WLCM founder Lindsey Witmer Collins has redefined what it means to run a company–and discovered a way to find joy in the darkest times
A Year After Russia Invaded, a Founder and Her Ukrainian Team Found the Power to Push Forward.
After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Lindsey Witmer Collins knew she had to act fast: All but two of her employees lived in the country, the majority working from an office in the western city of Lviv. The San Francisco-based founder of the app development studio WLCM (pronounced “Welcome”) immediately instituted paid time off, started a Slack channel for employees to share contacts and resources, and raised money for staffers who fled the country. A few weeks later, many of WLCM’s employees got to work again, relishing a sense of normalcy, she told Inc. in March 2022. But it wasn’t business as usual, in any sense. Here, she shares what happened in the months that followed. –As told to Rebecca Deczynski
Last year ended up being our best year ever: Our revenue increased by 12 percent, although our profit decreased by 30 percent. When I look at those numbers, it’s a little striking. As business owners, we tend to think that success is what your metrics are and how you optimize your profits. A business is an entity that exists to make money. But the difference between the words business and company is important. The root of the company is togetherness and community. It’s a group of people, and leadership is about taking care of people. Being a business owner, on the other hand, is about making a profit–and that wasn’t really my priority last year.
After the invasion, we did a fundraiser that raised $60,000. WLCM put in $40,000–so we had raised a little over $100,000 for direct donations, like people putting a deposit down on a new apartment somewhere. Or Lilia’s [Solovey, WLCM’s COO] dad needed a helmet–he had grabbed a gun and started fighting without one. We found a nonprofit in Europe that was shipping supplies to Ukraine, things like diapers, soap, and basic things. We got people to where they needed to be, and we got them a therapy. Everyone kept their jobs. I did a survey trying to figure out where people were in their work–do you like your team? Do you like your project? What are your goals? I had a list of goal options: building a new skill, growing your leadership skills within your team, and having stability. Every single person puts “stability.”
I wanted to make sure everyone was materially taken care of–everyone got raises at the same level that they would at any other time. But the second priority was, “Do we enjoy the work when we show up?” Everyone liked their teams and the relationships within our company were stronger than they ever were before. But as far as projects went, we saw an opportunity to grow.
We launched a subsidiary, WLCM Joy Labs, to build our own products for the fun of it. We have two projects we’re working on. The first is a social commerce app, called That Thing I Told You About, and the second is a storybook app for kids, called Who Farted?!, which we’re releasing on the anniversary of the invasion.
Our team welcomed four babies a year before the invasion–three in Ukraine and one in the U.S., my daughter. With all of these toddlers running around, we wanted to make something that would make our kids laugh. Because when a kid laughs, it makes all the surrounding adults smile, and its proof of goodness exists in the world. And the number one way we know how to do that is by making a fart sound.
So we designed different farting characters and created stories around them. We’re using this app to raise money for causes and organizations that support children, including the children’s hospital in Kyiv, the Natural Resources Defense Council, which works on environmental sustainability and habitability for our children, and Everytown for Gun Safety. Our idea is to create joy in households for children and then directly benefit our children.
Originally, I tried to record the characters’ voices myself, but I couldn’t stand listening to myself. And I couldn’t stand if my kids could trigger my voice at any moment. I was listening to Claire Danes on Fresh Air talk about how she and her husband argue about who gets to read their kids’ storybooks at night because they really like doing the voices. It was a eureka moment for me. I thought, “Well, we could put actors in this.” I have a cousin who’s a comedy writer and a friend who is married to Mandy Patinkin’s son. So, Mandy is our main character, the monster under the bed. My cousin connected me to some people she knew and they connected me to people that they knew–everyone’s been super generous about it.
It’s such a lovely distraction working on something that’s so absurd and purely funny and fun. Because of all the terrible things that are happening, you have to keep yourself spiritually alive and resilient. These projects are 0 percent profitable, but they’re extremely good for us. We will probably keep doing this and just be a less profitable company. Ultimately, we want to enjoy one another and enjoy the work and enjoy the life we have in front of us–and I think that a company can be a vehicle for that. This company is going to be a vehicle for that, for everyone in it.
If I’d wanted to be really profitable this past year, I would have fired four or five people and not started Joy Labs. But if I play out that scenario, everybody would be less happy right now. I think we would be hanging by a thread, honestly. This work gives us new energy, new ideas, and new knowledge. We didn’t have that much experience with animation, but working on Who Farted?! helped us figure it out. You can’t do that on someone else’s dime. This allows us to learn and experiment on our own, and then bring those skills back to the table for our clients. It also feeds empathy in the sense that we’re our own clients launching our own products.
Getting Inc.’s Best in Business honor this past year really mattered to me. When we were recognized in the 2022 Inc. Regionals, it was right around the time of the invasion–I couldn’t be more excited about it. But when we got Best in Business, it felt meaningful because it was subjective. I felt that we really earned this award. And we are going to continue to earn that award.
Today, my team is scattered. Some people are still moving–we have two in the U.S. now, who were previously in Ukraine. Everyone is fairly settled, but the people I’m most concerned about are those who are still in Ukraine because not everybody can legally leave. Our two QA specialists are single young women in their mid-20s–they could leave, but they live with their families and choose not to. Our project manager Sergey is in Lviv with his two little girls and his wife. They lose power all the time. We have our operations, and the war continues, and everybody seems as physically safe as they can be.
I think to myself, “OK, what if Ukraine retakes Crimea and restores the borders, and then this summer it’s all over, and we can all get together as we did in Lviv in September of 2021?” I still have this cherry liqueur I bought there–maybe I’ll drink it on the one-year anniversary when we launch Who Farted?! and reclaim that day, not changing what it is, but adding to what it is. There’s so much we can’t control, but we do have control over our own hearts and minds. Making enough kids happy will not stop Putin from dropping bombs, but we just do what we can, wrote INC.
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