The state of emergency in Ukraine was announced a year ago. Life was put on hold and the country shut down. Thousands of entrepreneurs were in shock – many companies and whole sectors fell into depression. Will we go bankrupt? What to say to the team, family, friends and public?
I co-own a studio and shop in Ivano-Frankivsk – Shuflia – where we design and make leather bags and accessories. Our team consists of 3 makers, 1 manager and 2 active co-owners. Our studio and company has been designed around physical space that our customers could experience: open shop, large windows, wooden shelves. We are also located in the rehabilitated factory in the city center. Being located there meant we’d have tourists, and other people visiting us. COVID however had other plans. With Ivano-Frankivsk being many times in red zone with total lockdown multiple times, we knew we had to change quickly. We understood there is an urgent need to change the business model.
We moved the majority of sales to the web and started to expand into foreign markets. We worked harder than ever before to get new systems in place and adapt. We raced against time and carried out a lot of changes. But we were too optimistic about the length, depth and capacity of the crisis. We didn’t succeed in putting all the ideas in action in time or failed to try them out at all due to the dynamic of the last year. We started exporting to US and Europe, but unfortunately didn’t manage to secure an organisation abroad to cooperate with. When companies from EU think about Ukrainian partner, let’s gently say, it’s not on their radar. We now have foreign clients, but hardly enough to cover the loss due to the crisis. Launching something new – like entering a new market – takes time and we do not have much of it in our hands. Fixed costs like rent, salaries and taxes continue to exist. We restructured our team to develop and expand our export and e-commerce capabilities.
I became a co-owner of Shuflia quite unexpectedly. I really loved the brand for a longer time, so when I found out that the owner was looking for a buyer, I had an urge to get connected. Believe me or not, but I truly wanted to help the owner to find a good buyer. At the end she offered me to become a co-owner, and so I came on board. I’ve never considered myself an entrepreneur, I felt happy with my corporate career and always felt I wasn’t built to be a business woman. Until Shuflia happened. This experience became one of the most transformational one in my life – learning everything about business, feeling financial responsibilities, making tough decisions about expenses and a lot more. I had (and still do) learn really fast, because economic instability and COVID push us to learn faster, work harder and try a lot of new things. This is combined with me being remote from the team.
I’m also HR consultancy owner. I work with various clients like 500 Startups, MyCourseCreationTeam & others, where I help them to grow their HR function, transform their cultures and scale their business through people. I love to speak and write about culture, leadership, growing teams and healthy businesses. Last year I also published my book “HR Atlas: A Roadmap to Healthy Organisation For Start-ups, Small & Mid-Sized Businesses”, which became Amazon bestseller in the category of HR & Personell Development in December 2020. This part of my business life helps me to sustain myself and my family financially, and build Shuflia in the meantime.
In business you have to cover everyday operations and plan for the future at the same time. Thereby we are in a kind of a vacuum – the seeds of the investments are beginning to fruit very soon but can we hold on until that? We didn’t use regular discounts before, but received small pushes now and then during the last year by offering regular discounts. We also have an ongoing 10% discount to bring customers to our webshop. Unfortunately, routine discounts discredit the brand and erode sales – it becomes a new normality not a temporary time-window to attract the doubter to decide. Discounts are everywhere and massive – all the companies are struggling to survive. However, we do not function on a buy-low-sell-high principle like many other companies. Understandably, our potential customers are now focused on buying health products, home appliances and upgrading home offices. People who would normally be able to buy a long-lasting bag are not thinking about it because there is nowhere to go with it anyway.
During this time we also became much wiser, in my view. Redesigned our customer experience, started measuring NPS. We invested into the team a lot – not only we found ways to pay full salaries for all months, without cutting any cent, but also enhanced our culture, values and feedback culture. We also asked everyone to work extra hard and a little bit more. To think like an owner, because else, I’m afraid we won’t be able to survive. Right now, our focus is also to stabilize our finances, and build long-term healthy financial systems.
Many restaurants, bars, markets, small shops, concert halls, galleries, theatres, cinemas and other independent businesses have managed to stay alive so far but everyone’s financial, physical and mental reserves are limited. Once these reserves are gone, medicine, education, employment and GDP won’t be able to recover without big help and we will have a much larger burden to carry. Each of us has a chance to do something – for the favorite bookstore not to close, for the best dill pickle maker to return to the market, the beloved band to give out next album, the fantastic artist to make new exhibition, the renowned film-maker to finish a movie, the festival with long traditions you like to happen again etc. After setting a regular donation to a food bank, children’s shelter, victim support or other critically suffering sector even without corona, consider also supporting your cultural & lifestyle favorites without whom your future would be emotionally poorer. It might be too late to think about it later.
Co-Owner & Entrepreneur at Shuflia.
HR Consultancy Owner.