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Learn more about Alex Zagoumenov
Hi, I’m Alex Zagoumenov and this is my wife Ulyana and our son Kozma (aka Cosmo). Kozma was born earlier this year and changed our lives; but more about it later. Let’s start from the very beginning…
How I came to be
I was born on February 17, 1983 in the city of Perm, USSR. My parents Yuri and Tatiana were hardworking parents eager to make a better life for their children. By the way I was their first, but more on that later. My dad was a ski coach and my mom was a secretary at a local college. We lived in a hostel or a communal housing, which was provided to college employees. I don’t remember much, but judging by the pictures I was a happy guy all along.
I wanted to become an Olympic champion
My dad was a ski coach who trained kids in the township of Polazna, which is an hour long train ride from Perm. It didn’t pay well, so when I was born my dad had to quit and find a better paying job in the city. Time went by and at the age of 2.5 I experienced my first ski lesson from my dad. Some say that I learner skiing sooner than I started walking. I doubt it, but still I was the youngest kid I knew who skied regularly.
It was 1988 when my dad and I were watching Calgary Winter Olympics on our black-and-white TV. By then we moved into an apartment building and for a very short time I had my own room. My brother was on the way. Anyways, back to the “Olympic Champion story”, it was probably then when I realized that I wanted to be great at alpine skiing. By then I was five and I remember that I was super excited to watch Canadian Karen Percy competing in Super-G and Downhill and getting 3rd in both cases. I was cheering for a Canadian athlete not even dreaming about attending a Canadian 12 years later.
But life is full of surprises. At the age of eight riding a bike I got hit by a bus, literally. I can still remember as I was laying on the road face down and not being able to move, and everything around seemed unreal, as I was having a bad dream. I had a severe concussion, two open fractures and a whole lot of other issues. I spent three days in intensive care as doctors said it was a life threatening case. It was the summer of 1990. I wore a cast that covered half of my body and used crutches to move around for the next few months of rehabilitation. My parents aged a decade that summer. Doctors said that I might have trouble walking. Competitive skiing was out of the question. My father was very happy that I was back on my feet. But I think he was equally sad that I will not reach my dream of becoming an Olympic champion.
Then came the winter of 91. I was walking freely and even could run. My left leg was becoming much more flexible after prolonged time in a cast, so I was spending plenty of time outside. I needed movement. One of these crispy cold winter days I came around the hill where my dad taught me to ski. A coach offered me to try and put on a pair of ski boots and see what happens. I won’t bore you with details, but that’s how my dream of becoming an Olympic champion was revived.
Time went by, I was doing well on city-wide competitions, then province / region and then nationals. In 1996 I got my first medal on the Russian Nationals. I think it was Giant Slalom (GS). From there I got on a national team and started to travel abroad for training and competitions. The team would train in Europe, then compete there, then back to Russia for Nationals and then to Canada. 1997 Whistler Cup (World Championship for the kid) was my second “date” with Canada. I didn’t do well there (still was within top 30 in Slalom and GS).
Slalom and Giant Slalom were the only disciplines we were allowed to do as kids. But I was determined to go fast, Super-G-and-Downhill fast. So, in 1998 I got 3 gold (Downhill, Super-G and Slalom) medals and 1 bronze (Giant Slalom) medal on Russian Nationals. This was my best year as a competitive skier. On World Championship (for kids) in Italy I was 4th in Giant Slalom missing the pedestal by hundreds of a second. That was one of my biggest accomplishments and lessons in life.
Sidenote: Skiing was a huge part of my young life. I have so many great friends from all over Russia, and I still dearly miss them all. In 2010 Ulyana and I went to Vancouver to see my good friend Alexander Horoshilov competing at the Vancouver Olympics. It was awesome, we hadn’t seen each other for over a decade. I’ll need to update this page with a picture of us together. By the way in 2014 Olympics in Sochi Alexander was 14th in Slalom, which was huge. No other Russian / Soviet male alpine skier got such results in over 30 years. Ladies, yes, but no men for some reason.
Life beyond competitive sport
In 1998 my dad and I made a decision to quit competitive skiing. It was mostly due to my health issues (past accidents and competitive skiing is tough on you this way). My dad also wanted me to get good education. Being an athlete in Russia didn’t work well with school attendance back then. And the system wasn’t configured to make it work for us, so the schooling for athletes was neither here nor there. It was right before my final year in high school. I had to catch up on most subjects to get my high-school diploma. Challenge! So, I jumped right into it.
To my surprise I discovered a whole new life with tons of new things. Things like literature, philosophy, theatre, high-school buddies and first real relationship with a girl. It would end in a few years, but back in 1999 it was “the real deal”.
Being a competitive athlete you start a school year in September, then leave mid-October for training camps in Europe. Then goes the whole season of training and competing. And finally you’re back to school to catch things up by April. So, schooling was basically 2.5 to 3 months a year for me. Now, as I was fully emerged into school from September to May, I had fun, everything was new. I was acting in school theatre in plays by Shakespeare and Pushkin. I was writing a high-school philosophy thesis on happiness, its meaning: learning from ancient authors how to live a happy life. But most of all I needed to get my school program in order to get the final exams right.
I graduated with an average of 85% which was another great achievement and a life lesson for me. In 1999 my dad and I sat down and discussed our next steps. By then I was already taking pre-program courses into Higher School of Economics (Perm branch), and it was the first option. But then my dad offered to send me off to learn English and try my chances getting into a Canadian University. I asked where? He said, what about Whistler, BC, Canada? He said, I had been there before for competitions, and it might be a more familiar setting for me. That’s how I ended up graduating from Whistle Language Institute (WLI) and getting my ski instructors certification (CSIA level I and II) along the way. I also got my Level III Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance (CSIA) in 2001 during a reading break at the University of Calgary. But that happened a bit later.
Based on my 6 months at WLI I was ready to take a stab at my Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOELF) exam in Vancouver. TOEFL is a major language test that is required for foreign students to get into a North American university. I took the test on January 8th, 2000. On January 15th, I flew back to Perm, Russia to wait for results. On my birthday, February 17th, 2000 I got a letter stating that I had enough points to apply for a Canadian University. This time I passed the cut-off by 3 points. It’s very similar to losing a pedestal position by hundreds of second, but the other way around. I was super excited and in late August 2000 I came back to Canada to study management at the University of Calgary in the Department of General Studies, pre-management program.
My eventful student years
My first experiences at the University of Calgary were mixed. On one hand, I was excited living a life of a student from all the Hollywood movies we watched in Russia. On the other hand I was having troubles getting the school program. You might hear that TOEFL test is pretty brutal and even native speakers fail it. But real-life full-auditorium Economics / Math / English classes were tough for me. My study time took much longer than I expected. I had to read and re-read the textbook, using a dictionary and highlighter to mark works I didn’t know. But again, time went by and I got better at it. Practice makes perfect, as they say.
Next year, in 2001 I was much more relaxed about classes and felt I needed a challenge. So, I talked to a couple of my friends and we started a university club – Russian Canadian Friendship Club (RCFC). As the initiator I got voted as the club’s president and then voted again for the second term. It was a great exercise for me. I was going for a degree in management and I wanted to see if I was suited for it. Hence my interest in organizing the club. We got a pretty active punch of club directors who were as excited as I was. Among 150 student clubs at the U of C at the time, there was no Russian club, so we were all happy to share the love and culture and learn the Canadian culture at the same time. In its first year RCFC was the fastest growing club with over 150 new members and monthly events. We were super active!
I was actively involved into planning events and organizing the team that I left my grades go down. As a result I could get high enough GPA to get into the Faculty of Management at U of C (now Haskayne School of Business). Funny enough, years later I was part of the team doing SEO audit and developing new website architecture for the Haskayne School of Business. Life is pretty cool this way. Anyways, I couldn’t get in back then, so I had to look into other directions. Many of my peers in the same situation would choose to do an Economics degree, which required much lower GPA to get in. I wanted to be in Management, so I looked for other schools in the area. Among a few contenders, The University of Lethbridge was the choice.
In 2005 I got my first Work Permit in Canada. It was kind of a big deal. Thanks to the CO-OP program at the U of L for accepting me into the program and facilitating the work permit with Canada Immigration. I’m especially grateful to Steve Craig, the program director for his support and wisdom. I was finally able to legally work in Canada taking positions related to my University degree, which by that time was Marketing.
Fascination with digital and search
Let’s go back a couple of years for a short while… It all started in 2003 when my dad asked me to create a website for him. I didn’t know much about it, but he said it might be a good thing to learn, so I looked into it, and built him a website. The first one was ugly. My dad and I debated on the colors I chose (by the way, my wife thinks I’m color-blind :)) and elements I placed below-the-fold. He wanted everything above-the-fold, big logo and all things bright and shiny. He was my first client.
From there I got better and once I got my first work permit and my first paying job in Canada, I was well versed in Dreamweaver, Photoshop and knew a bit about search engine optimization (SEO). It was 2005 when I first applied to Critical Mass. I didn’t get any reply. Well, I wouldn’t blame them. I didn’t have any experience, my resume was 5 pages long and was listing everything I was capable of doing (including playing the guitar and writing my own songs :). Another lesson I learned: keep things short, to the point and very user-focused. At that point the user was looking for an intern who would be eager to learn and do various minor things related to digital marketing.
There were many other things along the way. I’m proud of every piece of it, but I won’t bore you with details here. If you want, feel free to check it out chronologically on my Linkedin profile.
But I got a job. It wasn’t at Critical Mass, but it was a marketing assistant job. My duties included fixing up pictures in Photoshop, editing company’s website and coordinating promotional events and client visits to the office. I got fired in 2.5 months. I had to find something else right away. I told my dad I was capable of my own financial responsibilities by then, and I didn’t have much savings. That’s how I became a server at a Russian restaurant in Calgary :). Ask me how I became a marketing manager in under two weeks :).
2006 was a year when I finally got into Critical Mass. Looking back; there were a few strong reasons for that. First, I applied through their site, then I applied through my university internship program, then I knew a guy who worked at Critical Mass and who could recommend me, plus I already had some experience, and my resume was down to 3 pages. They could not have escaped me. Another big lesson: know what you want and approach it from all fronts.
Critical Mass and its people (my mentors Carolyn Marit, Chantelle Brillon, Lorne Hass) have given me so much. I keep telling people that working at CM was a single biggest contributor to my work today. I learned digital from the best, I learned that an agency is not about clients or technology or know-how. An agency is about people. Critical Mass has been known for getting great people on board. I got in as an intern and as an intern got an “Intern of the year” award in 2007. Back then it was a 500+ people company with offices in Canada, U.S. and U.K., so it was a big deal for me. Thanks to people I worked with on Mercedes-Benz USA, Rolex and Vegas accounts for support and faith in me.
After 18 happy months I had to leave Critical Mass to go back to school full-time. I couldn’t do it any other way and with a sad heart I left Critical Mass to ensure that I was allowed to stay in Canada. It was 2008. Since then many projects and life experiences have happened. But I’ll keep this part a secret until a better time (or just time) comes along.
Life’s exciting and full of hope
I’m writing this page from my hometown of Perm, Russia. Ulyana, Cosmo and I are planning our return to Calgary. In the meantime, I’m working with a number of great clients both in Canada and Russia. My focus is primarily search engine optimization (SEO) these days (Technical SEO audits and SEO training). At the same time, I regularly find myself setting up PPC campaigns and social media marketing strategies for clients.
I like learning, meaning getting better at what I do. There’s plenty of individuals that I’d like to call my mentors. Among them is Neil Patel (my new About page is majorly due to his influence). It’s not as fancy and I can’t show too much in the field of entrepreneurship (yet), but I tried to share my story as it was. There are many others I’d like to mention here, but it would require a separate page / multi-post series, which might be a good idea for a future post on my blog.
Constantly working on projects doesn’t leave time for blogging and sharing my experience; yet this is something that Im determined to do. One of my aspirations is to keep a regular blog that is informative and inspiring. Now that you’ve learned a bit about me, I hope you leave a comment or two and share your experiences.