When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, 33-year-old Andrey Klen — the co-founder of design firm O0 and co-founder and CMO of internet-connected laser-toy maker Petcube — had been preparing both his staff for about three weeks: “The threat was imminent. We needed to have individual relocation plans in place.”
Petcube and O0 co-founder Alex Neskin.
Along with his co-founder of both companies, 34-year-old Alex Neskin — who’d last year moved with his wife, daughter, and mother from Kyiv to the San Francisco Bay Area — Klen helped more than half of his 50 Ukraine-based employees relocate. Most went to western Ukraine, some to Europe. Then a bomb dropped 1,000 meters from Klen’s home in Kyiv. He needed to get out too.
He resettled in Lviv, near the border of Poland. Bombs started falling there, too, including on the day President Biden visited Poland. One of Petcube’s employees enlisted in the Ukrainian army. Another couple agreed to help with newly created local branches of the Ukrainian defense. Petcube, which is now an entirely remote company, is paying everyone a full salary, and donated to the employees’ local defense groups. It’s also given more than 1.5 million in the local currency, hryvnia, or roughly $50,500, to the Ukrainian defense. And, like many Ukrainian companies, it has earmarked continuing monthly donations from employee paychecks and its own proceeds.
Meanwhile the design firm, O0, which the founders had spun out of Petcube in 2018, took a different tack in helping Ukraine. In mid-March, Klen challenged his team of about 20 employees, who are global and remote, to ask the rest of the world to support the besieged country in a way that hadn’t been done before. Not through donations to an NGO or the military, but rather through direct purchasing from the hundreds of other small Ukrainian companies like his. (O0 is pronounced “oh zero,” and the name is the founders’ take on the Ukrainian word for lake, which when spoken might sound to an English speaker like, “oh zero.”)
Two weeks later, in early April, a campaign launched with a YouTube video of Ukrainians, some wearing traditional clothing, others wielding rocket-launchers, dubbed over with a confident feminine voice: “We are the people you may have heard about. We are the people of Ukraine. We need some help at the moment. For obvious reasons.” Next flashed short clips from more than a dozen Ukraine-based startups offering services, products, fashion, and technology. It was the first promotional video for a new campaign: Spend With Ukraine.
The campaign’s website features more that 100 Ukrainian brands, from smart gadgets like Ajax Systems, a professional security company; to productivity software, like typing-assistant Grammerly; to entertainment, like face-swapping app Reface; to dozens of popular fashion companies.
Neskin notes that every Ukrainian company O0 approached to be part of Spend With Ukraine was enthusiastic. “One of the biggest strengths of Ukraine is this sense of unity in disaster. It’s something in our genes,” he says. “There was a feeling, even if they might compete with one another usually, that we have to unite to win this thing.”
How could the design firm create the campaign in less than two weeks when half of its employees are displaced or living in war? For many of them, the effort provided a mental health boost. “For Ukrainians right now, we get glued to the news cycle and get really down,” Klen says. “The best antidote to that can be work, and doing something that matters.”
Klen and Neskin’s teams are publicizing the Spend With Ukraine effort like they’d approach launching a new startup: In addition to the well-produced YouTube video, they posted the campaign on ProductHunt, as well as on Y Combinator’s internal message boards. (The founders are 2016 YC alums, and O0 has done design work for many of the incubator’s startups.) They’re still trying to increase awareness that, even in a country under martial law, small companies provide significant economic fuel.
“If you spend with Ukraine, you are supporting the economy. The companies are spending money building and supporting the army,” Klen says. He points out that while armies win battles, economies win wars.
Adds Neskin: “We need to help our economy and turn it back on, because of course, all money that goes into Ukraine will help Ukraine.”