It’s hard to believe almost two years have passed since I joined Seedcamp. It’s been an incredibly fun, intense, and rewarding journey during which I’ve learned a ton from the range of pretty awesome people I’m lucky enough to spend my days with.
Two years ago, I would never have thought I’d be fortunate enough to have a semi-front row seat to see the likes of Hopin, Sorare, Harbr, Ezra, Graphy, Elephant Healthcare, THIS and Sylvera, among others, go from one or two-man bands to becoming category-defining companies which, cheesy as it may sound, are tangibly affecting many people’s lives for the better. I also didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to learn from and be mentored by some of the best investors in the business.
This two-year milestone has prompted me to reflect on some of the stand-out learnings from my time in VC. I’ve purposefully tried to stay clear of lessons I’ve learned where the outcomes are solely related to investing or startups. Rather, I wanted to give a few tangible examples of my own experiences at Seedcamp — right from pre-internship application in 2019 through to the current day — to highlight key learnings which I’ve come to realise regularly manifest themselves across many facets of my everyday life.
I hope these can be helpful insights for anyone who is thinking about embarking on a new career path — be it VC or other — as well as to my peers in the industry who, like me, are very much in the process of learning the ropes.
Follow your innate curiosity.
As with most recent graduates, the prospect of deciding what to do after university wasn’t obvious for me. I’d come from an engineering background before moving from Cape Town to London to pursue a Masters in the hope of keeping my professional options as wide open as possible. Whilst studying, two friends and I decided to explore the viability of a startup aiming to streamline the returns/refund process for online shoppers. After raising a small amount of angel capital to pursue the concept, we quickly realised it wouldn’t work out as a scalable business. Still, the experience had been enough of an eye-opener into the tech scene to make me realise that whatever I did next had to allow me to keep immersing myself in this world. I got to reading everything I could get my hands on about startups, technology, and venture capital.
Given that experience, I was relatively up to speed with the main names in the European VC landscape. That included Seedcamp — partially because I knew of their history in the European seed ecosystem, being first investors in the likes of Revolut, TransferWise and UiPath, and partially because I was already an avid listener of Carlos’ This Much I Know podcast. When I saw they were looking to hire an intern, I jumped at the opportunity for a number of reasons.
I remember watching this video a few times before applying. What immediately struck me was how tight-knit a family the core team and the Seedcamp-backed founder community seemed to be (I even remember saying as much to Tom and Kyran in my first interview when they asked me ‘Why Seedcamp?’). Meeting the small team over the course of the interview process made me realise I was right about that. I could also tell they all genuinely loved what they did. I knew that joining a sector-agnostic fund would give me the chance to meet multiple experts in their respective fields on a daily basis. This exposure would translate directly into opportunities to learn about things I was genuinely curious about and afford me the chance to do digging on my own areas of personal interest. The prospect of learning from and working with the next generation of Europe’s most ambitious founders in the very nascent phases of their companies deeply excited me personally. It was the same excitement I’d seen some of my friends have when staring down the barrel of their own potential career paths — from doctors to clothes designers to rugby players.
Looking back, although I frankly wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue a job in VC at that stage of my life, the one thing I was sure of was that I wanted to contribute to the powerful role technology is playing in the world, no matter how small my contribution. It was clear that Seedcamp would give me that opportunity.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The first thing I noticed after joining the team was the speed at which decisions got made. Everything ran at 1000 miles per hour. One of the many ways that manifested itself in the work I personally did was in the process of ‘screening’ companies for investment. I had to get used to making quick decisions with limited information while reviewing pitch decks and/or tagging along with one of the five Investment Team members in meetings with founders.
Impostor syndrome in those early meetings could be extremely real. In weekly internal meetings with the Investment Team, I was very aware that I had little to no valuable input when it came to helping them come to an investment decision. They’d been doing it for many years and I was new to it all. Even though I was always encouraged to voice my opinion, I’d almost always opt to just keep quiet and listen. It was a similar story when it came to the early meetings with founders, especially those with experienced entrepreneurs operating in non-obvious sectors. As much as I loved being part of those meetings to establish relationships with the founders and understand what they were building, I would still silently think to myself ‘WTF am I doing here’ whilst wondering how I’d ever discern between whether what they’re building was interesting for us or not — in my eyes, it was all interesting.
To compound that, the overwhelming majority of investment conversations we have with founders unfortunately ends up in having to decline them for funding. Although I wasn’t the decision-maker on whether we’d invest in a company or not, if I had the most interaction with the founders, I would often be the one communicating the decision to them. Saying ‘no’ to top experts in their respective fields on a daily basis, many of whom have quit their high-paying jobs to build something impactful, was something I struggled with. On the other side of the spectrum, although one does quickly start to develop a nose for what traits companies have which could make them a fit for investment, the prospect of ‘missing’ a future billion-dollar company was also daunting.
In hindsight, being put in those situations every day was a great forcing mechanism to learn how to deal with being uncomfortable. Learning to face up to difficult conversations and dealing with my own insecurities about being an impostor has proven to be something which has helped me grow as a person. It’s taught me invaluable lessons about the importance of preparedness, the value of being upfront, and the power of trusting your gut.
Build your own conviction.
There’s a great scene in one of my favourite docuseries on the life of Dr. Dre and record producer Jimmy Iovine, The Defiant Ones, in which Jimmy talks about the need for humans to use blinkers in the same way that racehorses do — “If you look at the horse on the left or the horse on the right, you’re going to miss a step”. Building conviction and being decisive is a key trait to have in your arsenal and it’s something I’ve witnessed playing out first-hand many times in our investment process.
For context, the companies Seedcamp considers for investment are extremely early stage — often just a couple of founders, an idea of a product (or a very basic MVP), and often no revenues. The investment decision usually is made after two meetings with the founders. The main thing that struck me was that there are always a million reasons not to invest. Though if there were just one or two key things which resonated strongly enough with the team, it would often be enough to warrant an investment offer. In the case of Hopin, Primer and a few others, the partners just committed halfway through the 45-minute meeting. There would be no looking over the shoulders to worry about which other investors had said ‘no’ or over-thinking what might happen if the company fails — rather, it’d be a case of backing the collective judgement of the team, showing the founders that you believe in their vision, and pulling the trigger.
To this point, I often think back at the chat I had within the first few months of my internship with one of our partners, Reshma, who founded Seedcamp back in 2007. Her advice for a successful career in venture was crystal clear and, given the context, unsurprising: “Don’t be scared to have strong opinions — build your own conviction and voice it”. The reason I think it resonated strongly with me was because it made me realise that my opinions on the companies we met perhaps weren’t as obvious to the team as I may have initially thought. Our team is made up of people with different professional backgrounds, genders, nationalities, and ages — we all form our opinions uniquely and view opportunities through different lenses. Favourable outcomes are based on well-informed decisions and the foundation of well-informed decisions is diversity of thought.
Funnily enough, I’ve been told before by my closest friends that I have a tendency to be indecisive — a trait I can be quick to point out in others. Being in an environment where sitting on the fence is simply not an option has taught me to take the time to build my convictions, put my blinkers on, and go for it.
Be intellectually honest.
It’s no secret that, as the intern, I was pretty much always guaranteed to be the least knowledgeable person in the room. With founders, there have been plenty of times where I didn’t quite understand something they said — be it a concept, a technology, or an acronym. On occasion, out of fear of sounding stupid, I’ve been guilty of pretending to understand what was said when I in fact didn’t follow. Bluffing can be a very dangerous game to play, especially with smart founders, as it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out when someone isn’t following something within your realm of expertise. From my experience, being honest about not fully understanding something or being upfront about not pretending to be an expert in the space has often even had a very positive effect on leveling the playing ground of the discussion, getting the best out of the founder and having a frank dialogue.
Post-investment, the same principle rings true. Even though I wasn’t the main person from the Investment Team a founder would primarily interface with, I would often fear I’d bring nothing to the table if a founder we’d backed were to ask me for specific help on a functional area of their business. It may sound obvious, but realising that founders didn’t expect that of me was a big thing (at Seedcamp, we have a wide range of functional experts within the wider team and my job would be to connect the dots and introduce founders to the right person). More importantly, I realised that founders, no matter their seniority, are first and foremost looking for strong human connections with the investors they partner with. They look for people they know they can ring up to be candid about their doubts, ask for opinions on tough decisions, ask for introductions to potential key hires or ask for a helping hand with their pitch decks ahead of their next funding round. The first call I got from a founder venting to me about the doubts they were having about their upcoming fundraise was hands-down one of my best days at Seedcamp.
Being honest is the building block to instilling trust and establishing a healthy relationship. After all, as with most jobs and with most of life, dealing with people is what it’s all about.
Make sure the road ahead excites you.
Having made the transition to a permanent role on the Investment Team early last year ahead of announcing Seedcamp’s fifth fund in late 2020, it’s hard not to get excited when thinking about what lies ahead.
Seedcamp was founded on the belief that European founders have the potential to compete on a global scale. The last two years have shown that the world is waking up to the fact that Silicon Valley isn’t the only place to build category-defining technology companies. In the last few months from our portfolio alone, UiPath has become Europe’s most valuable private company with a $35bn valuation after Seedcamp’s seed investment in 2015. Hopin has become the fastest-ever growing software company, reaching a $5.6bn valuation less than 18 months after we led Johnny’s preseed round in September 2019. The quality of founders we’re seeing on a daily basis tells us that the virtuous cycle of talent, capital, and infrastructure for the next generation of European success stories is in full-swing.
The future of European tech shines bright and I look forward to keep traveling down the road with the wider Seedcamp family.
We’re going to be hiring a new intern starting in May — keep your eyes on our twitter page for more details!