“We are at war with non-humans.” Ivan Kaunov, co-founder of Finmap and now an officer of Ukraine’s armed forces

Ivan Kaunov is the co-founder of the Ukrainian startup Finmap, which has recently raised €1 million in investment. In April, Ivan was drafted to defend Ukraine as part of Ukraine’s armed forces. Since then, Ivan has been at the front. In this interview with the editor of AIN.Capital, which took place in October 2022, Ivan talked about his experience in the infantry of the AFU, his work with severely wounded soldiers, and how his startup is managing without a co-founder.

Ivan Kaunov at Finmap
Ivan in the armed forces of Ukraine. All photos in the interview were provided by the interviewee

I am a reserve officer, and in April, I was drafted

On the first day of the full-scale invasion, we left with my family to visit friends in the Chernivtsi region. We thought we would be back soon. It seemed that everything could end very quickly — in a week or two. But when it became clear that it would last for a long time, I registered at the nearest military office. And I was summoned to the enlistment office almost at once.

I had no combat experience. I graduated from the military department at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in 2012 AND got my military specialty. In fact, I think they gave me a summons just to make sure I didn’t go anywhere. In the city we moved to there were not as many reserve officers as in Kyiv, where there were long lines at military registration offices.

Interestingly, I went there several times: I showed up with one summons — they handed me another one. “Come back in a week. This time, we’ve found all the necessary people.” Then another week later, and another.

Finally they called me and told me to come at once with my belongings. That’s how I ended up in the armed forces.

I a member of the infantry

I’m mostly in the East. I can’t reveal any more details.

The first few months, we were trained and coached. About a week or two before the war started, I took a course in tactical medicine, and then I was able to teach my fellow soldiers a lot. There were guys with combat experience from the ATO who shared their military skills — they told me how to organize the defense, how to maintain standards, and where to set up the best positions.

Everything works much more effectively in the AFU now than it did at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Because time has passed, most people already have combat experience.

My experience from the startup was also useful — in particular, in the organization of communications, supplies, and especially for moral and psychological training. This is actually my military specialty — deputy unit commander for moral and psychological support. I know how to control my emotional state and convey confidence and stability to the soldiers. I learned it in the military department as well, but I got even more training in stress tolerance while working in a startup 🙂

There are a lot of things happening in the war that disturb the morale of the soldiers

I had to pull people out of pretty complicated emotional states and make them ready to fight again.

One fighter on the front line began to suffer from severe panic attacks, and we realized that it was better not to send him into the trenches. But there is always a lot to do at war.

For example, when the ammo arrives, it is packed in crates containing two large metal boxes; we call them “zincs.” You have to unpack them like a giant tin can. Inside the zincs, the ammo is packaged in bags. So you have to unpack all of this, sort it, and load it into magazines. It’s a lot of work, especially physical work, which must be done constantly. And our fighter proved to be very effective at this task and kept himself in a stable emotional state even at the “zero” line.

I often work with soldiers who have lost limbs or had other serious injuries. Right now, I’m working a lot with a fighter who lost an arm, a leg, and a foot. We were selected for Esper Bionics, a Ukrainian smart prosthetics startup. The company is looking for sponsors to help fund prosthetics for Ukrainians. So I would be happy if anyone willing to help him would get in touch with me.

On the front line, you have to live in very harsh conditions

You don’t sleep at night, so you sleep for a couple of hours whenever possible. I got used to sleeping at night, during the day, and at any chance when there was no attack or shelling. The time of day is not important.

Once, we had to stay awake for several days — we ate energy bars and drank water because water makes you less sleepy. But this is not good because the body will be knocked out, and if you fall asleep, you need to make sure that there is someone to replace you beforehand.

Unfortunately, the fighters sometimes do not realize it is time to rest. One day, my comrade complained that his leg hurt. It turned out that he had calluses on half of his foot because he hadn’t taken off his shoes for several days in combat. Now all the soldiers use the powder which they refused before.

But the hardest thing about war is losing friends, which you get very quickly in combat conditions. Recently I experienced the loss of several very close comrades, selfless warriors. So I couldn’t do anything. But the war goes on — so you have to pick yourself up and keep working.

Fortunately, the fact that I was drafted didn’t affect Finmap.

My partner Oleksandr Solovei is doing great. We have a wonderful team of 60 people working for us already. And the company is still growing.

During the first weeks of the war, we were busy evacuating the team. We helped someone to leave, rented a place to live, and helped them financially. People really appreciate being taken care of. They worked very hard before the war, and now they are putting 300% of their effort into it. That’s why I’m not worried about our business.

When I have time, I like to join calls or meetings and see my colleagues. This usually happens when we leave the front for more rear areas.

I have never had business calls from the trenches because you switch to a different mode at the front. You have to hear and see everything that’s going on. I got a concussion during one of the bombardments, and I didn’t like it. Now I’m even more careful and attentive.

Networking helps enormously

Being on the front line, we tell our fellow entrepreneurs and IT specialists what problems we have here, and they immediately develop software or deliver gadgets to solve them. As a result, they have created many useful technical things for us. I can’t tell now which ones exactly. So we test them in combat conditions, give feedback, and the guys provide us with an improved version. I think that military tech in Ukraine will now develop at maximum speed.

For example, on the second day of these Iranian drone attacks, our friends shared presentations in chats about how to calculate them, how they work, etc. These analytic reports spread among the military as quickly as possible, and everyone knew how to protect themselves from drones and how to shoot them down.

We also constantly get help with basic supplies. Back in the spring, our volunteer friends purchased walkie-talkies for us, allowing us to set up communication between each post, which could be considered a luxury then. However, you must understand that this long front line means so many checkpoints. I had to cover only 1.5 kilometers, while the total length of the front line at that time was about 2.5 thousand kilometers.

We had two walkie-talkies at each checkpoint because when one’s battery is dead, you must replace it until it recharges. This way, our posts were constantly in touch. We used code words to designate individual enemy groups, and thanks to this communication, we could adjust our fire.

For example, our fighters could calculate the enemy’s artillery location from different positions. Guys from one trench would report that it was 11 o’clock, and guys in another would say it was 2 o’clock. So then we calculated where the enemy was and sent a drone to find them quickly.

It all took about tens of minutes. The situation at the front constantly changes, and a lot depends on your reaction and adaptation speed. Let’s say you get a report: “The enemy is moving in our direction at a distance of 150-200 meters at one o’clock.” A few minutes later, there is a new report that they are 100-150 meters away. You must quickly predict which street they will take and adjust the artillery to help aim the correct position and strike where they need to.

We are at war with non-humans

When I first went to the front, there was only one thought: if I was drafted, I was needed. I would do my best to be as effective as possible. After I had been in battle zones, I realized how different real war is compared to how you see it in civilian life. It is much more horrible and harsh than you can imagine.

One day we caught the enemy’s radio wave. We listened to them all day long. They were using some very weird coordinate system, and once we understood their cipher, we could find out their plans, where they were, and what data they were getting from their intelligence about us. I heard a lot of things on that radio that are better not to talk about.

Among other things, I was struck by how unhuman they were in their treatment of their personnel. The lives of their people are really worthless to them.

I did not even think that our enemy could be so cruel. When the footage from Bucha appeared, people could not believe that it was possible to be so inhuman. But they did these terrible things not only in Bucha — it happens in almost all the occupied territories. And that makes us want to end it as soon as possible, freeing our land from this nightmare.

Unlike the enemy, the best people work in the Armed Forces of Ukraine

I have seen a theater director work as an excellent machine gunner. I saw a programmer become a very cool military commander, saving lives by making the right decisions and broadcasting courage by his example. “Do you have military experience, or how do you do it?” — “It’s very similar to scrum, look.” This is really inspiring to know that a person has implemented scrum in a combat unit.

It is impossible not to be proud of how the Armed Forces of Ukraine apply their knowledge to combat tasks. And it’s impossible not to smile when suppliers see it and are surprised. It is like a joke:

— How did you hit a tank with a stinger? It was designed for air targets. — How did I? I just aimed and shot. — But it’s impossible according to the manual! — What manual?

Perhaps the de-occupation is not happening as fast as we would like. But, unlike the Russians, who throw their soldiers into the fire like cannon fodder, we are trying to save the lives of our fighters. Therefore, it is better to move slowly but minimize losses. Although unfortunately, we can’t make it without losing our comrades.

In fact, in my opinion, the General Staff works exceptionally efficiently. The strategic planning and tactical planning of our leaders also make me proud. We learn from our mistakes very quickly and fix them.

I work with a psychologist myself

We started our sessions before the invasion, and they continue even now. Friends also help me cope with stress when I manage to get out to Kyiv for a while. And it’s great to see that life goes on. That people can go to bars in the evening, have dinner in a restaurant, and walk around the free city. Unfortunately, cities close to the front line do not have this. And in the occupied settlements, such things are happening that I don’t want to think about. And I will do everything I can to prevent this evil from advancing further into our state’s territory and leave our land as soon as possible.

When somebody asks me about my plans, I always answer with a quote, “Let’s finish this f***ing mess first.”

All thoughts are simply about how to kick them out of Ukraine faster, to put some diamond dome so they can no longer get into our territory — and then we will already think about what to do next. Of course, I want to get back to work, to Finmap, to the team, which is waiting for me and constantly reminding me of that. And I will obviously need another month to rest.

I am incredibly proud of our people — the armed forces, the volunteers, the developers who make useful apps and devices, and the ordinary people who donate despite a difficult financial situation. My business partner and friend Oleksandr and I are raising money for combat drones. And we see that people, instead of drinking coffee, or something else, donate 50, 20 hryvnias, and someone even 40,000. Everyone helps as much as they can.

People, no matter what, are working hard, supporting the economy, and demonstrating that despite the invasion of the wild horde, we are not broken. It is very motivating because we see what and who we are fighting for.