The situation remains tense in the east of Ukraine – shots are constantly thundering in Donetsk, and the civilians are leaving the region to save their own lives and the lives of their families. Major IT companies have long realised that it is impossible to work in such circumstances, so they try to relocate their staff and move to the quiet areas of Ukraine. Now it is the turn for small businesses. A founder and leader of a small studio of mobile and web development StepInMobile Denis Nikolaenko told AIN.UA why he and his team decided to move and how it affected their work.
Modest Outsourcers from Donetsk
Denis Nikolaenko, a native of Donetsk, graduated from Donetsk National Technical University. He started his career in a large outsourcing company Levi9, then for a while he worked as a freelancer, but soon he was bored, and Denis decided to establish his own business.
In 2012, Nikolaenko founded the company StepInMobile, which specializes in the development of mobile and web applications. At the time, Denis was living in Kyiv, where he gathered a team of three people. But a year later, he realized it is hard to grow as a young company in the capital’s very saturated and competitive market. So he decided to open an office in his hometown and develop a company in the east of the country. “I was well aware of the local market conditions, knew what companies and professionals were on the market. And I realized that here it would be easier to develop,” says Denis.
He returned to Donetsk, opened up an office, and hired a few locals. The Kyiv team of StepInMobile continued to work in the office at Solomyanska Square, but the “ideological center” was moved to the East.
After the move, the company’s staff grew to ten people. And then the Maidan began.
Maidan: The Beginning
Initially, everything was quiet in Donetsk, despite the fact that the streets of Kyiv were filled with dozens or even hundreds of thousands of protesting people. Most employees of StepInMobile treated the Maidan neutrally, although there was one quite outspoken activist who actively supported the Maidan, participated in all the local demonstrations, and even went to help activists in Independence Square in Kyiv. Later he was one of the first from Donetsk to leave Ukraine for Europe, because he was on the so-called black list (terrorists had photographs of Maidan activists – somehow his picture was among them).
“I do not know exactly where he went, and none of our guys know. He does not have plans to come back – his position is quite precarious,” said Denis.
Despite the turmoil in Kyiv, the company continued to recruit new people. By February, thirteen people worked in the Donetsk branch of StepInMobile . But the situation was getting worse – after Maidan’s victory the situation in the city was unstable. It was followed by riots – the seizure of the regional state administration and the building of the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine), which was two blocks away from the office. On the streets there were armed men. The office atmosphere was strained, which adversely affected the work. “We did not know what was going on – at some point the police just stopped to exist at all,” said Denis.
When the rebels were qualified as terrorists, customers of StepInMobile got worried. “We work mostly with European and American companies, and our customers were seriously alarmed – the developers are in Donetsk, where their lives are under threat. If we cannot work, this can negatively impact their business,” said Denis.
Fortunately, no incidents happened with the staff of StepInMobile – no one was captured, and no one was injured by a stray shell … But tension was growing. And in March-April Nikolaenko started to think what would happen if the situation in Donetsk gets worse.
Where to Run?
When the anti-terrorist campaign was launched in the east, many Donetsk IT companies began to think about moving. The situation was getting worse. There was no legitimate president, only an interim one, who was rapidly losing credibility. After more serious shootings in the city of Donetsk, Denis told all employees to work from home so as not to put their lives at risk. So StepInMobile worked for about a month, but it could not continue any longer.
“I had hoped to the very end that Donetsk would return to a normal life. Perspectives of company growth here had been very good – by the end of the year we had planned to grow at least three times bigger. But soon hope was lost. We began to think of ways to flee,” said Nikolaenko.
Half of the team of StepInMobile were young people without any attachments and without families. Therefore, they were enthusiastic about the idea of moving. Despite the fact that StepInMobile had an office in Kyiv, the employees did not want to settle in the capital because it is too big and a hectic city, commuting to work takes a long time. Then we chose the city of Lviv by voting. “The city is small, there are more comfortable living conditions. Well, Lviv is the most European city in Ukraine. Some guys have always wanted to go there and welcomed the opportunity to live in Lviv,” said Denis.
Three people from the team of StepInMobile decided not to move: at the time they had family and real estate in Donetsk – it is not very easy to pack everything and move. They decided to leave temporarily until the situation would improve. One went with his family to the Dnipropetrovsk region, the other to Kyiv, and the third decided to combine business with pleasure and spend some time in Crimea. The company is working remotely with them.
“Due to the fact that there are not many tourists in Crimea, prices for housing have plummeted. Well, he found a good way out,” shared Denis.
The head of StepInMobile came a little bit earlier to Lviv than the rest of the team – to test the waters, and most importantly, to find a place for an office. As a result, Denis decided to settle the team in co-working space called Startup Depot, which opened in Lviv in May this year. According to him, for small IT companies who move to other cities, co-working is the perfect solution. At least, for some time. First of all, quality/price ratio in a co-working space is better – even a separate room for a small team will be cheaper than renting an entire office space. In addition, there are lots of interesting people there, new connections in the city are very welcomed.
“Now co-working spaces are becoming popular in Kyiv and Lviv. We have a private room, for which we pay about UAH 3,200 for five people. Inexpensive and convenient – here we talk a lot with Lviv colleagues. Plus we do not need to solve administrative issues, such as cleaning, kitchen, security, etc.,” said Denis.
The remaining staff moved earlier this summer – StepInMobile paid each employee a bonus to cover relocation expenses.
“The company should take care of housing issues for some time until the staff finds a proper place to live,” said Denis.
In Lviv, the team has grown a little bit more – two local testers have joined the team. But perhaps customers were the most happy. “Lviv is a pro-European city, located on the border with Poland, it has become easier for them to get here, and soon two of our European customers plan to visit us. And, of course, everybody calmed down when we left the zone of hostilities,” said Denis.
Soon after the move, when everything was more or less set up, StepInMobile held its first Hackathon for developers with a support of Startup Depot.
“For the first few months our entire team from Kyiv, Donetsk, and Lviv gathered together. We planned to hold such an event in Donetsk in six months, but because of the situation, all was put off – no one wanted to go into a war zone. And then, finally, it happened,” said Denis.
Win Some, Lose Some
Financially the company was not affected. Fluctuation of the exchange rate has not affected StepInMobile – the company has long-term contracts in foreign currency. “Rather, we felt better when the dollar’s rate got higher. In fact, while in Ukraine, we began to earn more,” said Denis.
In general, the relocation of StepInMobile went smoothly and without any problems. Difficulties arose only with the transportation of equipment. Part of the equipment was moved by employees – almost everyone is working with a laptop, so it was not difficult. The remaining part was sent to Lviv by colleagues who at the time of the move were in Donetsk. The furniture is still in the Donetsk office that StepInMobile is no longer renting, but the owners have allowed the company to keep it there for some time. “Now no one wants to rent an office in Donetsk, so it is empty anyway,” said Denis.
Of course, the team had a shock and it did not pass unnoticed, but in the end it was good. “It was refreshing for our minds and brains, and when we came to Lviv – one of the largest IT clusters in Ukraine – we immediately had ideas how to develop further, striving to be innovative. Soon, with a partner (who also left Donetsk but went to Kyiv) we are launching a new project, and later we will reveal more details. This project was actually born in the process of moving – if we had not thought about moving from Donetsk, it would simply have not existed,” shared Denis.
In a relatively short period of time living and working in Lviv, Denis has met many interesting people – IT-pros, entrepreneurs, start-up people – joined the local club of CEOs of IT companies, and plunged into the local IT environment. “There are a lot of outsourcing and product companies. The Lviv community is strongly developed compared to Donetsk. Here we will be able to grow faster and be more motivated,” he assured.
Neither Denis nor his employees are going to go back to Donetsk – the company is now permanently based in Lviv, especially after local developers joined the team. However, StepInMobile is still registered in Donetsk – Denis does not see the need to re-register it in Lviv. “When things will get better there, and I’d like to believe this will happen, the guys who stayed in Donetsk will be our representatives in the region. And we will have three offices – in Kyiv, Lviv, and Donetsk. Almost a national company!” hopes Denis Nikolaenko.