It's no secret that in recent years, memes have become one of the most powerful means of communication and influence on social media, reflecting various phenomena and daily events in the modern world. Moreover, a simple meme can turn into a charity initiative when appropriately used.
This was the case on the eve of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A Canadian marketer and former journalist named Christian, who had previously worked as a journalist in Ukraine from 2014 to 2019, created a meme called Saint Javelin. The meme featured an image of the religious figure Mary Magdalene holding an FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile. Christian's objective was to raise C$500 for Help Us Help Charity, a well-established Canadian organization operating in Ukraine that assists fallen soldiers' families and supports veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress.
Expecting just to sell a few stickers and donate some money to a charity organization, Christian’s idea grew into a social enterprise that, to date, has sold over 200,000 products and donated over $2 million to Ukraine as a means of support in its fight for freedom.
Plunge into our exclusive interview with the brand's founder Christian Borys and uncover the captivating journey of Saint Javelin: a simple social media meme that evolved into a formidable force, driving impactful initiatives to support Ukraine.
Company: Saint Javelin
Year & place of establishment: 2022, Toronto, Canada
Founders: Christian Borys
The number of employees: 15
Current location: Kyiv & Toronto
1. What inspired you to start Saint Javelin, and how did your experience as a journalist in Ukraine influence your decision to create this social enterprise?
I have been working as a conflict journalist covering the war in Ukraine between 2014 and 2018. When my friends in Ukraine started ringing the alarm bells about Russia’s impending attack in early February, I wanted to do something to help. As someone with Ukrainian and Polish roots who spent a long time in Ukraine reporting from conflict zones, it felt very personal. I didn’t have a solid plan, so, I decided to make a sticker out of a meme called Saint Javelin. It’s an extremely niche meme, recognizable only to war reporters, defenсe analysts, and military types.
I set up a Shopify store on February 16th with the innocent goal of selling a couple of stickers, so I could donate $500 or something like that to a Canadian Charity, Help Us Help, that worked with Ukrainian orphans. I posted the illustration of Saint Javelin on my Instagram, asking, “Does anyone want one of these stickers?”. Then things went nuts. Ukraine was the biggest story in the world then, and the Instagram post started getting shared like crazy. It must have struck a nerve with people looking for ways to support Ukraine.
2. Your vision and big mission?
Our mission is to support Ukraine till victory and beyond. I want Saint Javelin to be a sustainable social enterprise that strengthens and informs the international community of Ukraine’s supporters, creates high-quality clothing products, and continues to donate money to important causes in Ukraine. The biggest goal right now is to move most of our production to the country.
3. Over the past year, Saint Javelin evolved from a scrappy sticker operation to a full-fledged mission-based business. What, in your opinion, makes Saint Javelin so special?
Last year, Ukraine was the biggest story in the world. For many of those, who had no interest in Ukraine before, Saint Javelin became the simplest, most frictionless way to show their support. People didn’t want to just donate to the Red Cross or something, they wanted to show that they supported Ukraine. So they looked at us and thought, “Hey, if I wear this Saint Javelin t-shirt and walk around outside, people will know which side I’m on.” From our perspective, there’s a core international community of people who continue to support Ukraine in this war, and I think Saint Javelin symbolizes that for them. One of the things that set us apart from others is that we found a way to communicate our brand values in a down-to-earth, funny voice. People come back for the unique social media presence that we were able to establish.
4. The Saint Javelin brand has built a large media community through the use of sarcastic memes and imaginative characters, such as the beloved "cartoon dog" NAFO Fellas and others. We're curious to know – where do you draw inspiration from, and what's your creative process like?
When I first started the page, I would literally post screenshots of tweets with opinions I found interesting. Then came the memes that I would just repost. It was very DIY. We now have 3 people working on the page, plus a video editor that created some of our unhinged classics like “HIMARS Got Talent” or “BBC Planet Ukraine”. All of our social media people are Ukrainian, so they all have a deep understanding of the culture and context, which helps translate the Ukrainian sense of humor to the broader international audience. The creative process is hard to describe because sometimes, our videographer spends 30 hours on a clip that doesn’t get nearly as much traction as something we tweet on a whim.
The meme by Saint Javelin based on a visit of US President Joe Biden to Ukraine
5. What is the main demographic of your customers?
I would say that we have multiple demographics depending on the channel. The overwhelming majority of our followers come from the US, the same is true for the customers who buy from our website. Canada was second for a while but has now fallen behind UK and Germany.
6. Your T-shirts went viral last year, and even President Zelensky was seen wearing one of them. Tell the story behind it.
That was a crazy moment. I went to Kyiv last April to figure out how to start manufacturing our products in Ukraine. While I was there, I had the opportunity to meet the Ukrainian Minister of Defence, Oleksii Reznikov. I gave him a custom shirt that we made for him, and I also gave him an extra shirt made for Zelensky. I just expected him to throw it away or give it to his assistants or something like that, but a few hours later, Reznikov sent me a message saying, “Just to let you know, the President has your T-Shirt.” About 10 minutes later, somebody from our team sent me a video that Zelensky’s team put up. And my phone started going crazy! That’s when I thought, “Wow, this is insane!”
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and Minister of Defence of Ukraine Oleksii Reznikov with the Saint Javelin T-shirt
7. What are some of the long-term goals you have for Saint Javelin, and how do you envision the brand growing and evolving in the years to come?
My dream would be – everything’s made in Ukraine. It has proven to be very difficult in a year of our operations. The problem is because of Amazon people are expecting everything to be shipped the next day. In order to do that – it costs a shitload of money to store inventories and make sure someone’s dispatching it the next day.
But our big goal is to shift the maximum economic value back to Ukraine, so we’re towards that vision. We’ve made limited drops with items made in Ukraine, like the hats we made in Kharkiv, shirts from Dnipro, flags from Lviv, and pins and stickers from Kyiv.
The meme by Saint Javelin based on a visit of President Zelensky to the USA
Most of these products sold out in a matter of days, so we’re currently working on a more calibrated special drop for this summer. I’ll give you a hint: its overall theme has to do with Crimea.
We also have this other special project of making SAINTS, a book together with Sasha Maslov and Osnovy about the ordinary Ukrainians who are basically saving this country every day. I want us to do more of these meaningful cultural projects and collaborations with Ukrainian artists in the future.
8. What has been the most rewarding part of your work with Saint Javelin so far, and how do you measure the impact that your organization is having on Ukraine and its people?
In the last year, we’ve had the chance to work with and support many organizations of different sizes, from an established national organization like United24 to small evacuation initiatives. It has all been rewarding, but I have to say that it feels extremely meaningful when you can really see the impact of what you’re doing. Like seeing the fleeces, we manufactured as a part of the Winter is Coming campaign being worn by Ukrainian defenders, giving a truck to Hospitallers, or getting photos from the summer camp organized for orphans of Ukrainian fallen heroes that we were able to support.
When you’re working with a smaller organization, you know that the piece of gear or equipment you were able to provide can make somebody’s life a little better, then that is all that matters.
9. What are your most significant insights from entrepreneurship? Your superpower?
Hire people smarter than you, and don't interfere with them too much.
10. And now, how are YOU doing?
Tired, but OK.
As we wrap up this captivating interview with the founder of Saint Javelin, it's truly inspiring to witness how a simple intention to contribute to a charitable organization has transformed into a thriving social enterprise, lending vital support to Ukraine.
We encourage you to follow Saint Javelin on social media to stay updated on the latest news, insightful stories, and engaging memes surrounding the war in Ukraine.
But the journey doesn't end here. To continue standing with Ukraine and contribute to the growth of the local economy in times of resilience, we encourage you to make a conscious choice to purchase Ukrainian products. Search for more socially conscious Ukrainian brands on our website.