Hello Sarah and Simon! So how did you meet and why did you decide to set up Angel Academe together?
We first met in 2001 on a work trip to the US. The romance started a few months later and we set up our first business together in 2007. That was a consultancy and we did a combination of joint and individual projects.
Angel Academe came in 2014 as a side-project for Sarah, who’d been doing some angel investing and, long story short, got fed up of being the only woman in the room. It soon became clear that to actually get investment to happen (rather than just be a talking shop), Angel Academe would need to be led, organised and structured. Responsible and risk-aware investing is important to us -it’s not just about getting as many people as possible over the line. Gradually it took up more and more of both of our time.
What does each of you bring to the company?
We’ve always complemented each other well and figured out early on that we had to be very clear about our respective roles – or, more bluntly, to know who’s boss on what.
Obviously, roles evolve over time as a business changes and grows, but at Angel Academe, Sarah essentially looks after our investors and Simon takes care of the entrepreneurs. We talk all the time, of course, and there’s a lot of overlap, but we trust the other person to lead on their side of the business.
Your work entails vetting companies and their founding team. What do you look for in co-founders that you invest in or put in front of your members?
This breaks down into two main areas. The emotional, including things like tenacity, confidence and passion. Founders need this in spades to be able to attract and engender trust in the best talent, investors and customers. We call it emotional intelligence. You know it when you see it.
The other area is drier and includes things like having well-defined roles, complementary skill sets, a track-record of working together and relevant domain and technical expertise.
We’ll want to understand how decisions are made in the business and how the founders handle and resolve disagreements. Sometimes, although there’s a founding team, one founder will have more shares, so will have the deciding vote. Other times, there might be equal shareholders, so there will need to be more consensus. Either can work.
Both areas are important. Charisma alone doesn’t build a business.
Any red flags that instantly puts you off backing co-founders?
We’re backing female founders so a big red flag to us is a majority shareholder who’s a man and a female “co-founder” with a few shares or options. So not really a founder at all. You’d be surprised how often that happens. We don’t like dishonesty or obfuscation and game-playing doesn’t go down at all well either.
If you were teaching a class on how to create the most productive, enjoyable co-founder relationship what would be your top tips?
Plan the last day first! Ask yourselves: what are your ambitions for the business? What commitment are you prepared to make – and over what period? Who will do what? How will you make decisions? And how will do you arbitrate when there are disagreements? How much do you respect and trust this other person?
Build a good support network – advisors, coaches and your investors can all be invaluable for testing ideas, getting feedback and providing therapy.
Have a pre-nup. There’s no shame in calling it a day if things go wrong, but you need to know how that will work in case of disagreement.
Don’t ignore underlying problems – if not tackled, they fester.
Have a life – keep things in perspective.
What does the future hold for AA and yourselves?
We want to grow the business, especially our investment capacity.
When we first started in 2014, a lot of people told us “women don’t invest”, or “women don’t build scalable businesses”. We believe that if you level the playing field in terms of knowledge about investing and access to capital, then they will and they do. We’ve helped change the conversation and culture around startups and investment, which we’re very proud of, but there’s still work to do. Women investors still don’t have the same impact as men – women are only 9% of angel investors according to the British Business Bank, and only 13% of decision-makers in VC firms according to Diversity VC. And when women are startup CEOs, they still raise less money and at lower valuations than businesses with male CEOs.
What partnership do you really admire and why?
It’s not very fashionable, but the Queen and the late Duke of Edinburgh: a female leader driven by a commitment to service and helping others, ably supported by a long-suffering husband who mostly knew his place and kept his trap shut. Mostly 🙂
Closer to home, we both really admire Angel Academe members Audrey Mandela and Sean Phelan. They built and successfully exited a tech business together and have gone on to be serial angel investors.
We’re also huge fans of the alt rock trio Low, led by drummer Mimi Parker and her husband, guitarist Alan Sparhawk. We can only imagine what it’s like to be the third member – and there have been several!
And finally what do you do to switch off and just be husband and wife?
It’s a combination of things we do together and apart, really. We love swimming in the sea in Brighton, hill-walking, and seeing friends. We both love food, which helps. Sarah tends to wind down by reading and watching TV, while Simon has a classical guitar obsession.
Thank you Sarah and Simon!