Whatagraph CEO Justas Malinauskas – on what matters the most when starting a business, and on what goes on behind the scenes of attracting investment


“I know that some people may not like the way I think, but then again, I don’t feel responsible for pleasing everyone. And that’s why we build startups – because we’re not obliged to please others,” says Justas Malinauskas of Whatagraph, a marketing data analytics platform that he co-founded and has been developing for the past 10 years with his team.


In the center of the picture – Justas Malinauskas, CEO & Co-Founder of Whatagraph


Early this year, Whatagraph announced an expansion of operations, becoming a marketing data analytics platform – a change dictated by client expectations and changes in the business environment. According to Justas Malinauskas, if he had to choose a single word to describe the type of year ahead of tech companies, it would be “brave”, but with a crucial touch of self-confidence.


“Recipes don’t exist, so people should stop looking. Everyone wants to be rich like Elon Musk, attractive like Richard Gere, athletic like Kobe Bryant, etc., but you can’t just pick and choose. Consequences are the price of your choices. Do you want this life or not? If not – become yourself. Build your own recipe, your own life, and stop being a copycat. Do read and listen – a lot, but also follow your uniqueness, whatever it may be, as that is exactly what startups need,” he said, explaining his views of personal and business growth.


The story of Whatagraph began way back in 2014, when Justas was leading a digital marketing agency. Since his team had to provide clients with numerous reports, he came up with the idea to visualise and digitise them by linking up several different channels. Although Whatagraph is a Dutch company with an office in Lithuania, it was founded in Klaipėda by Justas and his brothers, who went on to transform it into a global business with a team of 60+ employees.


How is Whatagraph doing today? What business- and team-related changes is the conversion into a data analytics platform dictating? What are your goals?

I’d call it a period of change. In the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business, companies undergoing transformation must take certain steps. These are usually tied to revenue size, and the changes themselves are primarily organisational, with focus shifting from growth to building a business: selecting the right clients and deciding on which of them we don’t want to work with. Selling to a bad client brings a host of problems: misleading feedback and pointing out the wrong things to be improved. Given how easy it is to get lost in all of this, it’s crucial to pick the right team and clients, and move forward. We’re now at the stage where external money is no longer necessary to keep going. We’ve also expanded our product, shifting its direction away from a niche tool for marketing agencies to work on data – shortening the path from data to person, and making it so that this data enables decision-making.


Since you brought up the “period of change” – what knowledge about transformation do young entrepreneurs and startup employees often lack?
In the initial stages of building a startup, what’s needed is hustle, yet over time this hustle must become structured and disciplined, and people must assume ownership of their areas of responsibility. I often hear the narrative that talents are today attracted to startups because they want freedom, but they should understand that it comes with responsibility – startups aren’t just a new form of bohemianism.

A manager that I spoke about this in the past had aptly described himself as “borderline” – the buck stops with him, as there’s no one else behind. Meaning, that if a matter had found its way into his hands, he’s not going to pass it along to anyone else. This may not be specified in your role description, but you will often have to solve problems on your own. Some people love it, some are irritated by it. Another example – should you reply to emails after 6 PM? We encourage people not to do it, yet there are situations where team members or clients work in different time zones.


When starting Whatagraph, you were barely 20. What drove you into business? Have you always wanted to become an entrepreneur, a startup founder?

People start businesses to be free to do things. I, however, think that freedom is the opposite. We already have the freedom to do things – but not always the freedom to refrain from doing some of them. I remember exactly when I started to see this idea as key – it was in July last year. I’m a fan of the entrepreneur Naval Ravikant, whose book The Almanack Of Naval Ravikant: A Guide to Wealth and Happiness I recommend everyone to read. It was when listening to him that I realised that not doing is key, because it allows you to become intentional – in business as in life.

That being said, I personally didn’t go into business searching for freedom. I just wanted to do something. I started working in high school, for which I had to get permission from the principal. I took pictures of products for an e-shop, which both looked and functioned quite poorly. Then I met a guy who knew coding, and we came up with the idea of doing an overhaul of the website. We then “sold” it for a sum that seemed unfathomable – 25 times more than my monthly wage at the time. We realised that we should keep going – I was 15-16, and revenue was growing continuously. I remember vividly when we got arguably the best office available in Šiauliai in 2007 – it was in a brand new office building, where the 4 of us worked in a 300 m2 space. To be honest, though, we partied there more than we actually worked. We had money, few large expenses, and seemingly, no real problems to speak of. But then the crisis hit, and we had to shut it all down. I left what remained there to my partner, telling him it was the end of an era.


What happened next? What did building a startup look like 9 years ago?

I finished school and moved to Klaipėda for seaport engineering studies – the only subject I could get into free of charge. It didn’t last very long and I never graduated. Meanwhile, I was also doing odd jobs, e.g., mowing grass in the city and working at a videographer’s studio for 9 months. It was actually a good education, allowing me to test hundreds of sales methods. My brother was an economist and, eventually, I caught up to him by also getting a degree in the same field. Simultaneously, I was building a digital marketing agency with some partners.

I had the idea for Whatagraph around 2014, but left it in the drawer for over a year. If you don’t recall, here’s the context – there was a lack of resources and knowledge: we only had a few funds, and investors basically had to mortgage their moms’ homes to invest in your business, demanding close to 50% shares in return, and accelerators were only incipient. Now there are tons of books, podcasts, everyone’s sharing, while back then it took me a year to realise that we were doing SaaS. Our expectation was to create a product relevant beyond Lithuania – a global business. Put simply, I wanted to reach a level where I’d be travelling abroad for business, rather than living in Lithuania on a margin. That’s what drove us forward.

Whatagraph, I’d say, is a second-gen Lithuanian startup, the first-gen being the now-defunct Hello Hungry and the well-known Vinted, TransferGo, and Trafi. I think of that time as the Wild West. Since our team was just students, none of us knew what to do. So we’d just meet on the principle – the more heads, the more ideas. Through some acquaintances – one of whom was Henrikas Urbonas, the current head of Interactio – we learned about accelerators, which offered, among other things, mentorship services. That sounded great! We applied and, out of 10,000 candidates, made it into the TOP 10 Most Promising. We left for the Netherlands. While there, I fell in love with the SaaS business model completely, as well as met an investor and mentor extraordinaire, with whom I remain in contact to this day.


Looking at it now, what advice would you give to new startup founders – what is the most important at the beginning? What deserves the most attention?

Here’s a piece of advice I benefited from myself – whatever you’ve decided to do, give it at least 2 years. Regardless of how it goes early on, commit to continue doing it for at least that long. I see that people now tend to give up at the first sign of trouble because, apparently, everything is supposed to be easy. I love what I do, but it’s not easy – all stages of building a business are hard, and only get harder over time. On the other hand, since 2019, for instance, we’ve also grown tenfold.

Secondly, many say you should look for advice from everyone. I’d add, though – but don’t listen to everyone. When you’re speaking with, say, a great entrepreneur, you’re hearing his story within a given context – a good mentor won’t tell you what you’re supposed to do and how, but he can help you to see your situation differently. A mentor is a source of information, but don’t rely exclusively on him – you must gather as much information as possible and apply it to yourself, because you’ll be the one deciding.

Thirdly, Lithuanian startups have shown how to build a startup without investment, which is just an instrument after all. If your business is groundless, it’ll fail regardless of how much money you have. Besides, raising funds gets progressively harder: at first, your business idea may suffice on its own; then you’ll also need a good team; then – also numbers; and finally, numbers are all that matters. No one’s interested in who’s working for you and what you’re doing anymore. Lithuanians are successful because we know how to work hard – lacking investment, we learned how to do without it, having only two options – work under these conditions or do nothing.


Which areas are the most promising for new startups today?

I don’t think chasing trends is an effective strategy – as soon as you notice one, you’re already too late. By the time you’ve built a product, people will have likely moved on. Another extreme – if all you’ve known thus far is finance, it doesn’t mean you’re only good at building financial systems. To reiterate – you must do what actually interests you.

Think about what you’d like to be doing for the next 10 years – something that might hold your interest that long. If you want to make lots of money, you can do that in countless other ways – no need to build a business. And if you just focus on money – money is all you’ll ever get, which is the saddest result possible. It’s always best to work for someone else because, if things go south, you can always just switch companies, and next month you’ll get paid again. The allure of business, though, is that you’re free not to do what you dislike, and to focus on making a real impact.


Late last year, you spoke publicly about uncertainty in the market, and about how long it now takes to make decisions. Being close to business yourself, how do you see the situation today? What awaits us in 2024?

It may be that we don’t even realise yet how good life in Lithuania currently is. Not geopolitically, but in terms of the country’s overall level. Just think about it – did we see ourselves as equals in Paris, say, 5 years ago? Surely not. We’d only travel to countries where it’s possible to get by speaking Russian. Now we are Westerners. We build companies, speak on stage in the U.S., and people listen. Foreigners come to work here, we open offices abroad. We’re doing great! And yet, we often still belittle ourselves or react strongly when someone else does. Once you’ve established a certain degree of coherence, and come to understand your own value, however, eventually you stop caring about what others think of you.

Speaking of building companies, by the way, if it was easy – everyone would be doing it. On the other hand, things being hard actually makes them, in a sense, easier. Mere noise makers get sifted out. In metaphorical terms, when the sea is stormy, it is, simultaneously, calmer – there are fewer ships. Hard times are great for building something of your own. Too difficult? Don’t do it. Not everyone has to. When you can’t find work anywhere, you go into business and, sometimes, make those waves yourself.


What’s your advice to Lithuania? What’s necessary for us to have more startups and unicorns? For Lithuania to become the best place in the world for unicorns?

Lithuania doesn’t simply need more unicorns – a unicorn is just a milestone. If, for some, €200,000 is life-changing, others may find even €200M insufficient. Lithuania just needs time now. Discussions about state support are ongoing, but this, in my view, often creates a great deal of artificiality. My advice would be to seek stability, not relentless change. Then again, we do live quite stably in Lithuania, there isn’t too much change going on: taxes neither significantly rose, nor decreased. In the end, everything depends on people – smart people build amazing businesses even in developing countries.


Let me rephrase the question, then – how could we have more of these smart people, who build startups and generate high added value, in Lithuania?

By making it show more often that we’re not a closed circle of insiders – as it might’ve been the case with other traditional businesses, which you’d only enter with bloodied knuckles. New-generation startups prove that you can work honestly, creating valuable products and fostering a good work culture.

In my view, the basis of a significant part of traditional businesses is the margin of salaries. That’s how startups differ from traditional businesses – our basis is the margin of intelligence. Rather than want to do things on the cheap, we want to do them well and at great expense, and then sell them at an even higher cost to as big a global customer base as possible, without compromising on people’s well-being. It makes me sad to see CEOs driving luxury cars, while their employees make barely more than the national minimum wage. I like to meet people who, like me, are enjoying life. Not just the Sun King. That’s how we should educate people: by empowering people and allowing them to earn, you can generate tons of added value, rather than by buying cheap and selling dear, which is what you do when you’re 14.


This interview was prepared by Vilnius TechFusion partner Unicorns.lt. Find the full story in Lithuanian here: Startuolio „Whatagraph“ vadovas J. Malinauskas – apie tai, kas verslo pradžioje svarbiausia ir kaip atrodo investicijų pritraukimo užkulisiai | Unicorns Lithuania