From med school hopeful to founder of a telecom company, from Airbnb host (for his own bedroom) to launching Cape Cod’s largest hotel chain, there’s no predicting what Yury Yakubchyk will do next.
The last 18 months are no exception. In that time, Yury transitioned from the hotel industry to founding Elemy, which provides in-home applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy to children with autism. He raised two rounds of funding. He grew the company’s headcount to over a thousand. Today, Elemy is one the fastest-growing companies of its kind in the United States.
I caught up with Yury to learn more about this circuitous path, the opportunity for changing autism care, and – how he does it all while keeping (an almost completely) empty calendar.
Elemy is not your first company – take me back to the beginning. When did you first get the itch to start something?
I started a telecommunications business in my early twenties, right after graduating college. I went on a trip abroad with my friends from high school, and we all had these crazy cellular data roaming bills. We were like, "We’ve got to create a better experience than that." So, we started a consumer wireless company called Wing.
The telecommunications business had a very slow start. So while I was launching Wing, I had some Airbnbs to make ends meet in New York City.
...you were working the Manhattan Airbnb scene to make ends meet?
I had a three bedroom and I started living on the couch and renting out my room. I was like, "Wow, this is $180 a night." I was sleeping on my own couch. I was eating from fruit stands in Manhattan for half my meals. I was doing some tutoring. I taught myself how to code to do some freelance stuff...but the Airbnb thing was pretty gritty.
How did your roommates feel about waking up to you on the couch and a stranger in the bathroom?
Honestly, I think for the first five months, they thought it was hilarious. They were very supportive, thankfully. One of the other guys was an entrepreneur. At a certain point, he started renting his room out too. The third roommate eventually moved out. So that's how we got our first empty apartment. Eventually I had maybe 15 or 20 apartments.
I got to meet a lot of international travelers from all over the world. I loved listening to their stories, hearing about their unique backgrounds. So I called a friend from college named Rami Zeidan. We started Life House on this idea of getting people together, big open communal spaces—no front desks, none of this tacky, weird, old hotel stuff. And the business ended up growing to the point where now Life House manages dozens of hotels all around the country. Today we're the largest hotel management company in Cape Cod and Nantucket.
So this was New York City in 2013 – what was the hardest thing about "making it" there? (queue Frank Sinatra)
At the time, New York City was not very entrepreneur friendly. There was no better way to scare people, and make them feel incredibly uncomfortable, than telling them you're a first-time founder. They're like, "Oh, wow. You've been unemployed for a couple of years now. What's going on?" There was so much social pressure for me to go work at a bank or something. That was probably even tougher than the financial pressures.
What about pressure from family? How did your parents feel about your becoming an entrepreneur instead of following in their footsteps as doctors?
I'm from Belarus. My parents and I moved to Canada when I was young, then to the US. Entrepreneurship was always fascinating to me, but you can imagine it was a pretty foreign concept for my parents, who grew up in the Soviet Union. They're both doctors, and love school. They were pretty bummed I didn't follow them into medicine. For them, it felt very risky for me to go do something that none of us had any clue about at the time.
What drove you to move from hospitality to founding a company that provides care for children with autism?
[Life House] was doing very well, but I wasn't feeling fulfilled. I leaned on my experiences getting ABA therapy for ADHD, and conversations with my father who's a pediatrician, to start Elemy. When you see someone that's neurodiverse, you tend to focus on the negatives—like, "man, this person's never going to be able to make anything of themselves." For me, growing up, I couldn't sit still in a chair. But, I can think through a few things at the same time, which has served me really well. What my parents did well was help me find the positives. Being honest about your strengths, areas where you can improve, and not over-focusing on the negatives—that's really the underlying story of Elemy.
You've gone from telecommunications to hospitality to autism care. What’s the thread?
A lot of it was influenced by looking at broken situations in America and just being decisive about tackling them. All three industries are highly regulated, and there's not a lot of incumbents that are technology forward. So that was the cohesion across all of these businesses: we want to have consistency, better experiences, and better access.
Given both of your parents work in healthcare, are they involved in Elemy today?
My father is one of a couple hundred pediatric infectious disease specialists in the US, and one of maybe five that are MD PhD. Children with autism are more predisposed to various illnesses. So, particularly during COVID, there's a question of, “Do I take the risk of having a caregiver come to my house? Do I take the risk of still driving my child to a clinic knowing that he or she might get COVID, and it could be pretty bad if they do?” We started educating families around the in-home option in those situations. The majority of ABA therapy is provided in a clinic setting in America. We made the case for a hybrid approach, offering a tele-health experience with a therapist and an in-person caregiver.
What’s something no one would guess about you?
On the professional side of things, people think of me as a salesperson. I'm actually pretty inward-oriented for most of the day. I try to spend a lot of time thinking and not being on phone calls. People are surprised when they see my calendar that it's relatively empty.
So you've managed to build a thousand person team in 18 months with an empty calendar?
It's not completely empty, but I’m not trying to go meeting to meeting 12 hours a day. First of all, it's not enjoyable for me. Second of all, I don't think it's effective. Giving yourself headspace and room to breathe is super important. It's something I would love to educate other founders on a little bit, because they just overlook it and they burn themselves out. I hire people I can trust to do their jobs, and I don't need to be involved in everything.
What’s next on the horizon for you and your team?
We're growing super fast, but thoughtfully—we're in a regulated industry, it's a complex healthcare service that we're providing. We don't want to ever sacrifice clinical quality. The biggest thing we can do for this population is get them into therapy. Right now, the [industry] norm is up to 24 months on a waitlist to get into the therapy. We're able to get children into therapy in two months. It’s a huge spread and we're working every day to get more children into therapy, and more families into this life-changing care situation.
Yury's unbridled energy – and mission to improve the lives of children with autism – instantly won over our team. We invested in Elemy's Series A earlier this year, and recently doubled down with a follow-on from our Growth Fund in Elemy's Series B.