Estonian IT entrepreneur Ragnar Saas has already delivered 60+ trucks to Ukrainian defenders. How it started
Estonian entrepreneur Ragnar Saas has a strong connection to Ukraine. The co-founder of Pipedrive and founding CEO of Salto-X has business assets and a huge network in Kyiv, where a chapter of his Lift99 community is located. Saas supports a bunch of Ukrainian startups as an angel investor and a mentor. Not to mention the fact that his wife is a Ukrainian.
After Russia started the full-scale war against Ukraine, Ragnar organized deliveries of the very needed and pricey vehicles to Ukrainian defenders in the hottest spots on the front. So far, he and his team have managed to deliver 63 trucks and continue to help Ukraine.
In the interview with AIN.Capital, Ragnar Saas shares how it all started.
How Russia’s full-scale military aggression against Ukraine has affected you personally. What do you think and feel about it?
I found out about it literally 30 minutes after it started, on February 24 about 5 AM. In Lift99, we had a plan for the case if something started and had an agreement about what to do. So after the invasion, the whole team hopped and left Kyiv before 7 AM, when there was already a huge traffic jam.
I think the first two days were extremely depressive. From Estonia it all looked like the biggest horror of life, but for Ukrainians it’s not a movie — it’s reality.
Mentally the first day was a day of horror for me, and on the second day, I made a $20,000 donation to the Ukrainian Army.
On the first day, the information was hard to get, but by the second day, it became clear that the Ukrainian army was much more defensive than anyone had assumed before. On Friday evening, I saw hope that Ukraine would remain as a country. On Monday, I was interviewing with an Estonian business newspaper where I clearly stated that Ukraine would stand and stay independent, and allies will eventually come up.
My wife’s mom moved from Ukraine to Tallinn, but she’s planning to go back soon. My connection to Ukraine is so big that I couldn’t stay out of it.
As far as I know, you support Ukrainian defenders with vehicles. Tell us more about how you organized the delivery of them for the Ukrainian army? How did this idea come about in the first place?
Immediately from the moment when the Lift99 team relocated to Lviv, they started monitoring the situation and looking for where help was most needed. In the early days, the needs were basic: bulletproof vests, first-aid kits, etc. Literally everything was needed. They have already fundraised about $700,000, which is crazy. It might be bigger because the amount keeps changing.
I remember that it was exactly the third week in March when the unit fighting near Kharkiv contacted us to get them a truck. Their unit’s car stopped exactly in the middle of the fight. I knew that Lithuania was helping Ukraine with vehicles. I read about it in the Washington Post, I guess. So I immediately went to an Estonian car portal, where I found a Toyota Hilux and bought it the next day.
After I posted about this truck which was to go to the Kharkiv local defense unit, to my biggest surprise, many people started to contact me. Some of them wanted to sell the cars, some were even ready to donate, and this started to grow.
Just for you to understand how this works, I bought the truck on Sunday and said that I was driving it out on Friday. And in those four days, there were already not one but 14 cars with drivers and everything else ready to be left Friday at 6 AM from Tallinn! I was driving with a broken muscle and could hardly walk, but we were at the border at midnight. And we arrived in Lviv Saturday afternoon.
We have now sent 63 trucks to Ukraine. And I’ve lost count, but I believe we’ve helped more than 40 different military units with vehicles, mostly in Kharkiv and Donbas but also in Mykolaiv.
I’m proud that one unit, The 227th Battalion of the 127th Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine of Kharkiv city, used an Estonian vehicle in counterattack to destroy the most powerful Russian tank, T-90M Proryv, and reached the Russian border!
Who helped you with that initiative?
Some are entrepreneurs. For instance, Veriff sent one car, Klaus sent two cars. Also one VC firm sent one car, and so did one angel. But there were also ordinary people — for example, a retiree from South Estonia who gave his entire pension for a month.
The Mayor of the one supertiny municipality in the West of Estonia called me and told me they had a local municipal Toyota Hilux. And the locals decided to donate it to the Ukrainian Army.
Recently, a Finnish entrepreneur who wants to help has contacted me. Also, a woman from Canada, who is actually Georgian, raised money for Ukraine. There are also Ukrainians in the United States.
It is difficult to buy cars in Estonia because the market is empty. But we have so many people here in Estonia who are willing to help somehow. For example, we’re painting those trucks so they can fit the military needs. And last week, we had so many volunteers who wanted to do just anything meaningful to help to end this war, so we let them join us for painting.
And how did you manage to get so much attention to attract all those volunteers and backers?
I happened to have a big network, including on social media. So when I announced that I was driving to Ukraine, many people wrote to me. I must say that in the first convoy, most people were strangers to me. But later, I was always followed by two or three people from Lift, who came to pick up the vehicles, check them, and do all the paperwork. And there was a graphic designer who organized how to paint them.
At Lift99, everyone is working hard to ensure delivery directly to the unit in need as quickly as possible. That’s the key thing. We were lucky to find a partner in Lviv who helped us get across the border in just two hours. We usually drive trucks to the Polish border, where ladies from our Ukrainian partner cross it, and then take those vehicles to Lviv.
Everything happens very quickly, so soldiers get those vehicles the next day or even the same day — it depends on their location.
Things are changing too fast, and we are rethinking how we can make a difference. Like yesterday we were giving one car to the unit in Severodonetsk, and the commander was extremely moved. He almost cried because he lost many people because of the lack of a vehicle. The truck was what he basically needed — Toyota Landcruiser. And we delivered it to Kyiv this time. We have a volunteer from Estonia who drove this truck from Tallinn to Kyiv. And from there, he took it to the locations where it was mostly needed. In general, in this convoy, we delivered seven vehicles to the Luhansk region, where the most severe fighting is today.
Did you face any difficulties while working on this initiative? If so, what were they, and how did you solve them?
When we drove for the first time, we didn’t even know if we could make it through the border, how we should work legally, what documents we should have, etc. The Polish customs officers were surprised — they weren’t sure if we could pass, so we talked, explained to them the situation, and eventually, we got it through.
The main difficulty was always about how the logistics worked. The first time we had no clue how long it would take because there were huge lines from the European side of the border. And we were lucky to manage to cross it in a couple of hours. Later we learned how to do it as fast as possible with the help of our partners.
The highest priority is that the vehicles must survive on the battlefield in highly extreme situations.
And two of the trucks we transported to Ukraine broke down afterwards.
Today we also do a deep technical check to make sure all the vehicles are strong enough. Sometimes when someone donates a car, we kindly say no, if we see that it is too weak. And that is really hard because people are very kind. But when the risks are high that they would break down, we can’t accept them.
Do you have any partners in russia? If so, what do they say about this war?
I don’t have any partners in Russia. Most Russians I know have left the country. All of them are extremely ashamed of this war.
Do you plan to visit Ukraine, and when do you think it is going to happen?
My last visit to Ukraine was on March 28, when I delivered 14 cars to Lviv for the Ukrainian Army. I am planning to visit Kyiv in June.
Recently you reopened Lift99. Why did you decide to do so?
It was the decision of the team. They were discussing how to start rebuilding the ecosystem again. So, they decided to go to Kyiv to do it step by step. It takes time, given the military situation and taking into account the risks. But now, the team of Lift99 is thinking of how they can be more helpful to founders and startups, how to help them scale their businesses to the international markets, etc.
The first question was: where are all the members? Many of them are around the world: some of them are in Portugal, some in Berlin, but some are in Ukraine. People are slowly returning to Kyiv, even though it is hard to drive due to a shortage of diesel and gasoline. But the team felt that the best way to help Ukraine is to open Lift99 and start to rebuild the ecosystem.
So if you want to build a product, join a startup team or learn more about the startups — contact them on social media.
What business assets and connections do you have in Ukraine? Tell us about the startups you have backed? Are they in Ukraine or evacuated?
I have invested in six startups, and roughly half of them stay in Ukraine. I’m surprised that none of them have their doors closed. I met with the Awesomic founders in Lviv at the end of March. They didn’t face the huge affect of the full-scale war as everyone else. There were some in February and March, but in April, they managed to adapt to the new reality, and they started to raise their business again to get more traction. They don’t depend much on Ukrainian clients.
Most Ukrainian startups today divide their time between developing their products and helping the army. I haven’t seen any big fallout, and that is very surprising to me how people have adapted, how they are working on two fronts and finding ways to stay strong in that difficult time.
We keep in touch with all the startups from Ukraine. I recently met with Legal Nodes CEO Margarita, who had just arrived in Estonia from London (she lived in London before the full-scale war started). Mate Academy is in Ukraine. And I see they are all doing fine.
Are you going to continue to help Ukraine and how?
Sure. We continuously talk with the team about how we can help. We see evidence that other countries are sending military help to Ukraine as well. And most of it has already arrived. So we keep the project live, though the content might change depending on the situation, because the bigger question will be how to rebuild Ukraine.
The World now sees that Ukraine and Ukrainians are the strongest. That is the only good thing in this war. And the help from not only Estonia, Poland, or Latvia but globally is very big. My wife is Ukrainian, and she has never seen so many Ukrainian flags in Estonia. Now you can see them literally everywhere.
Ukraine has become the biggest brand globally, and Ukrainian heroes will inspire generations all around the world.