Updated 16 September 20
So what's changed for entrepreneurs in 2020? A lot right? Well... perhaps not.
Last week, Nova's CGO Olivia Greenberg caught up with tech talks to discuss the effect COVID-19 has had on startups, founders, strategy and funding, all beyond the bubble of London. Listen via the link below. 👇
I hope that the flow of funds moving north west is going to be better, but I think funds could always move around the country more from London, whether that's in VC or whether that's anything to do with, you know, any kind of business. But ultimately, that's not a particular concern of ours and it's not something that we see an impact of. We have great founders and there is absolutely money available to invest in businesses.
On the show today, we're talking to Olivia Greenberg. She is the chief growth officer at Nova and she works closely with startup founders and business leaders, breathing life into new ideas, which is - let's be frank - what we need right now during this slightly uncertain period of time. This is Tech Talks, your twice weekly tech podcast with myself, David Savage, where we talk to leaders from across the industry and bring you a bit of technology news.
Joining me today is Akeesh, Keesh you're in the office again!
I am in the office and I'm in a meeting room because, believe it or not, there's quite a few people on a cell phone that are a bit loud. It's the ones that like to talk and have a bit of banter and have some chat, you know, not the not the quiet ones - you know who you are if you’re listening to this!
Basically, people have gone in not to do any work.
Yeah, I think there's a plan for a curry and a few beers after work.
Well to be fair, you know what, I think people can be forgiven for that. And I think that's probably why offices exist now, right?
Oh, yes. It's a social meetup with the people you work with and you do that work at the same time.
Home is for work and the office is for play.
I mean, I'm not sure that that's the message that we should be saying. But you know what, kind of true. Let's be honest. It's true.
Exactly. I've been playing in the office for a long time for those that work with me.
I was talking to our boss earlier and I was, "oh, you're in the office again?" He's like, "Yeah." I said, "oh, I think Shaun, one of our colleagues was in yesterday?" and he went, "No, no Shaun wasn't. I know that because I was here and he wasn't" I was like, why do you want a medal or something? You've been there every day well done.
To be fair to him, I thought I was quite early and he was already in this morning.
Oh he's loving it. He just wants to get out of the house. Let's be honest.
I think he does, I think he does.
Oh dear, right, talking of getting out of the house and escaping our little bubble. Today's interview is all the way from Liverpool. We often find ourselves talking to people in Leeds, in Manchester, but not as often Liverpool, so it's fun to take a trip up to Merseyside. We're talking to Nova and Olivia Greenberg as our guest, and will hand over to the interview and we'll come back with some commentary afterwards.
So on today's show, we're joined by Olivia. You're the Chief Growth officer, at NOVA. How are you this morning?
< BEGINNING OF NOVA INTERVIEW >
I'm fine - I also often stumble over those words - not the easiest to say. The Sun is trying to come out through a very cloudy morning, despite what I said earlier here in Liverpool. So yeah, all good, thanks. How are you?
Yeah, it's not too bad. Not too bad. Thanks. That the sun is struggling down here in the southeast as well, I'll be honest. Every now and then it looks like it's going to throw it down and then it kind of looks quite promising. So I'm not sure which way is going to go.
Well, not that not to be too British and talk about the weather at the beginning of the show. But, I was very pleased to find out that the bank holiday - we had the most glorious bank holiday here, it was very, very warm. Sunbathing weather. Everybody had a fantastic time and I believe down south there was a lot of rain and it wasn't particularly pleasant. So that's always nice when that happens!
It was pathetic. No excuses. That whole week was awful! I saw that a lot of my friends and connections and colleagues and stuff they'd taken that week for their staycation and then it just threw it down everywhere.
Such a shame, such a shame. That's Britain for you.
Yeah, exactly. I suppose everyone just expects it. Anyway, Nova and wearenova.co.uk online, right? If anyone's looking for something on one of your social channels, if someone hasn't come across Nova before, who are you?
OK, so ultimately we're venture builders. We partner with passionate, knowledgeable entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into successful, scalable startups. We're much more than a traditional VC, which is why we use the term 'venture builders'. It's a relatively new term, people don't always understand it, but we offer experience, delivery, advisory and marketing teams alongside our own investment fund. So we're truly partnering with founders to build a business together.
That must be an interesting thing to be doing at the moment because I would imagine pre-pandemic, you may have wanted to really get quite hands on and get in front of these people. Or was it more of a virtual service, I'm making an assumption here that's not correct?
No, not at all - it is not a virtual service. When we were all in, when we worked from offices, our founders had coworking space in our office and spent a lot of time working with us.
To be honest with you though, it's not really made any difference to our business in terms of working with our founders. There have been some challenges which I can come on to talk to. But, you know, ultimately we have about 30 active invested businesses that we co-founded at the moment. They're at various stages. Some have only started with us in the last couple of months and some have been working with us for two to three years. We assume that our businesses are going to kind of leave the nest at some point because they need to go out into the world and stand on their own two feet and some do that quicker than others.
We are completely sector agnostic. We've got businesses working in health care in FinTech, EdTech and it's not really made that much of a difference! So other than the fact that we are doing a lot by Zoom or Hangouts or whatever other video channels we like to use, yeah we're still working ahead.
So the biggest challenge that we faced has been lack of investments. So it's not a lack of founders wanting to build businesses. In fact, our pipeline of founders has gone up, if anything, during this time, as you would imagine. But the investment it's been tricky, particularly in the early part. You know, investment funds pretty much dried up completely for a period of time and investment funds are the lifeblood of our business. They keep all teams going in order to support the businesses that we're working with.
So that's been tricky. But it's now starting to look at all the floodgates are starting to open again and that's starting to move, which is great. I think we've been able to do - which I'm really proud of - not only keep our team employed and not furloughed, but by doing that we've been able to keep working with businesses. So businesses haven't had to stop because we've had to stop. We're still there and able to support them through this period, if carrying on was the right thing to do. In a couple of instances, pausing has been the right thing to do during lockdown.
It's interesting, you mentioned about funding in particular, and the floodgates are beginning to open again. I mean, there are a lot of reports that the North West was beginning to be a great hub. You know, Manchester often obviously gets talked about, but Manchester and Liverpool as hubs for startups. And there was a growing community in terms of events after work, et cetera, et cetera. But people always still talk about London being kind of the magnet for the VC community and people from regional parts of the UK having to come to London to get in front of those investors. Could the pandemic actually be quite liberating in as much as there isn't that necessity to go, "well, we've got to get on train done to London and we've got to get in front of these people." and therefore, funding might flow around the country a little bit more freely?
That's a really interesting question. I suppose, because we work out of Liverpool and we have been able to fund and work with businesses. We don't see the world in that way. But I understand that the majority of people do think that that's where everything goes on. There've been times in the past when we thought and even set up office space and virtual offices to be part of the London scene and it just hasn't panned out for us like that.
So I guess I'm thinking about it for us, and our source of founders. We have founders from all over the country and actually all over the world. We're currently in partnership with a setting up a co-founder in Singapore, actually running our model over in Singapore. So I hope that the flow of funds moving North West is going to be better but I think funds could always move around the country more from London. Whether that's in VC or whether that's anything to do with, you know, any kind of business.
But ultimately, that's not a particular concern of ours and it's not something that we see an impact of. We have great founders and there is absolutely money available to invest in businesses.
Now that you mentioned before, that actually not a huge amount has really changed when dealing with your founders. But you said that you had people who'd been in the program for a couple of years versus people who started in the last couple of months. I suppose there might be some changes at that very initial stage in terms of thinking about how a company is structured and so on. I mean, what changes have you advised as a consequence of what's happened over the last six months?
We've kind of given the same advice to all our founders and I don't think it does matter so much to them what stage they're at. Except that in the very early stages, I guess you're not selling a product that's already being built, you're trying to learn what people actually want and getting in front of people is a little bit more challenging. But in terms of the kind of major change brought about by the pandemic, I think most importantly, we advise people to embrace change, you know, get in that mindset that change is a great force for disruption.
And ultimately, creating a tech startup is all about disruption and creativity. So I think more specifically, it's things like just be informed, know what's going on out there, so that you can kind of pick up on opportunities and threats to your business and address them. So just making sure that you've got decent sources of information that are well-curated, so they're not overwhelming, but at the same time give you what you need, that you understand what national schemes of some great national schemes out there from the government and the British business bank.
There's also some great local schemes from people like The Growth Hubs, which I know are all over the country. And there's also the not for profit newsletters, funded organisations like Tech Nation and Capital Enterprise. So I think there are lots of sources of information. So knowing them, number one number two, I think talk to people like share what's going on with you, learn from people, get inspired. There's tons of brilliant online events - I find myself getting tempted to join all kinds of things.
I think one piece of advice that we give people that's like focus on what's important to you - because you could otherwise spend a lot of time learning things you don't need to know - but build your network alongside that. Talk to founders and other founders. Talk to other business owners. Talk to your customers and users about your challenges and theirs.
Just to jump in on that point, whilst there are a lot of online events. It is a little bit harder to do the organic meet and greet thing that happened to events afterwards. So, you can get information, but it's far more of a one way flow, right? Or would you say, you know, have you picked up any tips that help you organically network even when you’re sat in your living room and so is everyone else?
Yeah, so that's a really good point. We work quite closely with Ash Maurya of Lean Stack, and we've attended a number of mentoring support events with him and as groups in those events we've tried to connect afterwards. It's worked in some ways and not but often what you kind of need to do is just reach out to individuals. If you know there's an individual at that event can be quite difficult but try to make a contact subsequently. In the same way that you might try and make contacts through LinkedIn or whatever, I think that's probably the best way if they're cold contacts.
But I think the best way to build your network generally is through your own network. So getting introductions to other people or asking around. So we have a lot of that, we have a WhatsApp group for our founders and for our employees alike. We all share information there to support one another and it's been particularly active during COVID. But there's a lot of shout outs, "does anybody know anyone who's got this problem? Does anybody know anyone who does this?". So I think that networking if you're starting from zero it might be harder but if you've got a group that you're already within, I think building out from that group's probably the way to go.
Now, look, one thing that I found quite interesting, pulling back the curtain on the podcast in preparation for it, you sent across some points that might be worthwhile talking about and one stood out in particular because you sent, "when the shit hits the fan the fan is better off acting tactically or reacting or taking a step back and thinking strategically before acting." About a year ago, we had someone called Sophie Devinger on the show who had a book out called 'Super Fast Lead at Speed'. And in there she talks a lot about the positive aspects of editing and that ability to take a step back. And, you know, everyone talks about moving at pace, moving at speed. But she talks a lot more about velocity and it was the direction as well as the pace and the ability to look back. So when you put that in there, I thought it might be worth talking about. What was that driven by and what positive outcomes do you think there are from taking a step back that maybe are sometimes overlooked?
I think it probably came from the fact that being in a startup, being the main person in a startup, being the product manager, working in a startup is just crazy busy. There's always a million things to do - there's never enough of you and it's all about execution and execution leading to learning. That doesn't mean there shouldn't be strategy - that was what was driving the question, because whilst I do buy into that at Nova we make sure that pause for breath, that editing, as you mentioned, you know, that time to take stock, helicopter view, whatever you want to call it, we build that into our approach. So we make sure that whilst we recognise everyone is going to be caught up in the day to day, who's in the business, that there's a mechanic and some tools that support them to raise their head above the parapet and look at things in a different way.
I think with COVID in particular, this is like a major global change, we don't yet even understand how this is going to pan out. So to think that you can just carry on as normal and just keep going a hundred miles an hour is naive. Conversely, thinking that you can take a step back and think strategically too far into the future is naive too. So it is definitely a balance. I think many things with me are a balance, but that was really what was behind the question.
It's something that we've wrestled with quite a bit during this time. What's the balance between stopping and pausing versus carrying on?
How do you balance that with the insatiable kind of need for growth that so often comes from the VC community, I suppose, is the counterpoint to the idea of slowing down and editing?
That's interesting that you say that. We have our own investment fund and whilst of course we push for growth because we co-founding the businesses together, because we're essentially in the business too, it's not growth at all costs. Also other VCs I've been speaking to, they have recognised that some of their businesses were better off pausing at this stage in time and reserving funds to take advantage of changes as they happen in the future.
So I guess while that might be the way of the world pre-COVID, I don't think it is the way of the VC world during COVID. We've had to take a lot more care over our investments and go about what's right for this business. We've got a number of businesses in the hospitality industry and retail. At the beginning a lot of those businesses were of the mindset that, "right may as well just sit down and do nothing for however long this is going to go on for because what can we do?"
But actually, we asked all of our businesses to do a really old school exercise, which is some risk planning. It was a great exercise to do. It made people take stock of what opportunities there might be, and some really interesting things came out of that. So whilst pausing was necessary for some, we did make sure that our founders looked at what opportunity they could do and for some it was about preparing for when they were able to kind of reopen for business in a digital sense and for others, it's actually growing there pipeline and for those actually able to make some sales or new partnerships with a view to what might happen next.
So this time has been difficult for a lot of people, it's interesting talking to even my colleagues to see the different kinds of emotional reactions to the pandemic, not even just so much lockdown, but just the changes of being out of the office environment as regularly. How do you think Founders' in particular are coping with it emotionally, because often a business is very personality driven at that initial stage and it's someone's idea, it's their passion. I imagine from talking to people over the years, you get that strong sense that they feed off that energy and that team environment and that hustle - you know, you people talk about hustle all the time. That must be a difficult thing for people to suddenly maintain that energy, yet be sat on their own and isolated?
Yeah, so 100%. There's a stereotype of what the typical founder is, and it's the person you've just described there. They're not the only types of founders that we invest in. We invest in people - knowledgeable, passionate people. Therefore, there's been a gamut of different emotions. Some people have handled it really well and some people have found it much more challenging.
First and foremost, the best founders are actually resilient people. So whatever their need for their extrovert introvert tendencies, for want of a better way of saying it. They just have to be resilient because it's inevitable they're going to end up kind of going through that Paul Graham's trough of sorrow, not just once, but repeatedly. It's going to happen. So that's a trait we look for all our founders in investments anyway. And I think there are things, though, you can learn. You can train yourself; if you're not dealing with a situation well or if you're not resilient, what can you do?
These are very personal things. We have an open line to all of our founders to be able to support them. But I think things like, you know, knowing that we're behind them, that we still believe in their business, and that it's normal I think it's sometimes giving people that context. Like, "you know what? Yes. You've had 10 knock backs in a row and it just feels like this business isn't going to go anywhere and the world against you."
This is normal. There's a name for it, it's called 'the Trough of Sorrow'. Sometimes that really helps just saying it's normal. Then, make sure they've got confidence in their mission - thinking positively in a negative situation, trying to find the positives and work those through. In terms of working from home versus not working from home. We've been able to maintain both within NOVA but also within our wider network of businesses that we work with.
We're still working really closely together. So yes, it's at arm's length, but I think most of us have become much more used to that way of working now. I'm someone personally that it's not really an issue for. I've worked like this for quite a long time. That's not that I don't ever have face to face contact, I do, but it suits me. Of course it doesn't suit others so well, but we've just tried to kind of build networks in different ways and even not just necessarily around work, but also around just kind of like social interaction - there were other strategies that we've employed.
But it's tough! And people go on a journey, don't they? You know, some people are really positive that beginnings have hit lows along the way. It's the same, I guess the COVID journey of working from home and in isolation is the same as that of starting a startup. It's there's many bumps along the way and if you've got good people around you and a support network, then that will get you through. But also ultimately having that drive, that resilience, that passion, that's the one thing that's really going to take it forward.
So as a quick finish, and I think it's good to try and find the positives and the lessons that we can take from the last six months forward - whatever happens with regards to working environments and so on further down the line. What do you think you'll take from this experience that will strengthen Nova?
We've adapted really well. Ultimately, I think this situation not only seems to have improved Nova - I think we've all adapted really well to working remotely and become a leaner, meaner machine. Not 'meaner', a leaner, 'nicer machine'! It's made us sharpen ourselves up a little bit and I think it's done that for the businesses we work with. So overwhelmingly I would say this situation has been beneficial both to Nova and to the majority of our businesses. I know it's really early days and so who knows where we're going to be in six or 12 months time. But I think this situation has been a catalyst for action where previously there may have been inertia, and that's both internally to our business, internally to the businesses that were invested in and in the broader world - our customers and users.
It's been an absolute pleasure to speak to you. This morning, I hope the day does turn out to be a lovely one in Liverpool and have a lovely weekend!
All right. Thank you - lovely to talk to you too.
< END OF NOVA INTERVIEW >
Right, there's bucket loads that we could unpack in this. Akeesh, anything that stood out to you in particular?
I thought she would have had a Scouse accent? I was like, "Oh! This is not the Scouse accent!"
In terms of where we are as 'the world', so to speak at the moment, and it's what we've been talking about before right. In terms of where organisations are going, where they're headed and the kind of challenges. It's good to see how organisations are thriving and obviously, at the place where there's various organisations - that I'm sure not one size fits all and not one issue is the same - just to see kind of how they are growing and kind of what challenges they're coming up against. Just good to see that, really.
Yeah, there's a lot of positive messages there and I think one of the things that she talks about in the interview is what we look for before you invest is thinking positively. She talks about the best founders being resilient people. It doesn't matter whether you're an extrovert or an introvert, you're going to visit the 'trough of sorrow', but it's thinking positively that gets you through that.
Yeah, you see it all over the Internet; you get the Mark Zuckerberg of the world, the Jeff Bezos, the Elon Musk's, these sorts of people that have started businesses or ideas and are now global leaders within their various fields. And if you read their books or kind of read their kind of interviews and that sort of stuff, it's always a case of there are always times where they're in the depths of hell, so to speak, and now they've come back on top! I think that is the testament to why organisations like theirs grow and keep developing. But also, if you look closer, we've had some great stories on here. We've had Fireset recently completely changed their model. We've had Ian talk about, Telimer - not necessarily in the depths, but where they've completely relaunched, revamped and that is a testament to what we were talking about right at the start of this long period where a lot of organisations will grow and they will challenge the big names and they'll come out of nowhere! And before, you know, it will be and we'll be talking about them as if they've been around for years.
I find it very interesting, this kind of idea around how important strategy is or isn't at the minute. Because I know that at the minute getting our strategy right is very important to most businesses. There's opportunities at the minute to be had, there's a difficult market and therefore your strategy has to be right to take advantage of it. And they kind of flip that a little bit on its head - she talks about the fact that there's never enough of you so it's all about execution.
That doesn't mean that there shouldn't be a strategy, but a helicopter view - which is not something I've heard it referred to before - but a helicopter view is built into the process to make you get out of the trenches, look at things a little bit differently. And actually the idea of a strategy where you take a hostile step back and try and look into the future is perhaps naive at the moment because you can't look that far into the future. Perhaps strategy is wedding yourself to a set of ideas that you might find will change very rapidly.
I guess you could say where as being pragmatic, being forward thinking, being kind of adaptable to change, but I think for the first time, or in my lifetime that I can remember, where organisations I think just need to be completely fluid. It's almost 'don't overthink things'. You know, don't anyone who started last year off with a five-year plan has gone out the window. Anyone that started this year, with an annual plan gone out the bloody window. I think take it by quarter, maybe take it on a monthly basis or six month basis, that will allow you to do certain things. Because like we've seen this week, we all got used to some sort of normality, meeting loads of people, meeting up to 30 people - to be politically correct.
Did you do that?
I can't remember the last time I met 30 people in one go?
I don't feel like the rule of six really changes much for me, to be perfectly honest. I still could go to a restaurant last night, it was just a group of four of us.
Anyway, I think the most people I met were about ten?
The point being there's just a certain mindset changes in business.
Exactly and businesses need to adapt; furlough schemes and even illnesses. We talk about COVID, we talk about strategy, finances, size, all this sort of stuff. But we don't actually talk about illness in the workforce? We don't really talk about people being laid off or God forbid, people passing away or influential people passing away. You know, we don't know what this virus does and we don't know its long term repercussions. But yet we never talk about that? So I think it's I think it's very naive for businesses to kind of just set out this strategy and these goals. Just be pragmatic. I think the best leaders or the ones with the most potential in leading and strategising will be the ones that are able to think quickly, are able to adapt, but also take a few punches 'in the face' whilst they were there dealing with it.
So I thought it was a really positive message to hear that the VC community is beginning to recognise that pausing is a benefit. Obviously Nova are co-founders of the businesses - that changes the dynamic a bit - but growth is not the absolute be all and end all. Which is a message that is beginning to permeate throughout the industry and we've mentioned on the podcast and a number of times over the last year. 'Move fast and break things' has kind of been rejected as a mode of responsible leadership. But generally speaking, the VC community was still characterised as looking for growth and now maybe that's not the case? I think Olivia refers to organisations keeping hold of their resources and I suppose being pragmatic like you were talking about.
Also just having a duty of care. I think if I was to think about VC or a group of investors, I think 'maybe not the right time'. Sit on your cash for a little bit, maybe you're looking to do some home improvements or buy a house - look after the cash rather than be aggressive in that kind of growth or kind of strategy. But I think where she's saying that VCs are now not just after growth and rapid acceleration, it's a bit more of what's the effects, how can we kind of get around this? But I also think that because at the moment they're probably looking at the market more than ever before - the markets just opened up. There's a lot more products, there's a lot more businesses, there will be people that have ideas that will serve the needs of businesses and industries that have been severely hit by COVID. I think VCs will probably look at that and go, "that's an opportunity". Or they'll be businesses that will be able to release a product or launch something which will help companies come out of where we are at the moment.
Look at Zoom, they went up exponentially. We've had them on the podcast speaking to us. Looking at where their subscriptions, where they're customer numbers went throughout lockdown. Remember when the App House Party got created. I'm sure within that monthly period, they went through the roof and whoever kind of invented thought "there we are, we're in!". It takes one idea and it takes one segment in the market and it can spread like wildfire - which is exciting. The barriers to entry, they're probably on the high anymore? I don't know if you agree with me there.
I think the fact that they are obviously being so successful in attracting founders and the North West is growing as an ecosystem is showing that there are lower barriers. This idea that you have to be in London, the VC community or in London, that's kind of old hat.
You can be anywhere in the world now, as we found.