Ukraine: an interview with Skylum CEO Ivan Kutanin
March 18, 2022
The major imaging software company Skylum was founded and has its HQ in Kyiv, Ukraine. It has been directly impacted by the current conflict in the country. To discover more Amateur Photographer spoke to Skylum’s CEO, Ivan Kutanin (pictured above), about the situation and how Skylum is coping in the midst of a war…
A few weeks ago Skylum was concentrating on the launch of its Luminar Neo imaging software, but since 24 February 2022 this Kyiv-based company has had its world turned upside down. With the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, some of its employees are now refugees, some are fighting and some are working out of air raid shelters.
To find out more about the impact of the conflict on Skylum, and to get the inside story of how a Ukrainian CEO of a major imaging company feels about the situation, AP’s Steve Fairclough spoke to Skylum CEO Ivan Kutanin. Here’s how the conversation went…
Amateur Photographer (AP): Where at you at the minute?
Ivan Kutanin (IK): I am near Lisbon in Portugal.
AP: Did you have to move there?
IK: I was actually on my vacation. The children have holidays at school, so we left Ukraine on the 23rd [of February] and on the 24th we woke up in France and understood that the war had begun. After that, we spent three or four days in France as planned. After that we realised we wanted to move the kids to a safer place, so we chose Portugal and Lisbon.
AP: Did you know anybody in Lisbon already?
IK: Not much. I have some guys from Portugal who I know and I had a lawyer who I know in Lisbon. Actually, in Lisbon, there is a pretty big Ukrainian society… maybe around 100,000 [people], something like that. Because of that I realised that we can find something here. We actually were there three years ago at the same time and we remembered that it was safe and pretty warm for children and so on…
We knew we could, at least, spend some time here because in Portugal, especially in the Lisbon area, almost everyone one knows and talks English and we can find schools and kindergartens that will be suitable for the children. I don’t think this is the best solution, but at least it’s one.
AP: In terms of the Skylum operation, are there staff still in Ukraine?
IK: I can’t give you exact numbers but around 30% of our staff from Ukraine is already in Europe. Around 50% of our staff made it and moved to western Ukraine, near the Poland border and so on. Around 20% are in the Kyiv area or other areas that are not so secure.
I know about a guy from Kharkiv, who is working as a developer… missiles are firing and he is like “OK, I have wi-fi, I am underground and I can work, so I’m trying to concentrate on that.”
We’re thinking about making a project to show how our team is operating now because the marketing guys are like, “OK, I think it will be an air alarm, so I’ll send this email a bit later”. Anna [Koval, our marketing supervisor] is also still in the Kyiv region.
But I can say the situation in the Kyiv region right now is just awful… everything is not OK. Food and drug stores are open, so everyone can buy in Kyiv and they do not plan to relocate to any other part. They think that everything will be OK.
Sometimes even people in Kyiv will go outside for a walk. Not every day or every time but this option is available.
“Missiles are firing and a developer is saying ‘OK, I have WiFi, I’m underground and I can work’… the situation in the Kyiv region right now is just awful”
AP: Has there been any impact on the overall Skylum operation at this point in time?
IK: Definitely. Kyiv is our core development centre, so that definitely impacts us. Another thing that impacts us is that of our developers 60 or 70% are male, so they cannot move to Europe or other countries because of the full mobilisation. So, that definitely also impacts us.
We know about four guys who are already serving in the army or who are going to serve. We are buying equipment for them, and so on, to at least make them as safe as we can.
Dima [Sytnik], our CPO, the guy who handles the products, is also in Kyiv, so for us it’s also a risk, but now he is in a safe place. We think it’s a good solution for now. It may not be later, but other operations we’re moving into Europe because we understand that… actually, some developers and marketers are already in Europe.
Also, we have our brand offices in the US and Japan and they are still working, but we understand that this situation definitely will affect them. We realise that all other release plans and so on will be a bit delayed.
We plan to release the next [Luminar Neo] update this week, so we didn’t freeze the development at all, we didn’t freeze business, everything is working but there are delays and we realise that about 40% of the team is on the move. They move and switch places where they live and, because of that, we realise that our capacities are much lower than usual.
But, in this situation, it seems for us as Skylum, that we are not in the worst condition. At least we can operate, but 90% of all business in Ukraine cannot operate right now because of all the logistics and so on are broken. There are lots of problems in the economy in Ukraine now and there will be in the future.
AP: Is the situation in Ukraine affecting your operations, distribution and sales?
IK: We stopped all of our sales to Russia but it’s not a country where software sales are very huge. We’ve stopped the contracts with all of our Russian Ambassadors because we realised that we don’t want to support Russia in any way.
In terms of our overall business health we have suspended lots of marketing activities and business activities but we are still able to operate because our main markets are the US, Europe and Asia, so we operate customer services and with these things we can survive in these places.
AP: It must help that you distribute software, which is a whole different thing to trying to distribute cameras?
IK: With software we just checked all the Russian addresses and we did refund to all guys who bought in Russia. Until this conflict ends we told them that we cannot allow them to use our software.
“We stopped all of our sales to Russia and the contracts with all of our Russian Ambassadors… until this conflict ends we cannot allow them to use our software”
AP: Do you have other family still in Ukraine?
IK: I was very lucky because I talked with my wife and we planned, only me and her, to go to Europe for a few days vacation. At the last minute our flight to Barcelona was cancelled because part of the air companies had closed already before the war started, those roads, so I just picked another road. I thought that the situation was very unstable, so let’s take the children with us.
So, hopefully, me and my family is safe. But I know that lots of guys, even those who went from Ukraine to Poland, for example, do not plan to move further into Europe because lots of relatives and families are [still] inside Ukraine.
We realised for our guys who cannot leave the country, we at least want to take care of them because they have families and we offered them to at least transfer their families abroad. Because of that we tried to work with these but the risk is very huge.
We realise that there are deep communities within Ukraine, the developer communities, and every day we hear that someone died. Like the records man from one company, a girl from R&D from another company… and it’s a total mess.
It’s really a very sad situation because every day people are dying… just because a missile doesn’t care about your politics or if you’re Russian or Ukrainian, or maybe another nationality.
AP: How has this situation affected you personally?
IK: For me, it’s literally a total mess because I could not have expected that. I served in the Ukraine army when I was young, and part of my family is from Russia… I never thought that this kind of situation can exist at all. Full-scale war in the centre of Europe in 2022 is nonsense. Because of that it’s definitely also very personal for me. I realise that lots of my friends, my relatives are serving in the army right now.
We, as a company, want to support Ukraine and the Ukraine army as much as we can so, because of that, we are donating money and we are buying everything we can buy. We’ve bought plate holders, helmets, tourniquets to stop blood and so on – so this is our everyday activity for now. Such a percentage of the time is spent doing something for the country or something for the army.
“We, as a company, want to support the Ukraine army as much as we can… we are donating money and buying everything we can – helmets, tourniquets and so on…”
We realise that we can do as much as we can but what we actually need to do is to talk about this situation to spread the word because it seems like something in the world is changing and Ukraine is just a small part. I think that if Ukraine falls the world will not be a safer place any more.
AP: There’s obviously quite a lot of photography coming out of the situation in Ukraine and places like Poland for coverage of the refugee situation… have you seen a lot of that photography?
IK: Yeah. We have a list of photographers who we’ve contacted and we are thinking about how we can help them because right now it’s fuel and food – that’s the most we can do for them, something basic.
But we are also thinking about different projects that we can do with them to spread more of their images of the war. I know already of certain photographers who are working in Ukraine right now and are trying to highlight the situation from different spots.
AP: I know of Reuters photographers, like Kai Pfaffenbach, who is on the border in Poland, and quite a few US photographers, like Lynsey Adarrio, in Ukraine. It’s important to show their work because clearly the Russian media will either not show anything or will try to spin it another way…
IK: Actually, I think they closed all the possible contact with foreign media and are in total isolation by themselves. They closed Facebook, Twitter, Instagram because they don’t want anyone to watch anything that is not the same as they’ve told people… and this is it.
AP: What are you hoping is going to happen?
IK: Actually, we understand that, for us, for most of Skylum, Ukraine is the motherland and we definitely hope that the situation will be at least less dramatic and less urgent. We realise that this kind of ‘active phase’ of conflict should be lower.
I don’t think that this conflict will be fixed in weeks. I think it’s about [a case of] months because I definitely think that Russia didn’t expect such a huge defence and that the whole society would stand and fight. I realise that, because of that, there is no ‘win’ situation for Russia for the next few months and it’s the same for Ukraine.
I think that we need to expect at least a few months of this conflict phase. Maybe after that there will be some solutions. After that, I think it will take us around a year to build the infrastructure because really all of the airports are broken.
I can’t even imagine what it would take to build those cities that are completely destroyed, like Bucha or Okhtyrka. Those cities are completely destroyed – maybe 10 to 20% of the cities the buildings are untouched, everything else is destroyed.
AP: What do you think of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky? He’s become quite a prominent figure and has got a lot of coverage in the media. He’s kind of set the tone for how Ukraine is reacting and, as a knock-on effect, it has kind of set the tone for the way the rest of the world has reacted…
IK: Thank you for the question because, personally, I was not supporting him at the elections. I thought that he was too young to rule such a big country with such big problems, but I must tell you that I was wrong and I definitely think that he is the man. He’s very tough and he really earned his place because he chose the truth as a weapon.
He even told it to everyone in his teams – we will not make propaganda, we will tell the truth. Propaganda is for them [the Russians] and our truth must be stronger. His opinion and how he does it… I really think that he’s really good. Maybe, in the years before, there were lots of things that he could have done in politics and so on but, right now, he is doing what our country needs. Because of that I really support him.
Our thanks go to Poland and the United Kingdom. I think that they are the two countries that have supported Ukraine the most. The United Kingdom is the only country from those that signed our security guarantees that actually does it. It’s really crucial for Ukraine in this situation and its thanks to the [British] government and the Prime Minister – they’ve taken such an active position.
“Zelensky’s very tough and he really earned his place because he chose the truth as a weapon”
AP: Have you got a message that you’d like to send out to the wider imaging community around the world?
IK: For me, we’re in these times where we realise that this conflict will not be solved in a week. The main danger for Ukraine is that everyone will be tired from the situation and that will change the focus to “OK, we already talked about that.”
My main message is – please do not forget about Ukraine and please share the news on social media with friends abroad about what’s happening here. Please read trusted sources because I see that there are a lot of untrusted sources that are popular right now. Because of that, thank you to the photography community that they’re highlighting this conflict… and please don’t stop. We really need your support.
AP: Is there anything else that you’d like to mention?
IK: With regards to the Skylum team, we are definitely safe. With all other employees… their salaries we are paying everyone who is serving or not serving [in the army]. We do not fire anyone because we realise that this is a huge stress and its only guys in their families who actually earn money right now, so now we’re not only responsible for them but for all their families.
This is the part where we’re definitely supporting them to travel to safer places around the world – to Europe, the US, whatever they want. But, we are distributed already in those countries, so for us it was a bit easier because we have other offices. We’ve worked from home for about two years because of Covid so, for us, it was a bit easier but it’s still a very big stress.
We check in with our employees and we ask them to fill us in with their current situation because everything is moving so fast every day.
AP: You probably know it, but pretty much the rest of the world is standing with Ukraine…
IK: Yes, thank you. This really helps because it seems that they [the Russians] didn’t expect such unity and such a united position and because of that we see that they’re changing their plans and, hopefully, this is just a step to our common win.
What is Skylum doing?
On its website Skylum has posted the following with regards to the current conflict:
Sanctions that world governments are currently imposing are not enough. Russia must be completely isolated from all spheres of the civilised world: the financial system, technologies, sports, culture.
Here is a list of simple actions you can take to help Ukraine. We MUST unite to quite literally save the world before it’s too late:
• Contact your local representatives and pressure them to provide more support for Ukraine and stricter sanctions on Russia. We need military and humanitarian aid and Russia must be cut off from SWIFT.
• Donate money to humanitarian aid organisations. Find a full list over here: How you can support Ukraine
• Follow the news from official channels. Avoid fake news and disinformation!
About Skylum Software
Skylum is a global imaging technology company focused on creating tools that make it easier for creatives to get things done. Skylum has won the Red Dot Award, Apple’s Best of Year, ‘Best Imaging Software’ awards from EISA and TIPA, as well as several other top industry awards.
To learn more just visit the Skylum website.