"As a startup investor, you mustn't be afraid of the market and the results. I mean, you need to have, let me say, a healthy risk appetite. And you have to be prepared to fail (and I did, many times), but you also have to be willing to succeed, because future success also comes with a lot of challenges. You have to deal with growth, you have to deal with the market, with everything. Not many people are able to do that. And some of them are fantastic at it."
With more than 10 years of experience in business & investment – during which she also professionally managed the role of Vice President of Business Angels of Slovenia – Nina Dremelj works with innovative, progressive, and proactive entrepreneurial teams. Her focus is on sourcing and managing "smart money" investments and continuously assessing & managing companies in tandem with their founders, towards a successful organization. However, her greatest passion is to help entrepreneurs turn their ideas into real, successful businesses.
In the past, she efficiently managed the Swiss seed fund AlpVent AG, as co-owner, where she funded successful Slovenian companies such as Hooray Heroes TAIA, FlySentinel, and others. Today she is the owner and director of the investment company Alita Capital.
Nina, it's a pleasure to meet you and get to know a bit about you. How long have you been investing in early-stage companies and how did you get started?
At the beginning of my career, I worked more with medium and large companies, mainly Slovenian ones. In most of them, I was responsible for the processes, management, dealing with people etc. In a way, it’s similar to dealing with startups. My first contact with the startup ecosystem was when I helped a good friend with his own company. My job was to organize everything, except the development itself. That startup was really interesting. I think we were just ahead of times in terms of the market, but still, after a couple of years, it was successfully sold to one of the biggest Slovenian companies and it continues to function successfully even now.
After that, I was invited to join the Business Angels of Slovenia as their Vice President. My role at that time was not so much to decide the investments, but rather to set in motion the processes within the Business Angels umbrella organization, to bring people together and empower them, while preparing the investment cases.
What happened next for you at Business Angels of Slovenia?
We were all very interested in startups of every type. But we did not quite know exactly what a startup means (this was about 7 years ago). It was very hard to get funding because people compared startup companies with the classic ones, so it was really difficult to close any deal, but we were still quite successful at the time. We managed to close 8 investments in two years, and that, I might say, was the turning point of my career.
After two years spent focusing on the internal structure of the Business Angels, everything was set to work smoothly and I started to feel the need for more & newer challenges.
I was then invited to join AlpVent – a Swiss-based VC fund – where I have become partner and CEO, and there, I have administered successfully my part of the portfolio and managed to eventually sell the majority of it.
The next step was to start my own company: Alita Capital.
Last year, I was invited to take over the Business Angels Association. It proved to be a great year for us, a record-breaking one in which we have reached the largest number of members, almost 60 – a lot for Slovenia! The most important achievement is that a quarter of our investors are actively investing, time after time. We have closed 11 investments and a number of active partnerships, very important for our business angels. We have started co-investing in cross-border opportunities too.
What do you look for in an early-stage startup? Why do they fascinate you?
When I look at early-stage investments, I would say that most of the excitement can come mainly from its basic structure and the project idea, also from the fact that the company is still in the development phase and the founders are most eager to succeed.
At this stage, the feeling is that you’re experiencing the Lean Startup logic because it's really about living the startup lifestyle and generating everything at the same moment that you are entering the seed stage, either funding your company or just not funding anymore.
It's really exciting because there are so many options! There's a pool of everything; you just have to pick the best solutions, depending on the project. That's why I like this early stage so much: it’s all about business development.
Do you have an investment thesis or do you focus on a certain type of founder, business model, or industry?
I invest really small amounts in extremely early-stage startups, in founders or teams that, I believe, are going to bring an interesting and innovative product to life. I am an industry-agnostic investor and tend to focus on teams and founders because, at the end of the day, we all know that a business starts and ends with people. So, for me, especially in the beginning, it's more about people.
There's this idea that a project on paper or the start of something is really hard to evaluate. You can have some projections but then you have to build the business, organize it, do business development, move the product idea to a prototype phase in MVP, and so on. If you look at my portfolio, pretty much every investment is in software; I focus more on software than hardware, but a combination can also work.
Are there certain types of startups that you stay away from?
I avoid pharmaceutical-medical startups, mainly because I am not an expert. However, I still like the idea and I keep an eye on a lot of specific healthcare companies in the field. This is because healthcare is divided into many different areas: clinical trials, pharma, medicine, pure medicine, etc, and then there is also the ICT side of the industry, which is really interesting to me.
I have been watching it for two and a half years, quite intensively. But still, medical and pharmaceutical areas go beyond my limits, firstly because I am not an expert by profession, and then because it is too risky, at least for me.
Actually, everything is risky, but it's much more difficult to invest in these companies because they need much more capital than any classic software company. If you put, for example, 10,000 euros in such q company, it does not bring them any value. But for a software company, it can mean a lot, especially in its beginnings.
That's the reason why you need to know your space. You need to know how strong your value proposition is. And in the end, it's like a prenup: you need to be comfortable with those people. That's the whole point.
Where does your best deal flow come from?
The majority of my deal flow comes from my organization because sitting in the business angel’s chair has also the benefit of giving me insights into the deal.
A lot of cases are referrals from my friends, colleagues, or my investor colleagues. Some of them come directly to me and approach me because they see something interesting. Some correlation. Some synergy.
The other part of the referrals come through our partners, like other Angel associations: the Austrian, Czech investors, Serbians, Med Angels, Croatians etc. We work a lot with the ecosystem participants from Slovenia, with various technology parks, incubators in Croatia (e.g. Bird Incubator), Tech House Accelerator from Austria, and with entrepreneurial centers in the region, all different stakeholders that are very important to us.
Would you invest in pan-European companies, or do you focus solely on Slovenian?
The moment you invest cross-border, you need to rely on someone else. And that's kind of an important milestone that happened last year for us. We are discussing right now with our partners from abroad, about a startup; so there may be a co-investment soon. Nevertheless, we work closely with them, we participate actively in their network, and we expect them to be active in our network, too.
We have very good processes in place and our members enjoy more and more exclusivity, because it is important, as an investor, to be treated exclusively and not like a member of something that is open to everybody. In Slovenia, this does not work, and I think that even outside of Slovenia it's more important to be part of something that's not for everyone.
And this is the logic we are following now with the Business Angels of Slovenia. We are planning many in-person visits this year, with our colleagues and partners. We plan to do this with the Austrians and to invite our neighbors to meet in Austria. If we want cross-border investments to happen we have to know each other. We have to meet face to face. That is the basic rule.
That's the way we organize everything now, and I am pretty much involved in all these things. Fortunately, I have a good team by my side. Because it's not just a one-person task; it needs a whole team to work hard to prepare, present, and close an investment, and also to keep the members happy. We have built that team and are also a very active partner with the EBAN community, in which we are a long-time member.
In your opinion, which European ecosystem really produces first-class startups?
It's hard to say, but when there's a lot of capital available, you can generally get better results. You know, it's always like that. I mean, in Slovenia, for example, we produce quite successful startups. It hurts us if they don’t succeed and it also hurts if they move away from where they have been founded. But for me, that's not the pain. I think that those that should be successful and want to be successful, must follow their bigger market. This is the only logical step for us.
Poland is coming up strongly, with super quality startups. Berlin is also a Mecca for startups. But, to be honest, more and more good startups are coming from Central and Eastern Europe. I mean, also from Serbia, from Northern Macedonia, and Croatia. It's just about awareness, about people realizing what opportunities they have.
And to be honest, there are so many funds right now. It's crazy! The money is flowing and it's offered everywhere, but still it's getting harder and harder to get money for funding, which means that we lack really good startups, good ideas, thriving ideas. One reason for this is certainly that there is a problem in the market, due to the harsh competition of so many different products on offer.
May I ask you to speculate on what makes you good at what you do? Is there a particular experience or set of experiences in your history that you think has particularly prepared you to be an early-stage investor?
As a startup investor, you mustn't be afraid of the market and the results. I mean, you need to have, let me say, a healthy risk appetite. And you have to be prepared to fail (and I did, many times), but you also have to be willing to succeed, because future success also comes with a lot of challenges. You have to deal with growth, you have to deal with the market, with everything. Not many people are able to do that. And some of them are fantastic at it. So there are always pros and cons.
It's almost the same with our investments. I mean, the difference is that we are not building a business from the ground up. Still, at some point, we are part of the investment, and for us, it's also like a roller coaster ride, if you will, the more involved you are. We all know that, and we’d love to be more involved than we are, but we keep running out of time. That being said, sometimes an hour is enough to bring a new way of thinking to the table and discuss it with the founders and the team. And that could be enough; you don’t need to be there every day.
Do you think your gender affects how you approach investments? If so, can you tell us a little bit about it?
In Business Angels Slovenia, I am proud to say that we have seven female investors. Last year four of us actively invested, which is really a positive sign for women in startups. Investors are aware of the fact that they need to diversify, and that diversity is important to be successful. It's not good to have only women, and it's not good to have only men, because sooner or later they will lack balance. Balance in thinking, balance in the organization, in everything.
We have very successful Slovenian specialty and technology companies that were founded or led by female founders. More and more women are deciding to start their own businesses, and that's a good thing, and I think it's being received positively. You cannot say that women are neglected in Slovenia because they are in business, not at all. Many successful Slovenian companies are run by women, not just by men.
Are there any portfolio companies that you are particularly proud of, or that you would simply like to highlight?
Yes, I have a lot of them, because we have already about 60 to 70 investments. But let me highlight only two, funded last year, that I really enjoy working with because the founders are the right people.
One of them is SalesSqueze and the second one is Quantifly.
Salesqueze is actually an eCommerce platform for B2B companies, that allows your buyers themselves to configure, price, and order your products, anywhere and anytime.
A super product, but also a super cool thing about it: they have been bootstrapping from the beginning, creating revenue, and never been invested till last autumn. The investment was done to help them expand to the foreign markets.
Quantifly is a less-than-a-year old startup, that managed to get its first investment, to build a company and a prototype, and to succeed in already generating revenue within its first year. Their product is producing individual reports about the key competencies and team roles for every team member in a company (comparing even how they see themselves to how others see them), all this without the boring administrative work.
If you could give entrepreneurs one piece of advice about working with you, what would it be?
I am an execution person, so it's not about endless talking and discussing nonsense. It's about execution because we know that ideas are worth nothing if they are not implemented. It's more about, as I said, being a healthy risk-taker who is not afraid of everything. You just have to act and react – and that's the most important thing in business.
If everyone was afraid of everything, no one would be successful, and this is especially valid in the startups world.
You also have to dream big, because we all know that: when you start a business, you always have plans, and usually, only 30 to 40 percent of them actually get implemented/realized. There will always be some postponing or some abandoning in the plans that we made. So you really have to dream big if you want to be successful and not just subsist. It's not about survival. It's about having the mindset to become the first in the intended market.
Learn more about Nina Dremejl.
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By Bianca Iulia Simion
PublishedMarch 06, 2022
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