The secret sauce of a startup’s success
3 June 2019
What do you look for as an angel investor before investing?
Like many angels, I consider our capital genuinely ‘patient’. I would like for companies who can become innovators and market leaders in multi-hundred million markets. The pitch needs to clearly express the customer need; value proposition; differentiators; and the realistic plan of progression towards significant market share. The Management team is key in terms of making it happen and I would place as much emphasis on the experience, attitude and commitment of the Management. As we often say, “A class execution against B class plan always excels over B class execution with an A class plan”. I am lucky that I co-invest with Dr Steve Garnett who had a golden executive career at the fastest growing companies over 30 years – including leading Salesforce.com internationally as Chairman. Given we bring more than capital, it is important to have CEOs and execs who take coaching. The final piece of the puzzle is companies that want to give back and make a difference. Steve and I are attracted to a model of compassionate capitalism where companies provide volunteering days for employees, grants for charities and a spirit of supporting their communities. As a by-product, most talented millennials and Gen Z will be looking to work for companies with a soul so embedding ‘Giving Back’ into the DNA of the companies is a powerful recruitment tool. So the best companies:
Solve a compelling problem for customers;
Protected with Intellectual Property;
Competitive with defensible market position;
Business model and revenue – clear path to monetisation;
Scalability – business model for explosive growth;
Proven model – validation by tested out with potential customers;
Market – significant market size with plan for realistic leading market share;
Tax relief opportunity – EIS/SEIS eligible with advanced clearance.
What drives the most successful start-ups?
Leadership starts with the compelling vision clearly articulated from the CEO. Great leaders inspire and hire the best talent who share consistent values and culture – a culture of innovation. The CEO is the champion insurgent for customers to create a vibrant culture for success and innovation. Success must be inclusive as the CEO aligns plans to recruit a volunteer army of customers, partners and investors. The most successful start-ups are obsessed about exceeding customer expectations and making sure customers become raving fans. Relentless execution of the plans creates month on month progression. The secret of success therefore are leadership; customer obsession; flawless execution of plans for growth.
You’re the flag bearer of the UK’s SMEs – what’s stopping them to be FTSE 100 companies?
Yup – I have championed UK growth companies, and I am delighted to see so many fantastic innovative UK start-ups and scale-ups. Many of the scale-ups punch bigger than their weight on the global stage. I have been so fortunate to have served as CEO the only two FTSE100 Tech companies, Sage and Micro Focus. When I worked in the USA, I saw first-hand the ambition of US companies and the self-confidence to become market leaders globally. Sadly, I think in the UK, we obsess too much and too early about the ‘exit’. This becomes a distraction from executing growth plans and fills the Board with lack the ambition and self-belief. No great companies get sold. Only great companies get bought. So to obsess about ‘the sale’ sucks oxygen of growth from the team. The only positive from the multiple UK exits has been the growing number of serial Entrepreneurs who want to hunker down and put the band back together to do it all over again. I would commend teams out in the UK to dream of being the next Google, Uber, Airbnb and put all their energies into the flawless execution to make it happen.
How do you avoid funding unsuccessful start-ups?
As an angel, you seek to mitigate the risks. So, best advice is to do your diligence and spend time with the management team. Also, as an angel, you can help with mentoring the CEO, gain access to potential customers/employee recruits and your network of contacts. There are ‘tried and tested’ playbooks for the Management team to deploy. The tough part is when the CEO is doing everything possible for success yet results fail to follow. Then, as an angel, you have to realise the CEO role is lonely where you can create a safe environment of support and coaching. There is no magic in avoiding unsuccessful start-ups and the wise angels know when companies will not survive and to draw the line. My relationship with Steve Garnett is engaging, positive and makes investing a lot of fun. We also challenge each other when reviewing companies. I would advise any angel to get other investors that they respect to take a look at candidate companies and potentially co-invest. A good rule for companies to avoid failure is ‘Make money before you raise money’ whereby the early risks are mitigated with customers using the product or service as part of the early adopter program.
How long have you been investing and what have you learned?
I and Steve Garnett first started investing in early stage companies around 15 years ago and have enjoyed a number of successful exits. We learned that the CEO and leadership team are critical to growth and success. Hiring exceptional talent and building vibrant culture. As an angel, I check in periodically with the CEO. When the CEO has done what they said, it builds confidence. I would rarely consider investing in pre-revenue companies. This is partly related to risk but more that CEO should engage customers right from the onset of the company start. Build the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) with customers and therefore, there will be customers and some revenues.
Can angel investors be a liability rather than an asset to start-ups?
If the angels have experience, contacts, wise advice, then it is a strong marriage. The only further advice is to limit the number of angels and set a minimum investment level of £25-50k.
How much or little can you invest to make a difference?
We like companies with a culture of treating the company money as if it is their own and only invest in hiring fantastic people in product and sales & marketing. This culture of ‘Bootstrapping’ means that the funding stream is more of a drip-feed where angels ‘follow-on’. The advantage of this approach is that Management team can focus on running the business and not pitching the company to potential investors. There are also clear checkpoints where Management prove the growth model. Typical angel investments would be £50k but could be up to £250k. Also, there are likely to follow-on round as the companies grow through the ‘valley of death’ of £1m to £10m revenues.
How risky is it?
There is always risk. Most study’s results show that, on average, exits generated 2-3 times the invested capital in 3-4 years from investment to exit. The angel investors achieved an average 25-30% internal rate of return on their investments. Most experienced angel investors will expect no less than 30-40% annual returns. The CEO will be seeking to manage the risk using the playbooks. Initially, for example, the CEO will create a short-term end-result plan and personally lead the execution with the first priority of attracting customers for the MVP and thereby revenue streams plus invaluable product feedback. This will be a strong platforms for execution and growth
How different are today’s start-ups from the past?
It is like ‘night and day’ in terms of the Buzz around UK start-ups especially in cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham. There is now a strong and vibrant community of angels, advisors, and ancillary support for CEOs and growth companies. Twenty years ago, no one but the craziest would leave safe and secure job to lead start-up. Anecdotally, I was in Hoxton recently mentoring women CEOs. The buzz, energy, confidence was palpable which is unimaginable even a decade ago.
Should you only invest in what you know?
As angel, we prefer to invest in what we know. Steve Garnett and I mostly focus on high growth and technology powered solutions and seek to apply the playbooks.
What is the secret sauce of a start-up’s success?
Compelling vision; customer obsession; inspiring leadership; vibrant culture; flawless execution of plans. Good luck supporting the adventures of high growth companies.