There are good investors, mediocre investors, and truly terrible investors, as art tech startup Vastari discovered.
Three years ago, Vastari’s founder Bernadine Bröcker Wieder resigned as CEO of her own company after a conflict with the board.
“There was complete paralysis when it came to making any decisions,” says Francesca Polo, Vastari’s first employee. “The last thing you need as a startup is to not be able to iterate fast”
After she resigned, the investors put the company, which is an online platform designed to connect private collectors and museums for temporary exhibition loans, into administration.
Bröcker then hatched a plan to buy the assets back and effectively regain control of her company, bringing Polo on board as cofounder.
Her old investors did not go down without a fight, however, actually bidding against her for the assets.
“The administrator was quite shocked that there were so many bids over something worthless,” said Polo. “The tech platform was more of an MVP [minimum viable product] than it was a fully developed product.”
After several rounds of bidding, Polo and Bröcker won the assets in a blind bid, by “something like £500”.
Luckily for them, the administrator had used the company’s remaining funds to pay its bills and maintain the website, so Vastari’s 150 clients were not aware of what was going on during the month of bids.
As a result, there was a company to salvage. In January 2016, Vastari raised £450,000 and began growing its team again – and Polo and Bröcker, who had been paying themselves a percentage of sales made, started drawing a salary again.
Now, three years on and preparing to raise a Series A, Bröcker and Polo share what they learned from the experience – and how they manage their new board.
1. Keep control of the board
Bröcker’s two original investors had “enough equity to be able to kick up a fuss” with over a 30% stake in the company each – a mistake she’s been sure to avoid again.
“When we raised capital in 2016, we made the conscious decision to steer away from VC funds, and went to angels instead,” says Polo. “That took a lot longer, but to be on the safe side we raised from multiple angels who each have a low amount of equity.”
We made sure our combined shares were well above 50% of the company.
Vastari’s board currently consists of Bröcker, Polo and one investor-director, Alexandre Massart, who they carefully selected. “He’s not necessarily the investor with the most shares, but the one we thought we could work well with, and who bandwidth to meet up with us” says Polo.
It’s useful, Polo says, to have someone on the board taking the long view – checking in on KPIs, and looking at whether the company’s achieving its long-term goals. “On a daily basis, we focus on the management of the team or the product, but it’s good to be reminded of the management of the company as such.”
2. Choose investors who contribute more than just cash
Massert, who was previously head of innovation at Visa, also provides a useful ‘tech perspective’ to counterbalance Polo and Bröcker’s experience in the art world.
This is helpful in numerous ways, says Polo, “from knowing how other companies he’s on the board of or an investor in have tackled issues to offering comparisons with SaaS services in other industries”.
Polo and Bröcker are also making a conscious effort to draw on the experience and connections of their other investors too – they have 20 angel investors, all of whom are linked to either the tech or art world.
“You tend to forget that they have the brains and networks as well as the money,” Polo says.
3. Be transparent with investors
Nevertheless, Polo and Bröcker are being strategic with how and when they do call on their investors for help or input.
They send a monthly email update to investors, and try to stick to the same 15 bullet points every time, which cover “revenues, things important to the future development of the company, how many people are matching in our supply-and-demand ecosystem, and new parts of the product being developed”.
“One big learning has been to keep it simple, and have a clear idea of the reporting mechanism and process. Distill what is important to them, and convey that message clearly; that way you can get a lot of positive input from them,” says Polo.
“When you have a good pool of investors and a well-sourced board, those are resources: if you need something, just ask. They have the knowledge or network to help solve your problem, and they’re there to help and willing to do so.”
4. Turn failure into learnings
Vastari’s rollercoaster journey didn’t negatively affect conversations with potential investors, says Polo; in fact, she thinks it helped. “It was a really simple story to tell. They saw that a very silly mistake had affected management in the long term, and that there was quite a lot of valuable learning there.”
“Having to be cutthroat about what was worth doing and what wasn’t worth doing had also made us extremely confident in what our plan was, and what we wanted to do differently. Investors were reassured, in a way, that it had happened. It was a learning gem.”
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