What I’ve Learned From Running a Ukrainian Startup During Wartime
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On Feb. 24, 2022, I woke up to the phone ringing. My parents called me from Kyiv, saying that Russia started the war with .
These past weeks have been extremely hard and full of personal stories, but I want to look at the war situation from the standpoint of the chief operating officer of a Ukrainian startup. How can one run a startup in an extremely adverse setting?
I hope no one would ever have to experience operating a company in a wartime — luckily, it is an extremely rare situation. However, as the world is becoming increasingly interconnected with a lot of pressure points such as or pandemics, tips for doing business in an extreme environment can come in handy.
In the first weeks of the war, by trial and error, we managed to overperform our targets, unite our people and make our company resilient to potential disruptions, while helping our country to defend itself. Reflecting on what worked, I found striking similarities with the key Principles of War laid out in the British Defence Doctrine — a guide for commanders and their staff for planning and conducting war. Out of the 10 principles, three were particularly a case in point for us, and I believe would be highly applicable for any startup experiencing an external shock.
1. Selection and maintenance of aim: Look for the goal amid chaos
Selection and maintenance of the aim is regarded as the master principle of war. Any major external disruption pushes companies to re-evaluate their goals, especially startups, which can be more fragile organizations.
External shocks cause a lot of stress in people, which in turn switches on the fight-or-flight response, a survival mechanism. The blood pressure gets higher, muscles get tense and the body is ready to perform. In the first days of the war, I experienced the desire to be everywhere and help everyone. However, it’s very easy to get lost under stress in a rapidly changing environment and underperform when your impact matters the most.
The selection of clear and simple objectives is key to bringing structure from the chaos and should be done as quickly as possible. In our case it was ensuring the safety of our people, balancing full support of their aspirations while maintaining a level of working capacity across all workstreams, and focusing on profitability.
2. Maintenance of morale: unite your people with a sense of purpose
Morale is a positive state of mind derived from a shared sense of purpose and values. Indeed, there is nothing more motivational than having a purpose. According to the research of Raj Sisoda, companies that operate with a clear and driving sense of purpose outperformed the S&P 500 by a factor of 14 between 1998 and 2013. Companies do try to adopt purpose in their businesses. However, for the majority of companies, purpose has quite weak emotional links for employees, especially if the company is far from working on fundamental needs such as safety, food or ecology.
Nevertheless, the adverse events can bring a new shared purpose for many people, as Covid-19 pandemic did. By harnessing aspirations towards the things that unite people and creating a “home” for them, companies not only do the ethically right thing, but also cultivate a happier and more productive workforce.
Volunteering programs are not only for big businesses — startups can benefit from them tremendously as well. According to a study conducted by UnitedHealth, 81% of employees who volunteered throughout their found improved relationships with their colleagues. At Reface, we support people in finding volunteering opportunities outside of the company and help set up ones within the company using our company’s infrastructure.
3. Flexibility: Apply network-driven structure instead of a command-control one
Flexibility is the ability to change readily to meet new circumstances. The fog of war, a situation of uncertainty faced by soldiers on the battlefield, can be applied to a business experiencing an external shock.
The change of pace is substantial and the pressure on the organization is enormous, which provokes the natural desire to switch to a command-control structure. On the contrary, management should push more decision-making to the bottom and make the organization more network-driven. Networks provide resilience, as the organization will not be paralyzed if someone loses internet connection, for example.
Second, the information sharing becomes rapid and 360 in nature, providing much-needed context for decision-making. Network systems have proven to be extremely effective in the time of external shocks, illustrated by the outstanding success of the “networked” Ukrainian army vs. the “hierarchical” Russian one. Yet efficient networks require a certain culture of to-do attitude and a generalist mindset. Startups typically excel in these things, and should not shy away from bringing people into sometimes unfamiliar structures and units. The willingness of our people to be redeployed if needed and their strong situational awareness of the company helped us make the company resilient and highly adaptive to threats and disruptions.
Navigating an adverse external shock is emotionally challenging and intellectually complex. However, in these extreme settings, the survival of the business becomes not only an economic responsibility, but also a responsibility to society. The stakes may be high, but there is always a way to win.