Russia, one of the world’s fastest-growing internet economies, has its own Google (Yandex), Amazon (Ozon) and Facebook (VKontakte) and it’s not too outlandish to say that it now has its own Rocket Internet – Moscow-based incubator Fast Lane Ventures.
Oskar Hartmann, Pascal Clement and Marina Treshchova started up Fast Lane in 2010. Since then, it’s built 19 businesses, exited from two, employed about 800 people and raised $78 million for itself and portfolio companies. The group’s current shareholders include Clement’s Direct Group, Germany’s eVenture Capital Partners and Russian bank VTB, which led Fast Lane’s recent $18 million Series C investment round.
Like Rocket, Fast Lane specialises in adapting existing business models to new markets as fast as humanly possible. Rocket has Zalando, Pinspire and had CityDeal; Fast Lane has Sapato, which Ozon acquired in February, Pinme and KupiBonus.
Unlike Rocket, Fast Lane is only active in one country – Russia, the home country of CEO and co-founder Treshchova, who moved back to Moscow after seven years in the US to try and “do something really great for this country and my people”.
In this exclusive interview with VentureVillage, she talks strategy, stereotypes and what Russia’s internet entrepreneurs really need:
Fast Lane Ventures reviews about 150 business plans a month. How do you decide which to take forward?
We have a process of three steps. The first is just the initial information on the business model. If we think there is good potential, we do in-depth analysis of the market, adaptation potential for Russia and then, step three, the in-depth business model and preparation, and then we make a decision.
We have, right now, two directions for our business models. One, proven models that are successful and realised in many markets around the world and yet don’t exist in Russia.
The second is joint ventures… We have very strong execution power, so we can suggest the right stuff to big international groups who want to enter Russia. That’s something we explore very actively at the moment. We have two set up [including Juvalia & You with Springstar] and two more in the pipeline.
What stake do you take in companies you build yourself?
It’s a big one. At the set up stage, it’s 25 per cent to management team co-founders and 75 per cent for us. Since we’re not financial investors at later stages, we invest only at the seed stage, our share will dilute considerably but will still be important.
Are they all proven business models?
Russia is still perceived by a lot of people as having some level of risk. So if we have a business model that is proven in many parts of the world, it minimises the risk for venture capital joining us… Out of almost twenty companies today, there are only two that fall in the non-proven category – OdinOtvet, so that’s maybe closest to Quora. The other is Pinme, which is Pinterest. The rest are proven models.
What about original ideas that have never been tried?
No, we will not do it. To be honest, it doesn’t really happen very often in Russia… There have been 25 years of ‘new Russia’ and of course a lot of great entrepreneurs. But in the internet era, there are a lot of dreamers, young people who don’t actually have a lot of learning or practical experience behind them compared to, say, Israel… So it’s not that often that you see, really, a great guy with a great vision and a clear understanding of what his company will be doing in five years.
I hope with some of the initiatives that we have today in Russia and the interest in the internet, this can definitely change. So of course, in a few years, it’ll be a lot stronger and we can work through businesses and ideas, entrepreneurs, but not at the moment.
What are some stereotypes about doing business in Russia that need busting?
The risk perception for Russia that still exists, that you’re a foreign company or a foreign investor so things will happen to your business, that you’ll have a lot of bureaucracy problems – I think this is really overrated today. It doesn’t exist, at least, in the industry where we are today. We don’t see it.
Which stereotypes have some truth in them?
[long pause] I don’t know. It’s hard to say… The set up of Fast Lane Ventures is quite rare, usually you have a single entrepreneur in a company and there won’t be an operational partner like Fast Lane behind it. We’ve done this because we believe it’s well-adapted to Russia… Outside Russia, some might say Russian people are less energetic, less driven and that’s something that to some extent still exists here. So the strong support, strong push even, in helping them set up the right priorities, helping with management sometimes, that’s something that’s needed… That’s true to some extent.
What success are you most proud of?
Sapato, for sure – it’s the first baby, the first company that we built. We did a good job building it over just 18 months and the offer we got, the opportunity we really couldn’t miss. It was earlier than our perceived exit option but that was a great realisation of what we’ve done… Especially when the main message, two and a half years ago – everybody was telling me, it’s not possible, no Russians will ever buy fashion shoes online.
What decision do you most regret?
I don’t think I regret anything. There are learnings all the time – we make mistakes that we quickly learn from and adapt and change them – that’s the model… One can only regret that there is not enough time to do more things.
Free time? There is very little! Any time I have out of work I give to my very small son – he’s less than two-and-a-half years old. I need time for him.
What’s coming up this year?
There’ll be strong growth of existing companies, some good milestones, we’ll be closing financing rounds… There should be a strong JV with a European group coming up by the fall… and at least five more companies will be opened by the end of the year.
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