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Who finances startups in Iceland? A look at LP’s

This post is from the Northstack Memo, our newsletter and commentary on recent happenings in the Icelandic startup ecosystem, written by @kiddiarni.

While some investors – most notably angel investors – invest their own money in startups, venture capital funds mostly get their money from other investors. VC funds are set up in partnerships, and it’s the LP’s – limited partners – that bring the money. So just like founders and CEO’s pitch VC’s for funding, VC’s pitch asset managers at LP’s for their money.

For most LP’s, investing in venture funds is a part of their diversification strategy, and seen as a low-risk way for outsized returns. Low risk, because the absolute amounts are small compared to their assets under management (AUM), outsized returns, because the best VC returns can be mindboggling (Seqouia Capital and their 10x return on a $400m fund is a good example).

Scott Kupor, managing partner at VC fund Andreessen-Horowitz wrote a post on VC economics, and I highly recommend it. For the purpose of this post, I’m highlighting one part, where he discusses the types of institutions that usually function as LP’s:

  • University endowmentsYale is a famous example

  • Foundations – Non profits that invest their funds to fund their charity

  • Pension funds – That receive money from workers and invest them

  • Family offices – Investment managers that work for very high net worth families

  • Sovereign Wealth Funds – Investing the economic reserves of a country, like the Norwegian Oil fund

  • Insurance Companies – Invest their customer’s premiums, to be able to pay out when something happens (and also to make money)

  • Fund-of-funds – Investment companies that have their own LP’s and allocate money on their behalf

Who invests in Icelandic VC?

In Iceland, we currently have four VC funds (and one on its way) – Brunnur Ventures, Frumtak 1, Frumtak 2, and Eyrir Sprotar. Looking at the LP’s in those has some interesting points:

  • Pension funds are by far the biggest player
    Both in terms of participants (we tracked 12 pension funds that are investors in Icelandic VC funds) and proportion of capital. Around 62% of the roughly 17bn ISK that have been invested (or promised) in Icelandic venture capital since 2008 come from pension funds. While in comparison to the VC market, this is a very big portion of the market, it’s important to keep in mind the vast amount of money available to these institutions. LÍVE (Iceland’s biggest pension fund) alone has 600bn ISK under management, and even if LÍVE was the sole backer of Icelandic VC, this allocation would be way below the 5% mark many pension funds in the US allocate to VC. (It should be noted that LÍVE could of course be an investor in foreign VC funds directly or through fund-of-funds).

  • Of the pension funds, LÍVE is the most active
    This is not surprising, because the fund is the biggest in Iceland. It participated in all four of the funds, and in three of them utilized most of its 20% allowance (Pension funds are only allowed to own 20% of a company structured like a VC fund – more here). In total, the fund has a little under 3bn invested in VC funds, around 0.5% of its AUM.

  • The next biggest LP players are banks
    Which is interesting, as banks aren’t mentioned as LP’s in Scott Kupor’s discussion of LP’s. In any case, all three banks have participated in at least one venture fund. Landsbankinn has participated in three, Arion banki in two and Íslandsbanki in one. In total the banks contribute around 3.2bn ISK, just under 19% of the total money.

  • There’s a lot of LP groups missing
    There are no insurance companies, university endowments, charitable foundations, or sovereign wealth funds listed as participants in the Icelandic VC’s. There’s a couple that could count as family offices – holding companies of high-networth individuals are (small) participants in some – so we’ll call them that.

What does it all mean?

These numbers and observations suggest several things.

  • Icelandic VC’s rely a lot on pension funds, and other types of funds haven’t participated in VC (yet). This could very well be due to the fact that we don’t have a long history of returns in the VC industry, like the US one has. We’re looking at four funds over 9 years, while the US industry has decades to build on.

  • There might be fundraising opportunities for Icelandic VC’s in insurance companies. They are active in other types of investments and might be open to investing in VC. (If you’re a VC and have tried to raise from an insurance company, please let me know – just hit reply).

  • The structure of available capital in general is very different from the US. We don’t have university endowments or big charitable organisations that need to invest their money, or a long history of wealthy families that need investment managers for their family wealth. At the same time, the banks in Iceland step in and participate in these activities. This could mean that we need to find different types of backers for our VC funds.

I’d be very interested in knowing how this matches up to the Nordics and rest of Europe. It could be that this difference is mostly size-related. Iceland is so small that we don’t have massive bequeathals to charitable donations or a lot of family offices. It could also be cultural – I don’t think may European universities run investment offices for their massive endowments.

What are your thoughts? Do you work on the LP side? Can I buy you a coffee and discuss this topic (off-the-record, if you wish)? Send me a message and let me know.

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NSA Ventures’ future, structure, and role in the ecosystem

This post is from the Northstack Memo, our newsletter and commentary on recent happenings in the Icelandic startup ecosystem, written by @kiddiarni.

NSA Ventures is standing on crossroads right now. Two investment managers and the CEO left in December to start their own fund. (They’re titled “Venture advisors” on the fund’s website). A braindrain like this calls into question the fund’s long term strategy and plans. These employees have more info on where the fund is headed and chose to venture out on their own.

Late March, the board of NSA Ventures announced Huld Magnúsdóttir as the new CEO:

Huld is an experienced manager with a diverse background from both the private and the public sector. From 2009 she was the Director General of the National Institute for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Deafblind and was the acting director of the Social Insurance Administration between 2015 and 2016. Between 1993-2008 she worked at Össur in Iceland and abroad in various management positions,  …

According to Almar Guðmundsson, chairman of the board of NSA Ventures, Huld is a great catch for the fund. “Huld has extensive business knowledge and experience in innovation, strategy and international operations after working world wide. She has the experience we’re looking for now that the next steps of the fund will be formulated.

The last two lines are in my opinion the most interesting ones. Almar didn’t comment any further on what exactly that means, but I’ll dump my ideas here.

  • The comments signal something that has been on the horizon for some time. From our notes from last year’s annual meeting:

    There will be a full re-evaluation of the funds’ legal structure this year. This is not new, and is mentioned in the Ministry for Industry and Innovation’s plan for entrepreneurship. According to the plan, NSA will focus on investing in funds, rather than individual investments.

  • These statements fit well with Huld’s CV, which doesn’t look like a classic VC hire. Her experience doesn’t come from founding or operating a startup or the finance industry. Rather, her last jobs have been administrative and management roles in institutions, which would be useful if the fund is aiming towards major changes in its strategy and operations.

These two things suggest to me, that the plan is to continue on the road to a fund of funds. This would focus the fund’s capital into investment funds, instead of NSA Ventures funding individual companies.

NSA’s structure (and legacy?)

NSA is an official institution, but not a governmental agency. It’s not part of the governmental budget but its existence is defined in law (nr 61 / 1997). This means that operational details like how directors are appointed to the board is law.

The initial capital used to start the fund is from several funds of the time (including the Fisheries Fund and Industry Development fund). That, in part at least, has led to some interesting rules (when we look at it now) in regards to who sits on the board. It’s a five person board, nominated by the Minister for Industry and Innovation as follows:

  • one without nomination (at the minister’s discretion)
  • one based on suggestions from a coalition of industry (I’m guessing that’s the Federation of Icelandic Industries, SI)
  • one based on nomination from the minister in charge of innovation and development in fishing (The Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture)
  • one based on suggestions from the coalition of companies in the fishing industry (I’m guessing SFS)
  • one based on a nomination from ASÍ (Icelandic Confederation of Labour)

Let’s break this down a bit. Two of five are discretionary picks from two ministers – innovation and fishing. Two are suggestions from the business community – general industry and fishing. One is from the labor organisations.

The discretionary picks make sense to me. While NSA Ventures is an independent institution, it’s built on official money. It’s understandable that the government wants influence in that case. Whether it should be on or two discretionary picks is up for debate.

The suggestions from the business community also make sense when you look at the history of the fund. Some of the initial capital came from industry specific investment- and loan funds. The financing for those came at least in part from the industries, and the law discusses this. The appendix to the law from 1997 discusses the reasoning for this.

The fifth board member comes out of the blue from the labor organisations. Reasoning for why the labor organisations should have a representative are completely absent in documents accompanying the initial bill.

It’s notable that one of the committee members reviewing the initial bill objected to this arrangement. “Nominations to the board show that the authors of the bill are still stuck in the old division by industry. Fisheries and industry have a nominee each, but the service industry has none.” The review further comments that there were suggestions of different arrangements, including nominations from the universities and engineering societies.

Any review of the laws about NSA should definitely look into how board nominations work. In today’s world, it’s worrying that technology industries are not explicitly represented, but the labor organisation is.

This arrangement was debated in 1997, and should absolutely be scrutinized now, twenty years later, in 2017. This is especially worrying now, that the funds most interesting investments are in software and health- or bio technologies. Also, just clearing up why ASÍ should be there would be nice (if you can make sense of it, please let me know).

NSA’s role in the ecosystem

An interesting part of the initial laws that founded NSA Ventures is the discussion about where in the funding stage the fund should operate. The memo that accompanies the law identifies three stages of startup funding: seed, start-up and expansion, and then states:

“The main role NSA will take in investment projects will be … funding expansion.”

It’s likely that this has been changed since the fund’s inception, especially because most of the fund’s fresh investments are in the earlier stages.

But it opens up the discussion about what the role of the fund is, and what it should be. Which leads to the bigger discussion of how the government should support investment in startups and innovation, which initiatives suit best for each challenge, and so forth.

With the new hire, a new minister, and obvious changes in operations at NSA Ventures, a holistic review is in order. Stakeholders – including officials and representatives of the ecosystem – should look at the fund’s role in the bigger picture, diagnose where the challenges are, and apply tried and tested initiatives to address those challenges.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Send me a message with your thoughts.

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Skaginn 3X wins Icelandic Innovation Award

Skaginn 3X, maker of freezing, chilling, and processing equipment for the fishing industry, was awarded the Icelandic Innovation Award at Nýsköpunarþing 2017 (Innovation Day 2017).

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TripCreator raises $2m, shuts down B2C product

TripCreator, maker of the AI-driven travel planning solution, just announced a $2m funding round. Investors are undisclosed. Previous investors include Míó, the investment company of Magnús Ingi Óskarsson, founder of Calidris, and Salting ehf.

The company also announced that it will shut down its B2C product to focus solely on developing and selling its B2B whitelabel software.

Head of marketing Bragi Antoniusson says:

“It’s simply a better business model to leverage the technology we’ve already built and get a steady income from our customers.We decided to shut down the consumer site so that we’re not seen as competitors to our current and potential customers and to focus our marketing and development efforts on what is now our main product.

“We decided to shut down the consumer site so that we’re not seen as competitors to our current and potential customers and to focus our marketing and development efforts on what is now our main product.”

According to the statement, Icelandair will be the first carrier to integrate the platform, and other travel companies are expected to start using it soon.

This makes the second funding announcement in a couple of weeks, which could signal an active Q2 in the Icelandic scene.

Kerecis’ Omega3 product now covered by Medicare in all 50 US States

Kerecis, the company using fish skin to heal human wounds and tissue damage, will present results of eight studies of its technology at the Symposium for the Advancement of Wound Care (SAWC) meeting to be held April 5 to 9. The company also announced that Medicare now reimburses for its fish-skin treatment nationwide.

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Meniga raises €7.5m led by Industrifonden

Fintech company Meniga just announced a €7.5m funding round led by Nordic investment fund Industrifonden. Previous investors – Velocity Capital, Frumtak Ventures and Kjölfesta – also participated in the round.

From TechCrunch:

“Today’s banks are under pressure to innovate and improve their customer experiences online and yet they are beholden to legacy processes and legacy systems and are usually ill equipped to provide their customers with world class user experience in digital banking,” Meniga co-founder and CEO Georg Ludviksson tells me.

“Meniga has built a reputation as a strong innovation partner to banks and its software solutions help some of the world’s largest banks utilise their data to make their online and mobile banking more personalised and inspiring”.

Ludviksson’s coining of Meniga as an “innovation partner” to banks isn’t simply startup speak, nor is it bluster (the Meniga founder talks in soft, considered Icelandic tones). The company holds five-day onsite design sprints with its banking clients, and last year it conducted more than 80 user testing sessions in four countries — again, many of them in partnership with the banks.

Huld Magnúsdóttir announced as new CEO of NSA Ventures

Huld Magnúsdóttir

Huld Magnúsdóttir

The board of NSA Ventures has hired Huld Magnúsdóttir as the new CEO of the investment fund. She’ll replace Helga Valfells, who left NSA Ventures to found Crowberry Capital last January. She’ll start at NSA Ventures on May 1st.

The board sent the following in a statement:

Huld is an experienced manager with a diverse background from both the private and the public sector. From 2009 she was the Director General of the National Institute for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Deafblind and was the acting director of the Social Insurance Administration between 2015 and 2016. Between 1993-2008 she worked at Össur in Iceland and abroad in various management positions, including as director of production and distribution for North America, account manager, communication manager and quality control manager. Alongside her work at Össur she was a project manager in Bosnia-Herzegovina in a developmental project in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry.

Huld holds a BA degree in International Communication from the University of Sussex in the UK, MIB in International Business from Bifröst University and a diploma in public administration from the University of Iceland.

According to Almar Guðmundsson, chairman of the board of NSA Ventures, Huld is a great catch for the fund. “Huld has extensive business knowledge and experience in innovation, strategy and international operations after working world wide. She has the experience we’re looking for now that the next steps of the fund will be formulated.”

 

Nothing is bought, everything is sold

Creating a successful product company is a straightforward three step process:

  1. Create a product
  2. Find customers
  3. Match product and customers

But while straightforward, each of those steps is more complicated than it may seem at first. What follows are a few observations from my four startups and life as a product and strategy person at larger organizations.

1. Create a product

We tend to think of a product as “the thing” that we sell, whether that’s an electronic gadget, subscription service, a piece of software or a candybar. But a product is so much more. In fact you should think about “the product” as every interaction your customer has with “the thing”. From first learning about its existence to the time that they stop using it (or pass it on to the next generation if you’re a Swiss watchmaker).

Pricing and sales model, branding and marketing message, customer service, license and terms, usability and utility, aesthetics and social context are all a part of your product. Even the target audience you choose is a part of the product. And a change in any one of these is likely to impact other parts of the product too.

The product is so much more than what’s in the box

The product is so much more than what’s in the box

Getting all of these factors right will take a lot of thinking and experimentation:

  • How are your target customers going to notice your product?
  • How will you deliver the product to your customers?
  • How will you make sure you are creating value for your customers?
  • How is your product better than competing products or alternative solutions to the need?
  • How are you going to tap into that value in a way that both you and your customers will appreciate?
  • How will customers remember your product the next time they have the same need?

These questions – and others like them – are deeper and harder to answer than they might seem. Understanding and mapping your customers’ journey is a good way to tease them out, and come up with some theories. Observing their actual journey and improving based on what you learn directly is how you will really get to some answers.

2. Find customers

First of all: Sell to people that have money. Or more precisely: sell to people that are willing and able to pay for your product.

Private consumers are typically less likely to add a new subscription service than – even those same – people in a business setting. Adding a $20 monthly subscription is something most consumers will think twice about while a $250 purchase at work is something most office workers will do at a whim if they feel it will help them do their job. However, purchasing in a professional setting may require jumping through more hoops (reimbursement plans, purchase orders, approval processes, not having a corporate credit card, …)

On a similar note, large enterprises typically have a lot more money than small and midsized businesses (SMBs) ones, but they are also a lot slower in their decision making. Budget cycles and corporate politics, as well as deliberate and cultural resistance to change will slow things down beyond what a startup can usually fathom.

Keep in mind that it is very hard to sell to a type of buyer you don’t understand. If you’ve never worked for a large organization, selling an enterprise product is very hard. If you’re not a likely user of your product, you are not going to do a great job at convincing others to buy it. If you don’t speak the customer’s industry lingo or use unrealistic use cases that show lack of domain knowledge, you’re going to have a hard time. Show up at a power company with a healthcare example, and you will get nowhere. A creative person may be amazed at how little ability people can have for leaps of imagination. Don’t expect people to understand why they need your product. Spell it out for them. Learn what kept your champion awake last week, and tell them how your product will solve exactly that problem.

In the corporate world an incredible amount of time is spent on reverse engineering the buyer’s corporate structure, processes and hierarchies:

  • Who is the buyer/decision maker?
  • Who are his or her influencers?
  • What’s the value your product delivers to the buyer?
  • Is a budget already allocated to this purchase?
    • If so: What is it? Whose is it?
    • If not: What is the purchase and budget process? Can you influence it?
Reverse engineer this!

Reverse engineer this!

You will be surprised how many of these questions people are willing to answer if you simply muster the courage to ask.

Who the buyer is will heavily influence every aspect of your product – and of your organization. And the consumer-SMB-enterprise dimension is just one of several you will want to position yourself on. Targeting customers based on their industry, or functions within an organization are two other common dimensions. Often the answer is even a certain function within a certain industry in a company of a certain size. Consumer customers have other dimensions such as age and lifestyle groups, income categories, hobbies, etc.

A rule of thumb is that the more your target customers (including the buyers, influencers, processes, etc.) and the problem you’re solving for them are the same, the more likely you are to succeed in the next step and then scaling up from there.

3. Match product and customers

The customers you target will be the biggest factor in deciding on your sales model.

The table below is a grossly oversimplified representation of the characteristics of customer categories on the size scale above.

Consumer SMB Enterprise
Buying power Low Medium High
Target scope Broad Medium Targeted
Sales cycle Short Medium Long
Sales involvement Automated Low-touch Field sales
Difficulty to start High Medium Low
Scaling potential Exponential Low exponential Near-linear


A consumer product will typically have a low price, require high sales volumes (and thereby broad targeting) and it is difficult to get the sales engine started. Luckily the process lends itself well to be automated, the sales cycles can be short and you can scale quickly and cost-effectively once the engine is running.

On the other end you have enterprise customers who have a lot of buying power and can be well defined as a target group with a sales engine that is relatively easy to start (every founder should be able to find at least a few buyers she can sell to herself). This customer type, however, requires face-to-face meetings (field sales), has long and complicated sales cycles and the cost of sales increases almost linearly with revenue.

Different customer acquisition models, and sample companies (from a blogpost by David Skok on OpenView’s blog)

The models that in reality drive large and well known companies are often surprising. Google’s revenue – for example – is not from customers putting in their credit card info for a few keyword ads to nearly the extent you would think. They have a massive army of account managers and field sales people that do business the “old fashioned way”: Wining, dining and building personal relationships. A large automaker is not going to buy tens of millions of dollars worth of ads from Google through self-service!

Whatever your model, the most important thing to understand is the funnel: The stages buyers go through from first discovering your product to becoming a paying customer; what compels them to move from one stage to the next and the ratios at which they do so.

Testing your business plan assumptions based on these stages and ratios can be a sobering exercise.

Let’s say you are going for a SaaS product aimed at consumers with a freemium model. Of the people that hear about you (ad, press, word-of-mouth, …) 2% will visit your website. Of those, 10% will register as freemium users. Of the freemium users another 10% will become paying customers. If your business plan assumes 100 new customers in a given month, this means that your message will need to reach 500,000 potential customers that month based on these conversion rates (and a very short conversion cycle). All the rates in this example are pretty high, by the way.

Similarly, if you are going for an enterprise model: Assume that 5% of the qualified contacts you have curated respond to your initial outreach and agree to an introductory call. And from those calls 10% show strong interest in your product. And of those, 25% eventually become paying customers. If your business plan assumes 1 new enterprise customer in a given month and a 6 month sales cycle, that means you had to come up with and reach out to 800 curated contacts 6 months ago. And do you have the bandwidth to make the 40 introductory calls per month, as well as engaging heavily with not only 4, but 10-15 buyers with serious intent at a time (as most of the 6 month cycle will be spent here)?

You better hone in on the likely buyers early on in that process and spend your time and energy on them. Qualifying leads at every stage becomes crucial and counter to your instincts you’re actually best of “firing” your unlikely leads or finding ways to put them on low-touch or automated “nurture” campaigns until they show signs of better qualification.

Conclusion

Startups need to understand how much emphasis is needed on the go-to-market side of the house from day one. It is common for tech startups to put a lot of their headcount, effort and energy into the engineering side of operations; there may be good thinking on the business model and target audience, but rarely do you meet a tech startup that truly gets it.

A couple of years ago – to drive this point home in a conversation with a founder friend – I surveyed LinkedIn for the percentage of employees in go-to-market roles at several, then prominent and successfully growing tech companies. The result: Between 24% and 37% with an average at just over 30%.

Hardly a scientific study given the small sample and probably a skewed population with LinkedIn profiles, but still tell-tale. I frequently see startup business plans where the ratio of go-to-market employees is 10% or lower. That is simply not going to cut it.

So, refining the three steps from the top of this post:

  1. Create a Product experience
  2. Find Customers that are willing and able to pay for that experience
  3. Match Product and Customers utilizing the right model and enough people

…or simply revert to the plan of the gnomes from South Park:

Hjálmar Gíslason, Hjalli, is VP of Data at Qlik, Chairman of the Board at Kjarninn, and partner at Investa. You can find him on Twitter.

Are we looking at a startup downswing in Iceland?

The last two Memo’s discussed the general interest in startups. A month ago, I wrote a post titled “Is interest in startups in Iceland decreasing?”. The main point there was to bring forward data about the declining participation in cornerstone events like Gulleggið – business plan competition, and some accelerators.

And yes, I’m completely aware that I’m starting to sound like a negative tech-journalist-type that wants clicks. But well, I’m neither (not a journalist, don’t care about clicks), and I’m only looking at some numbers. Please, if you have insights or comments, let me know (email). I’m easily persuaded.

There’s just a little under two weeks left of Q1 2017, and if nothing changes – if no investment is announced, that is – it is the first time for a long time that there have been fewer than two investments in a quarter, two quarters in a row. A picture explains this better. The sad block in the lower right corner is us right now. (Also, this means that there’s very little point in doing a quarterly funding analysis for Q1, which makes me sad 😞 )

rounds-per-quarter-001

In fact, the last time we had two quarters in a row with only one investments each was Q3 and Q4 2013. At that time the only active fund investing in startup was NSA Ventures, I believe. Frumtak 1 had closed a year earlier (it was active until Dec 31, 2012) and no other VC fund had started investing.

In some ways, we’re in a similar situation now; there’s only one fund – Brunnur Ventures – that’s effectively active right now. NSA Ventures is capped, Frumtak 2 probably won’t invest in many new companies (they need capital to follow up on their investments), and Eyrir Sprotar is in a similar place, based on the most recent information I have.

Outlook

While it surely doesn’t look good right now, there are (some) positive signs up ahead.

First: the board of NSA Ventures will announce who will be hired as CEO of NSA Ventures this week. Almar Guðmundsson, chairman of the board, confirmed this in an email earlier. That means we should start seeing some movement there. (note: it seems the board did in fact not announce who would be hired as CEO)

Second: Crowberry Capital is raising, and hopefully they’ll close (soon). We could definitely use an early stage fund to keep the momentum going.

Third: I’ve heard rumours about an business angel network initiative. It’s something that has been on the horizon for some time, but apparently there’s some movement getting into that work now. That might spur some angel investment – although I have a feeling that there’s way more of that already going on than the numbers suggest.

Obviously, these three points are only enablers, not drivers, of startups. The main ingredient is founding teams and business ideas, and without them, any amount of VC money won’t help.

What do you think? Are we in for a downswing? Is the golden age of startups in Iceland over, or yet to come?

You can sign up to the Northstack Memo here. Delivered every week to your inbox 🙂

€3m for UK MedEye implementation

Mint Solutions, along with partners in Belgium and the UK, has received a €2.4m grant from the EU’s Horizon 2020 Fast Track to Innovation. Total cost of the project, including contribution from partners, is €3m.

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Nortstack – Reporting and analysis of the Icelandic startup scene