By Sanne Breimer
She gets approached for talks often, but she became more picky. This time, Kaidi Ruusalepp took a break from her Bali holiday to share her lessons learned with us at Tribe Theory. An honor to start with, even before she shared her fascinating journey.
Life is a lottery
Just an hour before her talk was scheduled, rain started pouring down from the sky. It didn’t hold her back. Once she started talking about her life story, you’d get it: Kaidi Ruusalepp has faced bigger challenges in her life than stormy weather. Growing up in the Soviet Union there was no way to avoid the rules of the communist party: ‘You don’t control the place and time of your birth. Life is a lottery’. As a child, during the Cold War, she was trained to escape to the bomb shelter and to put on a gas mask. A friend in Singapore, where she currently resides, told her how he, at the same time, was trained to fight against the Soviet Union. Ruusalepp: ‘And now these parts of the world meet. It means for entrepreneurs it doesn’t matter where you’re born, what your gender is, or what culture and religion you affiliate with. It’s about where you want to go’.
If you don’t take risks, you don’t drink champagne
Everything changed in Kaidi’s life when Estonia became independent in 1991 and the country was taken over by young leaders. Like a start-up, ‘having very limited resources but big dreams’, the small country of only 1.2 million inhabitants had to build itself. Even though there were only limited resources, Estonia did have one of the very few cyber centers in the Soviet Union. Wanting to be seen as a smart nation, the government acted fearless and developed a progressive digital policy with open borders. Contributing as a lawyer in the early years of autonomy, you could say the Estonian government was Ruusalepp’s first introduction to the start-up mentality. The Funderbeam> CEO is grateful for her government to have taken risks like that, because ‘as an entrepreneur you have to take chances as well: if you don’t take risks, you don’t drink champagne’, as she quotes a Russian saying.
Send it out, let it kill or let it fly
With the inception of Funderbeam a combination of Ruusalepp’s experiences came together. ‘The company works as a kickstarter to make investments from all over the world tradable. One of the benefits of this model is that it makes the exit for founders easier. The fact that everything is in the blockchain, means the marketplace is open 24/7. So, if you want to invest in a company, you don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night for markets to open’, as the businesswoman puts it. The success of the company didn’t come overnight. ‘We’ve really made many mistakes’, she starts off her lessons learned.
In the first years for example, they tried to gamify the system by introducing ‘pitchcoins’. Until the system got hacked and they discovered it wasn’t the best strategy. And ever since, they have been tuning the newly conceived concept, to make sure they got it right this time. Only to find out after too much tuning, the optimal release date passed by and months of hard work got lost. The conclusion of this example? ‘Send it out, let it kill or let it fly’.
The most important skill is to say no
Entrepreneurs tend to overestimate the opportunities and underestimate the problems. It is one of the reasons why it is very useful to first make a list of why you shouldn’t go to a new market, instead of why you should. It’s hard for start-ups, Ruusalepp acknowledges, because opportunities arise quickly, especially when you’re talking about other countries, where various legal systems and cultural differences play a big role: ‘Don’t waste too much time on analyzing all opportunities, just say no.’
Whereas the most important skill is to say no, the toughest part of entrepreneur life is to stay positive. ‘Setting yourself small goals and achieve them so you can have small victories, works really well. And get yourself a buddy, somebody who is in similar business maybe, so you can share the struggles. Kaidi calls Karoli Hindriks her buddy. She has two-hour sessions now and then with the founder of Jobbatical. Get yourself a mentor would be the lesson to learn here.
The team has to be as strong as family
One thing Ruusalepp emphasizes this evening, is the importance of a strong staff: ‘The team is the most important part of the start-up’. The most difficult times in the Funderbeam journey are ‘when there is a serious internal argument’, she says. ‘Hiring good people and listening to them is very important. If the team is strong, they will support each other when challenges appear.’ It also means you need clear agreements when there is a misunderstanding. ‘The same applies to your investors. When it is a happy day, every investor is a good one. That is why you need to look for investors who support you in the not so good times. Moreover: the ones who are critical are the best.’
Give your prime minister a goal to achieve
Funderbeam has investors from 117 different countries. The company moved to Singapore to work more internationally. Tallinn is still Funderbeam’s headquarter for engineering talent. Then there is a London office (‘don’t ask about the Brexit’) and one in Zagreb as well. In the start of the evening Kaidi praised the Estonia government for the courage in the early days of independence. What role should governments play in these days with influential tech companies and start-ups arising? ‘Don’t write business models, that’s one. Have a dialogue with entrepreneurs and organize meetings with start-ups’. She tells how in Estonia all start-ups are in one Slack group. They visit the prime minster every quarter and tell him what they need. As real entrepreneurs, they send him on a mission, asking what he can achieve in 3 months: ‘This is what governments should do’.
Make your community your investors
Holidays in Bali are one of the advantages of Funderbeam’s move to Singapore. But the company is still waiting for an operating license from the city-state. ‘In Fintech you can’t do much without a license. It’s like the difference between being a male or a female founder. There isn’t any. The real difference is before and after having children. Same with the license. By the way, we hope Tribe Theory will be our first local partner once we get our license. It is all about making your community your investors. And making your customers in your community your asset.’