Growing wings at Hillfarrance – raising institutional capital

Rob Vickery

As you probably know, most early-stage venture funds are small businesses in pretty much every meaning of the term. We have teams of under ten people, marketing budgets of less than $10k per year and similar OPEX costs to any other startup. Despite being mouse-like in size, in my experience, we roar like lions in our industry and provide capital and services to startups who go on to build products that we could not imagine life without. 

Like the startups we fund, we also need to raise capital to keep that roar as loud as possible. 

We recently applied for institutional funding from New Zealand’s leading fund of funds, New Zealand Growth Capital Partners (NZGCP). After an extensive due diligence process, we secured a $15m conditional commitment from the Elevate fund.

Naturally, we were delighted with the investment, but perhaps the most valuable asset we gained was the knowledge we earned by going through the process. I might even go so far as to say that this was probably one of the most critical and developmental events in my career as a fund manager and entrepreneur. 

Somewhat serendipitously, when we heard that we had received approval from the Elevate team, we cracked open a bottle of Cardrona whisky labelled “growing wings”. Sans proper whisky glasses in the office, we used my English tea set to have a wee celebratory dram and thus the title of this post was set in code.

As you might gather from my blog over the past two years, if my experiences can help someone else grow, I will write about them ‘till the cows come home’! Based on that sentiment, here are the three most significant things I gained through the NZGCP Elevate process. 

Building ‘edge’

Early on in my venture capital career, I spent considerable time with various institutional capital allocators, mainly in the US. From the endowments of some of the most famous universities in the world to foundations and charitable trust funds, I asked them all the same question – “what is it you look for in a potential fund manager?”.

They all gave the same answer – a defined ‘edge’ in the market. 

“Edge”, in my mind, is a defendable, unique advantage over other similar organisations playing in your market. As a VC colleague of mine once said, “what is your embarrassingly unfair market advantage?”

Whether you are a startup, an SME or a venture fund manager, building an edge should be paramount for your business. We have spent years building and sharpening our edge with:

  • Our expertise as early-stage investors and knowing our sectors better than most. 
  • Our due diligence process takes a uniquely holistic view of all pitches that come across our desk. 
  • Our portfolio company founder service model supports our entrepreneurs throughout their journeys. 
  • Our access to unique and proprietary deal flow and receiving pitches before anyone else. 

The net result of all of these things should be market-leading fund performance within your vintage, rave reviews from your startup founders and a portfolio stuffed to the gills with companies that you were the first to fund

Construct your business now as if you are going to raise institutional capital in the future. 

When I started my first venture fund, let’s just say that creating a full suite of policies, procedures and governance frameworks was not in front of my mind. If you want to raise institutional capital, it is an absolute must to ensure that you have the necessary measures and processes to protect your LPs, your portfolio companies, and yourself as Fund Managers. 

Perhaps one of the most valuable parts of the NZGCP process was the requirement to create new processes and procedures to progress through the programme. This includes:

  • Formal approaches to running an environmentally sustainable business and investment methodology.
  • Documented processes previously in our heads but are now immortalised in defined documents. 
  • Running lots of macro and microenvironment scenarios through our model to understand how the fund might operate in the future.

My best piece of advice here is:

  • Ask your network for policy templates and examples of best practices regarding process and performance measures. 
  • Create a detailed data room and start to fill it up with content such as:
    • Valuation frameworks
    • Due diligence models
    • ESG policies and measures
    • Health & Safety protocols 
    • Conflicts of interest 
  • Don’t just copy and paste and then find and replace. Understand the policy and what happens if the policy is broken. 

These measures will only benefit you in the long run and provide much-needed rigour to a financial asset class that is often somewhat clandestine in how it operates. 

Understand your value proposition for all stakeholders

A significant part of the NZGCP was defining and demonstrating the value we offer to our portfolio and our investors, and the broader NZ startup economy. 

It is sometimes too easy to be so engrossed in running your business that you forget how to articulate your broader stakeholder value proposition. To this end, we found Venn diagrams an essential way to demonstrate how we derive value for all:

Our Portfolio 

We have a purposefully small and tight-knit family of portfolio companies. Based on our experience, groups of no more than twenty-one portfolio companies per fund provide diversification and, more importantly, an ability to devote as much 1:1 time with our founders as possible. 

Through initiatives like Collaborative Carry, our internal scout programme and our own internal KPIs around the top and bottom-line growth within our portfolio companies, 

The Market – New Zealand Inc.

For our startup economy to grow, one must consider what they can positively offer to the wider market. As you may know, we are a champion of democratising and demystifying early-stage startup capital so that both investors and investees are on a level playing field.

Our commitment to banning fundraising fees and excessive cap table positions attracted some mudslinging initially. However, based on the pitch decks and cap tables coming across our table in recent months, we are glad that we remained steadfast in our mana in this regard.

Our investors

Our investors are an essential and equally important part of the lifeblood of our business. The individuals, family institutions, Iwi trusts and institutional capital funds that make up our Limited Partner (LP) base are the cornerstone of our firm. 

We cultivate and nurture valuable relationships with our LP whānau through startup investing knowledge transfer, free co-investment, and the ability to interact with our portfolio as advisors or just a shoulder to lean on. 

Summary

Raising institutional capital is daunting for many startup entrepreneurs and VC fund managers. To succeed, we believe you need a focus, a prominent edge in the market, a “never say die” attitude, customers who love you and a commitment to operational rigour. 

Whilst this piece is written from the perspective of a venture fund manager, I believe the principles of edge, value and rigour are pertinent to any entrepreneurial endeavour. 

Our experience with NZGCP strengthened our company from the outset. In particular, the process of thinking about how our company responsibly manages institutional capital was invaluable. 

We would like to thank James Pinner, Jason Roche and Rob Everett for their support and we are delighted to be welcoming them into our Village.