Björn Lindfors is a partner in Antler Singapore. Björn works with a global team dedicated to developing the next generation of world-changing companies and creating a global pipeline for top talents to pursue a career in entrepreneurship and innovation.
About this episode:
In this episode, we will discuss the best methods for attracting talent, the future of venture building, and the essential skills of founders.
Website URL: https://www.antler.co/
Björn’s Linkedin: https://sg.linkedin.com/in/bjornml
Listen to the Podcast
Andries De Vos: Great to have you on the podcast, Bjorn. So let’s kick off this conversation. What is it in the founding vision of Antler that was so original and innovative?
Björn Lindfors: The fundamental hypothesis behind Antler was that given the right talent and structure, people could actually go out and build amazing businesses. I think since we have started in Singapore back in 2018, we have proven this to be true. Through our programs, we have processed hundreds of people. We have 14 locations all over the world, and now we are building an office in India, trying to structure our first program.
Andries De Vos: Could you paint a picture for me of where you see Venture Building in the next 10 years or so? And perhaps more specifically, how do you see the Antler business evolving in the next 10 years? And for the listeners out there, for perspective, Antler has really only been around for 3 years.
Björn Lindfors: Let me tell you what I love about the world of venture capital at the moment: like many other things on the planet, it is becoming increasingly more competitive. It’s no longer a group of ex-bankers sitting in an office somewhere and looking at a spreadsheet, but you actually have to find additional ways to add a significant amount of value to see relevant inflow. I think that is where we are heading.
Whether you are an early-stage, a seed-stage and even a late-stage investor, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to add additional value to the portfolio above and beyond the capital means. I think that is where the VC world is heading in general.
Antler’s mission is that anyone who ever considers starting a tech startup will think about us first and use us as a tool to get themselves off the ground and make that initial success. What follows naturally is probably a long series of opportunities that will also be structured in many more thematic accelerators. That provides additional value, probably around particular themes, as we have already seen. You have your fintech accelerators, health tech accelerators, etc. I believe we will see a continuation of this, but perhaps even more specialized than we are seeing now.
It could, for example, be in collaboration with industry experts and companies with investors who have been living and breathing it their entire lives and are now ready to see someone else step in and disrupt.
Andries De Vos: Let’s talk about talent. What is the hardest part about attracting the best talent for the Antler program?
Björn Lindfors: If you look from the skills perspective, any organization, large or small, will struggle to attract qualified tech talent. We spend a tremendous amount of effort sourcing and qualifying technical talent to fit into the program. That, I think, is one of the struggles. What we have observed over time, interestingly – and I am not sure if this is what the industry is like in general or if it is specific to Antler – is that more and more senior people applying, more and more people who built companies in the past (successfully or not) are joining our program. The level of seniority is increasing.
The time frame is a struggle. Right now we have three months per cohort, and each cohort wants to have 60 to 80 people, so finding 80 highly qualified and entrepreneurial people who can build businesses together is always a challenge. Silent applause for our recruitment team for making this happen every 3 months! It’s an unbelievable feat, honestly.
Andries De Vos: Ok, here is a bit of a funny one. Imagine a massive billboard on the highway. If you could have a billboard for anyone who is trying to build the next Antler or the next venture builder, what would that billboard say?
Björn Lindfors: It’s a tricky one. It’s a one-liner, and I would say: “Capital isn’t everything.” I don’t know what I would put as a subtitle. It’s a point that I keep coming back to. We provide mentoring and support, and of course, capital at the most essential stage when you need it, connections to advisory venture capital networks. That, I believe, is what makes the difference.
Let me summarize this entrepreneurial board for someone who wants to copy Antler. I would say: “Talent is everywhere, it’s up to you to make sure that the talent of this planet is put to good use.”
Andries De Vos: You guys, in many ways, are unbundling the value chain of creating a successful early-stage startup, with “success” at the early stage being defined as product market fit and follow-on capital. Not yet liquidity. You see many entrepreneurs pass through your programs. Do you have a point of view on whether entrepreneurial qualities are born or nurtured.
Björn Lindfors: Personally, I think it’s a combination. Take me, for example. I’m an engineer by profession. A lot of people grow up and they have absolutely no interest in being an engineer. You could say, of course, this is due to my upbringing – I have been nurtured to be that way, but I don’t think that is entirely true. I think my personal interests have simply put me on this path and guided me to pursue the career that I am currently in.
I think it is no different for someone who is trying to start a business as well. There is a degree of “I have been wanting to do this for a long time,” or “This comes very naturally to me, so I want to do it.” This is from the will and drive perspective. But if you look at it from the skills perspective, those are things that you can definitely nurture and build.
Part of this are things that we enable: you have masterclasses on fundraising, marketing, other useful and functional topics that people need to have a fundamental grasp on in order to be able to build a business. I think that is where what people nurture is important. Someone who is really driven will, of course, identify the points where they think they need to improve and read up those points a little bit. However, there is also always the point of “I don’t know what I should be good at,” so that is what we try to help with, by providing a structure for you to at least be aware of those points.
Andries De Vos: What do you look for in founders and how do you measure or quantify the traits you are looking for in them?
Björn Lindfors: I don’t think anyone truly understands what it means to be a successful entrepreneur; they come in so many different shapes and sizes. I would lie if I said we had a fixed recipe that leads to success and makes you a good entrepreneur.
For us, it has a lot to do with measuring the performance of people in the recruitment process and then continuation in the program. Then, whether we invest or not, if we discover that the recruitment decision was poor, we go back and try to learn from it. We have a structured learning process around what we consider to be a good founder. The one quantifiable metric with the most significance, which should come as no surprise to anyone, is whether the given person has built a company before. That is the one that has the most impact.
Then, we have to look for functional skills that we think are going to matter in a startup. Are you a growth hacker? Are you a computer engineer? Are you someone who has spent 15 years of your life in the supply chain? Basically, can you unearth a problem that the world will find interest in seeing solved? These are all things that we try to stress test during the recruitment process.
Andries De Vos: It sounds like those are very soft traits. Are you also looking at psychometric assessments to give you an additional depth into someone’s personality?
Björn Lindfors: I would not say that. We measure, of course, such things as communication, etc., and I would like to add that each of us has bias – conscious or unconscious – which comes into effect a little bit in the personality assessment. They call it the beer test. Do I want to sit down and have a beer together with this person? For us as well, we prefer to attract people we can work well with, and to work well with someone, you have to have a positive working relationship. From that perspective, personality does matter. If someone treats me horrendously during the interview process, naturally, my eagerness to bring that person in will be diminished.
Andries De Vos: It sounds like those are very soft characteristics (likability) and soft skills. Are there psychometric assessments that you apply as well to give you an additional depth into someone’s personality?
We conduct psychometric assessments, but not as part of the recruitment process. We do not base our recruitment decision on anything like that. We use it from time to time in the early stages of the program, when founder matching is very important. People coming to the program are looking for a cool founder, of course, to build a business together, and that is when these things become an important tool for the founders to shortlist those they think could have a matching or complementary personality.
Andries De Vos: I’d like to talk about founder matching. This is the core part of the Antler value proposition. What’s your approach to match founders and to minimize mistakes or mismatches? And how do you deal with founder conflicts?
Björn Lindfors: Let me put this into context and replay the first day of the Antler program from the founder’s perspective. Imagine you are sitting in a room together with 75 other people from various backgrounds. Usually, around 40% of these people would be engineers, and the remaining 60% would be either general business or domain experts, maybe someone who has spent 15 years in the supply chain.
The question is what happens next? How do we facilitate these people meeting and forming relationships that ultimately lead to them building a business together? The answer is that there is a forcing function: we say at the investment committee – it is two and a half months later – that you need to find a co-founder. If you don’t have a co-founder, we are not going to invest. So, there is a very strong forcing function on the founder’s side to try to find a good match in the cohort, someone they could see themselves working with. We provide data, and as I said, there might be psychometric assessments. The founders will have stated their general interest areas, they have each other’s LinkedIn profiles, etc. All these are things they can use to shortlist, for instance, 10 to 15 people in the cohort that they could potentially see themselves working with.
Then, we provide some structured exercises, particularly in the first two weeks – for instance, boot camps where you have to work 24 hours together with another founder to stress test what your working relationship could be like. During this time, if they see yellow flags or red flags, if their gut tells them it might not be the person for them, we encourage people to very practically break up. In fact, we celebrate split-ups, we have a big round of applause usually. The idea is that we want people to be able to try a few different team configurations and figure out something that works for them.
We don’t, for instance, require that an engineer has to pair up with a business founder. It really is about what is required for the business they are setting up. If you are building a data seeding business, we would like to see a very different team from the one that is building a deep-tech blockchain business.
Andries De Vos: If you would start Antler today, what would you do differently?
Björn Lindfors: There are big things and some little things. Our headquarters is in Singapore now, and there are many things we have learned over the last few years. To me, a relatively significant change we have made to the program is the introduction of something we call “the pre-IC”. Historically, the founders are optimizing for the investment committee. They know it’s one point of accountability that is not going to change, everyone fears that day and looks forward to it with excitement (a combination of both).
What is a little bit unfortunate, when you have a 2.5-month program that ends in a singular investment committee presentation, is that some people might not be ready. Some people might have been working on an idea, and despite us telling them to pivot and change the idea, they insist on working on it. That is very unfortunate because in these configurations you have talent that we simply cannot invest in. What we have done then is introduce a psychological point of accountability slightly earlier in the program. 3-4 weeks before the actual IC we have a pre-IC.
There is still the threat of rolling heads in that usually at that point, we will eliminate the bottom-performing 10-30% of the cohort. This means we can refocus our efforts on the rest, and we also have a very structured feedback system, so we can tell the participants that as an investment committee, we think you are not working on something we can fund. However, we tell them, with the following alterations you will put yourself on a path where you are much more likely to receive our investment.
Basically, we give people a chance to pivot and rethink, and fundamentally change their business in the cases we have someone brilliant but a little too stubborn to make changes early on.
Andries De Vos: What is that motivates founders to pass the IC? Because in a way, the amount of money Antler invests is quite nominal compared to what you can get out there. So why would a founder bother to pass the IC? Is it that they really want to have the brand of Antler on their resume, or that they are competitive and feel the urge to “pass the IC test”? What is it?
Björn Lindfors: I would love to say it has something to do with the brand, but I don’t actually think it does. The reason I am saying that is because the very first cohort we ran back in 2018 fundamentally had similar dynamics, tension and stress that you can find in the founders today leading up to IC. I think it’s a relative thing. Imagine it’s the first day of school and you are trying to pass exams or whatever challenges are put in front of you – it’s a stressful time because that is your world then, your existence in that very moment. It is the same for people going into this program. They want to build a successful business, and the first step toward that is to pass the investment committee. It’s very much about human psychology. When you put 75 to 100 people in the same room together and ask them to build a business, there is naturally a lot of competition and peer pressure that emerges as well.
Andries De Vos: And here comes my last question. What models out there, whether on venture capital or on venture building do you find interesting and why?
Björn Lindfors: In theory, corporate venture capital (CVC) should have an excellent capability of venture building. Anyone that’s been in the industry knows that unfortunately, it is often not the case. It could have to do with flawed incentives or a little bit of shortsightedness in looking for an early acquisition or not selling to their competitors, etc. We know that they have many issues, but theoretically, CVCs could be super exciting. You do have people that have a very deep understanding of a problem or who have been operating in it for a very long time. If they could enable people to disrupt their own space, I think that could be very impactful.