Technology

Three is definitely a charm – my early stage angel investments

Today’s blog is a sister piece to last month’s “Angel Investment from this Rookie’s Perspective”. Last time around I wrote about what I was looking for in early stage startup companies when I was deciding which ones to angel invest in. This time I’m going to talk about what I liked most of all about the three startups I ended up selecting and investing in.

Before I begin, let’s recap on what my motivations are for angel investing in the first place. All angels will no doubt have different motivations. I am excited by the idea of putting something back in terms of helping some new early stage startups get moving. I wanted to use some of what I’ve learned starting and scaling my own businesses in the past to help a small number of other people get through their early growth stages less painfully than it was for me. After some thought in summer 2014 following my successful exit from Learning Pool, I reached the conclusion that I didn’t want to start another new business of my own and I knew I definitely didn’t want to work for someone else as a bog standard gun for hire (much as I enjoyed my 4 month sojourn in 2014 working with the vInspired Task Squad team – they’re doing really well – check them out) but I did want to carry on working.

This made the quest easier for me as I then knew that I was looking for companies where I could add value with some hands-on involvement and I also knew then that it was important for me to pay more attention to the founder/founding team as I was going to be working with them for the medium term. Let’s face it, in a startup the team or founder is far more important than the idea – ideas are ten a penny and most startups do pivot or at least swivel a little.

One surprising thing – I haven’t invested as part of any formal angel syndicate or group. I really thought I would but it hasn’t happened that way. That topic alone is probably worthy of another blog.

So what and who did I choose? All three startups are cloud based online platforms (a no brainer for me now that I come to think about it!), two of the three founders are female (this makes me very happy), all three founders share a number of important qualities and despite their differences they’re remarkably similar, two are companies based in England & one is in South Wales (disappointed that I didn’t find anything in Northern Ireland or Scotland this time around), all are involved with changing the way people do things – communicate, learn, organise. All three really care about their team culture as they grow and whilst they’re all focused on generating revenue and making profit, they all know that there’s more to life than making money. Finally, all three have a capacity to really scale quickly and without adding huge resource into the team.

First on my list is RunAClub headed up by fab founder and CEO Sally Higham. RunAClub has everything you could possibly need to run any sort of club or group, all simple to use, neatly packaged and stored in the cloud. Beautiful. Our customers so far are national sports organisations, local authorities, charities, community groups and individual clubs/groups. What do I like most about RunAClub? It’s such a useful product, everyone we speak to loves it and it’s so clearly scaleable. I love most things that truly save people time whilst remaining affordable and easy to use. As an investor, I like that RunAClub is scaling fast in its chosen core market but I also like that there are numerous other verticals for us to move into. An unexpected but very welcome bonus along the way has been that a really old friend has co-invested with me and this gives me a chance to work with him again.

RunAClub team last month in Sally's kitchen in Wiltshire - you don't have to be blonde but it helps!

RunAClub team last month in Sally’s kitchen in Wiltshire – you don’t have to be blonde but it helps!

I first saw Sally pitch at a Clearly So Big Venture Challenge event last summer. During her presentation she said – “what I really need in order to maximise RunAClub’s opportunity is another me” and that resonated strongly with me because I’ve been in that position so many times myself – so when she’d finished pitching I went straight over & introduced myself.

The RunAClub team is the liveliest and most can-do bunch of people that I’ve met in a long time. Their enthusiasm is infectious and I’m genuinely looking forward to spending time with them, growing a successful and valuable business.

My next is Captive Health. I love that I’ve known the founder Andrew Cockayne for years. He used to be one of my Learning Pool customers many moons ago and I’m so pleased that he’s become an entrepreneur himself and also that I can continue to work with him. Captive Health is the most mature of my 3 investee companies and in truth is more of a scaleup than a startup.  The company provides the health sector with a platform that allows richer interactions with and between their staff and their patients. Staff can access information and network within their teams when they’re on the move (only 40% of people working in a hospital have access to a desktop). Patients can use Captive Health to provide feedback and information about their choices and preferences. Hospitals love the products and we already have five as customers with many more in our pipeline.

At the recent PEN Awards in Birmingham with Andrew Cockayne & Leena Shaw of Captive Health & one of our progressive customers, Jo Wood of Ipswich Hospital

At the recent PEN Awards in Birmingham with Andrew Cockayne & Leena Shaw of Captive Health & one of our progressive customers, Jo Wood of Ipswich Hospital – I’m working on their footwear!

I heard Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, speak at last month’s e-Health Week 2015 Summit. His opening gambit was “No industry has ever re-invented itself on the scale that the NHS needs to over the next 5 years without smart use of technology”. Captive Health’s product set offers the NHS some affordable tools with which to get ahead in dealing with their huge challenge and I’m pleased to be part of that mix.

Last but not least is Caerphilly based Noddlepod. Noddlepod is like a Slack for your learning communities. It’s a social learning platform that allows you to easily share your files and search for resources with the same degree of immediacy and familiarity. I met founder Ollie Gardener at a tech event in Buckingham Palace hosted by Her Majesty the Queen. Ollie was wearing Norwegian national dress. You can guess the rest. We’re very grateful to Neil Cocker of Cardiff Start & Matt Johnston of Digital Circle for allowing us to meet!

Noddlepod is my earliest stage investment of the three but it’s grown out of a number of years of considered reflection by the founding team on where learning is going next and Ollie has corralled some very experienced and well know global learning experts onto her Board including our Chairman Charles Jennings and fellow non exec Nigel Paine. Edtech continues to create frenzied excitement in the investor space and we’re encouraged (!) by the recent $1.5bn sale of Lynda to LinkedIn. Great that LinkedIn now has access to all that content but I wonder if they’ve thought about how to deploy it coherently to their millions of users?

With Ollie this month - outside my London Southbank "office" - having tea & more tea

With Ollie this month – outside my London Southbank “office” – having tea & more tea

Until LinkedIn or similar comes a-knocking, we’re focused on bringing Noddlepod to corporate universities and business schools worldwide. I love most that as a Norwegian, Ollie thinks way outside of the four walls of the UK in her growth plans and that she has a number of overseas investors and a pipeline already full of European opportunities.

So that’s my three. Exciting times. I’m certain I’ll prove all those people who advised me against making early stage angel investments wrong. As always I’m interested in hearing your questions, comments, observations. Check us out. Startups always need a helping hand and you all know it makes sense to work with small, growing businesses jammed full of bright, ambitious people with great tech – it helps our local economies and it keeps you sane.

Women and tech – will it take us another 250 years?

I wrote a brief piece on women in tech back in March for the Belfast Technology Conference magazine.  The gist of it was something like this.

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782

As a woman working in technology in noughties Britain I compare myself mentally to a female artist in the 18th century.  I believe we are similar sorts of pioneers in our chosen field.  At that time significant gender bias existed in the art world and women artists encountered difficulties in accessing training, selling their work and in gaining recognition.  Although the Royal College of Art began admitting women in 1837 it was into a special “Female School”, it wasn’t really until the feminist art movement started in the 1960s that women artists became more mainstream. Even now they are paid less than their male counterparts and struggle harder with appropriate recognition.

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun is widely recognised as the most successful female painter of the 18th century.  She became an artist because first her father and then her husband were both painters.  Really it was the only channel available to women at that time.  In the self portrait above she’s having a bit of a tongue in cheek laugh at us – showing us her palette (the tools of her trade) but dressing herself in a completely inappropriate outfit for working in oil paint.  The same woman caused a scandal in the art world of the time by breaking with tradition and releasing a self portrait of herself & her daughter smiling open mouthed (showing their teeth) – imagine!

Many prominent women in tech today are there because of early encouragement by their parents or by an enlightened teacher and this is a story that I hear over and over again when talking to my peers and indeed younger women.

I thought the comparison with the art world back in March was a good one – and then yesterday I was at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for the Disobedient Objects exhibition and this poster literally stopped me in my tracks.

Guerilla Girls protest at the Met Museum

Guerilla Girls protest at the Met Museum

In case you can’t read it easily, the smaller text on the poster reads “Less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are females”.  Hmm.  Maybe the art world hasn’t made that much progress in 250 years after all.

A lot of activity is going on and money is being spent across the world right now to fix the women in tech “issue” and make technology a more mainstream career choice for girls and women. Of course it makes a lot of sense, but let’s not be the generation that allows this process of transformation to drag on for 250 more years!

In this GCSE and A Level results month, encourage the young women you know to pursue exciting, creative and independent careers instead of dashing their dreams and pressurising them to study boring but safe subjects.

I usually stay away from this rather controversial subject but I’ve chosen it as the topic with which to relaunch my blog because the women in tech that I know and work with are all incredible…I just wish there were a few more of us.  As a final point it’s also worth noting that even back in the 18th century, Vigee Le Brun’s portrait commissions commanded a higher price than Gainsborough’s.

As always, your comments on my blog are most welcome and I look forward to seeing what everyone has to say on this topic.

All change…

Learning Pool Team

Learning Pool Team

In the many years I’ve worked in startup land I’ve watched other founders and CEOs hang around for far too long – hell I’ve probably even worked for a few of them – and I’ve always been pretty determined that I wouldn’t repeat the same mistake myself…so after 7 long & happy years as part of the Learning Pool senior team I’m disappearing back into the tech startup scene proper.  Working in a scale-up can be great – but it isn’t for me.

In reality what this means is that I’ll continue to do some stuff for Learning Pool that I really love (strategic sales, profile building, input to long term strategy) but less of the operational day to day matters that if I’m honest with myself I don’t really enjoy.  I’m going to get out of the way & give my co-founder space to build the company to the next stage with help from our very able management team.

So…what’s next for me?  I’m going to return to working with (most definitely) early stage (most likely) tech startups with (most probably) quite young teams, helping out with all those things that many first time entrepreneurs find troublesome – raising finance, finding & managing investors, picking which product or version of a product to back, getting to revenue on a shoestring, determining the best market entry strategy – all the stuff I love doing.

And guess what – I CAN’T WAIT.

So how do I feel at the end of a day spent mostly on the phone breaking the news to my team and a few trusted friends and associates?  Most of all I feel proud of what I’ve achieved over the past 7 years.  We’ve built a robust, growing company with a fabulous community of customers, we’ve assembled a world class high performing team and we offer scaleable and useful technology at an affordable price.  I also feel dizzying waves of excitement that are masking a sneaky bit of underlying sadness.

I’ll leave you today with a quote from Alexander Graham Bell “When one door closes another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” 

Watch this space!  I hope you all have comments 🙂