The Italian digital entrepreneur, founder of the London-based fintech startup Soldo, in this interview shares some considerations about Italian startups
Carlo Gualandri, founder of Soldo, the fintech startup that offers a multi-user spending account, talks with Startupbusiness about his own experience and how is important to have a global vision. The following talk is inspired by a Fireside chat during the 2017 edition of ScaleIT happened in Milan on October 18th.
Why is a very good idea to invest on Italian based startup/scaleup or to a startup/scaleup funded by Italian founders abroad?
Well, I don’t know if it is a very good idea, in general, to invest in a startup just because it is Italian. Startups are by nature global companies going after global businesses so Italians are surely one among the nationalities represented in this ecosystem.
I believe that any investment decision is made on the basis of the evaluation of the business opportunity so being in Italy and or being Italian are just a possible characteristic of companies and founders. Then you have to judge everything else.
On the other hand there are some specific industries where Italians could have an edge because of our culture. Even without falling into stereotypes you can easily say that areas such as food, fashion, style, design etc. are much part of the identity of many Italians and so they can be worthy of a specific focus.
Despite the Italian startup ecosystem is still small compared to other similar European economies, we have a lot of example of very good startups and scaleups born in Italy and become international companies invested also by international investors, what you think about this?
Yes, unfortunately not many but there are very good examples: think of Yoox/Net-a-Porter (we go back to the example of a very Italian culture) as an example of an Italian startup or King.com’s Zacconi as an example of a very successful Italian entrepreneur. Smaller in size but still very successful we have had local market players like facile.it and many others.
Carlo, you had a very bright series of successes in you entrepreneur career : you started your first startup during the early years of the internet era in Italy and you had an successful exit – then you funded another company about digital games and betting and you sold it to an European group based in Austria – now you are developing a new company in the fintech space based in Uk and Italy and focused on these to markets, would share with us the key aspects of these experiences, what went very good, what could be went better, what you learnt?
It is important to note that the first two startup I created were local heroes. The first was at the very beginning of the internet and remained the largest player in the media and advertising market for many years successfully competing with the first generation of very large and well funded US players like Yahoo, Infoseek, Excite and Lycos. It took 8 years and Google (that by the way we first introduced them in Italy through an alliance with Virgilio when they were really small and had not yet invented AdWords) to overcome Virgilio and Libero that were the Italian players.
The second one was at the beginning of the regulated online gaming market in Italy. Gioco Digitale managed to interpret the opportunity of the introduction of skill games to create a brand and a product in poker where many global players had predicted that the market would have never developed because of the way it was regulated by the Italian government. After that we had momentum and continued developing other games becoming the largest player in the Italian market and were then acquired by Europe’s gaming leader that we had managed to beat to the market.
Both cases were examples of success in a market by a domestic player driven by a much better understanding of that market compared to global players.
That was good in its time but we have to understand that today the market is much more global so I believe that it would be difficult to replicate the same success now. On the other hand today it would also be easier and more natural to conceive a global company from day one instead of being so focused on only one market.
What I am trying to create with Soldo is in fact a global company from day one. The project was born in London but from day one half of the company was in Italy and now we’re adding Ireland as a third core base of operations while we target all markets in Europe. The team is also pretty diverse even though there is a large percentage of Italians, both in Italy (naturally) and in the UK.
You had experiences of any limits in your actual project or in the previous one because you were Italian? If yes what kind and how you solved them, and in that case what you think we should to on a cultural base to permanently solve these wrong perceptions?
As I said before I believe that my previous projects actually benefitted from being only Italian. Also I would not have been able to think so globally at the time. It was 22 years ago and I totally lacked the experience and the culture to think globally.
After the acquisition by Bwin I transformed Gioco Digitale Italian holding into the European holding for the regulated markets and proceeded to launch the French market and pre-launch the Spanish Market, all this in a company headquartered in Vienna and with a large presence in Stockholm where poker was developed. In those years I learned a lot about running a global business and also that Italians (not me, but the whole team of that time), if they have the right attitude and openness, can be as good as or better than people of any nationality.
That experience convinced me to leave my comfort zone of staying in Italy and moved with the family to London for a new start and to expose my children to a more global and diverse environment. When, after a few years, I decided to launch Soldo it was totally natural to think and build a global company from there.
If I have to say just one thing about this experience then it can be summarized in one word: move and explore! What you are comes from the culture that has created you and it, in most cases, means just a single country. If you want to go over this, not reneging on who you are but also getting all the good things that exists in the world you have to expose yourself to it, its culture, its people and the only way to do it is to live it.
You only have to see what happens to startups in the Nordics. With domestic markets smaller than a big city in Europe, and usually with a good knowledge of English, they naturally build global projects. It would be unthinkable to do otherwise so one must also be wary of the trap of the easy accessible local market as for example Italy that is a large country. It could end up making easier to think small.
The reason you are here today is because you are a full stack success story of an Italian entrepreneur doing business globally, you even recently received investment from a big international VC fund, but you are not alone, there are in fact many others Italian entrepreneurs that are following similar paths, what do you think are the common aspects, attitudes, vision they share? Is there any specific sensibility or skill or experience you should have to be a successful entrepreneur who moved its first steps in Italy?
I believe that nowadays the role of the entrepreneur is recognized as being global, open, multicultural. This is much more true with the new generations than it used to be with the older generations like mine. And the vision is always big, as it should be to satisfy the dynamics of VC risk capital investments.
I think that the key thing is to think outside of the box of your starting country and culture. If you do that then the fact that you came out of Italy can only provide advantages. Italy is a challenging country and Italians have traditionally learnt to be smart and creative to survive.
On the other hand any entrepreneur must optimise his chances and Italy is not a very business friendly environment to grow an international business in so it his duty to seek what could be the best place to be and if needed move out. The ecosystem is also weak and that makes it more difficult to find the right talent and the right level of support as the company grows.
You think there is any advice you can share with international investors in order to give them some hints on how to deal with Italian entrepreneurs, how to identify the most promising ones, how to avoid to miss the great investments opportunities they can find?
I’d say that the most important sign to look for is that the entrepreneurs recognise the global nature of the business and that they are able and willing to do whatever it takes to be able to compete at the right level. Anything that limits this is reducing the potential of their projects.
On the other hand if this is true then it is also up to the investor not to be biased and ignore the opportunity “a priori” but rather consider the opportunity and help the company to fulfil its full potential by pushing and challenging it to grow. All investors claim to provide more than just money: this is a way to prove it.