Committed founders. I really like to get to know the founders as much as the proposition. If the founders are knowledgeable, passionate and committed, that’s usually the biggest swing for me. Emma Sinclair MBE is a great example. She’s Founder of Enterprise Alumni and her passion for people sells itself in the end, translating into her products and customer outcomes.
As part of our series about “5 Things I Need To See Before Making A VC Investment” I had the pleasure of interviewing Emma Maslen, an executive coach and adviser to start-ups. She has worked in sales for tech and software giants such as SAP and BMC. She started investing three years ago, often through the Angel Academe network. Her portfolio of eight companies includes the software developer EnterpriseAlumni. Maslen lives in Leighton Buzzard, Buckinghamshire.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please share with us the “backstory” behind what brought you to this specific career path?
I have been so lucky in my life to have met the most amazing people (career angels) who have guided me along this path. Tech wasn’t a sector I had initially thought about, however, once I had met a few people in the industry and gained an understanding of the industry — I was hooked.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
So many books! However, ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen has to be a favorite.
I discovered the book through an in-flight magazine on my commute from Boston to New York when I worked for Sun Microsystems in 2007. The book talks about the importance of keeping sight of your macro levels goals, even when you are in the ‘doing’ phase.
Whenever I start a new project, role or hobby, I dust off the book — just to make sure I don’t overcommit myself and get overwhelmed. It’s great for working out what you really need to do next.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I left school midway through my A-Levels. Long story, but coming from a working class background I quickly realised that medical school was going to be impossible to fund. I was very academic so my biology teacher and Maths teacher were not pleased when I decided to throw in the towel.
That said, they gave me two amazing pieces of advice:
Biology teacher: “You wont get anywhere in life if you stop learning.”
Maths teacher: “Go for it. If it doesn’t work out, you can always look back.”
It’s just meant that I’ve kept learning and taking risks, knowing that going back is “ok” if I fail.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is all about followership and communication.
Followership is defined as building trust and a safe place to learn and grow, but also to push the boundaries. You really create a followership when your team starts to achieve their life goals through the environment you have created.
This is achieved through clear, concise communication with your team, peers and managers/leaders. This helps build trust and ensures the team are not second-guessing your leadership.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I mentor on average 5–7 people at once on a rolling quarterly cycle. It’s so important to help others find their career ladders and work their way up. I have been blessed to see so many I have mentored being promoted once, or even several times, recently. This gives me a huge kick and helps drive my passion.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our discussion. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share a few things that need to be done on a broader societal level to expand VC opportunities for women, minorities, and people of color?
I used to be really against quotas. Whilst I don’t believe this should be a long-term solution, it helps drive the agenda to allow minorities to be seen, heard and given a chance to be successful.
Can you share a story with us about your most successful Angel or VC investment? What was its lesson?
All of my investments are very early stages, however, a lesson I have learnt is that if you’re embarking on the Angel journey you should create a portfolio, rather than going for just one investment. We invested a lot early on in one company. Whilst I don’t regret this investment, I think I may have overlooked other investments by getting a little too over-excited by the first one.
Can you share a story of an Angel or VC funding failure of yours? What was its lesson?
I haven’t had one yet.
Can you share a story with us about a problem that one of your portfolio companies encountered and how you helped to correct the problem? We’d love to hear the details and what its lesson was.
Raising cash is always the biggest challenge. I worked with two of my investments last year on raises. In both cases they struggled to see the route to cash — especially after covid hit. By breaking down the investment needed and going to their own networks, Angels emerged very quickly and both companies raised above and beyond their expectations. In one case, the Angels came through with twice the goal amount.
Super. Here is the main question of this interview. What are your “5 things I need to see before making a VC investment” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Committed founders
I really like to get to know the founders as much as the proposition. If the founders are knowledgeable, passionate and committed, that’s usually the biggest swing for me. Emma Sinclair MBE is a great example. She’s Founder of Enterprise Alumni and her passion for people sells itself in the end, translating into her products and customer outcomes.
2. Who is their personal board?
The team at ImproveWell have done a great job on this. CEO Lara Mott has surrounded herself with amazing investors and advisory board members to further the company’s goals. Entrepreneurs cannot win their battles alone, so successful people in the industry who you can leverage are vital, especially when you are small.
3. Is there a business case for the product?
One of my slightly off-the-wall investments is in Forte Medical, who are trying to help the NHS gather accurate urine specimens for more accurate patient diagnosis. Yes, you read that correctly. The NHS is under so much pressure right now, and Forte is ensuring ‘right first time’ diagnosis of medical issues. Misdiagnosis not only causes patient discomfort, but is one of the biggest drains on the NHS.
4. Energy of the team
Seema Khinda Johnson and Alastair Johnson, Founders of Nuggets, have created a super energetic team who live and breathe the company mission. You can’t help but see how customers can be won over by the excitement and innovation they are creating.
5. Follow the plan
Finally, Angels want to see founders creating a plan and following that plan. Yes, things change, but the essence of the plan and milestones should be followed. Lee McQueen and Chris Wimshurst, the Founders of Phoenix51, have been unbelievably successful at this in 2020. The Phoenix51 team set themselves lofty goals in a COVID year, held themselves to account and smashed it. This gives investors confidence in the future and will ensure a steady stream of future investment.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Quite simply, more people need to give back and mentor. If you are successful and have the privilege to be in a job right now, you will know of vacancies and ideas to help people less fortunate. If we all utilize the resources available to us (mentors and vacancies), I have no doubt about the impact we could make by connecting the dots.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Ooh. Tough one. I would have to say Carla Harris from Morgan Stanley who wrote the books ‘Expect to Win’ and ‘Strategize to Win’. Not only is Carla an Afro-American with huge success on Wall Street, but she is a mum and one of the most energetic and positively infectious people I have ever had the privilege to see speak.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.