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Nomad VC: Diana Koziarska's Insights Into Finding The Next CEE Unicorns

patricia-borlovan

Patricia Borlovan

· 4 min read
Nomad VC: Diana Koziarska's Insights Into Finding The Next CEE Unicorns
Join Diana Koziarska's Nomad VC journey and uncover unique startup insights across Eastern Europe. Learn about fostering growth and equity strategies.

Meet Diana Koziarska, Managing Partner at SMOK Ventures, a US/CEE venture capital fund investing 100k-1M EUR in early-stage startups in Central & Eastern Europe into software & gaming companies.

Diana and her colleagues Paul Bragiel and Borys Musielak love to work with serial entrepreneurs with a global vision who aim to build global leaders in their industry. Diana and Borys are previous co-founders of the ReaktorX accelerator and ambassadors of the Polish startup ecosystems.

Here’s the TL;DR version of what we discussed with Diana and what key insights you should expect to find:

  • Lessons learned from multiple ecosystems in Eastern Europe.
  • Insights into cap table development across different funding stages.
  • Industry norms for equity allocations in each funding round.
  • The pros and cons of government involvement in startup funding.
  • The impact of investor reputation on attracting capital and mentorship.
  • And more, that we’ll let you discover below from Diana.

Lessons Learned as a Nomad VC

We start by looking at Diana's journey as a Nomad VC and the cool lessons she picked up along the way.

Traveling opens up your mind.

In her journey across different Eastern European countries, Diana had the chance to learn a few unique insights from each community. She found similar challenges founders face worldwide and how gaining international experience shapes them into better business owners.

“It's like getting a new pair of glasses for your brain! It helps you shift perspectives and understand that everyone, even founders, deals with similar challenges.

As I went around, I saw some of the best founders leaving their comfort zones. It helped them learn how to build solid businesses, collaborate with other startups from different places, and adopt a growth mindset.

It isn't just good for them, though. It's a total win as a VC, opening me to diverse viewpoints. It's been a game-changer for both my professional and personal growth. It's like I'm evolving as a person.”

Governments and politics play a massive role in business.

Diana also explains how she understood the government and politics’ role in growing the local startup ecosystems.

“​​I've become more attuned to our geopolitical situation and how government decisions impact our country. There's this detailed aspect about how much government money plays into things like accelerator programs and VC funds.

Over the last four years alone, around 60 new funds have sprouted up, thanks to government support. It's amazing how this affects different countries and their startup ecosystems. I see this as a factor accelerating the development of local ecosystems and hope to see over the years a decrease of state programs and increase of private capital involved.”

Every ecosystem matures in its own way.

Each ecosystem's journey is a unique puzzle, and Diana's insights reveal the diversity in their paths. Different factors influence each local ecosystem from each country, depending on the players involved and the regulations in place.

A new wave of maturity is happening in CEE.

“We're experiencing waves of maturity, especially in venture capital. Imagine it like chapters unfolding.

First comes the wave of VCs, mainly from traditional financial backgrounds, where money is the keyword. They're eager to take risks, which is great, but operating in the startup world is unique. Back then, with less internet connectivity, they didn't fully grasp startup dynamics. It's like they had the best intentions but needed more awareness.

Now, as we mature, new waves of funding roll in.

Seasoned founders-turned-investors who've tasted exits bring funds and a deep understanding of how to back startups.”

The collaboration between government, corporate entities, and local actors accelerates growth.

The process becomes more efficient if these entities communicate and implement similar policies. Diana highlights the need for better cross-border collaborations to create symbiotic relationships from which “early-stage” ecosystems can learn from those maturing ones.

“The growth of an ecosystem results from a good blend of government influence and corporate dynamics.”

Investors worldwide pay more attention when a country brings unicorns to life. It's like a spotlight shining on that place. Across CEE, we have already started seeing the effects of UiPath in Romania, Infobip in Croatia, and Telerik and Payhawk in Bulgaria.

“If a country manages to birth unicorns – those mega-successful startups – it shifts how international investors see that place. The international spotlight shines brighter, and more capital flows in.

There are these factors that impact ecosystem growth.”

Venture capital helps an ecosystem mature.

Here, Diana highlights the pros and cons of government involvement – while it increases capital availability, it can also influence investment focus, shaping the local VC landscape.

_“In CEE, the scarcity of private investment for startups underscores the need for initiatives from governments and corporations. These efforts inject more funds into the system, accelerating experimentation and innovation. _

On the other side, receiving EU funds from European agencies or local ones necessitates local investment, fostering local expertise and potentially constraining the VC landscape.”

How to Structure Your Company Across Different Stages of Funding

In our discussion with Diana, we are also curious to get insights from her NomadVC experience on how founders approach their equity distribution across different countries and different stages of financing.

Diana shares with us that the solution looks like a balance between founder equity, investor interests, and legal factors. Founders must adopt each of these elements to their situation and local ecosystem.

Building cap tables vary across stages.

“As a pre-seed investor, I aim to be the initial institutional investor. Typically, when I come in, founders hold almost all the equity in the company, with angels, mentors, and accelerators having up to 10% max.

I believe one of the motivating factors for founders is the value of the company they’re building, and all sides should optimize for founders holding a decent portion of equity.

My goal is clear: I'm focused on nurturing robust VC-backed ventures, not just aiming for quick wins. I want companies prepared for subsequent funding rounds like pre-seed, seed, Series A, B, and beyond.

It shapes how we structure the cap table.”

Have full transparency for all your stakeholders.

Diana emphasizes full transparency, recognizing the importance of founders and investors understanding each other's expectations and goals.

“According to industry norms, investors generally secure 5% to 15% equity in each round. There are limited slots in a cap table, so balancing allocations is crucial. I believe in full transparency and often engage with accelerators, conducting workshops to share the VC perspective.

This partnership between founders and investors thrives on being transparent with the other side about the expectations.”

On top of this, Diana and Borys did a great job preparing a thorough section on how founders should prepare for an investment round with SMOK. The world of VC will be a better place if more and more funds give such insightful resources.

Build an extensive network.

Diana knows that building a strong network is crucial in investing.

She believes that investors bring unique knowledge and insights at various stages of a company's growth, like connecting the dots between different series of investments.

Each investor's know-how is like a puzzle piece that helps guide the company's journey. Diana emphasizes that one of the biggest values an investor can offer is their ability to support and connect companies.

Investors can't just be silent backers. They need to engage and help the company reach its potential actively.

“As an early-stage investor, the most important support I should offer the company is on the road to them getting to the next round.

My goal is to support the company in the best way possible at each step, whether through validation, mentorship, or introducing them to other investors. This process helps expedite fundraising and adds significant value to the company's growth journey.”

Have a strong reputation.

Diana's approach is about crafting a solid reputation as an investor who adds value. When people see her name and her fund’s name associated with a company, they're more likely to invest.

“Reputation matters a lot in this ecosystem.

As an investor, I'm not just providing funds; I'm contributing to the company's overall reputation and investor network. We highlight our network of unicorn founders and industry experts to attract investors who can provide capital, mentorship, industry connections, and guidance to the portfolio companies."

Resources mentioned in the discussion:

Connect with Diana:

Others:

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