US$200 million. Tinkov went on to sell the chain of restaurants across Russia to Mint Capital in 2009. Along the way, Tinkov also founded Technoshock (a computer retailer), Darya foods (making premium ravioli) and Musicshock (music stores), and has recently launched the Tinkoff Credit Systems Bank (entering, among other financial services businesses, the credit card market).
Conclusion – Expert
Research into the nature of expertise has shown us the importance of hard work over genius or luck. The first studies into expert heuristics surprised the world with the finding that chess masters are no smarter than the general population – and that what makes them unique is how 10+ years’ worth of deliberate practice and training changed the way they solve problems. Subsequent studies of doctors, taxi drivers, musicians and even entrepreneurs have shown the same. And so, as romantic or hedonistic as it might seem to ascribe brilliance to those in our society that create new opportunities, the truth is more likely that; “They’re Just Like Anyone Else”.
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