Susan Oliver discusses what investors look for in a founder
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An Angel Investor and co-founder of multiple startup ventures, Susan Oliver has also served as a board member on over a dozen organisations in her long and rich career, including The Wheeler Centre, Fishermans Bend, The Smith Family and Fusion Retail Brands. Susan is a co-founder and recently retired Chair of Scale Investors, Australia’s first network of Angel Investors committed to investing in and supporting exclusively female founders. In her conversation with Adam, she discusses what she looks for in a founder when investing, and her belief that Australia should invest more in the technology products of Australian startups, rather than relying so heavily on the technology products of other nations.
Scale Investors: https://scaleinvestors.com.au/
Susan Oliver Profile, Melbourne School of Design: https://msd.unimelb.edu.au/alumni/alumni-profiles/susan-oliver
Susan Oliver: My name is Susan Oliver, I’m recently retired chair and founding chair, one of the founders of Scale Investors and I am recently appointed as chair of the Alice Anderson Fund here in Victoria. I am an investor, I have 16 angel investments. I have my own startup, I’ll call it a tech company rather than a startup. And I am also a director and chair of listed and unlisted companies, which I’ve been doing since I joined a massive startup called Transurban in 1995-96.
Adam Spencer: Can you give me two elevator pitches, just for context when we play it in the episode, but of Scale Investors and the Alice Anderson fund.
Susan Oliver: Okay, Scale Investors is based on an American group that I met in New York many years ago, 2010, 2011 who form an angel network who individually put up their hands to invest in female or women led startups or startups where a woman is a senior member of the team and has an influence on the direction of the country.
Susan Oliver: So we launched Scale finally in 2013. My co-founders then, I sought the support of Carol Schwartz, Annette Kimmitt and Laura Mackenzie was our first CEO. And so we’ve been running since then we’ve funded about 13 or 14 startups and more than that in second rounds.
Susan Oliver: We think we’re probably bought about 13 or $14 million out of our own pockets and brought about 50 or $60 million into those female founders through working with other angel investing and VC groups, early stage investing groups. We also support, sit on the board, mentor and so on our invested companies. And we had the exit of the year in 2019.
Susan Oliver: The Alice Anderson Fund, while Scale pioneered this focus on investing in women, the point being that at the time I was working this through less than 2% of all of the funding in early stage was going to female entrepreneurs, to women entrepreneurs. And now it’s about 3%.
Susan Oliver: And this is consistent with the US and the UK. So women are really not participating in the startup ecosystem in the same way as males are. And perhaps they’re not being supported to do that as much either. And so scale has focused on developing women to be investors as well as being recipients of that investment. So it’s both sides of the equation. But importantly, to put women on the panels, on the selection panels so that there is diversity in that selection of who gets funded and what gets funded.
Adam Spencer: Yeah, I think that’s really important. I just had an interview prior to yours and this come up as well, especially that stat around 2 and 3% of all funds. Why do you think that is the case?
Susan Oliver: As an investor myself, at the earlier stage, I invest in the person, in the individual, in the founder. And I think it takes a little bit of understanding and empathy of their journey. And I think that’s sort of a natural human instinct. So I think males on panels may find it more comfortable to invest in males and females on panels may find it more comfortable to invest in females.
Susan Oliver: So I think it’s really important to have that diversity. I also think that women are perhaps a little bit more reluctant to ask for money and feel they have to go further down the journey and to be much more certain before they ask for that cash and then they might ask for too little. So they then spend their time doing subsequent rounds and raisings instead of driving their business forward.
Susan Oliver: So I think there is something about women being a little bit more risk aware. They certainly ask for less. When they do get that money, they use it very wisely. And that’s certainly my experience. So, you know, I think we’re probably reluctant to do that big ask and I think the guys don’t have that same reluctance.
Adam Spencer: Just a quick side question, I am curious to learn more about your relationship with Launch Victoria, cause I believe that they put your name forward. How did you get involved with those guys or are you involved with those guys?
Susan Oliver: Well, Launch Victoria is behind the Alice Anderson Fund. And so I was appointed by Launch Victoria to chair the Alice Anderson fund. The relationship with Launch Victoria and the Victorian government goes back a long way. It goes back to the start of Scale, the Victorian government through both colors of politics, have supported Scale all the way down the journey. It’s been fantastic support and Launch Victoria has been the agent for that in more recent years.
Adam Spencer: How did you get involved in investing?
Susan Oliver: Okay I think it’s probably better to ask how did I get involved in this whole sort of entrepreneurial innovation startup world. First of all, I got to know Roger Allen and Roger Buckeridge who were Allen and Buckeridge, which was one of the very first VCs in Australia. Very first fund in Australia. And at that time I was
Susan Oliver: also working at Invetech, which, where I did the technology strategy and built a business within Invetech. So technology, strategy and finding commercial outcomes for science and technology have been my interest since 1980 something.
Susan Oliver: And I’ve done a lot of work writing, trying to push governments to fund this, I firmly believe that there’s so many problems in the world that there’s no end of need for solutions, so let’s get going and innovate and get good answers out there and let’s create that value in Australia. So that’s a bit of a passion.
Susan Oliver: And then what made me interested in Scale and starting Scale was that I have my own technology. I’m the co-founder of a software platform. And when we went to VCs, early stage funders, we got lots of nos or not yet, but we got no advice or support whatsoever. So this was in the years before 2010. I went to the US and met Golden Seeds, which is the group that Scale was modelled on.
Susan Oliver: And they spent more than two days introducing me to various people, talking to me about how you get funding, talking to me about how you get market traction. And I learnt so much in those two days that I was never able to learn in Australia. So I wanted to start to create that aspect of an ecosystem, where people with great ideas, great technology actually can get the support that they need, which is not just money. Money certainly helps, but it’s a lot more, it’s about access to markets, it’s about mentoring, it’s about advice, it’s about wisdom. And so that’s really the beginning of Scale, it was that experience.
Adam Spencer: What year, exact year Scale start and what did the landscape look like from your perspective in terms of the startup ecosystem during that time?
Susan Oliver: 2013 was the year that we launched Scale. It was about 18 months in the making and the thinking and the consideration and research. 2013, there was certainly no emphasis on funding women entrepreneurs, or creating any particular support for women founders. So that was completely new and we pioneered that notion here in Australia.
Susan Oliver: There was very few places you could go to, which were truly venture capital. That is, early stage capital at risk for that early entrepreneur. And so angel investing also had been, it was certainly present, Melbourne Angels was active and thank goodness for them, but it tended to be a place for either a solid set of males gathered around the table. It certainly didn’t seem like a place that I could go to.
Susan Oliver: And so, how do you entice women who have never invested in early stage companies to think about it and learn about it? So Scale was a place for action learning and to give that early comfort that you were in a group and you’re working together and learning together. So that’s a very big part of what Scale was about that, that filled a gap in the landscape that just simply wasn’t there.
Adam Spencer: What do you think we, as a community, as a whole, what are we doing extremely well from your perspective?
Susan Oliver: I think the support now, the whole sort of landscape of investing and giving support to startups is so much better, it’s really moved along. And I think the whole sort of technology enablement and personal, socialware and software, et cetera, et cetera, has really opened the door for innovation in the hands of fairly, relatively non-technical people. And I think that is so exciting and I love to see it.
Susan Oliver: I think there’s still gaps around what I’ll call deep tech, serious tech, because the pathway is longer. And so for an angel investor, that’s a big punt and you’ll probably never see any real value out of an investment of that kind. And it’s not always the same sort of model where you’ve got an idea, find a customer, you do a proof of concept, and it goes on its way.
Susan Oliver: This can be a technology that really is transformational. And I think that sort of technology in Australia often gets met with disbelief. And it’s back to that funny old, cringe thing that we have in Australia, that if it’s really good, it can’t be invented here. So I think still attitudinally, we struggle in Australia to see that we can be the biggest and the best and the brightest which is disappointing.
Adam Spencer: do you have any really unpopular opinions that you absolutely hold true and people just don’t seem to get on the same page with you as?
Susan Oliver: I think we are a shocking market for our own technology and invention. A disgraceful market for our own technology and invention. And if I hear of yet another board thinking they’ve got innovation, because they’ve been to Israel or Silicon Valley, and therefore they understand what innovation is, I think that – I shake my head in disbelief.
Susan Oliver: And I think of the really great examples of where great ideas have met terrific marketplaces and there’s that proximity to the marketplace. And those customers say look, do this and do that. And it becomes, if it gets to market much more quickly, it gets the right sort of customer input, it gets the right sort of capital behind it. And we just don’t do that.
Susan Oliver: Generally, we do not do that well at all, our companies at the strategic level, do not seem to be able to come up with the model that creates an innovative culture that creates an acceptance and a willingness to take risks and to buy Australian and really make a difference.
Adam Spencer: So do you think we’re on the right track and if not, what’s the biggest change that we need to make?
Susan Oliver: Look, if we’re looking at a curve, that’s going up and it’s going up exponentially, so it’s getting better and better. And I’ve been very encouraged by that. When I stepped down from the board of Scale on the 30th of June, just a few days ago, I was really pleased to see that there was another generation of people. There was more support for women, there was much greater understanding that women founders needed support and were more successful when supported.
Susan Oliver: So, all of that is fantastic and I can’t see that momentum going away. And from Scale, for example, many of the angels have met each other and now got their own startups, which are going extremely well. And many of the other angels are now investing much more broadly than Scale.
Susan Oliver: And with the Alice Anderson Fund, we now have a potential $300,000 injection of capital into a sizeable investment by an angel group into female founders. So that’s fantastic. I’m really pleased with that and feel that Scale is now institutionalised and the understanding is there that we need to support diversity.
Susan Oliver: The part that I still want to see mature is how our large corporations truly innovate and that includes government and learns to take the risks necessary. I don’t think they are high risk. I think the risk of using the same old technology that’s been shipped around the world, forever is a higher risk than coming up with our own. But to take that step outside of their pattern of safe procurement and have look at what we’re doing here in Australia, because some of it’s just amazing.
Adam Spencer: If you could give them one piece of advice that would slightly increase their chances of success, what would you tell them, a brand new founder?
Susan Oliver: It’s a good question because it’s a tough journey. So,
Susan Oliver: are you folks single-minded and focused and ready for this very, very tough journey that could be many, many years in the making and would be very lonely, would be very stressful? Because unless you’ve got that focus and that determination, you’re probably not going to, probably not going to make it. And as an angel investor, early stage investor, we’re looking for that tenacity and that determination and that total commitment to their idea and the business that they’re building.
Adam Spencer: What draws you to that early stage investment?
Susan Oliver: That’s when it’s needed most, you need to give those people the beginning. You need to help them to find their direction and sort out their business value. And that’s exciting, I mean, I was an investor in one of the, in the exit that we had from Scale. And that was exciting, that was a five-year journey, which is quite short for this world.
Susan Oliver: The multiple was very attractive. We never would have got that on the Australian share market and it’s a technology and a capability, which is really disrupting an industry. And it’s fantastic. And it was bought by an American company and it will grow and go on from there.
Adam Spencer: To wrap up here, I want to open the floor for you to talk about just whatever is passionate. What are you thinking about on a day-to-day basis that you think should go into this series? Like, what do people need to hear? What do you want to tell people that are listening to this series?
Susan Oliver: I just want to impress on people how much we’ve got here in Australia, that’s Australian, whether it’s software, whether it’s biotech, whether it’s pharmaceutical, we’ve got so much that’s great knowledge. And what we need to do as a nation is find a way of giving it the opportunity and the fact that so much of our technology goes off shore because that’s where we, not just where we find a big market, yes, that it goes off shore because that’s where we find the first customer. We should be able to find a first customer here, that shouldn’t be so hard.
Adam Spencer: Do you think the Australian culture or how easy we’ve had it here in Australia, Do you think that it counts against us when it comes to being a founder, being a startup, being an entrepreneur, like we don’t really feel pressured to chase these things to be that first mover to be that first customer. And is that why we lose out to, for people overseas who are willing to move, take the risk, move fast.
Susan Oliver: Yeah I think that, and I think the fact that our ecosystem, our innovation ecosystem is pretty new. In the US you’ve had, well in parts of the US, obviously not all of the US but probably Silicon Valley and New York to a greater extent now too. You’ve had successful entrepreneurs make fantastic amounts of money and they bring that knowledge and that confidence and that investment back into the ecosystem and it circles around which again is one of the pities when our companies exit, they often exit overseas.
Susan Oliver: And then that person who’s then resident in the US, and we don’t get that circling back into our economy, that knowledge, that confidence to invest, that enthusiasm for the whole sector, it does get under your skin you know, and you become addicted to it. I love my portfolio, much more interesting than the share market.
Susan Oliver: So I think that’s the news ecosystem. Yes, it’s growing exponentially. Yes, it’s really exciting. Yes, there’s some fantastic things happening. But it’s relatively new and we need to get more of those successful entrepreneurs back in, investing, mentoring, supporting, and adding to the growth of the sector.
Susan Oliver: So I think that’s part of the reason. I, many, many years ago, I did some work, it was scenarios for the future for Australia. And one of them, and I did it with Richard Neville, I don’t know if that means anything to you, but he was one of the founders of Oz in the UK and all that happened then, and a very funny man.
Susan Oliver: And one of the scenarios we came up with was brave old world because even in 2005 or 2002, whenever we were doing this, there was still this sense that Australia was so complacent. They were so happy with where they were, that they didn’t want to actually ginger themselves up and get into a discomfort zone.
Susan Oliver: And when we showed that video to American colleagues, they said, why would you do that? Why would you do that? There’s all this excitement, there’s this is game to play. There’s this technology to back. Why would you pull back from that. And I think we still do pull back, I think that is a cultural attitude we have.
Susan Oliver: I also think that we are a little bit too rule-bound. I think there’s this sort of playing it safe, will often mean that we don’t take a step outside of a procurement rule to have a look at something else. So a mixture of things, I think it’s changing in that sort of startup sector. I think there’s some really exciting stuff happening in FinTech. But I do think that the deep fundamental, transformational technologies are still getting a pretty raw go here.