By Anna Ratala | 13 Oct 2020
When I was a 20-year-old college student in my home city of Lappeenranta, Finland, my career goal was to be Nike’s CMO. Little did I know that 15 years later I’d be quarantining in a tiny room in Brooklyn, New York, trying to raise pre-seed funding for my own startup in the middle of the world’s worst COVID-19 hotspot.
Lucky for me, I’d been preparing for that moment my whole life by building on a diverse set of experiences: an internship in Brussels, struggling through job interviews in Berlin, managing media analytics sales, and running one of Southeast Asia’s most prominent tech startup events, Slush Singapore.
My early career struggles taught me patience. My sales job made me realize how much I loved challenges (and that I was too much of a rebel for a corporate career). Slush Singapore infused me with inspiration about starting something from scratch and made me fall in love with the adrenaline of startups.
Never mind Nike, I thought, I’m going to build my own company! So in April 2019 in Singapore, Zvook, an AI platform helping brands reach their customers through podcasts, was born.
A year later, as I was closing our pre-seed funding in the middle of the pandemic, I realized how symbolic it all was. Every country, every continent, every bit of uncertainty had led to that moment of accomplishment.
Here is what my journey around the world has taught me.
Remember who you are (Lappeenranta, Finland)
I was lucky to grow up in a country where a female president is not unique, where tax returns are made public, and where ice swimming in the frozen lakes is a popular pastime. All that matters is what you do, not who you are.
When I was elected as one of the youngest members of the city council of Lappeenranta while still in college, it really hit me: I could do anything. My home country gave me a taste of my full potential and a path to realize it. It equipped me with confidence and instilled values that have moulded me into who I am.
No matter where I am, remembering where I come from and what I stand for has built the foundation for my quest for success.
Surround yourself with positive people who push you forward (Brussels, Belgium)
When I got an opportunity to intern at an EU office in Brussels as a 19-year-old freshman, I laughed at the thought. I’d never lived on my own, let alone in a foreign country. It was, in fact, my parents who pushed me to do it.
Through fear and lots of overthinking, I packed my bags and ended up in the EU’s heart. It turned out to be a life changing experience. Working in a foreign country taught me resourcefulness. From balancing the demands of big delegations my office was hosting to finding my own apartment and signing a lease without using a word of English. I realized that there was a whole world out there for me to explore and that I was good at navigating that world. My parents didn’t want me to go – but they pushed me because that was what I needed.
Even the strongest people need someone to nudge them in the right direction. I have made it my point to surround myself with people who help me push through my doubts.
A step back can mean two steps forward (Berlin, Germany)
When I moved to Berlin after graduation, the reality hit me hard: with limited German skills and an unemployment spike in Berlin, all I got was an intern-level job at a tiny company. Listening to my friends joining fancy companies with starting salaries 10 times bigger than mine, I felt like such a failure.
Taking a step back was hard. I went to work every day with a Master’s Degree in Business, only to update a social media account of a tiny company. My pride was hurt, but I decided to embrace it. In my 6 months with the company, I learned fluent German and negotiated the first ever salary raise for an intern – in German! I had earned it with diligent work and excellent results.
I realized that if I wanted to be at the top, I had to start from the bottom and climb my way up. Sometimes moving forward means you need to step back first.
Dare to start over (Singapore)
When my personal life brought me to Singapore in 2011, I had never even been to Asia. Starting over in a new country and a foreign culture was scary and frustrating. After finally landing a job in media analytics sales, I missed my first six targets in a row, but I learned from my mistakes and ended up becoming one of the top performing sales managers.
Eventually, I realized media analytics sales was not what I wanted. So, I started over again, getting an opportunity to build a tech startup event, Slush Singapore. Before that, I had never run a 2,000-person event, led a real team, or had to motivate 300 volunteers to work towards a common goal. However, I was passionate about Slush Singapore’s whole new ground-up approach to startup events, and that gave me the courage to push through. After running Slush Singapore for three years, I realized I wanted to take myself to the next level. This led me to start over again, building my own startup.
Everyone I knew seemed to progress in linear careers, have fancy titles, and nice paychecks. That’s when I decided to stop comparing. I realized I can only measure my success against my own goals, not someone else’s.
Let fear fuel your dreams (New York, United States)
Starting a business is hard but wait until you throw an international expansion into the mix. Many people told me not to do it, to wait or to start small, but that is not how I operate.
Last summer, to expand Zvook to the U.S. market, I booked flights to New York, lived out of my suitcases, built connections, pitched to investors and tried to wrap my head around the fact that I was alone in New York betting all I had on something that did not even properly exist. It was crazy but it was not as scary anymore.
My previous experiences of starting over had taught me how to navigate through these challenges. Resilience is like a muscle. The more you train it, the stronger it gets. Starting over was scary but I had learned how to make fear fuel my dreams, instead of letting it limit me. I also realized how important it was to do things that felt good. They were not always the easiest things, but they were the ones that brought me closer to my dreams.
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About Anna Ratala
Anna Ratala is an international business leader and a tech enthusiast. She is CEO and co-founder of venture-backed startup Zvook, an AI platform matching brands with podcasts for targeted ads and interviews.
Anna has a strong background in B2B sales from the media analytics industry. While living in Singapore, Ratala founded and operated one of Southeast Asia’s most prominent tech startup events, Slush Singapore, which brought together 3,000 global attendees for three consecutive years.
A global citizen, Anna has lived and worked across 3 continents and 5 countries in the past 15 years.