By investing in hundreds of startups at the earliest stages and targeting overlooked markets, Magnus Grimeland and Antler are putting their own twist on the entrepreneurial dream.
After finishing a two-year stint in Norway’s naval special forces, Magnus Grimeland arrived at Harvard as a 23-year-old freshman in 2003. He promptly caught the tech bug, which put him in an opportune place at an opportune time. Grimeland befriended a classmate named Eduardo Saverin. He rowed on the crew team, where he met Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. He might have even worked for Mark Zuckerberg at TheFacebook, as it was then known, if he weren’t also juggling classes and athletics and caring for his infant son.
“I was close to applying for one of their internships. They more or less hired anyone in the early days,” Grimeland recalls with a wry grin. “I think anyone who took those internships is incredibly well off right now.”
Unlike Saverin, who was one of Facebook’s cofounders and is now worth $11.4 billion, or the litigious Winklevoss twins ($4 billion each), Grimeland was only on the fringes of the Zuckerberg phenomenon. But the entrepreneurial inclination rubbed off. After graduation and a stint at McKinsey, Grimeland would go on to work for a different internet billionaire, Rocket Internet’s Oliver Samwer, and help him build Luxembourg-based Global Fashion Group into an ecommerce conglomerate with more than $1.6 billion in sales. Now, Grimeland wants to reinvent startup investing.
His latest venture is Antler, which was founded in Singapore but has no formal headquarters. Antler is trying to combine aspects of a startup studio, incubator, accelerator and venture firm into a global company-creation machine. What Sequoia has done in venture capital and Y Combinator as an accelerator, Grimeland hopes to replicate at an even earlier stage of the startup lifecycle. Antler canvasses the world for potential founders—often from emerging markets like Jakarta, Nairobi, Sao Paulo and Ho Chi Minh City that Grimeland feels are overlooked by other VCs, and often poaching them from successful companies like Cisco and McAfee.
“We love that,” Grimeland says. “For example, we reached out to the head of product at Spotify and said, ‘Hey, you know, big congrats on building Spotify—isn’t it about time for you to leave and build your own billion-dollar business?’”
Some Antler founders are recruits. Others find the program on their own. But none are guaranteed entry, and all must go through the same application process: Grimeland expects to receive around 100,000 applications this year, of whom about 2.5% will be accepted. Those who enter the program leave their old jobs, betting they will be able to create a better one on their own. Antler offers only a stipend of up to $2,500 to offset living expenses.
The programs range from six to 12 weeks during which participants hunt for cofounders, develop a business model and try to convince Antler they’re worthy of initial funding. Antler usually decides whether to invest – typically between $100,000 and $200,000 for a 10% stake — before a company is even incorporated.
Grimeland started Antler in 2017 with $500,000 in capital from his time in the fashion industry. A year later, he raised $6 million from a group of colleagues and fellow entrepreneurs. Today, Antler manages about $500 million in assets, raising money from the likes of $920 billion British asset manager Schroders, the International Finance Corporation (an affiliate of the World Bank) and his old friend Saverin. It operates 21 offices on six continents, with a network of advisors and operators in each city, and it has invested in more than 450 startups.
But to succeed in the long term, Antler will have to stand out from a rapidly growing crowd of incubators, studios and other early investors. “It’s a complete flood,” says Abby Levy, co-founder and managing partner at early-stage firm Primetime Partners. Investment in angel and pre-seed deals in the U.S. climbed from $7.9 billion five years ago to $11.2 billion in 2020 to $17.6 billion in 2021, per PitchBook. “It’s like five funds a day—it’s just a tremendous explosion of new funds,” Levy continues. “There’s so much money in the space, so it’s hard to get too excited about one team.”
Antler’s portfolio companies are young. So far, about one in eight of the firm’s investments have failed, and the firm has no unicorns or major exits to prove Grimeland’s vision. But there are promising prospects. Reebelo, where people buy and sell used smartphones and laptops, is approaching $100 million in annual sales and claims 10,000 monthly customers. XanPool helps process crypto payments for more than 400 clients, including South Korean fintech unicorn Toss, and raised $27 million last year led by Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures.
Charlotte Ekelund, then 32, had long harbored entrepreneurial dreams when she first learned about Antler in 2019. “I always knew I wanted to start my own business at some point,” she says. “But I didn’t really know with whom, or what it would be.” She entered Antler’s second cohort in Sweden, met a tech whiz named Oleg Danylenko, and started Teemyco, a video and audio chat app for remote offices. Once the pandemic began, Teemyco’s services were in high demand. Since then, the company has raised three more rounds of venture capital totaling $5.2 million.
By backing founders so early, Antler is often able to invest at lower valuations than the competition, creating an appealing equation for LPs. “Typically, we are able to get into these companies at a pre-money valuation of $1 million, in that vicinity,” says Trond Riiber Knudsen, a founding investor in Antler who met Grimeland when they worked together at McKinsey. “If these companies are qualified to go into the venture economy and go into seed rounds, Series A rounds, Series B—look at the top valuations we see in those rounds, and the upside is phenomenal.”
Grimeland originally worked with Rocket Internet as the cofounder of a fashion ecommerce company called Zalora, where he helped build the company’s marketplace and establish local operations in Southeast Asia. Founded by billionaire Oliver Samwer and his brothers, Alexander and Marc, Rocket has a controversial reputation in venture capital due to its copycat model—it takes successful business models from one market and starts new companies to imitate them in another. Think Amazon for Southeast Asia or a German clone of Groupon.
After two years and more than $200 million in funding, Zalora rolled up into Global Fashion Group, where Grimeland became COO. But after watching several colleagues leave to start their own businesses, he realized how many talented tech workers were languishing in jobs that didn’t fully utilize their talents. Thus Antler.
“Let’s find these people and be the best possible partner to them from day one—invest in really strong teams and founders, not in companies,” Grimeland says. “Our role is backing and supporting great people.”
“You can actually tap into all this untapped talent that didn’t necessarily have the opportunities I had.”
The first Antler program launched in Singapore in 2018. About 1,400 people applied, 62 were accepted, and three months later, Antler cut checks to its first 13 portfolio companies.
Every participant in Antler’s programs gets access to a dating app-style service where they can look for cofounders, a library of business playbooks and strategies, office space, and a curriculum of lessons taught by VCs and entrepreneurs, including executives from the likes of Snapchat, Square and YouTube. Some of the most popular sessions cover how to think about problem-solving as a founder and how to understand common startup metrics.
But founders have different experiences depending on where they are in the company-building process. Some focus on narrowing down potential business ideas or finding cofounders. Others work closely with Antler’s network of more than 600 advisors and operators, people like Andreas Ehn, the first CTO of Spotify, and Gary Dolman, cofounder of digital bank Monzo, to improve a specific aspect of their business—say their pricing model or product mix. Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary who was president of Harvard when Grimeland was a student there, serves on Antler’s advisory board.
After Antler invests in a company, it continues to advise its startups on fundraising and growth strategies and introduce them to investors—a perk for the companies, who get access to capital, and for Antler’s LPs, who get a first look at sought-after startup deals. Antler also invests in follow-on rounds itself, with more than 200 such deals in the last year alone.
It’s a volume-based approach. Vacuuming up tens of thousands of applications and working with hundreds of founders each year guarantees plenty of bites at the apple. Other company-building firms have different strategies: Atomic, a pioneer of the studio model, typically creates companies with its own in-house team, then brings in a long-term CEO once they’ve found traction. It launched 14 companies last year, compared to 190 at Antler.
Alex Iskold is the managing partner at 2048 Ventures, a New York-based pre-seed firm that invests later than Antler, typically around six months after incorporation. But he thinks the appeal of an Antler-type approach is evident.
“I think these are exceptionally smart, lightweight plays, where if you do it right, it should work massively in the favor of the quote-unquote incubator,” Iskold says, “because you’re sucking in all this brilliant talent.”
Grimeland touts Antler’s track record of investing in people who are often overlooked by the VC establishment. It backs founders from 70 countries. About 35% of its portfolio companies have a female founder, and 50% have a female CEO.
“You can actually tap into all this untapped talent that didn’t necessarily have the opportunities I had,” Grimeland says.
That idea fills a genuine need in VC, according to Jenny Fielding, managing director at The Fund, a New York-based pre-seed investor.
“A lot of the big boys on Sand Hill Road are saying, ‘Oh, yeah, now we’re doing mostly seed, we do pre-seed,’” Fielding says. “The reality is, when they say they do pre-seed, what that means is that they fund their buddies that they already know, or they fund their portfolio companies that are starting new companies.”
Those VC powers and other early-stage investors are pushing into the space to meet LPs’ desire for outsized returns. But if hoped-for profits fail to materialize, firms like Antler could see demand decline.
“It feels exceptionally irrational to me,” 2048’s Iskold says of the recent spending spree. “People are just throwing money at founders without really spending the time and really thinking through business models, founders, how hard it is to build a really good, sustainable business.”
Grimeland knows that the path to the top of the VC mountaintop will be a difficult one. He also thinks Antler is off to a pretty good start.
“In today’s venture capital markets, you need to build real, systematic value,” Grimeland says. “And I think we’ve really managed to create that systematic value, by the way we built things ground-up through having access to talent all across the globe.”
MORE FROM FORBES