Ani Haykuni, founder and CEO of VANN

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Ani Haykuni is founder and CEO of VANN, the world's most positive platform for people affected by cancer and aims to revolutionise cancer research globally.  Ani attended the Oxford University Saïd Business School, as a member of Hertford College (2016-2017), from where she obtained her MBA, after studying environmental sciences and forestry at the State University of New York and international relations at Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Before founding VANN, she worked for international organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund, the United Nations, and international charities. VANN is currently a seed-stage company. 

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?  

I’m a cancer survivor – I’ve lived through cancer twice, for the first time in 2015, and in 2019 after my second diagnosis, I decided to work on this company. I got accepted into the Oxford University Innovation Incubator Programme, which is designed to help Oxford alumnae and Oxford staff and students by commercialising their business ideas. Along with my chemotherapy and other therapies I was on since 2019 and the beginning of 2020, I worked on developing this company. And last year, I gained some funding from Innovate UK, OxLEP and UK investors, and the funding has helped to develop the final working version of the app and to release the product in summer. The company is very much aimed at supporting people affected by cancer – we want to be the number one tool for everyone affect by cancer around the globe. We are here to help whoever has got a cancer diagnosis. At the same time, we want to contribute to cancer research, and increase our knowledge about cancer in general, and the impact of cancer on people’s lives. My experience as a patient has helped me learn about the gaps in cancer care, and I have also learnt that there is a lack of support and motivation for people affected by cancer. Based on the skills and the knowledge of a patient we want to make sure that everyone has the support that they need.  

What does your company do? 
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Our product is a mobile app (the web app will be launched soon) which contains lots of useful content about cancer and cancer treatments, the impact of cancer and cancer treatments on the quality of life of cancer patients and people affected by cancer in general. We have an in-app survey tool through which we encourage people to share their experiences with us, and we plan to share the main findings with our user community and the public. Our app is actually quite a fun tool – it’s very fun, positive, whilst still being informative – in addition to the tools I have mentioned we also have a page called ‘Sea of Tranquillity’, which is an informal therapy tool (not a medical tool as we aren’t providing any professional advice) where we post artwork and beautiful pictures to share some positive vibes. In addition to several tools, we also have the ‘Make a Smile’ tool which has been designed for the general public – regardless of their situations, people can use the tool and dedicate an activity to someone from our community, for instance if I want to go for a walk, go hiking, bake, climb a tree, or plant a flower, I can choose that option in the app, and dedicate that particular activity to one of the users and add a nice message like: “Hey, I’m doing this for you – I hope you recover soon, and I’m dedicating this to you.” It’s a way to share love, and to remind people that we are here for them, which can be very impactful. After the release of our product this summer, we already had traction and very positive feedback from our users. The whole experience has been very educational and has very much consisted of me converting my experience as a patient into something impactful and positive.  

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?  

The past several years have been very exciting, and at the same time very productive. To give you an idea, when I started working on the company I was in treatment – I went for chemo, got my treatments, and then came back from the hospital to work on the start-up in the incubator, then I would go home and take some rest for a few days – it was a non-stop commitment. Cancer can be deadly, depending on the diagnosis and the situation, and very often people find themselves consumed by worries and concerns like: “I have cancer, my life is going to end, this is the end, what am I going to do?” But instead of this, I didn’t even think about these things – I was so focused on this exciting start-up, and I was able to test the idea with potential users, and get feedback from patients in the hospitals and the emergency department, and then from that, when we released the product we already had the traction, and when I look back I see all our progress: we made the prototype, the minimum viable product, the beta testing, so it’s a big success, but we’re still developing and there’s still a lot to be done, but I have always been sure that the brand will be successful. That being said, I think the times when I’ve seen the feedback from other people have also been very rewarding – it’s what people think about what you offer that’s really important.  

Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur? 

I’ve always been entrepreneurial. Very often, when my story is publicised, it seems that everything started with my diagnosis, but I have in fact always been very ambitious and very entrepreneurial, from a young age. I have a lot of accomplishments, and my knowledge and experience helped me achieve what I have in addition to my experience as a patient, but I always knew from a young age that I wanted to solve problems, I wanted to do something unique to make my impact, I wanted to do something meaningful. That’s what brought me here, and what has brought me on my journey to this point.  

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?  

I think it’s important to emphasise the huge responsibility which comes with building a company – it can be fun, it can be very interesting, but at the same time it comes with a lot of burdens which I, as an entrepreneur and as a founder, need to take care of. The thing which is probably most exciting for me is the creation aspect, where you have the freedom to develop an idea into a product, which eventually becomes the company. In a lot of cases that freedom will depend on a few factors, but this is still probably the most exciting part of entrepreneurship for me.  

What is your definition of entrepreneurship? 

I would say that it’s a creative process, something like art – it’s a very creative process for me to develop a solution to a problem that I have identified. There has to be a lot of creativity and thinking involved, but above all a deep understanding of what needs to be done – you can’t just be an entrepreneur without knowing what you’re doing!  

What individual, company or organisation inspires you most? 

I would avoid mentioning any particular company, but I admire when people have achieved a lot, the effort they have put in in order to achieve it, and the impact that these people and organisations can have, but I like to create my own story. You can definitely learn a lot from big, successful companies about how they work, but I’m personally one of those people who likes to create their own stories, rather than just admiring other companies. My end goal is to make VANN as successful as possible, but in our way.  

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?  

Fortunately, we haven’t had a failure yet! But one of the lessons that I’ve learned is that you need to find the right people to get advice from or work with – you need to be sure that you can trust these people and it is very important to put the right people in a position to give you advice and give you support. Also, it’s important to try to be the inspiration that you want to see in the future and believe in yourself – when people see that you believe in yourself, lots of things will start to change.  

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur?  If so, how have you overcome them? 

I don’t believe that I myself have experienced challenges because of my gender – maybe some people that I’ve met have, but I’ve never thought that something has happened to me simply because I’m female. But I appreciate that this could be an issue for a lot of entrepreneurs. 

What resources would you recommend/advice would you offer to other women who want to be entrepreneurs? 

No one, regardless of the type of discrimination, should be put off if they really want to achieve something, if they really believe in what they do. They should just go for it. It can be challenging sometimes, and there might seem to be a lot of reasons for giving up, regardless of that, my first piece of advice would be to just go for what you believe in. Secondly, find one person/people who will help you and who you can rely on to overcome challenges, even if it’s just that one person who supports you. Also, approach organisations in Oxford – there are many organisations specially linked to the University, which can advise you on entrepreneurship and give you professional advice. Again, sometimes it’s just a matter of finding that one person who will believe in you, and fight for what you really believe in. You’re going to meet so many people who have different values, who come from different backgrounds and cultures, and see you differently, but the most important thing is how you see yourself.  

How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs? 

In terms of the people I work with – not just in Oxford, but lots of people from different places – it seems there could be more programmes which focus on entrepreneurship. Perhaps they could develop better programs or tools to bring the funding options closer to female entrepreneurs. It would be useful to facilitate more connections with female mentors too.  

How have you funded your ideas?  

Since the company was incubated by Oxford University Innovation, we have received some financial support from Santander UK as part of the incubator programme, and there is also a local organisation called OxLEP, from which we received European Regional Development funding, as well as Innovate UK and angel investments. The rest, I funded myself.  

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?  

The first funding we received was from the Oxford University Incubator Programme, for which you need to show your company’s progress in order to earn funding and from OxLEP. Then, we got funding from Innovate UK, which is quite competitive.  

I have personally been nominated and shortlisted for a few awards too. 

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad? 

There are a lot of positives to being based in Oxfordshire: there are a lot of events, a lot of companies, and it’s an entrepreneurship hub – a good place to connect with other people who are in this sector. I think that there needs to be more emphasis on the commercialisation of ideas, though, since you might have a good idea, but you need to know how you’re going to commercialise it. A lot of people find that, when they want to start companies, they aren’t able to take it from the idea phase into developing something solid.  

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? 

I would certainly send them to Oxford University Innovation. There is also an entrepreneurship centre inside the Saïd Business School, who would be able to help with resources as well. The Oxford Entrepreneurs Network is also very valuable. It’s about talking to people, getting the support you need, and a lot of work needs to be done on an idea before you take it to the next step. You should learn from other people’s experiences, to learn what was successful and what you need to avoid. You need to be able to learn fast!  

As an entrepreneur you don’t really have a lot of time just to focus on reading, so reading should be complementary to your work, for example if you need some information on something whilst working, you could read a practical book which you can learn something from quickly. That’s how I did it – at the moment I don’t really have a lot of time to read books in general, but one of the books I read is called Founder to Founder,  a book written by an entrepreneur and investor – it’s quite a practical book, and that’s what I found quite helpful and interesting. The advice given in that book is from people who have done it before, it’s not skills or concepts.  

I do read a lot of articles in the news to stay up to date with technological developments in general, and in healthcare, so it’s very important to be a very fast learner and to stay informed. And in terms of podcasts, there is a Healthtech podcast, which I actually spoke on, and is aired here in the UK, and a few other podcasts – it’s very useful to learn from your peers and compare your experiences with theirs. The book I read made me reflect on my own thoughts and ideas which I’d had, and I found a lot of similarities with the experiences of other people.  

Entrepreneurs need to be very careful – when they compare, they need to be careful about what exactly they are comparing. If you are a small company, and you look at a bigger company, thinking, “This is what this company has achieved, so why am I not achieving this?” – you don’t know how much work it has taken to get to this stage, how much money and how many resources they have put in. When you compare, it is useful to learn what advice they have, how they felt and what they experienced during their personal journeys, how they approached their market, what phases their business has been through, or fundraising strategies. But you should never directly compare successes – the stories will always be different.  

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?  

Flexibility: You need to be able to pivot or adjust your strategy and keep developing your ideas.  

Resilience: The path to become an entrepreneur isn’t easy, it’s very challenging, and that can affect an entrepreneur’s mental health because of the amount of responsibility they’re faced with. When things go wrong, you need to stay focused and just do your best to keep improving and keep learning. 

Patience: It can take 8-9 years to build a good company, so you need to keep persevering during this time to address all your company’s needs and build a good foundation to your business. 

Any last words of advice?  

When you start a company, you should keep in mind the amount of responsibility that you’re going to have. Some people think that it’s just going to be a lot of fun – going to events, speaking to people, and having a great life – but there is a lot of work behind it which you, as an entrepreneur, need to be ready for. You need to do a lot of work internally to prepare, and you need to work through a lot of things before – you might have fears and doubts and concerns which you need to address. A lot of things depend on the personality and characteristics of the entrepreneur. You should always keep believing in and prioritise what is important to you. Stick with your values. Sometimes it can be very easy to forget these values, especially in the business sphere. Stay the person that you are, just keep improving. Never give up. If you are looking for a secure job, financially and professionally, then entrepreneurship may not be the right choice for you – there are a lot of sacrifices that you’re going to have to make. Find the right people who you can trust and talk to.