Workplace

Growing a startup in the middle of war: Life in Ukraine

Startups are hard. War is harder. Here’s how tech leaders in Ukraine are surviving.

 Roman Sevast, the founder of Awesomic with co-founder Stacy and their dog, Moris, behind a birthday cake.

Roman Sevast and Stacy Pavlyshyna turned down an early opportunity to leave Ukraine: They stayed to support the country's tech economy.

Photo: Awesomic

For all the worries that startup founders have when fundraising, getting kidnapped isn’t normally high on the list. But when I asked Stacy Pavlyshyna and Roman Sevast their location when we spoke on Zoom this week, they declined to name the small village where they were staying — and running a remote startup — in Ukraine.

“We now have $2 million in our account,” said Pavlyshyna, who co-founded the design startup Awesomic with Sevast. “A lot of people have just been kidnapped. We don’t feel safe to share our exact location.”

Danylo Fedirko, the head of Marketing at Relevant Software in Lviv, isn’t worried about his own safety. But he has other worries. When we last spoke — three weeks after Russia invaded — Fedirko’s father was training with Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces. Two months later, he’s done and expects to be deployed to the war, Fedirko told me last week.

“It’s like another universe,” Fedirko said. “Honestly, I’m not nervous — yet. I just don’t understand. I haven’t accepted [it] yet. Probably, if he will be really sent there, I’ll start to get nervous.”

The Ukrainian tech scene has had to adapt to the realities of wartime, and thousands of tech workers have fled the country. But with remote work already the norm, startups have by no means stopped their efforts to scale their businesses. Bolstered by an emergency $750,000 fundraising round with backers from Y Combinator, the Pioneer Fund and Flyer One Ventures, Awesomic’s slate of employees and contractors has swelled from 100 to 170 since the war began, Sevast said.

And although some clients at Relevant have been worried about the risk of outsourcing their software development work to a country under siege, Fedirko said he’s also seen an uptick in interest from customers who want to show support to Ukraine by doing business there.

The Ukrainian startup community has become even more tight-knit, sharing resources like contact information for so-called “angel drivers” who know unpopular roads to help evacuees get to safety. The whole country has entered “startup mode” in its unification against the chaos, Sevast said.

“Everyone wants to help each other,” Sevast said. “It’s a special atmosphere when you unite with random people with whom you’ve never talked before, but they help you like it’s your best friends.”

Evacuating the team to safety

Around 80% of Awesomic’s Ukraine-based workforce has stayed in the country, many with relocation help from Awesomic. A number of them are working from bunkers with unstable internet connections, Pavlyshyna said. Most Ukrainian men have no choice but to stay, but many women at Awesomic have also stayed in Ukraine, including Pavlyshyna herself.

Both Sevast and Pavlyshyna turned down an early opportunity to leave. In the days after the invasion, Sevast and Pavlyshyna had an appointment to secure visas to the U.S. — they were set to be part of the first Ukrainian delegation to SXSW in mid-March. But they chose to stay in Ukraine even as Russian forces invaded, Pavlyshyna said. “Army wins the battles, but we need to win with the economy,” she said.

It’s a sentiment that Pavlyshyna has heard throughout her network of young Ukrainian creatives and entrepreneurs, even as millions have left the country.

“I strongly hear a narrative of ‘Stay here, and fighting for the country,’ because it’s home,” Pavlyshyna said. “If we lose this war, we will have no home to get back.”

a diptych of a helicopter and a group photo of the Awesomic team days before the war. Awesomic has helped some of its team relocate to safer parts of Ukraine.Photo: Awesomic

That could change if things get too dangerous, Pavlyshyna said. Already, Awesomic has helped some of its team relocate to safer parts of Ukraine. The company also rented two villas in Egypt, a popular vacation destination for Ukrainians, for Awesomic team members to use for a few weeks at a time. In a blog post on Wednesday, Sevast noted that the company would provide financial help, including paying 100% of the expenses for team members to see psychologists to help with PTSD.

Even in relatively safe Lviv, Fedirko’s apartment floor shook from bombing in the area several weeks ago, he said. It was “really scary,” Fedirko said, but he and his colleagues still usually feel safe enough to ignore the air raid sirens that interrupt their days, signaling a missile launch.

“It’s just, like, ‘Oh, so there’s a siren. OK. I will go far away from the windows,’” Fedirko said. “We continue to work.” They also continue to play: When Fedirko and I spoke on Friday evening, he mentioned that his colleagues were drinking wine at the office.

Taking up arms

Both Awesomic and Relevant are donating money to help with the war efforts, and both companies have employees who are in the war. Relevant has now bought two drones for a senior UX designer who has gone to fight, Fedirko said. A designer and a developer at Awesomic have also joined the Ukrainian forces.

And like Fedirko, some of Awesomic’s team is young enough that their parents are fighting, Pavlyshyna said. In those cases, Awesomic is offering financial support where it’s needed.

Fedirko himself had an emotional urge to go and fight, especially when Kyiv was initially at risk of occupation, he said. For now, he said he feels that he’s helping to support the economy by working and paying taxes. He said he’s “ready, emotionally” to be drafted at some point.

Armored vests Awesomic donated 1,000,000 UAH ($35,000) to the charity fund “Come Back Alive,” which bought 496 armored vests for the Ukrainian soldiers.Photo: Awesomic

Sevast, too, said he would either join the forces or dedicate himself to volunteer efforts if he weren’t obligated to his team and investors.

Pavlyshyna sees her greatest contribution to the war effort as working to rebuild the economy and strengthen the tech industry in Ukraine. Awesomic largely sells to foreign customers — mostly in the U.S. — and the business brings in money at a time when economic sectors like agriculture have been crippled.

“Everyone can decide whether they can bake bread [to] volunteer, or do any kind of work, and we decided that we need to do this effort,” Pavlyshyna said. “I think we just need to invest more of the time here, and maybe dedicate more of the time — as we already doing — to sharing knowledge, mentoring the community, so more startups will appear and will succeed.”

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