Women of Antler Fireside Chat
On 19th May 2023, I was lucky enough to be invited to Antler’s UK HQ for their ‘Women of Antler brunch and fireside chat: Unlocking Success’ event. Antler is a Singapore-based business incubator and startup accelerator founded in 2017 with Pitchbook ranking it as the most active seed stage venture capital firm in 2022 globally, with 262 deals.
The event was not only ideal for networking but also had an inspirational talk from Maria Wlosinka, who was part of their first ever cohort and CEO of Unlock, an innovative startup which offers engaging activities for remote teams and has achieved enormous success during the pandemic.
Tell us about your background and what attracted you to Antler at the beginning?
I’m born and raised in Sweden; my parents are Polish. I always thought I would be a doctor, so I studied medicine first but then moved over to business school. Throughout business school I was always a relationship builder, but never really wanted to do investment banking or become a consultant as it was popular at the time to choose those careers. So, I moved onto a more commercial route, doing seven years in a commercial sales role in different tech companies, mainly selling engagement technology. I was also very used to selling, and I was just always excited about how to engage your employees or your customers.
Alongside my work, I was always helping to arrange different conferences and events. So I was always inspired by how you bring people together in a meaningful way. It was more through organising the events that I felt this urge to become an entrepreneur. I met a lot of founders through it, and realised it's not impossible. But it’s still not easy to take the jump when you have a good stable job with a high income.
Then, when I was in Singapore, I heard about Antler and met with the team there. I was shocked with how good the platform was as the scariest part of taking the jump, for me, was not having a Co-Founder. I knew that the journey was hard and I didn't want to do it fully myself but then I heard about Antler and this programme where they have a good selection of talent that is also wanting to start a company and happy to dedicate the time.
So, I felt there was nothing to lose to apply and see where it takes me. I was lucky to get in and moved to London for the programme as I felt London for me would be a better base to start as it's a good community here.
When you joined the programme you were looking for co-founders, tell us about that experience here at Antler. What you did, how you found them and how you've ended up as the CEO of the team?
We were a cohort of 70 people, all from different backgrounds coming together with 50% with a business background and 50% with a tech software engineering background, so it was obvious that you will match with someone that has different skills than you.
The first two weeks of the programme at Antler were all about meeting people which was interesting because I remember prior to the programme, I had gone through everyone's LinkedIn and tried to match in my head who would be a good co-founder but, even the first day, none of my options worked. You must have that in person physical chemistry too.
Throughout these first two weeks, it quickly become apparent that Darshak Bhatt and Eli Rezinsky, my two co-founders, immediately made sense – we get along, we could just talk about everything, and we have very different skills.
In terms of role definition, it was obvious, because Darshak is a CTO, he came from an engineering background and he wanted to build, so he wanted to take the CTO role. Then Eli came from more of a finance operation and strategy and was more interested in the COO role, and for me, who's more on the commercial side, it naturally falls towards the CEO role.
Pre-COVID you went into IC, were you successful? What was that business and how did you pivot?
We knew we wanted to be in the space of facilitating connection and belonging, but we started from a recruitment perspective. Thinking about how you can reduce the time and faster hire if you have a group of people that you have much more engagement with, so that you can tap into that talent pool faster, so we were a lot more in the talent CRM space.
We had this big demo day in January 2020 but then two months later COVID happened. However, we were lucky as we had gone through IC and got the Antler’s initial investment which was 120K but then we made our first mistake which was ‘we got this, let’s go out and raise the seed round’ which we were not ready for.
After getting that money, everyone went into lockdown, and we just talked about what we do now. That’s when we started to jump on calls with senior managers, HR managers, and they were quite happy to talk, especially as people had more time with not being allowed out.
We went through a new discovery phase which was helpful as we could really take a little bit more time to really uncovered the existing solution market. Then we slowly iterated from focusing on engaging your future hires to engaging your existing hires and employees. Then four weeks later we had an understanding of the IDM platform and Darshak created a beta version we could try, and we got a good traction with users and people were engaged, as at that time everyone was looking for those kinds of solutions. Then a few months later we were able to go out and raise properly, which is when we did our 1.5 million round.
How useful was your existing network when you came into the programme?
I always knew that in the end everything is about people, especially in the world of startups and investments, it’s who you know a lot of the time. I had also spent a lot of my time previously organising events and conferences and through that, I just met so many amazing people. So, it’s nice to keep in touch with people as you never know where it takes you later on. So quite a few of the people that got into our seed round were from these events and thinking about fundraising, we would never have raised without the introductions people made for us.
You raised 300k from angels, and you've also raised from VCs. So, what's the difference of raising from angels and VCs? And how have you found the market?
I think the biggest difference is that VCs are a completely different process to angels, with angels it's more personal and they make a decision after one call – either they like you or they don’t and it's their own money. I always approached angels after we already had a term sheet from a lead and they are quite quick to follow up once you're in that situation. Approaching angels is quite difficult before you have a lead investor.
That’s when I shifted my focus into the fundraising. The preparation is the key, so it starts from boring things like building your CRM and your Google Sheets and mapping out the entire list of who could be relevant, who is investing in your space, how you structure documents, what are your primary targets, and ensuring you have a warm introduction to every single investor. That takes some time. One tip that really helped me was that I contacted law firms, because law firms know who got recently funded, and had a good round, meaning there were multiple term sheets, because it really matters who introduces you as well. I've noticed the huge difference between a little bit of a weaker introduction versus someone that either made these people money, or someone that currently or recently is a little bit of a hot founder.
I remember when we started Antler, they facilitated these small introductions to angels and investors, and I was so nervous and thinking, ‘Oh my God, another rejection’, but by now, it doesn't touch me at all, because you have so many issues and things you've experienced, you become a little bit numb towards it. Which is good, because you also realise that it's okay, there's so many reasons for them to reject, and it's often not even personal.
You've raised in the UK and other European places, and now you're raising in America. Is there a geographical difference when you're raising funds?
A bit more within US than Europe. In Europe everyone is investing in everything, and it feels very similar, whereas the US is a different feeling.
First of all, with the American directedness style, I definitely think you have to pitch and bring yourself differently to meetings and prepare a little bit different – you have a much shorter time to get you and your business across. It also definitely helps to be there if you want to raise in the US. You can try doing it a bit through Zoom but since everyone is back, if you don't go to the US and at least show that you're willing to stay a month, they won't take you fully seriously.
Three things to take away from Maria Wlsonika talk:
1 - Just start. If you've not been through a cohort and are thinking, should I do it? Should I apply? Should I not apply? Well apply. But if you don't try, you'll never know.
2 - Product market fit. Really get close to your customers, maybe get on WhatsApp with them to understand what they want, to help build a solution for the customer.
3 - Fundraising. Prepare. The old saying is fail to prepare, prepare to fail, and this is so true here with fundraising.