Twelve months, six investments, three new hires. Since launching in October 2018, EME has had a stellar year, if we do say so ourselves. We’re not getting ahead of ourselves yet though. As we see it, we’ve set a high bar for ourselves for 2020 and beyond. When we meet startups we often ask what they’ve learnt in their short-lived experience trading as a company. There are no magic answers to this question, rather it’s a way to see how founders reflect, adapt and strategise. This post focuses on our reflections after twelve months investing in early-stage companies in Myanmar.
1. Relationships Matter
Strong relationships are formed over time and through good and bad times. When things are good, relationships tend to be easier. When things are challenging, relationships can either grow or suffer. We see that this comes down to trust. As investors, we ask ourselves “is this a founder / team we can trust to overcome challenges?” and startups should be looking to EME asking, “can I trust this investor to back me when things don’t go to plan?”. Great companies become great often by pivoting many times (Slack started life as a video game). Pivoting means admitting the first plan isn’t the right one and pursuing a new direction and for that there needs to be a lot of trust among both investee and investor. It’s hard to explain when the occasions arise where trust is deepened, all we can say is you’ll likely know when they arise. In these times, we try to be cognisant about the decisions we make today and how they affect the trusting relationship that we’ll need in the years to come.
2. Support is Crucial
Early stage companies in any market need mentors and advisers to succeed. In a frontier market such as Myanmar, this is even more true. In our experience, supporting entrepreneurs is about helping them to achieve their vision. This could involve a range of things, from analysis and strategy to direct support in sales and marketing. Most importantly, it’s about working with, not against, the entrepreneurs and their team. When we make an equity investment, we’re literally buying our way to becoming a part of the company and this comes with a lot of responsibility. Our investors have trusted us to find and help scale the companies of tomorrow, and the only way we’ll help great entrepreneurs create amazing companies is by letting them do what they do best. As investors, we don’t want to change or lead the strategy of our portfolio companies, we want to encourage them to push further, take risks and do those things that will redefine markets in Myanmar. To do that, we’re constantly looking inward about our support, its effectiveness and how we improve.
3. Research is Priceless
Being inside the market is crucial to investment decision making. This is true anywhere but again more so in markets that lack data, infrastructure and are going through economic transitions – like Myanmar. Our investment analysts live and breathe the market we invest in and they’ll write a full in-depth research report about each startup we present to our investment committee. This report is the output of weeks of intensive research, not just desk-based but being out in the market interviewing, testing, ordering, etc. It’s a lot of work, but it’s integral to our approach and has helped us identify truly unique companies. And it’s not just research into companies, but sectors too – EME is sector agnostic, but by researching individual sectors, we deepen our understanding of the companies within them. We’ve summarised this internally as “working with intellectual integrity”: to listen, question, test and think without bias.
4. First Impressions Last
The fabled elevator pitch. Those few minutes you have to impress/sell to someone before the meeting is over and they’re gone, perhaps never to call you back or to become your next customer / investor. Most founders are probably tired of hearing about how to deliver the perfect elevator pitch and we’re certainly not going to try that. What we have seen though, is that first impressions are stickier than gum on your shoe on a hot day. This works both ways: make a great first impression and there can be a lot of flexibility afterwards but, make a bad one and you may not bring it back. Pro-tips for anyone meeting us for the first time: read our blog. People are nothing if not easily flattered and seeing you’ve read our blog will show us you care (and that you do your research). We’re also big fans of the “four Hs” (happy, helpful, humble, hungry) and tend to get on well with people who encompass these elements.
5. Questions and Candidness Count
Since EME’s inception, we’ve considered it our responsibility to ask challenging questions and give candid, constructive feedback to startups we meet. Whether it’s a very first meeting or a board meeting after we invest, we’ll share our honest thoughts and recommendations. Mostly, the response to this approach is overwhelmingly positive – hopefully some of you reading this can attest to that. Of course, on occasion it backfires. On this note there are three things we have considered: 1) we’re not always right and don’t intend to give that impression, we just say as we see it; 2) we’ve met 150+ startups, so we’re a pretty good barometer of who’s doing what and what’s working / not working (we invite you to pick our brains anytime!); 3) to make an omelette you’ve got to break a few eggs – we’ll continue with the tough questions, to find those who have inspiring answers. Ultimately, we value sincerity and we’ll always be sincere with our questions and feedback. We’ve learnt it’s not always easy, but still believe it is always the best approach.
We’ve focused here on lessons in our investment approach, more than internal operations. That probably doesn’t do credit to the amazing EME team, which is therefore the final point to this post: being good at anything means building an amazing, inspiring, committed team. I’m honoured to work with my colleagues here at EME and we love seeing entrepreneurs and founders who put their team first.
To meet the full team and our portfolio companies, check your inbox for your invitation to our one-year birthday party this 20th November. If you don’t have an invitation, drop us a line and we’ll see what we can do – firstname.lastname@example.org.