Ophelia Brown is the founder of Blossom Capital, a new London-based fund aiming to make early investments in technology companies that are somewhat larger than those traditionally doled out here in Europe compared to our US counterparts.
She started her VC career at Index Ventures before moving to Local Globe and then left to set up Blossom at the end of 2017. She is also the founder of Ambitious Ladies in Tech, a mentoring network for young female technology employees.
Soon after the below interview took place, Blossom announced its first $85 million fund and we talked to Brown about the sort of companies she will be looking to invest that money in. We also talked about how the venture capital industry is changing, and how Blossom intends to ensure it is more approachable than traditional funds, regardless of background or gender. This will include dedicated office hours for female founders and a more proactive approach to fielding cold introductions.
Below is a transcript of the conversation from the video above, edited lightly for clarity.
Scott Carey, Techworld: How did you get into venture capital, and what has your career trajectory looked like over the last few years?
Ophelia Brown, Blossom Capital: I actually came into VC thinking I wanted to build a company. I had been working on an idea for a peer-to-peer car-sharing startup, unfortunately, I was beaten to market, so I figured that I would join a venture fund to learn more about the financing process, and figured, you know, meeting with lots of entrepreneurs, that next time, I'd have a much better idea of the landscape.
I grew up in the UK, but obviously thinking about doing venture, you kind of look to the west coast. And in 2011, I went to meet with every single VC fund over in the US and quickly realised, having not grown up there, having not gone to school there, I didn't really have a competitive advantage trying to get a job at Sequioa.
I looked at Europe and really there was one firm I wanted to work for, it was Index [Ventures], primarily because they were the only fund in Europe investing both in Europe and the US - so I wanted to get exposure on both continents.
I joined them in 2012 and was fortunate enough that the first investment I sourced and brought in was a company called Big Health. It was probably far too early for market selling a digital health solution into the NHS, so they quickly relocated to San Francisco. I was helping them make their first hires, open an office over there and then later that summer I led on the seed investment into a company called Robin Hood. With those two companies I spent a lot of my time out in the Valley, and also in New York.
I spent four years there. I then went on to be a general partner at Local Globe, which is a micro-VC based in London, doing early-stage seed investing in the UK. Really it was that experience watching companies come up to series A I kind of saw a gap in the European market for another fund, so at the end of 2017 I decided to take the bold leap and set up my own firm with three other partners. Today we have Blossom, which is an $85 million fund and our scope is to lead series As across Europe.
What was that gap you saw across Europe that you thought you could fill with Blossom?
I think now myself and my partners have been in European venture for almost a decade and I think, like myself, I wanted to start my career in venture moving over to the US. That's what every founder kind of thought over the last five to 10 years.
The dramatic shift has been a lot of teams actually now want to stay and build in Europe. The talent is great here, there's lots of ambition coming from the founders. It's extremely competitive in the Valley, there's not a lot of need to move over there, especially if you don't have the network and links over there, it becomes very difficult to build those companies at the early stages.
Increasingly, founders are wanting to build here, but they want investors who match them in their ambition, who have an understanding of how to help them internationalise and help their product scale from Europe. And I think that's the gap in the market that you know, they kind of want those investors that they would get on the west coast, but with local understanding and expertise.
What sort of companies do you tend to look for at Blossom?
We look for very mission-driven founders looking to solve very large problems and huge markets. Very product-driven founders, where the conception of the product comes from them. And then we think a lot about how fast that company can scale into a global leader. We're not looking for copycats. We're not looking for regional outcomes, but really transformative companies.
How has the industry changed in that time? And particularly the changing levels of diversity and inclusion across the industry and also in the companies that are being invested in.
Look, I think we're still far behind where we would like to be. I think it comes from a problem of not enough women going into STEM subjects at university, not enough women in technology companies at the early stage - I think that there are a lot of initiatives now focused on that. Hopefully, we're making not small-step improvements, but leaps and bounds improvements.
How important do you think it is that we now have the data, we have the visibility into how big the issue is?
I think the data is super helpful otherwise we're kind of shooting in the dark. And this was part of the reason why I set up this network Ambitious Ladies in Tech, because I felt that a lot of people were talking about the issue and not doing anything meaningful to contribute to it. So that is a mentor network for junior women within technology companies, less than three years experience, and matching them with a male and female mentor, within the same function - so if you're in marketing, you get matched with the CMO, if you're in engineering, a CTO, and you get two mentors.
The purpose being that you still want that female support, but the reality is, in today's world, you're probably reporting to a male manager. Then we do a lot of networking and master classes and lectures around it to help grow the group. Something like that, I think, is kind of meaningful and tangible and other efforts like office hours with female founders and other such initiatives will mean, hopefully, we'll see improvements in the data there.
Do you feel that there's more being done to try and get women access to those more important networks? Also, I know that you have a different approach to cold introductions at Blossom, and you're trying to make that a more effective way of getting through to your fund in particular.
I don't quite understand why it used to be that you could only approach a fund based on introductions or networks. There are so many people starting companies today and it doesn't make sense that you need to use your network to get access to someone, so that was the reason why we wanted to encourage people to pitch us online.
My partner Imran is a data scientist and quant engineer and he builds a lot of models to help us find companies that aren't necessarily in the big hubs, and specifically, because we feel that founders anywhere can be building a really interesting business. It's not really up to them to come and find us, but we want to go and find them. And I think that's consistent with our cold approach and asking people to pick us online.
Continuing on with the Ambitious Ladies in Tech, because I think that's a really interesting programme. Are there other programmes that you're seeing, in London in particular, but across Europe, doing work like that? And do you think that we're trending in the right direction?
Absolutely trending. There's HER that came out of Stockholm, which is a really interesting women's network. Obviously, there's The Wing in New York, which started as a coworking space just for women. Diversity VC is trying to address some of the issues of gender imbalance within venture capital funds, so yeah, there are lots of initiatives going on.
What are you excited about for the year? What are the big goals for Blossom going into the rest of 2019?
Our target is: we will probably work with about five companies or choose to partner with about five companies a year. We're very selective about the types of people and companies that we work with. Being a new fund, we've now got a portfolio of four companies, so we've got ample capital to go out there and find really interesting entrepreneurs.
So you're targeting large-ish series A rounds, right?
Yeah. We firmly believe in appropriately capitalising companies, when we come in from A to B, they're typically a series A company with a product in market, or just about, maybe some early adopters, but really figuring out that runway to drive that exponential growth, think about new markets. Typically that ends up being around a $5-10 million [round] we want to lead, and of course, be collaborative with others, if others want to come participate alongside us.
How do you feel about funds or companies that are taking more of an affirmative kind of approach where they only invest in more female-led companies, or you have to anonymise all of your pitch decks? Rather than the traditional VC approach, which is just we want to find the best companies, but also, for you, wanting them to be mission driven.
I don't think things like anonymising pitch decks precludes you from investing in the best companies. Some of that stuff definitely makes sense and I can see why. I think we're very conscious that it's not just about gender, it's about ethnicity, race, background, etc. These are all the things we think about when we're making an investment.
Also, it doesn't just reside with the founders. I think that's also kind of missing the point. It's about the whole technology team, so even if you invest in a male-only founding team, how are they going to be recruiting? How are they going to ensure gender diversity in the workplace?
What has been your favourite company that you've seen over the last couple of years? I know you've invested in quite a few companies recently.
I always say you never have a favourite. You love all your portfolio companies the same.