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New Ideas for YP Lyon

Viken Kojakian

For me, giving back to the Armenian community means helping to develop it and infuse it with new ideas. I find that sometimes it’s better not to complain and just work hard to make a difference. I think of my work with YP in this way.

AGBU Young Professionals of Lyon Rhône Alpes (YP Lyon Rhône Alpes) president Viken Kojakian is a pioneer in the French tech world. Founder and chief technology officer (CTO) of Simplauto, France’s first price comparison tool for vehicle inspection tests, Viken is passionate about entrepreneurship and its new online frontier.

In our conversation, Viken explores the genesis of his company, the successes of YP Lyon Rhône Alpes and the intersections between entrepreneurship, technology and the Armenian world.

How did your involvement in the Armenian community begin?

I grew up in Valence, a small city in southeastern France with an active Armenian community. As a child, I was always interested in the Armenian community, but I was never really part of it beyond going to events and participating in Jeunes de l’Église arménienne apostolique de Valence, my church’s youth group. When I moved to Lyon for my studies, I stopped my involvement altogether to focus on school, but I found I missed it. When AGBU Lyon contacted me about forming a Young Professionals (YP) group, it was perfect. In the back of my mind, I had been thinking of creating an organization to connect young Armenian entrepreneurs. I knew I couldn’t create a network like this by myself, so I was grateful to have the institutional support of AGBU. I was—and still am—very excited about all of YP Lyon Rhône Alpes’s potential.

Have you met other young entrepreneurs through YP Lyon Rhône Alpes?

Yes, there are a great many of them! I’m happy to have had the chance to help some fellow Armenians in Lyon who were just starting out creating their own companies—just as I was a couple of years ago. Some had heard about Simplauto and asked for my advice about managing the technical side of start-up companies. I’m proud to have encouraged some of them to put their ideas into action. One person in particular—his name was Mike Donikian—had wanted to launch an online company to organize carpooling. He wasn’t sure if it was a good choice, so he wanted my thoughts and insight. I tried to coach him, share my experiences and reassure him that he was making the right decision. He decided to go for it and the company, Dap2Go, launched earlier this year. This is exactly what I had hoped to do with the entrepreneurship network!

Tell me a bit about Simplauto. How did it come to be?

I figured out that I wanted to create my own company when I was still an engineering student. I entered a start-up contest for fun and ended up winning, so I thought: why not give entrepreneurship a try? I decided to go to business school and started drafting ideas for what would become Simplauto with my classmate-turned-business-partner, Mickael Barbosa.

Mickael had some experience in the automobile industry. He saw that six months out of the year inspection sites were empty, so we quickly saw the chance to solve this issue. We needed a lot of money and it was high risk, but we didn’t have any competition. That’s what we liked—we were the first of our kind! This is a market where you just have to go for it, so we did just that.

Simplauto is the first price comparison tool for vehicle inspection tests in France. We came upon it after discovering that prices were different at each inspection site. Looking into the issue further, we saw that barely any information existed online about pricing—usually just addresses and phone numbers were listed. We started thinking about how to centralize information on pricing and give people the chance to see which inspection site would be the closest and least expensive. Soon we expanded to allow users to book appointments at certain sites online. We came up with the idea in 2011, won the contest in 2012 and by 2013 had launched our site. We are now all over France and have 100,000 visitors a month who can book at over 6,000 inspection sites.

What features of the company are you focusing on now?

This year, we are working on the sales side of the company. We proved our business model at this point, but we want to speed up our progress. Since we founded the company, my partner and I have managed with just the two of us. Now we are in the process of raising money to hire salespeople and developers to form an IT team.

Has AGBU played a role in the growth of the company?

AGBU Lyon president Camille Mesrobian and YP Lyon Rhône Alpes have been tremendously supportive. I have given presentations about the company at AGBU Lyon and Camille has also been great about sharing information about the company on Facebook each time we have a press release or interview. AGBU and YP have helped me spread the word about Simplauto and for that I am very grateful.

Tell me about your work with YP. Is there a specific project that you’re particularly proud of?

There are two events that come to mind right away. The first we held last year with Narek Arakelyan, former executive director of Club d’Affaires Franco Arménien (CAFA), on entrepreneurship and investing in Armenia. This was a kind of event that we had never done before and I was so glad to see that it didn’t just attract Armenians. People from the greater Lyon community who were interested in creating a company in Armenia or investing money in Armenia also came. I’m trying to organize more events like this—ones that have wider appeal.

I also loved the event we hosted with Rafi Haladjian, one of the supporters of YP Lyon Rhône Alpes and a well-known French Armenian tech mogul. He is famous in France for creating FranceNet, one of the country’s first Internet companies in 1994. I knew this kind of talk would interest a lot of people, not just someone like me who loves IT.

Has your involvement with YP drawn you closer to the Armenian community?

It has definitely made me discover the diversity of the Armenian community in Lyon, particularly the Armenians from Armenia who have settled in Lyon. It was only through YP that I started meeting Armenians from Armenia. Conversations with them opened my mind and I started to become aware of the Republic of Armenia. My understanding went beyond the history of genocide to how people live in Armenia right now, reasons for their immigration to France and the country’s business industry. Our YP group is half diasporan and half non-diasporan. This is something I love about our group. Many Armenians from Armenia come on an exchange program from the Université française en Arménie (UFAR), a French-language university in Armenia that partners with French schools and companies, especially in Lyon, for internships. All of this helps to bring young Armenians to Lyon and leads them to stay after graduation.

Why was it important for you to give back to the Armenian community?

For me, giving back to the Armenian community means helping to develop it and infuse it with new ideas. I find that sometimes it’s better not to complain and just work hard to make a difference. I think of my work with YP in this way.

Even before I started with YP, I wanted to give back by creating a website to help people learn Western Armenian. I had always wanted to learn Armenian, but never found the time to do it. When I started looking online, I saw that there was no free site for learning Armenian. In France, we had anglaisfacile.com for English and espanolfacile.com for Spanish, so I thought: why not have the same for Armenian? The project turned into armenienfacile.com with 10 free lessons for beginners. It’s been three years now, but each month the site has about 1,000 visitors. It’s something I’m very proud of!

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April 20, 2015