Interview with Founder Institute directors Mari and Lauri

As some of you might have already heard Start-up Estonia with the help of Estonian Development Fund launched a start-up accelerator called Founder Institute. We asked the directors Lauri Antalainen and Mari Suviste a few questions to get some insight about it.


Founder Institute focuses on the founders itself, rather than the start-up as a whole. Why has the FI taken a standpoint that the founder/leader carries the start-up company, rather the whole company?

Lauri: This program is designed for Founders - people that are professionals in their field and have been thinking about starting their own business but do not know how to.

Mari: The founder is the key person, the main force in the start-up. 

Lauri: I have noticed it a lot that even if there is a team, then there is always that one person who is the driving force. Without him or her the whole thing would fall apart. 

FI and as well as Garage48 are described as immensely intense, but effective. Could you say that doing business in "real-life" is even tougher or are we just preparing the people for every scenario?

Lauri: The program basically prepares people for real life. It’s demanding and we can already see who are the ones who find excuses why they can’t maintain the pace and who are the ones who find ways to “get shit done”. Garage48, a great event on its own, is a bit different because its just one weekend while Founder Institute lasts for four months. In order to survive in real business you have to be able to make an effort over a longer period of time not just one short spurt.

Mari: You can even say that in some ways this 4 months is already real life. They are already in contact with potential customers, their working on pricing their product, so their already indirectly working on product development. Actually the ones who don’t take it as real life tend to drop out of the program.

FI has a huge network and ties in Silicon Valley to offer great possibilities for finding connections. Yet, why most people still linger with their decision to participate or take action?

Mari: Founder Institute is just one type of accelerator. Different people prefer different things. Founder Institute is only suitable for those who are ready to work right then and there. They need to start taking concrete steps. Its not a preparation course that in 4 months you may start creating your own company.

Lauri: Founder Institute is suitable for people who fit the entrepreneur profile. In the program you can see who these people are. As I said earlier already there are the ones who find excuses and the ones who find ways. As an entrepreneur you have to get things done. Founder Institute is not a seminar where you listen to people speak and then just go home and write an essay. In FI you need to actually get things done or you get kicked out of the program.

What is the secret behind the Predictive Admission Test?

Lauri: Good scientific preparation and very thorough testing. Founder Institute has about 80 chapters around the world so data collected is very comprehensive. Since it has been running for many years, Founder Institute has developed a good solid database from which you can see how accurate the test is and what should be changed. They have already used this knowledge to adjust the entrance criteria for the program in order to increase the likelihood that people who have been accepted will succeed and be thriving entrepreneurs. To sum it up its the experience and a large database.

Why should the Garage48 alumni founders participate in the FI program?

Lauri: For Garage48 teams, FI provides a systematic 4-month program to get from the early prototype they developed at the weekend to actually having a business.

Mari: Garage48 does offer some business knowhow but Founder Institute focuses on every  topic more profoundly.

There is a movement to move away from the traditional business education and business principles. Does the new lean business approach also translates well to other spheres than IT and technology?

Lauri: Yes. Market validation is one example of the tecniques that could be used in many different fields. For example companies that sell physical products can validate their market by putting the products in development on sale online and see what percentage of the traffic they bring in actually ends up putting that item to their shopping cart. This is much better way to learn about product’s market potency than just having some focus groups or sending out questionnaires - as we know, people are rather bad in predicting their future purchasing priorities.

Many great projects and ideas at Garage48 have failed because of the lack of team effort and mismanagement. How does a great business founder lead the team?

Mari: To build a good start-up, it is very important that you know what you want. What are your priorities, what do you want to bring to the market and why you want to bring it. What is the vision and passion behind it? I often see that people are inspired b<y an idea  but they have no idea what and why they are doing it.

Lauri: The short answer for this is through passion and vision. Garage48 is really good for pumping up that first emotion. People that go there work through the whole weekend but then when monday comes they return their daily lives which often consists of a full time job or university and the enthusiasm fades away. Founder Institute is an opportunity to expand this momentum for further 4 months and systematically work through the different aspects of your business. 

FI has many fantastic mentors at the program. What attracts the mentors to join this 4-month course?

Lauri: Many people in the community want to give back and help the first-time entrepreneurs. Many of the mentors are also friends of ours so they are always happy to help out. 

Mari: A few of them have asked a list of the participants and made their decision based on that. 

Who is one of the remarkable founders of all time?

Mari: I think that there are many interesting founders with different profiles. Lately I have been interested in founders that are not very famous. You know the name of the start-up but you don’t know the person behind it. Often the start-ups that really hit it off  just don’t have   the time to attend all the  different events and promote themselves.

Lauri: Besides the “usual suspects” such as JobsPage&Brin and others, I’d mention Kevin Plank for his down-to-earth, no-bullshit, no-nonsense approach to doing business and Alberto Perlman for changing the way many people perceive exercise.  From Estonian founders I would say Rain Rannu because as a serial entrepreneur he has co-founded several companies in different fields that are still running today. For some of these people even do not know that Rain was involved. And of course Fortumo is a great success story already.

Mari: From new estonian founders I would say Mait Müntel because of his good scientific professional background and how he his currently learning how to make it in the business world. He is learning every step of the way and accepts challenges as they come. You can see constant development.