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What makes a founder succeed, in discussion with Apostolos Apostolakis


Patricia Borlovan

· 8 min read
What makes a founder succeed, in discussion with Apostolos Apostolakis
Ambition - one of the key ingredients that play a role in a founder’s success, and more investment insights from Apostolos Apostolakis, co-founder & Partner of Venture Friends.

As summer days continue to roll one after another, and we decided to stay in Greece for a little longer. After meeting with Stergios, we got more local support from George Platanas to accommodate and explore the surrounding areas.

Today, we continue our journey in Greece and meet with Apostolos Apostolakis, co-founder & Partner of VentureFriends, one of the first venture capital firms in the country.

Apostolos is an entrepreneur turned investor who started his entrepreneurial path by co-founding, e-food, Doctoranytime and was also an early investor and board member at Beat until the sale of the company to Daimler. After the sale of e-food to Delivery Hero in 2015, he invited his friend George Dimopoulos to join him and together created VentureFriends, the first private only VC fund in Greece, that went live in early 2016,

In the past 10+ years, Apostolos, as an angel investor or through VentureFriends, has supported many ambitious founders through their entrepreneurial journeys, and today we take the chance to see how this looks on his end.

The Greek ecosystem through the eyes of Apostolos Apostolakis

We couldn’t start the discussion without taking an orientation tour around the ecosystem and looking at Greece’s startup ecosystem through the lens of one of the first venture capital investors in the country.

“Greece evolved tremendously, and we’ve seen a huge acceleration, especially in the last 5-6 years.

If we go back to see what everything looked like, it was only 10 years ago that we first had the emergence of a handful of tech startups with global ambitions. Taxibeat, Workable, and Pollfish are a few of these examples. Until that time, we only had a few national champions like e-food, Skroutz and others."

Together with Apostolos, we take a quick look at how history has shaped the local ecosystem and when local startups started to take off.

“Five and six years after, between 2015-2016, the new generation of startups started to flourish, and since then, we have more and more companies coming out.

2016 is also the year when we launched VentureFriends, and this way, we also contributed to funding the new wave of companies.”

“Today, more than five years from 2016, we have 30+ companies that have crossed the Series A stage, have international ambitions, and have raised significant capital to work on these ambitions. Also, we have our first unicorns: Viva, as well as Blueground, a startup we funded six years ago and which is now valued at the unicorn level.

**Many founders state to have an international mission and bold ambition, but very few actually act on them.**”

Ambition - the secret ingredient behind the success

There were many elements that played a role in this journey of becoming a more mature ecosystem, but according to Apostolos one stood out in particular. The founder’s ambition to build a global business right from day one is what makes it or breaks it for a tech startup.

We were curious how ambition plays such a role and how investors can identify this trait in their due diligence process. So, we asked Apostolos to share his view:

One of the key ingredients behind a successful global company is having the intention and the required ambition level.

With many capable people having strong ambition, I believe every ecosystem has the potential to grow. You need the first successes and case studies, and then more people will follow and emulate that success. You start with the ambition and capacity to create a global product, and then you solve for access to capital and talent.”

It seems ambition is a starting point, but a strong educational background from CEE-based countries is also helpful.

“In Greece, I believe we have a strong talent pool, like in every country in Central and Eastern Europe. But additionally, Greeks put a strong value on education. The % of Greeks who pursue postgraduate studies nationally and internationally is quite high.

We now have quite a few successful examples of people who have this high ambition and created global companies. They showed others that it’s possible, and with those data points, more and more people are now willing to take this path.

**The Greek startup ecosystem has reached a flywheel effect, where many ambitious founders who scaled up and are now inspiring the new ones.**”

Greece - a top travel destination. How about travel innovation?

We couldn’t talk about Greece without asking Apostolos how founders benefit from the fact that they have a top destination for travelling.

While there is still room for a lot of innovation in this sector, things are already moving in this direction. VentureFriends and regional investors are acknowledging the opportunity and have supported looking to disrupt how travel experiences are currently shaped.

“At VentureFriends, we also invest in Travel Tech startups, and it was a difficult time in those pandemic years. After COVID-19, all of our portfolio companies have recovered strongly and are poised for strong growth.

We have a few successful examples from this space, such as WelcomePickups - offering airport pickup services, or Stasher, which helps tourists with luggage storage by offering a solution where you can drop your luggage in a safe place focused on visiting the city before heading to the airport. Another globally successful travel tech startup from Greece is ferryhopper which offers to book ferry trips.

Welcomepickups is also a great example of collaboration with other regional investors, such as Market One Capital which co-invested with us. Similarly, Ferryhopper had also attracted investment from Launchub."

Venture Friends’ view when investing in founders

We gradually see democratization in access to capital.

This means founders have easier access to international capital, even at the early stages. And this is a clear trend that we see happening not only in Greece but also in other peripheral ecosystems in the CEE or South Europe.”

VentureFriends is an early-stage investor investing in Seed and Series A rounds of scalable B2C and B2B startups. The fund is oriented toward finding teams and sustainable business ideas from various industries but has a sweet spot for, FinTech, Marketplaces, B2C, and PropTech.

It’s no secret that founders have higher ambitions and stronger forces after COVID-19 to bring innovation to different industries. So, let’s see what’s on the menu when Apostolos and its team look for the next unicorns!

“We are the only VC fund out of Greece that invests in international founders all around Europe, as well as in the Middle East and Latin America.

For us, it was a clear desire to invest internationally from day one. We wanted to learn and grow from working with a diverse group of smart people. This way, we also believe that we benefit the local ecosystem by bringing that more informed viewpoint and connecting it with international founders. Everyone learns more from diverse experiences and connecting with people who have faced similar challenges in different geographies.”

Greece not only has hidden gems in its beautiful islands and Cycladic houses but also in various industry sectors that brought significant success.

“We started with a strong focus on the consumer space because our first endeavours were successful examples of consumer applications, such as e-food and Taxibeat. Then doubling down in that direction, we supported more great companies in the consumer space. These included the well-known Blueground and Instashop but also up-and-coming scale-ups such as FlexCar, active in Greece and Italy; Spotawheel, active in Poland and Romania; and Youhero, active in Portugal and Ireland.

It’s a bit counterintuitive because Greece is a small market, and you wouldn’t expect that companies that start with a consumer product in Greece can scale internationally. Usually, the strong consumer success stories come from bigger markets, such as Germany, the UK or France.”

However, Apostolos claims it is possible, and the aforementioned examples prove it. Additionally, Apostolos, his partner George and the VentureFriends team are always open to discovering treasures from other sectors. For example, they have backed interesting b2b companies and strongly believe opportunities can be found in the beaten-track industries.

“At the same time, we also see opportunities in the B2B space, where we have supported companies helping the e-commerce sector such as byrd, helping retailers with logistics, and Simpler helping etailers with better conversions at the physical or online space. Lately, a hot sector for Greece, shipping is also becoming more digital. VentureFriends supported harborlab, a company helping shipping companies with their port expenses, while another example of a promising company in the space is Seafair. They just raised their Series A round from General Catalyst and focus on scaling how they help shipping companies with crew management.

This is why I believe there are still so many opportunities coming from a variety of sectors."

How the post-funding phase looks like at Venture Friends

As investors, we discuss finding the next generation of innovative startups and scaleups that will boost our portfolios. However, few ones share what happens in the journey once the investment is raised.

“Every investor expects startups will skyrocket in growth and go straight to the moon. For us, it’s important to know that we are backing a team who has the ambition we talked about earlier. We have an unwritten understanding with the founding team that they are willing to take their startup to the next level and build a very large company.”

This is why we challenged Apostolos to share what a typical collaboration with founders looks like and what matters more in this process.

As we saw earlier, most of the roads lead us back to the founder’s ambition, and this seems to be one of the main elements that Apostolos and its team try to find in the companies they invest in.

Even if things are not going as planned, founders are expected to push through and do what’s necessary.

We want them to be able to persevere through the difficult times they will have in this journey. We’ve seen startups that didn’t manage to do it, and others who pushed through very difficult situations, as was the case with COVID-19.”

Apostolos shared what makes the wheels turn around in this process:

“Besides regularly checking the progress, we don’t want to be over demanding once the investment is raised. We’re trying to focus on how to add value through our relationship.

We usually agree on a few KPIs we monitor monthly and don’t really go beyond them or overanalyze things. Everyone knows what’s important, so we spend our time discussing strategy and how VentureFriends can contribute to accelerating traction by making relevant connections to talent or business partners. We aim to establish an open and honest relationship with founders who should feel at ease discussing their issues and bottlenecks. 99.9% of the time, we know everyone is doing their best to get on the right track.”

Apostolos’ recommendation for young investors

Before switching our discussion to where to find the best Cycladic houses in Greece, we kindly asked Apostolos to share his main recommendation for young investors looking to invest in the first deals in Greece.

Every investment decision is a lesson.

As investors, we all have experiences we must pay dearly for. Education doesn’t come for free.

However, there is one lesson that I wish I had learned earlier. When one starts investing in startups, it makes sense to follow other seasoned investors with more experience and can better assess the potential of a startup.

This experience can be very valuable and informative, especially in the beginning, until one develops the confidence and deeper understanding to undertake certain decisions.”

We hope you enjoyed our discussion with Apostolos, and if you want to connect with him, make sure to join the community. We are happy to have Apostolos and VentureFriends as part of the SeedBlink network, where they have invested in Proportunity.

Proportunity is a fintech startup that combines machine learning and finance to disrupt the broken borrowing system. VentureFriends and Kibo Ventures have led the round with 2.340.000 EUR committed, and SeedBlink added an extra 300.000 EUR as co-investor.

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