Alicia Navarro - From Seed to Scale!

Measuring success is possibly rather elusive, but Alicia is hitting it out of the park on most definitions. 8 years into her journey as the CEO and Co-Founder of Skimlinks is her first achievement not matched by many. Scaling the business through multiple rounds of funding totalling $25m, adding new revenue streams, instilling an amazing culture and retaining excellent people results in a pretty awesome story to tell and advice to share. Alicia and I managed to cover a lot over omelettes and bagels...getting into the business model and success factors of Skimlinks, candid fundraising advice and what industry she would be getting involved with if she was a free agent! She is an inspiring role model on how to do it all, the antithesis of hubris; enjoy her refreshingly relatable and positive account!  

Meet Alicia

Current Job CEO and Co-Founder of Skimlinks 

Go to meeting spot Urbanest Hoxton Cafe  

Favourite book The Hard Thing About Hard Things and How to Win Friends and Influence People 

Necessary extravagance A massage at home every month with Urban Massage

Favourite productivity tool/app SaneBox - email filtering! 

Female inspiration in business Sherry Coutu - a great friend and mentor over the years - I think what she has achieved is extraordinary 

Top fundraising tip Realise that fundraising is not an episode of The X-Factor where you are hoping someone will give you a chance. You have to prove that you are an investable asset and pitch yourself as a believable growth CEO. Coming up with the idea and raising funding is actually the easy part; having the tenacity and the strength to lead a company for many many years through the ups and downs is the tough part! 

Hottest UK tech company (apart from Skimlinks!) I am impressed by what Deliveroo has achieved in such a short amount of time

 

The Journey

Tell us about Skimlinks, its evolution to date and the most exciting thing you are currently working on! 

Skimlinks helps websites make money from the products that they write about by automating the affiliate marketing process on behalf of publishers. We aggregate all affiliate programmes and make it really simple for publishers to get paid a commission when something they write about results in someone buying something. We have built a really big platform around this for the last 8 years with all the tools and insights.

Most recently though we have realised that relying on just affiliate as the way to reward publishers for the role that they have played in creating that intent isn't sufficient and in fact we have a much larger asset that we have amassed: the data around shopping behaviours of users across our publisher network. So what we have done over the last year is build predictive models around these behaviours which allow us to digest all the data points (we see over 1.4 billion people a month!) that we then make available to advertisers who want to target their product to certain consumers. 

We now have a virtuous cycle of a programmatic audience data business that sit on top of our affiliate business. Each benefit the publishers who get paid from both, and who are more likely to choose us because of this unique access to our audience data. It has been an exciting transition from a single product company to a much richer monetisation and data company. It makes us more appealing and defensible!  

What skills from your previous corporate tenures have you appreciated since founding and scaling Skimlinks? 

I used to work for large companies before Skimlinks and I predominately took away things that I don't like about big companies and I worked very consciously to build a culture that is the opposite of my previous tenures. That was probably the most useful thing! Our culture is very caring and human. We also prefer to try things rather than spending months working out if we should do something, it means we fail sometimes but we are continuously innovating. Our culture also changes the way we hire, where it is not about the right CV it is about making sure they are going to add to the energy. 

What were the largest obstacles you faced when launching Skimlinks and what is the biggest challenge today? 

The biggest obstacle when we first started was we didn't have a lot of resources; we didn't raise huge chunks of cash in our early days so we were always resource constrained. Ironically this was also a blessing forcing us to become innovative. One of the worst things a startup can do is raise too much money and lose that frugality. 

Now we have two big challenges: how to continue to scale the culture that we built as the company gets bigger and as people move on and new people join; and how do you truly retain and grow excellent people and keep everyone working well together. 

Can you share more on how you built and grew Skimlinks?  

Our business relies on publishers: content networks like Hearst and Haymarket, newspapers like Daily Mail and digital natives including Buzzfeed and Refinery29 as well as a long tail of blogs and forums. We make a % of a % of a %, meaning our business model is predicated entirely on scale. Especially in the early days when barriers to entry were pretty small we had to build a business that could achieve scale with no resources and almost no defensible asset. Being based in London was a blessing because we could win early customers by spending a weekly tube pass and going to all of then and physically using my passion and certainty that I was not going to let them down to convince publishers to give me a chance. Once we won UK based customers we leveraged them to get their UK and US parent company to use us. That is how we grew. I am really excited about the space we are in - we have been saying for years that publishers should embrace commerce in their content - we like to call it comtent - and now more and more publishers are appreciating the role of comtent in their overall strategy. 

What is your motivation? 

To tell a good story

I am personally motivated by being able to take this company through its entire lifecycle; I started it, I've grown the company alongside my incredible team and it would be wonderful if - when the time is right one day - I could then see it through to its next happy home where my team and customers are taken care of. I want Skimlinks to be seen as a good success story, one of the ones that goes all the way! 

 

Technology & Investment

Can you share your fundraising history and advice? 

Raising money is always a B****

I have done 5 priced rounds, 2 convertible notes and several rounds of debt financing - totalling about $25m. It never gets easy - you think it will but it doesn't. If anything in the early days it is actually easier - there is less complications with the cap table as an incoming investor can own more of the company. Raising at the later stages you have to prove that you will be an outlier and sell for more than most companies have ever sold for in the UK. 

My tips are always the same -

Can you prove you are an investable asset: by you I mean both the company, your team and yourself

What I have learnt over the years is who you get into bed with - metaphorically speaking - is crucially important - especially in those early years - you have to like them and trust them. Our early angels have been invested almost 8 years - longer than many marriages! You want someone that will stand by you during the hard stuff. The worst thing you can do is take easy money that appears to offer a great valuation but whom don't understand what it actually requires to fund a business over a lifetime. Too many times I have seen companies follow that path, ending up with an investor who is unable to follow through in further rounds or consumes a lot of your time micro managing your finances or making it difficult for incoming investors by wanting to retain their board seat. I think it is wiser to take money from experienced institutional investors that knows how to do it. Finally concentrate on control as opposed to valuation.

It matters that you are here tomorrow not what you are valued at today

Have you made any personal investments? 

I have made a handful of very small investments. I don't think I am cut out for it because I make emotional rather than fact-based decisions as to who to invest in! To be a really good investor you need to have the time or follow on from someone that does. Most of my investments have been following on from a friend who is a successful angel. 

What tech trends excite you right now? 

Definitely virtual reality. If I was a free agent I would be doing something in that space. I think it will change the world in a lot of ways. 

 

Women in Tech

What impact has mentoring had on your career? 

I have two different types of mentors. One type is a circle of friends that I have cultivated that excite or inspire me. I have developed the kind of friendships that I can talk through what I am going through and they give me advice and vice versa, I have this with Sherry and my other CEO friends, a support network of individuals going through or slightly ahead of what you are going through - it is crucial. 

I also have a paid coach who has been working with us for 7 years and she is great. She has been a successful business leader herself but now runs a training company and she does mentoring for me and my co-founder as well as regular workshops with my executive team to help them communicate better together. It is definitely worthwhile. 

You have previously commented that you like to give back to the tech community - how do you like to do that? 

It is a fine balance at the moment, I would love to do more but there are only so many hours in day! So I try to do things that have maximum scaling effect. What I love doing the most at the moment is Founders4Schools because I really believe it makes a difference - inspiring kids and teenagers to get into technology and become business leaders is where I feel I can have the biggest impact. 

What advice would you give to young graduates? 

I think there is an enormous difference between the life you lead when you do a job that just pays you well compared to a job where you really enjoy going to work and the people that you work with. I've done both and I have never been more miserable than when I made a lot of money! Money is important but there are ways to get there and love what you do and startups are the best way to do that.

Do something that matters with people that you love - it is a good life! 

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