Switching from Peacetime to Wartime CEO
Dima Kovalenko, CEO of Ukrainian-based product studio Uptech, shares his experience and insight of acting in the first days of invasion and keeping his business afloat during the ongoing war.
- By Dima Kovalenko
- June 30, 2022
On February 24, the lives of Ukrainian people were turned upside down. The Ukrainian people united to fight against the Russian aggression on multiple fronts: battlefield, cyberspace, volunteering, spreading the truth in the media, keeping businesses afloat, and supporting the economy.
Ukrainian IT has become the backbone of the Ukrainian economy, continuing to be the main resource for currency exchange and paying their taxes promptly. To keep their businesses operating, CEOs of IT companies had to act decisively in a situation of emergency and uncertainty.
Stage 0: On the Brink of War
Three weeks before the war, news coverage about possible war increased and everyone started to feel the tension of the upcoming invasion. Some people began to worry about the future; others did not believe that a war was even possible in our time.
The possibility of war was a completely new situation for me, for which one can hardly be ready. Honestly, I felt bewildered, but we started to prepare. Together with the account managers, people operations manager, and financial and legal teams, we attempted to predict several scenarios of possible events, and make an action plan for each of them.
As a result, we came up with a business continuity plan (BCP), including 4 scenarios depending on the risk level:
Green (The Mildest Scenario)
Red (The Worst Scenario)
BPC plan maintenance
Communicate the BCP with clients
Switch to full remote work
Financial support with relocation
Diversify income streams
Forecast risks and plan action steps in detail
Advance salaries if needed
Ensure minimal communication break
During this time we had to make many decisions even though we hardly knew what to expect. Some of our concerns never arose (luckily, for sure). For example, I was worried that the mobile network would be disrupted, so we started buying diesel generators and satellite mobile phones. However, things worked out well and the net connection did not suffer.
- Be aware of the evolving situation and risks
- Be prepared; it is better to have a plan that will not be used than not have a plan at all
- Involve responsible people; each one should be responsible for a certain expected set of events
Stage 1: First Day of the Invasion
On February 24, I was awakened at 4 a.m. by the loud explosions outside my window. The first thing I did was write to my colleagues to ask how they were. In the morning, I and my co-founder, Andrii Bas, went to the office and started to work, communicating to the team and clients.
Our main message to the team was for people to go to a safe place together with their families. We helped people logistically and organizationally, matching people who could help with accommodations with those who needed them.
- Your team is your first priority; support your team as much as you can (it’s better if you already have a plan with all actions specified)
- Be transparent and sincere with your team and clients
- Don’t be quiet; communicate with clients regarding your situation and next steps; provide honest information
Stage 2: First Week of the War
During the first week of war, our main priorities were to:
- Ensure the safety of the team
- Pay salaries in advance to support team members and their families
- Relocate people from Kyiv to safer regions
- Keep the team and clients informed about the ongoing events and company’s plans
It is very important to regularly communicate with the team and provide regular updates. The main messages we delivered in internal communication during the first week of the war were twofold: keep calm and be safe, and we believe that Ukraine will win.
As CEO, I communicated personally to each team member to make sure everyone was safe. Fortunately, during the first week, 90 percent of the team were in safe places and ready to get back to work.
Our second priority during this period was client retention. Almost all our clients, who have been working with us for years, stayed with us and sent their support.
- Communicate, communicate again, and communicate everywhere. Your current clients and future clients should see how you operate, what is going on, and what to expect while working with you.
- Support your team. The psychological state of people evolves during critical situations, especially war. You have to support your team and find words and instruments to support them at every stage.
Stage 3: How Things Are Going Now
The whole Uptech team is now back to work, working on the old projects and starting new ones. Luckily, we did not have to lay off anyone, and we keep taking measures to prevent layoffs from happening.
Moreover, we are hiring new staff. During the war, ten new people joined Uptech. We support newcomers who have joined us during the war by paying a sign-in bonus aimed to help them financially in case they had lost their previous jobs.
I would call the period we are living in now a time of uncertainty. We have had to adapt our working processes to the many changes that the new reality has brought. The business environment changed a lot; we had to review all our priorities and processes from before the war and adapt them to the new reality. This especially concerned the marketing and sales teams because things we had been building for years no longer worked, and we had to build new marketing and sales channels in a matter of weeks.
Today you can hardly make business plans for more than a month ahead of time. Everything is in flux, and you have to explore new realities to stay alive and win, so what we do in this situation is explore. We are figuring out new tactics in recruiting, marketing, and sales.
For example, in the first week of war, we needed new people for our projects. However, we had doubts about how the market would react to open vacancies in times of big uncertainty, when being safe is the first priority for everyone. We conducted a test. We started to communicate to candidates, offering them a job as a way to help those who had lost their jobs. We adapted our communication to potential candidates by emphasizing a caring and helpful attitude. Our main message in recruiting changed from “let’s build amazing products together” to “we want to help!” This approach worked well.
- Your strategy doesn’t change, but your tactics must
- Review the current state of all your business processes and look for new bottlenecks
- Recognize that no one knows what works and what does not; there is no single solution for everyone
Your Team Is Your Silver Bullet
Your team is the core of your business. How much you invest in your team during peacetime will pay you back in the amount of support you will receive from your team during wartime.
In relationships with the Uptech team, we have always tried to build a supportive, honest, and humane attitude. From the company’s outset, we have been building a people-centered culture, where every team member is heard and respected. As a result, during the crisis, I saw how people on the team helped each other, constantly communicated, and supported the business.
We understand that the war has taken a big toll on people’s mental health and motivation. We are treating people empathetically, letting them return to work at the time that is comfortable for them.
We totally understand that teammates can sometimes be unavailable because of air alerts or psychological tension. After the first week of war, we tried to communicate to the team that by working they make a huge contribution to Ukraine’s economy. It is important to tell people that their work matters, and they are helping their country by doing their job well.
A Final Word
Uptech was founded as a place where bright professionals get together to build great products. Our main values are trust for people and a product mindset. As CEO, I am happy that in times of uncertainty we managed to change processes and tactics, and we stayed true to our values. We will keep doing what we can do best: being professional and building great products that bring value to people’s lives.