Mastering the Learning Curve, interview with Christina Andreassen

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Christina Andreassen has over 10 years’ experience in supporting start-ups in emerging markets and building social enterprises. Now on her next venture, Maia, a global private exchange for VC-backed growth companies, she gives Goumbook a fascinating peek into her world and shares some great advice she has learnt along the way.

Can you tell me about Maia, how and why you decided to set this up?

Venture investing has been instrumental in funding disruptive businesses over the past 50 years. However, the venture investment model itself remains largely unchanged and is costly, time consuming and illiquid. Studies show that 60% – 80% of venture investments yield no return to investors, and of the companies that do succeed, investors must wait 5 to 8 years to exit. This results in locked up capital that prevents investors from investing in more promising opportunities.

At the same time, fundraising is a time consuming and inefficient process for start-ups, who have limited access to investors, and must go through excessive networking, pitching, negotiation and deal structuring. In my work with angel investors in Womena and helping start-ups raise capital through Womentum, I saw first-hand these pain points for both investors and start-ups.

My cofounder Hamzeh Kolaghassi and I, founded Maia as a way to solve these problems. The Maia Network is a global private exchange for VC-backed growth companies.  We enable growth companies to raise capital from a global community of institutional and accredited angel Investors; and, provide quality deal-flow to investors with the flexibility to invest, trade and exit at any time.

Our vision is to build a platform that we will be the best solution for start-ups and investors to raise capital and invest in a systematic and controlled environment.

Are you seeing more businesses emerge now with a sustainable focus be it aligning with the SDGs or thinking more consciously about environmental impacts etc?

In the last few years while Managing Director of the Womentum Accelerator, around 40% of our applicants had a business that had strong impacts, whether environmental, education, job creation etc, so I think that there is an increase of founders that have this focus.

A lot of motivations around starting businesses is to change the way things are done, and certainly, with the many global challenges we face today, such as climate change, a lot of founders are using innovative ideas to solve those challenges. At the same time, a lot more needs to be done to support these businesses, whether that’s increasing investor appetite to prioritize impact in their investments, or consumer appetite to include impact in their buying decisions.

How do you spot ‘the next big thing’, what are some of the key things that would need to be in place?

Surround yourself with futurists, innovators, visionaries. Good ideas usually come from collaboration, from experts from diverse fields coming together, from brainstorming and discussions. The more you put yourself in situations where you are surrounded by bright minds, and optimists who are always exploring what’s possible, the more exposure you have to great ideas, and the more exposure you have to great ideas, the more opportunities you can see for yourself.


You have a 10-year history of working with start-ups, why is it important for big companies to work with/invest in start-ups?

I think the advantage start-ups have is that they are always pushing the goalpost of what’s possible, and are always looking towards the future. One of the reasons for that is, unlike legacy businesses, they don’t have a lot to lose, so they can afford to experiment and fail fast, which is really how you achieve innovation.

However, what start-ups usually lack, that enterprise businesses have, is access to resources, and this is why there’s a lot of potential for opportunity creation in corporate – start-up partnerships, because each party bring something really valuable to the table that the other couldn’t achieve on its own.

However, from what I’ve experienced, these partnerships can often be quite one-sided, with the corporate offering to add value through ‘mentorship’, or insisting that the start-up jump through a lot of hoops such as attending workshops and trainings before they agree to engage with the start-up—which from my experience aren’t usually very beneficial and end up wasting the founders’ time. Instead, I would suggest that the corporate and the start-up should start the engagement from equal footing, with respect given to both sides of the table, and a clear understanding of how the start-up can help the corporate succeed, and in the same measure, what resources the start-up needs that the corporate can provide.

What would you like to see more happening here in the UAE to enable more start-ups to succeed?

The UAE has really built itself up as a hub for start-ups in the region, especially in both ease of doing business and being able to attract high-caliber talent, which are both major pain points for start-ups across the region. However, the cost of doing business in the UAE still remains prohibitively high, and I’ve seen so many great businesses make the decision to relocate in order to manage and lengthen their runway.

The practice of linking business licenses to office rentals is especially problematic, and even more so now, in the age of remote working where many employees are choosing to work from home. Lack of access to software available everywhere else in the world (ie: access to Skype, WhatsApp calling etc), also serves as a major barrier for start-ups to be able to function efficiently, especially in decentralized teams.

However, as COVID continues to fundamentally change societies and how we do business, I believe the UAE has a major opportunity to adapt to this new climate, and be one of the first players in the region to do so, and thus continue to build a strong, knowledge-based entrepreneurship hub and ecosystem.

The pandemic has hit many start-ups hard. What does a post COVID world look like in terms of businesses, jobs and perhaps a new world focus? What is the appetite like right now and where are VCs looking if at all?

We actually began fundraising for our business right when COVID hit, and although the timing was a bit unnerving, we have actually been making good progress.

The good news is that many of the VCs we’ve spoken to are still deploying. However, there’s a much more intense focus on metrics like runway (as opposed to growth at all costs), and what industry you are focusing on. In addition, many funds are required to reserve more dry powder for their existing portfolio companies and so there’s not as much capital in the market than in 2019.

On the bright side, we truly believe that transformational moments like the one we are currently in are also times of massive opportunity, and especially as the world becomes more digital, technology start-ups can ride this new wave of demand. In addition, we expect that with the waves of layoffs we’ve seen, high-caliber talent will have the time to start and build great businesses.

Some of the strongest companies today (Instagram, Uber, WhatsApp), were started during the recession of 2009, and that’s actually one of the reasons why we’re building our company, in order to service this new generation of future unicorns.

Why do you think SDG#4 Gender Parity is so important can you share any experiences of this? What challenges have you faced as a woman in business?

I saw a Tweet the other day that made me laugh, and also sums up my thoughts on Gender Parity.

“How is Elon Musk balancing having a new born and the demands of SpaceX’s first crewed launch?” (Questions that no one asks male CEOs).

Ironically, I saw this Tweet just after hearing a discussion where someone argued that ‘it’s only fair’ for investors to expect a lower valuation if the founder is fundraising while pregnant.

The reality is that there’s still a different set of questions being asked to women and men when it comes to business, and although this is changing, we still have a long way to go.

Gender parity is about having that equality, so for example, if it’s understood that new mothers might struggle during the first few months of having a child, the same expectation should be made of new fathers. In fact, many new fathers do struggle with the adjustment phase of having a baby, but when they do, people treat it differently. It’s not expected. It’s not brought up as a given during work or business contexts, as it is for women.

In my career, I’ve been really blessed to be surrounded by amazing mentors and people who pushed and enabled me to succeed. In the last few years, especially after the ‘MeToo’ movement, there has been a lot of great resources available to women and a collective push to help them succeed. However, I have also seen the other side. I’ve had multiple experiences where men made inappropriate comments to me in business settings, or where I’ve been introduced (in business meetings, on panels etc) in ways that highlighted my looks instead of my abilities.

Recently, while expecting my first child, I had a number of situations where my competency or commitment to a job was questioned because I was pregnant. Many of my female friends and colleagues have similar stories. These experiences make it necessary for women to fight the twin battles of excelling in their work while fighting to be taken seriously, which is quite frankly, exhausting.

I believe that so much potential and energy can be unleashed by half the population of the world, when we no longer have to spend energy and time on fighting that battle.

What is the best advice you have ever received when starting out on your career path?

Fake it till you make it—everyone else is doing the same. Imposter syndrome is something that I struggled with for years, and I’m slowly discovering that many people I admired and idolized experienced the same thing about themselves.

You might never be the most qualified person in the room, but, if you take action and try and learn as you go, you will be eventually. If you follow this thought process, it also helps you to take risks and try things that you don’t yet know how to do.

In the past 10 years, I’ve pivoted from working in international development, to supporting start-ups, to launching and running an accelerator, to co-founding a start-up. Each new step came with a terrifying learning curve, but one that becomes easier over time, so long as you, in the words of Dory from Finding Nemo, ‘Just keep swimming’.

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Christina Andreassen – Co-Founder & COO of Maia a global private exchange for VC-backed growth companies

Christina is a passionate and global professional with 10+ years investing in and supporting startups in emerging markets and building social enterprises. Til a few months ago, Christina was the Womentum Accelerator manager, responsible for the launch and management of MENA’s first accelerator focused on tech startups with at least one female founder. Womentum is an initiative of Womena, an investment and media platform focused on increasing diversity, female representation and equity in MENA’s tech ecosystem. Prior to Womena, Christina managed a number of social enterprises in Bangkok, Beirut and Dubai, focusing on entrepreneurship and youth empowerment.