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"Entrepreneurs should be storytellers." Spotlight on Investment Manager Joshua Levy

23 August 2015

Here at Mercia, we're never short of experienced colleagues, from investment directors to CEOs, entrepreneurs and inventors, who have words of wisdom to impart and stories to tell.

So what better way to kick off Spotlight, the newest section of the website that allows you to get up close and personal with the Mercia family, than by picking the brains of one of our youngest team members, University of Cambridge graduate Joshua Levy.

24 year-old Josh has been at Mercia for almost two years, during which time he has gone from a graduate placement to full-time employment, whilst also studying for a professional CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) certificate.

Here, Josh reflects on his experiences outside the lecture halls, with musings on everything from the greying hair of colleagues, to why Sunday is the new Monday.

First things first - what brings you to Mercia?

I will have been at Mercia for two years this October, and what an experience it's been! First off, I feel as though I've been very lucky - Venture Capital isn't an industry that is particularly accessible to young people.

I joined Mercia as an intern straight out of university, where I studied Land Economy before switching to Management in my final year. I found Mercia via the New Entrepreneurs Foundation, a graduate scheme that aims to provide young people with work placements at fast growing, dynamic companies, a description that Mercia definitely fits. When I started, Mercia had £20m under-management and seven full-time members of staff. It now has over £100m, and we number close to 20.

From the very beginning, I was given a lot of responsibility, and expected to carry myself forward and actively bring ideas to the table. From basic admin jobs and assisting the internal team, to shadowing the investment directors and helping out at a few of our portfolio companies, I was certainly kept very busy, but I was always encouraged to get out there and find my own businesses as well. DAB Gaming, the developer and operator of Social (Freemium) and Real Money gambling games, was one of my very first discoveries.

The trick is to work hard and prove yourself during the early months to make your mark. I did, and our CEO Mark Payton signed me on as a full-time investment manager once my placement was up. I haven't looked back since.

Two years on, I've learned an incredible amount so far, ranging from structuring investment transactions, to all the work that goes into floating a business. I also sit on the Boards of several investee companies, including Kwanji, Love Me Beauty and Intelligent Positioning and, whilst I haven't yet found my specific area of expertise like the investment directors - or "Grey Hairs" as I like to call them! - I am slowly finding my feet within the digital side of our portfolio.

What makes Mercia so unique?

Besides Mercia's investment strategy from the seed round right through to Series A, I think Mercia has a pretty unique culture that pervades the whole organisation. Everyone gets stuck in, making it a proactive, collaborative working atmosphere. There are no politics or hierarchies, and very little red tape. This means that if I want to speak to our CEO, I can approach him directly. Everyone's opinion is valid, from the most experienced member of our investment team, to the graduates, which I think is a very healthy atmosphere to have in any organisation.

There are also no rivals or factions, and each investment proposal is discussed amongst the whole team in lively and productive meetings. All of this is even more surprising when you consider the geographical spread of the investment directors, with some ranging from Weymouth right up to Leeds.

Who are you working with at the moment and why are they so exciting?

I'm really excited about a recent investment we have made into wayve, an ad-tech start-up that provides a 360° advertising technology platform. The founder, Jamie, is that great mix of technologist and sector expert that you're always on the lookout for as an investor. Advertising technology is such a fast-moving space, but in less than two years wayve has managed to build a product used by the like of The Financial Times, Bloomberg and Havas Media. I'm looking forward to seeing how the company develops over the next few years.

Earlier this year, we also invested in Intelligent Positioning, a big data and natural search company that has built a sophisticated piece of analytics software. It's one of the largest investments I've worked on personally, and the company is one of the most developed in our portfolio. They already have plans for expansion into the US and Asia, a project that I know they will be able to succeed in, and I'm delighted that Mercia is able to join them on their journey.

What does the future hold for digital?

Whether you believe that software is eating the world, like Marc Andreessen, or you believe that we'll soon have evolved into bionic androids living in a world enabled by artificial intelligence, like Ray Kurzwell, one thing is indisputable - technological change is inevitable.

Personally, I think the scope of this change is near impossible to predict. Who would have guessed even two decades ago that we would be able to hold the entirety of human knowledge in a little machine in our pockets? Someone does need to sort out my battery life though - I'm still waiting for an entrepreneur to walk into the office and start talking to me about ambient charging!

Having said that, one thing that I do think will (and must) get increased attention in the coming years is the negative effects of rapid change. When working in venture capital, it is easy to have a relatively narrow view about the benefits of innovation. After all, automation makes things faster, more reliable and more efficient, therefore anyone who complains about technology is clearly a conservative or a Luddite!

I think this view of the world is too simplistic, and glosses over a lot of key debates that we will need to have as a society in order to accommodate this change. Ethics, morality and accepted practices will need to be analysed and developed carefully, but also quickly, to cope with the accelerating rate of change, in partnership between government, business and civil society. What happened in Paris with Uber only a few months ago is a case in point.

What do you look for in a tech start-up?

The main quality I look for is a great team with a competitve advantage and plenty of tenacity. A strong team will have members who counterbalance and complement each other. Ideally, they will also have some special ingredient that enables them to do what they're doing better than any competitor.

As we invest at the seed stage, we know that there are only two certainties:

  1. That the market will change and;
  2. That the direction of that change will be unpredictable.

Tenacity ensures that management can cope with this change and that they are capable of adapting in order to continue growing, even if that growth is not in a way that was initially forecast in the business plan.

What makes a good business pitch?

A coherent and engaging narrative. Entrepreneurs should be storytellers, so effective communication is vital.

Out of the office, what do you like to do in your downtime?

For me, there's nothing better than spending time with friends, reading, cooking, eating and going to the gym. I'm a firm believer that a healthy mind and body helps you to perform better in your work.

Also, I'll admit that I do like to bring an element of work into my downtime. A colleague of mine - Rob Johnson, Mercia's Head of Electronics and IoT - coined a nice phrase when he said that, at Mercia: "Sunday is the new Monday"!

Is there a technology that you would like to see on the market?

I want to be able to split myself in two. There are just never enough hours in the day to get everything done, but if there were two of me I could double my efficiency!

I know that my boss, Mercia's CEO Mark Payton, has found a solution to this by sacrificing sleep, but I'm not sure I'm completely up for that just yet!

If you would like to pitch your technology start-up to Josh, you can send an email to joshl@merciafund.co.uk.

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