Two men are playing ping pong next to the floor to ceiling glass windows in the atrium. The walls are a vivid burnt ochre with metre high lettered labels on them and we wend our way through a transparent maze of curtained glass-walled meeting rooms and soft chairs with high blinds between them so you can lounge at your computer while you work.
“I don't think anyone in this building is a banker,” says Arsen Dumikyan, the executive director and product owner of BestofPartners.com, Sberbank's new trade promotion platform.
Maybe all this has become a bit of a cliché in the business world. “It looks like Google’s offices,” remarks my colleague as we pass the kitchen that seems to be the busiest room on the 15th floor.
But of course it isn’t. It is the work space of the Soviet era people’s saving bank Sberbank, the state-owned retail banking king of Russia. This is the headquarters of Sberbank Agile just off Kutzovsky prospect, one of Moscow’s huge “spoke roads”, the bank’s hub for technology and innovation as it sets out on the self-assigned task of bootstrapping Russia into the 21st century. Whatever it is, it certainly doesn't look like a bank.
“We can do something useful for Russia,” says Dumikyan, a young man in a deep blue causal jacket sitting on one of the high stools that surround a high tech work station.
He reaches out and clicks a button his laptop, and the big screen on the wall by his head leaps into life.
Dumikyan is leading a project sponsored by Sberbank to create a cross-border trade community. Sberbank is sponsoring this project — Best of Partners (BBP) — not investing into it, as there is no monetarisation angle, and the bank’s logo is barely visible on the site. The idea is simple: to bring together people working in cross border trade and make it easy for them to connect.
“It’s simple economics. Trade is good for countries so the more you can encourage it – the easier you make it to do – the better off everyone is,” says Dumikyan enthusiastically.
When pressed he admits that eventually Sberbank could make some money off the site by offering trade financing services, and as Russia’s largest bank about half of any trade deals that need banking services will end up with Sberbank anyway, but that is not the point.
“Sberbank is a leader in most financial products and we know how to grow a market,” says Dumikyan, who is not a banker and came to Sberbank from Inbev, one of the world’s leading beer producers. “We are only trying to grow the pie now and a bigger pie will feed more people. Even if half the deals go to our competition we will still be happy as there will be more business for everyone.”
The site went live in November last year and got 300,000 visits in just the first five months. Currently it has just over 9,000 registered users that have made 5,660 offers (the system doesn't track the number of deals that are actually completed).
And it is a mixed bag of participants. While you might expect the site to target big business, it is actually a tool for anyone in logistics and trade to use.
“We have a wide variety of users at the moment – everything from a photographer who lives near a port and will go down there to take a picture of your goods when they arrive as proof of delivery, to big engineering firms in Germany looking to sell equipment in Russia and China,” says Dumikyan, who also set up Sberbank’s SME online portal that cut the time needed to open an account online from days to five minutes.
The site has no target country and offers English, Chinese and Russian language translation for all its listings. The majority of participants remain Russian for the meantime, although people from other counties have signed up too.
“We even have some Georgian companies making business with Ukraine that have nothing to do with Russia,” says Dumikyan, who built and released the BBP site in only two months. “That was the idea: to create a cross border tool that anyone anywhere can use.”
Dumikyan says that he will build on more functionality as the site grows in popularity – and if you type in “VED” in Cyrillic, the Russian acronym for trade and logistics, it already comes up at the top of the search list on the first page.
“Currently you can filter the results by say country of origin or type of services, but as it gets bigger we will add options like the value of the deal so that big businesses can find other similar businesses,” says Dumikyan.
One of the ways the site is already being used is by companies that are trying to solve specific problems. A logistic manager has a smallish, but important machine part that is stuck in Beijing and needs to get to Moscow to fix a broken compressor? Then Sergei Yugutov is your man. He offers a truck delivery service that will ship anything from the Chinese capital to the Russian capital starting from 30kg and costing from $1,000.
Or there is Almig Industrial Equipment based in Germany, a Mittlestand maker of compressors. The contact there is Anatoly Tabakov and his name suggests that he is an ethnic Russia. Although the firm is clearly German, all the marking marketing materials are in Russian. He has had 452 views and four offers so far.
And “I will pay your customs duties” is an extremely large category with a lot of people providing that service who have had a lot offers. For many logistics service companies the ability to hire someone to stand in line and deal with the paperwork that comes with bringing goods over the Russian border is clearly very appealing.
The rest is what is becoming standard online marketing. Dumikyan has also set up a YouTube channel where they make short videos explaining their service.
“We covered all the obvious topics but we also look at the frequency of incoming search requests and then make videos to match the most popular,” says Dumikyan. “These videos are also the most popular in their category.”
The whole thing is produced in house and Dumikyan has four developers, who between them speak Russian, English and two are fluent Chinese speakers. Dumikyan is trying very hard not to dictate to his audience. Before they start on each next stage of development he holds a vote on the company’s Facebook page to allow users to say what they want to see improved next.
“We are a customer driven service. We don't make the decisions on where to go next. The users do.”