Today I had the opportunity to be on the other side. Presenting our CiRX idea at mini-seedcamp London; attending as a ‘founder’ and not an ‘investor’ or ‘mentor’ for the very first time. And it was totally worth it. Not only was it valuable in the normal / traditional ways that seedcamp can help a founder but interestingly – although not altogether surprisingly – as an investor, it was very enlightening to sit on the other side of the table for once. I learned a lot. About CiRX of course but also about how a founder perceives the world (as opposed to an investor.) The only regret I have is that I don’t think I did a very good job of being mentored, especially with some groups and wish I could have another go. (Basically I talked too much. I know. Shocking.) Partly because well, I unfortunately do that sometimes, sorry. Partly because at almost a subconscious level, while I was supposed to be the mentee, my default tuning in this context is to be the mentor so sometimes I perhaps did both! And partly because I haven’t yet nailed the best way to succinctly articulate the value we see in the CiRX proposition.)
This last bit was a great takeaway because even though I probably knew that before, I definitely know it now and having muddled through a half-dozen live sessions has already now given me some ideas of how to better describe and deliver the value proposition of CiRX. Indeed it was funny to fall into the exact same trap I’ve (patronizingly? hope not!) warned so many founders about myself: ie to remember that 99% of the people you will speak to about your vision haven’t spent the last 6 months bathed in it and so the threshold of obviousness is much much higher than you think it is. What you take as given, is anything but to most people you will meet. In any event, I would highly recommend that anyone investing in early stage companies walk a mile in those shoes. A bit humbling, but more importantly very enlightening.
I’d like to thank all the mentors whom we met and really underline how much we appreciated their forthright opinions and incisive analysis. Farhad and I got a lot out of it and I suspect that we will tweak our plans based on some great insights and suggestions we received throughout the day. Also at the risk of sounding a bit soppy, I’d really like to publicly thank Reshma and Saul for the incredible job they have done building the seedcamp community and ecosystem. I am reminded of the summer of 2007 when I made a rash decision to invest in this new thing a guy I barely knew named Saul (who admittedly had come highly recommended) was organizing and thinking now what a terrific investment that has been. And that’s before getting any of my capital back!
Finally, I just have to say how impressed I was by the quality of the other teams that were invited. Really really impressive. Not so many in our investment space (although Subsify is a company that caught our eye and we’ll be interested to learn more about) but the two that really stood out for me were Editd and Memrise. Would be very surprised not to see these two make it through to seedcamp week in September. Eyequant too.
As for us, well we certainly have a lot to digest and a lot to work on…but that’s exactly what we hoped for.
You may have noticed that I haven’t posted much in the last couple months and given all the interesting things going on in the world it certainly wasn’t for lack of material. Breaking my arm obviously didn’t help increase my productivity (or make typing very easy) but it wasn’t the main reason for the silence. It’s much simpler than that: I was busy!
Busy investing in a whole bunch of super exciting and interesting new businesses. Busy working on the sale of ODL Group (where I was the lead independent non-executive director) to FXCM to create a true global leader in FX trading. Busy working with my partner Uday and FT Advisors on a number of interesting strategic advisory projects, in particular focused on the electronic and algorithmic trading space. Busy helping two of our portfolio companies raise follow-on financing. Busy working on our own corporate structure and capital raising where I hope to be able to communicate some exciting news in the not too distant future. Busy.
So what have we been investing in? Here is a quick rundown (in alphabetical order):
Babuki – 2008 seedcamp winner, launching soon (will update) with an innovative platform for social gaming
Blueleaf – investment information management and planning software “to help people like you see all their savings and investment accounts in one place; understand their financial information more completely, more quickly; securely share information and collaborate with spouses, family or advisors; save their data, even if they change financial institutions; and maybe most importantly, help them stay financially safe and secure.”
Timetric – builds services to make sense of time-series statistics, based on the Timetric Platform: a proprietary service for publishing, analysing, and performing calculations on very large quantities of time-varying statistical data. Have a look at this neat little demo website they have built for tracking equity portfolios.
Metamarkets – provides global, real-time media price discovery by aggregating billions of electronic media transactions in order to deliver dynamic price data, proprietary price and volume aggregations, and comprehensive analytic media market views to sell-side media principals.
[not yet closed - will update soon]
Over the next few weeks or so, I plan to do a proper write-up on each of these businesses and the reasons we think they have bright prospects. So watch this space.
The race the create the Mint.com for the UK has claimed its first victim. Kublax, a Seedcamp 2007 winner which launched in August 2008, has now gone into administration, saying it was unable to secure a further funding round.
I’m pretty disappointed to tell the truth. Not so much because we held a small stake (via our investment in seedcamp) although this is unfortunate, but mainly because I think their business proposition is valid and although they certainly made mistakes along the way, these mistakes were probably avoidable and actually more to do with raising capital and managing a start-up than anything specific to Kublax. Of course to be fair, in any new venture all aspects of execution are at least as important as the idea and/or market opportunity and a two-legged stool won’t stand. Debating which leg is missing or broken and why is ultimately a somewhat irrelevant exercise. The reality is they didn’t make it happen. Nonetheless I feel badly for Tom and Sri, who I know put a lot of passion and effort into building Kublax and stayed focused and pragmatic to the end.
The general (ie non Kublax-specific) lesson that I would put at the heart of a case-study on Kublax is that capital is important. Now that might sound blindingly obvious – and of course it is – but stay with me. The lesson I see is that not all (‘tech’) start-ups can succeed bootstrapping a few hundred thousand pounds into a sustainable business model. As a relative outsider, I have and remained perplexed by the ‘one-size-fits-all’ capital model that seems pervasive in European venture capital, which often in reality turns into a feast or famine of capital for individual start-ups. Kublax was built on a shoestring and quite frankly it showed. The chicken never laid the egg and so the end became an inevitability. But I wonder if it could have been different.
You might be wondering why we didn’t invest in Kublax.* It really came down to one thing: we did not have the capital resources required to allow Kublax to hit ‘escape velocity’. I have looked very closely at Kublax over the last 18 months, and indeed we wanted to invest. However as a result of our analysis, we believed that the best risk/reward scenario would have required them to raise at least £2 million pounds and possibly as much as £5 million. Upfront. Not being in a position to provide this quantum of finance at the time, it would have been foolhardy to commit capital only to be ultimately at the mercy of other people’s investment committees. Further – and accuse me of hubris if you like – we felt strongly that our specific skills, knowledge and networks would be able to materially help the company successfully address some of it’s key strategic and operational challenges. However it would not have been economically rational for us to deploy these resources against only a modest investment. So we were confined to waiting on the touch line for others to drive the process. In the event, none did.
Lack of capital was not the only problem at Kublax, but I think the other key issues that the company faced could all have been addressed given sufficient capital. I will highlight four examples:
capital structure (specifically who owned how much and why)
management depth and experience (in particular in financial services)
product and user experience (never evolved beyond alpha quality); and
marketing and brand awareness
All of these issues could possibly have been solved with an appropriate infusion of capital from a serious and domain-knowledgeable investor. A cynic might point out that these four factors are pretty much the only four factors that matter so saying you would invest subject to being able to improve these is tantamount to saying you would invest if the company was ‘good.’ Well yes. Sort of. I think in the case of Kublax, the investment decision would have boiled down to a ‘build vs buy’ logic. Starting from scratch is hard and for all its faults, Kublax had done a lot of the basic plumbing (hard, unrewarding but necessary) and didn’t get a chance to start laying the tiles (hard but rewarding.) I find it hard to believe that asset is of no value.
In any event, given Kublax’s seedcamp pedigree, I imagine that most or all of the establishment London venture capital firms had the opportunity to look at Kublax. I think it would be very interesting and helpful to the broader UK/European start-up ecosystem to understand the key factors that informed their decisions to pass. Ask your favorite London VC to comment below.
So would we have invested if we had been in a position to underwrite a £2-5 million investment? Quite possibly. And indeed we would have made a determination on each of the four points above to really understand if these issues could be addressed, and the execution risk reduced accordingly. Alternatively we might have decided (and still might in the future) to incubate something similar ourselves.
In any event I wish Tom, Sri and the rest of the team at Kublax all the best for the future and hope they take away as many positives as possible from what must be a very disappointing outcome.
* I am referring here to what I call “Kublax Mark II” – in the early stages of the company’s life there were some clear management issues and dynamics that overshadowed the business and market opportunity. However seen from the outside, the company and it’s shareholders eventually addressed these issues and seemed to have a fresh start with some new investors coming on board and importantly a new CEO (Tom Symonds) early last year. It’s at this point we became interested (having explicitly passed a year earlier due to our lack of confidence in how the company was being managed.) Unfortunately one of the lessons is that it seems in the world of capital raising you often really do only get one chance to make a first impression…
As many of you know, last week was ‘seedcamp week’, the third one since following Saul and Reshma’s initial inspiration in 2007 when what was to become Nauiokas Park became one of the founding investors alongside the (better known and more established) giants of European venture capital. In fact I think it is fair to say that seedcamp may well have been the catalyst which tipped me down the path to creating Nauiokas Park which until that summer of 2007 had only been one idea amongst many percolating in my brain. So perhaps we are in fact the original seedcamp startup!
The concept and the competition has come a long way in a very short time and is testimony to Reshma’s energy and skills and Saul’s vision; I think the best gauge of their success is trying to imagine the European startup scene without seedcamp: hard to do. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of seedcamp’s evolution for me is seeing a more diverse and mature group of entrepreneurs rising to the challenge. And when I say mature I don’t mean older or later stage, but mature in the sense of marrying technical brilliance and/or an inspirational idea with a pragmatic and well-conceived business model. Gone (or mostly) are the ‘build-it-and-they-will-come-and-we’ll-sell-them-online-ads-or-something’ innocents of yesteryear. In their place this year we had a great, diverse and passionate group of talented entrepreneurs who not only had a lucid approach to building a business and making money but also seemed to be incredibly well prepared in terms of knowing exactly what they didn’t know and getting the best out of the amazing group of mentors that is the seedcamp community. Indeed my greatest regret this year was missing a day of mentoring due to an unavoidable (and unscheduled!) board meeting – not only because it meant I didn’t get to meet as many of the teams in person as I would have liked, but also because I didn’t get to soak in the advice and world views of the many other great mentors in parallel.
Judging this year was both easier and harder than in years past. Easier because almost every one of the finalists had a strong and reasonable claim on being a viable business; harder because it was less easy to choose from such a large and diverse number of relatively closely matched competitors. In no particular order, my favorites were Boxed Ice (whom I had originally met at mini-seedcamp London and been impressed), Erply, Codility, Talasim, Joobili and Fabricly.
Of the finalists this year, once again very few would fall within our investment universe and indeed that is something we’d like to help change going forward. Resource constraints – time, money, people – have not yet allowed us to pursue this but I would love to work with seedcamp to run a mini-seedcamp ‘Finance’ to source, develop and encourage more startups to go after a market that is just crying out to be disrupted. Indeed after the incredible success of the geographically focused mini-seedcamps in 2008/2009, perhaps it might might sense to extend the mini-seedcamp idea down a sectoral vector next. While the variety of sectors and business models represented in the applications this year is certainly more varied than in 2007 or 2008, in my opinion the relative lack of diversity is probably one of the few important remaining weaknesses of seedcamp (and indeed the startup ecosystem in general.) Erply, Pearl Systems and Fabricly, while on the edges of our investment universe are definitely companies we will keep an eye on going forward. Fabricly in particular could become more interesting to us if and when they focus on developing their position as a central clearing-house in the fashion supply chain; I thought they had an excellent team and were unlucky not to have been amongst the winners. I was also very impressed by the team at Erply and would question the thinking of anyone who would consider the opportunity they are pursuing as ‘boring.’ With respect to our investment universe, Codility and Advertag I would say are wildcards insofar as their current business models would not fit within our approach but I suspect both have technologies that could be repurposed to target financial services and markets more specifically. Ones to keep on the radar screen perhaps.
Although I am relatively less active than I might otherwise be as a direct result of my significant commitments (of both time and capital) to Nauiokas Park, I have managed nonetheless to make a handful of angel investments over the past couple years, three of which have been seedcamp winners or finalists: MyBuilder (2007), School of Everything (2007) and Kyko (2008, launching soon…) In this year’s class I’d definitely consider investing privately in Boxed Ice, Talasim, Joobili and Fabricly but unfortunately its clear there is no way I would be in a position to lead any of these given my constraints, but if/when they do decide to raise outside capital I’d love to see a term sheet…
If innovation grows at Nauiokas Park, some of the best seedlings come from the fantastic seedcamp nursery. We were particularly pleased that folks like Timetric, CityOdds and GymFu walked away winners from the London Mini Seedcamp in April after we had encouraged them to apply. And so with this in mind I want to encourage ambitious, intelligent and passionate entrepreneurs, young and old(er) to test out their vision, ideas and execution skills at seedcamp week 2009. There is only two weeks left to apply and I sense that the competition for places will be very keen indeed, so don’t leave it until the last minute to get working on your application.
On behalf of Nauiokas Park, I would particularly like to encourage and see more start-ups focusing on disruptive innovation in the financial services arena. There is so much opportunity in this vast sector of our economy and yet it seems as if many or most entrepreneurs tend to avoid applying their technological or business model creativity and innovation to this market. Clearly there are some barriers that don’t exist in other sectors or markets but by the same token, in many instances, the potential rewards are accordingly significantly higher.
In any event, for any ambitious start-up in Europe (or even further afield) today, applying to seedcamp is a no-brainer: even if you aren’t selected as a finalist, the work needed to submit a robust and cogent application will serve you in good stead as you look to build out and finance your new business. If you are a finalist, the contacts you make and the information you will absorb during the week are something that can not be bought for any amount of money. And if you happen to win – well that’s just icing on the cake! So what are you waiting for? Apply! You’ve really got nothing to lose.
The deadline (midnight, 6th April) for applying to Mini Seedcamp London is rushing up quickly (where does time go?) and for any budding entrepreneurs out there with a company up their sleeve or in their garage, I can think of no better place to start ‘growing innovation’ than in the seedcamp community.
Mini Seedcamp London aims to connect the UK and Ireland’s thriving startup community, but the buck doesn’t stop there. If you are a startup team that is ready to wow us and you hail from anywhere in the EMEA, don’t hesitate to apply.
Mini Seedcamp London will be bringing together 20 of the best seed stage web tech startups with experienced entrepreneurs, investors, and developers from the UK and all over Europe to participate in a day of intense mentoring, panel discussions and presentations at NESTA’s HQ in central London.
London is increasingly becoming the hub of the European entrepreneurial ecosystem, with a high concentration of investors, startups and talent and we’re exciting to see what teams and ideas emerge on 20th April!
Of course as founding investors in seedcamp we have a particular interest to encourage the best and brightest and most energetic entrepreneurs and engineers to join the community but I think you’ll find that it is worth it. We’d especially like to see more companies focused on disrupting financial services and markets. Media and consumer internet are fascinating sectors but there is more to life and if an industry ever screamed out to be disrupted, it’s finance in 2009…So what are you waiting for? Apply now!
I’m not sure how many emerging entrepreneurs are amongst my readers, but if you are in the midst of starting up the next great disruptive soon-to-be-huge (don’t worry we’ll give you 2-3 years to get to the huge part…) then perhaps you should be considering throwing your hat in the ring to try to win one of the highly prestigious and extremely valuable invites to seedcamp 2008:
Seedcamp is where Europe’s top young founders can come together in one place.
From securing funding to developing the right network, young entrepreneurs in Europe face challenges in building globally competitive technology businesses. Through the provision of seed capital and a world class network of mentors, we want to provide a catalyst for Europe’s next generation of entrepreneurs.
We’re now ready to accept applications for Seedcamp Week 2008, have opened the gates to our online application system, and are anticipating another great pool of entries. For additional information, and to review the questions prior to applying, you may download our 2008 application guide. We’ve also posted milestones on our key dates page. We encourage you to think through each question carefully and also to apply well before the August 10th deadline. You really don’t want to be trying to submit the application at 11:59pm with 100 other people!
As noted before Seedcamp Week is set for September 15-18 2008 in Central London at UCL.
For those of you that are unaware, seedcamp was launched last year to provide a focal point for the start-up community in Europe. Realizing that one of the key strengths of Silicon Valley is the broad and deep ecosystem supporting start-ups and new ventures – human capital, specialist financial capital, legal and other operational support, etc. – and that all these elements existed in Europe but tended to be geographically dispersed and somewhat ‘hard to find’ for an aspiring entrepreneur, Saul Klein came up with the brilliant idea of creating seedcamp. Last year was the first year, and despite an extremely short gestation period and steep learning curve, the week was extremely successful and enriching for all that attended: investors, mentors, suppliers, and of course entrepreneurs. This year I’m sure it will be even better, building off the lessons learned last September and a year of hard work by Saul and CEO Reshma Sohoni and her team. To give you an idea of what goes on and why attending is actually more important than winning (seedcamp invests in a small number of the start-ups judged ‘best in show’), think of it as an extremely intense 5 days of Entrepreneurship University: if you go in with an open mind (and no fear of sleep deprivation) you’ll come out with an education and network worth (dare I say) more than a year at Wharton or LBS. My company, Nauiokas Park LLP, is proud to be a founding investor in seedcamp alongside some of the giants of European venture capital – and as a start-up ourselves, it’s even more fun to participate – one minute giving advice, the next minute taking notes!
Last year saw a predominance of consumer-oriented internet business ideas, I know one of the hopes for this year is to garner a broader and more heterogeneous group of applicants. Speaking selfishly, I’d love to see one or two killer idea in financial services, markets, data and identity fields.
So what are you waiting for? Dust of that business plan, spruce up that website, and hopefully we’ll see you in September! And to whet your appetite, here is just a tiny taste of the profound advice that surrounds you at seedcamp(!):