LIFTOFF: 5 Startup Stories from Europe’s Top Founders
By Avery Schrader,
the host of LIFTOFF & CEO of Modash
Well, that’s not exactly how it all started. I had launched a podcast called “The Weekly Startup”. I had always loved podcasts and grew up following social media creators who shared stories from all over the world. They gave me access to new ideas and an understanding of the opportunity the world holds. I wanted to emulate this and share the stories of great founders to maybe inspire just one kid out there to do something crazy themselves. LIFT99 took notice when I asked Ragnar Sass if he would like to be on the show.
The Real Impact of Founders’ Stories
LIFTOFF Live show was created as a partner project between Modash—a startup magically connecting brands and influencers—and LIFT99. LIFTOFF is a startup podcast with a live audience of around 100 people, meant to highlight the stories and struggles of startup founders who have battled to realize their big ideas.
For me as the host, what has been most impactful is trying to break through the surface of what is typically highlighted by founders. We do, of course, find fundraising interesting, and we do praise success.
That being said, working to unearth the hidden gems in founders’ stories is what makes the show uniquely authentic. We push hard to dig up the strange, difficult, and sometimes totally random facts that come from authentic conversations with people we connect to—people who just happen to have founded incredible companies.
Since starting the show, we have highlighted 5 of Europe’s most prolific entrepreneurs through LIFTOFF. They have shared stories and insights, cracked jokes, and even let a secret or two slip. This is a growing recap of some of the more insightful, memorable, or defining moments shared by the founders who have attended the show.
Episode 1: Ragnar Sass
Ragnar Sass was at one point portrayed as Estonia’s biggest loser, a criminal founder who failed to provide returns to investors with his failed project, United Cats and Dogs. The startup, essentially Facebook for your pet, ended with Ragnar being blacklisted by investors and government officials across Estonia.
Being the man who doesn’t seem to do anything that isn’t at least a little crazy, it should be no surprise that this didn’t hinder Ragnar for longer than the blink of an eye. He pushed forward with Garage48, teaming up with Martin Villig to launch a series of hackathons that have now grown to empower future founders all over the world. Alongside Garage48 came Pipedrive, which has been deemed the best place to work in Estonia because of its people-centric culture, and LIFT99, which is dedicated to empowering founders across Central and Eastern Europe.
The recurring theme throughout Ragnar’s past, and our interview, is that he is more interested in highlighting the success and merit of others than in his own accomplishments. This integral part of who he is has led to his involvement in many massively successful startups.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Ragnar, it’s that growing great companies means helping great people grow and connect them, often in the most unpredictable ways.
Episode 2: Kaarel Kotkas
Kaarel Kotkas had been struggling for months to regain control of his company and keep the lights on. He had been rejected from Y Combinator, nearly gone bankrupt, and was stuck fighting with investors over capital and control, owning only 5% of his own company. Then Kaarel got a striking piece of advice from Ragnar Sass:
“Kaarel, you have to have balls.”
With this advice, he ran to the horizon and back to push through the difficulties he faced. His tenacity unmatched by most, Kaarel regained control of the company, took out a loan to buy out investors, and finally landed in Y Combinator.
During their time at YC, where Kaarel grew Veriff to new heights and ended with an $8 million funding round, the first acquisition offer came along. Kaarel couldn’t publicly disclose who exactly or how much they offered, but he did give this incredible point of reference:
Hiiumaa is Estonia’s second largest island at around 1000 square kilometers. When Kaarel asked for advice on whether to accept the offer, an investor suggested it was so much money, Kaarel’s entire home island could belong to him. The hilarity of this quote had me choking on stage, but pressing on gave insight into exactly what kind of creature Kaarel Kotkas is.
“We realized we wanted to gain the trust of the internet on our own.”
Avery’s note: Since the inception of the show, Veriff has become a key element in the growth of LIFTOFF, having become our first sponsor. This has helped us take the show international and to larger venues than we could have possibly expected. Veriff is hiring here.
Episode 3: Jevgeni Kabanov
Jevgeni Kabanov faced all of the standard struggles of a PhD engineer turned startup founder—growth, raising funds, fighting lawsuits, and being the go-to guy in an international toilet dispute (we are not kidding - more on that in the show!).
Jevgeni founded ZeroTurnaround in 2007. ZeroTurnaround is a “software factory” building tools for Java developers. It paved the way for continuous integration. Jevgeni held the torch for ten years, until the company was acquired by Rogue Wave Software in 2017 in what is said to be Estonia’s second-largest acquisition.
What was striking to me about our conversation was how candidly Jevgeni spoke about his pains as a CEO, especially having founded the company while playing a more technical engineering role. He even avoided being the chief executive and hired a CEO in 2010. In 2012, however, it became clear that no one was a fit for the job in the way Jevgeni proved to be.
“I was really afraid of that role. It was really scary. It seemed like a lot of responsibility. It seemed so much nicer to play in my corner and have someone else be responsible for the whole thing—and I was absolutely right, 100%.”
LIFTOFF is meant to highlight the struggles of startup founders and showcase how that struggle leads to great fulfillment. Jevgeni is the epitome of this idea. He suffered through the struggle of being at the top of the pyramid, only to fulfill his love of engineering: building things to solve the problems of others.
Episode 4: Alari Aho
Often, the best lessons are learned through overcoming adversity. That has undoubtedly been the clearest theme in Alari Aho’s life. From learning to code after breaking a leg in the 1980s to commiting to Toggl after the economic crisis in 2008, his struggle has led to progress.
From the moment I first met Alari, it became clear that he is solution focused. His engineering brain is in the driver’s seat. It wasn’t until he broke out his laptop and could show me exactly what they had built at Hundred5 that his eyes lit up. That mentality has left him with an incredibly clear and actionable list of advice for founders that have been documented in Alari’s Medium blog, Toggl’s guide to remote working, and even a few comics.
One of those key pieces of knowledge is building with the lean methodology in mind—in Toggl’s case, the process of building a product and focusing on just having a productivity tool that truly solved people’s problem. To this day, 40% of Toggl’s new signups come from word of mouth.
Alari pointed to Toggl’s earliest user interface, explaining how he nearly did it alone himself. He talked about how as far as design goes, the original engineering team wasn’t too concerned about whether blue elements were even the same shade of blue. Seeing the humble beginnings of a company that has now grown to over 1 million users was incredibly inspiring and carried a strong message.
Build a great product that solves real problems, ship it, learn, repeat.
Episode 5: Martin Villig
This story of undying determination is also the story of a family business. The first time the crowd at the LIFTOFF show ever clapped in the middle of the discussion was when Martin Villig and I took the stage in Kyiv.
Martin spoke at length about the early days of Taxify and the challenges they had overcome in those early days, noting his limited involvement in the beginning. Martin also explained that a huge part of the reason Taxify is now a billion-dollar company is because his brother Markus Villig (Taxify’s CEO) is the perfect founder. Martin went so far as to compare him to Mark Zuckerberg, in the sense that he is a rare variety of super effective. The round of applause, however, was directed at another tier of the family business—their parents.
“They were part-time operations managers at first. … My father was working at a construction company as a project manager. Drivers went to his office and he went out, checked their documents, onboarded the drivers, and then returned to his job.
My mother was at home. She was a teacher. She had lots of time in the summer especially, so the drivers went to our home and she would onboard them at home.”
That isn’t all. The Villig brothers’ parents played a key role in calling each and every media channel in Estonia. Part of the reason this struck everyone the way it did and prompted the applause was that feeling of humble beginnings. The Villigs have not always been a huge global company with a unicorn valuation. They started like every founder does, trying to be resourceful and find support wherever they could.
They just happened to have a family that wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The show itself is a startup. Learning from the audience, iterating on our learnings, and truly working to present something which is of value to the world is very important to both Modash and the LIFT99 team. This blog will be regularly updated and maintained in order to document the insights founders share at LIFTOFF.
We do, of course, hope you will attend. Get the ticket to the 6th LIFTOFF event here.
Avery Schrader is the Founder & CEO of Modash.io. Modash allows brands to find influencers all over the world and manage influencer campaigns at scale.
When he’s not busy building his own startup, he really enjoys talking to other founders, finding out new hacks, and experimenting with new content formats.
That’s why we are absolutely in love with him here at LIFT99.