Operating An Agency with Teammates in Ukraine, March 2022

A Blog intended to support what it is like to operate an American agency with teammates in an area where a war has begun. This is not intended to demonstrate what the people of Ukraine are going through compared to the hardships of a company.

These are challenging times for NineTwoThree as 25 of our beloved Ukrainian teammates face the horrible act of Russian aggression invading their home country.

NineTwoThree supports the people of Ukraine and joins with the global community in condemning this monstrous invasion. 

Through extended resources and team unity - we are in communication every day with each of our 25 team members and their families. We offer support, shelter options, communication channels, remote offices, and financial aid to the team - including salaries. At the moment, most of them are safe or traveling to a safer location.

Every day , we are interested in their safety first and will continue to focus on any efforts we can make as a company to increase their feeling of security. 

Secondly, we are committed to our clients from around the world. As of today, we are proud of our team and their strength and resiliency because every single client is being fully supported by the care and efficiency NineTwoThree has demonstrated for 10 years.

As a smaller agency, the beginning of the war meant that our efforts were dedicated to the team and clients first. As 12 days have passed - and we have recalculated our financial models - we are trying to focus on the stability of the company with our new realities. 

When Ukraine wins the war we will be stronger than ever. Our team has shown resilience and fight - just like the Ukrainian army. The people are united, they believe in each other, and they will prevail - I am so confident of this. 

This Blog is intended to support what it is like to operate an American agency with teammates in an area where a war has begun. This is not intended to demonstrate what the people of Ukraine are going through compared to the hardships of a company. 

I have learned more about the purpose of business through this war. While we cannot physically help individuals in need, we can provide stability and support financially and through communication. All 50 people of our team, now approaching 60, are part of something larger than NineTwoThree. 

And today, we are all thinking about Ukraine.


February 24th. The War Begins

At 11 pm EST, an hour after the first bomb fell we joined the entire world in disbelief that Russia was in fact invading Ukraine. By 6 am EST - we had contacted all 25 of our employees through Direct Messages and asked three questions. 

  1. Are you ok? 
  2. Where are you?
  3. Where are you going?

Each member of the team communicated through Slack at first - updating us on their progress as we tracked their whereabouts using Google Sheets. We quickly realized what the priority for our Ukrainian teammates was - how were their parents doing? So we started tracking that too…

Within the first 24 hours, without much sleep from anyone, we all continued to communicate as a team. Each team member was making calculated decisions on what the safest situation would be for them and their family.

 From the United States, we felt so helpless and helpful at the same time. While we tried to be a listening ear to what the immediate needs were - we could only offer what we could from afar. A calm voice, and a listening ear. 


February 25th. The Shift: Things Can’t Revert to Business As Usual

We knew that our team in Ukraine would not be ”business as usual”. At that moment, no one was considering work - or even asking to work. Our success as a company, and the profits we have shared through the years, is due to the hard work and dedication of 130+ 923ers from around the globe over the years - many from Ukraine.

As soon as the war started we made a commitment to continue paying the salaries of every member in Ukraine regardless of work output. We are so thankful for their dedication to our Clients - and know that after Ukraine is victorious each member will return to full strength. 

While typically NineTwoThree is 60% utilized towards our clients projects, we immediately saw Thursday and Friday drop below 24%. At the time, we had 50 contributing members between our startups, client projects, and marketing teams. 

This means that 24% of the team is supporting the costs of the other 76% which is not sustainable for our clients nor our future as an agency. We had to act quickly. 


Supporting Our Clients

Our strength as an agency is that over the years we have produced 14 startups. We are actively working on Dishare, Videosnap, Lunchkin, and Altar which brings our utilization to 85%. So naturally, our first course of action was to move any resource from Altar and Lunchkin to the Client projects to backfill the Ukrainian efforts. 

24% quickly became 40%. Still 20% short of our previous output. 

On February 26th, we started contacting agencies from Poland and the UK with whom we have had relationships in the past or knew about from being in the industry. It did not matter what hour it was in the day, but Marek from Netguru, Ilia from Solveit, Leszek from Brainhub, the team at Hedgehog, and many many other CEOs had the exact same kind-hearted response. “How can I help?”

Each agency from Poland offered housing, offices, visas, development support, and most importantly asked about the safety of our team. It became the introduction mantra of every call. 

“Thank you for taking the call, first I want to ask you, do you have anyone in Ukraine and how are they doing at the moment, are they safe?” After answering the question, the same question would be asked back to me - “how is your team doing, are they safe, how can we help?”

We worked relentlessly over the weekend to source engineers. What we did not think was fathomable was that there were agencies that had already separated their contracts with anyone in Ukraine leaving these individuals to not only face the realities of war - but when Ukraine is victorious - they would also be jobless. 

Through this scattering, we started working with our partners to find a safe place for individuals from other agencies and ask for resumes to see which project across our many new partners each developer would be most suited for. 

February 28th. Four Days In.

On Monday morning we started the day by communicating with our Ukrainian teammates asking if they were safe and we began wondering what type of contributions we could expect while they were in a situation unfathomable to the rest of us - while bombs were falling in their country and around their towns. 

To me, one of the most incredible moments was watching our time tracking green lights turn on starting at 4 am Monday morning. Without needing to ask, the team started to support the clients. Not all team members were safe, we knew that - and we were (and still are) very worried about our members in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and the Sumy region - but we all understood that we were in this together. 

Every member of our team that was not from Ukraine stepped up. Throughout the entire few days of chaos, the engineers were able to put in more hours to support the projects and work independently while we sorted out the safety of the team. 

We are thankful for the efforts of the non-Ukraine team for we would have not survived without their dedication and support. Team members took on additional roles, asked where they could assist and realized that supporting the clients was vital to our financial stability. We needed to show that we could still operate as a company with half of our team. 

Next, we began to take our new engineers through our onboarding process which explains how to operate in any project in our company. Without this training documentation, we never would have been able to support this influx of new talent. 

At the same time, we were cross-training our startup developers into client projects (many of whom had worked on the client project in the past and just needed to catch up due to our standard cross-training.)

By the end of February 28th, our team was still moving around Ukraine or in a momentary safe location and our Utilization rate reported at 39% - which was expectedly due to cross-training not being a direct resource to a project. 


Payment Problems

During a time of war, one of the common headlines is about bank transactions in one form or another. We use Bank of America to transfer most of our funds to our employees, consultants, and partners. On Friday, BOA shut down all wire transfers to Ukraine. 

We had been fiddling with the idea of using Deel.co to pay our team in 2022 - and did a test run in January to mixed results. But as soon as the war started Deel was the only option for us to send funds to Ukraine - and more importantly provide the Ukraine team with a virtual bank account/credit card that would be stored in an American bank and could be transferred to Wise, Payoneer or other payment providers/banks. 

By Monday afternoon we were able to pay all our teammates both in and out of Ukraine successfully. I do want to say here that the tireless efforts of Jordan Racklin-Costello from Deel was outstanding customer service and I will always remember her for the assistance she provided during those 4 days. 

Supporting Ukraine

The stories of what the people of Ukraine are going through were and are heartbreaking. Seeing pictures of our teammates' apartments being destroyed, talking to them while they were in basements and bunkers, and hearing about specific situations they encountered was hard. 

This blog is from the perspective of an American, myself, witnessing the war from two continents away. It does not give any justice to what is going through the minds of any individual under attack by an army with missiles. I want to pause here and say that this war is unjust, and the people of Ukraine need help and support through donations. 

Here is a list of approved places you can currently donate to.

volunteer organizations - Ministry of Information Policy of Ukraine - Official website (mkip.gov.ua)

If you want to trust us, we have donated to Donate | comebackalive which is a 5-minute process. 


February 28th to March 1st.  

On Monday, the utilization score was 39%, Tuesday’s was 47%, Wednesday we were at 53% and Thursday we hit 63%. Incredible. 

While we onboarded our new teammates, our Ukrainian teammates consulted, Slack messaged, supported, and even worked - all while keeping an eye on the news, the sirens, their families, their new living conditions. They all showed incredible resilience and strength. 

We continued to contact our clients who were incredibly supportive of our efforts to keep the team safe and to figure out the best way to support their projects. We are thankful to all of our clients for being so kind during this difficult time - and it was through transparency and communication that we were able to maintain the relationship. 

Each day, we had a list of items that we had to complete that day. Some items included “Talk to Person X” or “Contact client to set up a meeting for Y.” It gave us a constant mission, an executable plan, and a vision on how we were going to keep our clients and support our team. 

At the top of the list was “Safety of our 25 Ukrainian teammates” - reminding us that this was our primary objective.


A New Financial Model for Unusual Business Times

Utilization calculations are fantastic during normal business operations. But this was not normal business operations. Not anymore. 

As we added new teammates and the hours put on a project increased, a problem arose with our calculations.  Because some employees were not tracking time at all, they were increasing the overhead of the company. So as more and more teammates joined it increased both the direct costs and the overhead - deflating the validity of utilization. 

The fix was to understand the hours that were being supplied to our clients before and after the war. By filtering only by client projects we were able to determine our hourly output per day. On Thursday, our utilization showed 63% when in fact operating should have been at 85% utilization of the available hours from the team. 

The result was that Thursday was an even more impressive accomplishment for NineTwoThree because we put in exactly the number of hours we put in the previous Thursday to our client projects, down to the thousandth decimal (it was meant to be). 

NineTwoThree and Beyond

When Ukraine wins the war we will be stronger than ever. Our team has shown resilience and fight - just like the Ukraine army. The people are united, they believe in each other, and they will prevail - I am so confident of this. 

Each team member has been an inspiration to me and I am so honored to share my days with the entire team. Currently, we support people from 8 countries and always hire where we find the best talent. 

I want to reiterate that this blog is intended to support what it is like to operate an American agency with teammates in an area where a war has begun. This is not intended to demonstrate what the people of Ukraine are going through compared to the hardships of a company. 

I have learned more about the purpose of business through this war. While we cannot physically help individuals in need, we can provide stability and support financially and through communication. All 50 people of our team, now approaching 60, are part of something larger than NineTwoThree. 

We are all part of a movement that is a globalization of resources. We work together remotely through our computers and have relationships with people we never shake hands with. Then, during a time of crisis, we spend every minute thinking of those people and how we can get them to safety by any means necessary. 

I am proud to be part of NineTwoThree, I am proud of our entire team and our bonds, and I am proud of Ukraine for standing up to evil and defending what is theirs. Ukraine will prevail and NineTwoThree will survive.

Afterthought

We are now on Day 13 and our agency friends and partners are starting to tell us unfortunate stories of CEOs abandoning Ukrainian developers, PMs, QA, and designers due to the instability. 

As these strong Ukrainian workers look for new opportunities we are discovering that with our partners we can support them if we can find a project to work on. We have resources for iOS, Android, Javascript, Node.Js, and React developers as well as Project Managers and QA to support the efforts. 

If you have a project or know of someone who is looking for a new agency please contact me and we can either source the project through NineTwoThree or directly to an Ukrainian Agency in need. 





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