Hello Friends of Velocity,
This is my first Velocity Ventures blog, and in thinking about a topic to launch what I am planning to be a stellar blogging career, my mind is boggled with options. Should I write about the work we’ve done here at Velocity over the past 12 months launching the fund? Or should I talk about some of the amazing founders we have met along the way and the extreme challenges they face doing business during such cataclysmic times? Or perhaps a deep dive into the technical matters where we have developed processes and procedures at Velocity – like valuations, term sheets, or even down rounds? The options were endless!
But as I sat and considered the massive number of possible topics, it occurred to me that one of the most profound aspects of the last 12 months of work was that most of it took place from home!
As a Covid-themed fund, we spend a lot of time thinking about the impact of Covid – how life was before this virus, and how it will be going forward living with it. In the past, most of us probably worked at home from time to time, whether it was late night replying to an email or working on something urgent over the weekend to meet a deadline. But for most of us, working from home was an exception, or an add-on, rather than the base case. Getting up in the morning and heading into the office was part of my daily routine: autopilot – alarm, exercise, shower, shave, coffee, breakfast, coffee again, drive to work, coffee again (!) and finally work begins! So fundamental was the concept of an office that one of the first things a founder would do when establishing a start-up was to establish a place of work, even if it meant working from a co-working space.
How Covid has changed all that!
Having spent the last 12 months launching Velocity Ventures from my home office, I thought I’d share with you some reflections and lessons learned…
I have broken these down into a few areas: firstly, the practical aspect of getting set up at home, secondly, the lessons learned from getting business done from home; thirdly teamwork and how we’ve worked as a team at Velocity during these weird times; and finally, a few thoughts on where we go from here.
So here goes!
1. GETTING SET UP
Obviously, there are the basics: finding a space at home to work (not easy in the Singapore context!), getting a desk, plugging in a laptop, and getting underway. I quickly realized there was a bit more to it than that, and this presented a great opportunity to go on a hunt for a few gadgets! Alas, I bought myself a second monitor, a groovy lamp, a handphone stand, and even a footrest to prop me up on what was clearly going to be a sustained period working from home.
Once I had the basics right, the biggest issue that I soon realized was the distractions at home that were really impacting my efficiency. Although I don’t have young kids at home – this “Work From Home” (WFH) thing must be both a challenge and a godsend for those that do – I would still have the odd teenager barging into the room or my wife deciding that she really needed something from the top drawer of OUR desk while I was in the middle of a call. And then there were the physical distractions around the house, like a fridge full of food, a bookcase full of books, Apple TV, Netflix, chocolate, cold beer…wine…margaritas! How was I supposed to concentrate with all these tempting diversions within arms-reach?
What dawned on me was this was like being back at school, studying from home, and I needed to segregate my work time, dispense with thoughts on chocolate and to apply myself to my work. It took quite some time to get back into the school-type rhythm and I have to say, even today, one year later, I find it more challenging to focus at home than to work amongst others at the office – as I did during school and Uni years where the library was my go-to study location.
Quick Tip! Try out the Pomodoro Technique that would help you to stay focus, one task at a time.
2. DOING BUSINESS
On the face of it, the business of a venture capital firm is hardly a complex one. We are a financial intermediary that redirects our investors’ money into promising startups.
Obviously, there’s more to it than that! Building industry knowledge, developing a pipeline of deals, having a methodology to assess those deals, selecting the right ones, structuring the investment, delivering some value post-investment, and then exiting are the cogs that make up the machine of the venture capital firm. But what is the oil that keeps these cogs lubricated? In my view it is relationships.
One of the biggest lessons for me having spent a year working from home is that relationships are much harder to establish and build when working from home.
Let me share an example of that. One of our first investments at Velocity is AiGens. AiGens is a fantastic company that has developed a leading multi-channel ordering and backend analytics solution to help quick service restaurants manage their business, improve productivity and boost revenue. We were introduced to the founders, Hans and Peter, in late 2020. They were looking for capital to expand their business beyond Hong Kong and Singapore by entering the Southeast Asian markets. We had identified contactless ordering solutions in the F&B space as a sector that would accelerate as a result of Covid and so started work on this promising opportunity. The usual due diligence on the product, customers, financials, legal structures, and their market followed; but something was missing… we didn’t really know the founders! They were in Hong Kong and we were in Singapore – and we couldn’t meet.
In early-stage investing, it’s all about picking the right founders. Nothing is more important than making an assessment of the founders, and so we held zoom calls after zoom calls with Hans and Peter in an effort to understand what made them tick. It was really a very slow process. They too were in the process of discovery – trying to figure out who these people were who were asking to become part of their world, with rights to feed, nurture and influence their baby. The whole process took months.
In the end, we invested and sent them USD1million of our investors’ hard-earned dollars without ever shaking hands with either Hans or Peter. It is indeed a weird world!
What are the learnings? Building relationships requires more effort and more time when working from home. Warm introductions have become more important than ever. With every interaction being virtual, trust is built much faster when introductions come from trusted parties. And in terms of building relationships, allowing extra time at the start and importantly at the end of calls to chat about the softer stuff and to know your counterparts is super important. Remember those chats we used to have as we showed our guests out of the office? “Let’s catch up soon for a coffee…” this was how we built relationships. In a virtual world, not only should we make an extra effort of not rushing into the business of a meeting, or rushing from call to call, but to take the extra time to get to know our counterparts and build those important relationships.
Another method we used is to schedule time for a zoom lunch, or a zoom drink, without any business agenda. This gave the team an opportunity to get to know each other better and deeper level, both professionally and personally. It also enabled everyone to build on that level of comfort through these group sharings.
On reflection, the process took much longer to develop an understanding and comfort level for both the founder and the VC.
Quick Tip! Schedule time not only for business, but a social gathering of sorts to keep the team camaraderie strong.
3. TEAM WORK
I like dropping in on team members at their desks or having a chat at the office pantry. I tend to gather a few talking points and turn up at a colleague’s desk with the familiar “have you got a minute?”. Instead of emailing or texting colleagues who are just meters away, I find this a great way of sorting little matters quickly, and more importantly, giving team members the opportunity to update or raise something that’s on their minds. Quite often, more business gets done than originally planned.
That all came to a screaming halt too.
Everything needs to be scheduled now – to the point where calling a colleague requires a “Can you talk?” text message. And what tends to happen is the smaller things get relegated to emails and text messages, while the calls become single dimension discussions, stacked up back-to-back, without the depth and feel of a face-to-face. This feels super-efficient, with every minute scheduled and allocated to the major tasks, until suddenly someone resigns or a big issue surfaces. It’s so easy to miss something when there is no face-to-face interaction and body language is hidden, out of camera range.
I don’t know about you – but I don’t remember so many back-to-back days like this pre-Covid – and I certainly got a lot more done.
Onboarding new team members is also tough. We have an active internship programme here at Velocity and a new batch of interns arrives every 6 months, wanting to get a taste of venture investing. It’s a great way to contribute to their learnings and to discover talents, but how do you recruit and onboard new incumbents without face-to-face meetings?
We have done it – but WFH has certainly slowed things down and can be more error-prone.
Lastly – it’s hard to know how to adapt grooming standards and office protocols when working from home. Personally, I’m a bit old-fashioned when it comes to business attire – I seldom show up in the office in anything less than a business shirt and suit pants! And these standards are what we expect at Velocity too. But how do you translate this to WFH? Do the same expectations about grooming, dress code, personal presentation, and even interruptions and working hours apply when you’re working from your living room table? And how does a relaxation of these standards translate into business outcomes?
We all have different levels of self-discipline and in my view, coming together, observing the protocols of the workplace, and working as a team under one roof tends to create a baseline, a foundation from which the whole team is lifted.
SO, WHAT’S NEXT….?
Work from home has certainly tested us at Velocity – as it has for so many others around the world. It has changed the way we work and impacted our company culture in profound and I suspect, lasting ways.
How will this play out as we move to a phase of living with Covid? Will we still spend this much time working from home or will there be a gradual return to more face-to-face ways of working?
For some, WFH has been a positive and liberating experience. If you face a long and crowded commute to an office where most of your time is spent working on a screen that is no different to the screen at home – why waste the time to commute? And for those juggling children and work, or needing long periods of uninterrupted work time, WFH must be wonderful. I get that.
But ultimately, big things are achieved by teams working to a common purpose. Team activities are best performed when team members are in touch with each other – not just via a screen, but truly bonded and connected. When you see your teammates daily, you get to understand their challenges, ups and downs, and being able to build that sense of working towards a common goal, teams can achieve the seemingly impossible. There is also that element of self-discipline that comes from having to front up and do your bit.
So, in my view, having a common workplace that allows teams to work together will always play a vital role in any organisation seeking to build something big.
Then there are the external relationships. Of course, you can meet someone on Linkedin and eventually discuss and do business via Zoom without needing to meet. But in a business like ours where trust is crucial to a successful partnership, the trust and relationship built over a coffee, a beer or a meal is irreplaceable. Similarly, when negotiating a deal, so much more can be achieved in a real meeting room than in a virtual one.
Being prevented from doing these things has been the most challenging aspect of WFH for us at Velocity, and in my view these experiences can never be 100% replaced virtually.
One of my favourite videos of late – accurately re-enacting how life would be like when we return to the office.