Tech

Ukraine crisis hits home for BigCommerce and its 106 local employees caught in the chaos

Key Points
  • Ukraine is a key engineering location for the tech industry, particularly for BigCommerce, which opened an office there in 2019.
  • BigCommerce has 106 employees in Kyiv and is taking extreme measures to try and stay in touch with them.
  • "The company's going to do everything they can to support them until they're back to a safe place," said CEO Brent Bellm.
This general view shows destroyed Russian armored vehicles in the city of Bucha, west of Kyiv, on March 4, 2022.
Aris Messinis | AFP | Getty Images

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

Two days earlier, a TV station in Kyiv, a half mile from BigCommerce's office, was bombed by Russian soldiers, leaving at least five people dead. Company employees had evacuated by that time.

But from a dark room in an undisclosed location, a BigCommerce product manager logged into the video chat. She'd 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 meeting," said Bellm, in an interview late Thursday. "The rest of us were so incredibly inspired that she'd be there and such a strong voice and leader."

BigCommerce provides software to help online retailers manage and promote their online storefronts, handle payments and improve speed and reliability.

In the company's quarterly earnings call on Monday, Bellm spent a few minutes updating investors on the Ukraine situation, noting that some employees "have joined the military and taken up arms in defense of their country" and "several have been reported as being in places where they are not safe, whether inside Kyiv or outside."

Ukraine has emerged as a prominent area for technical talent and has become one of the largest IT outsourcing markets in the world. In numerous earnings announcements this week, U.S. tech companies added Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a risk factor to their business. Cloud software vendors Snowflake, Box and Veeva each noted the risk, along with 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 has about 8% of its workforce there. On its jobs page, BigCommerce lists 20 openings in Kyiv, compared with 52 in Austin, 26 in London and 24 in Sydney.

"Ukraine has one of the most experienced and talented e-commerce engineering workforces in the world and our team there is just incredible in so many different ways," Bellm said. 

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

BigCommerce office in Kyiv, Ukraine
BigCommerce

"She wasn't taking us through her personal experience about relocating or where she is, she just gave 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 her live on screen and demonstrating the greatness of what went into this product, it was very inspiring."

Still, her co-workers knew that she and her colleagues in Ukraine were living through a nightmare.

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

"We can't create peace, we can't hand hold our arms around them on the ground," Bellm said of his staffers in Ukraine. "But one of the most important things we can do is let them know that no matter what they do, their jobs are secure and the company's going to do everything they can to support them until they're back to a safe place."

Distraction from TV

More than half of the company's employees in Ukraine are working a few hours a day and some are working full time, mostly as a distraction, Bellm said. But nobody is expected or being asked 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 keep their mind off the crisis."

Sherri Manning, BigCommerce's chief people officer, said the main thing employees in Ukraine want from the company is regular contact. Two human resources representatives are in Ukraine checking in on employees through Slack or by phone. They've also performed daily safety checks, contacting neighbors and relatives to make sure team members are safe and accounted for.

Ukraine's government announced early in the invasion that men between the ages of 18 and 60 are required to stay in the country. Most of BigCommerce's employees in that demographic have relocated to the western side of Ukraine, getting farther away from Russia to the east. Kyiv, Ukraine's capital and biggest city, is closer to the middle of the country.

Manning said 15 of the 106 employees were still in Kyiv as of the end of the day on Friday. Some have slipped into neighboring Poland. Most identified as "safe" while two said they were "unsafe," Manning said, adding that the situation can change daily.

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Ukrainian nuclear plant seized by Russian forces

Some are preparing in case they're called to fight for their country and several have already taken up arms to join the defense.

Manning said employees across the globe are supporting their fellow colleagues with donations. Staffers in Australia and other countries are offering their homes.

"Every morning we tell them you are not alone and we will not forget you," Manning said. "We tell them we are doing everything possible to reach you."

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

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

'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 at the beginning of February he was asking them why they weren't worried as news reports of U.S. intelligence circulated indicating that an attack by Putin could be imminent.

An invasion was just posturing, Bellm recalled the employees saying. Many of them have Russian relatives, and they emphasized that the two countries have coexisted for years.

"It was the most innocent and beautiful thing," Bellm said, of the employees' response. "They just kept saying — 'We don't think they'll attack, we're a peaceful people.'"

Bellm is now trying to reckon with reality.

"They are innocent," he said. "They didn't do anything to provoke this whatsoever. These folks were attacked and they've been displaced and they're in life danger right now. We're doing what we can and we're praying for peace and we're praying for their lives. It's every emotion you can imagine." 

As far as keeping the money flowing, there have been some challenges as banking and payment systems have been disrupted in the region. But Manning said the company set up contingencies.

"There was a brief period where we had paid in U.S. dollars but the banks weren't allowed to convert it to local currency," she said. "And then even when employees did receive their money in local currency, they typically could convert it back to USD and weren't able to."

They've since been able to get dollars, Manning said, adding that the company has also offered early access to payroll and has provided interest-free loans if people are in need of additional 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's 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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