Startup Life/Opinion/

Why we have to keep backing Ukrainian founders

Despite the headlines, international investors should not overlook Ukrainian founders.

Lyubov Guk, partner at Blue Lake
Lyubov Guk

By Lyubov Guk

As a Ukrainian living in London, I have become the go-to expert for my British friends as my home country dominates the news. Every 30 minutes my phone lights up with another message asking for my opinion on “What happens next?” Even more so today, as Russia has launched a major military assault on Ukraine. 

The truth is I don’t know what will happen. Very few, if anyone at all, really knows how this crisis in the heart of Europe will unfold.

What I do know is the war has been going on in Ukraine for eight years, starting for me personally when I had to leave my home in Donetsk overnight in 2014. 

I’m now a founding partner at London-based early-stage VC Blue Lake, where I invest in international founders in the UK and spend a lot of time speaking with, working with and investing in founders from my home country. And despite the ongoing war, I’ve seen Ukraine’s tech ecosystem continue to thrive. 

“The international investor community cannot turn away now” 

But I’m concerned about what might happen.

Today’s news of the Russian invasion and the torrent of headlines in effect create an economic embargo — and scare international capital away from investing in outstanding local companies and founders. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the gravity of the situation and the challenges that Ukraine is facing like few others. But the international investor community cannot turn away now.   

The reality of Ukraine’s tech scene 

When I ask myself why I feel this level of confidence about Ukrainian tech regardless of the political or economic situation, there is really just one answer: founders. 

Ukraine has a proven track record of producing founders who go on to create some of the world’s most successful tech companies like Grammarly, GitLab, Preply and Firefly, to name a few. New investors are coming in, Ukrainian early-stage startups are regular residents of Y Combinator and Techstars, and the ecosystem has successful exits like GitLab’s NASDAQ listing. Success will breed more success as with any tech ecosystem, and Ukraine will continue to produce global, innovative tech products and companies no matter what happens to politics. 

Read: What it’s like for Ukrainian startups amid the invasion

Ukrainian startups are global startups. The most successful founders are targeting major international markets almost from day one. For most this would mean moving their headquarters to their target markets (US, UK, Asia etc). R&D offices stay in Ukraine to leverage access to the local tech talent pool. Nothing new here; the situation is very similar in other eastern European countries like Estonia, Bulgaria and Poland. 

The current crisis might even encourage innovation and creativity, resulting in even stronger potential that the Ukrainian tech scene can offer to the international community. 

Interested in the opportunities Ukraine has to offer? Talk to people

My advice to those investors interested in startups from Ukraine: consuming news even from reputable media sources (never mind social media) is a bad idea. Knowing first-hand the gap that exists between the news and reality, I made a deliberate decision to spend more time with Ukrainian founders rather than scrolling my news feed. I believe this is the only way to a/ learn more about the realities of the current situation, b/ spot and support the future winners at the very beginning of their journey while they are still in their home country. 

One of the more frequent questions I receive is how do I find these exceptional yet undiscovered Ukrainian startups. Pretty much the same way I find great startups in the UK.

1/ Network with people on the ground

These days I am normally London-based but make sure to spend time in Ukraine. I spent last month between Kyiv and Lviv meeting people, hearing their perspectives and cementing relationships. Founders you meet will share their good news and, of course, their fundraising plans. 

Today’s news will make visiting Ukraine very difficult if not impossible — but we’re all Zoom experts now, right?

2/ Work with local players

It’s crucial to build relationships with the local players, get their market insights and startup referrals. To give an example, two years ago I partnered up with the government-backed Ukrainian Startup Fund, the largest and the most active early-stage funder in Ukraine. Blue Lake works with founders from the USF portfolio who are looking to enter the UK markets. 

Ukraine has a very open ecosystem, in many ways more so than London, and it is relatively easy to forge new connections and make new friends amongst the tech community.

3/ Meet Ukrainian founders where you are

Ukrainian founders are also not only based in Ukraine. Where I’m based in London, for example, there are many immigrant founders — who face a myriad of challenges. Lack of network and difficulty reaching potential investors, especially at early-stage, are top of the list. 

If you are an early-stage VC, keep your antennae out for these founders. They want to meet you, and these hidden gems can often be overlooked. I’m trying to do my part as part of a pilot for international founder office hours launching in April this year with the Tech Nation Visa team in the UK. 

To summarise, I am optimistic about Ukraine‘s tech ecosystem, despite this week’s news. My personal choice is to focus on what I can do to make a difference. I will keep investing and supporting Ukrainian founders with a global vision. 

Lyubov Guk is a founding partner in Blue Lake VC. 

As a small gesture of solidarity towards the people of Ukraine, 50% of Sifted’s membership revenue over the next week will be donated to The Kyiv Independentone of Ukraine’s leading English language media outlets, to support its work. You can also donate directly to The Kyiv Independent.

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