The last word: Ukraine’s tech sector is the epitome of business resilience

Agility, flexibility and adaptability, alongside resilience, have become competitive advantages for Ukraine’s tech firms.  

Earlier this week, I was asked to deliver a message supporting Ukrainian start-ups at the 1991 Accelerator Demo Day session. 

My message would have been different if delivered one and a half years ago when global awareness about Ukraine and the country’s tech capabilities and potential was quite low globally, despite the multiple successes of the Ukrainian tech sector and Ukrainian start-ups. 

I remember a few days after Russia’s full-scale invasion I was interviewed by a US-based journalist who wanted to write an article about Ukrainian start-ups. But before we talked about how the start-up ecosystem would potentially be affected by the invasion, I insisted on starting from the beginning. I needed to say that Grammarly, MacPaw, Reface, Petcube, Gitlab, to name just a few start-ups, originate from Ukraine, which was something she wasn’t aware of. 

We also talked about the entire tech sector, including IT and how I knew that tech companies would be able to continue offering their services to clients because Ukraine had already been invaded eight years earlier. When my organisation worked with a Ukrainian IT company, we could see how fast they were making additional arrangements when even a small challenge appeared on the horizon, and this was some six years ago. 

When we were launching the Ukrainian chapter of Tech Emerging Europe Advocates online at the beginning of March 2022, we were jubilant to see the overwhelming support of the more than one thousand participants who joined us online as we couldn’t travel to Kyiv.  

In January this year, I was also happy to find out that I was right about my predictions: the Ukrainian IT sector exported more services during the war-effected 2022 than a year earlier in 2021. 

Learning to adapt 

In August last year, six months after Russia’s full-scale invasion, we surveyed over 150 Ukrainian start-ups.  

The findings were quite optimistic, considering the circumstances. The majority of start-ups demonstrated resilience and entrepreneurs continued to operate their businesses and remained committed to their success even in this dire environment. 

Some Ukrainian start-ups relocated but the vast majority kept at least a part of their operations or team in Ukraine. And more than half continued their operations exclusively from Ukraine. 

Whether they needed financial support or not, more than half of all start-ups surveyed said they expected to expand their operations in the short-term. This is what perseverance means! 

The last 15 months have not been easy, in fact far from it. Some start-up founders had to suddenly find a new home, build a new life, leave their loved ones behind as they are at the front line fighting for the country. Most of them have also lost friends and some family members to the war. 

I am currently in the process of asking this question to one hundred Ukrainian women as part of research for a book I am working on about their strength and stamina. When I recall the experiences some of the Ukrainian women I have spoken to have shared with me, how they struggled to leave the country, to find a new home and build their lives anew, sometimes having lost everything they had, I can only try to image what they have gone through. 

But I also hear the echo of their words — we might not have a chance to do it tomorrow, that is why we need to do it today. We must go for it now. Waiting makes absolutely no sense. We have nothing to lose. We have lots to gain. 

This is perseverance and perseverance is one of the most important traits that an entrepreneur must possess in order to succeed. It is the ability to keep going despite obstacles, setbacks, and failures. Perseverance means having the determination and resilience to overcome challenges and stay focused on your goals. 

Perseverance also involves being willing to learn from mistakes and failures. Instead of giving up when things go wrong, successful entrepreneurs use setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow. They analyse what went wrong, make the necessary adjustments, and try again. 

This is what I have seen Ukrainian start-ups and tech companies do. 

Ready for change 

A wise man once said that “there is nothing so stable as change”. 

Even if we forget about the war for a moment, in today’s business world change is happening at an unprecedented pace. We, entrepreneurs and start-up founders, operate in an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. We need to be prepared for anything that comes our way. We need to be agile, adaptable, and flexible to survive in this ever-changing landscape. 

One of the main reasons why we all need to be prepared for change in business is that it can happen at any time. Disruptive technologies, changing customer preferences, and global events — and we have recently witnessed quite a few of those, including the Covid-19 pandemic — can all have a significant impact on businesses. We need to be prepared for change because it is inevitable. No matter how much we try to resist it, change will happen. Those who are not prepared for these changes risk being left behind. Therefore, it is essential to have a plan in place to deal with any potential disruptions. 

And if you think about it, in the lifetime of the men who built America, men like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and Henry Ford, the average life cycle of a company was 75 years. What it means is that as a company you could do the same thing for 75 years, make money out of it and not be bothered about pivoting the business.  

Then, at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990s this business life cycle shrank. This was for a number of reasons, the opening of China, the fall of the so-called Soviet bloc and the dot com bubble. Suddenly the average life cycle of a business was reduced to just 15 years.  

And has it stopped there? Of course not.  

Now, the average cycle of a business model is no more than six years. This includes monopolies and long-term businesses like oil and gas, and mining. But some 60 per cent of companies report that they need to reinvent every three years. And if we look at small businesses, they need to reinvent themselves every 12 months.  

Ukrainian start-ups and tech companies are by now far more ready to deal with change than other companies and they have the perseverance that most of us dream about. They are better equipped to embrace change and challenging circumstances and they are more likely to look at these things as an opportunity.  

From experience I can say that Ukrainians are a resilient people but what the last 15 months have demonstrated is that agility, flexibility and adaptability, alongside that resilience, are its competitive advantage.  

Now or never 

I said that one and a half years ago the global awareness about Ukrainian tech was relatively low. The last 15 months of the full-scale Invasion have changed that dramatically. All eyes are on Ukraine, and Ukrainian start-ups have no choice but to make use of that situation. 

In March last year I hosted a fireside chat with a former minister of economy and industry of France and he said that when rebuilding Ukraine after the war, the country should learn from France, from Germany, from other countries. When I asked him what these countries could learn from Ukraine, he didn’t expect the question. 

Today, the answer is very clear. 

Estonia, despite its size and small population, might be a heavyweight in the European tech ecosystem. It leads in a number of Emerging Europe’s rankings, for example the IT competitiveness index. The country is going from strength to strength every year. 

But I am more than certain that Ukraine stands a chance of becoming Europe’s leader in technology, digital transformation and innovative start-ups. Ukrainian start-ups have the skills and determination to overcome any obstacle that comes their way. I am looking forward to seeing them succeed and become unicorns. 

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