Launching a business from a bunker - an interview with Grade University co-founders Oleksii Zinchenko and Maryna Gordiienko

In an email interview, Grade University co-founders Oleksii Zinchenko and Maryna Gordiienko outline their experience of building a new ed tech from 105 meters underground.
Launching a business from a bunker - an interview with Grade University co-founders Oleksii Zinchenko and Maryna Gordiienko

Grade University is a self-study platform for English teachers worldwide. The platform was developed and launched by Grade Education Centre – a 14-year-old Ukrainian business that provides educational services

Grade University platform development began after February 24, 2022 in one of Kyiv's bomb shelters. This is a completely private project that is being developed without any extra investments. 

Grade’s commitment is to create professional development opportunities for every teacher, regardless of their teaching experience, education, or qualifications.

We asked the company founders Oleksii Zinchenko (CEO) and Maryna Gordiienko (COO) about their decision to launch a new product during wartime. 

What were the factors that led you to decide to launch a new product during a time of war?

The idea of creating a product that would be interesting not only on the Ukrainian market but also abroad had been with us for a long time, and the war became the driving force that accelerated the decision to launch it. Prior to the full-scale invasion, the economic situation was deteriorating rapidly, as investors quickly left the country due to news from intelligence agencies of various countries that this invasion was being prepared.

After February 24th, we had to make risky decisions and create a product aimed at an international audience to avoid dependence on the situation in our country. We've been in the Ukrainian education market for over 14 years, working as a private business without investors. Therefore, we realized that if we don't do it now, we may not have the chance or financial resources to do it at all.

What were the particular challenges that you faced in trying to launch a product during wartime, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was fear and uncertainty about what the future would hold. Once we adapted to the situation and realized that we could plan at least a week ahead, the main challenge became money. We had no investments or savings at the beginning of the war because everything we earned was immediately reinvested into our business and its development. So, the two main challenges were uncertainty about the future and where to get the money if that future did arrive.

Regarding the factors that helped overcome these obstacles, our main business (English language school in Kyiv) quickly resumed operations. On February 24, there was an invasion, and by March 14, we had got back on track with online learning. The demand for English language learning increased rapidly, and we realized that we could move forward. If before our country was bilingual, with some people speaking Ukrainian and some speaking Russian, now the situation has transformed, and English has replaced Russian. In order to help as many people as possible master English, we need to promote the professional development of teachers, which is what we are doing.

How did your team morale and productivity hold up during the conflict, and what steps did you take to maintain focus and momentum?

We were constantly in touch – 24/7. We had common chats in messengers, held video meetings on the very first day, and offered help to those who needed it. 10 employees who stayed in Kyiv came to our COO's and CEO's home and lived there together for the first 2 months of the war, all in one flat. We didn't just work together, we shared our daily lives, experiencing the scariest days ever.

Actually, everyone wanted to work hard from the very beginning. There was no moment of stopping, everyone understood from the first day that we had to work for our common victory. Before February 24th, our company had 120 employees, and their lives were scattered throughout different corners of Ukraine – one of the largest countries in Europe. We needed to provide people with the opportunity to work, regardless of where they ended up. To give a simple example, on February 23rd, everyone left their laptops in the office, and on the 24th, they couldn't take them, so we had to deliver them throughout the country, which was torn apart by war.

Perhaps, such an urge to work was a salvation from the terrible reality for many, so it can be said that the war gave us a push for development.

What lessons did you learn from launching a product during wartime, and how have those lessons impacted your business moving forward?

The biggest lesson learned is that the most important thing for any company is its team. Even if we had a lot of money but didn't have the right people around us, we couldn't have done it. We can draw an analogy here with human health – there is nothing more important for a person because if you don't have good health, then nothing else matters. It's the same here – if there is no great team to help you get through the worst, even war, everything else is meaningless.

Invest your time and resources into building a great team, so that these people truly become like family to you, and you can stick together even when rockets are flying over your head, and you hear explosions outside your window. And also, never give up, no matter what happens – believing in yourself gives you the strength to survive the toughest circumstances. These lessons have had a significant impact on our business moving forward.

Were there any ethical considerations that you needed to take into account when launching a product during wartime?

Before the full-scale invasion, when Grade University was just an idea, we did not plan to talk about being a Ukrainian company, we simply dreamed of creating a cool product. Now, however, this is a fundamental position for us, which is why you can see the Ukrainian flag on the main page of our website.

What else is worth mentioning is that we do not work with Russian companies and do not provide services to Russian clients, and this is also our fundamental position.

Before February 24th, we used many Russian software products in our work, including CRM systems, but in the first few days, we decided to abandon them and switch to analogues. Of course, this added a lot of difficult work, effort, and time, and it was not easy to rebuild many processes, but this is our fundamental position.

How did you balance the risk of launching a product during a time of uncertainty with the potential rewards?

It was a difficult choice because, according to all logic, we should have been conserving all our resources for an even more uncertain future. However, we believe in ourselves and our abilities, we believe in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and we decided to take the risk. In fact, we continue to take risks every day because the war is ongoing and rockets continue to fly overhead. We have just adapted to working during air raids, emergency power outages, and sounds of explosions.

For people who are not currently in Ukraine, it is difficult to understand, and we realized this during online negotiations with our partners from Moldova. For them, it was an absolute shock that we continue to work in such conditions and remain calm during air raids.

Did you have any concerns about the safety of your team members or facilities during the conflict, and if so, how did you address them?

Of course, since the very beginning of the invasion, we have been helping our colleagues who found themselves in trouble, helping them to leave the occupied regions. We have always done everything for their safety and continue to do so, because the war is ongoing and each of us is still in danger.

Concerning the facilities, we're one of the largest Cambridge Exam Centres in Europe, so our office in the heart of Kyiv is definitely the place we care about a lot. We believe in our air defence and hope everything is going to be fine. 

Were there any unexpected benefits or opportunities that arose as a result of launching a product during wartime?

Thanks to the fact that we did not stop and continued to work as a team from the very beginning, we were able to restore the operation of our main business quite quickly. While many businesses were afraid to move forward or left the country, we worked tirelessly. This, in turn, allowed us to continue earning money and investing it in creating a completely new product, Grade University.

This boldness helped us a lot and showed others that they can support us, be proud of us and work with us. By our example, we proved that the slogan "be brave like Ukraine" is not just empty words.

In August 2022, we organized an international online conference "Lessons for the future" for English language teachers, where we raised money for the Ukrainian Army. We were supported by stars of the global teaching community, Anne Robinson and Adrian Underhill, who spoke at our event for free.

How did you maintain a positive company culture and ensure that your team remained motivated and focused during the conflict?

The main motivation was that the founders did not go anywhere, stayed in Kyiv and were in touch with everyone 24/7. Our corporate culture always stood out from others, and the war became the critical situation that tested us for strength and demonstrated our power. 

Although, we know many situations in our business sphere when the founders simply left the country and left their team to their own devices.

Before February 24th, we had 120 employees, after the invasion, there were 95 of us left, as many had lost their homes near Kyiv and had to leave the country. Currently, we are back to 120, and we are very proud of this. Keeping the team together was one of our top priorities, and we are glad we succeeded.

And another thing that motivated people to work even harder was that we sent a significant amount of money to our army and supported (and continue to do so) our soldiers for the victory of Ukraine.

Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs or startups who may find themselves launching a product in difficult or uncertain circumstances?

My advice would be to take care of your team and hire people who you can potentially go through difficult times with. Focus on your work and your product. If you are a startup, understand that you cannot do everything perfectly, so speed should be a priority. Quality will inevitably improve over time during the work process.

Looking back, would you make the same decision to launch your product during wartime, or would you do things differently?

It's difficult to say, as we can no longer imagine ourselves in a situation without the war. The war with Russia has been going on for 9 years, and it is full-scale, touching every Ukrainian city for 1 year already, so it's hard to remember ourselves in different circumstances. We are convinced that February 24 gave us a push that accelerated our development and gave us the confidence that may not have been there without such difficult conditions when despite everything, you want to prove that you are capable of creating a quality product.

Finally, how do you see your product and business evolving in the post-war environment, and what opportunities do you see for growth and expansion?

We see our product as having demand worldwide, especially in developing countries, where we understand their problems well. Knowledge of the English language is essential globally, and quality English language education can take any country to a whole new level. Our main goal is to give different countries the opportunity to develop in this direction. This year marks our 15th anniversary, and we have a wealth of expertise, strong specialists, and confirmation of the quality of our services with a licence from the University of Cambridge.

We continue to work on developing our product, creating new courses, inviting new authors, and fulfilling the wishes of our clients. We understand that great results take time, and we are prepared to wait for success. And to ensure that more people possess high-level English language skills, we have created and are developing a great platform for the professional development of English language teachers.

This article is part of's highlighting of remarkable Ukrainian startups on the one-year anniversary of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Read more ...

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