Between Continents and Ventures: Mariano Kostelec on Innovation, Adaptation, and Reshaping Realities

Between Continents and Ventures: Mariano Kostelec on Innovation, Adaptation, and Reshaping Realities

From Uniplaces to StudentFinance

Mariano Kostelec is a name that resonates with innovation, adaptability, and a deep-rooted passion for reshaping industries. An international serial entrepreneur, Mariano has dexterously crafted a rich tapestry of successes. From co-founding Uniplaces, one of Europe's largest mid-term rental platform, to his present venture, StudentFinance - a pioneering career mobility platform, he aims to reskill the global workforce in preparation for the challenges of the digital and green transitions. Prior to his ventures, Mariano honed his skills at Goldman Sachs and played an instrumental role in Groupon's international expansion in Asia.

In the following interview with FFWD, Mariano delves deep into his eclectic journey, drawing from his experiences of living in 10 different countries, each influencing his entrepreneurial mindset in unique ways. He discusses the challenges of transitioning from the structured world of investment banking to the dynamic realm of startups, and shares his vision for the next evolution of rental platforms, envisaging a world where technology intertwines with our daily lives. As he sheds light on the inception of StudentFinance and its mission to bridge the talent demand-supply gap, Mariano also offers valuable insights on the future of edtech and fintech synergies. Take a look below. 

Mariano, having lived in 10 countries, how have these diverse experiences influenced your approach to entrepreneurship?

Having lived in 10 different countries, my view on entrepreneurship has been significantly influenced by the diverse experiences and insights each place offered. Every country provided its own distinct lesson. In China, I observed the rapid pace of business growth, which prompted me to consistently question and innovate upon established methods. This experience made me realize that standards of speed or innovation can vary widely from one region to another.

Argentina presented its own set of challenges, especially with its economic conditions like high inflation. It was there that I learned the importance of resilience and adaptability. Observing how businesses navigated these turbulent conditions emphasized the need to persevere through challenges, regardless of their scale.

Above all, living in various countries underscored the importance of adaptability in business. Being able to quickly understand and adjust to different market conditions, local business practices, and consumer behaviors is crucial. This adaptability has prepared me to engage with diverse markets and cultures effectively. Whether I'm working within the tech landscape of London or diving into consumer behavior in Brasil, my diverse experiences have made me ready and adaptable for any business challenge.

What challenges and opportunities did you face while transitioning from investment banking to leading international expansions for startups?

Transitioning from investment banking to spearheading international expansions for startups was both a thrilling and demanding endeavor. In investment banking, the environment is highly structured with clearly defined processes and roles. But when I jumped into the startup world, I found myself in a completely different landscape.

One of the primary challenges was the sheer pace of operations. A startup, especially in its expansion phase, can be incredibly dynamic. Decisions had to be made rapidly, often with limited information. At Groupon, for instance, one moment I was leading a team in Japan, and shortly after, I was in China setting up operations from scratch. Such swift transitions required an ability to think on my feet and be comfortable in the face of ambiguity. Additionally, unlike the predictable structure of the banking world, startups often lack established frameworks or guidelines. This meant I had to be both proactive and creative in my approach. Every month at a fast-growth startup presented challenges and milestones that might span a year in a traditional corporate setting.

On the flip side, this environment offered unparalleled opportunities. The lack of rigid hierarchies allowed for immense professional growth. Instead of climbing a predefined corporate ladder, I found myself carving out my own path, making impactful decisions, and driving significant growth. Another opportunity was the depth of learning. The 'learn-as-you-go' nature of startups can be tough, but it's incredibly enriching. It not only armed me with diverse skills but also instilled a sense of confidence and a can-do attitude. This hands-on experience and the insights I gained from navigating the complexities of the startup ecosystem have been instrumental in shaping my entrepreneurial journey.

With Uniplaces, you aimed to simplify the renting process. Given its success, what do you see as the next evolution of rental platforms?

The evolution of rental platforms, in my perspective, is centered around the concept of "Living-as-a-Service." It's about transcending beyond just providing a roof over one's head to offering a holistic living experience tailored to individual needs. The advent of "smart homes" is just the beginning. Imagine a scenario where homes are not just connected via technology but are intuitive enough to adjust to our daily routines, preferences, and even moods. This will redefine the boundaries of comfort and convenience. With the integration of IoT (Internet of Things) and AI (Artificial Intelligence), we can expect rental homes that automatically adjust lighting based on the time of day, regulate room temperature before you arrive, or even suggest recipes based on the ingredients available in your fridge.

Homes are no longer just places to rest after a long day but are multifunctional spaces – they are offices, gyms, entertainment zones, and more

However, it's not just about the technological facets. The global pivot to remote work has fundamentally altered our relationship with homes. Homes are no longer just places to rest after a long day but are multifunctional spaces – they are offices, gyms, entertainment zones, and more. This has brought to the fore a pressing need for flexibility. Today's renters want the ability to move seamlessly, perhaps from a quiet countryside home one month to a bustling city apartment the next. Rental platforms need to facilitate this desire for fluidity, thereby removing barriers to mobility.

Furthermore, the blending of digital and tangible realms will become even more pronounced. Rental platforms will likely use augmented reality for virtual house tours or deploy AI-driven chatbots to address renter queries in real-time. The renting process, from viewing a property to signing a lease, will become a digital, seamless, and highly personalized experience. In essence, the future of rental platforms is about reshaping the very fabric of our living experiences. It's about intertwining technology with our daily lives, offering unparalleled flexibility, and ensuring that renting is not just transactional but transformational.

Can you elaborate on the inception of StudentFinance? Was there a specific incident or realization that led to its creation?

The inception of StudentFinance was driven by a glaring realization: our world is undergoing rapid transformations. With every technological advancement, job landscapes shift, creating new opportunities but also leaving many behind. It was evident that a significant number of individuals were ill-prepared for this swift evolution. They either lacked the necessary skills or simply didn't have the means to acquire them.

This is not just a localized issue. It's a global conundrum. Companies, from burgeoning startups to established giants, grapple with finding the right talent. Meanwhile, nations recognize that their economic prosperity is inextricably linked to having a workforce that's adeptly trained for the modern world. At StudentFinance, our mission is to address these multifaceted challenges. We observed that financial constraints often barred individuals from quality education. Moreover, the absence of clear data made it arduous for many to chart out a definitive career path. Our goal is to dismantle these barriers, ensuring that financial limitations or lack of direction don't hinder potential.

In the broader scheme, it's about bridging the widening chasm between the demand and supply of talent. The pace at which technology, the economy, and the job market are changing has intensified this gap. We're in a race against time to ensure that individuals are upskilled, and businesses have access to the talent they need. Tackling these challenges isn't just a business venture for me; it's a profound responsibility. I view it as a privilege to address one of society's most pressing issues while steering a dynamic and growth-centric organization. At the heart of it all, StudentFinance is our answer to ensuring everyone can progress, adapt, and thrive in this ever-changing world.

With your recent seed round for StudentFinance, how did you approach potential investors, and what was the narrative that you believe resonated most with them?

Our approach to potential investors for the recent seed round of StudentFinance was a blend of strategic planning, building genuine relationships, and showing a strong track record. From the onset, we painted a clear picture for our investors about the profound challenge the world faces: a vast number of people require new skills to adapt to the future job market. Artificial Intelligence and the green transition are at the forefront of this change, revolutionizing industries and the way we work. Every job is undergoing transformation.

Companies will have to either embrace these shifts, particularly AI, or face significant setbacks. For instance, the green transition alone is ushering in a wave of new job opportunities, but we need to ensure people are trained for these roles.
Yet, within this challenge lies a significant opportunity — an opportunity to help people equip themselves for these imminent changes. And this is where our vision for StudentFinance comes into play.

We have consistently fostered relationships with investors who resonate with our vision. This wasn't just about seeking funds, but about aligning with those who genuinely believe in the cause we're championing. Focusing on impact-driven investors was crucial. They valued our mission, appreciated the market need (considering that, according to the World Economic Forum, a staggering 1 billion people will need reskilling in the upcoming decade), and recognized the importance of upskilling the global workforce. We are both humbled and energized by the trust our investors have placed in us. Till now, we've raised over €45 million. This funding is not just capital for us; it represents the faith of those who back our vision. We're profoundly grateful to all our supporters as we embark on this journey to redefine education and upskilling the global workforce.

What are your thoughts on the future of edtech and fintech synergies, especially given the rapid digital transformation of both sectors?

The synergy between edtech and fintech represents a dynamic frontier, and at its core, it's all about addressing fundamental human needs. Today, the demand for upskilling has skyrocketed. Whether it's driven by the evolving nature of jobs or the ceaseless march of technology, there's an undeniable hunger for knowledge and skills. But alongside this quest for learning, there's a tangible hurdle: the financial aspect of acquiring these skills. This is where the seamless integration of edtech and fintech becomes crucial.

Imagine a world where the moment you decide on a course or training module, an intuitive financial plan or payment option immediately presents itself, tailored to your needs and capabilities. It's not just about accessing learning; it's about ensuring that financial constraints don't deter ambitious minds. This is the kind of user journey we envision – one where learning and financial solutions are two sides of the same coin. Enter AI, a game-changer for both sectors. In edtech, AI is paving the way for unparalleled personalization. Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all learning. With AI, we're moving towards courses and training modules that adjust real-time to an individual's pace, understanding, and preferences. Concurrently, fintech, amplified by AI, is moving beyond generic financial solutions. It's crafting strategies and options uniquely suited to individual aspirations and situations.

The marriage of edtech and fintech is still in its nascent stages; The potential is vast

What's truly exciting is that we're in the midst of a profound shift in learning paradigms. Continuous, lifelong learning is no longer a lofty ideal; it's becoming the norm. People aren't just learning to start a career; they're learning to evolve, adapt, and thrive in dynamic professional landscapes. Yet, with all these advancements, we stand on the threshold of what's possible. The marriage of edtech and fintech, bolstered by digital transformation, is still in its nascent stages. The potential is vast, and the innovations on the horizon promise to redefine how we approach both education and finance in ways we've yet to fully imagine.

Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those looking to make an impact in the fintech or proptech sectors?

To every budding entrepreneur out there, the journey starts with a single step, and the best time to take that step is now. While it might be tempting to wait for the stars to align or for everything to feel 'just right', the reality is, there's no such thing as the 'perfect' moment. Entrepreneurship is a journey of discovery, of iterations, and most importantly, of learning.

Understanding your target market's pressing needs is crucial. While having a grand vision is great, it's essential to pinpoint a specific use case that addresses a tangible problem. It's okay if your initial solution isn't the definitive one. The key is to dive in, gather feedback, and remain agile. Adaptability is an entrepreneur's best asset. Launch with a vision, but be willing to reshape that vision based on real-world learnings and feedback. Now, let's talk about technology. We're in an era where AI is more than just a buzzword—it's a revolutionary tool. Whether you're venturing into fintech, proptech, or any other sector, harnessing the power of AI can be a game-changer. Dive deep into understanding how it can amplify your solutions, streamline processes, and offer unparalleled user experiences.

To wrap it up: Start today. Be specific in addressing a need. Stay flexible. And embrace the tools, especially AI, that the current technological landscape offers. Your journey as an entrepreneur will be filled with challenges, but with determination, adaptability, and a keen understanding of the tools at your disposal, you'll be well-equipped to make a meaningful impact.

What: Student Finance


Who: Mariano Kostelec is an international serial entrepreneur, having built and scaled two companies and raised over €75m in funding. He is now the Founder & CEO of StudentFinance - a career mobility platform, facilitating the reskilling of the global workforce, mainly focusing on the digital and green transitions. Before StudentFinance, Mariano co-founded Uniplaces and built it into the largest mid-term rental platform in Europe, focusing primarily on students and young professionals. Earlier in his career Mariano worked at Goldman Sachs in London and led the international expansion of Groupon in Asia. Mariano was born in Argentina, is originally from Slovenia, and has lived in over 10 countries so far.