So long Europe and thanks for all the fish
TLDR — I’m moving to Australia; I’m joining Airtree Ventures; cue gushing over the people and trajectory of the European startup scene…
After 5 wonderful years in London, Karen and I have decided to move back to Australia. The allure of family, childhood friends and opportunity there was ultimately too strong. If you’ll indulge me, I want to share some experiences from my time in the European tech scene and gush about its people and trajectory. The startup landscape has changed immeasurably during my time, it’s awesome, and it’s home to some of the smartest, nicest, most talented people you’ll ever meet. #EUTechFTW 🚀
❤ London 2011 ❤
In early 2011 Karen and I made the big decision to upend our lives and move from Sydney to London. My farewell email to my BCG colleagues included a quip which I genuinely thought to be true: “and so I’m leaving the world’s best strategy consulting firm for a short stint at business school where I’ll join with others to daydream about one day becoming a strategy consultant.”
Well that didn’t happen!
The introspection afforded by a year out of the daily grind gave me perspective. Software and smartphones were changing everything. Fast. At BCG I had been advising big companies on this and helping them adapt. But the most impactful work was being done by folks inside startups being built on these trends. I desperately wanted to be one of them, but I was also cautious. Having previously founded my own (failed) startup, I knew how hard it was to create something from nothing.
So I took a summer job at Facebook. It was there that I met a charismatic Salvadoran named Christian Hernandez. We clicked immediately, talking at length about the rise of mobile (you might remember that Facebook’s mobile experience was less than stellar at the time...). We violently agreed that smartphones would change everything. Somehow he seemed to sense how keen I was to find something exciting, but couldn’t quite figure out what. “Want to meet the smartest entrepreneur I’ve come across in a long while?” he said one day. And so the intro to Nick D’Aloisio was made. “Oh by the way, he’s 16” Christian added, almost as an afterthought.
All of a sudden, knowing very few people in the European tech scene, I serendipitously found myself in one of its hottest startups.
This, it turns out, is how recruiting in early stage tech works. Seed stage founders don’t have time to run proper recruitment processes. Most of the time they don’t even know what role they want to fill. They just want smart people who can get sh1t done. I’ve been asked countless times since how to get into exciting companies and my advice is always the same: you need to engineer serendipity.
Led by an incredible founder, guided by a brilliant and hands-on President, surrounded by some of the smartest people I’ve ever come across, we had an incredible ride. The Summly story and acquisition has been well documented so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice to say that it provided some of the most memorable moments of my career thus far: being mesmerised on Twitter as thousands of strangers started sharing our summaries on launch day; watching our servers collapse as Apple featured us globally; experiencing the diabolical stress that seems to be an inevitable rite of passage in startups; feeling exhilarated when we received an award from Apple for Best App of 2012. The list goes on and on.
Summly was a wonderful experience for me and its outcome is a testament to Nick’s vision, technical smarts and raw hustle. It has left an indelible impact on my career; Bart has become my closest mentor, and I’m delighted to call Nick, Frank, Eugene, Inderjeet, Andy and Haran friends.
But all of a sudden we were acquired by Yahoo and I found myself ejected from the rollercoaster.
What do you want to do when you grow up?
I’d tasted the drug. I’d felt the power of Summly’s machine learning algorithm. I’d witnessed the incredible, global distribution afforded by the App Store. I’d seen the future.
Big companies are important, but I needed to be in and around startups for the rest of my life. It was time to engineer some more serendipity. I told everyone I knew. Folks in the London ecosystem were incredibly generous with their time and introductions. I won’t name names for fear of omission, but you all know you are — thank you.
Ultimately it was that smooth Salvadoran who would prove to be the answer to my question of what comes next.
When Christian told me he was thinking about starting a venture fund, that felt like a big deal. I knew first hand the impact he was having on multiple startups through his role at Facebook. When he asked me to join him as part of the founding team at White Star Capital, it was a no brainer. He had been transformational for me already, and was offering to do it again. If Christian were a startup, I’d back him every time.
I quickly met his partners and it made total sense. Jean-Francois, the founder of Ludia which had recently been acquired by Freemantle. Eric, the TMT financier who as an angel had bet early on companies like Dollar Shave Club, Betaworks and Science Inc. The complementarity of the team was undeniable. I was also excited by the transatlantic model, which offered genuine differentiation in a world of same-same funds.
Founders sometimes scoff at VCs for not knowing what it’s like. Trust me — I’ve been on both sides — first time funds know what it’s like. Raising a $70m first time fund is akin to a startup trying to raise a Series C round with a team and no product. That we did so is a testament to the passion, smarts and hustle of the White Star team.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting spectacular founders and being involved in a number of investments which I’m proud to be associated with. Dice, Hole19, Glow (now AdGlow), Cryex, KeyMe, Aire and a couple which I hope are announced sooner rather than later! I’ve huge admiration and respect for the entrepreneurs behind these and many of our other portfolio companies and am also delighted to call them friends.
As a first time VC in a first time fund, I’ve learned a tonne. The role of a VC is very different to that of a company executive. Relationships matter much more. Your long term goals are more clear; your short term ones much less so. You need to be across everything, but are likely not a true expert in anything. You can’t actually fix problems or run the business — that’s not your role. You are fuel to the fire, but you are not the fire itself. Other than your network, intellectual honesty, analytical rigour and empathy are your key assets. You can operate for years without being able to point back to concrete successes. It’s stimulating, challenging, infuriating and exciting — all at the same time.
EU tech — my, how things have changed
It’s been incredible to be part of the UK and broader EU tech scenes. Things have come on in leaps and bounds. White Star is just one example of a new breed of funds in the ecosystem with a West Coast level of ambition and smarts. It is joined by a host of exciting new funds such as Entrepreneur First, Seedcamp, Mosaic, Blue Yard, Felix, Connect, Spring, Backed VC and more.
This is both because of, and fantastic for, European founders. After decades of relative dormancy, European tech has awoken. It’s now commonplace for European startups to have the kind of success that was an anomaly in the past. Spotify, King.com, Deepmind, Funding Circle, Transferwise, Farfetch, Zendesk and many, many more have become household names. And yes American critics, Europe now has a decacorn too!
Tech and startups have become part of the national dialogue in the UK. The government has been world-leading in its support of entrepreneurs and in stimulating investment. Heck, 8 of my friends just received Queen’s honours — who would have predicted that 5 years ago?!
Perhaps most important, however, is the cultural shift. Where entrepreneurialism was once frowned upon in establishment circles, the most talented people in the country now all want to work in startups. Having seen the insides of top tier law and consulting firms, I can say this with some authority — the graduates coming into organisations like Entrepreneur First outshine any big company analyst program.
That cultural shift is also one of positivity, unbeknown to more established industries. In a place which is very old, the European tech world feels very new. Rivalries exist, but they are not entrenched like on the East and West Coasts. Folks here are more collaborative and less cliquey. When someone like Nick D’Aloisio succeeds, we all share in that success. It’s awesome.
Since Summly, my primary focus has been on machine learning and AI — a space which has become a perfect case study for the rise of UK tech. The UK has become a world leader on par with the West Coast; I’ve discussed the reasons here and elsewhere.
Five of the most important AI acquisitions in the past 12 months — Deepmind, Swiftkey, Magic Pony, Prediction IO and VocalIQ — all to premier US technology companies, are illustrative of this. The founders of three of these companies have spoken at London.AI, the quarterly event Alex and I co-founded to help London’s AI founders compete on a global scale. Within London.AI’s thriving community I see a strong pipeline of AI successes to come. There is a genuine opportunity for UK startups to impact the future of artificial intelligence just as Alan Turing impacted programming itself.
Despite all this, Karen and I are both Australian and feel the inexorable draw of family and friends there. It turns out that Australia really is a long way away and unfortunately it seems unlikely a teleportation company will release an MVP any time soon. So we’ve decided to move home.
I’ll be back regularly, but I know it won’t be quite the same. The stars have aligned in EU tech over the past 5 years; something huge is happening here. I’ve made many great and lasting friendships with whom coffees and events will become Skype calls and Facetime.
Naturally I’m also excited about moving to Australia and joining its tech community. The world is getting ever-smaller and there’s a lot happening Downunder too. For a country with just 22m people, Australia can point to an impressive array of unicorns and successful tech companies like Atlassian, Campaign Monitor, Xero (New Zealand counts!), OzForex, Bigcommerce, Canva, Zoox and others. I have much to learn but from what I’ve seen so far, there are lots more in the pipeline too! In fact, it doesn’t feel miles apart from the status of the UK’s tech scene when I moved here in 2011. I hope I can do my bit to help the Australian scene grow and flourish like Europe’s has. Deliveroo riders roaming Sydney’s streets will be a constant source of inspiration.
I love everything about venture — I spend my time with the smartest entrepreneurs helping them think about and build the future. I’m therefore delighted to be continuing my career as a VC and joining AirTree Ventures. I can’t wait to learn from a team which has returned two previous funds 4X cash on cash and who are seeking to build the best venture platform for entrepreneurs in Australasia. I’ll be sharing more on that, and my learnings along the way, very soon.
To all my awesome friends and colleagues in European tech: congratulations, keep going, keep in touch, and most of all — thank you! 😍