More Than Just Shoes - Ilia Kolosov

Ballroom Chat: Episode #24September 30, 2020

Ilia Kolosov is the major distributor for the Aida Dancewear Brand in the United States. He discusses how he became "the shoe guy", what sets Aida apart from other shoe brands, and why its so much more than just the sale that keeps him going. Ilia and Samantha chat about the challenge of authentically connecting with ballroom dancers at events and what pushed him to become a life coach.

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Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Our transcripts are automatically generated from our audio podcast with only small modifications for readability. Since the transcripts are automatically generated from our podcast conversation, they will contain errors.

Samantha: Welcome back to another episode of Ballroom Chat. I'm your host, Samantha with Love Live Dance. Today I'm joined by Ilia Kolosov. You may recognize him from competitions around the dance world. He is the main distributor for the Aida dance brand inside of the US. You know him from Aida dance USA. We get to sit down and talk with him about what makes Aida so special and also how he has cut out his own success in the dance industry.

Well, thank you so much Ilia for being a guest on today's episode.

Ilia: My pleasure. Hello, Samantha Stout.

Samantha: So obviously, listeners or viewers of this episode should be familiar with the Aida dance brand, but I want to hear kind of in your own words, how did you get started in the ballroom dance industry? Why dance shoes, and why, why make this your career?

Ilia: Great. Great question. I'd love to tell you my story, hopefully for the last time, because a lot of people ask and I know it by heart and now I'll have a podcast that I can just send them a link to and they will stop. There was a time when I would enjoy telling the story over and over, but not anymore.

So, the truth is I never danced in my life. I didn't know that ballroom people existed until 2011, as a community. Ironically, my parents met at a dancing school in St. Petersburg, Russia. So, I would not be, if it wasn't for dance, that's pretty interesting how it just spun right back into it. So, when you did the job and I typed in Russian, onto Craigslist in New York area, and I found a job at a dancing shoe store at World Tone, where I worked for five years.

After graduating college, I decided that I can try it on my own. I can try selling shoes on my own because at that point I just knew how to sell it, but I didn't know anything about ballroom dancing. So, I lived in Brooklyn at the time next to Eugene Katzman and his famous studio, Brooklyn dance sport club.

And I just kind of put on my role bites, stuffed my shoes into a duffle bag and went to the studio and asked if anybody needs shoes. That's it. That's how I started. And over time I figured out that one has to go to ballroom competitions. So, the first one I went to was in 2012 for, Igor and Polina Pilipenchuk, Atlantic Dancesport Challenge.

And I remember I sold six pairs of shoes at that event. And I was ecstatic. That was the first time I felt like a business owner. Time went on another discovery was that I must sponsor couples if anybody's going to recognize my name or start taking me seriously. and now eight years later, Aida goes to about 20 competitions a year, unless there's a pandemic.

And we sponsor about 40 couples in American rhythm, smooth, professional Latin amateur Latin, standard, and even under 21 category. that's, that's pretty much, it that's the short story of it, but it was never my intention to be a, a shoe salesperson. It just kind of happened. I did know one thing I did not want to work for anybody anymore after the age of 22. And with that conviction, I had the tenacity to just keep going, despite the fact that I knew nobody, I don't know how to dance, and I have. Or had no idea what I'm doing,

Samantha: Well I think that's awesome, because that really shows that you have that drive to be an entrepreneur and to be a business owner. You knew very early on, like, if I'm going to do it, I need to figure out a way to set out on my own and, and have something that I can stamp my name on and, and know that it's, you know, to take ownership of whatever you were doing, which I think is, fantastic.

Aida and correct me if I'm wrong. Aida, the brand is a preexisting brand from Russia. You've now opened the USA kind of market and franchise opportunity, co ownership. How was that structured?

Ilia: Yeah, I guess that you pretty much nailed it. Aida was born in 1993 by was given. Was given birth.

It was brought to life, excuse me. By Vladimir Kotlyarov, who's the owner of the company worldwide. I just kind of fell into his lap in 2012 and started selling shoes. Other people tried selling Aida shoes in USA but Hasn't been very fruitful for people and mostly it has to do with the huge delays.

So, the lead time on a pair of custom shoes is about four to six weeks. And that has to do with the fact that the shoes are made by hand and the transit time between the two countries. So that's probably the biggest pickle that myself and my customers experience, the delays in delivery. my ability to just kind of come up with solutions is the only claim to fame really. I am the major USA distributor for Aida shoes. but I have my own company. It's, it's registered. But I did not owner. at all. I just distribute shoes. A lot of people think that it's my brand and that I own it, but that's not true. I'm just, I'm just a fella that sells shoes.

And, as Ben Affleck said in the Boiler Room, act as if. I don't know if you've seen Boiler Room, it's really cool movie about sales and stocks, but yeah, that, that helped a lot acting as if I own it. And, and they gave me the tenacity to keep going. how, how is it structured? Well, I find clients and I sell them shoes and I ordered them from Vladimir and my company survives on the profit margin.

That's it. That's the whole structure really. Or that's how it started. At this point it's more like I have a responsibility to represent the brand. And have responsibility to take care of the customers and make sure that everybody has the tools they need to get to where they have to. So, this stopped being a business for me about three years ago, and it became an obligation and the opportunity to be of service to the dance world.

So, I don't feel that I sell shoes anymore. I just feel like I help dancers meet their goals. That's my job, not shoe sales.

Samantha: Sure. Absolutely. And I mean, there are many tools that, that kind of create or impede the success of dancers at any level. And I feel like everything starts from the foundation. What are, what are you using as far as footwear? And is that going to, from a longevity standpoint, assist in your dancing or hinder your dancing?

what sets Aida apart, as far as their construction or the materials that are used or how the shoe itself is, is created, that will lend to the longevity and success of a dancer?

Ilia: Great question. Thank you. So, the coolest thing is that any shoe can be made thousands of different ways.

let's take, for example, our most famous model, the zero seven zero for Karina Smirnoff. So that's a Latin shoe and it could be made in. what's called a size run, which is from the smallest size to the largest size. And that is about from 21 centimeters to 27. In, in English that would be 4 US to 10 US and with the half sizes in between.

So that's like 20 different shoe sizes. So, after we do that, we expand to width and your shoe could be made in seven different widths from triple narrow, double narrow, narrow, regular, wide, double wide, triple wide. So, you've got a range of seven different widths. Then we have a toe box. We can have an oval toe or what we call a square toe that has to do with the surface area.

So, some people have a, like an oval, so, and some people have like straight up like that. And we as a company we're accommodated the specific needs of each individual. Then we'd get into heel heights from two inches to three and a half in either slim or flare. And then of course the material or the color.

So, when you combine all of these variables any shoe can literally be made 2000 different ways, it's nuts. It is nuts. And that, that is probably the reason why Aida is number one, because I was able to build the relationship with each individual by going to the competitions. And pinpoint exactly what do they need from size to toe box, to heel height, to width to color.

And by building these relationships, I'm able to sustain the business all these years despite COVID and whatever else might be happening with other people. So, the two things that really separate Aida is the range of versatility as far as what's possible, and the customer service. I was in a hotel once doing a vending job for John Pierre D'Amico and, Vivica Tuft, and Allan Tornsberg.

How we got our stuff was to go through the back, where the kitchen is, and I saw a sign on the wall. And it said, if we don't take care of the customer, somebody else will. And that was like 2016, I think. And that blew my mind. I was like totally. If I'm not available for whatever reason to help someone who reaches out to me, they will find somebody else who will help them.

It's a one-time shot and I've embraced that kind of mentality since then. And as a result, my personal sales strategy is retention focused rather than acquisition focused. So, it's not a one and done kind of deal, whomever I engage with. I'm committed to building a relationship with them so that I am the only person they buy shoes from until they quit dance.

Samantha: Well, and I feel like from, a dancer perspective, there is a lot of brand loyalty when it comes to, what kind of shoes you're purchasing, what kind of, what a costume designer you go to for your dresses or for your suits. You know, what hair products you use, what makeup products you use, what tanner, you use. I feel like once a dancer has kind of found their kit, they just continue to buy that kit over and over and over again for the length of their dance career.

So, creating that positive first point of contact really is setting you up for a lifelong customer, which I think is, is fantastic. I read somewhere and I'd love for you to kind of walk me through if you can. what it actually means from a dancer experience perspective. I read somewhere that the padding on Aida shoes is triple the thickness of it, of the average dance sole.

And then the placement of the heel is slightly different to change where the dancers pitch is actually over their foot. So, can you walk me through what that actually means from a biomechanical user experience?

Ilia: Yeah, totally. Thanks. That's another awesome question. So, when a dancer moves around and you'll know, you know, this, you're a teacher.

Eventually you'll the ball of your foot begins to hurt because the cushion is so thin. So really there's a sweet spot. You got to feel the floor and you have to, mitigate for pain of excessive use. So Aida, or Vladimir rather found a sweet spot by using what I believe is galvanized rubber, so little pellets embedded right into the shoe, which kind of bounces back after the pressure of an adult's weight is released from it. And yeah, that adds a lot of, a lot of volume, which makes it much thicker than other brands out there right now. I hope that answers it. There's nothing really much to it by using rubber in the sole or the rubber pellets we're able to keep it, keep it in the shape that it is for months. Now, other brands that use foam and foam tends to just take shape and stay that shape. and the heel placement, right? So Aida's heel is actually strategically pushed forward so that when a dancer is standing on the shoe that almost forced to lean in into the partner, And if anybody's done any rhythm or Latin dancing, the teachers always tell you to lean into your partner.

So, we just went ahead and did that for you. Cause if you do not lean in, then you're just going to topple over. And that is not how regular shoe is made. The one that you would use in street walking. It was just straight line down from the heal and ours causes you tilt forward, that's it. I, I'm not sure why other companies haven't copied us on this yet.

Although companies do copy our stuff all the time. This is one thing they have a hard time copying. That's the first thing I would

Samantha: yeah, I mean, from a, obviously from a dancer perspective, that changes where your balance is being held. And if that is something that the market has decided they really support and, and is a positive aspect of the shoe, you would think that other brands would figure out how to copy that. But I guess for you guys, it's good that they haven't. Yeah.

One thing that, for me personally, I I'll, I'll go ahead and out myself. I am a cheap shoe person. I buy whatever the, the easiest thing to get to me in two days is off of Amazon and they are not good quality shoes. I go through about two pairs a year. for someone who like me is, is reaching now the point where they're like, all right, let me go ahead and invest in a quality shoe.

What is the, wear time? Is it going to be an equal, investment to get one pair of good quality shoes to last two years versus two or three pairs of cheap shoes that'll last the same amount of time?

Ilia: You're just full of good questions today. it all comes down to frequency of use. I have professionals that burn through a pair of shoes within a month, and I have Pro-Am dancers who have their shoes last them three years. I don't know how many days a week you dance, but on average, if a person dances about three times a week, a shoe lasts them about half a year.

the reason why is, we don't make shoes out of pig iron. We make it out of sensitive materials like suede and satin and with sweat and a constant friction and partner stepping, What's the word not doing real estate, not depreciation, but, I guess wear and tear, let's call it that, it has its toll on anything that is overused.

So, my clientele uses shoes a lot. I don't, there's no reason for somebody who dances casually to be buying Aida. And that is not saying you dance casually. I'm saying that. This is a very specific niche product that I don't even dream of selling to people who just dabble. So, I used to chase everybody I could.

And if you, Oh, you got feet. I don't do that anymore. I just focus on people that live and breathe dancing, and that they require and request the best support that can get. cause bad shoes, kill your feet. if the shoe is not made properly, you will suffer. I get a lot of parents who try to save a buck or two on buying cheap $50 shoes or less, and then they pay way more in podiatrists visits later when the kid's shoes are messed up.

So, either way you're going to pay.

Samantha: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and, and to your point earlier, positioning yourself as a vendor at competitions is putting you in that market of these people are serious about competing, whether it's, you know, youth program or professional program, or Pro-Am at the point that you have made the commitment to going to a competition you're no longer in that, I just, social dance or dabble. You're in a market where, let's talk about, you know, do you want to spend $60 on a cheap pair of shoes or do you want to go ahead and make the investment to have a good quality experience on a good quality shoe?

You mentioned earlier that prior to this year, you were attending about 20 competitions a year. how do you go through and select what events you want to go to as a vendor and which ones you're going to go ahead and pass? Is it, you know, mostly multi-day comps, is it NDCA sanctioned events?

Is it events that you have prior working relationships with the organizers?

Ilia: Yeah. All of that. I'd say the number one determinant is relationship. I work with who I like. and who I have built a relationship with one way or the other, either at some event, we had a drink or chatted or spoke or something like that.

the next thing is proximity and convenience. I'm on the East coast, so I barely attend any West coast competitions. The only one I go to religiously is Emerald. Cause I have a good, healthy relationship with Wayne Eng. in 2014, he let me vend at USDC. And to me that was it. That was my milestone. there are a few notable people that opened up the doors to me, just a kid from Brooklyn who had nothing and knew nobody.

And that is Gary McDonald, Michael Chapman, Eugene Katzman, Sam Sodano. And of course, Wayne Eng. These are, these are the, I'm not, this is going to be live, so I got to be careful. These are not the determinants of anyone's success. These are the five people that really allowed me to set up my booth at their events that I feel had the most impact on my reputation, growth and development.

To me when I was allowed to have a booth at USDC, that's when I knew that I made it. As a result of that, I've been going to USDC every single year and I do not even consider not going. same thing goes for Michael Chapman's events and Sam Sodano, and everybody else that I mentioned. So, I will go where I need to go to preserve their relationship because that's what sustains a business.

if it's too far away, Where, if I don't have a relationship with somebody, I'm probably not going to go. Because that's a huge risk for me to go invent at a competition is at least $5,000. When all expenses are combined and considered from vending to hotel, to food, to flights, to salaries. and I got to be careful, will I break even, or this will be a dud?

And, And that's it just over time-built relationships with very specific people. I, I do go to new events when some sort of relationship is building. For example, in January, I went to, the Paramonov's event in Tennessee. And the reason why I went is because I was in Dominican Republic at a friend's wedding and I ran into them.

And we just hung out for four days. So, the relationship was built, so yeah, like I'm going to go and support you. Cause that happened. it would have been weird if I didn't, come to think of it. So yeah, that's it. I just, I let Providence take the wheel and they just go with the flow.

Samantha: Nice from a customer perspective, if, if someone is listening and they are interested in potentially going ahead and making the step to order their first pair of Aida shoes. What is the process? I know in looking through your website, everything is in centimeters, but there is a conversion chart and there are a couple of handy-dandy tips and tricks for folks.

Let's, let's talk about two different, I guess, case scenarios, one where someone can order off the rack, any street shoe, and it always fits them perfectly. They don't have any custom weirdness with their foot. They, they know what their size is and can just go through the process. and then someone, that maybe has a wider bridge and a narrower ankle, or the length of their foot doesn't fit with the standard sizing or the width of their foot, someone that has unique foot issues.

Ilia: Okay. Wow. Super thanks. First of all, why do we use centimeters? a lot of people ask me silly stuff. Like what's my Russian size or what's my Aida size.

There's no such thing. It's just centimeters. And the reason why Vladimir decided to do centimeters is because there's no ambiguity. You cannot argue with the metric system. It is what it is. Us size, UK size, European size, nobody gets to ask a question of how does Aida run. Do we run small? Do we run big?

We don't run. We dance and with straight up in centimeters. So when I have everybody do whether they are a special case or a regular case is just trace their foot and right down the middle draw, a straight line and another straight line across cross at the widest part, measure that in centimeters. Tell me the numbers and show me the tracing.

That's it. That's all I really needed it. so, judging by your smile, I would say you're about an eight and a half.

Samantha: yeah, I'm somewhere between a seven and a half and an eight and a half, but I'm one of those weird feet where, if I get like a standard eight, a U S size eight, the, widest part of my foot will feel very tight.

The heel will feel perfect. And then as soon as the satin stretches, my heel is coming out of the heel and my foot feels great. So, I'm a, I'm a weird one.

Ilia: Okay. I love, I specialize in weird ladies. So, so let's say you're an eighth, right? So, I know from experience that eight us is approximately 25 centimeters.

So, if you went to grab a piece of paper right now, put your foot on it and trace it, you would probably get 25 centimeters down the line and probably about 10 centimeters across. at that point I would scan my inventory to see what I have. In whatever you need standard, smooth, Latin or practice shoes.

And I would invite you to let me send it to you for fitting for a trial, wherever you are in USA. And all my shoes are refundable and returnable as long as they're not worn. I do not believe in imposing myself on to anyone who does not want what I have. And the reason why I do this is if we have to make you something custom in Moscow, that takes six weeks to make, and I do not want to order it blindly.

I do get arrogant clients sometimes. It's like, what do you mean tracing I'm an 8 US what's your major malfunction? And, and I'm like, well, look, we can do what you want, but if the shoe comes in wrong, you wasted six months of your time. And now I have a shoe that I'll probably not sell for a while. Cause it's whatever you specifically wanted.

the person gets the shoe, whatever I have in my inventory, they try it on, they take photos with the shoes on their feet. They showed me the photos and then they mailed the shoes back to me. Unless what I send fits them perfectly and they love it. Then, then we're done. Then there's no need for any further hoop jumping.

And then I get the shoes. I gather the tangible information that I needed. And now with certainty, like let's say, we discovered that you actually 24 and a half and you need double-wide and you hate the two-and-a-half-inch flare. And you want the three-inch slim. Well, good. Now I've reduced the waste time.

And I'm going to make you exactly what you want instead of what you might have wanted. That's it. And this comes from personal experience. I, I detest waste, resources and time. So, I do this annoying little thing to save time later.

Samantha: I really appreciate that because yeah, I mean, I, I know I have personally I experienced it.

I am sure that some of our viewers and listeners have experienced it where you've ordered blindly off the internet because you need a shoe in three weeks for a showcase, maybe the heel of your previous shoe broke, or it was just worn and you realized it was time. And it comes in and it doesn't fit quite right.

Maybe it's too small, maybe it's too big, but there's now no time before that competition or the showcase to rectify the situation. So, you're, you're stuck now with the shoe that isn't quite what you wanted. So, I like the fact that you put in the work ahead of time to say, okay, Let's go through this process.

Let me see what you're actually working with. Let me send you the product. Let me see how it fits. And if we need then to create a custom shoe or make some changes, now, you know, because you felt the product you've put the product on and you know, kind of what you're getting into. So, I, I really appreciate that just from a dancer perspective.

Ilia: You're a great listener. You should be maybe a therapist. Really good.

Samantha: It's funny that you say that, I feel like with dance instruction, what I'm really doing is about 10% of actually teaching people how to dance and 90% being a therapist or a life coach, or just a sympathetic ear. speaking of life coaching, we were talking before we went live, I, I hear you've got some side projects that you are working on.

Ilia: Yup. Yup. I'll, I'll back up. It's quite a story. So, in 2016, I was going to quit. I just looked in the mirror. I'm 28. I travel from hotel to hotel with a bag of shoes and I touch people's feet. And I make a buck on the side and my friends are getting houses or buying cars or having children moving up the career ladders.

And at some point, that just felt like a complete loser. And I need to wrap this up and this fiasco of an entrepreneurship got to go because this is nuts. I've already wasted four years of my life doing this. Who am I to talk about shoes? I've never even danced. Just some guy on roller blades with a duffle bag of shoes.

And I would go to competitions with this mentality and this attitude and these beliefs. And as a result, of course, I would treat people in the same way with arrogance. being very dismissive, and rude. And lot of people who might be watching this will attest to this. I was not a pleasant person to deal with for the longest time, because I had what people wanted, but I was super nasty in delivering it because I was just resentful at my own self for having gotten myself into the situation. So, one of my clients said, well, go into real estate. You're such a good salesperson. I said, okay, so I got a real estate license and I signed up for Keller Williams in New Jersey, and I actually started doing it.

I sold the house, rented out a few apartments. And as part of Keller Williams coaching is there's always people coming into better the agents and one day the Tony Robbins recruiter stumbled in and he explained to me some concepts that blew my mind and I signed up for Tony Robbins basic event called Unleash the Power Within.

And I went and it was good. It's basically four days of hyped up energy and explanation why we do what we do. And then there was a recruiter who kind of like upsells you on personal coaching. After I told him my story, whatever I just told you. And then he was like, all right, that was going to be this much.

My eyes went huge. And I'm like, no, man, I can't afford that. And he goes, and this is, this is really good stuff. I love sales. I'm super passionate about sales and influence. And he says this judging by what I just heard from you; you can't afford not to do this. And I was like, ah, here is my credit card. And I signed up and I got paired up with this awesome coach, Keith Wagner.

And he's not just a coach. He is like my older brother, brother at this point. He he's a minister and, and, and a therapist and all kinds of other stuff to the point that he flew to Mexico and was the one who married myself and my wife in December, that was special for me. So, for three years, he has been my life coach.

And one of the first things we did, when I started my, pity party is you said, listen, buddy, you're not selling shoes. You're helping people make their dreams come true and that little switch changed everything. And my business just skyrocketed since then. And after being his student for three years, I decided that I know way too much for me to keep it all to myself.

And just about a month ago, I decided to start my own separate company called Kolos Coaching, which is the first five letters of my last name. And that's it. So, if anybody is interested or looking for coaching, I start with a free one-hour session and we talk about anything you want no obligation whatsoever.

So, I started recently offering that to whoever needs it or wants it and I'm actually, I have some clients, so that's really fun for me. I'm not stimulated by money when it comes to coaching because I get money from selling shoes. Right now, I'm stimulated by contribution and growth that I get from giving back what I know.

Samantha: Well, and it's that, that personal connection and knowing that you are hopefully having a positive influence on someone else's life on someone else's mindset on someone's someone else's success. I feel like there's a lot of overlap. even though you see what you're doing with the dance shoes is more like the business moneymaking, financial end of the world and life coaching is more of the emotional, mental fulfillment and of the world, I see, I feel like there's a lot of tie in there. I think, as you mentioned, that your coach had said, no, you're, you're selling shoes that take people on their next journey and help them reach their goals. There's a definitely a lot of overlap there. Wrapping back around a little bit to your experience, going to competitions.

obviously, you've been around dancers for a while now. You've seen them at competitions. You've watched them perform. What is something either in the development of the sport or in a specific style that you really love seeing on a dance floor or wish you saw less of on the dance floor?

Ilia: I can't speak about the dance floor. I'm barely know a Roomba from a chat, but I can talk about, engagement. Unfortunately, the ballroom often suffers from inauthentic engagements, which used to drive me up the wall. Like someone's coming over and, asking me, how am I? And then without even listening to my answer, start telling me what they need, and it took me a while to get it, to get okay with that. I used to be a huge critic of that and would mock people even, but I don't do that anymore because I understand that that is just the way it works for now. so, I would like more authentic engagements at ballroom competitions. Cause what is it? A competition it's, it's ambitious people who spend lots of money to go in and be the best that they can be.

Yeah, why would there be authentic conversations there? Ultimately in a way everybody's a combatant and a, an opponent of each other and you know, the gilded smiles and, with a knife behind the back waiting to just win, is, is the way it is. And there's nothing I can do about it. We're entering it into a competitive arena.

I have abandoned delusions and expectations of a friendly encounter. We're not hanging out. It's not a party, but, but for me, this was all presented as a hangout and a party. So, when people would deviate from that, I would get confused. But now after doing this for eight years, I don't have any fantasies about that anymore.

Probably less alcohol. I would definitely say that I have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol that I'm working on. And I, there was a time in my life where I would go competition knowing that, oh yeah, I'm going to get smashed with a bunch of cool people. And for me, it was always confusing. If everybody's an athlete here and they put out a hundred percent what they can do and then destroy themselves a couple of hours later with alcohol and cigarettes. What's the point of such an intricate dance of self-destruction? yeah. I have no idea why alcohol is so prevalent at after parties. It seems ludicrous to me. Yeah, sure. People want to unwind, but. I just don't see it.

How, how is that so abundantly available for athletes who just finished doing an immense amount of work?

Samantha: I think it's that work hard, play hard attitude of, I just worked my tush off for, you know, however many weeks leading up to this competition. So now I, now I get to celebrate. Or if, if you've reached that next milestone in the career of getting a title or making a podium, then it's like, all right, I I've earned the ability to kind of take the night off and, and drink.

Ilia: for me, it's a personal thing I bought into that. I bought into the association of alcohol to celebration. As a result of that I'm undoing the damage. Cause it got to the point where anything I would achieve in my life beyond a sale at competition, I would just drink. And by the time I caught myself in this reality, it was too late.

Like I would finish a level in a video game, and I'd be like, oh yeah, let's have a beer. And it took me a while to just kind of like, hey man, what are you doing? so yeah.

Samantha: Yeah. I do want to wrap back to, what you said about, inauthentic experiences, at competitions. Something that has bothered me since getting into the ballroom dance industry.

And I'll be very careful about how I word this, cause it's, it's only my personal experience. I have found over the years that when I go, when I go to competitions or I go to workshops or I am interacting with other professionals in the industry that I kind of have put up a shield to say, like, I, I might feel like whatever we're doing here is friendly and positive and cordial, but I'm going to now assume that you don't really mean any of it.

Right? Like whoever, whoever I'm coming across, I'm just going to assume like I'm going to be pleasant and cordial and authentic and engaging, but I'm just going to assume that that is not reciprocated. it's I hear the phrase occasionally, like, yeah, it's, you're, you're getting frozen out. Like we're going to, we're going to go get coffee after this with no intention of ever getting coffee.

and for me, I feel like that's very, it runs up against it's the authenticity that we're trying to strive for on the dance floor as an art form. Right. when I talked to other dancers and other professionals, they say what they what they want to see more of on the dance floor, what they enjoy watching on the dance floor is that authentic story that the couple is telling or that authentic moment of emotion that pulls you in and draws you in.

Like you're watching a quiet moment between two people. And I don't know if, if necessarily you and I are the ones to solve this issue or, or philosophize on this, but I wonder why is that in a sport that is based so much on trying to tell authentic stories through dance, off the dance floor we have such trouble being authentic people and creating authentic relationships with each other?

Ilia: Well, that's super simple. Actually. I'll break it down for you right away. If I told you that you're ugly, Samantha, you probably wouldn't want to talk to me any further. Of course, you're not ugly, but saying something like that is a form of rejection because everybody's an artist in the ballroom, rejection is their biggest fear. I used to sing, when I was younger, I still do. but every time I have to sing, I'm super nervous because what if I suck, or, what if I'm not good enough or who do we, who do I think I am doing this is the thought that permeates my mind and it is so for all competitors as well. So, we, Oh, and the way I see it is.

Competitors are the bravest people in the world. I admire them, I honor them, and I cannot believe is that what they do. Like I do not want to go out on the floor, shiny, covered in makeup, dancing for five dances and everybody's staring and judging me and thinking things. And, or even worse staring at their phone while pouring my soul out.

I do not want that intensity in my life cause rejection sucks. So, the real answer to your question is immense insecurity, because at all times everybody's always, unless they're like Ricardo and Yulia's level, everybody is questioning their ability and their output. Is it really? There's a really cool concept. I'm sure you're aware of it's called the imposter syndrome where we think that we are nobody and we have no place doing or speaking anything that we're saying in one way or the other, everyone suffers from it. Even Neil Armstrong, right? The man who went to the moon and came back was in some room. With a bunch of people and I'm not sure where I read it, but he was talking to some other guy and Neil, and he said that, well, what am I doing here?

Like with all these people who achieve things now, what do you mean? You're Neil Armstrong. You went to the moon. Like, naw man, I just, they told me to go. So, I went, I came back. That's it. That's all I did. So, if Neil Armstrong has these thoughts, then maybe all of us are allowed to feel insecure and have an imposter syndrome.

And that's what it is. That's what the inauthenticity comes from. It's a defense mechanism. Cause if I just speak to you for the first time and I have no idea who Samantha Stout, why would I be authentic? Cause that carries a certain risk of getting hurt. The way I combat it is I have peculiar conversations, with whoever talks to me. Like I'll ask weird things, like when's the last time you cried or, you know, what does your husband think about your dancing? Like stuff that people do not ask. And then what happens is there's a chance for a person to feel safe. Like, oh my God, this shoe vendor actually cares or.

We're like, oh my God, there's a chance to have an authentic conversation. And that's what I've been doing. The people I, I carefully handpick what I ask to open up the gateway for potential authentic conversation. I, when people ask me how, how am I? I don't ask them how they are back because I don't care. It's a stupid question.

We're in America. Of course. I'm going to say I'm good. I ask them like, something cool, like about their dog or something like that. that's the only way to just abandon the templates and not everybody's reciprocal to that kind of engagement. and that's fine. I don't have to have a relationship with everybody, but that's how I've been sifting out who I chat with and those that reciprocate are the ones that I invest further into and build a relationship with, and those that kind of like get scared or spooked by that kind of engagement. Well, okay. That's fine. We don't have to have a chat of any kind or have coffee.

Samantha: Makes sense. Makes sense. When you're looking at, kind of your business model, obviously a lot of it relies on social media, social media engagement, which again is kind of threading the line between authentic interaction and also selling the product or selling the experience or selling this idea.

How do you, what is your mindset as far as selling the brand Aida, but also trying to create an engagement or a link with you, Ilia, the person, or do you try and completely separate it and just have it all be about the brand?

Ilia: Definitely not the latter. I'm a huge fan of the Pareto principle, which is.

dictates that 20% of whatever we do, is responsible for 80% of our results. So when I engage with social media, I make sure that 20% of, let me rephrase that. I entertain four out of five times. And on the fifth time, I actually, bring up the product. That's my basic social media strategy or marketing plan.

People don't care about shoes. People don't care about me. People care about how something makes them feel. People don't buy Aida cause it's the best, people buy it because of the way it's presented and, what it gives them as a result. Starting from image to support, to all kinds of other stuff. So. If I am a person that adds value to the general public on social media, they're most likely to go and buy my stuff when they need my stuff.

If I just keep cramming Aida down their throats, every time I decide to make a post, at some point I become irrelevant. My relevancy is sustainable as long as value is continuously built up. Yeah. People know I sell Aida shoes. They don't want to be told every time. But what people also know is that life is hard and scary and, and there's a lot of uncertainty in it and the best way to combat uncertainty is through gratitude and humor.

And if they know that if they're having such a moment, they can just somehow get on my page of either Aida or my personal and get a little encouragement in life. Well, there's no way they're going to buy anything else from anyone else when they need it. So, I focus my marketing strategy around providing and building value in human needs while also letting people know, like, by the way, when, and if you need shoes, I'm the guy.

And that's been working for me very well. Cause nothing else works.

Samantha: Can I ask a personal question and you can totally decide after I ask it that you don't want to answer it. How has being a first generation American influenced how you chose business opportunities, or do you feel like it has influenced your relationships with other people in the industry?

Ilia: Awesome question. All right. Well, it starts from Parenthood. My whole life, my father taught me one thing over and over and over, listen, boy, if you're going to get anywhere in life, you have to be a master of something. And if you're not a master of anything, if you're a Jack of all trades, nobody's going to want you.

You're going to be nothing, do nothing and achieve nothing. And that stayed with me. And, in fact, I remember when I was 16 and we had an altercation with my dad. He told me like, who do you think you are? You're a nobody. And you're nothing. And that really stimulated me to continue growing his business and finding some sort of independence to prove to my dad that he's wrong.

I didn't think it was going to be an expert in dance shoes, but I definitely am now. Like nobody can take that away from me. I have achieved what my father told me to achieve without realizing it kind of happened and being a first-generation immigrant. It is great. It's a blessing and a curse because when I was 18, my dad said, okay, good luck. I go back to Russia. You figure out rent, bills, you big boy now. And I was like, dude what? I just got here five years ago. He was like, it’s okay. You just figure it out. And I was in the middle of college and I had a three-bedroom apartment. So, I scrambled. I was living at some point with three people in the communal kind of situation and took care of all my father's debts that he left, and it was just nuts.

But you know, when we're tossed in the water, we swim, or we die. So, I figured I'd paddle. So, I started paddling and I'm grateful to my father because he created the situation where I had to paddle. And if I didn't, I would die. what I feel people my age who have it all because the parents worked hard for them to have it all.

They're almost robbed at this opportunity because they do not have to haul to survive. And I had to pull us to survive. And that is why my business is still afloat and still alive because I know that my survival depends on it. There's nobody coming to my rescue. That's what being an immigrant. It gives us the best gift of being an immigrant.

If I do not step up, I'm screwed and there's nobody coming, no cavalry. that's it, that, that, that, that really builds a lot of tenacity into one's mind that sloppy, sloppy attitude towards deliverables is not going to randomly deliver them.

Does that answer or did I just go on a tangent and didn't cover parts of the question?

Samantha: No, I think that absolutely answers it. I think that absolutely answers it. yeah. And I, and as we were going through some of the other conversations that we were having earlier, I think that answers a lot of questions for me on kind of the motivation or, you know, where, where you get your entrepreneurial spirit, why, why not stop with dance shoes and go to real estate and life coaching and all of that. So,

Ilia: well, before we go on, I do have to say that there is no entrepreneurial spirit. Like I didn't like it. Yeah. I'm going to be an entrepreneur. It was more like. Oh, I have nothing to eat. What do I do? And then I do something and I'm like, oh man, that doesn't work or you're an idiot. You just ruined everything.

Okay. Let's make sure that never happens again. I mean, there is some sort of entrepreneurial spirit, but most of it is glamorized and over hyped, it's not. Like that at all, it's doing dumb things and then heroically recovering from them and agreeing not to do it and make again, that's what really being an entrepreneur is.

I have no idea what I'm doing most of the time, or definitely had no idea what I was doing while this bent brand was being built. I didn't build anything. I stumbled from failure to failure until I kind of figured out what not to do anymore.

Samantha: I guess, I guess when I, when I talk about entrepreneurial spirit, its self-motivation, I guess maybe would be the better term or the willingness to fail, to try and succeed.

I feel like it would be very easy for someone who's 18 and they're suddenly saddled with the reality of rent and bills and utilities to say, okay, well, I'm going to find a job at McDonald's or I'm going to find a nine to five office job where I can just sit at my desk and do my nine to five and get my paycheck and have some stability there.

But the choice for you, whether it was just by sheer dumb luck or whether it was active to say, no, I want, I want to be a salesperson. I want to have, I want to create an opportunity that might not have that stability, but that I can feel fulfilled or proud or challenged in doing, I think, is different from the typical mindset.

Ilia: Thank you. I appreciate you saying that. That is, that is definitely a choice between faith and fear and, every entrepreneur makes it one way or the other. It was scarier for me, for someone to own my time, then whatever it would take to pay myself, I guess that's how I would put it. I wasn't so much motivated by money as I was motivated by fear of losing my freedom. Having worked for people up until then. It was very clear for me that I do not own my life. Someone else got the dibs on it. And I snapped. There was no way I'm going to allow that to repeat itself. I have a very hard time working for people. I have a great time working with people. Yeah.

Samantha: Awesome. Awesome

Ilia: I just want to say to all the dancers, listening to this, and all the people that are thinking about ballroom dancing, I know admire, you and I encourage you to please, please, please don't listen to the saboteur language that tells you that you are not good enough or that you suck.

Or that somebody's opinion at some competition is the determinant verdict of your potential. Stop that that is That is a lie. You are given the skill set by God or universe or anybody, whatever you believe to have the courage and the tenacity and the physical ability to bring life and art into this world, don't sell yourself out and do something else.

If you have a calling and if you enjoy ballroom dancing, please pursue it. And I'm not saying it's so that you eventually stumbled into me and buy shoes. I'm saying it because the world needs more courageous people that give others permission to shine because every time somebody does something courageous on the dance floor, when there's a high potential for being judged or dismissed, Somebody might be watching, who is either about to take the leap of faith and pursue their dreams or get a job at McDonald's.

So, do not be the one that puts that light out, be the one that keeps the light burning

Samantha: Yeah. Yeah. And, and if I might, I'll just add to that, something that I have learned more in the last six months than I think in the previous 10 years of being a ballroom dancer, is this world is both infinitely large and infinitely small.

And you never know when you will meet someone again. And in what context you'll meet them again. it just reinforces that you never know who that customer is, you never know who that dancer is. You never know where they will go on their journey or where you will go on your journey. So, lead with positivity and light and positive, helpful criticism, if there needs to be criticism. But never, never tell someone that they can't do it because you don't see it in that moment, there's always the potential for, for

growth.

Ilia: Awesome addition, those are the exact things I didn't get to say. I just really want to say thank you to all my clients over the years that that choose Aida. I would not have survived this pandemic that is still ongoing without their relationships. One of my clients, for example, just send me a check for a thousand dollars for no reason.

Just, just like, Hey, thank you. I appreciate what you do here. I hope this helps. And I was floored. I have that check framed in my office as a beacon of hope and human tenacity to give, instead of take. It's the thing that inspires me and reminds me to focus on giving whenever I can. And then the receiving will come naturally by itself.

And I want to thank all my clients who, who appreciate me and, and come back, despite my flaws. it's a blessing. It's a huge blessing to be needed. I think for a business owner and for a man in general, the biggest, devastating factor is to be irrelevant and I strive to be relevant in human engagement and product delivery.

And then what I say and what I put out and what example I set, or what warning I am representing, how not to be. For example, I barely cursed on this, podcast. And for me it's hard because I love cursing, but I'm making an effort not to do that. And it's hard for me. but my clients that have sustained me always give me encouragement to be better in terms of what I sell and who I am and how I act in life in general.

Samantha: Awesome. Well, thank you Ilia so much, for being a guest on today's podcast.

Ilia: Sure. I hope it was worth your while. And this brings value to whoever chooses to listen.

Samantha: Thank you again to Ilia for being a guest on today's podcast. If you'd like to find out more about the Aida dance brand you can do so using the links in the description box below.

I've been your host, Samantha, with Love Live Dance. You can find this and all of our podcast episodes, ballroomchat.com and you can find us across social media on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter at Ballroom Chat. If you've not already done, so please do consider subscribing or following this podcast on your podcast platform of choice, and if you've already done so, please do consider giving us a five-star review. You can also become a patron of ours at patreon.com/ballroomchat, where you'll be supporting the podcast and our ability to create awesome episodes with fantastic guests. As always stay safe. Stay positive and we hope to see you dancing.