Growing Business During the War: How Ukrainian Entrepreneurs Are Fighting Back

How Ukrainian Entrepreneurs and Small Business Survive the War
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The entrepreneurs were among the ones who got hit by the Russo-Ukrainian war more than others, facing challenges they’d never seen before. How to find new suppliers? How to pay salaries to your employees? How to sell more, when people are not ready to buy? These and hundreds of other questions demanded urgent solutions.

We talked to 9 inspirational Ukrainian entrepreneurs and found out how the armed conflict affected their businesses, what they do now and how they organize the workflow in times of full-scale war. We got different kinds of answers, but, at the same time, they had one thing in common: the lives of these and thousands of other people have changed, and never will be the same again.

We thank everybody who contributed to this project:

How the war impacted Ukrainian economics –– statistics & facts to consider

Since February 24, over 10.6 million people have been reported to have crossed the border from Ukraine to other countries and left their homes, jobs, and businesses. Ukraine’s economy is also being severely damaged. The World Bank is now predicting that its GDP will decrease by 45% this year:

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Source: The World Economic Forum

The full level of economic damage will depend on how long the war drags on. Even when it ends, the World Bank predicts a slow recovery and a growing threat of widespread poverty. According to the United Nations Development Programme, a prolonged conflict will cause 30% of the Ukrainian population to fall below the poverty line. 

We see that the situation made it really difficult and seemingly impossible to develop and grow your own project. Let’s look at the ways our interviewees cope with the new challenges and how the war affected their businesses.

What business do you do/did you do before the war? How long have you had your own business? Is it still running at the moment?

Yuliia Kopanishina-Otepko
Yuliia Kopanishina-Otepko

healthy food project WoM

Before the war, in the fall of 2021, we launched the first healthy food startup in Ukraine. We started producing vegan dragee nuts (dried fruits in cherub chocolate) and called our company WoM, which means world on mouth –– from mouth to mouth. We patented the recipe. 

During the war, production and commercial activities were suspended due to a lack of finances. Instead, in June, we launched a charity event for our military in hot spots and began to produce nut-dried fruit mixes for quick recovery. The project was financed by the donations of civilians. It was a win-win: at the same time, we gave the Armed Forces a nutritious snack, paid taxes, and preserved our IE. Also, it helped our suppliers (also Ukrainian entrepreneurs) to continue their activities, save jobs, and together we moved the Ukrainian economy forward! 

Today, we shipped 637 packs of such snacks to the Armed Forces. More than half a thousand snacks are in the packaging stage. Currently, we are looking for informational support for our charity project and regular sponsors. We dream of restarting the production of our super dragee!

Yaroslav
Yaroslav

Frisor barbershop

I managed to start my own business before the war and bought a franchise of the Frisor –– a well-known Ukrainian network of barbershops. I have been working in this field for about a year. We stopped our work for a month while there were active military actions in the Kyiv region. At the beginning of April, when we started feeling a bit safer, we reopened our barbershop. Other barbershops in the chain were reopened even earlier, in mid-March

Victoria
Victoria

MAKOSH decor

Since 2014, we’ve been arranging weddings in the city of Kherson. Unfortunately, we are not working now, as the city is under occupation and we had to leave it. Also, currently, there is no demand for wedding decor.

Victoria, MAKOSH decor
Examples of Victoria’s wedding decorations
Iryna
Iryna

Lava Studio women's clothing

My husband and I have a family business –– we’ve been owning a women’s clothing store for about 2 years. We resumed business activities in March. It started with a big sale, without any advertising –– and almost immediately we started getting orders and words of gratitude for our costumes and clothes that kept people warm in bomb shelters and basements

Albina Serbinova
Albina Serbinova

handmade candles “Volshebstvo Ognya”

I’ve been making handmade candles for about 2 years. Unfortunately, I had to put my favorite business on hold, as there were no opportunities to develop it: my family and I were forced to leave Ukraine for Moldova from the first day of the war, and then we moved to Romania.

What has changed since the beginning of the war? What processes were most affected? Has your company/business undergone any operational changes (downsizing, supply problems, company reorganization, etc.)?

Oleksii Marchenko
Oleksii Marchenko

Marchenko Marketing agency

On February 25, our clients stopped all projects –– no one had any clue on what to do and how to continue doing business. The main goal of Ukrainians was to save their lives and the lives of their beloved ones. Some people left the country, others hiding in bomb shelters… When the crisis begins, usually, the first thing the business cuts costs for is the marketing budget. As I own a marketing agency, my field of activity was impacted a lot. 

I realized that we had to enter Western markets and help Ukrainian businesses to resume work. This is how the Help Ukrainian Business (HUB) initiative appeared. It has 3 branches of work: 

  1. Free educational business lectures.
  2. Networking sessions for managers and entrepreneurs.
  3. The support of the members of the community by our partners –– they provide their products and services for free or on a discounted basis. 

I created HUB because I understand that a developed economy is essential to winning a war.

Oleksii Marchenko
Oleksii Marchenko at work
Maryna Gordienko
Marina Gordiienko

First Cambridge Education Center

Before the war, we had both offline (our school is located in Kyiv) and online groups –– the distribution was about 50/50. When the war began, we had to deliver all lessons online. Only now, in September, we’re planning to launch several offline groups. Some of our departments continue working in the office: these are the administrators, marketing team, some of the developers and academic directors, and the accounting team. Currently, all lessons take place online, so teachers and students do not come to school.

Our main goal has always been saving the team, that’s why there were almost no layoffs. Of course, some employees left the company due to various reasons: relocation, severe stress, some family circumstances… However, since the beginning of the summer, we have even started hiring.

As for reorganization, Covid-19 has taught us a lot: we already have reconfigured many processes and started remote work, so there were no significant changes here.

Vasyl Nikolaenko
Vasyl Nikolaenko

FLAMPIC

When the war began, we completely stopped our production. We did not work for more than a month, and at the beginning of April, my wife and I returned to Kyiv and slowly began to resume the work of our online store and production. Within a couple of months, our team had returned to Kyiv and we increased our production capacity and returned to the normal growth rate. The staff was not reduced –– we even hired some new people to the team.

Victoria
Victoria

MAKOSH decor

We had a small workshop where we produced wedding decorations ourselves. For the last 8 years, we have purchased a lot of decors, and made many workpieces –– all of that is very voluminous. Sure, it was impossible to transport everything to another city, especially under the conditions of war. That’s why on February 24 everything stopped. Our business has become completely irrelevant. Although we had many orders for spring, summer, and autumn, everything was canceled. We left all the decor and went to Odessa believing that one day we will return and continue our work.

Oleksii Pryimak
Oleksii Pryimak

ANT-Logistics

We immediately stopped doing business with the customers from the Russian Federation and Belarus as the war began. As for reorganizations –– some of the customers from the occupied territories do not work with us now, some of the staff went abroad with their children and left the office, and our head of marketing joined the ranks of the Armed Forces.

Do you continue to pay salaries to employees? Do customers continue to pay for your services?

Yaroslav
Yaroslav

Frisor barbershop

Yes, sure. The salaries are the most essential part of the foundation of a successful business. To support my employees, I paid them higher rates from the beginning of the war until June. It helped my staff to survive difficult times and I managed to keep the team. 

Our clients continue to pay for services. We provide discounts for some categories of visitors: military, police, territorial defense, firefighters, etc. It helps us both to attract new clients and retain regular ones, as well as support the Armed Forces with what we can.

Maryna Gordienko
Marina Gordiienko

First Cambridge Education Center

Yes, we continue to pay salaries, although we had to reduce them a bit for February-May. Since June, all employees have been getting their full salaries. We also found an opportunity to pay for vacations. We still have a steady flow of customers –– that’s why we are able to pay salaries and develop our business.

First Cambridge Education Center
Studying process at the ​​First Cambridge Education Centre
Vasyl Nikolaenko
Vasyl Nikolaenko

FLAMPIC

When the business stopped, we didn’t pay salaries. As soon as the employees returned to work, we resumed salary payments. Nowadays, retail sales have gradually recovered their volumes. We also started getting corporate orders –– many companies are ordering gifts for their employees and partners.

Oleksii Marchenko
Oleksii Marchenko

Marchenko Marketing agency

We don’t have any active projects now. I directed all my strengths and personal funds to the development of the Help Ukrainian Business project in order to support Ukrainian businesses and the reconstruction of Ukraine. I believe that it helps to overcome the aggressor and brings victory closer.

What are the biggest challenges you are facing during the war?

Oleksii Pryimak
Oleksii Pryimak

ANT-Logistics

We completely stopped marketing activities. It was necessary to change everything and establish a new development strategy. That’s why we started thinking about entering new markets.

Yuliia Kopanishina-Otepko
Yuliia Kopanishina-Otepko

healthy food project WoM

The main challenge was the decision not to close my business and reach out to people with my initiative.

Albina Serbinova
Albina Serbinova

handmade candles "Volshebstvo Ognya"

When the war began, I had many orders to complete. Some of them were already sent and I was expecting the payment, and some pieces were in the manufacturing process –– I spent my time and materials on them… All my work remained in a limbo state, some orders are still at the post offices and the clients didn’t receive them. After all, no one was ready for war.

Albina Serbinova
One of the candles Albina Serbinova was creating before the war
Yaroslav
Yaroslav

Frisor barbershop

The biggest challenge for the business was to provide support and assistance to barbers. The main task I chose for myself was to support the staff. I wanted to help my employees to overcome these difficult times without leaving Kyiv and our country.

Iryna
Iryna

Lava Studio women's clothing

The most difficult thing for me was the question of language, I was frequently shamed for it! It was hard for me to start speaking Ukrainian –– we are from Kharkiv, where everyone speaks the local, “Kharkiv” language😁 (it is also called surzhyk –– a mix of Russian and Ukrainian languages –– Ed.note) But I braced myself up, gave everyone new scripts, and now I can even record conversational videos in Ukrainian! The wish of our customers means everything to us. Finally, we got through it.

What are your business plans? Are you planning to stay in Ukraine or enter foreign markets? What are your goals for the near future?

Maryna Gordienko
Marina Gordiienko

First Cambridge Education Center

We see that the niche of learning English has great potential. Ukrainian political course is directed to the West, and our government has already proposed to make English the official language of business communication. Therefore, I think in the near future, everyone will need English. We also believe that new investments and international projects will enter Ukraine, the bonds between various companies and organizations will become closer, and everyone will have to find a common language –– which one will they choose? That’s right –– English!

Since the pandemic, students from different countries have been studying online in our educational center, although we did not promote internationally at that time. This year, we’re making attempts to do that, and we are still learning how to do it efficiently.

In addition, even before the war, we were planning an international project: an online platform for self-study and professional development for English teachers. During the war, although it was very difficult, we decided to continue working on this project, and we’re going to release it by the end of August 2022

Yuliia Kopanishina-Otepko
Yuliia Kopanishina-Otepko

healthy food project WoM

  1. Our plan is definitely to restart the production and sale of our vegan dragees.
  2. We stay in Ukraine, and develop in the domestic market. In the future, we are planning to start exporting our goods.
Yuliia Kopanishina-Otepko
Yuliia Kopanishina-Otepko signs the package with snacks to be sent to the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine
Victoria
Victoria

MAKOSH decor

We realized that the design of weddings is irrelevant in our region. Therefore, we’ve decided to retrain as a macrame shop. In the past, we often used handmade macrame products at boho weddings. Currently, we are developing the website, and designing our Instagram page. In general, we are learning how to sell all these beautiful things abroad. Unfortunately, we feel that people’s purchasing power has declined. Moreover, Ukrainians do not value handmade goods as much as in other countries. That is why we decided to try to enter foreign markets, and we hope to get something out of it.

Albina Serbinova
Albina Serbinova

handmade candles “Volshebstvo Ognya”

My biggest wish and fondest dream is to continue doing my favorite business, create, study, introduce new products and enter new European markets 😊

I wish there was peace all over the world! I want people to stop just for a minute and look at all this beauty around –– why on Earth should they destroy it? After all, our earthly path is so short.

What helps you get through these difficult times?

Yaroslav
Yaroslav

Frisor barbershop

My ability to shift the focus and cozy family days with my wife helped me a lot. Donations to the Armed Forces funds also inspire me. When your heart is heavy and hands are down, donating gives you an emotional release.

Iryna
Iryna

Lava Studio women's clothing

My daughter. She is 10 months old now, and I live for her and for her future. In general, February 24 changed everything, especially the values ​​of all Ukrainians. Now, the most important thing is to be alive and well, and everything will be OK then.

Iryna, Lava Studio
Iryna and her husband in Lava Studio’s costumes
Vasyl Nikolaenko
Vasyl Nikolaenko

FLAMPIC

Doing my favorite business inspires me. I love getting feedback from our customers –– they thank us for our products and they were happy when we resumed work. It is very motivating! We have already heard several times that our most popular product –– a phone stand called Stander –– is something that people always put in their emergency suitcase.

Oleksii Marchenko
Oleksii Marchenko

Marchenko Marketing agency

As Theodore Roosevelt said: “Do what you can with what you have, where you are.” At the moment, I’m just trying to help entrepreneurs within the framework of the Help Ukrainian Business initiative and thus bring the victory of Ukraine closer.

Oleksii Pryimak
Oleksii Pryimak

ANT-Logistics

Focus on work, self-development, donations to the Armed Forces, and a strong belief that everything will be fine and it will end as soon as possible.

What advice would you give to current entrepreneurs to deal with these challenges?

Yaroslav
Yaroslav

Frisor barbershop

Never stop –– go for it and find new opportunities. Success comes to those who see chances instead of challenges.

Iryna
Iryna

Lava Studio women's clothing

“Challenge” is bullsh*t. Just do your job at 100%, and don’t complain about fatigue and that something doesn’t work out. Remember about the guys from the battlefront –– these are the ones who take risks, sleep in cold trenches, don’t see their family and friends, and protect all of us. Donate, don’t be indifferent and everything will be fine 😅

Vasyl Nikolaenko
Vasyl Nikolaenko

FLAMPIC

Don’t be afraid to go back to work if you haven’t already. Even if your product is not a commodity, people may need it. Businesses that have resumed work stimulate the economy and provide jobs. And this helps others both financially and emotionally. After all, when you don’t sit still, it’s much easier to go through all these difficult times.

Vasyl Nikolaenko
Vasyl Nikolaenko and a lamp by FLAMPIC
Maryna Gordienko
Marina Gordiienko

First Cambridge Education Center

The main thing is to be flexible, respond to changing circumstances, offer new approaches, and adapt communication. Unfortunately, the old patterns do not work, and if you stick to them, you will quickly lose your business.

Be honest with your employees and customers, and build and maintain solid relationships –– they will help you both in good and bad times. If you feel despair or panic, take a break, and find some time to rest alone. It is better not to share such states of mind with others 😊

Currently, my love for Ukraine, which I consciously feel every minute, helps me a lot. And with this thought in mind and deep faith in victory, I continue doing my work.

Oleksii Marchenko
Oleksii Marchenko

Marchenko Marketing agency

Look for opportunities for synergy with other people, accept and provide help. Our strength is in unity.

Which story seemed the most inspiring to you and why?

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