Oleksandra Bernatska from Skyworker: The war gave us a push to do things we had been afraid to do before

Oleksandra Bernatska is Co-founder & Chief Product Officer at Skyworker, one of the fastest-growing recruitment startups in Europe. Founded in Ukraine in 2021, Skyworker is a tech recruiting marketplace that helps companies and talents meet in a "swipe left" / "swipe right" format.

Being the first and yet only product manager on the team, Alex manages the whole logic and UX of the marketplace with 33,000 candidates and 280 companies onboard acquired in just one year after launch. Today, despite the war and the fact that most of the team is in Ukraine, she continues to develop the product in new markets and help Ukrainian engineers find a job remotely.

We caught up with Alex before she shared Skyworker's story from bootstrapping to COVID to war on the sTARTUp Day 2022 stage.

This interview was written by Sanne Taveter. It first appeared in Estonian in Delfi Ärileht.

Tell me a little about yourself and how you ended up in the startup world.

I am Ukrainian, and so is almost all of my team. I started to work quite early and already had quite a good background in my early twenties when I stepped on the entrepreneurial path.

Now I am the co-founder of Skyworker  a lead-gen app for hiring Developers. Our approach helps companies to hire 3X cheaper and faster than with staffing agencies. 

Skyworker app is a 1.5-year-old product. But the story behind it started 6 years ago when we were running our own recruiting agency. We really loved working for tech people. But the old recruiting approaches didn’t inspire us. Common recruiting methods were getting less and less effective year over year. We got an insight: experienced developers are overloaded with job offers from recruiters. That’s why they are ignoring recruiters on Linkedin. That’s why they almost never apply on job boards. Old recruiting methods don’t fit this candidate-oriented market where developers rule.

So we took the most "obvious" decision hustlers usually take  to close the profitable agency and found our own startup Skyworker.

We built the app for developers where they feel safe, calm and in control. And they loved it! They regularly return to Skyworker even during the coffee breaks at work or at the bear night with friends just to swipe on jobs. That is the reason we got 33,000 signed-up developers who made more than 450,000 swipes on jobs just in 1.5 years! Such enormous engagement of experienced developers reduces the time-to-hire up to just 3 weeks on average. Each 10th interview on Skyworker ends up with a successful hire.

What was your startup journey like?

We bootstrapped a lot. We presented Skyworker wherever we could and talked to

people about it. We didn't have any funds or financial capital at the beginning, our team consisted of only 3 people: me, my co-founder and our Marketing manager. 

We went to every startup competition and technology conference we could find: Ukraine's biggest startup competition and several international ones. It turned out the Skyworker won almost all the competitions we participated in. I believe we won because we were really very passionate and believed in our idea. 

When we took the first place at Seedstars Ukraine, we were invited to represent Central and Eastern Europe in the international competition. We asked where the competition was held, and it turned out that the venue was in Kazakhstan, where it was -30 °C at the time. Nevertheless, we flew in, and after the pitch, one of the judges approached and offered to cover our total Pre-Seed round of $150,000. This gave us the opportunity to launch the first version of our app. 

Despite the fact that we studied at the Y Combinator Startup School where we were told "Focus on one feature" like million times, we still wanted to do everything at once. There were dozens of features nobody wanted to use.

With that product, we faced the COVID time. We analyzed everything we had and decided to rebuild it from scratch to adapt it to the new recruiting landscape where the talent gap became even bigger, and the remote trend leveled up. 

Finally, we ended up with one main feature  swipe. As simple as it is: Get matched → Swipe on relevant jobs → Choose the best one. Finally, we have found a Product-Market Fit and those 450,000+ swipes over 1.5 years confirm that Skyworker helps to cure that pain.

What has helped Skyworker grow at such speed? 

To get that number of users we came up with dozens of growth hacks. Last summer, Skyworker launched a referral program. A common practice, right? But, our referral program was in partnership with one of the biggest wine exporters in Ukraine. The referral prize was a bottle of Australian wine. And the way to get that bottle was shaped in a game. All our developers got their digital empty bottles in their accounts. The bottle was filling up with wine each time the user invited a friend. When the digital bottle was full, the developer got the real bottle of wine as a gift. That campaign was a huge buzz that tripled our signups with zero budget.

The new Skyworker product has a new Business Model too. It is a Pay-per-Lead Model. We adapted it from the Marketing field to recruiting, and that made us profitable from the first month. Now companies pay us for each mutual match (when both the developer and the company confirm that they want to talk). Basically, we earn money on each scheduled interview. Thanks to PPL, we got such results in the first year: 10,000 interviews organized on Skyworker with the cost per interview of $120.

With a growing user database, we added the annual subscription option for big clients. Now companies can pay a fixed price that guarantees a certain amount of leads (interested candidates), which Skyworker brings to them.

At the beginning of 2022, we planned to scale to different countries because we had taken up as much as 20% of the Ukrainian developers already. But on February 24, the full-scale war began. Firstly, all we wanted was to be with our families and make sure they were safe, first and foremost. Then, in the second week of the war, we held an online meeting where we discussed a plan to save the startup. Together with my co-founder and marketing manager, we decided to move to Warsaw, where we all lived together in one apartment. It was like a startup house, where we developed a new strategy.

What did you change in your strategy?

Before February, most of our users were Ukrainians and we wanted to change it so
that more candidates and users would come from other parts of Europe because the
companies that used our service did not dare to hire Ukrainian people at the time.

We expanded to Poland the most, but we now have users from 92 countries around
the world. This also happened due to Ukrainians who use our service, because they
can also talk about our company and share information in other countries. The second thing we wanted to improve was working more with international companies
(the UK, Western Europe, the United States, Canada) that are willing to hire Ukrainians.

It is our company's internal mission at the moment to promote Ukrainians and find jobs for them because several companies do not dare to hire Ukrainians in light of the war

or fear that it is too risky. We want to break this myth.

In the spring, we had 25,000 candidates, 98% of whom are now in a safe area and are ready to start working full-time. They are fluent in English, have experience in the field, but sadly still struggle to find work.

With this new strategy, we were able to rise to the same level of user activity as we were before the war began. Now our company is truly global as we have companies and candidates from all over the world. We’ve been funded and mentored by Google for Startups and now entering conversations with VCs about the Seed round. We also hired our first employee in Poland, which means that our team is becoming a bit more multicultural. 

The war gave us a very big push to do things that we had been afraid to do before. It tripled our strengths. Any tragedy like this war going on right now must force people to survive and achieve something and fight for what they have built.

Do you plan on staying in Warsaw until the war in Ukraine ends?

As the main location besides Ukraine, yes. We also plan to travel around Europe and North America a lot to promote the company and tell people about it. We want to expand to many different countries and already represented Skyworker in Tartu, Warsaw, Lisbon, Madrid, Toronto, and San Francisco.

What does your typical workday look like?

Our team consists of only 17 people, so we have a limited capacity and need a strong focus to get things done. We have a lot of hypotheses that we want to test  and I'm the person who will ultimately decide what we take into the work and what we don't. In addition, I work with designers, discuss their drafts and final designs, and finally decide which option is most suitable. Part of the day goes to the so-called "operational work," where the main mission

is just to get things done. 

A decent part of my time is dedicated to brainstorming, which we don't do every day about once a week, where we get together with the team and discuss what to do next, how we've done etc. In order to make the idea a reality, you have to go through certain stages and take different aspects into account, all of which need to be discussed and thought through. Each time you need to understand not only the technical side but also the marketing perspective  how the sales is going, what works, what doesn’t etc. 

I also communicate with users and potential users; fortunately, we have built a strong network in Poland, and particularly in Warsaw, which is a true "tech hub". Communication is a core part of my work.

You took part in a mentor program for startups that was led by Tartu-based .Cocoon Program. How was that experience?

It was a very unexpected and very cool experience. We were contacted by a

USF (Ukrainian Startup Fund) that supported us with an equity-free grant in the early

days and invited us to participate in the Cocoon mentoring program. They offered free

access to a few Ukrainian startups  my team members were a bit skeptical about it, but I decided to accept the offer. The mentorship was more like founders' therapy sessions because we were forced to be very honest and transparent. We had to talk to other mentors and entrepreneurs about our difficulties. 

We had two sessions: in the first, I spoke only about the business side of things, but in the second session, I opened up completely and talked about my relationships, anxiety and many more personal things. I started to trust the mentors more and I understood how the program works. Both sessions helped me a lot. I'm a very practical and realistic person, I don't often think about my own feelings or mental health, but this program helped me do it a lot more. It came into my life at exactly the right time. I met my former mentors here at sTARTUp Day, and it was really nice to talk to them again.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Uncertainty and understanding of exactly what to do. The last is much easier because then you will find the resources necessary for it, but figuring out the idea is the most difficult part. While running a startup you face it quite often when you get stuck and run out of ideas. It's very stressful. What helps me here is the team brainstorming, meeting with other entrepreneurs to exchange ideas, and attending the tech conferences  like any activity where you can break away from the usual environment and feed on new thoughts.

In contrast, what do you enjoy most about your job?

A lot of things. First, the opportunity to make your ideas a reality exactly as you have imagined and receive positive feedback from the users. In addition, every time we hire a new employee, my heart is filled with a lot of joy because I see how our company is growing and more and more people are there to drive our idea further. I also think that what drives me in this job is the passion to build something new and cool that really solves some problems and makes life easier.

What are your future plans with Skyworker?

Skyworker is the approach that will replace old-school methods like job boards. The target is 10X growth for the next year. Now we are working on scaling on the global market of Developers, long-term contracts with clients and boosting the Network Effect around Skyworker to reduce the CAC to zero. Talking about the funding round, we are considering Smart Money investments    meaning the investors with a deep expertise and connections we need.

What have you enjoyed most at sTARTUp Day?

I met many interesting people, but mostly I spent time with other speakers. I enjoyed chatting with them and attended all their talks. One of them later connected me to several cool VCs, the other one gave meaningful advice on the strategy, and a talk by the other speaker inspired me to implement a new feature to Skyworker.

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