Ukrainian startups versus war: From eco-outfit to sleeping bags for the military

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Lviv Now is launching a series of stories about Ukrainian businesses that managed to endure the first months of the war and found their niche in the common effort for the victory.
photo from the Facebook page of Framiore

photo from the Facebook page of Framiore

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Amid Russia’s full-scale aggression, Ukrainian startups proved their resilience despite the abrupt losses and indefinite scenarios for the future. Having preserved their teams and the ability to support the state with taxes, some of them succeeded to fit their activity to the needs of Ukrainian collective defence. We have interviewed several entrepreneurs to find out what has changed for them and how they are building plans in these fragile circumstances.

Framiore is one of the startups that decided to temporarily reprofile their activity. Based in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, which has been targeted several times by the Russian missiles, the online shop switched from sewing ecological clothes for European customers to producing the warm items necessary for the Ukrainian defenders. 

Founded in 2018, the startup has successfully attracted investment grants from the USAID Competitive Economy Program, Ukrainian Startup Fund, WORTH Partnership Project, and started cooperating with individual European stores to sell their products in a highly competitive environment.

«We started collaborating with small multi-brand stores across Europe that were not even businesses, rather self-employment for their owners,» – the startup’s founder, Natalia Naida, said.

Natalia Naida on the USF forum 

According to the entrepreneur, ideas for the Framiore collections were inspired by the Asian national minorities, whose cultures she explored while travelling through the continent. In particular, these were Hmongs in Vietnam and Uyghurs that populate part of China and Central Asia.

«We research little-known peoples and transform their wisdom in the clothes of a modern woman. I have an important belief that much of the active wisdom already exists in the world, it should be merely transformed in a modern way,» – she claims, describing the startup’s primary idea.

Read also: We need a strong leader. How can businesses overcome the challenges of the war

Natalia added that in the West, Ukraine was usually associated with embroidery and the country of cheap labour, which made it difficult for Ukrainian brands to sell themselves to conservative European investors. It was the coronavirus crisis that changed the situation, as according to McKinsey research, some 75 per cent of Americans tried a new shopping behaviour during the coronavirus pandemic. This way, introducing the cultures of national minorities to the world opened the Ukrainian business from a different perspective. Still, that period brought no less significant challenges than possibilities.

A pandemic that broke the plans but widened the market

Covid was the first punch to the startup’s marketing strategy that relied heavily on mass events in the West. The initial plan presupposed posing the collection samples at the exhibitions and receiving orders from the potential customers there, while the arrangement of the sewing shop was simultaneously completed in Ivano-Frankivsk to start production. As the pandemic was announced globally in March, all exhibitions were cancelled, including those that Framiore already booked and paid for in New York, Copenhagen, and Berlin, Natalia recalls. In addition, 8 of 10 of their partner stores in Europe have temporarily paused their business.

The transition to online marketing became a complicated task, according to the entrepreneur, since the collections couldn’t be fully experienced through the screen. This added to other obstacles that Europeans had to come through when purchasing a product made in Ukraine: the differences in bank transactions, customs clearance, the long time of delivery, and even more extended process of return or exchange in case it doesn’t fit. Thus, it took half a year to transform the business into a digital format.

«A warehouse in Europe would contradict our strategy. The storage itself means producing what we wouldn’t be able to sell. We consciously approach consumption and want to only create the things that people will wear. There’s even a meme in our company that we wouldn’t sell you the item until we’re not convinced that you really need it.»

A war that forced to reprofile but revealed the customers’ loyalty 

Before the war, the startup participated in a competition where six startups were to be selected for a 10-day conference in Texas. Among the sixty competitors, Framiore was titled one of the winners and made its preparations for going to the USA on March 12. However, then plans changed due to a different crisis.

The war broke out on February 24, and the team decided to use their skills to meet the needs of the Ukrainian military. This way, Natalia came up with the idea of sleeping bags.

«On the second and third days, realising that the end wouldn’t come soon, I started to look who needs what the most. It turned out that there was a lack of sleeping bags. These days, when everything was emptied and people leaving, I called the girls, and our team went to work. There was a story when together with Alina, our production director, we took a car to gather the girls from all over the city, and then bring them back home in the evening because the public transport didn’t work and no one knew what to do,» – the entrepreneur recalls.

The first issue emerged with finding the materials, given the immediate logistical complications. As Natalia narrates, pieces of camouflage and raincoat fabric were found accidentally in some storages or literally in somebody’s garages, sometimes hundreds of kilometres from her city. Another difficulty was the inability to order materials in large consignments when it was necessary to communicate with 20 potential suppliers at a time. 

Nevertheless, with the help of volunteers, the places were found and after making arrangements, the raw stuff started flowing to the startup’s premises. This way, despite extreme conditions, the startup managed to preserve the concept of eco-awareness, giving new life to the clusters of unused fabric. Simultaneously, Natalia started volunteering, transferring medicines to Kyiv and helping people to get out of the dangerous areas.

The new production was smoothly expanding, supplying the frontline not only with the sleeping bags, but also hoodies, backpacks and other necessary items. Suddenly, the business faced the question of preserving its European market, as one of the charity funds offered Framiore a huge order for the needs of the Ukrainian military. This contract could ensure stable salaries and the ability to pay rent during the most uncertain months until the middle of the summer, but taking such a tactical advantage and switching completely to the sleeping bags could strategically cost the company the already formed customers network. Now, the task remains to find a balance, where the relocated enterprises came to help.

«We founded some smaller warehouses that relocated to western Ukraine from the eastern and central parts of the country. We started to send them some details and designs to clean up our own sewing shop, because sleeping bags is quite a dirty process,» – Natalia says.

More of that, the loyal consumers in Europe went on with making orders on the Framiore website, even though the company was unable to produce clothes at the moment. Most of them even noted their desire to support the business despite the indefinite period they would have to wait for getting their purchase. 

Working on the further strategy

The main idea Framiore has been developing is the clothing capsules on the startup’s website that enables customers to design their own outfits. This module is maintained by the R&D team, and its realisation would greatly reduce the possibility of customers returning their purchases. Moreover, it would also help the startup comply with its own values of conscious consumption if the buyers would use the item more carefully, letting it serve them longer.

«We will change a bit. Our cross-cutting idea remains the same, how we manufacture things and in what conditions people work. Now, we are switching to smart sales and working on the module on our website that will help you design your own outfit. We will retain our flagman collections of the Uyghurs and Hmongs clothes because this is our main idea.»

The team is also planning to expand twice, in particular with the creation of extra vacancies for the refugees.

Read also: The shock has passed. How to rebuild Ukraine with common efforts after the victory

Regarding the investment environment, new bureaucratic obstacles emerged during the war. In May, one of the European investors approached Natalia, saying that they liked the concept of her startup but their security protocol demanded guarantees and contingency plans in case the military threat to the business becomes direct. Like many other startups in Ukraine, Natalia says it’s barely possible to plan for more than a day or two in advance, and this leaves the question still unsolved.

Natalia sees the priorities of the further development of Ukrainian business in creating the technological parks where businesses would be able to cooperate with scientists, and different creative industries to exchange their experiences in search of new solutions. The revitalised plant «Promprylad» in Ivano-Frankivsk, where the startup is located, is one example of such an environment for the entrepreneur. Together with the development of R&D and engaging students in the business, she sees these as the prospects for attracting investments in the country, which is surprising the world with its courage and will for freedom.

By Vitalii Holich

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram. Lviv Now is an English-language website for Lviv, Ukraine’s «tech-friendly cultural hub.» It is produced by Tvoe Misto («Your City») media-hub, which also hosts regular problem-solving public forums to benefit the city and its people.


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