Investor Fireside Chat with Ying Ying Huang, Senior Associate, Icebreaker VC
For a long time, Skåne Startups hosted monthly Investor Chats online. But true story, there is nothing more engaging and motivating like an in person event. So, eventually, Skåne Startups hosted its first offline investor event in a real, long time albeit taking all precautionary measures. In fact, it was our guest's first offline event since March 2020. Yay to that!
We had the pleasure of hosting and interacting with one of the strongest cheerleaders of the entrepreneurial community, Ying Ying Huang, Senior Associate at Icebreake.vc. In a 'mysig' setting, Ying Ying highlighted why it is important to shape and support a business at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journey; what makes Icebreaker.vc an exception in early stage funding and how entrepreneurs should look at scaling up the business before considering team expansion.
With offices in Stockholm, Sweden, Icebreaker.vc is a Helsinki based venture capital firm and community supporter for pre-founders and founders. Based in Sweden, Finland, and Estonia. Their initial investment ticket size ranges from €150-800 K, however, no stage is too early for them to invest.
They have invested in over 50 companies with experienced founders from some of the highly successful tech companies such as Rovio, Nordea, Pipedrive, Eniram, IBM and BCG. Icebreaker´s philosophy lies in partnering with passionate teams with deep insights into the industry and a vision for the future. They aim to support companies at an early stage to build a solid base for faster growth.
About the Investor
Ying Ying recently joined the investment team of Icebreaker.vc as a Senior Associate. Before Icebreaker, she worked with the venture capital arm of Telia Company, the largest telecom operator in Northern Europe. Having an international background, she has previous experience in investing in startups across Nordic and Baltic regions. Her expertise includes series A & B funding and driving collaborations between large companies and young startups. She is an alumnus of Stockholm School of Economics and National Taiwan University.
Meet the Founders
Building a startup is never easy. Beyond the passion and idea is the challenge of early-stage innings and wading through a learning curve. What has been observed as a trend is that while later-stage founders are hitting success; first time founders and those raising smaller tickets are facing the struggle to raise funds. That’s what makes Icebreaker.vc an exception in pre-seed funding. The fact that they believe in supporting founders even before the latter knows that their business idea has the potential for growth.
Sweden has fostered innovation and entrepreneurship for the longest time and there is no dearth of a talent pool here in Skåne. Committing to the future growth of the ecosystem: we invited and introduced 5 creative disruptors to Icebreaker.vc who had tinkle in their eyes and heart on their sleeves.
Sebastian Kentander & Jonas Kjellander of Caterking.se are the new game-changers in the catering business. With a marriage of food, e-commerce, and technology, Caterking is a platform to scout, compare and order catering services in Malmö, Lund and other parts of Skåne.
Marcus Ekström of Flexico is a digital staffing agency recruiting flexible staff for warehouse, logistics and retail sectors. Flexico aims to revive the staffing and recruiting industry through competitive solutions.
Joining Ying in the Q&A was Skåne Startups co-founder and board member, Joel Larsson of Pale Blue Dot. Along with Ying, Joel guided the founders and other members of the audience with interesting tips and tricks of the VC business.
Q: I have a question relevant to all early-stage founders. What kind of criteria or traction do you expect to see in a startup to consider investing?
Yeah, so it's very hard to give one answer that fits all companies. But if I'm trying to over simplify, then we are looking for basically like three areas where we value the company.
So first, is the team's domain expertise. So, it does not need to be made up of scientists by training, but we want to have a team that knows what kind of problem they are solving, and one has either a deep understanding of the market that they are going after.
For example, you have built a similar product from another company, where you have the target customers of your current product, and they were frustrated by the previous or existing solution. Here you would like to try to do something yourself.
Secondly, the market of course! Everyone wants to see that the market is big enough, and hopefully the global market that eventually you will be able to scale your company and move into other regions.
And the last part is the product. I would say products like a little bit, depending on different industries. So, there are some industries that you just have very high defensibility which is good. But then if the product has less defensibility, usually in the space of B2C products, or consumer focused products, then we would like to see sort of what's your unique take on the current problem that you are trying to solve? If you tell me, you are second in line with Facebook i.e., you are #2, then I would ask you what you think you can do better than Facebook? And we would like to ask you what your market approach or pricing approach would be.
Joel Larsson: What is the market like for companies from the outside?
I mean, there's no one right answer honestly. Sometimes, as investors, we don't know the answer. So, our approach is that we try to challenge your assumption about the market. For example, you can take, like, 5% of the market, and I will ask you why you think you can only acquire this 5%. Are there any areas that your product is naturally growing to or is there anything you have not thought about? The idea is not to extract the exact numbers but how you saved and sized your market.
Q: What is your investment philosophy when it comes to supporting the founders, even before they know the business scope?
For that, we need (the founders to have) very deep domain expertise. It is difficult to tell, initially, if the founder is even going to consider building the company. For example, if someone wants to build a company in three months; that is not possible honestly. Founders made slight changes, say to their LinkedIn title, till their MVP was finally out there. This is the time we can support founders even though they may not be ready to raise. By support we mean that at that early stage is much more likely to help you build your network.
So, we have a community that we are growing. For example, like you know, X scale up and X startup, and people that just have been through the journey like the startup journey. So, it's quite easy and we also like to have a strong focus on the local community. It is easy for us to maybe just give you a few pointers, like who you should speak to.
For example, if you are building a B2B SAAS product and we know that this person used to build XYZ products in this category, we suggest that you connect with someone who has proven experience in the domain. So that's something that we can do from very, very early on, and sort of design, to bounce ideas with you. But of course, we still need the founders to reach out to us. Therefore, it's very hard to know exactly where everyone is in terms of their mindset.
Joel Larsson: What is the best way to reach you and what type of material should one prepare to send out to you?
You can find our emails on our website or LinkedIn. [email protected] and everyone has the same format. So, it is quite straight-forward. With respect to what you need to prepare to speak to us, I would say, it depends on what you want from us, if you want money from us, then we would expect to see some sort of investor deck or, at least some material to tell us what you are doing. But if you just want to, ask general questions, or introduce yourself or your team, then you can just send us a message on LinkedIn. That's usually the easiest way to reach us.
Q: Talking about supporting founders, can you take us through Icebreakers' portfolio development practice?
Yeah, that's our secret. After tonight, probably it will no longer be a secret. But I will say, after 6, companies, you sort of understand what companies need, at which point of time, but that's why we have sort of a best credit in house that we know, for example, let's say we invest in this company, today. And then the goal is to, for them to raise a seed round in nine to 12 months.
So, what do you need to do in four months from now, two months from now, three months from now, and then six months from now? So that's sort of, based on our experience at growing the companies out of our portfolio. And we target this stage, so specifically, that we basically know what kind of challenges you will face.
We can tell you early on that you need to start to think about one thing that a lot of early-stage founders do not think about, and that is very important is the hiring pipeline. I think founders usually think about hiring when they have the money in the bank. And that is a little bit too late.
You need to interview people, start onboarding people, sometimes they have a notice period of two or three months. These three months can be so crucial for a key function in a startup. You should start to think about it as early as possible.
So, let's say if you get 5 million SEK tomorrow, who are you going to hire? And if you get 10 million Euro in three months, who are you going to hire? So that's something I think you should always keep in mind what to have or don't need to have. It is important to calculate if you want to grow fast and decide how many, for example, engineers you need, or growth people do you need. This way you can prepare yourself because you never know maybe tomorrow Sequoia will be knocking on your door and you might get 20 million SEK out of nowhere.
What do you need to keep in mind, because not every founder has been through this journey, from zero to one? So that's how we consider us to be most valuable because based on our experience you will need a couple of things.
You can sort of have a game plan, as we say, from day one, until you have the seed money in your bank. So, this phase is usually nowadays, six to nine months, but historically has been nine to twelve months. What do you need to do at this time, how are you growing your team, how are you going to grow your product, and how are you going to go out and conquer the world?
Q: At your stage, who are you competing with (other investors)?
I would say, we are competing with larger bands, scouts, that I would consider to be like the, maybe the biggest competitors, because they just have this bright light shining at the back. So I will say they're like our biggest competitors.
And second, prominent Angels. We have quite a lot of them in Sweden, and Finland as well.
I don't think in terms of VC funds, we have that pressure for competitors, because most VCs from the Nordics like investing from seed funds. I think it is a good thing for us, though, because there is no one who takes such a systematic approach to this variety. But we don’t know because seed is the new A and maybe pre-seed would be new seed in two years.
Q: Can you elaborate on this trend that you are talking about?
I think because now you have all the banks of the world and tigers of the world scouting in Europe aggressively. But before that was not really the case. You have been this community ecosystem for very long and that just happened literally like in the last one or two years. Earlier, they used to fly in maybe every half a year to meet the companies here, but now they have a whole team (on the ground) just to invest in European startups.
And you also have Sequoia and Bessemer here as well, and historically very strong VCs but now they are doubling up their game, for example, announcing big scale funds. For example, Graylock yesterday just announced a $500 million dollars seed fund, and that is insane. Historically, this was not possible before. I would say before when we look into Silicon Valley there is a very big gap for knowing the valuation and the round size Europe compared to us, but now it's getting much like we are the closest ever.
Q: Is that a shift also regarding debt equity coming from the banks or private equity hasn't been increased?
I think it can also be because now there are more firms investing in VCs that historically don't do this kind of deals. VC funds are very risky assets. And things have changed, much more capital available so they are looking for historically a little bit riskier bet. I think 10 years ago probably my pension funds wouldn't invest in l VC funds, but then now almost all of them are open to investing in VC funds. I think that is also changing the trend.
Nowadays, startup founders are more aware of the design mentality and the ambitious level required by later stage investors. And right now, good design means much more information available just everywhere. So, I think that it has been changing. But I think it also depends on the product area as well because they are just like some product areas. It is a hot topic right now. Now, it is easy, you can easily raise an insane number just like two years ago, it can be an insane number with a pitch deck and hired pipeline.
Q: Have you invested in the company with a pitch deck? And maybe it was a great business team, but really nothing more than that?
Yes. But then we are pre seeding so I would say usually VCs in Nordics would nowadays, like a lot of people would, if you could from time to time. Also, if someone can literally just have a team and put in place and they raise money, like, you know, 2, 3, 4 or 5 million Euro money from or in Sweden. This is happening as well. But it's not to a degree, I would say compared to Silicon Valley, but it's happening, it's starting to happen.
Q: When you say that, you need to start preparing, like hiring, and then what do you need…. So how do we already start with the process of hiring? Say, we need 10 engineers, maybe 2 marketing people, and 2 HR and so forth. But the actual time and actual work goes when you start hiring. I mean, it could be a couple of months or three months or something. How do you prioritize hiring over raising money and other ways round? How can we ensure that the money would come?
I can say more on the technical side. You can always put the ads out and start to collect names and understand what kind of people will be interested in working with you. Talk to them, practice how you should hire them. And basically, tell them we will have money in like next month, are you ready to join? And then you take that answer to the investors. We have three people on the list that I want to hire tomorrow. So that's one way to do it.
But in terms of my timing, I would not recommend hiring people. Unless you have external funding or unless you are rich from a previous venture or you are a successful entrepreneur and you have some spare capital, then of course, you can do that. But then when we look into the pre seed stage of the teams, usually they are co-founders. So, dedicate two, three weeks a month for people. And that's like the team structure we usually speak to, and they just start to hire when we put the money into their bank account.
Q: What is your view on the option programs? Secondly, I would like to have your views on valuation and alternative programs. How should pre seed founders think in terms of how diluted it will become?
On the option side - the companies we invest in are early. They just have this one factor that many require- the share capital. They do not even have a registered fund in the company, just a minimum requirement fund. So, in our case, most companies don't have any plan for the option pool. But what we do is that if you don't have any option board already in place, then we usually want to see latest when you are about to raise seed round,
Q: That will be 10%..
10% is a good benchmark. Yes.
Q: And I think every seed from Europe will enforce a 7 to 50% return on the fund.
We usually want to see 10 %, however, we don't need you to have that before we wire the money. It means that part of the work that we support to help you to go to the option for that makes sense for your company.
And the second question, I think is more about the cap table. When you raise pre pre-seed, a good benchmark is that you should have 90% of the core team. It is ideal to have a decent chunk of the ownership and in terms of the ownership required from investors at pre seed and seed, a very, very rough industrial benchmark, say 15 to 40% right now. I don't know if it's going to change. It may change because o the environment has become so more founder friendly. This might change eventually but now, in Nordics, this is how it is.
Q: Can you elaborate on the option pool concept?
Option pool is basically a percentage of your ownership set aside for you to incentivize future hires, because it's not like you can Google salaries upfront, but then you need to have something else to compensate their partner, that they come in. So that's where option four is coming. A very good benchmark in an option pool is to always aim for 90 90% when you raise prices. Before that it will be like some angel family, friends, etc. And then you should try to really minimize their ownership because they don't really give you much then. And when it comes to raising seed, I should have a benchmark around 75% least.
Q: What is your stance on investing in general? All your founders have invested for several years.
Yes, especially in the early stage. We don’t want you to run with the money 😊 within 3 months. The investment period is 4 years, standard nowadays.
When you have new rounds, new rounds of investors coming in. It is very common for new investors to ask for that, because they also want to have, you know, the same level of commitment as we do.
Q: Have you ever been on the advisory board of a startup?
No, and that is also because we think advisory board, not always make sense for this early-stage companies.
Q: What support can startups seek from you apart from the investment?
Our support comes most extensively between pre seed to seed because that's the time that we are the only investor on board. So, everything, hiring pipeline growth marketing business model, pitch deck, fundraising, whatever you can think about. But then after seed. If you have successfully landed with a seed investment, then it is up to the company to decide what is our role going forward because then you will have new seed investors coming in, and sometimes it is a little bit tricky to manage to strike investors.
At the same time, we usually have detailed chats with the founders, decide how they want our support going forward. because then, from C to A, it's a different level of game, then you might want to have someone that is more experienced doing from C to A journey. It depends on company to company and depends on the founders themselves because some founders would prefer investors to be a little hands-off.