Paul Bragiel May have come to the public knowledge for most people when he attempted to compete in the Sochi Winter Olympics as the sole representative of Columbia in cross country skiing, but where he deserves a gold medal and probably holds a world record is in the global arena of entrepreneurship and venture capital.
He may not have been able to conclude hacking the Winter Olympics, but he sure has succeeded in hacking life itself.
Helsinki Times sat down with Paul after his panel discussion in Arctic15 in Helsinki. Here is the full interview.
A: This is not your first time in Finland. Tell me about your history with this country.
M: I’ve lived here for a full year, but my relationship with Finland goes way back. I started meeting some of my friends that are now lifelong friends in like 1994. We were early IRC and demo scene type of guys, so I started meeting these really amazing artists, programmers, engineers, and a lot of them went into the game industry. I’ve been in close contact with Finnish people 22 years now. I first made it out here I think in 1999 or 2000, and have been coming back for years. Some of my closest friends in the world are here. It just magically happened.
A: Tell me about the year you spent here. You were training in cross-country skiing? What else?
M: I got to spend a magical year here. I lived in a small city outside of Kittilä. Up north around the Arctic Circle.
When the snow melted there, I did need to pursue snow in other parts of the world, so I actually went to Australia- and to New Zealand. It’s a very extreme form of Finland. I got to experience the 24-hour day, the 24-hour nighttime, I got to really experience all the local food. Toward the end I actually ended up living with my coach just for simplicity’s sake, so I got to live with a Finnish family. I actually kind of had an adoptive Finnish mom. I got to see inside Finnish culture in a way most American foreigners don’t get to without living here for a really long period of time. Also, in doing the national sport and the funny story and all the attention I got, I got to meet some really amazing people outside of my circles. I knew a lot of people in Finland in technology, but now I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in Finland for anything from sports to politics to medicine and stuff like that. It’s a kind of amazing overview I’ve gotten to see of Finland. It’s a really cool perspective. I love it! It’s an amazing thing to have done.
A: You are only 38 years old. Looking back… how many investments do you have right now?
M: Worldwide I have six different funds, including one here in Finland. As of yesterday I have 186 investments across these six different funds and they range everything from gaming obviously to Fintech stuff in Africa to e-commerce places in Asia, to drone companies, everything. I’m investing mostly in people, but I have a very large portfolio and luckily I have really great teams working for me to help manage those portfolios as well.
A: What do you mean when you say that you’re investing mostly in people?
M: I mean that’s the first thing you look at, right? Without a good person, the company’s going to be shit no matter what. No matter how good the idea is, how big the market is, if you have shitty people behind it, it’s going to be shit. We try to build a relationship with the founders, try to get to know them over a period of time, not make a decision immediately, and then yeah, if you like someone and you see how they’re progressing, you want to get involved.
A: Do you get in touch, contact yourself with every one of these?
M: I can’t do that. With 186 companies, I cannot. I do know almost every company in our portfolio, but some of my partners will interface closer with other founders. I do love to get my hands dirty, I try to meet as many entrepreneurs as possible, I try to make as much time as I can to let these entrepreneurs get feedback, and things like that. It’s hard, as I get larger on my organization’s scale, it’s getting more difficult. I try to hire really amazing people that represent me really well.
A: What was the fund you have in Finland?
M: The fund I have here is called Sisu. Finnish guts. It’s a fund focused on video games in the Nordics. It’s based here in Finland and my other two partners are Finnish. I’ve got a guy named Samuli (Syvähuoko), the founder of Remedy, and then Moaffak Ahmed, who is the number one angel investor here. He was actually voted angel investor of the year last year. So I team with those guys and I think we’ve done seventeen or eighteen gaming investments here in Finland and Sweden and the Nordics. I’m really passionate about that.
A: In these funds and investments, do you usually invest your own money or is it also other people’s?
M: Every single fund I put my own money into it. I’m kind of like the chairman, the founder, I build the teams usually. Then of course we invite other LPs to come alongside of us. They’re everything from VC funds to somebody who exited a company to family offices. It’s a very wide range of people from all around the world, actually.
A: How much have you invested of your own money to this date?
M: Millions of dollars. I don’t keep track. Everything I make, I pretty much reinvest. I’m betting really hard. I don’t keep savings. I don’t own a house. I don’t own a car. Everything I own is in start-ups. I really believe in supporting people and doing good by them and then I’ll see amazing returns and luckily I already have some really big exits.
A: Is that the main reason you do that? You want to see success multiplying?
M: Yeah, I love this! This is the coolest job in the world. My job is, I get to go out there and hang out with amazing people every day. So how can I help those people? I’ve had some success early in my career, so I keep on helping them out. What I’ve seen in my career is, as I help more people out, I make more investments, I get more help in return. I lift somebody and then that person lifts me. I’m betting really hard on human beings. It’s really a simple theory. All my liquid net worth or whatever is in people.
A: You’re emphasizing people. You see people, not companies?
M: You have to have the great founders and after that, the great founder has to recruit great people. Of course you put the good people in the same room and you find a way to get them all to work together. You could move mountains. You could start countries. You could send rockets to space. So nothing happens without great people.
A: So you are a self-made man? You started like anyone else.
M: It’s true. I started as an entrepreneur right after I graduated university. My parents are immigrants to the United States, so pretty middle class. I’ve been busting my ass and continuing to make myself. I’m self-made but I think I could be something better. I’m constantly trying to improve too.
A: How did it feel when you had your first exit?
M: The first exit was cool, but the first best thing ever was selling my first game. I remember we just started maybe 6 months before, my company, and we had sold a game to a publisher, and this was back in the day when games came in boxes. I remember I went to one of the stores and I took the game, I flipped to the back and I saw my logo. One of the best feelings in the world. Holy shit! I made something. That was, to me, probably the proudest moment. There have been other really amazing moments, and then from there you keep wanting to get bigger. Then you sell the company, then you go on to raise more money, start another company, then you invest in a company, but that was the first thing saying, “Hey, I can do this! I could build something if I put more money into it and get good people around me, I could build stuff.” It was a great feeling.
A: So you felt like, “I got the formula of success.”
M: It wasn’t the formula, it was more like encouragement. It was the first step toward becoming a bigger, better person. I wouldn’t say I had the formula, but I was like, “Oh, I can do this, and I have a chance of doing it better. I could improve on this.” It was amazing positive feedback.
A: When was it that you had millions?
M: My first million was probably a couple of years… 23 or 24. Then I lost all my money. My second company was a complete failure. Then I remade my millions in 2010 and I’ve been making a lot more since.
A: You mean you lost everything?
M: I didn’t lose everything, but I lost almost everything. I bet hard, I invested my own company, that company went bankrupt. With this I was maybe a little bit too cocky after that. Then I [raspberry]. The second company died. It was a great learning experience. Actually, the second company - in many ways - led to many amazing things, but then I remade my money when I sold my third company in 2010. Now I’ve been reinvesting and actually made a lot more money as an investor than as an entrepreneur.
A: What is the difference now that you have so much money?
M: What money does is it saves you time. Money is an agent to be more efficient with your time, allow you to do things quicker, allow you to invest more time into people. That’s really what money does. I don’t think mentally I’ve changed. I’m the same kind of dude that I’ve always been. Money just helps free you up and it’s more resources for you to do more interesting things.
A: Does it make you free of worries?
M: You have different worries. I mean, I honestly don’t look at my bank statements. I just have the recurring payment. I don’t worry about that stuff. I worry about other things. I worry about am I doing enough to further my career? I’m worried about my companies. I’m worried about family issues. So you don’t ever get free of worries [laughter], you just have different worries.
A: Do you buy everything you like? Do you have a private jet?
M: No, I don’t buy anything. Like I said, I don’t own a house, I don’t even own a car. I don’t believe in owning stuff. I don’t like stuff. I like to be very free and unencumbered, so I don’t own stuff.
A: How do you do that? You’re renting the house you live in?
M: Yeah, rent or stay in a lot of hotels, stuff like that. I don’t need to own things. To me, material things don’t drive me. Interesting stories, interesting people, interesting experiences, this is what drives me.
A: Does it have some spiritual element in it? Are you following some sort of philosophy?
M: I’m not religious, but my philosophy, I guess, is ‘do cool shit.’ There’s nothing really spiritual to me, but a lot of my friends think I’m pretty Zen. I have a different outlook. I just want to really experience life as much as I can. I think a lot of times physical things can slow you down. You have to worry about paying your mortgage, you have to worry about your car, it broke down, all that shit.
A: Bezos and Musk are going to space and Thiel is investing in immortality and some other tech billionaires are breaking some boundaries. You, in a way, are “guerilla” of breaking boundaries. You do it in your own way?
M: Yes, everyone has their own style, right? I don’t necessarily have the financial resources those guys have, I’m like one level below. But yeah, you always try to push and do things that no one’s done before or unique stories or whatever. I respect those guys. Two of those guys you’ve mentioned I’m friends with, and yeah, everyone has a different angle. Successful people, if they get comfortable, they’re like, “What’s the next big challenge.” They’re all looking for different types of challenges. I’m not necessarily interested in sending a rocket to space, but I’m into other things. You want to do those things. Who knows, maybe in 5 years I might get interested, or maybe I will want to go for immortality. I don’t know. It’s a moving target as well.
A: How did you come up with this idea of competing in the Olympics?
M: It’s pretty simple. I had two dreams as a kid. I wanted to make video games and I wanted to be an Olympian. So then about a year before the Olympics started, I was giving a speech at a conference somewhere and I just talked about pursuing your dreams, more like in a business context. Then I woke up the next morning and I’m like, you know what, I’m kind of full of shit. I pursued all my business dreams, but I didn’t pursue some of my personal dreams. So then I just took it upon myself to see how far I can go with this. I contacted my brothers. I told my brothers this idea and a couple of my closest friends, so I had this social pressure to do it, and then I just tried to pursue one of my childhood dreams. Maybe too little too late. I wish I had started earlier. It was just more like calling out my bullshit.
A: Then you planned to compete in the Winter Olympics from Columbia?
M: There are many steps, but I did a lot of research. Obviously I wasn’t Columbian before this. I had to become a Columbian citizen. I talked to over 100 countries.
A: You just picked the phone up and call them?
M: I wrote physical letters to ambassadors, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then obviously I used all my contacts I could and 99% didn’t respond, 1% said maybe, and then 0.1% said yes. It was a lot of work. The whole process… People just probably saw my videos, saw me training, but two thirds of the process was finding coaches, going out to learning the rules, meeting people, becoming a citizen… there was all this other stuff that was even harder and more pressing than the training part potentially.
A: How did you choose the sport?
M: I read the rules of every single sport in the Olympics, winter and summer, and I found the ones that had the most flexible rules and the largest delta between first place and last place. So the four sports that were the finalists, they were all winter sports. Summer Olympics is pretty difficult. It was downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, bobsled, and luge. I spent a month flying around the world trying all those sports and then it became cross-country skiing [laughter].
A: That’s amazing! So you did profound research on this topic?
M: Oh, I’m a fucking nerd. I do a lot of due-diligence, just like I do with my companies. This was like building a company, this was like a project. I really studied my ass off. I know more about the rules of Olympic sports than probably anybody on this planet [laughter].
A: You should write a book about it.
M: People have asked. I’m not a very good writer, unfortunately.
A: What happened with the Olympics?
M: I didn’t make it. I actually missed the cut-off. I made it to the Olympic trials and missed the Olympics itself. I got a big lung infection toward the end and I didn’t make it. I was getting pretty close and then my body was pushing the limits so hard. You know how it is. When you’re pushing your body so hard and also cold temperatures, your immune gets weakened. I caught some flu, I had a serious lung infection, I had a fever of 39.6 for 5 days, and I missed it.
A: So to make it into the Olympics you should have a certain performance level?
M: There’s a threshold. Even though I could represent Columbia, you still have to be world class. I wasn’t the best, but there’s still a limit. It’s still very hard. The most ambitious skiers will never make that limit.
A: Are you going to try again?
M: Probably not. I’ve gotten a lot of weight. Ever since the Olympics, my businesses have even grown faster, so I have even more responsibilities, so I’d say no.
A: What was the reason your businesses have been growing? Does it have something to do with the publicity coming with trying to hack the Olympics?
M: It was completely separate. I walked away from the experience thinking I should do even bigger things in my business world too, so that inspired me in some ways too, to go out there and hire more teams and push them, put my foot to the metal. I think it was just better timing. Also, some of my previous investments, I keep them growing too. My reputation has gotten better. My track record is getting better. I’m getting older too.
A: I feel that you are have sort of a humanitarian mission as well; you have stablished funds for Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, etc. When you do those, are you thinking first to help those areas or is it purely business.
M: I like people! People are amazing! When I make those investments, I want to make money, but I think in those – especially in developing regions – giving away money is a waste of time. People start getting used to it, it’s like a drug. It’s like you give somebody free food every day. It’s more like they say with the ‘teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ I think by encouraging the financial perspective and making investments in companies that have a huge growth potential, you have a better chance of succeeding. You go out there, you’ll create more jobs, you’ll create impact, you’ll hire people to train to think bigger. Some of the biggest companies in the world, the Googles and Facebooks and Ubers and stuff like that, these companies make money but they also create so many jobs and they have so many peripheral effects.
A: What do you think, 10-15 years ago, nobody would talk about venture capital and this is a growing thing. I have followed this scene myself. It seems to me that it’s now becoming an established way of thinking, that you risk your money and it may go really bad or it might go well, but also, another trend that I have noticed, which in my opinion is worrying, is that a few years ago, when you said “seed fund” it meant people who have an idea. Now seed fund, you have to have a minimum viable product and the traction and what not. That critical period where people need the most help, young people who have nothing. They have a great idea. The venture capital scene has somehow moved above and out of that period.
M: But then that’s got replaced by other things. There’s accelerators now. There’s pre-accelerators. There’s competitions. Also, it’s gotten so cheap, you can go out there and build something in your garage. So making a minimum viable product is not as expensive as it was. That does suck a little bit, but there’s a lot of things that have replaced it, so I don’t think it’s that bad.
A: You mean If you have a great idea, you can really get yourself to that level?
M: I did it. My second company, the company that failed, I had eight people living in a three-bedroom apartment. People slept on the floors and we had bunk beds. The best entrepreneurs find a way to make it happen and actually, I want to see entrepreneurs struggle. If I just started giving money to fucking any random entrepreneur, fuck him. You’ve got to earn! You’ve got to struggle a little bit. A really good entrepreneur would never take it as easy. I don’t want people to be too comfortable. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you have to risk it all. Why would I put money into your fucking idea if you won’t take a risk, quit your job, and invest yourself in it? I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all, actually. It’s a filtering mechanism.
A: Speaking of being ready to quit your job reminds me of the TV show Shark Tank. Have you watched that?
M: Yeah, of course. I know a couple of the sharks.
A: Is that a realistic picture of how investors my think?
M: No, you don’t make decisions that quickly, but also people don’t know. Actually, every contestant that comes up there, they interview them for at least an hour. What’s broadcasted is the cut version. It’s TV magic or whatever you want to call it.
A: Reality TV.
M: Yeah! There’s a lot of strong elements that are actually true about it, a lot of it is also a little bit inflated, but I think it’s done an amazing service to promote entrepreneurship throughout middle American and even the rest of the world. A young kid here, he would tell his mom and dad 5 years ago, I’m doing a start-up. What is that? “Hi mom and dad, I’m…” “What do you mean?” “Oh, kind of like on Shark Tank.” “Oh!” And they get it. So that’s encouraging people to take the leap. So in many ways, the show’s been great.
You learn a lot from just watching it. How to pitch! How to go to present. How do invoke passion. How to go out there and field questions properly. Oh, he did it right, he did it wrong. No it’s great!
A: What about the valuation? This is one of the black holes or big mysteries when you have a start-up which is pre-revenue. Is valuation art or science?
M: In early stages it’s more like what are the market trends. Okay, everyone wants to raise 2 million dollars? I’ll give you 2 million bucks. You raise 5 million bucks? I’ll give you 5 million bucks. In early stages, but yeah, in later stages it gets very difficult, I agree. It’s hard. This is what VCs fucking beat themselves… We hate it too.
A: How do you do that?
M: I try to throw an offer out there and see if the other one takes it. I try to look at other market trends. I try to see what other similar companies at similar stages are valued at. Also you want to see how much revenue or profit they have. If it’s pre-revenue then yeah, you’re just looking more at comparables.
A: How do you find that the similar cases?
M: I see thousands of companies a year. I do tons of investments myself. My friends do tons of investments, so we talk, we share information.
A: So you basically use this pool of venture capitals and their knowledge?
A: What is your next big challenge?
M: I don’t know. I’m looking for new challenges. Kind of like the Olympics happened… I’ve done other crazy things, like bicycled across the United States and something like that. They usually come to me in a flash. I haven’t had that flash recently. Until then I’ll keep on growing the companies and build this huge organization. That’s my main focus. If I have any crazy ideas, you guys will hear about it.
A: What else would you like people to know about you?
M: Hmm, what do I want people to know about me? That I’m pretty fun-loving and that if you get me on your side, I’m with you there until the end.
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