In the Netherlands, only 1.6% of venture capital goes to female entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, over 40% of entrepreneurs are now women. The question of how to close this gap was discussed during TheNextWomen summit in Amsterdam last month. We used the opportunity to speak with angel investor Elisabeth Stevens, former director of Booking.com and current startup mentor and angel investor at Rockstart and several startup communities.
During Elisabeth’s tenure at Booking.com, the company grew from 300 to 18.000 employees. The traveling industry digitalized rapidly and Booking.com kept up with the pace. Soon it’s reach went from local and national to global and international. Elisabeth was a key figure during all these changes and gained a lot of scale-up experience – the main reason she now advices startups how to organize themselves in times of growth.
A warm welcome to you, Elisabeth. You’ve got quite the career path behind you, how did this all lead to where you are now?
My background is not so much in tech or in product development but in how you run an organization. Of course, my time at Booking.com was very foundational and instructive. Looking back, you tend to summarize more than a decade of growth in employment rates. From a couple of hundreds to tens of thousands. Yet the amount of effort that is needed to get there is more difficult to truncate. Just think about the fact that every single employee was new at some point and had to be found – with a whole recruitment process supporting that.
This moment in which a startup scales up to something much bigger is my expertise. Which is why I love to consult startups on what they need in these turbulent times. My role as an angel investor is actually much broader than merely providing a bag with money. With it comes my expertise and the willingness to support a startup through its early years.
Did you learn something new after Booking.com, or did those 12.5 years teach you everything?
What was new when I started mentoring startups and got to know their ecosystems, is the whole world of funding. How pivotal capital is for the viability of an idea, the survival of a team. But how do you attract investments? That has a lot to do with your business model, the quality of your pitches, the financial story of your startup and so forth. Rest assured, funding is not rocket science yet it remains something you need to prepare for, which is why you need a mentor. And a good team, of course, find people who’re good in things you fail at.
Now you’re an angel investor yourself, do you notice a difference between male and female funding techniques?
The biggest difference is whether you’re a professional investor – think about a typical venture capitalist – or an angel investor, who tune more into the ideas and character of an entrepreneur. I noticed, however, how few funding opportunities there are for female founders or teams. I’ve discussed this with other angel investors and VC’s at conferences and asked them whether they have examples of pitches of female founders. The examples were very scarce. I am hesitant to say why, but it’s certainly a sad fact. It’s one of the reasons I wholeheartedly support events such as TheNextWomen. One tip I have for the women I saw at the conference is to professionalize their funding pitches. From what I’ve seen, the quality really needs to increase. Practice is key here!
What do you look for in a startup before you invest?
Because it is all early stage, it is very important to me if I believe in the person behind the startup. Do they possess the necessary qualities to turn ideas into reality? In addition, the startup needs to have in-house technology. Otherwise, they’ll lose a lot of energy, time and money looking for third parties. Last but not least, is the whole business plan scalable? If you succeed, is it easy to repeat your success – after all, this will be your growth. If success is too dependent on one or two founders without a solid team backing them up, investing is not a good idea.
What tips do you have for startups looking for angel investors?
It is important to realize what you’re looking for in an investor. Do you wish them to think along with your ideas? Do they offer expertise and a network which is useful for your business? Don’t focus on the amount of money only, acknowledge the expertise of a potential investor as part of the investment itself. And of course, you need to trust an investor cause you will enter into a long-term relationship with him or her.
What was your most successful investment?
That is difficult to pin down, as the question comes a bit too early. I invested in one startup which uses machine learning and AI to personalize the travel branch. This industry is weighed down by way too many offerings which lead to the agony of choice. If they succeed in cleaning up the field for people, creating more oversight and thus a calmer process of decision-making, they would really solve a customer pain in the travel industry. This is what consumers are looking for at the moment, which to me is the most important indicator an investment will pay off.
Coming up: TheNextWoman event at B. on the 28th of June. Get coaching on funding & finance.
Get your tickets here.