Was it all worth it? – 1 year 1 Quarter into the journey
This quarter’s overview reflects on a life less ordinary and the wondering if the last year had to be as it was. No regrets, not ever but the question is should we and could we have done it differently? Was there secret sauce we missed out on? Why did we feel compelled to take the path we did and what might have happened had we looked to another direction to move forward.
I ask the question, what was the right way, so as to look at what we might be more effective in the future rather than looking back over the past.
Lesson one: A jack of all trades is an expert at none
First in my mind is that over the last year and a quarter I have dabbled learning often just enough to get by in each of the roles I have played at The Change. As a two person army, Gavan and I have until now largely taken on all the core roles at The Change, bringing in advice but at the same time making it up as we go along. Gavan took on the role of front man. He was better for that job, he got us in front of investors and acted as a gateway to many of our investees. We worked together on positioning and brand and I took on pretty much everything else. There’s no point pretending it was easy, I was like a rabbit in the headlights for some time and I didn’t do my role to the standards I would expect of myself. Funnily enough when Gavan and I talk about these times now, he informs me that he thought I was the one who knew what he was doing. If only he’d known at the time how far from the truth that was!
I had to post this video link remembering that amazing UNKLE Track involving Thom Yorke of Radio Head Rabbit in headlights
I became endlessly busy with little focus on time management, and maximum focus on doing as much as I could for each of our would be investees. I did too much and I let them down collectively in delivery as a result.
The second point was I was learning a whole new industry. Venture Capital is not like other businesses, in fund one I have been told it’s all about finding out who you are, what you are there to do and how you are going to do it.
We began perhaps foolishly by reinventing the wheel multiple times. Citing books, articles and Accademia I set off to create a better world, all on my first day! My first rodeo as they often say. I tried hard but the muscles of a would be venture mind hadn’t yet developed and hence a lot of what I considered critical turned out to be academic.
Were the countless books I read on valuations, on how to run a venture fund and how to understand my role as a venture capitalist wrong? For anyone interested I particularly recommend The Valuation of Businesses and Shares: A Practioner’s Perspective, Des Peelo and Venture Capital Valuation: Case Studies and Methodology by Lorenzo Carver both are not the most recent of books but they complimented my more outlandish style based often on data perfectly. I don’t want to name or shame but one thing I did learn along my journey in the literature was that there was limited literature on valuations based on strategic or data acquisitions. I found only one BUT I would not necessarily recommend it as it provided little in the way of hard evidence.
It’s hard to go wrong on business with the Harvard Business Review BUT it gave little away on the peculiar world of Venture Capital.
My answer on was it worth it? Perhaps… It got me ready for what I am doing now, it prepared me to work with those more experienced in the field and on occasion it brought me insight that perhaps their more experienced, slightly jaded and less hungry minds lacked. I don’t think my passion for what we are doing would have built in the same way had I not. I threw myself in at the deep end and immersed myself in every aspect of the world. Now at least I have a little bit of knowledge on a lot of things. I am a generalist and will I hope together with Gavan will be able to bring in the right specialists who are far better than me in their respective fields.
Lesson two: “Venture is as venture does”
Venture is not a new industry and yet it’s an industry that to me struggles to define itself. Is it a professionalised approach to the deployment of capital in reasonably early stage companies? Yes, or should I say “normally.”
I have seen two focuses for Venture and these are merged with pseudo funds, syndicates, VCTs, Angels and what I would see as private equity.
It was only when we started to raise serious funds that I realised the details of how venture worked were of critical importance to how our investors could begin to trust us.
We started off with a particular plan to spend money on x8 “world changing” start-ups which would through assistance succeed or fail, the goal being one would go through to the billion valuation. We believed this might happen per year and as a result we could hit our £10bn goal.
How naive that plan now sounds? Capital is capital, time is time. We sounded like a high potential foundry of ideas an accelerator which would no doubt have struggled through to get some money from local investors keen to support the ecosystem here as we are, but was never going to tickle the fancy of more serious and experienced backers.
What made us think that the goal was possible in that way? I honestly have no clue!
It’s here I talk about the Christmas tree of a founder’s journey. We knew what we wanted to do and the people it would take to get there we just hadn’t organised the decorations in the right way.
To add we are of course at the start of the journey, “the base of the tree,” and we have to ascend many a branch to reach the pinnacle.
The end point we know and have experienced in our imaginations. In some cases we have already engaged the key issues and people but we must overcome the thick obscurity of the trees branches, at times we will get lost out on a limb and have to return to point, but that journey will no doubt fill in our experience in what is a new field.
Lesson Three: “From the wrong mould”
I have had to ask myself countless times why is a man whose core philosophy is one of abstinence from money, a man with a desire to prove to the world that it’s the human spirit and not capital that matters entering the venture industry?
What makes a software developer, founder of a multi-national charity, founder of a social enterprise, a number of SMEs that didn’t reach more than 100 people, believe I was the right person for this journey. I’m someone who has been involved in IP development, including Innovation on some very cool projects which has taken the ideas I have been involved in past the £1bn in revenue, why didn’t I just settle there? I even had a bad experience due to the receipt of capital from the wrong venture firm in the past so why didn’t I get back on that horse rather than starting into a new industry? Why I am the right guy now?!
The answer is now different than it was at the start. At the start I felt as a founder I had that kindred spirit that was needed to bring success to my fellow founders. I hoped to bridge the gap and help my fellow founders.
Now I realise I had a journey to go on, that I couldn’t sit on the sideline forever and that after these many years as a champion of the anti-establishment I had to join it to make the difference I now intend.
Money in the wrong hands is perhaps the worst thing of all and although power corrupts absolutely I have a strong belief I can hold my nerve in the face of wealth so as to focus on the things that matter. Those things that are set to change the world for the better.
To the outside I may be from the wrong mould, I am not from the middle to upper class family background, I took the wrong path and ended up in Madagascar post school and did an Open degree before an MBA, I paved my own way at every step and hence my alternative view, and that alternative perspective I believe will carry me on to help our investees just as I helped my clients on other journeys.
My name #rocketman as given by my co-founder Gavan Wall will have a whole new meaning than it had when he met me working on a satellite project, now I will be focused on taking our investees to the stars to deliver outsized returns to our investors.
So, is being from the wrong mould a barrier? I believe it’s my greatest enabler for me to stand out from the masses of VCs I compete for founders with. My alternative journey will help me attract the very best!
Lesson Four: “It’s all about People, so why leave hiring them until now?”
So, if we believe in people why did it take us so long to start to build a team?
What kept us back from hiring those people we knew we needed for almost a year.
The reasons are many? Fear of committal, other interests, other factors that held us back from total commitment.
Maybe not the expected answer. But it’s still likely the truth. Although it’s still scary to have the responsibility of the mortgages of others on our backs. I do question if we should only have done it sooner, to enable to understand earlier the scale of the future in our plans.
But there’s no point in regrets, we’ve made the leap. We’re fully committed. No turning back!
The fear of the hire is behind us and we’ve been blessed with those who’ve joined our journey. Understanding that emotion is important but one we must conquer when the plan is right.
Lesson Five: “Practice, Practice, Practice”
Something we haven’t got right until now, and something that’s unusual for me as I’ve always done this religiously in the past. And I don’t know why I didn’t pick it up before but Gavan and I have never practised pitches together.
We only presented when it mattered, but without practice. The truth is that we can almost read eachother’s minds and conversationally we fit like hand in glove but that is still no replacement for structure and precise content.
If I had a big take away it would be to practice week on week so that the pitch got stronger and to ask those friends, and partners who had a clue about the plan to listen and comment.
We have realised that now and we’re moving towards effective execution and it feels good!
Lesson Six: “Know your audience”
So we pitched the benefits of SEIS & EIS to investors who had no benefit from EIS or SEIS and also pitched business opportunities that were start-ups to investors who only backed established businesses. What perhaps is even worse is that we also did the opposite too! It’s like something out of the Simpsons. We failed in the past to listen to what our audience wanted and hence we sold them ice, snow, sand, potato chips and lemons all in a single pitch rather than stopping to realise that what they wanted was just lemonade.
It was such an easy mistake, one I certainly made but won’t again.
Lesson Seven: “Transformation is key to some stages of business, each transformation needs executed effectively”
Often we looked for technical transformation and innovation in our investees when at certain stages we should have looked for capitalisation on a working model and identifying the potential for scale. To be an effective venture firm it’s important to know what to look for and what to encourage at what stage of business and it’s critical not to sound like a broken record.
We need to keep up with our investees, in fact we often need to run ahead to steer them away from danger…
Of course we are here to identify the innovation as it happens, no one wants to ignore free money when it’s offered.
Transformation is a business long and in fact a life long process…
Lesson Eight: “Learn to give up”
Giving up is not always the end but it’s an important state of mind. My stubbornness, tenacity and focus on working through any fault in every opportunity is both an asset and a curse and it’s been this quarter I realised that.
In one case it was only by letting go that I was actually given back an opportunity that was otherwise dead. Had we not given up at a particular point, our value in the proposition would have continued to be ignored.
Never be afraid to let what is not for you go by you, even if you are as stubborn as a mule, LIKE ME!
Lesson Nine: “When an opportunity lands grab it with both hands”
Back in the beginning we missed some great businesses for a wide variety of reasons, and equally we have had a few lucky escapes. Our skills are now more honed, we take only the pitches that matter and now have a process which we use to select the right investees through utilising our Team.
Once you find the one that matters well it’s time to grab it with both hands and I hope we do that every time going forward.
When you find the one no matter how big, powerful or wealthy you are you must drop everything and run with the opportunity.
Everything worth doing requires focus and drive.
It’s time to find that in yourself.
Lesson Ten: “There is strength in diversity”
I reflect on the people I have around me and realise what a formidable group of people we actually are.
From those born in what’s considered the right background who understand what high society wants, to those who have survived genocide and who burn from their own fire our venture firm is diverse socially, culturally, ethnically, religiously and for me most importantly neutrally diverse.
We are a team of epic minds, deep thinkers, and those that steal momentum from the moment. Our leadership is Yin & Yang, Gavan is one extreme & I the other. We are Chalk and Cheese but with common cause, vision and care for the world. Those who follow us are leaders themselves and I have no doubt our team will grow to epic proportions.
Overview “Grow from every lesson, and repeat until expert”
Given this review was an introspective one I leave with one set of thoughts. Keep learning, keep growing for even if you don’t realise all the successes you seek, and you taste failure along the way, you will none the less be stronger for the experience.
Venture capital is not a linear journey. Just like other firms we will rise and have fallen, but I’m happy we are starting from a good place now and I’m proud to lead a global and diverse team of equals!