Indefinite hiatus: A Russian student’s startup journey

Arkadiy Baltser, founder and CEO of news startup Newshunch, posing for a headhsot. Baltser is a Boston University student who dedicates as much time to his startup Newshunch as he does to his schoolwork. (Photo courtesy of German Skvortsov)

By Zachary McCollum
BU News Service

BOSTON — Building a startup is outside the bounds of what many may think of a normal career path — for graduating college seniors, it’s getting an entry-level position in the field of their degree.

But Arkadiy Baltser, a Boston University sophomore studying philosophy, does not quite fit that typical career path.

For nearly five years, Baltser has been invested in Newshunch, a startup he runs out of Boston. Newshunch is a site dedicated to predicting and creating original news content. Users are able to predict the outcomes of news stories and compete with other users for prizes. The site also offers a platform for users to create and publish their own articles. It can then act as a networking space for users to connect with other content creators.

“We wanted to turn news consumption into something entertaining,” Baltser said.

Baltser spoke in past tense because his startup journey has not exactly been easy. A few weeks ago, he decided to put Newshunch on hold.

Baltser said he found it very hard to break into what he called a “niche market.” He had all the grounds for a successful startup: connections, including his brother who Baltser said has a successful startup out of Russia, as well as a team of five.

There are two glaring holes that are still keeping Newshunch from taking the next step: a lack of funding and value proposition, which is crucial to securing the former. Value proposition is a marketing term that can be loosely defined as a service that can make a product seem more appealing.

“The idea has to have a value proposition ingrained in it from the beginning; to get there, we needed to start doing some explaining,” Baltser said. “It lasted maybe four or five months, which is a long time [when] you’re basically running between different VCs, getting doors shut in front of your face and then you coming back and trying to understand what can I do better now to make it work.”

Born and raised in Moscow and of Ukrainian descent, Baltser said he is often concerned with Russian and Ukrainian affairs. He said his desire to make news content consumption more entertaining stems from his personal dissatisfaction with the way he consumes news.

The Newshunch final logo before going inactive. Newshunch is a platform to create, publish, and share original content, predict the outcomes of news events, and compete with other users. (Photo courtesy of Arkadiy Baltser)

The idea of Newshunch was born at the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, which began as a result of the suspension of an association agreement with the European Union in 2013. Baltser said he took issue with the news he was reading about the crisis and structured a like-minded team around the concept of Newshunch and its passion for spreading news about the war.

“I don’t know a single person who is content with the way [he or she] consumes news,” Baltser said. “[Newshunch] was supposed to be a way to bring the news to the hearts of people, to the minds of people, to make it entertaining to the highest degree possible.”

In Boston, Baltser said he dedicates “as much time to school as I was dedicating to Newshunch,” though he said he felt as though he was not getting out of the company as much as he was putting into it.

“It took me maybe a year and a half before I started to realize how to actually go about building a startup,” Baltser said. “You cannot start with the gigantic idea of making predictions on current events. No, you have to find a niche market. You have to start very small.”

It may seem as though Arkadiy Baltser and his startup Newshunch went straight into a bottleneck. But for a while, Baltser and his team did make it work and tasted a drop of success when they received funding.

“When you get the call, afterwards you’re like, ‘Wow, this is actually [going] somewhere; this is something,’” Baltser said. “And then in about an hour after that phone call you get scared because now you have money and now you are supposed to get somewhere.”

Much to the chagrin of Newshunch, they did not “get somewhere.” In the eyes of most venture capitalists and angel investors, they are seen as just not good enough. They have yet to receive a second round of funding because only one investor has taken an interest in the company.

Baltser said he sees himself as a big idea guy, someone who has all the tools at his disposal but not enough resources to power those tools.

“Startups are everything; every venture is a startup,” he said. “This is where I want to go, this is where I see myself, but I’m young. It’s difficult making those decisions because even working in companies gives you valuable experience and it might be in potentiality valuable.”

He added: “You just got to understand that in the eyes of other people, they will most likely look down on you, on your capabilities. So, just prove them wrong. Prove them wrong because that’s all you can do.”

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