Tell us about your background.
When I was very little I was the smart kid, the boffin. I loved school and loved learning. I went through a rebellious phase in high school but came out of it pretty well, I still got good grades.
I’ve had a weird journey really, but every step has made sense. My parents instilled in me a lot of belief and the sense that I could do anything. That has meant that even I’m not qualified for something I’ll still see if I can do it.
I went to Uni and did Journalism. I did a web journalism module where I learned basic HTML & CSS. A little bit after a friend needed a website and I agreed to make it for her. I just loved it, and realised that I could start charging for them and make a bit of money in my final year of Uni. This was around 2007/08 so it wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now.
I set up a company doing that after uni selling the whole thing; SEO, Web Marketing etc and got really into analytics. Very much data driven marketing.
Through that I got involved with the University of Sheffield’s Young Enterprise because they became a client of mine. A position opened up with them as a Digital Editor which later became Marketing Co-ordinator.
The turning point was probably my involvement with Startup Weekend. I got involved with organising that because it just looked awesome. That completely changed my whole perspective.
“Startup Weekend completely changed my whole perspective”
By this time I’d closed down my digital marketing business and was running an e-commerce business. I was about a year into running that company and that event showed me that I’d been doing everything wrong because the rules for tech startups are quite different to the rules for traditional businesses.
“The rules for tech startups are quite different to the rules for traditional businesses.”
In any startup you are operating in an environment of extreme uncertainty so to write a business plan sort of becomes redundant. I realised I needed to go out and speak to customers and I became pretty obsessed with customer validation.
I really involved myself in the startup community and lean startup methodologies, MVP’s, how to test, validate, pivot and move on from failure. I started passing this on to the staff and students at the Enterprise Unit with talks and things. That eventually led to me becoming a tech startup coach.
What made you close down your existing e-commerce business at that time?
The business was customised giftware and at the time we started there were a couple of people doing it quite badly. So there was a market opportunity. However, in the 8-9 months we had been working on it part time, others had overtaken us. There was also disagreement amongst the founders and a lack of compatibility in terms of the vision for the business so I basically felt it was broken. If you’re founding team is broken then you are finished.
“If you’re founding team is broken then you are finished.”
I did get a couple of offers for other things but none of them were interesting enough. What did get me excited and eventually led me to start a business again was when I started Campus Capital. We see ourselves as a venture startup more than a traditional Venture Capital (VC) firm.
The difference between angel investment and venture capital is that angel’s invest their own money and can do whatever they like with it. VC firm’s invest their investor’s money so it is tightly regulated. VC is a very long term view, you could be locking money up for perhaps ten years and so you need to be able to judge a team and judge where they can take a company over 5, 7 or 10 years.
What is the most important thing you assess?
We’re writing cheques for £50-£20,000 so we’re right at the beginning of the venture pipeline, seed level investment. Our average cheque size will be £150,000 so we’re likely to be the first serious amount of money anyone has taken into their company. It’s often seen as the riskiest stage to invest.
The founders probably haven’t had a previous exit, otherwise they would be using their own money so you have less data to base your decision on. Given you’re in that environment, the team has to be very strong and it has to be more than one person. Expertise in the sector? Track record? Do they understand the market? Do they stand up to questioning?
The first thing an investor will ask for is probably a pitch deck, which should include headline slides like the problem, market and solution. If that piques interest and it fits the investment thesis of the fund, they will probably arrange a coffee and a series of meetings where they will go in more depth and try and establish whether you are full of shit. Do you have the ability to pivot your way out of a difficult situation? They are likely not investing in your plan, as in all likelihood your plan will be wrong as it is so early, so when you are wrong how do you handle that? Do you crash and burn or pivot around the problem?
“There is a lot to say for an entrepreneurial mindset and capability in the founders.”
Tell me more about Campus Capital.
The idea is that outside of London we have a lack of credible venture investment for high growth potential startups. What you get when there is a lack of those investment options is a brain drain as people move to where that funding is. They then setup, grow their business in London and stay there. We never get the benefit of them coming back to their communities in Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds or wherever it may be and spreading that experience and mentoring others.
What we are doing at Campus Capital is giving entrepreneurs the experience of really good venture capital investment from the investors side of the table. They then get to see how those decision are made which will help them when they come to launch their companies.
Campus Capital is not currently invested in anyone because it is such a new fund. We are currently closing down our first £2 million fund which we’ll invest between Sheffield and Manchester. What we have set up is our student VC teams. It’s student VC’s who will be meeting founders and making those early stage investment decisions. We’ve been working on training them and getting them ready for that experience. There are some legal restrictions on what these student VC’s can do but they will be involved in filtering pitch decks, meeting founders and having those early stage discussions. What they can’t do is issue term sheets or say we are definitely going to invest.
“What you get when there is a lack of those investment options is a brain drain.”
What sectors are exciting right now?
Digital technology is growing 30% year on year and the number of high quality jobs that creates is important. Whats interesting from a Venture Capital point of view with digital tech is that it’s easier to launch, and although it’s hard to scale any company, it is much easier to scale a digital model. As far as specific sectors, its difficult because you can get a bit obsessed with trends. But personally I’m really interested in Health, the Internet of Things and AI. It’s less about the technology though and more about the value it can create.
I don’t regret anything because everything creates the foundation for the next thing. Any mistake I may or may not have made led to an opportunity. I firmly believe you can’t have any regrets. It’s not a regret but if I could go back and say something to a younger version of myself it would be ‘go with your gut’ because wherever you go with your gut you will be right.
How is Sheffield doing at the moment?
Sheffield has two amazing universities so from a talent perspective its pretty awesome. Though I hate doing the “The north is cheaper” thing because I think you should sell on value not on cost, value in terms of quality of life is incredible when you take into account average salary in digital tech vs average house price.
In the north we are generally friendlier and more collaborative and that is incredibly important in a startup ecosystem. You have to have a sharing and learning environment and I think we do that really well.
in Sheffield and Manchester we have some of the strongest science and engineering universities in the world, which is a great source of the ‘smart’ in smart capital. If you’re working on an AI company and you need help with R&D you have some great professors here you can reach out to and co-research with.
If I could wave a magic wand I would have a couple more startups in each city closer to an exit, either acquisition or IPO. So people like The Floow, for instance, who just got an big investment. At the point those entrepreneurs are successful not only will they have the capital but they will have the knowledge which can be passed on to build an ecosystem. So that would be my thing, more successful entrepreneurs giving back to the new entrepreneurs.