There is a list of character traits that entrepreneurs look for (or should look for) in an angel investor, with putting a signature on the back of a check or on the bottom of contracts being just one of them. Various accounts, including those often featured in our magazine, favor possessing industry expertise, facilitating introductions to their broad networks of contacts, following a code of conduct (this seems to have risen in importance only recently), and the list -by no means exhaustive- goes on. There are different degrees of all of those as well. But when it comes to assessing an angel investor’s belief in the less experienced, how high would you rate someone who sees “no” as “on” as being one of their strengths? This may be an everyday battle for someone with dyslexia, like Assia Grazioli-Venier, but this Los Angeles-based media executive, angel investor and advisor to high-growth tech startups and investors has found value in what many may consider a hindrance.
Speaking at a TEDxLUISS edition in her native Rome last year, she shared her experience with dyslexia as one example of how she learnt to endorse disruption from an early age. “Life has already taught me how to anticipate the unexpected, and not resist disruption, but embrace the change,” she says, in her talk. As Grazioli-Venier sees it, achieving the impossible and never taking no for an answer is part of her daily agenda- and in today’s entrepreneurial age, that is a skill definitely worth having. “The best advice I can give an entrepreneur is to go with conviction, surround yourself with the smartest people (smarter than you), and be firm but flexible with your idea,” she says. “Most of the most successful businesses today had naysayers, and in fact, some could say that the more naysayers you have, the better the idea could be.”
One example, she notes, is Sweden’s music streaming company Spotify, which is reportedly valued at US$13 billion, where she has served as its Director of Special Projects for over six years. “When I started advising the founder, Daniel Ek, and the business, Spotify had under 100 employees, and although they had a proven business model in their local Sweden, everyone was telling them they were crazy,” Grazioli- Venier says. “They were told there was no way that streaming could reinvigorate the music business, not to mention their lofty claims that streaming would inject more money into the music business than ever before. And Spotify was marred by disbelievers, with talent and industry folks buying into unfounded negative stories in the press that it wasn’t paying artists. But Spotify persisted, proved their model, built their product, evolved it continuously to attract and retain loyal customers, and have since pumped the music industry with billions of dollars.” Grazioli-Venier is today also on the board of advisors of Northzone, a European technology investment company whose portfolio includes Spotify, iZettle, MarketInvoice, Outfittery, Trustpilot, Fyndiq and Qapital. Furthermore, since 2012, Grazioli-Venier has been on the board of Italy’s Juventus Football Club, being the first female and youngest board member to serve in such a role in the club’s history.
With this professional background, Ivy League education, and an obviously undefeatable personality, she stepped into a new role in 2016 by co-founding Muse Capital, an early-stage strategic angel investment fund that focuses on consumer-facing entrepreneurs and technologies. Network and experience, she says, are something that most young entrepreneurs don’t have, but both are vital to a fledgling startup. For that reason, Grazioli-Venier explains that a good angel investor needs to have the power, experience, and influence to help an entrepreneur bring his or her vision to life. “A great example of this is our role as investors and advisors to our portfolio company, ReplyYes,” she says. “When we met them, they had an excellent team, a proof of concept and revenue, but had been declined by 26 investors. Within two weeks of us investing, we had raised them just under $2 million from leading funds in the US, and supercharged their business development outreach to generate revenue more aggressively. This led to further investments by Disney, for example, who have now taken them into their accelerator program."
This autumn, Grazioli-Venier will attend the 19th Global Women In Leadership Economic Forum in Dubai, where she will be delivering a keynote address. With respect to the UAE’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, Grazioli-Venier notes quite gladly that the number of angels, incubators and accelerators here are all on the rise. “I am thrilled to see that some of the most prominent angel networks are centered on women, such as WOMENA that unites high net worth women to make joint investments, and the Women’s Angel Investment Network (WAIN) that brings together female investors to support women entrepreneurs. There is incidentally no shortage of women entrepreneurs, as Al Masah Capital estimated in 2016 that women-led SMEs in the Gulf are worth $385 billion. There is still a deficit of venture capitalists in the region, and those that have been there have not historically made any significant plays. But this is slowly changing.”
Dubai, by itself, is turning into a real startup hub, she adds. “Until recently, the UAE has been leagues behind the Valley, or even cities like New York, DC, and London. It has struggled to get there because, while historically the wealth was there, the talent was not. After all, the Zuckerbergs of the region knew they were likelier to succeed if they relocated to an already established hub like San Francisco. But this has been changing significantly over the last 1.5 years. The government is pumping funds into Dubai’s free zones and mini cities– Internet City is a good example. Also, whereas money used to immediately leave Dubai to Europe, for example, investors are now staying put. After Brexit and the potential breakdown of the Eurozone, people are playing it safe and doubling down at home. So, over the last two years, we’ve seen a sudden jump in activity in the UAE, with Dubai finally becoming a major hub. It is now a cool, hip, and savvy environment, encouraging and attracting talent as well as funds. Talent is now not just cropping up, but staying.”
In her opinion, the UAE, as a burgeoning ecosystem that is not yet ripe and matured, needs young, experienced strategic investors, who work alongside institutional investors, with a global vision and a local approach. The reasons are plenty- Careem, Fetchr, Bayzat, Souqalmal, and Laundrybox are just a few examples of UAE-based startups that can go global, she adds. From her personal perspective, she reveals that the Muse Capital team plans to raise capital for one of their funds to invest in a well-balanced array of innovative startups both in the US and the UAE over the next five years. So, what is their take on the next big disruption? Rachel Springate, co-founder at Muse Capital, says that it will come from artificial intelligence. “First, there was the internet/web, then mobile, but now the future is voice and using AI-enabled voice assistants,” she says. “We will be controlling all aspects of our daily life with our voice, from summoning a car, to navigation to controlling our homes to ordering groceries, and so on. The earliest iterations like Siri and Alexa/Google Home are just the beginning.”
Meanwhile, the fund’s associate Zach White thinks that emerging innovations in the financial service industries will be the largest technologically-driven disruptive force across the globe in the next decade. “With the proliferation of data-intensive platformbased services offering a wider range of products, the average retail investor will have access to more sophisticated capabilities around their finances than ever before,” he explains. “Once niche areas of finance with little traction, services such as P2P lending, cryptographic exchange, mobile payments and banking, and fully automated advice and wealth management are all examples of the democratization of the industry. The flattening effect of this once very institutionally operated business, in combination with greater direct access to the internet as well as sources of data, will cause the average individual consumer to benefit most. As the increase in financial offerings drives prices down as a whole across the industry, large banks and financial institutions will need to aggressively and continually pivot in order to offer consistent value to their clients.”
To all of those willing to support these kind of forward-thinking ideas in the UAE, Grazioli-Venier’s advice is to be patient and optimistic. “Investing, especially angel investing, is ultimately a game of Russian Roulette,” she says. “You invest in 100, hoping for one big win, but you can only do that when the 100 you have invested in are well-managed, great ideas led by truly talented entrepreneurs. As talent stays in the region, strategic investors start investing, and titans of the business world get involved, the environment will be more open to risk.”
Grazioli-Venier is also hopeful about seeing more people become angel investors in the region- but for that to happen, she notes that some misconceptions about this space need to be eliminated. “The biggest misconception I see from new angel investors is that they want to fund exciting projects, rather than supporting incredible teams,” she says. “They become infatuated with an idea, and get involved so they can help bring it to life. There are a couple of problems with this. The first is that an idea is nothing without a smart, capable, visionary founder at the helm, along with a strong, vital team. Even with an angel’s investment and support, the concept will come to nothing with a weak team. The second reason not to get infatuated with an idea is that ideas change. If an angel only invests in a company because they’re in love with their idea, they’ll be disappointed when the practicalities mean the concept has to evolve into something different. They might even hang on to the original idea for way too long, holding the company back from doing what it has to. Another misconception angel investors have is that they’re going to be a part of the company and its lifestyle. While many startups have a great team and exciting environment, angel investors cannot be there to make friends. An angel investor needs to give the company space and distance to carry its idea to execution. Becoming friends with the team might be tempting, but it will ultimately waste time they need to become successful.”
This can lead to destructive behaviors that angel investors need to be wary of, says Grazioli-Venier. “There is often an innate passion that an angel investor has towards the company she or he is investing in,” she explains. “And that passion can be funneled to accelerate the business, but can also lead to an over indulgent investor who sees himself as co-CEO. Or worse, co-founder. One of the most destructive behaviors an angel investor can exhibit is a thirst for power. When you invest in a company, they are necessarily reliant on you. It’s all too easy to start feeling the allure of that power, and expect respect, flattery, and subservience. Once an investor has this attitude, the company is in trouble, as they’re expected more and more to bend to the will of the investor, rather than doing what they know is best for their company.” To prevent such situations from happening, Grazioli-Venier says that the onus is on entrepreneurs to pick the right investors to associate with. “Founders should be on the lookout for these behaviors when looking for an angel,” she says. “While the right investors will increase your startup’s success rates, the wrong ones will put your business on the wrong trajectory, waste your time, and even cause you to miss opportunities to raise more money. Conversely, founders might endow their angels with this power. They might expect the angel to be a miracle worker, who can give them all the money, connections, and customers they need. Angel investors need to look out for this and not feed this behavior. They need to strip the founder of their illusions, and work with them on the foundation of what is realistically possible.”