Завзятість – Tenacity: How I Spent A Year One Night in Kiev

This July I thought I had set the record for tenacity in my age group. Go ahead and take a moment to read the post, it’s short. I reminded my Startup Owners Manual co-author Bob Dorf this is how entrepreneurs played the game, blah, blah, blah.

As usual Bob did one better. Here’s a guest post on what happened to him in the Ukraine.


Usually when you teach entrepreneurship, one of the key things you teach is tenacity, a vital characteristic of great entrepreneurs.  Only rarely does the teaching itself require tenacity, as it did late last month in Kiev, Ukraine.

Following two days with a dozen startups at a brand-new incubator in Kiev called “Happy Farm,” it was time to head to my next stop: Skolkovo, the private Moscow business school formed to bring Silicon Valley-quality training to young Russian entrepreneurs.  I was headed to my second Lean LaunchPad launch, excited that the first one in June had led to four funded startups raising some $2-million from Russian VC’s.

Ukraine was magnificent. Kiev is a beautiful city and Happy Farm Training Director Elena Kalibaba led me on a walking tour. Then it was on to a series of workshops and one-on-one coaching sessions with ten terrific startup teams, plus a press conference with Forbes Ukraine and others. When it was over, Happy Farm CEO and founder (and serial entrepreneur) Anna Degtereva drove me to the airport and–for some strange reason–escorted me to the gate.

I Spent A Year One Night in Kiev
As I approached the check-in desk, a very gruff Ukrainian customs official looked at my visa to Russia and said, “You cannot travel.  Your visa to Russia has already been used.  No exceptions.” He said nothing else in English, and waved me out of the line.

A mad scramble uncovered the problem:  when I had changed planes for Kiev back in Moscow they stamped my visa as “entered” so that counted as “visiting” Russia. As far as Ukrainian customs was concerned I didn’t have a valid visa to enter Russia therefore I couldn’t get on my plane. No charm or magic worked at all with airport customs, and we were told in no uncertain terms that Bob Dorf would be living in Kiev for two weeks, absent miracles that seldom happen in government bureaucracies, at home or in Ukraine, for sure.

The problem was that I had 25 founders from all over the Russian republics expecting me to teach a Lean LaunchPad class 12 hours later in Moscow. And then I was heading to Paris and Bogota to teach as well.  Oops. Not if I had to spend two weeks in the Ukraine applying for a new Russian visa!

We dashed off from the Kiev airport to the Russian consulate in hopes of sorting it out in two hours rather than two weeks. While on the way, we called the embassy at 12:55 and found out that the Embassy closes at 13:00 on Fridays, and we were 30 minutes away. And I don’t even like borscht, a prime Ukrainian delicacy, nor did I know how the “Bob Dorf world tour” would continue.

Four entrepreneurs in a car
Was this time to give up?  Of course not. Four entrepreneurs in a car in Kiev means three cell phones buzzing in different directions in Russian and me as the non Russian-speaker on my iPad looking at travel sites for the next flight, just in case I could get a visa. We went to the consulate anyway, where two armed guards right out of your favorite spy movie (fat, grumpy, unshaven and did I say grumpy?) barred the door. After rapid-fire begging in Russian, a phone finally call got a functionary out to basically shoo us away. “Visa processing takes two weeks, and that would start Monday, since the visa office is now closed. The Professor can go home to America, but can not go from here to Russia.” Visions of stealth border crossings or—perhaps even worse—a ten-hour Skype talk with my Moscow students—played over and over again.Cossack Attack

While the thoughts of going back to the U.S. for a weekend at home with my long-lost wife Fran were lovely, the thought of disappointing 25 students the next day and 50 more two days later in Bogota weren’t fun. I immensely enjoyed my last lectures at Skolkovo and was eager to do it again. 

So we started an international incident of sorts
First, the truly entrepreneurial and unstoppable Happy Farmer, Anna, somehow in five phone calls got through to the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, told him the story, begged for his help. She did this through a friend (how everything happens in Ukraine, of course) who served as one of his deputies. “I will talk to him at four pm and he will call the Russians,” she said, which offered only nominal relief: the last flight out was at 7 pm, and there was no firm commitment that anything good would happen.

At the same time, on the Russian side of the border, Skolkovo’s equally tenacious Startups Project Director, Lawrence Wright, went to work, calling the Russian foreign office and imploring them to call the Ukrainian embassy and tell them “let Dorf out.” When they agreed to consider breaking every rule in the 40-pound Russian rulebook, the fun began.

The Ukrainian solution to all this, while we paced for two hours to see if anybody heard our cries: “lets go to lunch and have a drink.” In perhaps one of four times in my entire life, I was actually unable to eat. The thought of jumping barbed wire fences, pursued by Cossacks, was quickly looming as my only choice for an on-time performance launching the LaunchPad.  Meanwhile, something clicked. Somebody got to somebody, and suddenly the Russian Consul himself, boss of the entire place, headed back to—or was sent back to–the office himself to personally produce a visa for Bob Dorf in one hour, not two weeks.

We were given less than an hour to find wifi and download the 20-page visa application in the backseat of an SUV.  Needed to have the original, not a copy, of the new Skolkovo “invitation letter” physically in my hand. Scrambled to get a passport photo and a printer to print out the application. Done, back to the Consulate at Indy 500 speed!

Somehow it worked. If Anna and her team are as good at running over hot coals and through brick walls with their startups as they were with my visa, watch for lots of great companies emerging from the Happy Farm.  As for me, I was sure I was headed to the funny farm.  By nine I was heading to Moscow. Six hours of fun aggravation, five and a half of which had me absolutely sure we were opening a branch of K&S Ranch in Kiev.

But the best part of the adventure is that I now had a better tenacity story than Steve.  Beat this one!
Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

9 Responses

  1. Kiev sounds as though it might not be the perfect place to do business

  2. Excellent reminder that life is not linear, nor is business!

    I shall share this story with my office colleague who is from the Ukraine working here in Southern California for any of her experiences but in reverse.


    • I don’t see why you should share this with your Ukrainian colleague. Visa was stamped by Russians in some Moscow airport, it was Russian consulate to re-issue it, Russians were asking for “invitation letters” and stuff. Do you have some Russian colleagues by any chance? They may be more suitable to share the story.
      Ukrainians don’t even require a visa if you’re US Citizen to visit.

      As for Ukrainian border guard, you cannot board a plane if you don’t have a visa. This is a common practice. If you’re flying to US, someone will check your passport before you board. If you’re not US Citizen, they will check your visa and ask an address where you will be staying. If you have no visa, you will be denied boarding. This rule applies to virtually every European international airport. Quite contrary to American airports, no one seems to care where you go.

      The only thing worth “sharing” with Ukrainians is so-called “phone law”. But Mr. Dorf may be happy with this particular side of what westerners call “corruption”. You don’t have to wait for two weeks when you can call some big comrade on the phone, very useful, isn’t it?

  3. I’m fairly certain they stamp passports incorrectly on purpose. All you had to do was ask them if there is a VIP service you could pay for “bribe them”.

    When I travel to former soviet states I see these types of issues happen all the time. Customs screw the documents of unsuspecting foreign travelers in hopes of extorting money later on and letting you fly.

  4. Sounds like your in Nairobi Kenya where getting a visa is a one month process. I was surprised no one asked for a tip before giving you a visa. In case your in Africa facing similar problem, just tip all the way except the embassy officials. Make sure you always have $ 300.00 minimum for tip. and bribery The good news is that you can tip as low as $5.OO depending on the urgency of the matter. Always carry loose tipping bills.

  5. Great story and an awesome followup to “Tenacious” http://steveblank.com/2012/07/19/tenacious/

  6. Steve, I went to Seattle to attend the Lean Launchpad event in December.  As soon as I arrived, it was cancelled due to too few attendees.  I set up a meeting with Scott, Kav, and Donald and we briefly went through my business idea.  They were very positive and supportive.  The structure of Lean Launchpad, however, is not going to be available till February.  I want to move forward now. My idea is to provide a communication service between Ultra High Net Worth individuals (people who have a net worth between $30M and $1B) and custom design firms through a web/app.  This is a multi-sided market.  I have a contact who introduced me to two UHNW individuals.  And another contact introduced me to someone who worked with them, but was not an UHNW individual.  This was a beginning, but highly unsatisfying.  I also have interviewed two haute couture houses in Paris. I have developed a business model canvas – several times over.  In order to move forward, I need a way to contact more UHNWi’s.  I am finding when I bring up the target market most people are intimidated.  It is difficult to move forward from there.  In addition, I believe there is a generation difference that is significant. Can you help me?  I am staying in the East Bay area of San Francisco.  I would like to meet with someone who can review my hypotheses, put me in contact with my target market, and mentor/coach/facilitate me along the way. Thank you for your consideration, Jennifer Mitchell 504-450-5862


  7. Hahaha stories like this are very common in that part of thw world. When I was about to move to st. Petesburg in Russia, I had a similar thing… my flight was next day and the physical version of the letter had not arrived yet. Afetr pushing with the consulate it worked 🙂 and a Ukraine, the official deported me with no good reason.. luckily my vsa to russia was a multy entry visa.

    Even though complicated that parr of the world is amazingly cool, its worth the headache.

  8. It’s so common situation here. Great that Bob was so excited by this. Usually you don’t need just to have some money for tipping but even more important – you need the right phone number of a person who will accept payment and solve your problem or will do it for keeping good relationships with caller.

    Btw i had the same situation in China. Local tourist guides know all the ways to go around. They made me new visa two hours after visa issuing department were officially closed. Networking ))

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: