Estonian Unicorn Whisperer behind Pipedrive & Bolt, Interview with Rain Rannu, partner Superangelio
Do you need to wear a Patagonia vest to be a serious investor?
Of course not. North Face vest will also do.
You started and invested in several companies in Estonia that became unicorns. How do you see the world differently? Is it because you don’t wear Patagonia?
If you start a company in a small country like Estonia, you have to think globally right from the beginning — because we have no home market! That’s what all the successful startups from small countries have done — they have jumped beyond their shadow and gone to a large market right away. Sometimes, it’s a usual suspect such as the US, but often times, it’s a market that many Silicon Valley companies overlook. Our mobile payments company Fortumo found first major traction in Southeast Asia, where very few people have credit cards but everybody has mobile phones. For Bolt (Taxify) the first big success outside of Europe came from Africa, where they are now No 1 in many countries ahead of Uber and everyone else. But always, they have looked towards a large market right from the beginning.
You were first a founder of Fortumo, a successful Estonian startup. Then you became an angel investor in Taxify and Pipedrive and now you have a seed fund called Superangel. Did you have a plan for all of this or is this just serendipity?
For me, it has been a logical progression, and I do think it is helpful to me as an investor, to have been a founder myself. It’s much easier to identify with the unique struggle and challenges of a founder if you have been through the same path yourself.
How to find a good seed investor as a start up founder? Is there a different approach for founders from Europe vs. Silicon Valley?
I think the good thing in Estonia, and I suspect also in the other communities outside of Silicon Valley, is that every investor is approachable. You don’t have to grab them in an elevator or a parking lot and do your 20 second pitch. If you’re a good founder, you get to sit down with them. So, it all comes down to having a coffee or a meeting with a number of them to figure out who you develop the mutual bond with.
What are the three metrics you look for before you invest?
My fund Superangel typically invests in an early stage, where there might not be any metrics yet. All there is, is a founder or a founding team. So that’s what I look at first, second and third. Then come all the other things.
Can you discuss the concept of founder market fit? You use this term a lot, why is it important to you?
We at Superangel invest in the very early stage when there is often no scalable product yet. Founders may still be searching for a product, or we may have a sense that their chosen product will not be the “final” one. Thus, we’re more interested founder-market fit, which we define as the specific founder’s ability — and most importantly — motivation, to go after his or her chosen market. There needs to be a strong enough motivation to keep the founder going for at least 5 years — or better yet, a lifetime — because it takes a long time to build a world class company, and almost always, they are created by passionate people who want to make a difference.
As an investor you have invested in Silicon Valley, Estonia and Singapore? What to do these geographies have in common? Is there a thesis you are proving?
In the early stage, you tend to invest closer to home or closer to locations you frequently visit, so these three locations — which I all love and I think are some of the best places for startups in the world — also happen to be places where I spend a lot of time at. We’re just trying to find and invest in the best founders we meet.
What is unique about the Estonian tech ecosytem? Is there an Estonian startup mafia?
Startups are our national sport. Every Estonian has one. We have the highest number of startups per capita, and also one of the highest concentration of unicorn startups for any 1-million population anywhere. I do think it’s a combination of our technical talent, can-do mindset, good infrastructure, expectation (fueled by our success stories) to build something global, and bad weather.
How is your movie career? Is the goal an Oscar? What’s next for Rain?
In what started as a hobby, and is now slowly progressing into more, I just finished a 3-year journey to make a fun but also educational feature film about startups and the startup ecosystem. It’s called “Chasing Unicorns” and it’s currently in cinemas across Estonia. It’s been met with a very warm welcome by all audiences and we’re looking to show it in a number of startup ecosystems outside of Estonia soon.