In what seems like a million years ago, last November, Grown In started working with a small but highly regarded company to build a subscription management system. Because we report on and train the cannabis industry, most subscription systems wouldn’t work for Grown In because they used Stripe, a payment processor that refuses to do business with anything related to cannabis.
And then we met WallKit’s CEO, Tim Roho, who assured us his company could build a new subscription system with an alternate payment processor. Starting work in early December with an aggressive mid-February launch date, we counted our blessings to be working with a skilled development team.
Did I mention that WallKit was based in Odessa, Ukraine?
Our subscription management build moved forward quickly, but then, as it usually happens, we ran into stumbling blocks in early February, pushing our deployment date back a couple weeks. At the same time, the Russian Army began lining up on the Ukrainian border. Grown In and WallKit exchanged email every day and on Wednesdays we held a Zoom call.
What happens if the Russians invade? I asked Tim, incredulous that was an actual question I might ask someone, ever.
No worries, he said. Everything is based on the cloud in the U.S., and our team is ready to leave if we have to. But it won’t happen. We’ve been dealing with the Russians since 2014, Tim told me, this is what they do.
On Wednesday, February 23, we held our weekly Zoom call, planning for a launch for Monday, February 28. Tim had moved to a town in the Georgian mountains to mollify his numerous American clients, but he didn’t really believe the Russians would really invade.
But then it came on February 24. On our end, communication with the WallKit team went dark, but in Odessa, the WallKit team was scrambling to save their lives and keep the company going – since it was their best hope for future income.
A week passed until we got a note from Tim: “Sorry about the delayed response, we’ve been on the road most of this time. Things are good. All of Wallkit team are fully operational. I’m in Budapest, united with family now.”
What had happened in that time? Last weekend, staying at a friend’s house in Riga, Latvia with his ex-wife and 7 year-old son, Tim told me his story.
Scrambling to get his ex-wife and son out of Ukraine, they searched for available tickets from Odessa to anywhere, finally settling on going to Moldova’s capital Chisinau, a four hour train ride. Then, with tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing west, they searched for another set of tickets to the European Union.
“The only train we found tickets for was Chisinau to Iasi. So I figured I will meet them in Iasi and we will go from there,” which required Tim to travel from Georgia to Istanbul, to Bucharest, Romania to Iasi, Romania’s second largest city of about 300,000 people in a matter of days.
“It’s a small, small train station,” said Tim. “Just one building. A couple stores in there. We arrived 30 minutes before the train arrival and there were people from Romania, this small town, that were offering SIM cards, food, transportation, and places to stay in Iasi. We were all waiting for this train to arrive. It was 1.5 hours late simply because the schedule does not take into account the number of people with Ukrainian passports, so the border was taking much longer for them.”
Despite the total chaos, Tim says Romanians were offering to help at every step.
“When the train arrived, the people who met them had been very welcome, giving out everything and helping each other. It was amazing to see because I didn’t expect that in Iasi,” said Tim. “At the train station we needed a place to chill for 2 or 3 hours until the next train. At the train station they created a large hall for refugees offering hot food, pretty much everything you need, like places to sleep.”
From Iasi, Tim and his family went to Bucharest and then to stay with friends in Riga. Eight of WallKit’s team have left Ukraine, going to Poland, Austria, Netherlands, Italy, and Latvia. Four more have stayed in Odessa.
“Still, Odessa is safe. Geographically it’s protected,” said Tim, who gave me a run down on the city’s defenses and nearby battles. He’s paying close attention to his hometown.
Incredibly, WallKit, which Tim co-founded in 2016, is now going strong after just a three week bump.
“Now we are hiring and we do have a growing number of tasks,” said Tim. “Yesterday, we connected to the Latvia recruitment website. Maybe some [Ukrainians will] come here and say, ‘We need work!’”
Because WallKit is all digital, as long as they have laptops and wifi, the team is able to work remotely using Zoom and gChat. Last Friday, the team pushed through some of the last changes Grown In needed to start selling subscriptions – which you’ll hear more about later this week.
Tim is focusing on keeping his fellow refugees employed.
“It’s important. I’m proud that we’re able to continue our own work,” said Tim. “We still need more people.”
“We can do interviews through Zoom. Our team was in Odessa, Kyiv, and Donetsk so that was no big deal,” he said.
While thankful for American support, Tim believes his country is protecting the West from further Russian aggression.
“Ukraine is a shield for the rest of the world. We’re taken the first hit and we’re standing,” he said. “Nobody wants this to escalate to the rest of the world. So let’s hope this shield stands. That is the number one priority. We need to make sure Russia does not succeed and affect the rest of the world.”