What I learnt taking part in Atomico’s angel program

This time last year, January 2020, I was announced as one of Atomico’s picks for their second angel program. Despite the swirl of 2020 — a year so hilariously stressful I managed to chip a tooth from night-time teeth-grinding — it was one of my highlights and I wanted to document why.

Purloined from this account on Flickr

I’d been curious about scout programs in the US for a while. The few tiny angel bets I’d done had been fun. Having spent years working with early-stage companies during my time leading Campus at Google and as an operator in various startups before that, I knew the power angels had in funding and helping great companies get off the ground. And I knew London, Europe and the world needed more angels that weren’t pale, stale, male.

Some of that knowledge came from the State of European Tech report Atomico brings out annually. Then I’d got to know the team better through their work on conscious scale, a leading attempt by venture to create space for hard conversations with founders about how to grow wisely; I’ve been skeptical about the tension between scale and thoughtfulness before, but the power a market leading VC like Atomico has to shift the field for the better feels significant (especially in a year where funds like MMC ventures became a B Corp).

So I jumped at the chance to learn from them, alongside a group of brilliant fellow angels, and get $100,000 — with commendably few strings attached—to hand over to founders.

The thesis emerges

I started the year wishing I had one burning thing I wanted to work towards; like Stefano and his focus on Planet+ climate change.

Having built and led community teams for years, community-first products were an obvious place to start….but I’ve always been someone with diverse, messy interests. There are just so many important problems and exciting opportunities out there, whatever the approach (and yes, I’d argue community-first is horizontal not a vertical).

As I started meeting companies and as 2020 unfolded, with San Francisco going into lockdown before most of Europe, this phrase I’d heard Anna Jones at Do Lectures say kept popping into my head: every action you take is a vote for how you want the world to be. And it all ended up being quite simple in the end; I backed six companies (most haven’t announced publicly).

I believe women need fairer, more flexible working conditions.

I believe that acts of self-care, like beauty, are radical, not frivolous.

I believe we need to buy less stuff, and borrow more stuff.

I believe in fulfilling work for as many people as possible(and that most managers need help to create the conditions to give their teams fulfillment).

I believe that life’s toughest moments, like divorce or the death of someone close to you, need deeper support that what’s currently on offer.

I believe that communities often already have what they need to create the right solutions.

As the pandemic’s effects hit women and marginalized communities hardest, and the spate of US police murders made clearer the ongoing fight for racial justice and equity, I realised that I mostly wanted to fund founders others might overlook (one white male cofounder duo snuck in there, but I think 15% representation is OK).

There were areas I was curious about where I didn’t meet any interesting companies; areas I was curious about where the companies weren’t right for me and shades of everything in between.

Communication is queen

As well as those six funded companies, I spoke to maybe forty founding teams and reviewed at least a hundred decks or one-pagers.

Doing everything remotely — I worked out this morning I’ve only met two of the six teams in person, and in both cases before 2020 — emphasized the need for upfront, straightforward communication right from the start.

Early in the year, it took me too long to get to both “no” and “yes”.

But, as the months wore on, I got better at listening; to what was said, to how it was said, to what was missing.

The founder of the company whose ethos and branding I adored who asked for an NDA before that first getting to know you coffee; the company in an area I believe in where the CEO told me it was “empowering” a core group necessary to the platform weren’t paid for their work; founders who told me they were “too busy” to reply to emails for weeks at a time when I was sending angel emails at midnight, working full-time and solo parenting a toddler after my co-parent had a nasty accident.

Even in 2020, a year that demanded grace, slack and patience, all of them were telling me something about who they were and what they needed. And every conversation, especially the ones that didn’t go anywhere, added to the picture.

Money is never the most important thing [in this very specific context]

(and I want to point out the luxury of that headline. Money is obviously the most important thing when you don’t have any of it)

The more I got close up to other people’s cap tables, the more I realised some of my past conceptions of angel investing weren’t right.

Obviously, there’s a whole thesis here for someone smarter than me on numbers, valuations, multiples etc, but a decent amount of angels out there, both tech types or not, invest at 5K. Some, especially those that can be strategically useful, start lower than that (and yes, I also heard from a few founders that they would never consider anything under 50K; to each, their own).

Looking at my emerging portfolio, it varies hugely depending on the company but this year, beyond introductions made, I’ve enjoyed helping teams build their fundraising strategy, review community standards and create job specs.

If we had more transparency around how angel investing works, and more mechanisms like Backstage Capital’s Syndicate to create syndicates, it seems natural we’d benefit from a shift in who funds companies, and what gets funded.

People are brilliant

Writing in the depths of January 2021, it’d be easy to look back on the last year as one of drudge and misery, when the pot-banging and mutual aid networking of the first lockdowns gave way to endless doomscrolling and homeschooling.

Years ago, I was lucky enough to attend one of LocalGlobe’s Monday partner meetings and was so struck by the sheer variety of what they look at. Afterwards, I commented to Robin Klein on the dazzling array of verticals and stages I’d seen and he replied “that’s because people are just so brilliant”.

It’s a line that has come back to me often this year, when in my day-to-day I have sometimes wavered in my innate belief in that brilliance (despite being lucky enough to have an equally inspiring day job!).

Meeting people putting it all on the line to pursue their dreams in a year like this has fuelled my optimism at a time when, frankly, I needed it most.

So what’s next, beyond helping these six grow?

I’ll be continuing to angel invest at a slightly slower clip (unless any hidden benefactors want to give me a no-strings pot of cash? No?) and I’ll be excited to see who Atomico welcomes into cohort number three. Already, I’ve been able to persuade a few friends into angel investing for the first time and hope to continue work here.

A huge thank you to Sophia Bendz, Will Dufton, Sarah, Hugo and Arabella, plus the broader Atomico team, for the incredible gift you gave me this year.

Shoutout to my fellow Atomico angels — including Bobby, Deepali, Gulnaz, Harry — it’s been a pleasure learning and investing alongside you. I know we’ll keep working together.

And, lastly, thanks to every founder that I spoke to. Posts like this wouldn’t get written unless you were out there doing the work.

Director @OmidyarNetwork's Beneficial Tech. Ex-head Google's @campuslondon. Into communities, London, looks and books.

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