Francesco is CEO and founder of Rainmakers (previously known as “Nuvolab”), an Italian venture development organisation, startup studio and innovation advisory company based in Milan. Started in 2011, today with 40+ corporate innovation programs completed and 25 startups in its portfolio (including 4 exits + 3 write-off), Rainmakers is a leading player in the Italian Rainforest.
Francesco is also CEO and founder of COP (“Chi Odia Paga” in Italian, or “Haters Gonna Pay” in English), the first legaltech startup against online hate in Italy (and probably in Europe) striking back at hate(rs) with AI-powered tech and legal services.
Previously Francesco was partner in Enlabs, the first business open incubator in Italy, and worked for M31, one of the most important business incubators in Italy as Business Development Director of its Silicon Valley branch, M31 USA. He also worked for the US Market Access of San Jose, a first-rate international start-ups incubator in Silicon Valley, and for the Angels’ Forum of Palo Alto, a leading business angel network in California.
Francesco earned a BA in Management & Finance and a MA in Finance, both from the University of Padova. He also got a Master in Innovation Management at the School Sant’Anna of Pisa, and earned a Certificate in Technology Entrepreneurship at the Santa Clara University (CA), supported by the Fulbright BEST Program Grant.
Q: You have a quite extensive experience in the startup world: you created Nuvolab (now Rainmakers), you advise corporates, managers and entrepreneurs, and you also invest in companies. How do you define yourself?
Francesco: I am an entrepreneur of entrepreneurs. It means that I am an entrepreneur who helps other entrepreneurs, both startuppers and owners of / intrapreneurs in large corporations, to be better entrepreneurs. If I weren’t an entrepreneur, I wouldn’t be able to advise corporates in corporate entrepreneurship projects.
My job is making innovative companies big (with venture acceleration projects), and big companies innovative (with advisory projects).
I’m not an investor for entrepreneurs, I don’t have an old school investor approach but, rather, a very hands-on approach. You can see me as an operational investor.
Q: You recently founded COP, a legaltech innovative startup with a social mission of fighting online hate. How did you come up with this idea? Can you describe us the business model?
Francesco: The idea of COP came up to my mind in 2017, because I noticed that there was an online “justice spread”. It was (and unfortunately still is) very simple, fast and inexpensive to offend other people online, and it is very difficult, slow and expensive to defend yourself from haters. This spread of justice makes the haters to feel unpunished, and to act in a way that seems to be legitimised by the climate of indifference and collective distrust. It was not possible that online hate could not be stopped by pressing charges online. I wanted to do something, I wanted to create a “complaint-as-a-service” platform.
At the time, there were no legaltech projects focusing on online criminal complaints in Europe; in Finland there was a company that tried to do something in this field, but then it pivoted for a project on cyberbullying.
Everyone told me that it was complicated, almost impossible, and that I was crazy, so I thought there was an opportunity. I think that a pessimist sees problems in every opportunity, an optimist sees opportunities in every problem, whilst an entrepreneur sees opportunities in every problem, he/she resolves them, and then he/she creates a company around them.
So, I established my company COP, in 2018 I raised more than € 200k of seed capital from Oltre Venture, the first and biggest Italian impact investing VC, which I chose specifically amongst others. I chose an impact fund, because I wanted to create a specific equity story for my company, because I wanted to scale abroad (and therefore have the right partner to do that), and also to experience what it means raising funds from a VC.
With my other 24 companies, I have always chosen to bootstrap or raise capital through club deals or crowdfunding campaigns. So, I decided to raised institutional investors capital for my first innovative startup with a social mission, the first startup where I am founder and CEO. I have always been co-entrepreneur, I have never been CEO before, with the exception of Rainmakers (totally bootstrapped).
Since then, we have iterated, pivoted and expanded the business model. We started from a transactional B2C model, but then we realized that in that way it is the victim, not the hater, who pays. So, we extended to a B2B and B2A (business to association) model, with corporates supporting with financial grants our B2A and B2C activities. We also run crowdfunding campaigns and we just introduced a series of ancillary services, such as psychological support to victims.
We launched Odiopedia, a crowdsourced map of the 1,000+ associations against hate in Italy (nobody knows there are such a high number of associations against hate in Italy..), and we have a partnership with Wired as part of our B2C go-to-market strategy. We are working on other partnerships, in order to be able to provide financial, insurance, cyber risk services, etc.
Our goal is to use hate, seen as a “renewable energy source”, to fuel positive initiatives. I want to be the Robin Hood of hate, stealing from the rich (of hate) and giving to the poor, because justice is not the same for everyone.
We also noticed that Internet makes network against hate on the net. Last year we ran a crowdfunding campaign in favor of Valentina Pitzalis, symbol of victim blaming in Italy, that we called “Give a smile to Vale”. We raised € 127.000 to support her with legal expenses, thanks to the help of many influencers such as Chiara Ferragni, Fedez, Mara Venier and many others. It was a pleasing discovery. We are not alone in our battle against hate!
Q: You have also created Rainmakers, a startup studio and venture development organisation that deals with meaningful innovation. Can you tell us more? What does meaningful innovation mean?
Francesco: As we know, the development phases of every startup are i) discovery ii) validation iii) efficiency and i) scale; in each phase, a company has different needs, financial and operational, and I have decided to have an operational role in each of them.
With Rainmakers I do discovery and validation internally as a startup studio (for our internal startups only). For the efficiency and scale phases, I also help external companies, using an industrial holding approach.
To me, Rainmakers is a project where I have the possibility to do good in doing business.
Steve Jobs once said: “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me.” I absolutely agree. When you understand that material things cannot be carried with you after death, then what you have left are values and meaningful things.
For me “meaning” is broad concept, like the stakeholder value approach. Meaningful stuff have a meaning for everyone in the long term.
Meaning applies to everything, including innovation. The solutions of today should not be the problems of tomorrow. We need to make sure that the innovation that we do today won’t mess up our lives tomorrow. Technology must enhance the human being, it must not replace him, except in cases where humanity is not needed. So, everything can be revisited by giving it a purpose.
In my opinion in this sense the hymn to “meaningful entrepreneurship” is the poem “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life” written by Dawna Markova.
Q: You worked in Silicon Valley in 2009-2010, and since 2011, you have contributed to the startup ecosystem in Italy. At what point are we with the development of the Italian ecosystem?
Francesco: Covid-19 has wiped out a number of operators which, in my opinion, make lot of noise and are unable to truly contribute to the ecosystem. In Italy we say all smoke and no roast [all talk and no action]. Covid-19 has removed the smoke, and only the roast remains, so it will be increasingly clear who is a “smoke seller” and who is a “rainmaker”.
For me there are many smoke sellers (you can identify them from their track record) and a few rainmakers, those who make the numbers speak.
The fundamentals of the Italian ecosystem are still very fragile, the “start-up in Italy and scale-up abroad” model is valid and I am absolutely convinced that the dual company models work (R&D in Italy and HQ abroad).
Because there are many Italians who go abroad to create unicorns, we only have zebras left [businesses that approach issues from a social impact lens and are focused on generating revenue]. And in my stable I choose to breed only purebred horses and zebras. I don’t believe in unicorns, I think it’s a Silicon Valley doped model, and I’ve always been fascinated by the social impact of what a person does.
Moreover, I strongly believe in the words “ecosystem” and “rainforest”. And I strongly believe in the concept of giving-back.
That’s why I want to stay in Italy, with the mission to “change our nation in one generation, with entrepreneurship and innovation”. I believe that only through entrepreneurship and innovation you can change a structure of a nation, with a new generation of entrepreneurs and citizens that cares about “meaning”.
There is also entrepreneurial and investment culture to create and information to disseminate. To date, there are too few former successful entrepreneurs who are now investors in Italy. We need a new entrepreneurial intergenerational pact.
Q: What advice would you give to a future startupper?
Francesco: First of all, understand why you want to be an entrepreneur.
Then, have the right skills and competences. I always say “knowing, knowing how to do, knowing how to be”. “Knowing” means technical skills, “knowing how to do” means operational skills, and “knowing how to be” means emotional intelligence skills that life also teaches you.
Moreover, get the right information. With this aim, we have created guidastartup.it, an open mode crowdsourcing map of all the players of the Italian startup ecosystem.
I think that the attitude towards the future can be of three types: you can suffer the future, then you are a user; you can manage the future, so you are a manager; or you can create the future, in this case you are an entrepreneur. You just have to understand what your attitude towards the future is.
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For more info on Rainmakers, visit: https://www.rainmakers.it/
For more info on COP, visit: https://www.chiodiapaga.it/