Running a tech startup is a challenging endeavour under any circumstances. Imagine doing it under invasion with air raid sirens going off on average twice every 24 hours — and managing to grow 250% in the process.
This is the story of OBRIO, a Ukrainian startup behind the successful astrology app Nebula. Speaking to TNW from his apartment in Kyiv just before the turn of the year, founder and CEO Alex Fedorov says that running a company during wartime is not exactly something you learn in business school.
Fedorov sees the process as twofold. “There was the initial one when the war first broke out,” he says. “Where you have to set up 24/7 communication channels with the team and stay connected as much as you can, so that you as a leader can support everyone whatever they may need.”
Because of COVID, the team was already set up for hybrid operations — “at least something good to come out of that,” Fedorov muses.
Meanwhile, there were other pivots to be made. In terms of business, the focus shifted to longevity and stability (to the extent the latter can be controlled when your neighbour is dropping bombs on you).
“We stopped all our R&D, because we understood that there was a lot of moral pressure and emotional pressure on our people,” Fedorov explains. “And also money wise — it brings a lot of risk. So we just focused on setting up a stable business.”
It is a strategy that seems to have paid off.
The Nebula app
There is much to say and highlight about the resilience of the OBRIO managerial team and employees, but let’s not forget that the company has also built a highly successful product.
OBRIO’s astrology app Nebula counts 30 million users worldwide, and has earned the coveted title of the #1 lifestyle app on both the Apple App Store and Google Play multiple times in the US, Canada, and Australia. The secret to its success, Fedorov explains, is down to two main components.
“The first is the team. We have a very strong team of professionals, people who love their work and are very motivated, who understand the value of our product, and why we’re doing this. And the second thing is the niche. Our market is a big market. And we still have the potential to grow like four or five times.”
Human fascination with astrology meets tech
Ever since the dawn of communities and culture, human beings have been fascinated by interpreting the will of the gods, reading the stars, and divining the future.
Some of the earliest evidence of astrology as a practice dates to the third millennium BCE, so indeed, it is an evergreen topic. In addition, the global astrology market size was valued at $12.8 billion in 2021, and is predicted to reach $22.8 billion by 2030.
Nebula essentially has two parts. One will feel familiar to anyone who has downloaded a horoscope app — it provides you with daily affirmations and horoscope predictions according to your birth chart, as well as additional guidance depending on moon phases etc.
The other is a marketplace for “advisors,” where users can request tarot readings or ask specific questions. Some of the advisors suggested when we tried it out may sound a little like a summer fair fortune teller cliché (Madame Griselda, say) or a yoga apparel marketing persona (for instance, Spiritual Emily). However, Fedorov ensures us that everyone providing services on the app’s marketplace is rigorously vetted.
“We have a very, very thorough process in how we select [advisors],” he says. It’s like a proper hiring process — first we have a test task and an interview. Then we have a second interview, then we have a test period, coupled with a learning system.”
The app now has over 250 consultants, having hired an additional 70 just in the last few months. This feature Fedorov believes to be the number one thing that makes Nebula stand out among its competitors.
Relationships number one query on Nebula
So what is the number one cause for people to turn to astrology and/or psychics? Improving relationships, it turns out. In fact, about 98% of the queries on the app are relationship-related.
Perhaps this says something about how much our happiness is dependent on the quality of our relationships — not our careers or material successes. Indeed, all comprehensive research on the matter, such as that of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, suggests this to be the case.
Speaking of human relationships, most astrology apps have turned to AI to churn out readings by algorithm. While OBRIO is using AI for marketing and retention tools as well as automating routine processes, it would never substitute its human advisors for machines.
“In terms of our core product, and in terms of our core value, we will not use AI because we do not believe that AI can equal humans in terms of empathy, understanding, good advice etc.,” Fedorov adds.
Investing in people
Not just content with surviving the war, OBRIO intends to scale by two and a half times in 2024, and focus on the core product of Nebula’s marketplace for the next two to three years.
Founded in 2019, the company now employs over 120 people — with 55 having joined the team since 2022 — and has an ARR of $50 million. Beyond Kyiv, OBRIO has also set up an office in Warsaw, Poland.
In terms of understanding, empathy, and advice, OBRIO is also investing in the well-being of its employees affected by the war, by paying for therapy.
Furthermore, the company allows for total flexibility in working hours to accommodate for when air raid alarms wake everyone up at 2am and the subsequent dashes to bomb shelters. The startup also pushes people to take time off, and supports them in getting out of the country for vacation.
Supporting Ukraine as a tech startup
Beyond compassion and flexibility, how do you keep morale and spirits high while working under the constant threat of attack? Every month, OBRIO transfers 3% of its first payments to the Genesis for Ukraine charity fund.
Furthermore, the company has declared it will invest part of its profits into rebuilding Ukraine’s hospitals and schools after the end of the war.
“Our success is tied closely to the success of Ukraine. This motivates me, and this is what motivates our people. And this is how we see our everyday commitment and investment in our job,” Fedorov says, adding that he regards it as the social duty of a successful business to help the country.
The relationship to astrology differs across the TNW editorial staff — some of us know what signs the planets were in at their time of birth and believe it can be a useful tool that can help one pay attention in everyday life. Others guffaw at the mention and call it mere superstition.
Wherever you may fall on the spectrum of belief in celestial influence, there is no denying that the resilience of the Ukrainian tech sector since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022 is something to admire and marvel at.