First of all, Alberto Onetti, thank you so much for giving us this great opportunity to share your wisdom with people! Your knowledge and experience is truly valuable for those who aim to start something.
There are thousands of startup conferences, accelerator programs, and books related to Entrepreneurship. However, it is often difficult to find a person, who invests his great amount of time and money into encouraging entrepreneurs who need support most. Alberto Onetti, chairman of Mind the Bridge Foundation, shares his wisdom with us and tells us what are truly important to him.
-----For those who are not familiar with you, please let us know more about you. What is your current role as the President of Mind the Bridge Foundation and how did you become an entrepreneur?
I’m a University Professor (currently faculty member at Department of Economics of Insubria University), but, since day one, I felt uncomfortable to teach something (namely management and entrepreneurship) without having ever done it. Then, since entering my Ph.D. program, I kept myself busy with starting companies, together with my college friend Fabrizio Capobianco — an engineer by education. I have done this three times thus far, the most recent was Funambol, where we experimented with the so called “dual model”, i.e., headquarters in Silicon Valley and development center in Europe. Since 2005, when we closed our Series A, I have been commuting from Italy to San Francisco.
In 2007 I met Marco Marinucci, at the time a manager at Google who was launching a project called Mind the Bridge to give back something to his country of origin by fostering entrepreneurship and the startup culture in Italy. We joined forces and, a few years later, Mind the Bridge has grown significantly by expanding its reach from Italy to the rest of the world, adding education programs for startups, investors and corporates and, most recently, driving a European Commission initiative called Startup Europe Partnership. These are the things that are currently keeping me busy.
-----You have engaged in empowering people through sharing your wisdom and knowledge, and investing in startups. What has motivated you to empower people?
At the end the most rewarding thing you can do in your life is to help people to believe that they can realize their dreams. I think empowering people is the most effective way to change the world for the better.
As Mind the Bridge we try to inspire people to believe in themselves and turn their plans into reality. We also raised an angel investment fund — Mind the Seed — to financially support the best ideas we identify. In a nutshell, we provide people with entrepreneurial guidance, and for some a check as well.
-----What did you do on day one of your entrepreneurial life? Did you have a clear vision from the beginning or did you gradually find it?
I have learned that what you plan from the beginning very rarely happens as planned. Sometimes you realize something closer to your original vision, sometimes something different, frequently something better than you planned. It is important to have a plan, but it is even more important to reshape it along the journey. That’s the main message we convey at our Startup School: “keep your eyes wise open,” as our Director Charles Versaggi says.
-----When you are faced with difficulties, what is your thought process to overcome difficulties?
Difficulties and hurdles are part of the game, and actually make it more interesting and challenging. I’m trying to learn (not yet done) to avoid getting stressed and take it too personal. I try to analyze the problem in the most neutral way and focus on what I can do to deal with it and right the wrong, if possible. By the way shit happens, and when it does, better to deal with before it hits the fan.
-----People tend to go extreme either “Profit” or “Non-profit”. How can they reconcile these opposing ideas and build a “profitable yet mission-driven business”?
Hard to say. At the end it is all about creating value and meaning. If you are for-profit, value is supposed to turn into money; if you are non-profit, value is going to turn into meaningful things. However, they are not mutually exclusive. There’s no reason why a for-profit can’t also create meaning for its customers.
-----Even though every person, region, and country have different “values” and behavior patterns”, business knowledge tends to be standardized. What can you learn from this standardized information and what can you learn through experience?
Standardized information and education provides you with valuable basic tools that are a good starting point. But these need to be incessantly tested and proven in the real world. Interpretation models are important as long as you know you’ll never be able to apply them just as they are. The minute you learn them, they are old.
-----What was the greatest moment you have ever had in your life and what would be the ultimate goal of your life?
I had a lot of great moments, as well as plenty of crappy ones. I remember the excitement of raising the first financing round with Funambol — I never saw a $5 million dollar check before — the satisfaction after successfully organizing the first Mind the Bridge Venture Camp at Corriere della Sera in Milan, my first meeting in Brussels to shape our Startup Europe Partnership program…a lot of exciting things, most of them first- time achievements. I get satisfaction by attaining challenging goals, not repeating things I have done before. My ultimate goal? Keep up in being challenged and pursuing my dreams.
-----What is your definition of success? Who would be the most successful person for you and why?
Success is a state of mind, the internal satisfaction you get when you challenge yourself and make something really important happen. It’s measured by your smiling eyes when you know you have done it. And like all the smiles, it just lasts a moment. And thereafter, you are back to square one and ready for a new venture. Successful people for me are the ones who never give up and keep trying and doing, accepting failure but not avoiding to play just because they are not sure if they can be successful.
-----If you could make a phone call to 20-year-old Alberto Onetti, what advice would you give him?
I’m not sure he would pick-up the phone. If he did, I would remind him always to be humble — because the older version of him sometimes is not — and be open-minded. To do things and learn from the mistakes he will surely do. To listen to everybody, but do not allow anyone to undermine his dreams.
-----If you can leave one message to make the world better, what would it be?
Always be curious, do things with passion and dream big. And anytime you get any result, don’t take it for granted, but consider it a new starting point.