Written by Silvio Memme
As we have continued to expand the team globally at OMERS Ventures, we’ve talked a lot about the value of bringing in investors from non-traditional backgrounds. In fact, our UK-based Managing Partner Jambu Palaniappan blogged about it earlier this year when we were hiring in the UK. And our global head of ventures, Damien Steel, also alluded to it when he wrote about the Partnership group.
I was told more times than I can count that venture capital really wasn’t ‘the place for me’ — but somehow, here I am reflecting on my first year as a VC. I have certainly had an unconventional route into this career and thought it might be inspiring for others considering this path to read about how it happened. Inspiring might sound like a big word and definitely not one that I would use to describe myself, but when you have the chance to sit back and reflect on where you’ve been and where you are going (spoiler alert: you don’t often have that time as an associate at a VC firm), you realize that there are some themes — namely determination, resilience, and quite a lot of luck — that are worth reminding yourself of and potentially sharing with others.
From the age of eight I dreamed of designing engines for Ferrari. Everyone told me, in not so many words, that I was a fantasist, and might want to set my sights on something more realistic. But shortly after finishing my Masters degree I found myself having been selected as one of five applicants (out of 8000!) to go and work for the company in Maranello, Italy, as an Engine Development Engineer. I had (and still do have) Ferrari blood running through my veins, and I am convinced that my deep and longstanding passion for the brand (which meant I knew all there was to know about the market, the competition, the ethos of Ferrari… and their engines 😊) played a huge part in me getting that opportunity. Not to mention regular checks to find out if the company was hiring…
Maybe it’s not surprising, given how much I had built it up in my mind, but the experience didn’t really meet my expectations. It did, however, kick off a whole series of events that would lead to several years working for automotive companies around the world, finally ending up working for Alfa Romeo. I found myself back in Italy, working with much of my old team at Ferrari, which turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, both personally and professionally (so far!).
Fast forward a few years, and I had spent eight years living my dream of becoming an expert in engine system design for some of the world’s largest auto OEMs, living in different countries, and meeting amazing people. But anyone that knows me knows that the only thing I love more than my work is my family…I was ready to go home. To Toronto.
So, I decided to do what I did best — I went back to school. This time to get my MBA. Like any good engineer, I tried to set out a plan and execute, and when trying to fill in the blank of Quit Job -> do MBA -> move to Toronto -> work in ???, I was introduced to the world of venture capital from one of my mentors and confidants at FCA. I began to research the industry and came across this talk from legendary investor Doug Leone at Sequoia. I fell in love with the idea of working in VC. The ability to combine critical thinking skills, understanding of what it takes to commercialize innovation and my love of all things entrepreneurial convinced me I had a lot of value to add. More importantly, his description of the gritty, never-take-no-for-an-answer attitude resonated with me.
I naively began doing completely cold outreach to VC firms in Toronto (didn’t realize at that time I was already flexing my VC toolkit) and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet Brian, who I work closely with today. But convincing a VC firm that I had the chops to be part of their team was going to be another matter altogether. I wasn’t a consultant, I didn’t do banking and I hadn’t had my own startup. After a decade as an automotive engineer, did I really have what it takes to become an investor?
Fast forward past a load of other internships — (including Acerta, an OMERS Ventures portfolio company, Waymo, and an internship with OV itself), some health issues, a global pandemic that meant graduating (remote, of course) into the worst job market in a decade and lots more people telling me I’d never be a fit for VC (see a pattern here?), and I find myself exactly where many people told me I could never be.
One of the great frameworks in any career coach’s arsenal is the career switcher’s trifecta: role, geography and industry. Pick two of the three, because changing them all is impossible. Well… the automotive engineer living in the US Midwest now finds himself as a VC associate in Toronto, helping to build amazing companies in a Canadian tech ecosystem that is booming like never before. I consider all three boxes well and truly ticked!
How? Why? Without a doubt, luck/fate played a huge role in this. But I hope this story shows that persistence really does pay off. For my entire life, I have heard people telling me I can’t do something because I don’t have the right background or don’t know the right people. That may be true — but it sure as hell won’t stop me from trying, nor should it stop anyone else. We all have something to bring to the table — it’s just a matter of being able to demonstrate it, and finding the people willing to listen. I have been fortunate enough to find some of those people along the way and wasn’t afraid to keep knocking on their door until they did…
There are lots of lessons learned along the way, but as I reflect on this transition there are three things that particularly stand out:
Being a VC is harder than I thought.
It’s not the analysis that is hard (for me, anyway), but the ability to cut through the hype (every good founder loves his/ her business, and it is infectious!) and get to the crux of what we need to believe to get a deal done…and then getting those yeses around the table. For someone who loves being able to point to data and a plan that you execute on, you essentially need to throw a lot of that sort of thinking out the window when analyzing early-stage businesses…and learn to trust your gut and believe in a founder’s vision and build trust in their ability to execute.
Sharing an opinion without all the data you would love to have is something the engineer in me has had to get used to. While I despise the VC pattern recognition trope, being able to understand some of the key ingredients when there are so many unknowns is critical and really comes with experience doing deal after deal and watching how the companies unfold over time.
The most fun part:
Watching portfolio companies grow. As board members, we have the privilege to see and help guide growth (if the team wants it). I came into VC believing I was trading ‘building machines’ for ‘building companies’. Having spent decades (literally) focussing on the molecular level of a problem, being able to strategize at a high level and plan out 1,3, 5-year roadmaps is an exciting change. While we don’t generally play an operational role in the businesses we back, we still have a front row seat, and are able to use our functional or sector expertise to add value — this is by far the most exciting part for me.
The hardest part:
Context switching. At the beginning of the pandemic, I fell into the trap of booking as many meetings as possible (if we invest in 1/1000 startups we talk to, I’m pretty sure I can get to 1000 meetings by end of Q1). Well, that did NOT work. Days of back-to-back meetings switching from a voice company to a robotics company to an autonomous vehicle company plays a mental toll that I had never appreciated before. I had to shift my thinking to work smarter. And to recognize where my decade of experience in a sector and my experience building and delivering products gave me an edge so that I could add genuine value to each conversation and ask smart questions.
A close second is not actually being able to jump in and execute!! On more than one occasion I’ve gotten the itch to want to build.
Year one was a whirlwind. And an unconventional one because I’ve done it all remotely. I was fortunate enough to do a few amazing deals and work with our incredible portfolio companies. I’m most looking forward to doing this job in 3D. Meeting people in person, going to events, sitting in a portfolio company’s office, flying to a board meeting, going to grab a coffee with a new founder. I might even finally find out how tall my UK colleagues are! I’m filled with nervous excitement trying to figure out what I will need to relearn.
Most of all, I am extremely excited to continue to meet amazing Canadian founders If we’ve not met and you think we should — reach out. And remember, you don’t need to take ‘no’ for an answer :)