Ihar Mahaniok

Ihar Mahaniok, an immigrant engineering leader with over two decades of of experience building code and machine learning models, founded Geek Ventures in 2021, shared his view on why immigrants are great startup founders. The investment thesis and process of Geek Ventures are also discussed.



Show Notes

[01:26]  Ihar discussed the inspiration behind the founding of Geek Ventures
[03:55]  Conversation on some of the attributes of immigrants and why they would be great startup founders
[07:05]  Ihar discussed the current sector focus of Geek Ventures and highlighted the importance of AI in the investment thesis
[08:51]  Ihar took a deeper dive into enterprise and B2B opportunities in startup investments
[11:46]  Conversation on Geek Ventures’ investment process
[13:29]  Ihar discussed market opportunity vs. people leader in the startup, with emphasis on startup founder
[15:53]  Conversation on the key attributes of successful founders
[18:04]  Ihar discussed the investment stages at Geek Ventures
[19:04]  Continued conversation on Geek Ventures investment focus
[21:30]  Ihar discussed the importance of long-term vision of startup founders
[22:54]  Conversation on the investment climate in 2023
[24:03]  Ihar highlighted some of the companies in Geek Ventures’ portfolio
[27:11]  Conversation on Ihar’s journey from software engineering to investment
[30:25]  Ihar discussed the importance of integrity and how he looked for it in startup founders




Genesis of Geek Ventures

The name Geek Ventures really resonates with a lot of people. I personally think of myself as a geek. I have been fascinated by tech since childhood. I have started coding when I was 12, and my friends called me geek.  By the time I was thinking of my venture firm name, it came naturally. This is something that differentiates our firm from a lot of VC firms run by MBAs. I found that being a geek about the market or about technology is a really good indicator. So somebody who has been in the space for many years and really enjoys talking about it, that’s potentially a really great founder in the startup.


Discussion on Why Immigrants are Good Startup Founders

There are many things that differentiate immigrants from people who never change the country. Immigrants went through many difficulties in their life: uprooting and getting somewhere where they don’t know anybody, learning a new language, getting new connections, figuring out completely new culture. Being successful after that is already an achievement. People who move to the US have shown historically great results. I think more than half of unicorns were built by immigrant founders. A lot of immigrant founders have shown that they are really the right people for working hard, for applying themselves to really difficult problems, and being really tenacious, not dropping the idea of when something went wrong. I did 2 immigrations in my life. I moved to the US 10 years ago, and I went through this before that I moved to Switzerland. By helping the new immigrant founders or future immigrant founders, we (Geek Ventures) can definitely be the right partner from a value-add perspective.


Geek Ventures’ Investment Focus and AI as an Enabler

Pre-seed to seed, all sectors that are tech enabled with scalable high margin sectors (especially software) AI is a great enabler of high margins and scale.   Many sectors can benefit from it. By sector, I mean, it could be healthcare, it could be Fintech. There are so many interesting sectors. AI has really become a force. Nobody can ignore it at this point. Founders should look at AI as an important component of their business.

I think, from a venture perspective, enterprise or B2B, in general, including small medium and large businesses, is still a higher opportunity, just because that space is just less of a winner-takes-all, and there is a lot more tools that can be successful, while especially in B2B, AI has strong standing from the perspective of how many different use cases and business they are to benefit from. It’s important to note that it’s not only about AI being in your face. There will be in a lot of companies that use AI in the back end for efficiency, even if they don’t market AI to their customers.  So a lot of companies in our portfolio are solving customer pain.  And what I focus a lot is: what pains for the customer this company and their product can solve.  The pains didn’t change significantly in the last 6 months. The pains are still there.   AI is important to use for efficiency purposes. To reduce the burn, to have fewer people doing the same amount of work, to get more done. We’ll give you AI for marketing, or we’ll give you AI for like email, or something like that, or we’ll give you AI for analysis.


On Evaluating Investment Opportunity (the Quality of Founders)

I think that we actually look more at people as a factor than on the technology because I feel that with time it’s important that the right people understand how to use technology as a tool, or because especially with AI, you see that a lot of technology that is not extremely fundamental (e.g. open AI platform) A lot of the technology can be repeated, and can be repeated faster.  Big companies 10 years ago had to write a lot of code to make something possible. (e.g. slack, zoom) And right now, just writing code to replace them at much faster than 10 years ago. What’s important in the startup founder: founders that are really strong in being able to actually lead building that technology, to lead hiring of the right people, to lead processes of the projects, to lead engineering. Technology is helpful, but much more important is talking to the right people, and especially evaluating if it is scalable.  Can they hire more people? Can they create a scalable solution by finding the right people to work with by just hiring the best.  (Being able to attract top candidates and not second-tier candidates.) Being able to sell or tell a story is an incredibly strong signal. Are they able to convince me?  Are they able to convince other employees? Are they able to convince customers to give them pre contract LOI? Ability to work hard and really dig deep is important. Also, the key thing is listening and being flexible. So this concept of founder really taking input from many people and making their own decisions. But the decisions that is informed, not just stubborn.  This is very critical. But what is important is that basically being quick on their feet.  Are they able to react to what happens in the world, and do they have stories in their life that shows that they have been successful in difficult environments before.



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