We sat down for a chat with Downing Ventures VC, Will Orde. Downing Ventures is an early-stage VC firm that focus on ambitious founders and tech companies at Seed to Series A. We ask Will about the common pitching mistakes he sees founders make, what he looks for in a startup and the best way for you to approach him.
What’s the best way for founders to approach you and other VCs in general?
A qualified intro definitely makes life easier. If you do a bit of stalking and there’s a connection in common, use it – it will get their attention more quickly. Otherwise, there’s no harm in just reaching out and dropping an email or a message on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you are cold emailing, try to be specific. Say that you saw them tweeting about something that’s relatable to you, or that they invest in a relevant company. You’re far more likely to get noticed if you say you’re speaking to them specifically, rather than a generic mass email that’s been sent to everyone. It reflects poorly and looks like you haven’t put any thought into what you’re doing.
How do Downing Ventures support the startups they invest in?
As an investor, you tread a careful balance between being helpful and opinionated – we don’t want to step on the founders’ toes. We specialise in investing at product-market fit stage, where they have tech that works and customers that actually want it. We spend a lot of time with them helping them take it from that point of knowing customers want it, to knowing how to sell it and having a team that knows what they need to do to scale. It’s also about helping founders swap from the day-to-day fire fighting mindset to thinking about where they need to be in six months time.
What type of founder do you want to back?
I like people who talk passionately about why this is the problem that they want to solve; they’re not just in this to make money. I love founders who get shit done – it’s a quality that you can’t teach. When there’s a vibrancy and energy about the company, that’s really exciting. At the end of the day, investors get caught up in the excitement and vision of the founder, and that’s where the founder needs to get their team – so they believe in what they’re doing and why they’re building a great company.
What do you look for in startups?
I’m data-driven, so even though we invest at the early stage where there isn’t much data, the most telling sign is customer behaviour, i.e., if they’re using it regularly and are they doing what you expected with the product. The founder should have a really good grip on all the data in their startup too. What customers are doing, how they’re using the product, what their pain point is. It makes me confident that they know what they’re doing from a customer-centric manner – not just blindly doing it.
Is there a startup out there that you wish you invested in?
I used to admire Papier and now they’re in the Downing portfolio. It’s about businesses that you end up consuming every day – trust is an attractive quality in a startup.
What’s more important to you when investing? Markets, tech, ideas, or people?
The person. I think an excellent founder can take something that isn’t initially the best product in the world and make it work. They will find their niche in the market and they will mold the product until it’s perfect. Anyone can have cool tech, but if they can’t execute it well, it won’t happen.
What are some common mistakes that you see founders making?
Sometimes with the pitch process, you see founders starting to pitch when they’re not ready. They find an investor and the investor is engaged, and then they aren’t ready for 2 weeks and all the excitement disappears. Another thing I see is founders thinking of raising money as a business transaction rather than treating the fundraise more personally. You’re not just raising money – it’s a two-way relationship. Investment rights will be with you on this journey for the next 7-12 years, so it’s a serious commitment. You need to think about the individual you are raising money from, not just the firm.
Which market areas are you personally most interested in?
I’m more interested in the consumer side of tech investment. I’m looking for the next wave of direct-to-consumer brands that are targeting retirees – most are targeting millennials and spend a lot of time on Instagram where they have easy access, but millennials don’t have a lot of money whereas retirees have a lot of money and free time. Another area I’m interested in is Fintech for low-income people in the traditional finance world.
What’s the strangest pitch you’ve ever heard?
A cold email from a Romanian candle-making company. It was so left field compared to what I’m looking for. I’ve also been pitched a perpetual motion machine. It doesn’t work/isn’t possible so they were either deluded or fraudulent.
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