Motion designer from Ukraine moved to New York. Now he works with brands like Microsoft, Canon, and Puma

In 2015, motion designer Pavlo Tkachenko moved from Cherkasy to New York to try to launch his own business. Eventually, his clients were the head offices of Puma, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft, Samsung, Canon USA, NYC, Paramount Pictures, First Republic Bank, smart, WeWork, Johnson & Johnson. In December 2022, Pavlo moved to London to expand his services across European markets.

AIN.Capital spoke to Pavlo and shares his story about building a business.

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Pavlo Tkachenko. The photos in this interview were provided by the speaker

What was your experience and what did you do before moving?

I’ve never done anything else in my life but video: filming, and editing. It all started back in school: my friends and I used to get together in basements and play punk rock. I always had a camera with me, and we would shoot videos, edit them, and post them on YouTube. Then I ended up in a production company that made content for TV. We filmed news reports, interviews, and so on, which were later bought by channels to fill the airtime.

But I always wanted to be location independent, I wanted to be like the programmers who can code anywhere in the world.  I slowly studied motion design and animation, and did it in Ukraine for several years, building a portfolio. I was working as a freelancer in productions, collaborating a lot with NLO-TV, and local Cherkasy TV channels. However, I also started looking for clients abroad.

Why did you decide to move to the USA?

I believe that the decision to move was a logical one in my career.  I wanted to see if I could live and work there initially. I worked on Upwork at the time and had some clients from the US. I thought it would be cool to go and meet them. Maybe they would introduce me to someone, and recommend my services. The plan was rather slow: to go to the US, do some networking, return to Ukraine, and work from here. But things turned out differently.

When I left for the States, I had only a backpack with me, because I didn’t plan to stay. A few big clients came up pretty quickly, I decided to stay until my visa expired, and six months later I had already launched a company there. When I was leaving Ukraine, I didn’t even say a proper goodbye to my parents, thinking I would return in a few months. In the end, I managed to return 3.5 years later.

How was your move?

Of all the possible places in the United States, I chose New York, which is one of the most expensive locations. At that time, I didn’t have a lot of clients to pay for a permanent place to live. So I rented a room for the first couple of weeks and set myself a deadline: I had to earn enough money to rent a decent place during this time. When I arrived in the US, I had $2000 on my card. I didn’t even have my own website.

You have a story about how you asked someone in a coffee shop for a Wi-Fi password, and as a result, they ordered your services. How did you find your first customers?

It was my first week in New York, I was in a coffee shop doing something on my laptop and asked my neighbor for the Wi-Fi password. We started chatting, and it turned out that he ran a startup that was in need of a video, so he offered to work together. I had heard before that it is common here to tell you how cool you are and discuss joint projects, but then nothing actually happens. But he called the next day, made a job order, and even paid in advance.

This gave me the faith to believe in myself. I’m a guy from Ukraine, I moved to New York, even though it seemed like New York was the best and it was impossible to make it here. But I did it.

I was looking for my first clients at conferences, meetups, and some sort of hangouts where people from the creative world gather. I just approached strangers, got to know them, showed them my work, and said that I could do creative design, animation, and motion design. And gradually it worked. I didn’t try to spread emails, I just went and met people. Some people immediately offered to work together, others recommended who I could approach and exchanged contacts.

I probably went on such client hunts 3-4 times a week, and it worked. Over time I realized that I wanted to work with big brands rather than startups.

Why is it so?

It is always more interesting to work with startups or a young, exciting company. However, from a business point of view, a startup always wants to pay less and make the coolest product. Sometimes I took projects from startups just to satisfy my creative streak.

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In most cases, however, in recent years I have started targeting large companies: they are more or less stable and pay well. I wanted to switch from a person who “makes videos for everyone” to a specialist who makes more specialized content that not everyone is capable of making. Large corporate clients are ideal in this regard because a lot of people will be able to see my work.

You have worked for Microsoft, Puma, and the City Hall of New York. How did you start working with them?

New York is the perfect city to meet the right person in a random place. I was introduced to the agency that did the New York City Hall project by my friends at a party. They did all the creatives for the mayor’s office, all the stuff that could be seen in the subway, on billboards, and on New York’s Time Square.

I joined them as a creative director, developing billboards and subway kiosks, and making videos for the SMM campaign. It was very cool that the then-mayor of the city tagged me in an Instagram post.

The cherry on top was a video projection onto Washington Square Park’s arch. The video was reposted by a bunch of people. It was a very cool project, not particularly well paid, but it became a strong and recognizable case for the portfolio.

New York is one of the world’s coolest cities, and it was nice to walk around and see my work. Some guy from Cherkasy, Ukraine, came here thinking: “What can I possibly give to New York?”. But it turned out that I brought something to this city, and made it better.

Tell us about the JPMorgan case, how did you start working with them?

That’s an interesting story. I was in a “Motion Designers of New York” Facebook group and saw that someone was looking for a motion designer for a project. I responded but was ignored. A few months later, they were looking for a motion designer again, and this time we got in touch (and I didn’t even know who it was). It happened to be the creative producer of JPMorgan.

So I go to a meeting with them in their skyscraper on Park Avenue, go up to some super-high floor, we sit down at a table, and I realize that I know nothing about the financial world. And the project required me to explain some complex financial terminology to users through motion design.

Still, as they say, fake it till you make it. So I told them I was quite good at it and started working. To be honest, it would have been hard for them to find any motion designer who knew a lot about finance.

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We worked with them for a year, it was my only client, and I learned a lot. When I added that I worked with JPMorgan on LinkedIn, other banks and investment companies started contacting me. That’s how I started working with Fidelity Investments, which is one of the largest investment companies in the United States, and I’ve been working with them for 3 years now. Our main task is to educate people about investing and to make these training videos fun: so that a person can watch 3-minute videos and understand how to manage their account, for example.

Were there any unsuccessful cases or any mistakes?

There was a project that I still feel ashamed of – a case with Google. I had an acquaintance with whom I did some small projects, and six months later he offered me to work with Google. He invited me to their office (one of the coolest offices I’ve ever seen in my life). He told me a little bit about the challenges of working with Google:

that sometimes they don’t have a clear vision of what they want to do, and it sounds like: “we want something, but you have to tell us what it is”. You have to think like a “Google person”.

I gathered a team for that project, it was a very specific, very technical motion design, somewhat related to UX/UI. We kept pitching them different ideas, and they kept responding: “Doesn’t feel like Google”. We tried our best and offered the best options, but everything was “not right”.

In the end, the time was running out, the deadline was tight, and they agreed to one option, which we modified several times. We submitted the project and got the money, but the guy never contacted me again. I even wrote to him several times, asking if there was anything from Google, but he didn’t answer. Google hasn’t used our work anywhere, even though we tried very hard to do a great job. It’s just that we probably didn’t do it the way Google saw it. We didn’t turn out to be “Google-minded”. Although it’s quite possible that the manager who led this project didn’t know how it should be done, he mentioned that he hadn’t been in the company for long.

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Which project are you proud of?

We did a cool project for Microsoft, and both we and they really liked it. We worked successfully with smart Europe (you can watch the video here).

It was also interesting working with Puma. It was one of my first experiences working specifically for social media: all the content was vertical, all for stories (stories, by the way, were just beginning to become a tool for business promotion).

It was a challenging but interesting project: we had to be as technical as possible and handle everything professionally, but in a way that made the videos look sincere and natural at the same time. For example, part of our job was to get content from Puma influencers, people like Selena Gomez or Formula 1 champions, and make it look like they filmed it themselves.

It was a very cool experience because I worked with one of the coolest agencies in New York, they are located in Soho, and it was a dream come true for me. I always imagined myself as a creative director walking through Soho with a cup of coffee for a meeting to some cool office and team. This was an incredibly creative environment: people do very professional work and right away go up to the roof to do yoga, everyone in the office has a dog, everyone is dressed casually, and some got tattoos. The ultimate New York experience.

The project turned out to be great because the tasks and the team were great. Puma even sent me a bottle of whiskey afterward.

We can also mention one educational project. I met the guys from Fresh Ed at a tech conference in New York, and they presented their project, the idea of which is that they make rap for children in schools: about math, history, and literature. I offered them to create a series of animated music videos of their tracks for literature and history classes. The following day, we were already sitting in their studio in Soho and coming up with ideas for the videos.

You mentioned that you incorporated a company in the US, what does this mean for the business? Was it difficult to do?

It was easy to set up the company, we just needed an accountant to do everything. It cost up to a thousand dollars to register the name, address, and office. Our company has a New York address, and this is important for our clients. Sometimes we were told: “We have an office in Soho and we would like to work with those who understand the Soho culture.” So, for a creative business in New York, having a local office that can be found on Google Maps helps a lot.

Are there any specifics of doing business in the US compared to Ukraine?

I’ve hardly lived in Ukraine for the last 9 years, so I can’t compare. But there are no pitfalls to doing business in the United States. If you want to work and earn money, there’s everything for that here. You do business and you feel safe, you don’t have to be afraid that you will have a tax nightmare or get raided.

Do you monitor the war or contribute to the aid?

Absolutely. My family, my parents, and my friends are in Ukraine. I try to help as much as I can, to support the cause financially. All my clients know that I am Ukrainian, and they always ask me how things are going. I tell them the news. In general, Americans are very supportive of Ukraine. 

There is no one like it.