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The VC Long View: Jon Lerner (Smedvig Capital)

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Smedvig-Capital-Jon-LernerThe VC Long View is a regular series of posts where Seedcamp talks to our network of investors on the trends they’re following and the ideas they’d like to back. This week we talk to Jon Lerner.

Jon studied Electronic Engineering and French at Bristol but decided not to practice and went into consulting. He spent a fantastic few years at Bain & Company learning what makes big companies tick and has now been at Smedvig Capital for almost a decade helping smaller companies reach their full potential. Smedvig backs UK tech and tech-enabled businesses at series A and series B rounds and then work very closely with the teams to help the companies grow.

Do you have any specific sector focus?

We invest in tech and tech-enabled businesses, but beyond that we don’t see ourselves as sector experts — that is the entrepreneurs domain, and hence we are not focused on specific areas and are quite opportunistic. Obviously over time you get to know specific verticals via portfolio companies — New potential investments find you more easily and are far easier to diligence (such as legal services and automotive). We try to be as open-minded as possible — it is one of the most interesting parts of the job discovering new industries and niches.

What areas are you most excited about and why?

Slightly contrarily the areas I’m most excited about are not at the bleeding edge of technology. They centre on the application of what is now becoming “mainstream” technology (often with some incredibly innovative twists) to the 99% of the world that is lagging far behind in terms of technology adoption. There are so many processes and workflows out there (both in the B2B and B2C sense) that haven’t yet been optimised. Sometimes people have been crying out for the solution for a long time, and sometimes it’s not clear how inefficient something was until you try the new way (for example Uber). We have made multiple investments in this area, including MyHomeMove, which is now the UK’s largest independent conveyancer. They have taken what was an inefficient costly process and through technology, offshoring and workflow made it far lower cost and higher quality.

These businesses tend to carry a lot less technical risk and are really about excellent product execution, sometimes displacing existing businesses sometimes creating new markets.

What are the bigger trends and technical innovations you see coming, which might not already be so obvious?

Given the areas I find exciting above, the biggest trend right now is the non-stop stream of innovation that smartphones and tablets can have on processes. Whilst they have been around for a long time now (relatively) I think we are still at the beginning of that journey, especially in the B2B (and B2B2C) sense, just as the power of the PC took many years to truly become apparent I think the BYOD trend will be a complete game changer in many areas. If one combines this with the mega trend for personalisation I think there are some very powerful applications waiting to be discovered.

What ideas would you love to back?

I would love to see better software solutions in car hire. It’s a massive industry, and whilst Streetcar introduced smartphone unlocking more than five years ago, the traditional hire car experience is still one of shock that you’ve arrived, followed by many pieces of paper in triplicate. It’s a classic example of where the application of tech, BYOD (empowering employees and customers), smart interface and pushing actions to the consumer could revolutionise the experience. Imagine being able to choose your car, walk straight to it, swipe your phone and drive away? The same goes for pretty much any situation where people are queuing — almost always (unless there is limited availability i.e. restaurants) it doesn’t make sense — the same would be true for supermarkets, take away food, even passport control!

What problems do you see in the world, or have yourself, that you’d love to see get solved with tech?

Such a good question, and not one that necessarily overlaps with what I can see myself investing in! Most of my ideas unsurprisingly revolve around current affairs, my hobbies and my family. To pick two — I think the Techfugee program is fantastic — it is clear to me that in the future we will look back at this period as one of the largest humanitarian crises ever faced. While politicians try to find solutions so people don’t feel compelled to leave their own countries (at great danger and cost) I believe there are almost limitless applications of smart tech to help refugees and critically to help them integrate into their host countries.

As far as having a 19-month-old toddler goes — some sort of universal translator would be great so I no longer have to guess what it is he is desperate for (and a negotiation module to explain why he can’t have it…). But seriously I find the amount of information out there (be it about how many hours they should sleep, what they should eat, what school they should go to etc.) completely overwhelming. It would be great to be able to build a personalised recommendation engine from likeminded individuals so you could quickly get to the answer. All these decisions seem like such a big thing at the time and often only weeks later the answer seems like it was always obvious!

If you were founding a company rather than investing in them, what would you do?

I strongly believe that one of the key tenants of a successful business is the passion and drive from the entrepreneur — it has to be something they truly believe in. So if I was founding a company I would in all likelihood be setting up an outdoor pursuits business in the mountains both summer and winter. Probably not scalable, almost certainly not investible, but it remains a dream!

How can Founders get in touch?

You can tweet and follow me at @jonlerneruk and @Smedvigcapital.

This post was originally posted on Medium. If you’re an investor and would like to contribute then please get in touch with us @seedcamp. Or, if you’re a startup working on one of these ideas and looking for your first investment, you can register your interest in Seedcamp here.

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