#22 Anna Ratala: Making it Big

published on 24 February 2021

I always dreamed of going beyond the borders of cozy little Finland and making it big. Yet, ambition came with a cost.

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Some people are gifted with a magical and almost electrical aura. This aura enables them to convey their vision and make the listeners believe anything is possible. The very best of these rare and mysterious species are also born storytellers, making you gasp every time they open their mouths. Combining these two traits makes them superhumans and the kind of entrepreneurs who will change the world for the better. Anna is one of them, and she took us on an unimaginable rollercoaster ride through her life. The hour we spent with her went by in the blink of an eye. Unbelievable!

Anna is the CEO of and Co-founder of Zvook. Together with Malik, they revolutionize the way brands and podcasters collaborate. Anna grew up in Finland and always had a clear goal in mind; making it big abroad. Her journey began in Berlin, quickly followed by a one-way ticket to Singapore, where she later launched the biggest tech conference in the region, Slush Singapore. She is currently building her company in New York and has incredible plans for the future. Nothing else to add besides getting ready to experience her aura in real-time. Let’s jump right into it!

But that is only one part of the story.

At Venture Insider, we strive to undress the ups and downs, the late nights, the early mornings, the failures and the victories.

In a few words, we want to share the real stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Introduce yourself — tell us a little bit about your journey?

I am from Finland, but I have lived abroad for the last eleven years. Straight after graduation, I moved to Berlin to leave my comfort zone. Then, I moved to Singapore to work in a media intelligence company as a saleswoman. After a couple of years, I quit my corporate job to do entrepreneurial projects.

The Singaporean start-up ecosystem was back then in its infancy and was developing the go-to entrepreneurial mentality. I wanted to help elevate that by creating the best technology conference in the region. This dream led me to start Slush Singapore, which became one of South East Asia’s most prominent tech events.

Starting Slush Singapore provided me with the foundation and know-how for my next venture. I wanted to create a venture-backed technology company that could eventually scale endlessly. Antler turned this dream into reality and gave me the possibility to meet my fantastic co-founder and CTO, Malik. Zvook was born after realising there was an untapped market potential, and we jumped on the first plane to New York to make it big.

Malik and Anna on their way to Big Apple
Malik and Anna on their way to Big Apple

What did you always dream of when you were a kid?

I obsessively wanted to become an important businesswoman. As a kid, I never played with dolls. Instead, I dressed up as a business person with a suit and simulating working in an office with a big typing machine. I didn’t know what entrepreneurship was, but my dream was to work as an executive at a big brand.

I always dreamed of going beyond the borders of cozy little Finland and making it a little bigger. Yet, that came with many obstacles.

What passions did you have as a student, and how did you nurture them?

My mum is a teacher, and my father is a sea captain. We didn’t have a ton of money or connections. At the dinner table, they told me that business people and politicians are the ones in charge of the country. It was important to me to make a difference one day. I wanted to have a say in how things were run and how decisions were made. I figured that someone has to do it, why not me? During my studies, I was involved in every activity possible. It was my way of convincing myself that my ideas mattered and that I could potentially contribute to the world. I even developed a passion for politics!

Then, running for the local election? How was this experience?

Yes (laughing). During my studies, I ran for the local city election. I was 23 and the youngest member ever. I knew it was a strange thing to do, given I planned to leave Finland at one point, but, I am a person who lives in the present and avoids overthinking. I just had to do it!

In the beginning, people thought I was running for the sake of it. Little did they know that I really wanted to win. Once I got elected, every politician told me to learn and not make too much noise during my first term. I couldn’t care less about their concerns, and I did everything I could to make changes as soon as possible. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to implement some of my ideas. It was a life-changing experience.

How was it to finally leave Finland?

It was a scary sensation to leave behind everything that I had built. In Finland, I was becoming a bigger fish. Yet, I was swimming in a tiny pot. Berlin was a way to start all over again, grow and be part of a bigger pool. Had I stayed in Finland, I would still be in politics. Now I realize that being a politician is probably not the best way to have an impact on a large scale. There are just too many bottlenecks to overcome, and the process is too slow, trust me, way too slow! I wanted to create my own platform and move as quickly as possible. Starting a company was my way to do so!

Then Singapore, how were you able to start and scale Slush Singapore, especially in a completely foreign environment?

It was super hard to build it from scratch, but luckily we did a close collaboration with the Singapore government, which helped a lot. Slush is more than a technology event. It is a movement of like-minded people. The concept of creating a movement was something unheard of in Singapore. It was challenging to share the mission of Slush when nobody understood what we tried to do.

I attended hundreds of events to tell the story of Slush, and after a while, it caught fire. A crucial part was creating a community with universities and giving students the chance to build the event.

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How did you come up with the idea behind Zvook, your latest venture? What’s the company’s mission?

Simply said, we match brands with the most relevant audio influencers. We believe this should be as easy as clicking a button. However, the current solutions are messy and old-school. Our platform uses an algorithm to match brands with podcasters based on their budget and customer persona — in 25 seconds. Not only that, we find the right audio influencers based on brand alignment. This has never been done before!

Our mission is simple; we want to help every brand reach their customers through podcasts and we want every podcaster to easily monetize their content. You should never need to google podcast advertising again — just Zvook it!

Anna displaying her aura to a grand audience
Anna displaying her aura to a grand audience

If you could change one thing in your journey, something you now have regret for, what would it be?

I don’t have regrets, and I like life without thinking about what I could have done differently. It is just a better way of living. However, if I need to pick one thing that I could have focused less on it is formal education. I have a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees, but they don’t help me run my business better. I could have gotten by with one degree! I’ve met wonderful people without formal education, building extraordinary things. A piece of paper will not seal your future.

The only remarkable piece of advice is to go out there and get your hands dirty. It’s the only way!

What was the most significant challenge you’ve faced in your personal life?

The emotional burden of starting from scratch is no joke. The first couple of times, it was inspiring to move continuously. After a while, it got exhausting to prove myself, crafting my personal story and convincing people to give me a chance.

I even questioned my motives on why I was doing this to myself. Why couldn’t I feel at bay where I was? I had many low moments wondering if it was worth it. At the same time, the more I did it, the more I got used to it. It is way scarier to think about doing something than actually doing it. I never questioned whether I should move to a new place. I just did it, and it has enriched my life with once in a lifetime experiences.

Despite being the hardest thing I’ve faced, it was all worth it.

Teamwork makes the dream work: Anna and Malik on top of the word.
Teamwork makes the dream work: Anna and Malik on top of the word.

When was the time you felt the most vulnerable?

This is a crazy story, which I shouldn’t even share. But I’ll do it anyway!

During the first year of building Slush Singapore in 2016, the pressure was real. I was responsible for everything, and I woke up to over 200 slack messages every day. The tension mentally and physically drained me, and I had days where I couldn’t stop crying. Balancing my emotions while being a strong leader was the most challenging thing I have ever done.

During our second event, we realized that we had a funding gap of a hundred thousand Singapore dollars. I called everyone in for an emergency meeting to take input for any ideas on how to solve the issue. After the meeting, a colleague came up to me. She told me that I should be the one making these decisions. She explicitly said that I was not cut out to be the CEO. These were the most painful words I had ever heard. It was the most vulnerable moment of my life.

However, that moment taught me one of the greatest lessons. I had signed up to take the responsibilities, and as a CEO, I needed to be the one handling the difficult conversations. . I knew I had to shrug my shoulders and get up! I picked up the phone and called some of the investors I knew in the region. Eventually, we were able to get the money together and save the event. It was a pivotal moment for me for my personal growth.

As painful as it was to be told that I was not the right person for the job, I very much needed it. It got me grounded and hungry to learn.

If you only had 30 days to live, what would you do?

It is surprisingly hard to answer this question.

This sounds crazy, but I would continue business-as-usual. I believe that what we are doing serves a higher purpose. Of course, I would also book a flight back to Europe to visit my family, which I haven’t seen in over a year. Lastly, I would write down all the major lessons of my life and share it with the world.

A big goal of mine is to leave a legacy. The best way to do that is to create something bigger than yourself.

Do you have an inspiring figure?

Not that I can recall (laughing).

Favourite Podcast?

The Daily by the New York Times

One book?

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The one Billion Dollar Question: If you have to pick one thing that you need to do for the rest of your life, what would it be?

I would spend the rest of my life doing what I love: building companies.

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Our Main Takeaways

  • Wear as many hats as possible when you are young. Begin with wide exposure and narrow the activities down to the ones you love.
  • Get your hands dirty. As Anna said, it’s the only way.
  • Don’t underestimate the emotional burden of starting from scratch. It can quickly get exhausting to prove yourself and craft a personal story again.
  • Use feedback as a way to learn. It can be the driver for the steepest rate of personal improvement. To create a legacy, the way you handle feedback will be pivotal in the process.

Inspiring story Anna, thank you very much.

Working, working, working
Working, working, working

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