The impossible equation

November 23, 2022


Ahti Heinla talks about building companies that impact a massive amount of people, how even successful founders struggle and fail at times but also what’s the right approach to build a business case. He also reveals how his company managed to pull off something that a tier-one VC told to be impossible.


Ahti Heinla is the co-founder and CTO of Starship Technologies which is the world’s leading company creating local delivery robots. In 2002, he was part of the founding team of Skype and was the company’s Chief Technical Architect for the first five years. In 2008, Ahti helped to mobilise 3% of the population to clean Estonia’s forests in a day.

LinkedIn | Startship | Bluemoon 

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Episode notes

  • when your robotics competition drive kicks in Robotex
  • an expensive hobby becomes a serious venture
  • committing to your startup
  • Skype was one of the biggest European success stories
  • aiming higher than Skype that had 700m users around 2010
  • trying out a lot of startups that have failed
  • the illusion of over-night successes
  • India, and almost moving there to build a startup
  • the other side of the entrepreneurship
  • a working business vs. a story
  • last-mile delivery economics
  • VCs are paying for most of the deliveries now
  • unit economics and back-of-the-envelope calculations
  • universal technologist
  • will this work commercially?
  • last-mile food deliveries
  • bootstrapped (self-funded)
  • why not drones?
  • millions of deliveries done already
  • R&D and commercial operations
  • predictability in engineering and business
  • Starship culture
  • planning for the future but delivering now
  • team interdependencies and stress
  • company values
  • key metrics
  • around the world daily by distance
  • driving without human supervision
  • a bleak moment
  • 250x improvement needed to survive
  • weekly reports on improvement
  • 4m deliveries is just a start
  • robotic deliveries will win
  • founders didn’t want to be the CEO
  • hired six CEOs but few have worked out
  • how to find a good fit CEO
  • resourcefulness
  • leadership qualities
  • career paths not always towards leadership positions
  • COO vs. CEO or a founder CEO
  • fundraising requires a performing company
  • a keyhole perspective
  • it matters how you tell your story in fundraising
  • the value of investor feedback
  • investor expectations with each investment round
  • coding with pen and paper
  • building the first computer game published outside of Estonia
  • Estonia after the Soviet collapse
  • complex needs boring to get somewhere
  • learning and experimentations are hidden from the public
  • ten years over-night success
  • big companies react to revenue threats (exponential growth surprises them)
  • the founding of Skype
  • learning PHP over a weekend
  • Estonian startup scene
  • starting from technology is a terrible idea for a business case
  • 1000x more expensive to call by using a regular call vs. Skype
  • Skype was organised around its internal chats
  • ten first Skype employees failed with their startups after Skype
  • Web3
  • cleaning the world

Episode links

Janus Friis
NASA’s centennial challenges
Allan Martinson
Wolt episode
OnlinePizza episode
Amazon Prime Air
Continuous integration
What a CEO does
Peter principle
Skype by Acquired podcast
Mixergy podcast episode
Jaan Tallinn
Disco Elysium
Niklas Zennström
Ambient Sound Investments
Skype mafia
Martin Villig
Taavet Hinrikus
Let’s Do It
World Cleanup Day
Estonian Fund of Nature
Sun Microsystems

Episode picture credit.