Beyond the humanitarian crisis resulting from the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war there has also taken a huge toll on Ukrainians’ careers and professional lives. In Career Relaunch® podcast episode 82, Roman Havrysh, owner of the Aimbulance marketing agency in Ukraine and lecturer at Kyiv Mohyla Business School, fled Kyiv after the war began. He describes his story of trying to remain afloat both personally and professionally amid the destruction and tragedy there. We’ll talk about what’s happened to his agency, team, and own perspectives on his professional future there. I’ll also share my thoughts on resilience during times of crisis.
The millions of Ukrainians who have had to flee and leave their lives and careers behind due to this unprovoked attack on their country are really not all that different from me or those around me in the UK just trying to live their lives, make their professional contribution to society, and give their kids a happy childhood.
Please do your part in providing assistance to these displaced families by making a donation today on my fundraising page at https://careerrelaunch.net/ukraine. As of this recording, we’ve already raised over £3000, which includes my own contribution of £1400. Any amount, no matter how big or small, can make a huge difference to the lives of Ukrainians.
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about figuring out what battle you’re fighting right now. For those in Ukraine, this may be finding shelter, staying alive, and/or keeping your business afloat during an actual war. For someone else out there, it may be more of a battle you’re having with your manager, your organisation, or the environment around you. And for others, it may be more of a figurative battle you’re having with yourself–your own history, your own demons, or your own limiting beliefs.
Whatever battle you’re waging right now, ask yourself whether it’s worth it to keep going. Whether the eventual payoff is worth it. And if you do belive it is, to not feel like you have to figure it all out today or even this month, but instead to take a small action today, and another one tomorrow, and another one the next day, knowing and trusting that you WILL gain some momentum, however slow or fast, to eventually get where you want to go.
Roman Havrysh is a Ukrainian entrepreneur and the owner of the Aimbulance marketing agency. He was born in a small village near Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in the West of Ukraine. His first major life-changing experience occurred during the collapse of the Soviet Union back in 1991 at the age of 11. When the Soviet planned economy changed gears to a free economy, many people lost their jobs, including both of Roman’s parents. So he started working in the fields, growing vegetables and crops, to help feed his family.
Then, his family spent all their savings (the equivalent of $500 US dollars) to send him to study in one of the oldest universities in Eastern Europe – the National University Kyiv Mohyla Academy, where he studied political science. To earn money, he started working during his second year there as a political analyst on the side. He eventually got his Bachelor’s degree, enrolled in a magister’s program, got married, and was expecting his first child. So he quit his university and political analyst’s position to find a better-paid job.
In 2004, he eventually became one of the first digital marketing experts in Ukraine working for the mobile service provider UMC, and later, the eventual media holding company owners invited him to become CEO and minor shareholder of Brainberry, the digital media buying house within the holding. Four years later, he created Aimbulance, an strategic marketing agency focused on marketing research, design, implementation, and media buying. Before the war broke out in Ukraine last month, Aimbulance was a leading, award-winning agency in Ukraine known for their strategic approach to solving clients’ problems.
Now, with the war in Ukraine, their business is at risk of closure because most of their Ukrainian clients have had to cancel all the projects. Roman and his agency are trying to reinvent themselves and become a truly international marketing agency seeking clients worldwide. If you’re interested in discussing a marketing project with them, you can contact Aimbulance or write to Roman at firstname.lastname@example.org, +380671268777, or PM him on LinkedIn.
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Teaser (first ~15s): Leaving Kyiv was the hardest part. You were faced with all this terror and people fleeing and screaming and crying, and that was really not the best place to be. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 24 hours.
Joseph: Before we start, I should just make it clear that this is a show focused on career topics. This is not a world affair show. I am not a news reporter, and I don’t typically get into geopolitical topics here. But, today is going to be a little different from my other episodes. We’re recording this on March 22nd. Almost exactly a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine which is now being called the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis since World War II, according to the UN. This show is focused on career changes. We are going to talk about how this war has affected your career, team, and marketing agency. I got to first ask you about your personal situation. Can you start by describing, first of all, exactly where you are right now in Ukraine?
Roman: [06:58] I’m in the west of Ukraine. I’m pretty safe, if you can call it that way because you are hearing the air raid alarms like two, three times a day. That’s kind of not very pleasant things to hear during the day. Usually, it’s okay. No bombings so far, just two, let’s say. Not “no bombings,” just two of them got here. Two of the rockets got here and hit the airport, but the rest of the city is pretty safe and pretty okay. I hope everything is fine.
Joseph: Just so I understand, where you are, geographically, you left Kyiv. Which city are you in right now?
Roman: [07:41] It’s Slovyansk City. It’s a different city. I fled the Kyiv. I left Kyiv like almost three weeks ago. I’m here in a different place because Kyiv is a way more dangerous now than Slovyansk.
Joseph: Can you describe what was happening in Kyiv before you left? What was happening around there at the time?
Roman: [08:02] We just woke up with the sound of air-raid alarm, and bombings, and shellings, and gun shootings. We immediately took off and gather all the, not all the belongings, some of them. Just small suitcases, jumped into the car, and rushed here. That was what’s happening.
Joseph: How far are you away from your actual home right now?
Roman: [08:28] Seven hundred kilometers away.
Joseph: Wow. I was reading some figures in the news and the exact figures vary depending on the source. But, it seems like there have been hundreds of residential buildings, schools, hospitals that have been directly damaged or attacked since this invasion began. How secure is the area where you are? At least, at this moment.
Roman: [08:54] At least, at this moment, it’s okay. Because, as I mentioned, only the airport was hit during let’s say last two or three weeks. The rest of the city is pretty okay because it’s in the west, and we are close to Polish border. They probably are afraid of bombing it too hard, not to invoke any geopolitical crisis on involve NATO. That’s basically it. But, the east of Ukraine is really torn into pieces, especially three or two major cities, Mariupol and Kharkiv, are almost destroyed. Mariupol is almost destroyed.
Joseph: As of this week, according to the UNHCR, which is the United Nations Refugee Agency, with all this destruction that’s been happening, a quarter of Ukrainians have now been displaced from their homes which is about 10 million people. Of the over 3 million people who have had to leave Ukraine, 90% of those are women and children. And, according to UNICEF, you’ve got nearly 5 million children who have either become refugees or have been displaced within Ukraine. Would you mind just explaining what your personal situation is, and your family’s situation?
Roman: [10:11] I left with my children, my two daughters. I’m now here with them at my father’s place. They are with their grandpa, and it’s okay for them. It’s just a family reunion because I’m originally from this city. That is kind of a bit of more comfort than most of the Ukrainians because they left homes, and I’m with my father, and my daughters are with their grandfather, so they are kind of okay about it.
Joseph: Can I just also ask how old are your daughters, and how are they coping with it?
Roman: [10:48] 16 and 18 years old.
Joseph: I guess kids are resilient, right?
Roman: [10:54] Well, they’re teenage girls. They are a bit emotional about all this, and that’s not very good thing.
Joseph: Before we go back in time, Roman, and talk about your life before this war broke out, is there anything else you want to say about the current situation there before we start talking about your career?
Roman: [11:16] Well, I don’t know. I’m hearing some strange noises now, and I presume it’s just our airborne forces trying to maintain the sky clear for now.
Joseph: Thank you so much for telling us about what’s going on around you right now. I’m going to attempt to switch gears here. I know that this might be a little difficult, but you haven’t always been in the middle of what’s unfortunately become a war zone. There’s going to be kind of a strange shift to do at this moment because there’s literally fighting going on in your country. But, can you just take me back to the days before this war started? Let’s just maybe talk about where you were situated for someone who’s never been to Kyiv before this invasion. Can you just paint a picture of what the capital city was like as a professional there?
Roman: [12:11] It’s a major city with 3 million people living there and working there. A lot of different businesses, very vibrant city, a lot of festivals, music festivals, churches, museums. It’s a very vibrant, very alive city. Not like today, like now. I came there like 22 years ago to study. From that time, I lived there and had my career built there. Also switched the career a few times. If you’re about switching careers, it also happens to be. But still, in Kyiv was like the most interesting in terms of business and career-building place to be in Ukraine. Very vibrant, very dynamic, very business oriented as well.
Joseph: You mentioned career changes there. Could you give me a quick overview of your career journey? I understand that you’re currently working in marketing, but you’ve also spent some time lecturing at a business school before starting your current agency. Could just walk me through a little bit just your career history?
Roman: [13:24] I have a degree in political science. I started my career as a political analyst. I was working as a political analyst for two and a half years. And then, I switched because the payment was not sufficient enough to sustain my new family. Because early in my career I got married and I had almost immediately two kids. That was a harsh thing to do because I’m originally from a poor family and I needed let’s say a good work to sustain and to provide for my family. That’s basically why I needed to change my career. I switched from political analysis to marketing. Marketing during that time, and probably now, is better paid off. I switched to marketing, and I started working in the mobile operator as a digital marketing specialist back in 2003. It was like early in the digital marketing age. I was among the first who entered this domain and started to build some career in digital marketing.
Joseph: How did you get involved with the business school there in Kyiv?
Roman: [14:43] This business school is connected with my alma mater, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. I had close ties over the dean office there. I just came there and said, “You have your marketing courses, but you don’t have digital there. I’m one of the first in Ukraine who’s proficient with digital marketing and expert in this. I can share some knowledge. If you are interested, take me as your lecturer.” They agreed because they needed this kind of field of expertise to be covered and they hired me as a lecturer. Since then, with already 13 years, I’m a lecturer at the business school.
Joseph: Wow. You’re doing that while you’re also running your agency, “Aimbulance.” Is that correct? Can you tell me a little bit about what prompted you to found your own agency? Also, a little bit about Aimbulance.
Roman: [15:43] As I started my job as a digital marketing expert, I quickly got one of the best in digital because no one was there at the moment, so I became noticed by other companies, agencies. One of the owners of digital marketing agency, invited me to become the head of the agency and to run digital agencies. That was my first major career shift or second major career shift. From just a management role, I switched to the senior management role and became also a minor shareholder of the agency. That agency called “Brainberry.” We did digital marketing strategies, and media buying, and media planning for digital. That was my second shift.
And then, I wanted to develop this into more sophisticated ways of helping our clients because we noticed that the digital marketing, you have limited capacity in helping businesses. My internal motto is to help people as much as I can, I tried to think of strategy of strategic marketing of creative work. My partners there in the previous agency didn’t want to expand their field of expertise, and I had to leave with my colleagues. We parted from the previous agency, created our own agency, Aimbulance. There, we started to focus more on strategic marketing efforts, and started to do research, qualitative quantitative research, to do analytics to help out businesses in wider range of services and expertise.
Joseph: Let’s just kind of go back to late 2021. What were you focused on in your career and at Aimbulance at the time? It might seem like a lifetime ago now. But, what was happening at that moment for you?
Roman: [17:50] We were focused on changing a bit business processes within the agency because I bought the shares from my previous partners. Now, I’m the only owner of the agency and we needed to restructure a bit and change the business process and/or business model even. That was what we were preoccupied with, changing gears, business-wise. Also, with building our clientele, our client base, and expand. We are now number fifth in Ukraine, according to the advertiser’s choice ranking. We wanted to be third or second, so that was our strategy in the coming years.
Joseph: It sounds like what anybody in any top agency would be trying. You’re working with your clients, you’re thinking about the optimal organizational strategy for your agency, making a difference out there. That’s a glimpse into how things used to be. I’d like to kind of transition now and talk a little bit about the invasion of Ukraine which began almost exactly a month ago as of the time of this recording. Can you take me back to the moment when the invasion began? Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing at the time?
Roman: [19:14] I was alone at my apartment. I woke up from the bomb shelling and the air raid alarms. I just called my girlfriend and asked, “Well, it’s war. We should leave.” Everybody knew what’s going on. We started packing our belongings and rushed to the car and then moved. While we were trying to leave the city, there were major traffic jams, you couldn’t just leave immediately. It took us four hours just leaving a city. During the traffic jams, you were sitting in the car and hearing shellings around you and gun fighting, and that was the kind of disaster. You see all the people fleeing from the city. Someone on the foot, someone on the car, someone on a bike. Basically, any means possible they were using just to leave the city. It was really some kind of experience. I would say it was really terrifying.
Joseph: Out of curiosity, did you think about staying? Or, was it just like how did you make the decision to leave everything behind and just go what sounds like that day?
Roman: [20:38] I’ve made my plans before because I knew that something was cooking up. I just prepared for this. I had plans in my head, so “what if,” let’s say. What if they attack only Donbas area only, on the Eastern Ukraine? What if they attack also Southern Ukraine? What if they attack Kyiv? I immediately decided because we had already the experience from Donbas that it might take a month. But still, the first few days are the most ugly, and that you better leave immediately. That’s what we did.
Joseph: Now, I also want to talk a little bit about your company, your team, and also you, and how you’ve been affected. But, it’s probably worth taking those one at a time here. What happened with your agency? I think you and I first connected because I saw a post from one of your colleagues who, if I understand it correctly, he’s left the country. He’s now in Romania with his family and daughters. What’s happened with the company itself?
Roman: [21:44] We lost like 70% of our business already, of our clients and turnover. Most of our clients were Ukrainian companies. We also like freeze for two weeks. We couldn’t do anything because people were fleeing, they were relocating, were trying to find a safe spot for their families and for themselves. Basically, someone ended up in Poland, someone ended up in Romania, someone in Czech Republic, someone left in Kyiv, someone is here in Ivano-Frankivsk in Lviv. We are now in different places, different cities, and going back now to let’s say new normal. We are trying to reconnect. We’re trying to get our agency up and running with these digital tools, with a remote working approach, and that is kind of working okay. When I felt that we are now okay and we can proceed working, I started to look for prospects for new clients because we need now new clients in order to sustain ourselves.
Joseph: Your team, are they just in different parts of the country at this point, or even outside of the country? Nobody is where you are right now?
Roman: [23:12] Well, a few of them are but the rest of the team, so — Oh! Here is the air raid alarm. You’re probably hearing it.
Joseph: What’s running through your head when you hear that?
Roman: [23:25] I don’t know. Just the heartbeat is just going up. You are like, “Oh! Is it going to be safe or not?” You can’t know for sure each time. Most of the times, it’s okay, but sometimes, you hear bombing and you’re like, “Wow!”
Joseph: I’m sitting here, it’s just kind of crazy that we’re talking right now. Don’t know how you’re able to I guess keep your composure with so much happening around you right now.
Roman: [[23:57] I’m already used a bit to it, honestly. You get tired of being frightened all the time. You don’t have that amount of fear anymore.
Joseph: I’m going to try to stay on track with the interview here and talk a little bit about you. I know that there’s been so much of an impact on so many people in so many different ways, both personally, professionally. This is a career podcast so I’m going to try to focus on that. How has your career been affected? Do you think, by what’s happening here, I know that might sound like a narrow question, but I am very curious to hear. There’s this whole professional side of people’s lives. They’ve invested years in education and training and developing skills. Now, I don’t know exactly where you’re sitting, but your teams scattered, the fate of your company is unknown. How do you think your career is being affected by everything that’s happening right now?
Roman: [24:56] I don’t have a clue, honestly. You don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know even if I’m going to be alive in the next 24 hours, honestly. You don’t know what to expect. But, from the other point of view, from the other perspective, I’m not trying to push our company beyond our Ukrainian borders. It might and even better for example. If we succeed, we might become international. Way more than we were before. It might really help us in a strange way. When I’m saying this and like, “Do you hear yourself? What are you saying just right now? That it might be even better for you?” But, honestly, that’s one of the scenarios. It might be really better. From my lifetime experience, I would say that a few times I had those disasters in my life. I was born in 1980, that was still Soviet Union; and then, in 1990, it collapsed. We had crazy times back then. It was just a completely different story.
Also, that was a time where people strive or you lose your track, and you don’t know what to do, and you become poor, and you almost die of hunger or something. It’s a very interesting time to grab yourself, to pull yourself together, and to decide what you want to do, how you want to survive, how you want to plan your future, and how you are going to fight for your life, for your career, for your path. That motivates you because you need to do something. You just literally need to do something in order to survive because I need money to feed my family. That’s why I should work, and I need work right now. I am pretty confident at what I am doing. I had a lot of expertise in marketing. I am really skillful, you can check my LinkedIn profile about skills, et cetera. I’m kind of very good at this, and that might help me push out of the comfort zone. That might sound funny because what’s the more ultimate push out of comfort zone than war? You couldn’t even imagine.
Joseph: I hear what you’re saying it can kind of almost feel awkward to even use the word “opportunity” in the same sentence. As something tragic that’s happening, and I think a lot of us felt this during the pandemic. Clearly, you and millions of other people are now facing that in Ukraine. I suppose there is to some extent, I mean all you can do sometimes is to try to just pivot and find a way to make it work as you can.
Roman: [27:54] You don’t have any chances. You’re going to just lose your company, or you want to just lose your career, or you’re going to do something about it. That post on LinkedIn is just the way that I’m trying to cope with this situation. I tried just to fight for my career, to fight for my company, fight for my employees, to find another opportunity, and it seems like it’s working. I am now talking to you. Who would imagine that we will be talking back two days ago?
Joseph: Two days ago.
Roman: [28:32] Not a chance.
Joseph: Who would have guessed that? In some strange way I suppose, work does have a way of providing some normalcy in times where everything else seems uncertain and up in the air, and chaos around you.
Roman: [28:47] Exactly. That’s when you start working — because I had like two weeks where I could pull myself together and that was kind of disaster. Then, we came here, in one of Frankiewicz, and we started volunteering in this initiative, “Save Ukraine Now.” If you would like to type it in Google, you will find our initiative where we trying to get donations and to buy some provisions, some medicines, some even helmets and ballistic vests for our soldiers. Basically, we try to help anyhow, and we started working and everything got better. And then, we returned to our normal, let’s say, new normal way of working. We started reaching out to clients, starting to negotiate with them, and it got better and better. The more you are preoccupied with something significant in your life, the more it’s kind of not that harsh for you to be in those circumstances.
Joseph: Roman, I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. I was hoping we could cover a couple other topics here before we wrap up with what you’re hoping for your agency. The last thing I was hoping to talk with you about before we finish up by talking about some of your efforts with your agency right now, is just related to your perspectives on life and also your work at this moment. I’ve heard all sorts of stories on the news related to unthinkable challenges that people are dealing with right now. Not having running water, not having electricity, running out of food. I mean, literally, bodies in the streets there. What’s been the hardest part of this for you?
Roman: [30:35] Leaving Kyiv was the hardest part because you were faced with all this terror and people fleeing, and screaming, and crying, and that was not the best place to be. But, now, it’s okay because here, in Western Ukraine, you just don’t feel it that much and everything is quite okay here. You have here water, internet, food, everything. We are quite okay here for now because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 24 hours. For now, it’s okay and it’s just as it was before, we are working. Just before our call, I had a call with our client from Paris. We talked about their strategies. It was kind of okay. Sometimes, you forget you are at war when you’re working.
Joseph: This is a question I ask guests toward the end of this conversation, and I wasn’t sure whether I should ask it of you, but I do think it’s still applicable here. As you think about where you’ve been in your career and what’s happening around you right now, I get that you’re in a slightly safer area, but at the same time, your country is still at war right now. What’s something that you’ve learned about yourself just over the past month since this has happened?
Roman: [32:02] Well, that I’m tougher than I expected, that I really can pull myself together and make good decisions. As leaving Kyiv, for example, timely and trying to reach out for international public, for international companies, to get clients and to keep sanity as well because it’s really kind of crazy times. I’m kind of okay, I really know what I’m doing, I’m capable of working properly. Basically, that’s what I learned from this situation, that I’m really tougher than I thought I am.
Joseph: Is there something you would like people out there listening to this to know about what’s happening to professionals like you there in Ukraine right now?
Roman: [32:52] We just need a chance. We need a chance. We need your help as well. When I did this post on LinkedIn, one American client said, “Okay. Just write me a bill for one hour of your consultation, and I’ll have it later on after war.” I couldn’t do it. Because I was like, “No. I want a real consultancy. I want a real job, not just a donation.” We really need a real job. We can do it. We are experienced. We know what we’re doing. We can help you. Just give us a chance because we need it now.
Well, in some parts, we need donations like those people that are under the shellings in the bomb shelters, they need donations. But people here, businesses and professionals, they just need a chance to prove themselves. That’s it and they will prove it because our people really can fight as you can see, and we can do it. We can deliver. Just give us a chance.
Joseph: I want to wrap up with what you are hoping to do right now. I know you’re trying to keep your agency going. Not only surviving but also thriving, if possible. Is there anything you would like to mention to anyone listening to this if they want to lend a hand or if they are interested in potentially working with you?
Roman: [34:17] Go ahead. Just Google, “Aimbulance.” If you find what we’re doing suits your needs, please do not hesitate to contact us. We will do our best to help you with our services and our experience.
Joseph: Thank you so much, Roman.