So this is the first time I’ve written a post about a new recruit. And I feel awful about this because its not to disparage all the other wonderful members of our team who joined over the last few years. I just didn’t write back then. So before I get to our newest team member, I would like to give a shout out to the bestest team a gal could have:
Ben Dunphy is still, the most competent person for his age I have EVER met . Using the word competent, sounds like I mean he just gets by. But far from it, every single thing that ever gets thrown at him, he excels at. I think this is from years of working as a management consultant, in one of the worlds most aggressive cities, New York. And then working for a company in Asia backed by one of the most aggressive venture funds in the world, Rocket Internet. He just gets shit done. And while he looks more like a Hacidic Jewish middle aged man, he is non denominational and in his 20’s and it shocks me every day how good he is. It would be ever so slightly scary how good he will be in a decade if he wasn’t already on our team (cue machiavellian laugh). He is deeply curious, a key trait we look for in venture, has also has outstanding EQ and so very quickly establishes trust with our founders. He thinks hard about problems and more often than not, I find myself wowed because he has asked the smartest questions in the room — in any room. Everybody loves him because he is a big personality and big fun. He brings to portfolio companies a wealth of operational experience, international networks, a sharp focus when focus is needed, an exceptional ability to take a strategic helicopter view, and amazing connections. Australia is lucky to have Ben back, and so are we.
Mike Ng is not even 25. He started as an analyst with us, and has had the fastest trajectory to an investment role we have seen at Blue Sky. With an investment banking background, we knew he could work like a Trojan and hold his own around (read: run rings around us) a financial model, but what we have been astounded by is his commercial acumen. He thinks deeply about how and what companies need to grow in a way that belies his experience. He also has an outstanding EQ, which is a trait we look for specifically for our venture business, and amazingly has no (or well hidden) ego. Mike’s first inclination is to be of service, and he has a level of initiative and industriousness that is unparalleled — he is the first to put up his hand and offer“Ill help with X” before it even occurs to you that you might need help, and Mike brings this empathy and support to our portfolio companies in addition to having financial modelling skills which appear supernatural. He is whip smart, which is obvious to anyone who has met him, but this is bested by his character, his values and his ‘give first’ mentality. Like Ben, people are shocked when they meet Mike because they are skeptical if someone so young can really help their business, but that skepticism is converted into true believer status within about 3 hours. He really is that good.
Our team is young, which is unusual for VC, but don’t mistake that for an inability to make an outstanding contribution to our portfolio. Everytime I or our portfolio companies ask something of them, they step up to the challenge. Everytime. I guess the best validation is that our portfolio companies try to poach them too. All the time. I’ve always adhered to the strategy of hiring people much smarter than me, and in my opinion, youth helps in VC because this gig is hard and needs both professional hunger and a long term commitment.
And this brings us to our newest recruit. As scale up experts as opposed to startup experts, we like to build a team of people with different but complimentary skill sets. For example, in contrast to Mike and Ben who have a commerce background, my training is as a scientist, before taking various startup and operational roles prior to joining the dark side. But at its core, the key things we look for when building out our team are:
- Freaky smart — this is fairly self explanatory, but in case it isn’t, we need freaky smart people because they will be helping other freaky smart people solve freaky hard problems, which have likely never been solved before. At a minimum they have to be able to hold their own, ideally they have to be able to make a material contribution in this environment.
- Can-do attitude — this is critical. We are often spinning many plates, and have a small team, this means we need people who are biased to get shit done. We don’t have time for heirarchy (we really have very little — for example we don’t have ‘partners’ just team members) and people being precious about doing something they think is below them. Our role is to be of service to our portfolio companies to help maximise investor returns, and so we need people who will do what is needed, when its needed, and will find a way even when it seems impossible. This ability to find a way, is what separates excellent people from mediocrity.
- High EQ- what we do is highly emotionally complex. I’ve written before about how the majority of my role as a VC is managing peoples emotions, actions and reactions and and our emotions, actions and reactions. Having the ability to read people well, to moderate ones approach according to context, and to tailor your interactions according to each founder, stakeholder, board members etc, while remaining authentic is critical for establishing trust and for maximising outcomes.
- Add to (not necessarily fit into) our culture — we have a strong culture at Blue Sky and we are very protective of this. However, we don’t look to evaluate team members on their ability to fit into the cultural template. Our culture at Blue Sky has been created because there are some foundational rules we ensure our people will adhere to (ethical values, get shit done, putting investors first etc), but we want people to add to the rich cultural tapestry that has evolved over the last 11 years and we have a fairly motley crew. In particular venture seems to be a magnet for outliers. For this reason its a dynamic, ever-changing culture but with a core DNA that we are proud of and insanely protective of.
- Bonus: mad complimentary skills we can use for Blue Sky and for our portfolio companies.
As you might have seen from the article today, Atlanta Daniel is joining the Blue Sky venture team and family and we are so, so excited. Lants -as everyone knows her — meets all the elements above and then some. She is freaky smart, in fact she scored the highest on the cognitive tests we make all new people take as part of our recruitment process, than everyone we have ever hired in our venture and our private equity team. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed making them all of them aware of that little data nugget. She has unbelievable EQ — her ability to engage and connect with people is well known — I’m not sure there is anyone else in the Australian ecosystem who is as connected, or has had as significant effect on building the innovation community across such a broad spectrum — Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney- as Lants. She has a can do attitude, evidenced by hustling to get her own venture fund off the ground or bringing the community together to provide an Australian wide response to the recent sexism furore last week. As for the cultural fit, I’ve seen her strong values play out in many examples over the last couple years. And, anyone who knows Lants knows she is quirky. If you don’t believe me check out her insta page which is a homage to her lego collection. We think her quirky, dry, witty, suffer-no-fools contribution will add beautifully to our culture and to our portfolio companies. She also has mad skills — prior to entering the startup world, she comes from a recruiting and advertising/marketing background. Both of these are key strategic aspects of portfolio company growth, which we currently don’t have any expertise within our team.
Its not actually a big deal, but as today’s article made a point of her gender, I should address the point that we are one of the few VC funds in Australia that has gender parity. This is not deliberate, its just worked out that way, I guess because our networks have access to both qualified men and women who can make a positive contribution to this sector. And this will no doubt change at various points, at the start we were 100% female, then 25% female, now at 50%.
In my opinion, the ‘pipeline’ issue that is oft quoted as a reason for lack of diversity (and by diversity I mean any minority) is actually bullshit, that’s just people being too lazy to do the work to expand their networks or being too narrow minded to expand the merits, skillset or qualifications they look for in investing professionals. I think this is ultimately detrimental to those firms, VC is largely a relationship and network game, I just don’t get why you wouldn’t want to recruit people with networks and relationships you don’t already have access to. There are great examples of firms trying to actively hack this ‘pipeline’ issue — Blackbird are an excellent example of this with their Startmate accelerator to increase the number of female founders. But at a VC partner or investment professional level the gender diversity is still not great across the board or within firms, although some firms like OneVentures are an exception. At the very least, hopefully we can be the example that having gender parity doesn’t incite the apocalypse, but instead makes us even better.