Nic Brisbourne's view from London on technology and startups

VCs and our quest to invest in “home runs”

By | Venture Capital | 2 Comments

This chart (taken from a recent post by First Republic’s Samir Kaji, data from leading venture investor Horseley Bridge) shows that to get the 3-5x return that most venture capitalists target 10% of their portfolio need to return 10x+. That explains why we are so focused on market size and other upside indicators when we invest. Getting a 10x result is hard and if 10% of our portfolio is to reach those dizzy heights then all of our investments must have that potential.

Of course, a 10x return on an individual investment doesn’t necessarily return the whole fund and many venture funds go a step further and stipulate that every deal must be a potential fund returner. That’s the way that we work at Forward Partners, so for us every investment in our second fund must have the potential to return £60m back to our investor. That means if we have a 10% stake the exit value should be £600m or if we have a 25% stake it should be £240m. If we have invested £6m to get to that point the return will be 10x, and if we have invested less, the multiple will be higher. What doesn’t work for us is investing £2m and with the potential of getting £20m back – that’s a 10x return, but it’s not a fund returner.

It would be interesting to see a version of this chart which replaced “Percentage of investments > 10x return” on the Y-axis with “Percentage of investments that returned the fund”.

Enjoying the journey

By | Startup general interest | No Comments

Two weeks ago I wrote about our Skill and Pace value. Another of our four values is Enjoy The Journey. This one is more axiomatic for me than the others. Everyone at Forward Partners is devoting a significant part of their life to the cause and if it’s not enjoyable, what’s the point? The journey is the destination.

But what does it mean to live the value “Enjoy The Journey”?

First and foremost, it’s about finding meaning in our work.

Straight up fun is also important of course and we go out regularly as a team and with our partner companies to do crazy things and have a few drinks together, but I liken that stuff to the role of an important supporting actor. You need it, and the film wouldn’t work without it, but it’s not enough on its own. The lead actor, the rest of the cast, the script, the set and everything else have to be right too.

I think of table football, ping pong tables, Play Stations and beers in the office in the same way. They can help people enjoy their time at work but they are a sub-plot, not the main story. It’s been said many times recently, but perks are not culture.

So how do we find meaning in our work?

First, there’s a question of attitude. You have to want to find meaning in your work, and to be willing to work at it.

I love this from Tim O’Reilly’s recent introduction to Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View newsletter:

From When Nietzsche Wept, by Irvin Yalom: First will what is necessary. Then love what you will.

There’s a profound insight there that I’ve tried to live by, long before I read the quote. Life asks many things of us that we don’t want to do. Some of them are distractions, but some of them are necessary. It’s so easy to be full of resentment toward things that we feel are keeping us from our joy. Finding joy in what needs doing is magical. Learning to love the things that are necessary—like daily chores—is the secret of happiness.

For most of us at Forward Partners meaning can be found at three levels:

  • Taking joy in helping founders build their companies
  • Taking pride in their role in building Forward Partners
  • Mastering their craft, be that design, development, growth, talent, back office or investment

Taking insight from Dan Pink’s seminal book Drive and Paul Dolan’s Happiness by Design, the final components that bring enjoyment and fulfilment are autonomy (i.e. the ability to control our own work life and schedule) and some time having plain old fun – which is where the beer and ping pong comes in.

Our job as a company is to create an environment which makes it as easy as possible for our people to find meaning at all three levels, provides for autonomy and is fun to work in. Here are a few of the things we do:

  • Manage by objectives
  • Provide regular feedback
  • Back companies that go on to enjoy significant success
  • Be clear about our mission and the contribution we all make to our success
  • Recognise success
  • Celebrate our wins (big and small)
  • Find interesting work for people to do
  • Offer training and development
  • Maximise on-the-job learning opportunities
  • Encourage people to blog, speak at conferences and become recognised experts in their field
  • Recruit and promote people who get on with each other (this is why many companies have a ‘no assholes’ rule)
  • Create opportunities for friendships to build, especially cross team
  • Go out and have fun together every now and again

So far, I think we are pretty good at this, but can definitely do better. We do many of these things well already, but some of them we could do with more conviction. Living our Enjoy the journey value is journey in itself, and to really live it requires constant thought an iteration.

The Dawn of ConstrucTech

By | Startup general interest | 4 Comments

You might have seen that the week before last Balfour Beatty (here) and Mace (here) weighed in on the future of construction. Both are quite radical in the breadth and depth of impact they predict, whilst the technologies they choose are perhaps unsurprising to anyone immersed in the startup ecosystem. The Balfour Beatty piece is more detailed and they predict humanless construction sites by 2050 (which is admittedly a long way off – broadband is less than twenty years old) saying that drones, robots and 3D and 4D modelling will get us there.

Construction is a massive industry with low productivity that hasn’t seen much penetration of tech. Balfour Beatty and Mace clearly see that changing and towards the end of the Balfour Beatty article they herald the arrival of a “constructech” market. Fintech, and more recently proptech and insurtech are startup categories that many VCs and corporates are targeting and I’m guessing they are indulging in a bit of marketing to try and stimulate activity in their own backyard.

I think they will succeed. As noted, construction is a massive market, but it is messy and complicated for startups due to the bespoke nature of most construction jobs and heavy regulation. As technology advances these problems become more tractable, and there are parallels with healthcare and govtech which face similar challenges and are already enjoying more attention from entrepreneurs and investors.

I expect we will see two classes of constructech startup:

  • Startups selling tech enabled services to existing construction companies – e.g. site mapping services using drones
  • Startups leveraging new technologies to compete with existing construction companies – e.g. a new housebuilder which has radically different economics (maybe charging based on usage or building for a fraction of the cost)

This is a common pattern for startups bringing tech to new industries. There are some companies that support existing industry structures and some that disrupt them. When this battle played out in media the disruptors mostly came out on top, but in ecommerce and marketplaces (where we make maybe half our investments) the game is still on – Amazon is a winner, but it remains unclear who will take the rest of the seats at the top table. In financial services none of the biggest companies are recent startups, although that’s partly a matter of scale and large numbers of entrepreneurs are building great businesses.

It’s interesting to think how it will play out in construction. The reasons that startups have struggled historically aren’t going away and it’s hard to do big things in a small way, so I suspect incumbents have more of an advantage than they do in most industries.

 

The pursuit of skill and pace

By | Forward Partners | 2 Comments

Here at Forward Partners we are going through a process of rethinking our values. We have historically had seven, but found that was too many to consistently remember and action, so we recently consolidated it down to four:

  • We execute with skill and pace
  • We get better every time
  • We play the game differently
  • We enjoy the journey

The next step in our process is to flesh out what these mean in a bit more detail. I’ve been thinking about our ‘skill and pace’ value in particular. This is one that was part of the seven, so we’ve had it for a while. We adopted the value originally because we were having problems balancing speed and quality. We were getting conflict between team members who wanted to move fast and those who were concerned that we were compromising too much on quality. Most often this was when we were deciding whether to release products or launch services when bug testing had been done, but not done to death, and before the full suite of unit tests had been written. We realised that we didn’t have a language to discuss the trade-off between speed and quality and so introduced the ‘skill and pace’ value so we could repeatedly ask ourselves if we had the balance right.

As I’ve been mulling over it some more it’s becoming clear to me that another aspect of executing with skill and pace is being comfortable with both the big picture and the detail. The big picture gives you ambition, the need to move quickly and ensures you are on a worthwhile path. The detail is key to hitting your short-term goals and is what enables you to move at speed.

Conversely, people who prefer to live only in the big picture can be insufficiently practical and people who are only comfortable in the detail can find it hard to see past short-term obstacles.

When did tech become a dirty word?

By | Startup general interest | 2 Comments

The world is turning against tech. Silicon Valley is in danger of becoming the new Wall Street – public enemy number one. And it’s easy to see why. Facebook is being used to influence elections and promote hate speech. Google is pressuring think tanks to fire people they don’t like. And meanwhile Uber has grown into one of the most obnoxious companies on the planet. That’s just the news in 2017. To that, you can add enduring concerns over privacy, the dangers of AI, losing our children to their devices, and perhaps most dangerous of all, a growing sense that tech is a leading cause of the growing inequality of wealth. Meanwhile, we are easy to ridicule.

All this has come as a bit of a shock to much of the tech ecosystem. Collectively we’ve been happily beavering away, content that our work is driving innovation, economic growth and job creation. We haven’t been wrong. Young companies are responsible for nearly 100% of net job creation.

We have, however, been in denial about the negative side of the massive growth in tech. It’s easy to be dismissive of privacy concerns as misguided (been there, got the t-shirt) but they matter deeply to a lot of people. Similarly, with kids spending all their time on their phones; there are pros and cons and it’s easy to focus on the pros – it’s truly fantastic that my children have all the world’s information at their fingertips.

But, as with most everything in life, tech has its good sides and its bad sides. What’s important is that we recognise that as a fact. Otherwise we aren’t listening to our critics, and so, in turn, they won’t listen to us. This was probably always true, but it’s pressing now that tech is such a large part of society. On 30 June this year, the four largest companies in the world by market cap were Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft and Amazon. Facebook was number eight. Products of the tech industry are now everywhere, all of the time and it’s not surprising people are paying attention.

Our opportunity is to move to a more nuanced and honest dialogue. It’s important to continually re-emphasise the good that comes out of the startup ecosystem, mostly jobs and productivity growth. But in the same breath, we should acknowledge that some of the fruits of our labour are hurting us and need regulating. Perhaps more challenging is to recognise that change is scary to some people and that their opinion is as valid as ours. We should start to look beyond simply creating enduring companies, to how we can build technology and businesses which can have a long-lasting positive impact.

None of this is too difficult. Lots of the raw ingredients are there already. We have data on the positive impact that startups have on jobs and the economy and we have lots of great products and much-loved companies. AirBnB stands out to me as a good example that has hit a lot of scale, and there are literally thousands of smaller companies I could cite. We should continue to tell this side of our story much as we have been, but start thinking like members of society rather than tech advocates when it comes to issues like those listed above. That will be easier if we stop identifying with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. They aren’t startups anymore. They are large self-interested institutions with a big influence on society which, inevitably, has its good sides and its bad sides.

If we don’t move to a more honest dialogue, we will end up in a shouting match with the rest of society, where neither side is hearing the other. There are important policy issues that we need to address and if we don’t go about it in the right way news like last Friday’s announcement from TFL that they won’t be renewing Uber’s license to operate in London will start to become the norm rather than the exception. I am hopeful that calm heads will prevail in that situation and more generally but that will only happen if we in the tech industry open our hearts and minds to the concerns of other parts of society.

Satya Nadella owns his mistakes – impressive

By | Microsoft | No Comments

From a recent Fast Company article about Satya:

Invited to participate in a Q&A at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a major annual event, he told the largely female audience that women in the tech industry should forgo asking for raises and instead trust that the system would reward them appropriately. The negative reaction was swift, with attendees quickly tweeting out their pushback.

Nadella realized his mistake, and the next day issued an apology. “I answered that question completely wrong,” he wrote in an email to Microsoft employees. Today, he describes his onstage comments as “a nonsense answer from this privileged guy.”

But Nadella did more than deliver a mea culpa; he explored his own biases—and pushed his executive team to follow suit. “I became more committed to Satya, not less,” says Microsoft chief people officer Kathleen Hogan, the former COO of worldwide sales, whom Nadella promoted into her current role soon after the kerfuffle. “He didn’t blame anybody. He owned it. He came out to the entire company, and he said, ‘We’re going to learn, and we’re going to get a lot smarter.’

That makes me want to join Microsoft to follow him :). Very impressive.

US and UK entrepreneurs suffer equally from ‘fear of failure’

By | Startup general interest | No Comments

This chart is from the UK government’s recently published Patient Capital Review.

I’m publishing it here because I often hear it said that the US startup ecosystem has a significant advantage over the UK and Europe because on this side of the Atlantic we are hobbled by a greater fear of failure. This has always annoyed me because a) I didn’t see it in practice, b) a certain amount of fear of failure is rational, and c) people used our supposed fear of failure to talk down the local startup ecosystem.

As you can see from the graph on the far right it turns out that fear of failure is roughly the same in the UK, the US, France and Germany.

It’s so good to finally have data on this topic!

Forward Partners Code of Ethics Regarding Sexual Harassment

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

Earlier in the year, there were a significant number of victims who came forward to share stories of sexual harassment by investors. Some of those investors were prominent VCs.

At Forward Partners we were really saddened by the reports – clearly, any abuse of an asymmetrical power relationship for sexual gain is wrong. Doctors have been held to a high standard in this regard for as long as I can remember and investors should be no different.

So a couple of weeks ago we adopted a new Code of Ethics for Sexual Harassment, with a link at the bottom of our homepage and a new question in our FAQ. The code identifies four different levels of sexual harassment and is based on a template that TechCrunch published in July.
We don’t want to make a big deal of this announcement, but it is important that people know our code of ethics exists.
All feedback welcome and if anyone wants to copy or adapt our code for their organisation we’d love that too.

Board meetings: Avoiding triviality

By | Startup general interest | 3 Comments

Getting value out of board meetings is tough. Lots of VCs have written posts with great tips – this recent one by Mark Suster is a very high quality example.

There are lots of reasons why value can be hard to extract – mostly to do with the fact that often board members don’t pay enough attention and CEOs don’t prepare as well as they could. However, today I’m going to write about a lesser known reason: the law of triviality.

From Nir Eyal’s What to do when someone steals your idea:

The British author C. Northcote Parkinson is famed for his “law of triviality,” first elucidated in a satirical article published in 1957. Parkinson writes of a committee assembled to approve plans for a nuclear power plant that instead spends most of its time arguing about a bike shed. The fictional committee wastes so much time on the bike shed because people are more likely to have an opinion on things they understand. While few feel qualified to speak about nuclear power, everyone can put in their two cents about a bike shed.

In board meetings this plays out with non-executive directors focusing questions on things they understand, often the accounts, but it can be any area of expertise – rather than what’s most important to the business at any given moment. On a lucky day the accounts might be the right thing to focus on, but usually the right thing will be something else, often something that is specific to the business and harder to understand and hence many shy away from. This scenario plays out most frequently with less secure or less experienced board members who have a need to be heard.

So what should we do?

As directors of companies we should try and catch ourselves when we dwell on topics that are in our comfort zone but aren’t the most important topics, and we should move the conversation on when other directors make the same mistake.

As CEOs we should identify the most important topics to discuss in advance and bring the conversation back when it wanders.

Evolving our investment strategy

By | Announcement, Entrepreneurs, London, Startup general interest, Strategy, Venture Capital | No Comments

This is a long post (1,900 words). For those of you who are time poor here’s the tltr:

  • Forward Partners operates a focused investment strategy because it helps us make better investment decisions and provide better support to our companies
  • A good focus area for us is one that can generate 50+ deals and where we can build some generalised expertise that helps with our decision making and value add
  • Until now we have focused on marketplaces and next generation ecommerce
  • Recently we evaluated lots of options and did a deep dive on Applied AI before selecting it as our next area of focus

For the three and a half years that we’ve been going, Forward Partners has operated a focused investment strategy. We observed that small transactions of all types are increasingly moving online and backed the companies that were helping to accelerate that trend. That meant lots of consumer and small business focused marketplaces and next generation ecommerce companies. Lost My Name, Appear Here and Thread are three of the better known examples, but overall there are 37 companies in that portfolio.

We chose to be focused for three reasons. First, and perhaps most important, being focused enabled us to build up expertise that resulted in better investment decisions. Specifically, we feel we have strong capabilities in working out whether customers will value products highly and whether it will be possible to market them cost-effectively online. Secondly, we have seen so many similar companies now that we have a good sense of what they should be achieving by when. We are better able to see problems coming and advise on strategies to work around them. Being expert in an area makes us better board members and hence better able to win deals with the best entrepreneurs. Finally, focusing allows us to add more value operationally so our companies can execute faster and with higher quality. The companies we back often share the same challenges as each other and because we focus our team has solved those problems many times over.

However, venture capital is a dynamic business and good focus areas don’t last forever. We are still seeing lots of marketplace and next generation ecommerce opportunities, but as we move into our second fund we decided to add another focus area to make sure we will continue to have enough high quality opportunities to invest in over the next four years.

Our first step was to define the what we mean by a “good focus area”. For us the following characteristics are important:

  • Will generate 50+ deals
  • We can build knowledge that’s broadly applicable across the focus area and gives us an advantage versus other investors
  • We can articulate a few underlying investment theses
  • We can articulate use cases
  • Suitable for early stage investment
  • The UK has some kind of advantage

Then we had a high level discussion about what areas we might focus on next. A couple of interesting things came out of that. Firstly we like to invest in sectors that are rising from the low point of the Gartner Hype Cycle. Investing at this point leverages our key capabilities of assessing whether customers will love products and whether companies will be able to market them cost-effectively. If we get the timing right then mass adoption should be achievable. Investing with this strategy means we don’t chase the very rapid value appreciation that sometimes occurs at the beginning of the Hype Cycle, but we think the benefits of focus outweigh the cost of the lost opportunity.

The other interesting point to come out is that investing in deep tech at the very earliest stages is difficult. One of the key drivers of success for us as a fund is backing companies that make rapid progress and are able to raise up rounds a year or so after we invest. To do that they must pass valuation milestones. With ecommerce and marketplace companies those milestones relate to sales and unit economics and are easily demonstrable. Progress at deep tech companies, on the other hand, is based on internal development milestones and it’s difficult to predict how next round investors will respond. Until a product is released and is in the hands of customers, which can take years, the only evidence of success is internally reported improvements in algorithms and the production of code. I’m sure there’s a way to solve this for deep tech investments, but we haven’t figured it out yet.

The next stage for us was to brainstorm potential areas of focus. Each member of the investment team went away and over a couple of weeks contributed ideas to a shared Google Doc. Then we reconvened with the objective of choosing a single area on which to focus. Via a process of discussion, voting and then amalgamation of ideas we decided to look seriously at making “Applied AI” our next focus area. That would mean investing in companies that were using well understood artificial intelligence techniques to build new and superior products.

We felt that Applied AI is attractive because:

  • It’s a broad enough area to generate 50+ deals
  • Is one where we already have knowledge and could could go on to develop a deep expertise in the different techniques and their application
  • Is at the right point in the Hype Cycle and plays to our strengths in evaluating demand

The major concern we had is that AI more generally has been a popular investment theme with other investors for some time and we wanted to make sure that Applied AI is sufficiently differentiated to be a viable investment focus for Forward Partners.

We decided to go away and do some work to improve our understanding of the area with the aim of answering the differentiation question and convincing ourselves more generally that Applied AI has the potential to yield a flow of high quality investment opportunities over the next 3-5 years.

To that end we sought to answer the following questions:

  • What are the AI techniques that can be applied cheaply and predictably by startups?
  • What capabilities do those techniques enable? (e.g. natural language processing enables conversational interfaces)
  • What use cases can these techniques be put to? (e.g. conversational interfaces to FAQ databases can improve customer service)
  • Are there enough use cases where the addition of ‘intelligence’ makes the product meaningfully better?
  • How can Applied AI startups meaningfully show progress in their first year of operations?
  • How much AI talent is required at pre-seed and seed stage Applied AI startups and can we find enough companies with that talent?
  • How can we add value to Applied AI companies?
  • What are some hypothetical strategies for Applied AI startups to obtain the data they need to train their algorithms? (Addressing the “cold start” problem.)

The first three of these questions relate to the size of the opportunity set. To choose Applied AI as a focus area we had to believe there is the potential for 50+ deals that would make sense for us. To get an answer we mapped an extensive list of Applied AI techniques against the Gartner Hype Cycle, and put them into a spreadsheet linking them to the capabilities they enable, then linked those use cases to capabilities, and finally the use cases to ideas for companies. After that we scored the company concepts based on their attractiveness as Forward Partners investments and looked to see how many high scoring opportunities there were. Fortunately there were many.

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 20.10.30.png

Once we had comfort on the size of the opportunity we turned to the final three questions which relate to whether the opportunities will work as early stage investments. Our approach this time was to hold workshops and meetings with people who had experience of building applied AI businesses. Thank you in particular to Matt Scheybeler, Steve Crossan, and Martin Goodson for helping us with this part of the journey.

One important learning at this point was that in the early stages of Applied AI startups the artificial intelligence component isn’t that complicated. We heard multiple times that you can get 80% of the way there with statistics, that almost any AI technique will get you the next 10% and that it’s only when you get to the last 10% that you need to get clever. That was great to hear for two reasons:

Most startups with true potential don’t get to the last 10% in their first couple of years so hard to find AI talent isn’t a prerequisite to get started.

Our existing strengths in building products that resonate with customers and driving growth aren’t eclipsed by a requirement for deep tech knowledge – i.e. we can help.

The other important point we learned is that Applied AI startups can get product to market quickly and drive predictable value appreciation in the timeframe of a pre-seed or seed investment. We talked through numerous real and hypothetical examples and got confident that when we make Applied AI investments they will be able to raise their next rounds at a good step up in valuation. That’s one of the most important questions any VC has to answer and we were pleased to find that because they can get started with simple algorithms, Applied AI startups aren’t different from other software startups in this regard.

The final piece of our investigation was to think about the “Cold start” problem. We talked about three different data strategies for Applied AI startups and what that would mean for us:

  • Founders have access to some proprietary data
  • Founders have an innovative idea for using publicly available data
  • Founders will generate data from their business and develop algorithms later

In the first two of these cases Forward Partners needs to evaluate whether there is value in the data pre-investment and to help the founder extract value from the data post investment. In the third case we need to be able to evaluate whether the business will be able to generate data, and then if they can the evaluation is the same as in the first two cases. All of this points to us enhancing our data science capability at Forward Partners.

Our conclusion therefore, is that Applied AI is an attractive focus area for Forward Partners. It looks promising that there will be the required volume of dealflow, we can see how an early stage investment strategy will work, and we can leverage our existing strengths to help businesses in this new area. The only new requirement is that we enhance our data science capability.

Hence for the last couple of months we have been targeting Applied AI deals alongside our traditional focus area of marketplaces and next gen ecommerce. Wherever possible we like to take an experimental approach so we have decided that we will run with it until the end of the year and then evaluate. In parallel we are investigating what sort of data science capability we need. That will in large part be determined by the sort of opportunities we see and end up investing in, so for now we are relying on relationships with people who help us on an ad hoc basis with a plan to bring the capability in house when the picture gets clearer.

And I’m pleased to report that we have already made our first two Applied AI investments. Neither is announced yet, but watch this space 🙂

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