Ukrainian startups are doing everything they can to keep working. But it isn't easy

Many Ukrainian startups continue to operate despite damage to critical infrastructure in the country.
Written by Bojan Stojkovski, Contributor
Image: Getty

While Russia's invasion has severely damaged Ukraine's economy, with estimates that it could shrink up to 35% this year, many tech startups in the country are doing everything they can to keep their businesses operating.

It hasn't been easy. Thirty-year-old Oleksandar Shubin, who comes from Kharkiv, one of the most heavily bombed cities in the country, has been keeping his startup running during the nine months of the war.

"During the early hostilities, our work slowed down a good bit, because we had to ensure maximum safety for our employees and their families," Shubin, the founder and CEO of software development company SDA, tells ZDNET.

"Some of them were forced to evacuate, but others remained in dangerous areas. Nevertheless, we did not stop working and some of our colleagues are even working from basements and shelters," he says.

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During the last few weeks, Russia has been also targeting critical infrastructure in the Ukraine, which is an additional challenge for tech companies in the country.

"Right now the biggest difficulties for our employees has been how to keep working when there are massive blackouts," he says. With employees across more than a dozen cities, it is hard to provide them all with internet or power generators. 

"We are currently trying to communicate and coordinate with different IT companies for sharing offices and co-working spaces." Shubin explains.

While for most startups in the country the invasion came as a surprise, some had made contingency plans.

Let's Enhance, a Ukrainian startup that uses AI to improve images, is one of them. 

"We created a special emergency support group, where we discussed all possible options, and we had a plan of what to do in case of a war. They started sounding the alarm after Putin's speech on February 21. Some of our employees had time to leave, and some did not have time. Some stayed abroad on vacation, with snowboards and ski jackets," says CEO and co-founder Sofiia Shvets, who currently lives in the US.

Meanwhile, the company's other co-founder and CTO Vlad Pranskevicius was in Ukraine when the invasion began.

"I was in Ukraine at the time of the full-scale invasion, and I remain here to this day. I remember the first day of the war and the shock of the news. But after dinner, my team and I already agreed on our emergency plan and how we can help," Pranskevicius says.

Right now, the company's employees, most of whom are working remotely from different countries, are volunteering, helping  cooperate with humanitarian aid centers, and participating in or organizing rallies in support of Ukraine in Brussels, Tallinn, Tbilisi, and Los Angeles. Additionally, Let's Enhance remains keen on working on and improving their products and AI image-editing capabilities.

At the same time, while Ukrainian startups and companies are dealing with such hardships, IT has been one of the most resilient industries in the country.

During the past few years, the country has been home to more than 250,000 IT professionals and with the prospect of remote work and stable salaries, the industry is attracting more talent.

Now, while the war has affected most of their business operations, the IT industry is still going strong, Ukrainian entrepreneur Nikita Izmaylov tells ZDNet.

"The number of specialists who want to join this field has increased, including young people who lost their jobs due to the war. They want to build their career in IT, because you can do your job remotely and earn good money," Izmaylov, who is also the CEO and founder of Ukrainian fintech investment fund called N1, tells ZDNET.

Various IT academies across the country are also contributing to the trend by offering courses for those who want to learn. Kyiv-based Mate Academy is one of them – founded in 2015, each year the academy has been providing courses for around 2,000 students in programming, quality assurance, UI/UX design and recruiting.

The courses are free for the students up until they get a job, after which they pay a percentage of their salaries.

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According to Max Lysak, one of Mate Academy's co-founders, while there was always a big interest in IT among young Ukrainians, the war only amplified their will to get into the industry.

"Since IT allows people to work remotely no matter where they are based, it made it even more attractive for them. Another factor is also currency devaluation – the Ukrainian gryvna devaluaed up to 50% of its worth. And in tech, Ukrainian companies mostly work with US and European companies and they get salaries in euros or dollars," Lysak tells ZDNet.

IT clusters and big software companies across the country also provide opportunities for those Ukrainians interested in the industry. Aside from the capital of Kyiv, the country also has the city of Lviv, located in its western part, as a developing IT hub.

The Lviv IT cluster, a community that brings together the largest IT companies, universities and local authorities, has the role of providing various programs for those that want to take up different IT professions.

Since 2016, the cluster has launched 18 BA programs at four universities in the city, from AI, robotics, cybersecurity and onto non-tech degree programs such as HR Management and UX/UI design.

Software development companies such as SoftServe have also established their own academies.

"The academy delivers different courses, internships, and tech marathons and offers jobs to the best students. Regarding switchers, approximately 50% of all companies' trainees and junior specialists are switchers from different fields – finance, law areas, science, etc," SoftServe's country manager for Ukraine, Anastasiya Frolova tells ZDNet.

"We continue to work on all our educational initiatives now because we need well-educated students and tech experts on the market despite the war. I am sure the Ukrainian tech industry will return to normal after the war ends, and we will need more talents to grow and develop."

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