Ukraine crisis hits BigCommerce and 106 employees there

This general view shows destroyed Russian armored vehicles in the town of Bucha, west of Kiev, on March 4, 2022.

Aris Messinis | AFP | Getty Images

When BigCommerce executives held their global meeting on Thursday, they didn’t expect any of the company’s 106 Ukraine-based employees to appear on screen. Most staff were busy trying to find safety as Russia stepped up its attack on its smaller neighbor.

Two days earlier, a television station in Kiev, 800 meters from BigCommerce’s offices, had been bombed by Russian soldiers, killing at least five people. Company employees had evacuated by then.

But from a dark room in an undisclosed location, a BigCommerce product manager dialed into the video chat. She had been in charge of what CEO Brent Bellm called the most significant launch in the company’s 13-year history.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the reunion,” Bellm said, in a Thursday night interview. “The rest of us were so incredibly inspired to have her there and such a strong voice and leader.”

During the company’s quarterly earnings call on Monday, Bellm spent a few minutes updating investors on the situation, noting that some employees “joined the military and took up arms to defend their country” and “several were reported as being in places where they are not safe, whether inside Kyiv or outside.”

Ukraine has emerged as a top region for technical talent and has become one of the largest IT outsourcing markets in the world. In numerous earnings announcements this week, US tech companies have added Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a risk factor for their businesses. Cloud software providers Snowflake, Box and Veeva each rated the risk, as did HP Inc. and alternative energy provider Plug Power.

Most of the companies, like Box, said in boilerplate language that factors such as “the Covid-19 pandemic or the Russian invasion of Ukraine” could affect results.

BigCommerce’s situation is much more extreme. The Austin, Texas-based company opened an engineering center in Kyiv in 2019 and employs about 8% of its workforce there. On its jobs page, BigCommerce lists 20 openings in Kyiv, compared to 52 in Austin, 26 in London and 24 in Sydney.

“Ukraine has one of the most experienced and talented e-commerce engineering workforce in the world and our team there is just amazing in so many ways,” Bellm said.

Despite the chaos on the ground, Bellm said the employee who called the meeting wanted to provide the company with an update on Multi-Storefront, a product that allows merchants to create and manage multiple storefronts from from a single BigCommerce site.

BigCommerce office in Kyiv, Ukraine

BigCommerce

“She wasn’t telling us about her personal experience moving or where she is, she was just giving us an update on the product launch,” Bellm said. “It’s the biggest product launch in the company’s history and they’ve been central to it and she’s the product manager. And so to have it live on screen and demonstrate the greatness of what went into this product, it was very inspiring.”

Yet her colleagues knew that she and her colleagues in Ukraine were living a nightmare.

Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last week with military assaults on key cities. President Vladimir Putin’s forces have met stiff resistance from the Ukrainians, but the deadly shelling continues. More than a million people have fled the country.

“We can’t create peace, we can’t hold our arms around them on the ground,” Bellm said of his aides in Ukraine. “But one of the most important things we can do is let them know that whatever they do, their job is secure and that the company will do everything it can to support them until that they are back in a safe place.”

TV entertainment

More than half of the company’s employees in Ukraine work a few hours a day, and some work full-time, mostly for fun, Bellm said. But no one is expected or invited to work.

“They may not have a government to look after them anymore, but they have an employer who will,” Bellm said. “In many cases they say they don’t want to spend days watching TV and panicking and not thinking about the crisis.”

Sherri Manning, Human Resources Director of BigCommerce, said the main thing Ukrainian employees expect from the company is regular contact. Two HR representatives are in Ukraine to verify employees via Slack or phone. They also conducted daily security checks, contacting neighbors and relatives to ensure team members are safe and accounted for.

The Ukrainian government announced at the start of the invasion that men between the ages of 18 and 60 should remain in the country. Most BigCommerce employees in this demographic have moved west from Ukraine, moving away from Russia to the east. Kiev, the capital and largest city of Ukraine, is closer to the center of the country.

Manning said 15 of the 106 employees were still in Kyiv as of late Friday. Some have slipped into neighboring Poland. Most were identified as “safe” while two said they were “not safe”, Manning said, adding that the situation can change daily.

Some are preparing in case they are called upon to fight for their country and many have already taken up arms to join the defence.

Manning said employees around the world support their colleagues with donations. Employees in Australia and other countries offer accommodation.

“Every morning we tell them you’re not alone and we won’t forget you,” Manning said. “We tell them that we are doing everything we can to reach you.”

Bellm is also considering ways to find a more durable solution.

“I could see us opening an office in Poland at some point,” he said. “We just tell them that we want to do everything we can to stay in touch and support you financially and otherwise.”

“The most innocent and beautiful thing”

Bellm said the invasion came as a shock to his Ukrainian team. He meets with them every month and said that in early February he asked them why they weren’t worried amid reports from US intelligence that an attack by Putin might be imminent.

An invasion was just a posturing, Bellm recalled, telling employees. Many of them have Russian parents and they pointed out that the two countries have coexisted for years.

“It was the most innocent and beautiful thing,” Bellm said of the employees’ response. “They kept saying – ‘We don’t think they’ll attack, we’re a peaceful people. “”

Bellm is now trying to come to terms with reality.

“They are innocent,” he said. “They haven’t done anything to cause this. These people have been attacked and they’ve been displaced and they’re in mortal danger right now. We’re doing what we can and we’re praying for peace and we’re praying for their life. It’s every emotion you can imagine.

In terms of keeping money flowing, there have been some challenges as banking and payment systems have been disrupted in the region. But Manning said the company has contingencies in place.

“There was a brief period when we paid in US dollars, but the banks weren’t allowed to convert them into local currency,” she said. “And even when employees received their money in local currency, they could usually convert it back to USD and were unable to do so.”

They’ve since been able to get dollars, Manning said, adding that the company also offered early access to payroll and provided interest-free loans if people needed extra cash.

“They’re investing one of the most valuable assets they have in this world, which is a lifetime of accumulated education, work experience, passion, talent,” Bellm said. “There is a duty of care that we have in return and that is to do everything we can to make their time with us worthy of them.”

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