‘The pandemic is going to have a big influence on innovation and investment’

15 Sep 2020

Stephen Page. Image: SFC Capital

SFC Capital’s Stephen Page discusses investment in the time of Covid, and why founders should take their time and not try to do everything themselves.

Stephen Page is a veteran of the software industry in the UK, with nearly 40 years of experience as an entrepreneur, investor and fund manager.

He is the founder and CEO of SFC Capital, formerly known as Startup Funding Club, which was started in 2012. The early-stage investment firm provides capital and support to British start-ups and has backed tech companies including Cognism and Onfido. Here, Page gives his advice for start-ups.

‘Take your time in picking the right investors and building your team’

Describe your role and what you do.

As CEO I am responsible for the overall direction and investment strategy at SFC Capital. I have been involved in every deal that SFC Capital has conducted over the years, including conducting due diligence on the companies we invest in and leading negotiations. I also continue to work with many of our portfolio companies, sitting on their boards and offering strategic advice.

I spend a lot of time working to ensure that SFC Capital can continue to support new early-stage founders –  building relationships with new business angels to join our network and securing other sources of finance for our funds.

In your opinion, which areas of science and technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

For the foreseeable future, changes to how we live and work that have been accelerated by the pandemic are going to have a big influence on the direction of innovation and investment. There are clearly going to be significant opportunities for any start-ups harnessing technology to make remote working and collaboration among co-workers simpler and more productive, for example.

Perhaps most obviously, healthtech and life sciences are attracting considerable investor attention, whether its software that helps automate processes or otherwise reduces the burden on frontline healthcare workers, digital platforms enabling people to access clinicians remotely, or new medical devices that enable more sophisticated monitoring of conditions and delivery of treatments that lead to better patient outcomes.

Beyond the pandemic, companies are increasingly going to become judged on how well they execute their environmental, social and governance responsibilities. This means there will be more demand for technology that can help reduce climate impact, whether by creating new materials, producing food substitutes, improving energy efficiency, or better managing pollution.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

It’s hard to define exactly what makes a good entrepreneur, as there is no single recipe for success. However, generally you want to see evidence of a burning desire and passion. The desire to disrupt entire industries, change the world and – of course – make money is something that very few people are born with. Personally, I believe this is something that takes time to emerge, forged over time and circumstances.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

Being able to listen to your team and advisers is crucial. The initial idea for a product, service or company might have been yours, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will always know best how to grow it into a successful business. This goes hand in hand with assembling a good core team around you in which people have skills and experience that complement your own personal strengths and plug gaps where you have weaknesses.

A good founder also has to have a strong vision and the determination to turn it into reality. Many start-ups do not start making a profit for several years. That means sacrificing today’s comfort for the potential returns of tomorrow. The investment of time and effort required of a founder can be intense, working long hours and being available at all times of the day. It is not an easy task and requires a huge amount of resilience to pull off, but for the people that can do it and make the sacrifice, the rewards can be huge.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Once a founder has hired a team that’s capable of handling the day-to-day operational side of the business, they need to give themselves space to focus on the long-term vision for the company.

Inevitably there will be tougher times or mistakes made – in those times the successful entrepreneur will be a focal point for their team, a leader who they can rally around and who will point the way out of difficult situations.

Of course, there are some business basics that entrepreneurs need to keep constantly on top of while charting a course towards their ultimate goal. Monitoring the financial health of the business, for example, to ensure its long-term survival. There are a lot of balls for a founder to juggle, but the successful ones are able to do it.

What resources and tools are an absolute must for your arsenal?

On the practical front, tools that enable you and your team to communicate and collaborate as simply and productively as possible are essential. Whether you choose Slack, Zoom, or whatever other platforms, keeping your team organised and in contact with one another is essential – especially in the new normal we are all now facing.

It is also important to be able to access good advice from outside the company. Often this can come from your investors or from people your investors can introduce you to. Taking the time to find out what expertise and connections sit behind your investors’ cheque books can be crucial for the long-term success of your business.

How do you assemble a good team?

Founders must take their time and not make rash appointments simply because there is a position to be filled. While the nature of start-ups – especially in the early stages – is that any role can quickly become quite fluid, it’s important to set expectations at the outset by being absolutely clear about the scope of a given role and the skills you are looking for.

You cannot rush recruitment – hire slowly and, if it becomes clear that a hire is not going to work out, fire quickly.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

I don’t think there’s one element you can point to as the reason a start-up succeeds or fails, there are just so many variables at work. Saying that, effective teamwork is definitely an important factor. This can mean letting go of control of some aspects of the business, trusting that the team you assembled will be able to handle it, make the right decisions and free you up to focus on the things that need your closest attention.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

Trying to do everything themselves. You hired people for a reason, and not trusting them or micromanaging them can mean that you get stuck in the weeds of the business and fail to see the bigger picture. Others can make the mistake of not realising when a market has changed, refusing to alter their strategy or position, leading to them being left behind.

What are your views on mentorship and the qualities one should look for in a mentor?

I believe having a good mentor is very important, however there are big criteria that they should meet before you go with them. It can be lonely at the top, so having that person to speak to is vital.

As such, it’s crucial that you have bucketloads of respect for them, and you’ll need to take time to really get to know them before they’ll be in a position to support you effectively. Personally, I have had a few mentors over the years. The good ones made the difference for me in building successful businesses; the bad ones just became irrelevant after a period of time.

What’s the number-one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

I think throughout all of this advice the key theme has been to take your time. Take your time in picking the right investors and building your team. Building a strong foundation at the start can lead to huge dividends in the future.

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