One year on: how Ukrainian founders have survived a year of war

Twelve months on from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, four founders reflect on the challenges their businesses have faced and the leadership lessons it has taught them
Ukraine Startups
Eugene Feldman 
Co-founder and CEO of online training provider Laba Group 

War is something one can’t be ready for, and the unfolding events seemed completely surreal. At the beginning of the invasion, we had a team of 350 people in Ukraine, so we had to urgently relocate them to safer regions in Western Europe and the EU.

In those early days, we asked ourselves if we should even go back to work. We sell online courses and education is not a top priority in wartime: were people ready to learn? Lecturers and students all had different issues – some had no electricity, others had no internet connection – so we tried to organise the processes accordingly. It was only two months after the outbreak of war that we felt we could resume our courses in graphic design and copywriting.

From March, we set up offices in the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania to ensure the team was safe and that key operations could continue running. Some employees decided to return to their hometowns in Ukraine. However, many cities have suffered prolonged power outages, making it extremely hard to maintain their daily lives.

War is something one can’t be ready for, and the unfolding events seemed completely surreal

Because of that, we decided to rent a house for our employees in the western part of Ukraine so that they can feel safe, and live and work without blackouts. About half of the team has been working there since November 2022. We bought powerful generators and equipped a backup office in case there’s no electricity in the main one.

To support and motivate the local team in Ukraine, we have brought back offline meetings and hosted movie nights together, so that people can switch off from the news and their work. In addition, we have increased the number of general meetings with HR and top managers to be in touch more often.

Teams need the support of their leaders – if you don’t have energy and motivation, your colleagues are likely to lose them too. This requires leaders to show honesty and transparency. Your team deserves to know what’s really going on within the company and how they can contribute.

Lastly, looking after people’s mental health has been very important. We managed to find inspiration within the team, which helped us move forward. Our focus is on continuing to grow in the year ahead.

Vadim Rogovskiy 
Co-founder and CEO of 3DLOOK, a virtual fitting room app 

3DLOOK was originally founded in my hometown of Odesa, Ukraine, and we had 70 members of staff working across our Odesa, Kyiv and Lviv offices when the war began. It was impossible to imagine that such an unjust and unwarranted attack would occur in the 21st century but what our team, and all of Ukraine, doesn’t lack is determination.

Our number one priority was to ensure the safety of our employees and their families. We relocated our team members from Ukraine to safe regions across Europe within days. The HR team was in constant contact with every employee, assisting them with any problems. We paid wages in advance so everyone had cash in case of emergency and we covered relocation costs for our teams and their families.

While our Ukraine-based colleagues were relocating, the rest of our global team was eager to help them in any way they could. Everyone took on extra work and responsibilities to support the critical functions of our business and maintain operations without disruption. Our focus then switched to establishing a new research and development hub in Warsaw, Poland, and helping our employees to settle in.

We were already used to working as a globally dispersed team, so communication while working remotely hasn’t been an issue. Likewise, the apparel industry recognises our value and has continued to support us.

It’s taught me that people really are a company’s greatest asset

The biggest challenge has undoubtedly been supporting the mental wellness of our employees. After all, even if you’re given all the possible assistance, having to flee your home and adjust to the new reality quickly is challenging for many people

To take our minds off the tragedy in Ukraine, we’ve been holding weekly guided meditation sessions, as well as monthly Zoom parties that encourage us to socialise, relax and have fun. We’ve also rallied the team around animal adoption charity Gladpet, a non-profit that 3DLOOK helped found.

Ukrainian businesses have maintained positive growth for the same reasons that the country continues to exist. Despite the year-long assault it has faced, from an army supposedly far stronger and better equipped than our own, we’re motivated, talented and innovative, and we’re capable of building something great even when resources are limited.

From our HR team, to finance, marketing and customer success — every department and every employee has had to take on new challenges in the past year and all have stepped up when it really mattered. It’s taught me that people really are a company’s greatest asset. If you treat them right, offer transparency and safety, and assist them in achieving their personal goals and ambitions, they will go above and beyond for you when you need their support most.

Our recent success, as well as that of other startups, sends a strong message that, as Ukrainians, we can withstand whatever is thrown at us.

Nazar Tymoshyk 
Founder and CEO of cybersecurity firm UnderDefense 

We started our preparations at the end of 2021. Even back then, we understood that the situation was very unstable. Our first priorities were to develop a business continuity and disaster recovery plan, relocate part of our team to Poland and increase our presence in the US.

On 24 February, when the invasion started, we quickly moved to ensure our Ukrainian team’s safety. We had 42 people based there at the time and relocated 30 to Poland during the first hours of the invasion. We also provided financial support and accommodation for all our Ukrainian staff, and set up an autonomous power supply and internet connection at our delivery centre in Lviv.

As a cybersecurity business, we rely heavily on the internet. It was challenging to provide our Ukrainian employees with a reliable internet connection in the office until StarLink became available to everyone. Power outages also became a risk when Russia changed their tactics to start attacking power plants in October and November.

It was crucial to help everyone feel safe and confident during this difficult time

Mentally, it was a significant challenge to navigate. Given that the core of our team is Ukrainian, it was crucial to help everyone feel safe and confident during this difficult time.

Despite these difficulties, our team demonstrated their unwavering commitment to serving our customers. For many, their job provided a sense of normalcy amid the chaos. Despite the constant air raid alerts, our team worked tirelessly, with passion and dedication.

Ukrainian businesses are hardened by crises and are somewhat used to delivering great services and products in spite of unstable and challenging economic conditions. Although UnderDefense didn’t reach its goal of doubling its growth due to market instability and the impact of war, we still managed to grow 1.5-fold and have donated over $500,000 to support the Ukrainian armed forces. We remain optimistic for 2023.

Jonathan Bohun 
Founder and CEO of Weedar, a distribution platform for cannabis brands 

I grew up in Odesa, Ukraine, and although I have now immigrated to the US, I still have multiple businesses in the country, where I am involved in operations.

My initial reaction to the Russian invasion was one of shock and a never-before-experienced amount of pain for relatives, friends, siblings and the nation in general.

We must continue to learn how to navigate the challenges each day brings

In the days after war broke out, I flew to Romania to help my team and family members relocate to safer places. All business processes were put on pause until everyone was safe; it was two months before research and development was able to return to normal.

The support and adjustments we had to make were very individual to each team member. This ranged from emotional and financial support, all the way to purchasing train tickets, arranging logistics and helping family members and pets get to safety.

Every Ukrainian business that I was involved with saw its sales and production drop tremendously. We still don’t know the long-term effect and must continue to learn how to navigate the challenges each day brings.

The one thing the past 12 months has taught me about being a leader is to put emotions aside and act. The hope now is for the war to end sooner rather than later and for Ukraine to emerge as one of the most advanced countries in Europe.