I feel very fortunate to have met Francesca and now to be sharing her accumulated wisdom on Breakfast with Tiffany! Francesca currently works as an associate at Downing Ventures, moving into tech VC after starting out in a large advertising corporate, and is also incredibly passionate about increasing the diversity within VC. Have a scroll to read her thoughtful and perceptive account on transitioning into venture, her personal investment thesis and tips for female founders looking to raise finance!
Current Job Associate at Downing Ventures, a seed to series A VC fund, part of Downing LLP. Like most associates I focus on deal sourcing, portfolio support and reporting. We are an investment team of two in the Ventures team so there is always a huge amount to do, but I absolutely love it.
Go to meeting spot I haven't found the perfect one yet. I've recently had a few 'outdoor' meetings where I have walked down to the river (two minutes from our office in Westminster), which has been a good way of getting to know someone in a slightly different way than sitting across from them in an office, staring at a pitch deck.
Favourite book/blog Tough question. Business book - Selling with a Noble Purpose - Lisa Earle McCleod. A great exploration of the importance of a company purpose, something I've a great believer in. Non-business book - The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera or Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Blog - I enjoy Azeem Azhar's - The Exponential View for AI/ ML and climate change articles. It comes on a Sunday morning which is a good time to read long, thought provoking pieces. The Mobile Fix from Simon Andrews is a useful summary of mobile news and trends and Fred Wilson's blog, AVC, is consistently brilliant. Finally, I'm a fan of The Twenty Minute VC from Harry Stebbings. He has conversations with some of the best VCs and founders in the US and Europe which are not only fascinating but a useful learning manual for an associate like me.
Necessary extravagance Plane and train tickets. I love seeing new places.
Favourite productivity tool Evernote. Or coffee.
Favourite place in London Primrose Hill on a clear day or anywhere on the banks of the Thames.
Female inspiration in business So many. I've been lucky enough to have had several fantastic female bosses already so far and I look forward to being inspired by more. I think women who've broken down barriers in the tech/ venture world are particularly inspiring so people like Martha Lane Fox (now board member at Twitter amongst many other things), Brittany Gorevic (formerly of USV and now starting her own fund) and Ada Lovelace, one of the first computer programmers. Also my own mother who was the main breadwinner in our house.
Most interesting tech firm in London right now There are so many people doing interesting things but at seed stage a company that I'm a huge fan of at the moment is Craft.co, who are building 'the source of truth on companies'. Check them out.
Can you share a little about your time at AMV BBDO - what were you involved with and what did you learn that you have transitioned to tech investing?
I worked in the account management team, which taught me how to juggle many projects at the same time and work with a huge variety of people. More fundamentally though, I learned the principles of sales and marketing, which has been very valuable and transferable to tech investing. Understanding how to segment your audience, how to target your messaging, what media channels to use, how to map customer journeys, conduct user research, track and measure response and evaluate success, all of these things are relevant to many of the startups I now meet and work with. Secondly, advertising is all about business strategy and being able to judge how 'big ideas' will be received. In a way, this is similar to what we do as investors. Whenever investors meet a company they ask themselves whether the 'big idea' behind the company is valuable and whether their product will be loved by customers, which are very similar to the questions that advertising and marketing executives ask themselves.
How and why did you enter the investment paradigm?
I got really lucky. I knocked on some doors in an exploratory way initially without seriously considering making a career move and the timing was right with Downing Ventures. They were looking for someone who could bring a different perspective to the team and could help on the sales and marketing side with the portfolio companies. I thought it would be a fascinating way to apply what I had learned in advertising to the world of tech, but also a huge learning curve and I was excited about the chance to meet phenomenal entrepreneurs.
What is your motivation?
To be a good person and to be someone who adds to things rather than detracts from them.
What are your future ambitions?
To be respected by my peers and to lead a company one day.
Tell us about Downing Ventures and your role there
I am an associate so I focus on three main things:
- Deal sourcing and transacting
- Hands on portfolio help (something we are very passionate about at Downing Ventures)
- A bucket which I call 'everything else' which could include company reporting to our investors, it could be doing research, due diligence, meeting other investors or fundraising.
Could you elaborate on your investment thesis and what stands out to you when assessing early stage companies?
My personal investment thesis - I like purpose driven companies that have a very clear vision for how they fit into the world and why they exist. I always look for a sense of purpose when assessing companies and founders. More specifically, I like companies that do something infrastructural. So companies that form the building blocks of a certain industry or way of doing things that others use to build on top of.
What technology trends excite you right now?
The emergence of alternative finance into the mainstream - peer to peer lending, crowdfunding, remittance, challenger banks and the changes happening in newer areas like mortgages. The application of tech to consumer health is fascinating, especially the idea that our health data can work for us, for example when machine learning is applied to enormous data sets to start to predict future outcomes rather than treat present day disease. More generally the proliferation of new business models, as articulated in this article by John Hegal.
What are 3 things that have most surprised you about great founders who build great companies?
- Some of the best founders have a-typical paths to becoming entrepreneurs. Founders come in all shapes, sizes and guises and there is no 'cookie cutter' template
- The best founders don't know all the answers, but more importantly are honest about what they don't know
- All founders are extremely brave but great founders particularly so as they constantly have to take to continually innovate and build great companies.
Women in Tech
What tips would you share with female founders looking to raise finance?
- It is often difficult to know just how many organisations exist that can help and support you, whether you are raising money or just trying to meet other women in tech, for example: Girls Who Code, Code First Girls, NCWIT in the US, Astia, Angel Academe, Addidi Business Angels
- Ask people for help and introductions. The advice that you get from individuals that have been there and done it before is invaluable.
- Be assertive and confident even if you don't feel it.
- Always have an ask at the end of every pitch or chat. Even if it isn't money, chances are the person you are talking to can help you with something.
So many of the brightest graduates continue to go and work for a big bank or consultancy. What would you say to them to cut through that rhetoric and consider joining a startup or VC?
I definitely look back at my time and wonder whether I should have been more confident in taking a bigger risk when I graduated. Especially when I had the opportunity to apply to the first round of Entrepreneur First. I went for the safer route and it might have been a missed opportunity. It does surprise me that startups/VC/tech generally has not percolated students more from what I have experienced at careers fairs. It is still a misconception that you have to know five coding languages to work in tech, when in fact there are so many roles in technology companies which are non-technical. I also think it would help for parents to encourage their children to take more risk with their careers (within reason of course)!
What support networks do you value?
Aside from my close family and friends I do have a lot of friends in the startup world who are really good at giving advice. The VC network are also very open and collaborative - much more so than I have found in other industries. Last but not least, myself and two others have just launched Diversity.vc which is building up that network for people with a slightly unusual profile, so I hope that will become increasingly beneficial for others too.
What is your opinion on the women in tech conversation? How can we do better to attract and retain more women?
- Support networks - we need to get more of these set up and functioning. I hope that Diversity.VC will become one of these for the VC community.
- Transparency - currently there is not a huge amount of sharing as to what type of jobs there are available, how others perceive you when recruiting and what is the route upwards to enable people to visualise the next step. I believe if we talk more we will all help each other progress.
- Tackling unconscious biases - be aware of the gender pay gap in tech and the gender gap in tech and take a test to evaluate whether you or your hiring managers are unconsciously biased against female applicators. You can take a simple test here. You might be surprised by the results.