CEO, Stack Group
On Sept. 26 of 1996, a new domain, Rambler.ru, was registered as one of the first search engines in the Russian part of the Internet. Twenty years later, Secretmag talks to Sergey Lysakov, the founder of Rambler and CEO of Stack Group, about the Internet in the 1990s, his first steps in business, his conflicts with shareholders, and the challenges the Internet is facing today.
The Beginning of the Runet
The first time I used the Internet was in 1987 at the research centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Pushchino [the former Biological Research centre of the USSR Academy of Sciences], which provided access to the international network. Back in those days, it was more difficult to rent a dedicated channel than to fly to space – we only got one because our Director was friends with a Communist Party boss.
In 1991, in an attempt to survive in the difficult economic conditions, me and some colleagues from the research centre launched Stack, based on the Pushchino telecommunications network. We didn’t have to look for business ideas – we just decided to continue with what we had been doing since the mid-1980s. Back then, we used to conduct data searches for biologists who needed specific structured data on microorganisms. In the 1990s, we decided to cover the entire Internet.
At that time everyone in the business knew each other – from ordinary users to those who were making the Internet. They were mostly engineers, programmers and employees of companies which provided access to the Internet. However, when the first websites appeared, it was really hard to find your way to them without knowing their addresses. One popular workaround was newsgroups providing website addresses on different topics. Some addresses were emailed privately. At times you had no idea whether the website you needed even existed. Nevertheless, new web pages appeared pretty quickly: I think, by the time we launched Rambler in 1996, there were already about a thousand of them on the Runet.
The Rambler Era
Although the domain rambler.ru was registered earlier, Oct. 8, 1996 was selected as the official date of birth for our search engine; the date was chosen for the birthday of one of Rambler’s founders, Dmitry Kryukov. At that time we had no competitors in the Runet, except for maybe AltaVista.
It was believed that the Internet would become a mass service when it was used by one person in every ten. We only achieved that level in the year 2000. Initially, we were close friends with Yandex (launched in 1997), and exchanged ideas and knowledge. The rivalry started much later, between investors in the different projects.
Rambler started generating profit in 1997, when we sold our first banner for real money: this made us really happy. I can’t even remember who bought it, and we soon got tired of the whole banner race anyway – we believed our main mission was to advance technologies. It was clear the web search engine had to be developed in many ways, but we simply had no resources for it. At that point we started looking for investors, which marked a new phase in the company’s history. (In 1999 Russian Funds Investment Group and Orion Capital Advisors acquired 53% of the shares in Rambler for $1 million, with a commitment to invest another $10 million over the next few years. – Secretmag)
Do I regret selling the controlling stake? Actually, there is no difference what stake you sell. If you want to resist pressure, you shouldn't sell anything. Our investor Sergey Vasiliev (Chairman of the Board of Directors, Russian Funds Investment Group. — Secretmag) started a pointless capitalisation race: he said that we had to follow Yahoo!’s lead. But following someone else’s lead or trying to imitate someone inevitably means falling behind. In the end, this strategy led Rambler to stagnation.
Sergey says he started selling Rambler the day after he purchased it. (In his memoirs Sergey Vasiliev says he began looking for investors in 2001. — Secretmag) Then what technological developments can we talk about? We created an efficient search engine, but we also had even more promising ideas and solutions, which never materialised.
Among other things, we worked on international projects; there were plans to develop resources for Russian expats, which would function as communities for creative people, not as conventional social networks.
After we left the company in 2001, all the international projects were closed. Rambler used to be Russia’s top search engine; in 2001, however, Yandex overtook Rambler in terms of web traffic, and in 2011 Rambler shifted to using the Yandex search engine.
What Happened to the Internet of the 1990s
In the 2000s the inevitable happened: the Internet became an ideological platform for all kinds of wars. We saw it coming back in the 1990s. We were trying to create the perfect Internet, an Internet sensitive to human needs, but our withdrawal from Rambler and our arguments with shareholders showed that the struggle for control over information was becoming more fierce than ever.
The Internet has become the main instrument for data access – a development which has its positive and negative aspects. It is great that information has become widely available to people. But it has also been turned into a carefully processed product.
The human mind generates information, actions and events, but information is the environment that shapes the mind. It is an endless cycle: you create the tool, and it produces the rest. The Internet is full of fake images and distorted information. This information has an impact on the human mind – and not always for the best.
You can and must resist that. However, no amount of restrictions, Internet centralisation or wiretapping is going to help here. We need to teach users to tell the real information from the fake. Unfortunately, very little is done to achieve this. I am sure that people will ultimately realise they are responsible for how they approach the content.
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