Two weeks ago I joined Antler, a global startup generator and early-stage VC that creates and invests in start-ups, bringing together exceptional individuals with different and widely varied skill sets to form teams and develop business ideas. As Director of Marketing for the newly opened North American Branch - partnered with, and housed in, New Lab's Brooklyn Navy Yard Headquarters - I've been deep-diving into all things Antler: the "playbook" (a guide to replicating past success in new locations), current marketing and press initiatives, organizational structures, program specifications... essentially anything that I can get my hands on. Objectively, Antler is ushering in a different means of operating, creating a new hybridized company; think VC meets Y-combinator meets accelerator, but with two main points of differentiation: the talent is not required to have found a suitable co-founder, or even a business idea at the outset, and are provided a stipend to allow these "great minds" to take a risk. But, ultimately, reading mission statements and statistics isn't what resonates.
In my hunt to find a way to fully communicate the advantages of Antler's unique approach, I met with Anna Ratala and Malik Alimoekhamedov, recent alums and current co-founders, forged via Antler's Singapore Program. Anna and Malik are currently developing Zvook, the first smart-algorithm platform to help monetize the ever-expanding podcasting industry by matching brands with podcasts. The platform itself is simultaneously brilliant and yet completely, head-smashingly clear, simple and obvious. It fills an unmet need in a burgeoning market, creating a one-stop-shop for brands to find, partner and advertise with audio content creators within the intersection of brand alignment and relevance. And yet, the discussion of Zvook was only one (small) part of the fascinating insights I gained through our meeting.
Anna and Malik register as the embodiment of Yin and Yang: two inseparable, contradictory opposites who complement each other, creating a sense of harmony and achieving growth which would otherwise be impossible. Where Anna is high EQ, bubbly, charismatic, and business savvy, Malik is reticent, observant, speaks both deeply and quietly, and is 100% tech-focused.
Malik's side of the story took all of two minutes. I don't need to synthesize since his brevity suffices: for ten years he owned an IT consultancy firm in Belgium, working with clients such as Baxter. He began reading and researching entrepreneurship and how to create a start-up upon his friend's suggestion of starting a sex toys company for men; this was quite unexpected, deeply amusing, and, somehow, even less audible. He and said friend went to Shenzhen to build a prototype and find investors. Success was neither immediately obvious, nor easy to come by. Another friend, in Silicon Valley, introduced him to the idea of joining Antler. The concept appealed to him: no prior experience with start-ups required; smart people with varied backgrounds; the ability to find a complementary match with business expertise. Malik and his then partner had high hopes that the sex toy business would be refined, developed, and flourish at Antler. It did not. He thought about giving up and going back to IT consulting, but met Anna and thought, "let me give it one last try."
Alternatively, Anna's story was colorful, detail- and anecdote-filled. Anna had quit her corporate job in Finland and moved to Singapore eight years prior. She used her sales consultancy experience to help tech companies expand into Southeast Asia. But, upon the realization that 'most young people don't feel financially or emotionally comfortable, or stable enough to start a business', she worked to bring Slush, a leading start-up event non-profit, to Singapore. In doing so she "allowed herself to dare to start something on her own." She hustled, learned on the job, and realized she "would never again be able to work for anyone." Despite her expansive network and stellar reputation, this realization came with a lot of uncertainty:
Solo founders are rarely, if ever, funded and how do you even find someone to co-found? And, even if you know someone great you have to convince them to leave their job.At the third annual Slush event she organized, she met Magnus; Antler's Founder and CEO. Similarly to Malik, Anna was inspired by what Antler offered and, after further research, she decided to apply. Following a series of interviews and tests, she became one of the thousands of applicants to be offered a spot in the program; Antler's 3-5% acceptance rate is more stringent than even the stiffest of Ivy League acceptance rates.
Anna expounded upon the remarkable diversity she encountered across the 100 founders in her program; working with ten different people on different ideas; constantly refining, altering, scrapping, and aiming to validate, all while simultaneously hunting for the right chemistry and skill sets; making "life-long friendships," despite her best efforts to be singularly focused on work; and generally, how the trials, tribulations, and intensity of the experience, imitate "what start-up life is like." How it prepares you and tests you:
You learn that you have to love the bad times, not just tolerate them. So much of being an entrepreneur is hanging in the balance, trying to survive. It's not the crazy highs and lows that everyone thinks of. The program is quick and pressurized, it teaches you not to be afraid to really get out there, to put your ideas out there... You learn how to iterate and, more importantly, how to fail quickly.
— ANNA RATALA, RECENT ANTLER ALUM AND CURRENT CO-FOUNDER OF ZVOOK
Summarizing our lengthy conversation, as the program was drawing to a close, Anna's business idea was (more than) solid, but she had yet to find an equally strong and compatible co-founder; one of the main value-props of Antler's program and Anna's main rationale for joining. She once again went to Magnus for help, asking him: "How do you dare to invest in teams that have only been together for a handful of weeks? How do I know that someone I met during a two-month program is the right person to start a company?" He replied simply, "When you know, you know." On the advice of her mentor and other colleagues, and based on his reputation, Anna sought out a conversation with Malik. En route to the meeting room, the elevator stalled mid-floor, but for the next 20 minutes, their interest and involvement precluded any anxieties. Their discussion continued for two more hours – this time, happily in a conference room – asking each other difficult and probing questions: "trying to cut through the bullshit and honestly figure out if we could run a company together and what that would even look like." They agreed to a two-week trial period, but within several days, they "just knew."
After hearing the word "Antler" said so many times in one conversation I started to wonder about the symbolism behind my company's name. Antlers are two branched horns that appear separate but originate from the same bone, stemming from the brain. They are forged for protection but are cast off and re-grown annually. For this reason, antlers, to multiple religions, represent the Venn-intersection of power, perception, instinct, and regeneration.
To me, Malik and Anna are the physical embodiment of that mental construct.