How this artist integrated technology to build a successful startup

Interview with Agata Badalyan, Co-founder and Art Director at 3dzook

Startup | Founder | Entrepreneurship| Art | App

Episode #6

There is a creative connection between art and technology. Technology unleashes the creativity of artists providing them with new tools to artists to transform and advance their art.

This startup 3Dzook integrates AI into the art helping customers to draw their illustrative portraits in seconds. With the mission to make people smile Dzook converts simple photos and videos into animated illustrations. 

“We saw that people are getting happy. And we got a lot of pictures, people were thanking us for their portraits. If we can make people happy at least one day, we will do it, ” told one of the Co-founders of Dzook Agata Badalyan, who joined me last week on our next episode of HyeTech Minds. We talked about Dzook, Agata’s startup journey, and the state of women entrepreneurship in Armenia. 


Agata is a Co-founder and Art Director at 3dzook. Agat brings 19 years of experience in illustration. For the overwhelming majority of these years, Agata dedicated to Digital Illustration, Comics Design, Character Design, Vector & Book Illustration.

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Interview Highlights

Narine:  Hello Agata, I’m so excited to have you today on my show HyeTech Minds. Happy New Year. How was Armenian Holiday? We Armenians like celebrating holidays for 2-3 week, but this year was totally different due to the war that happened in September.

Agata: Thank you for having me. Yes. Holidays in Armenia this year are a little bit tough and a little sad, but we are trying to do our best to enjoy life for kids and for us. So yeah, and the holidays are really long. But, as we are startups, it means that we don’t have holidays. 

Narine:  Before jumping to our conversation can you talk a bit about your background. Who are you and what you do now?

Agata: Sure!

Sure, I am. I’m an illustrator. I’ve got an art background in design, graphic design, and been working as an illustrator for all of my life, in different companies, in-game companies, and in it. 

I’ve been organizing some comic art festivals in the Yerevan international comic card festival. So I’ve been in art my life. I’ve been drawing people for more than 15 years, I guess. So I have two kids, a boy, and a girl.

I’ve been working as an artist. I’m an illustrator. I got art all day long. All of my life and been drawing people.

And I’m an artist. Yeah, as I’m an artist. I, the question I was asked every day was can you please draw me?

I’ve been drawing people all of my life because I noticed how happy they are when they receive some artistic or cartoonish version of themselves, how excited they are then to share it all over the media. Many of them are changing their profile pictures to the drone one. And every time they were just coming to me and saying thank you so much. You made my day.

This inspired me and my two very best friends to create a gifting company. 

Narine:  Well my next question is actually about 3Dzuk’s foundation. You founded 3Dzuk in 2016 and became one of the 3 co-founders of this women-led startup that converts simple selfies into cool illustrated portraits. What is the story behind your startup? How did you come up with this idea?

Agata: So as I said that, we saw that people love to have illustrated versions of themselves. And they’re very happy, and they’re ready to pay for that. All of this is part of creating the company. 

But everything started one morning when me and my two friends Irina and Hasmik, were working in one IT company in Yerevan. And every morning, I am starting my day withdrawing. So I decided to draw Irina, my friend. And not just to post it on Facebook and said, “Look, I drew Irina,” but I just put her portrait on a mockup of a phone case, okay, and just post it on my Facebook page and asked if there is someone who would like me to draw him and then to print on phone case. 

So we have received about 20 orders. So Irina said, I think we’re going to start a company. 

We said that there is a need, so why don’t we do that?

So we started that company, and people just were sending their photos to us and we drew them in different hairstyles, then we printed them on various products like phone cases, t-shirts, socks, and you won’t even believe underwear. 

So we just print them and sell them to them. We have also worked with 50 plus companies in Armenia and we drew some stuff for those companies. We’ve worked with HR teams, and we saw that people love to have some Personalized Products with their faces. 

 Do you also work with companies outside of Armenia? 

Agata: It is in Armenia. We have created some stuff for some people, not companies, but some groups of people are outside of Armenia. 

But the companies we’ve been working with were located in Armenia; it’s mostly IT companies banks. 

Narine: So many of our listeners probably do not know what Dzuk means? Dzuk means Armenian fish. Why call yourself a dzuk? Where comes this name?

Agata: We were just free friends so we just thought, Okay, let’s do fish. We didn’t think there is any deep meaning in all of these is some mystic stuff. We just have 3 friends, 3 fishes. 

Okay, let’s do that.

Narine: I like this. 3 Friends, 3 fishes swimming in the tech ocean.

Agata: Yeah. After that we could create some stories like yes, we are fish, we are just swimming in the ocean. And we are going against all the other fishes or something like that some philosophy and all of it but telling the truth that was like, okay 3 friends, 3 fishes.

Narine: So, you’re the creative team of AI engineers and illustrators. Together you were able to build a so-called AILA system that uses AI algorithms to draw illustrated portraits just like us, humans!. Can you open the scope of AILA? What does it mean?

Agata: Okay, so why have we decided to start making an AILA because everything started from this. We just wanted to scale the market. And it was impossible, because like, everything was done by hand, and our customers needed to wait up to seven days to receive their orders. Also, it was a very difficult period when it was the holiday season because everyone wanted to make some cool portrait gifts for their relatives. And, you know, everyone wants it at the very last minute. And it was like, Okay, I need like, 17 portraits for my staff by tomorrow. Can you draw them, please? 

And we just did? No. 

But it was very sad because we were losing customers. So, we didn’t know what to do. But fortunately, we’ve met some AI, guys. And they said that you know, we can create an AI algorithm and teach him to draw like you would like it to be like, what is it impossible because for me, AI was like something from Sci-fi movies or books. And that was a very funny story when we were talking with AI guys, and they said, like AI and the only AI that I knew, that was Adobe Illustrator. And I was thinking that he was speaking about the Adobe Illustrator program. And I say, of course, I know he is just losing illustrator all day long. I’m creating illustrations with that. And I said, No, it’s not Adobe Illustration, it’s artificial intelligence. So I just discovered what AI is, and the set that you have got big data of handmade drawings.

So we can make an algorithm and train it to draw like you. And we started to work on that. And we did it. We call it AILA. We think it’s a girl algorithm.

And I realized, like, AI and it’s a girlish name like AILA.

Narine: It’s really interesting what you’re saying. I’m not from tech, but I love tech, I’m a tech enthusiast and I believe that it’s not necessarily you should have a degree in Computer Science or Data Science to be involved with tech. And to see you as an artist how you bring together art and technology and build a successful startup is motivational. 

Agata: Yeah, and we all wrote it that period, we met our CTO, our AI magician. This is how I call him. His name is Abel. He is very talented. And he loves art because his father, also an artist, but he’s, but he’s an engineer. So, we just combine art and technology and get that. For me it’s still magic I don’t understand how it works. 

Narine: Just think about it. If you look deep, there is a creative connection between art and technology. Technology gives new tools to artists like you to transform and advance their art. Think about it. You as an artist were able to use technology AI, to translate your paintings into technology solutions. 

 One of my favorite quotes has Steve Jobs who says that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities.” 

Agata: Yeah, that’s really, that’s very magic. Technology is magic.

Narine:  So getting back to Dzuk. Can you tell us how Dzuk works, and what are the key features? 

Agata: Yes, sure. We have created that technology that converts photos into illustrations and videos into animations. And based on that tech, we have released web and mobile applications where people can super easily upload their photos, and press a button and receive their avatars in different art styles with only one click So they just can download the application, it’s called Dzuk. Or they can go to to do it, by web. 

So we have tested our apps and so that people all around the world like to convert their selfies into artistic avatars. So then, many, many people just change their profile pictures into that drone. 

One, we’ve noticed that like on Twitter or Facebook.

Narine:  Is Dzook a subscription-based app? Do you need to pay to use it? 

Agata: No, you don’t have to be subscribed, we don’t have subscription plans yet. It’s free. So you just need to download it and use it. 

We’ve got a new video feature. Now you can upload short videos. For that, you will need to subscribe. After all, we need to know because we are just sending your video to your email. This is why we need subscriptions. 

But if you don’t want to make videos you can make your avatars for free without any subscription and any without paying any money.

Narine: What is the maximum length to create a video?

Agata: 10 seconds.

This is mostly for the people who like to make some animated videos and then post them on their TikTok. 

Narine: I’m glad you talk about TikTok, social media. In today’s social media age, it’s important to have those types of applications integrated with social media platforms. I create and distribute a lot of content, and I know for me it’s critical to have access to the tools that can be easily shared on social media. 

If I want to create an animation on Dzuk for my Instagram is it possible to directly share it?

Agata: Absolutely. Yes, you can do it. You can make for example an avatar, and you can just download it, you can share it. You can send it via messengers, or you can do whatever you want. Yeah, you can share it. If you want.

Narine:  Have you got any offers from social media platforms to partner? 

Agata: We’ve got some negotiations with Snapchat now. Because we can use some of their tools in our applications soon. So it will be a very good post for us. So we will see how we will go. So yeah, fingers crossed. And I think it will be a good collaboration with them.

Narine:  Oh, that is super exciting. Good luck with that.

Do you have actual data on how many users you have monthly? How many animations are created a day? 

Agata: I don’t know about the statistics of animations, because it’s very, like brand new. It’s been like two weeks that we released that feature. But we have some statistics on crew avatar making.

So we have like 365,000 portraits generated in 133 countries.

And we’ve got 13 k monthly active users now. And by the way, we spent like $0 on marketing, it’s all organic.

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Narine:  With all those fancy marketing tactic, that’s awesome to see early-stage startups like you who have been able to use word-of-mouth marketing tactics to generate buzz around your startup. 

Agata: Yeah, that was exciting. When we just started we just made a challenge. Like I made my avatar illustrated out or we’ve Dzuk and I challenged like three of my friends to do that. 

And they challenged another free, another free so it’s, it’s hard to work like that.

Narine:  That’s a good marketing strategy. I might steal that from you.

Agata: Irina is the one who just said let’s do a challenge, so we did it.

Narine: What’s happening in Armenia is astonishing. So many women are deciding to go into the tech industry or launch a startup. Not many know that Armenia is among the leading nations that have the most women working in tech. 30% of the workforce in tech in Armenia are women. And that’s more than the average 20% of the workforce globally.

How it is for you to work in tech in Armenia. Do we know that Armenia is a very male-dominated country? Do you feel any challenges working in tech?

Agata: Tell you the truth, I never felt that it is male dominant. I’ve been working in IT companies and like, always, we’ve got like, 40%, or maybe 15% of female staff. 

For my last company, where I’ve been working in my team, we were 50%/50% of females and males.

Narine:  I think this is something we need to talk more about. In Armenia today you can have a very diverse and inclusive tech workforce. This is a huge problem worldwide. Women continue to be underrepresented in many industries, including tech. Even this is an issue in the United States.

Agata: Exactly. It’s that it’s really like that because all the girls were in tech positions. Some developers were executives. That’s why I don’t understand this question because I have always been working with females in tech. So it’s really like that. And our startup we’ve got five guys and five girls in a team right now.

Narine:  That’s awesome. So as a startup founder what are some of the challenges you have?

Agata: A big responsibility for everything. It’s very hard. It’s not very hard. But it’s very responsible to run a startup, to think about all the challenges, like to think about the product, about the team, about the technology, about fundraising. 

It’s tough, sometimes, but, I love it because it’s like raising a child, you have to be responsible for everything, and you have to raise it, and you have to do all the work in 24 hours. And I like it. After working so many years in companies, I like that, too. But now it’s a different feeling. And it’s hard. But it’s sweet. 

Narine: Tell you the truth, it’s a very good feeling to see the fruits of your hard work. Today you are the cofounder of a very successful startup that might make a deal with a top social media platform.

Agata: Yes, sometimes. All of us all the founders are just forgetting about what is done. And we’re just focusing on the problems. But yes, sometimes we have just to stop and see what we have already done. 

And just say, okay, it’s good we need to move forward.  

Narine: 2020 has one specific – not only war in Armenia but the global pandemic. And I talk to many startup founders. They have concerns that VCs and investors backing down from their investment deals. Has pandemic in any way impacted Dzuk? Did you have any issues with fundraising? 

Agata: Actually, we have our first fundraising, right at the start of a pandemic in Armenia, it’s like, middle of March. So we quit our jobs, and we have fully started to work on this startup. And we have or we have repaired our small office, but we didn’t work a single day in it because the pandemic started and we started to work from home. So, but that was not bad for us because people were just staying at home and they wanted to entertain themselves somehow and took was a good possibility to do that. 

And we have many feedbacks from people like we cannot stop creating some portraits of their relatives, or stars. Some celebrities. And it’s very sticky and we have a lot of fun during the pandemic period.

Narine:  So you combine 2 different businesses in one – animation and gifts?

Agata: It’s separate things started to be separate things because now we are focusing on applications. And gifting businesses became secondary. And also it became like for us, but in the future, we want to connect it. Because we saw that people love to own some physical products. And they love to have something that they will carry with them all day long, for example, like a phone case, or some Thermo mug with hot coffee.

Narine:  Can you ship also outside of Armenia? 

Agata: Yes, we are shipping worldwide.

Narine:  Why I’m asking because we have a huge Armenian-American community here in the USA. I think this is a potential market for you.

Agata: Yes, please. Yeah, we’ve been working with HR teams, very closely, in Armenia. And we noticed that people love to receive this kind of gift because it’s really warm. After all, they saw that someone cared, someone drew them and then printed them. It’s very personalized and very touchy, we have received many testimonials about that. So this is why we just wanted to do that. And this is why we just started all of this because we saw that people are getting happy with getting some personalized portraits of them. You know, it’s very important, because I think you also have a mission to make people smile. 

Yes, this is why we started all of this because we saw that people are getting happy. And we’ve got a lot of pictures. And a lot of that people are just sending us and saying thank you so much. And they gave this presentation to my friend, and it was so super exciting. And we’ve got some pictures that people just received so celebrating some birthday in the office and receiving a T-shirt with their face, and they’re super excited and happy. So if we can make people happy for one day, we will do that.

Narine:  That’s very important to have a social mission behind your startup. And I like your mission to make people smile, feel happy. 

Agata: Yes. This is why we started. We saw that people are getting happy. And we got a lot of pictures, people were thanking us for their portraits. 

If we can make people happy at least one day, we will do it. 

Narine:  I ask this question to all my guests on HyeTech Minds. This is my survey I use to understand what else we can do to help Armenia in expanding its tech ecosystem and bring more investments to the country. 

What is this one thing if we need to change in Armenia that can have a positive impact on tech?

Agata: Networking, for example, we are here in the Armenian tech community. Many people know each other, like not many I think everyone knows each other. You’re in Armenia. And many people know people in Diaspora so I think connections here connections and networking.

Narine:  In today’s interconnected world, it’s important to have value-driven networking. Just the fact that we are Armenians can be an important asset to leverage. 

Agata: Yes. 

Narine:  Agat, can you remind us how our listeners can find out more about Dzuk, or try to use the Dzuk app to create animation videos? 

Agata: Sure, they can go to . And they can download our applications for the App Store and from the play market, they just can search Dzuk. And they can try it. It’s free and we will be happy they can share their experience if they can give us feedback, which is very important for us because we are listening and we are trying to improve technology and application. So it will be very great to listen to some feedback from you users.

Narine:  Customer feedback is the most powerful tool to understand how exactly your product works? 

Agata: Exactly 

Narine:  Thank you so much, Agata, it was such a pleasure talking to you. I think Dzuk is a great app and has huge potential. Looking forward to having you back with more interesting projects. Again, Happy New Year and Stay safe

Agata: Thank you so much for having me. I hope that it was useful for our listeners and Happy New Year.

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