By SGN | Updated 14 Nov 2023
When Magnus was just a boy living on a husky farm in the small town of Sande, Norway, nobody could have predicted that he would one day become a successful tech founder or lead one of the most active and progressive venture capital firms in the world.
After winning a United World College high school scholarship, Magnus made his way into Harvard, began his career at McKinsey, and entered the world of tech and innovation. It isn’t lost on him that the connections he’s been fortunate to accumulate over the years have been instrumental to his professional success.
With Antler, his mission is to scour the world for the best founder talent – perhaps from backgrounds as unlikely as his – and equip them with the same quality of opportunities and networks to realise their potential for impact and groundbreaking innovation.
Witnessing the rise of tech giants
Magnus’s years at Harvard in the 2000s coincided with the advent of broadband, the emergence of social media, and the rise of the internet juggernauts.
“It was very exciting times,” he recalls. “A lot of my friends and classmates ended up founding, backing or joining the tech giants of today.” These included Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Thrive Capital’s Joshua Kushner, and Elon Musk’s former chief of staff Sam Teller.
At McKinsey, he worked with the world’s largest tech companies in Europe, the US, and Asia. “That’s how I got inspired by Asia’s potential – by the combination of great raw talent and a fast-growing market,” he says.
In 2012, when digital fashion retailer Zalora was launching in Southeast Asia, Magnus moved to Singapore and came onboard as co-founder. Given that e-commerce in the region was still in its infancy, the company had to build up the payments and logistics infrastructure in many markets.
Eventually, Zalora became an industry leader and a training ground for the next generation of tech founders: Kevin Aluwi and Nadiem Makarim of Gojek, Chris Feng of Shopee, Michele Ferrario of StashAway, Henry Chan and Joel Leong of ShopBack, to name a few.
Sinking roots in Singapore
After establishing Zalora and rising to COO at parent company Global Fashion Group, Magnus felt an urge to create a greater impact by empowering other founders. He sensed that there was a tremendous reservoir of talent out there, waiting to be tapped and given the right opportunity.
Carefully weighing the options of basing Antler in Europe or the US, he ultimately chose Singapore.
“We decided on Singapore for three reasons,” he shares. “First, it’s a great place to set up a business and serve a large region experiencing the world’s fastest digitalisation. Secondly, the way the government works with companies to help them succeed and scale globally is quite unprecedented. Finally, it’s just a great place to live.”
With the climate being much warmer in Singapore than it is in Norway, Magnus gets to enjoy outdoor workouts throughout the year – running, biking, swimming (in the ocean or at the pool). He also appreciates how global travel is a breeze.
Besides connecting with lots of Singaporeans, he has made friends from across the globe, as has his eldest son, who went to high school here. “Networks are critical in life, work, and the very fabric of what makes society great,” he notes, citing Singapore Global Network as an example. “It’s an incredible community that strengthens people through learning, support and experiences.”
The city has also provided a wonderful environment for raising Magnus’s two younger children. “Schools are amazing, and being able to hire a domestic helper to get some support is very helpful,” he says. “I think Singapore is optimal for having a family, for living a healthy life, and for being incredibly productive at work.”
Magnus says Singapore is an optimal place for family life.
We back people, not companies
Antler prides itself as a ‘day zero’ investor, a backer of startups at the earliest stages. “We come in really early and back these founders before they even incorporate their business,” Magnus shares. “We help them create a great co-founder team and validate their business model.”
Founders also gain access to Antler’s extensive network of investors, academics, business leaders and seasoned entrepreneurs. “When you build a company, having these networks is incredibly important,” he says.
In its hunt for the best talent, Antler looks out for drive, grit, and a ‘spike’ or distinctive strength. It also ardently embraces inclusivity. The 5000-plus founders backed to date represent more than 80 nationalities, and 30% of startups have a female founder.
“We set the same bar for everyone,” Magnus explains, “but we create equality of opportunity.” Casting a wide net in terms of gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic background isn’t solely a matter of ethics. “We just want to tap into a tremendous talent pool,” he says.
In addition, 42% of Antler’s portfolio comprises of ‘impact companies’ that address issues such as climate change, education and healthcare.
Base, an Indonesian beauty brand founded by Yaumi Fauziah Sugiharta and Ratih Permata Sari, champions sustainability while catering to a growing demand for vegan and halal cosmetics. Their data-driven Smart Skin Test offers personalised recommendations for diverse skin tones and needs.
Reebelo, founded by Philip Franta and Fabien Rastouil, is a Singapore-based electronics resale platform that aims to mitigate the growing heap of devices crowding landfills. Capitalising on the rise of the circular economy, the startup is now growing its presence in North America. “They are a great example that you can expand in Southeast Asia first and then move to the US,” Magnus remarks.
With offices in 27 locations around the world, Antler now boasts a portfolio of more than 900 startups with a combined value of $3.7 billion. They receive more than 100,000 applicants a year and, in 2023, were ranked by Pitchbook as the most active seed stage venture capital firm globally.
“Civilisation will only move forward if great people innovate,” Magnus says. “That’s how people come out of poverty. That’s how people’s lives get better. We’re focused on backing the next generation of great founders. And now we’re backing more than anyone else in the world.”
Now is the time to build
Despite the mixed economic outlook, Magnus firmly believes that now is the best time, possibly in history, to build a startup – and this isn’t just the eternal optimist in him speaking.
“Over the last 100 years, markets have globalised and innovation has accelerated,” he points out. “It took the airline industry 50 years to get 50 million customers. It took OpenAI just two months to reach 100 million users.”
Nowadays, startups have greater access to capital and can plug into existing infrastructure, utilise ready business tools. The cost of building businesses has dropped drastically, and there is an abundance of maturing technologies – like IoT, nanotechnology, AI, blockchain – that can be used to solve pressing problems.
“Historically, the best time to build companies has been after a downturn,” he adds. “30% of Fortune 500 companies were created just after a financial crisis. We fundamentally believe that the money being invested into startups created in these few years will generate the best returns the world has ever seen.”
Finally, Magnus observes how winning startups in Southeast Asia are largely homegrown since they are better able to understand the region’s cultural diversity. “If you look at Europe, Amazon and Uber are the top e-commerce and ridesharing platforms. In Southeast Asia, the leaders are Grab, Lazada and Shopee.
“There’s a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs here to build giants to compete against the best in the world.”
Magnus is founder and CEO of Antler, a global startup accelerator and venture capital firm that backs exceptional founders addressing meaningful challenges. He was previously co-founder and regional managing director of Zalora, Southeast Asia’s leading fashion e-commerce company.
Connect with him here.