The West

The world's economies are being strangled by the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. But it seems someone forgot to send Perth's Eugeni "Zhenya" Tsvetnenko a text message to let him know.

Four years ago, the Russian-born entrepreneur was a university dropout with $200 in his bank account and an interest in computer engineering. Today, he's Australia's SMS king with an estimated fortune of $100 million.

He owns seven Perth houses, at least one house interstate, an overseas pad, five luxury cars and a record label. In the past two years, he's married his long-time sweetheart in a $600,000 ceremony, shelled out $250,000 for her 30th birthday party and had legendary rapper Snoop Dogg perform at his own 29th birthday bash.

But he's not for the easy life just yet. While still taking a minimum of $360,000 a week from his 60,000 Australian premium SMS customers, Mr Tsvetnenko has turned his attention to digital signage and digital advertising traffic. It's a boom industry and one that he hopes will increase his fortune.

In an exclusive interview with The West Australian this week, Mr Tsvetnenko said he had no idea how much he was really worth. But he said he had come a long way from the 12-year-old boy who arrived in Australia in 1992 with little more than a suitcase and a reasonable grasp of the English language.

"The truth is that I haven't counted what I'm worth," he said. "In all honesty, it's too hard. I've made so much money so quick that I haven't had time to count it. It sounds funny but it's just too hard."

Born to biochemists Yuri and Elena Tsvetnenko in Rostov-Na-Donu, near Russia's current border with Ukraine and the Black Sea, Mr Tsvetnenko learnt English at school. In 1992, after the fall of the communist regime and disaggregation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Tsvetnenkos decided to leave the country's economic chaos behind and move to Australia where they eventually found jobs at Curtin University.

Mr Tsvetnenko went to Graylands Primary School and Churchlands Senior High School before shifting to Rossmoyne Senior High School.

His classmates remember him as a quiet student who was extremely intelligent. Close friend Dominic Tham said Mr Tsvetnenko would consistently challenge his teachers about the curriculum.

After school, he studied electrical engineering before glancing at a campus notice board one day and spotting a job advertisement. He took the contract job, later ending up working full-time at Plan B Financial Services as a software engineer.

He met his wife Lydia Gaugg at Paramount nightclub in 2002 but it was not until he moved to software company Power Business Systems that he had his big idea.

"I identified a unique opportunity in the internet space," he said. "It was called Google Adwords. Essentially, this technology promised to be able to deliver your ads to about 80 per cent of the world internet populations. I had to figure out how to monetise it, how to make it work?

"At the same time, I learnt about the SMS market which was just starting up. I thought it was a great way to bill people from their mobile phone because a mobile phone is just like a credit card."

Living in his modest Canning Vale home and working nights on his project, Mr Tsvetnenko experimented until he devised a computer program capable of delivering SMS messages automatically. First, he experimented with automated weather services, then with cheap petrol alerts. But it was the "entertainment" services, including the delivery of horoscopes via text message, which were the most successful.

Over the next few years, his business spread across the globe through internet advertising that delivered 23 billion views of his webpages and made him Adwords' biggest advertiser.

But along the way, he has had some trouble. In New Zealand, the advertising watchdog chided him for falsely advertising one of his sites would close, he signed an enforceable undertaking with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission over misleading advertising in WA's Quokka newspaper and in Britain he was fined £75,000 when one of his servers collapsed.

In the past 18 months, he has gradually backed away from the SMS businesses and no longer accepts new customers. In the meantime, in partnership with friends Jake and Kane Robinson, he's started a unique salon entertainment business called Lavish Channel that supplies more than 200 hairdressing salons across Australia with TVs and custom-made cable programming.

His one business indulgence is his record label Zhenya Records, which is looking for Australia's next star.

Mr Tsvetnenko said his success had not come easily, though it had come quickly. He said he deserved to enjoy his money.

"To put everything in perspective, I have worked so hard. All through 2005, I worked late nights. I worked full-time and then as soon as I came home, to the detriment of my relationship with my family and my wife and my friends, I worked on this," he said.

To anyone who doubts the story of his success, Mr Tsvetnenko says: "I've got nothing to hide. I've never tried to deceive anyone. I'm basically an open book."

The West Australian

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