Jason Ball's TechBytes

Technology & Venture Capital. Early stage venture capital news mixed with personal views and comments

Investing in Grand Cru

Following my previous posts on why I decided to make any given investment, I thought I’d share briefly why I decided to make an investment into the gaming space – an area where many investors fear to tread. The first game from Grand Cru, Supernauts, has been in further development for 1 year since we invested. Without the product in the market, this post was largely meaningless. (You can grab the Supernauts game here and give it a whirl. Just be warned, you might get addicted and end up spending your entire pay check on gems: http://www.appstore.com/supernauts)

Looking at my Three P’s of Venture Capital:

People: The team at Grand Cru has enough successes behind them to warrant an investment on their own: Markus Pasula (ex Mr Goodliving) and Mikko Wilkman (ex Habbo Hotel) are two of the co-founders behind the company (and the ones I interacted with the most during the investment process). We had zero scalability issues at launch (some secrets here)- testament to Mikko’s work behind the scenes for Supernauts. We had great featuring from Apple – testament to Markus’ (and the Marketing team’s) ability to engage with great partners.

Product: When I saw the Supernauts demo, my mouth fell open. Literally. It was easy to see how it could be a hit game – tried and testing building mechanic, coupled with cool space characters and a very user friendly, mass market game play.

Potential: Games either take off like a rocket, or  do a belly flop. Time will tell what happens to the Supernauts, but with 1M downloads in the first 6 days, it looks like they may be taking off…

This is a case where, despite having a great first product to go to market with, I had to take a bet on the team. Grand Cru is a games studio, not a product. They are in the game making business, and I have to trust that the water in Helsinki will continue to produce the types of games that millions of people want to play, and pay for. Supernauts is only the first in a string of titles the Company plans on producing…

Finally, I think a big congratulations to the entire Grand Cru team is in order (not just the two co-founders I single out here) – there has been an incredible effort to bring Supernauts to market.
Blog-photo2-620x413 <– Happy Cru

Filed under: Venture Capital

Investing in Rockpack

Earlier this summer, I posted on why I led our investment in Wrapp. I promised as part of that post to circle back around with a post on a seed investment, to compare the two since they’re clearly at different stages. Here then, are my thoughts on Rockpack, and how they relate to my previous posts Three P’s of Venture Capital and Terminal Velocity. Looking at each post in turn:

Three P’s of Venture Capital

1) People. First off, Sofia Fenichell is female. That means, as a tech entrepreneur, she’s already the top 2%. You have to fight hard, and after you meet her, you realize she’s top 1%. Always on, always connected, always pushing, always asking questions. Very intense. She’s managed to assemble a list of rock stars to help her build out her vision. She possesses a rare ability to get in front of people for meetings as well (Stephen Fry, Jamie Oliver) and get them on board with her vision. There is a reason Rockpack has been featured in both the US and the UK App Stores the day after launch, and featured by Wired. That reason is Sofia Fenichell (and the Rockpack team).

2) Product. Simple, clear use case. The company has designed away as much of the interface as they can – but when we invested, there was only a vision of curated content. As I tweeted a while back – “in the age of the infinite, curation is king”

3) Potential. Video is a huge market. If Rockpack can crack it with a great UI/UX, they will be very successful. That, or they will fail. Customers will decide.

Terminal Velocity

a) Lots of funding. $2M seed round, it’s a good start.

b) Office in the US. Not yet. NYC is on the horizon though.

c) Connections. I’m not even going to start- there are too many to list. And they’ve all been drummed up since we invested in December, even though the list of contacts started before then.

d) Chutzpah. I think if you look up Chutzpah in the dictionary, you see a picture of Sofia. She’s charming though… and super smart.

That’s it. I took a view to write a relatively small check pre-product, when there were only mock-ups of what it would look like. The product that launched last in June looks *nothing* like what I invested into. So, that means I invested in People. I realize this post is focused on the CEO vs the team – and that belies the huge effort they’ve put in to make Rockpack a reality. Without them, Sofia would only have a vision… but without Sofia, I wouldn’t have invested.

Filed under: Mobile, Venture Capital

Investing in Wrapp

As part of an ongoing effort to be more transparent and open about venture and investing, I thought I’d set out a few reasons for why I led the effort behind Qualcomm Ventures’ recent investment into Wrapp (great interview with Carl where he discuses product and roadmap).

Looking back at my recent posts, The Three P’s of Venture Capital and Terminal Velocity, let’s look at how Wrapp fits those criteria:

1) People. The team has a vision, is passionate and can execute. I’ve known co-founder Andreas Ehn for many years, I’ve worked with Creandum at Videoplaza for the past 18 months, I knew Hjalmar Winbladh, Niklas Zenstromm and Reid Hoffman by reputation. All star line-up of team and investors.

2) Product. Simple, clean app with a razor sharp mobile focus. Easy to use and easy to like (really, who doesn’t like to get a gift?). While considering whether or not to invest, I talked to quite a few users who didn’t like the product- they LOVED the product. (I also talked to quite a few users that hated it. Everyone has an opinion.) I listened to the 1 million+ people that have downloaded the app, and the 15 Million gifts that have been sent.

3) Potential. Wrapp crosses the digital/physical divide- they can move people into stores, gyms, restaurants, etc and convert those feet into purchases. That is potentially huge. It’s still early days, but that conversion cycle is very compelling for brands and retailers. The market for gift cards is $110 Billion in the US alone- disrupting that market is a major opportunity. Marketing is a hard space to be in… and it’s not getting easier. Brands and companies need to engage with customers, and Wrapp offers them a great way to do that on a deeper basis.

4) Terminal Velocity. Subcategories were:

a) Lots of funding. $15M Series B. Check.

b) Office in the US. Wrapp is roughly split between Stockholm and San Francisco. Check.

c) Connections. Spotify, Microsoft, Skype, Linkedin,Creandum, Atomico, Greylock, American Express. Check.

d) Chutzpah. Being Swedish, not so much… they’re too understated, but there’s certainly a lot of charisma and charm.

Clearly, the company’s metrics and performance were very compelling as well – growth, retention, engagement, etc.

I could go through this exact same list for our investment in Waze back in 2010 and have very similar answers for each point above. Critically, Waze had hit the 1 million user mark; that’s a fundamental milestone that’s very indicative of a company’s success. Granted, you need many, many green lights to all work in your favor to get to a successful result, but the raw materials for success were there.

Also, I recognize this is for a Series B investment, so I’ll do the same exercise for my latest seed investment once that’s announced in a few weeks.

Filed under: Mobile, Venture Capital

Terminal Velocity

I posted my Three P’s of Venture Capital a few weeks back – Product, People and Potential.

There’s another component that I take into consideration as well: Terminal Velocity

The terminal velocity of a falling object is the velocity of the object when the sum of the drag force (Fd) and buoyancy equals the downward force of gravity (FG) acting on the object. Since the net force on the object is zero, the object has zero accelerationWikipedia

E.g. you need to be going fast enough to overcome the Earth’s gravitational pull. Or, for startups, you’ve got to have enough momentum and acceleration to break away… There are several components to this, and they don’t all have to be there, but one of them gives you the fuel you need….

1) Lots of funding. This is pretty straight forward – you have cash to do everything fast – and if you really raise a lot of money, implement the King Maker Strategy, e.g. raise so much funding you can guarantee your own success.
2) Office in the US (or plans to have one quickly) – either NYC or SF. Depending on where customers and partners are. This also gets you closer to your most likely acquirers. Keep R&D wherever you have it, and head West.
3) Connections. You need intros and doors to be opened. What’s that you say? “But that’s your job Mr VC to make intros” True, it is, and it’s something that all VCs do to varying extents. But you need your own networks – maybe you’re an ex-Googler or you went to Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or your co-founder did, etc. The old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” still matters. More than you possibly realize. You can borrow this from your investors, but you need to bring some of your own connections to the party. If you don’t have them, start making them. You will need them.
4) Chutzpah. Use this if you’re short on any of the above. With enough will, charisma, sheer determination and a bit of luck, you can break away. But this one is more of an art, but I have seen it in action – and it’s impressive.

I’m sure there are a few more I could add (great design comes to mind) – and feel free to add any in the comments below.

Hopefully this gives more color on what’s going on inside my head when I’m thinking about an investment…and what you need to make it as an entrepreneur.

Filed under: Entrepreneurship, Europreneurship, Technology, Venture Capital

It’s not easy being green

This may seem odd, but one of my favorite new companies sells laundry detergent. As an entrepreneur (or investor) there’s a lot to be learned from the Company…

First a preface: I’m not a crazy tree-hugger, but I’m fortunate enough to live in a place where being green is relatively straight forward- central London. I don’t own a car (it’s impractical), I ride a bicycle and take public transportation, there are recycling containers in my apartment building, most of the lights in the house are eco lights, I shop locally and try to buy local, in season foods, when possible, etc. Most of this is a by-product of where I live vs some deep belief that cycling in the cold rain is better for mother earth than driving in a warm, dry car (traffic in London is a nightmare).

Back to the story – a few months ago I stumbled across a company called Splosh.com. They have introduced an environmentally friendly detergent brand. The concept is simple: you buy a few empty bottles, they sell you a few refills, you add water and presto magico: you have your cleaning product.

Why did this impress me so much? In a nutshell, it’s a very innovative solution to a problem the founding team felt strongly about, and they did an amazing job convincing me I should part with some of my money on their website. Here’s part of the story, straight from their site:

The logic of recycling is not consistent across different material types. For example, it makes a good sense to recycle aluminium cans, but the logic for recycling plastic homecare bottles is less clear.

Let’s see what happens to that plastic washing up liquid bottle you put out for recycling.

And finally these pellets are re-manufactured into another washing up liquid bottle? No.

Owing to ‘taint’ (the residue left from home and personal care products) only bottles containing drinks can be recycled into other bottles. So your washing up liquid bottle gets turned into something like a fleece or a road traffic cone. In other words it’s not recycled, it’s ‘down-cycled’. And when this new product comes to the end of its life? It can be down-cycled no further and ends up in landfill.

The sad fact is: every plastic home cleaning and laundry bottle ultimately goes to landfill – and that’s not something you would imagine happens from looking at that neat little recycling logo.

So when a bottle is made from recycled material, the material used is usually either ‘pre- consumer’ waste (in other words un-used bottles) or former drinks bottles. Milk bottles are often used as they provide a consistent source of material with little contamination. This means that a recycling logo on a home cleaning product bottle does not stop the manufacture of another home cleaning bottle the next time you buy the product. It’s an illogical system and we can do so much better.

After reading that, you’re kind of hooked. But then enter splosh’s killer reflill approach: they sell small refill sachets that can easily be shipped via regular mail. They cost <$5 per order. That’s less than you’d pay for the competing product on grocery store shelves, and you don’t have to lug it home (remember, I ride a bike). Plus, they’ve done this enough that you get a refill reminder email a few weeks before you run out….which is just plain smart. Re-ordering is a simple process that results in 2-3 clicks max. I’ve used up my intro pack and have placed a few refill orders already. I will be a long-time customer because the products deliver, I save money and it’s environmentally sound. Talk about win-win-win.

Building a D2C brand on the internet isn’t simple, and we can learn a lot from the company:

1) Focus on a real problem

2) Be PASSIONATE about what you do

3) Find a great business model – you may have to borrow from other industries (classic razor blade model at Splosh)

4) Storytelling is a power brand-builder

5) Offer an introductory special – anything to get the ball rolling. If you can charge for this, even better.

6) Use your data to provide a better customer experience

7) Go for green bonus points!

So, if you live in the UK, go grab some splosh. Or buy it for a friend as a bizarre birthday present. Mother Earth will smile on you (even if your friend thinks you’re odd).

Filed under: Entrepreneurship, Venture Capital

The Perfect Pitch

Last week I posted on how you can meet VCs- this week it’s how to get the most out of that meeting.

What format should you use for the first presentation? This is the template that I developed over several years, and recommend whenever an entrepreneur asks what format to use. It’s a time tested format I’ve used for multiple pitch events that I’ve run- it works. The most important part of this pitch is your demo. Make sure that it’s flawless.

The objective of your first meeting is to get to a second meeting. You will start to drill down on one or two points of the company for that meeting. Then you will move on to other points for later meetings. But, for the first meeting, you want to give a fly-over, and leave plenty of time for discussion. Focus on the Product – your demo. It will be the shining point everything else is built on…

So, here’s the Presentation Outline. Stray from this sequence at your own peril.

1. Problem
2. Solution
3. PRODUCT DEMO OR SCREEN SHOTS OF PRODUCT
4. Business Model
5. Underlying magic/ technology
6. Market
7. Competition
8. Milestones/Timeline
9. Financials/Forecasts
10. Summary slide

Good luck!

Filed under: Events, Conferences and Panels, Venture Capital

3 Steps to Meeting Investors (at Events)

You’re at a big event, lots of investors are there – how do you optimize your chances of getting an investment from a VC or angel investor? Follow these three steps (and do not stray).

Your goal is to get a meeting. You’re not going to close a deal right there on the spot- understanding that and what you’re trying to achieve is essential. Securing funding is a multi-step process- you only need to take one step at a time. Step one is getting that meeting. So, on to the process:

1) Do not, and I repeat, do not walk up randomly and pitch them on the spot. (Aka Don’t pitch me, bro!)
VCs are busy – even if they are standing there alone, it’s been a full day of meetings meeting new companies or working with current ones. Their brain is full. They are probably tired. They probably don’t want to hear about your business – even if it’s a deal of great interest. If that’s the case, why are they there? For one, to keep current contacts fresh – to say Hi, ask about progress, see other VCs- ask about deals, etc. But, they are also there to meet new people… so, how do you meet them?

2) Get an intro from another VC, Angel or Portfolio Company.

Social validation is your best friend. Getting an intro to a VC is old info, but it’s far and away your best option. It is also rarely how companies approach me. Your chances of gettting a meeting go up exponentially if you’re introduced. Case in point- I was at the Seedcamp party last week. I’m chatting with the Seedcamp team on how the week had been going when a VC walks up to me with an entrepreneur in tow- he says “Sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to introduce you to Mr. X. I think they’re doing something great that would be of interest to you. How about I send you an email next week to connect you two?”. And that was it. The chances of Mr. X getting an HOUR of my time the following week was 100% at that point. The gain there is huge – my undivided attention and a full hour of it. Not 15 min in a loud venue, with no demo, no deck. And probably no deal.

3) Walk away.

Once you’ve made contact and made a good first impression – get out of there! In the above example, the entrepreneur simply shook my hand, said hello, and said he’d look forward to exchanging info. That’s the perfect thing to have done. I stopped him later in the evening, asked where he was based, and started checking dates for a meeting.

Now, you’ve got the meeting with the VC – what do you do? Prepare your slide deck and demo. I’ll post next week on my thoughts on the perfect pitch.

Good luck!

Filed under: Events, Conferences and Panels, Venture Capital

That two letter word…

[This is a guest post I wrote in 2010 on 24waystostart. It still applies, so I thought I'd repost it here]

“No.” It has to be one of hardest, yet most frequent words an investor says…

It’s not easy for us to say, and many times, not easy for an entrepreneur to hear. You’ve been working hard on your business, you think it’s great, your only friend thinks it’s great (you’ve lost everyone else because you’ve been holed up working on your project), your family parted with their hard-earned cash to help you out… and then you meet with investors and they say No.

Great. “Investors are such idiots” you’ll think… well, maybe. Or maybe not. It turns out No has many meanings…

First, I’ll admit I personally hate saying no, but I do try to be pretty blunt when doing so, and giving a good reason why I say no (not always, but I try). Your job as an Entrepreneur is to figure out what the investor is saying when they say no… because there are different flavors of No, and different reasons for No.

The most frequent No is actually “Not now”. If that is the case, all is not lost, find out how to get to “Yes.”. It’s going to be a specific milestone or proof point. Find out what it is, ask clearly if you achieve x or y, will they invest at that point. The answer will normally be “Yes.”, and they will lay out exactly what they want to see. This usually lowers the risk of some element they’re not comfortable with yet. If that’s the case – then get on it and get back there. You’ll find a way.

There’s also a variant of “Not now” known as the Excalibur Test. I’ve given many entrepreneurs the Excalibur Test – give them something to do then have them come back with it later. If they’re successful, you write a check. And if they don’t come back…well, the story ends there. Excalibur tests or proof points are fine; but be careful that an investor doesn’t have you running around in circles when they have no real intention of investing—regardless of the outcome.

Another reason investors say “No” is bandwidth. Most people don’t realize an investor will only make 1-5 deals per year—depending on many factors (stage, size, etc.) They may actually like your business, but simply can’t deal with another investment at that exact moment in time, even though they love it. It definitely happens…

Other reasons you may get a No: lack of fit with the firm or individual’s investment thesis/areas or stage. This one is far more likely. Many investors are not what they seem. Every VC you meet in London will say “We do early stage.” What they actually mean is “We invest in profitable companies that don’t really need money”. The risk profile of that firm is simply not one that’s going to invest into an early stage – let alone a seed stage business. Everyone says “Great companies get funded.” but that’s an urban myth. I know several very good companies that haven’t been able to get funded because they were simply “too early”. Think about Fit and Stage when you’re talking to an investor and understand that you may simply not fit the bill. You can test this by asking if they think you should talk to someone else. If they make a suggestion, ask for an intro. You will have confirmed that you’re not right for them, and the intro helps act as validation for your business in the next investors eyes.

Another reason investors may say No is simply a lack of vision. They don’t actually get what you’re doing. It happens a lot. This one is really easy to spot, and understand. If this is the type of No you get, take it and move on. It doesn’t mean they’re an idiot (although that’s what you’ll be thinking), and it also doesn’t mean you’re some gifted visionary (which actually you may be). More likely it just means you see the world differently. It’s a simple No. Move on…

And then sometimes, the No is actually because the baby is… well… ugly. No one likes the Ugly Baby and it’s even worse to have to say it; but bad ideas are plentiful. Perhaps the business won’t scale well (niche business), will be difficult to execute operationally (manually intensive, for example), doesn’t create any real value (reselling someone else’s product/service), is crawling with competitors, etc. This is the hardest one to swallow. When it finally sinks in… and you realize that you’re working on a dud, I’d recommend you cut your losses and do something else.

Whatever answer you hear, focus on your business (unless it’s an ugly baby), and your customers. You’ll get to a yes… maybe it’s a different investor, or it’s a paying customer. But it will be a Yes.

Keep pushing. Believe in yourself.

Filed under: Venture Capital

The Three P’s of Venture Capital

I’ve written many times about what VCs are looking for and what I’m looking for in particular.

I sent out a tweet recently about my 3 P’s of investing and thought I’d elaborate briefly.

1) People. I have to like you. I have to think we can work together. That you’re smart. Opinionated. Informed. That you listen, ask questions, ask for help. That you have a vision and you’re passionate about what you’re doing and that you can execute.

2) Product. I have to love it. Not like it, not see how others might like it after a few beers, but love it. I have want to touch the product, marvel at the design, dream about using the product again. It has to be unique. Not “The Airbnb of lunch” or “Spotify for newspapers”….

3) Potential. We’re doing this to impact millions of people. Why settle for less? In some cases though, great margins on high priced products with smaller markets are good too.

Hard to fit all that fine print into 140 characters…

Filed under: Venture Capital

The European start-up scene. It’s finally working.

What a difference a year makes.

Last April, I posted that:

Europe has always had problems gaining start-up momentum – there’s no epicenter, there’s no critical mass- and there are no Heros.

The Wired 100 list has gone a long way towards making 100 heroes visibile. Big applause for the Wired team. This year’s Wired 100 is on stands now – one person I was happy to see on the “bubbling list” – John Taysom. He’s an awesome guy. I’ve got a few other personal favorites that aren’t on the list yet, but I’ll cheer for them in silence… oh, and obviously congrats to everyone that’s on the list.

Europe *has* a start up scene now – and fortunately for me – most of it revolves around London. Spotify, Mind Candy (Moshi Monsters), Soundcloud – all amazing companies are doing well on a global stage. Young startups like Groupspaces or Lightbox (go David, go Thai) are popping up and getting funding from tier 1 investors.

I could count on one hand the number of hot European startups two years ago. I can count them on two hands now. I might even have to throw in a toe or two as well.

Silicon Roundabout is real now – thanks largely to initiatives like techhub. Seedcamp continues to expand it’s footprint and pulls together the who’s who of the European start-up world during seedcamp week each September. There’s an event this weekend spear-headed by Songkick for developers – silicon milkroundabout. Sign up for it here. This just wasn’t happening 2 years ago…

There’ve been some interesting companies getting acquired -M&A activity is picking up significantly – and money is getting returned to investors in Europe. But, we need to see more high-profile European IPOs. Skype is grabbing for the ring, just got bought by Microsoft for a cool $8.5bn, Daniel Ek at Spotify is (rumored) to be gunning for an IPO. (That would be awesome if you did Daniel.)

All of this is coming together to make London a hot spot. It’s a great time to be here… (plus the weather’s really great this year). One more turn of the wheel and I think we’re there -

Filed under: Europreneurship, Events, Conferences and Panels, Mergers and Acquisitions, Venture Capital

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