Chasing aces: Julie Meyer

Widely credited as a pioneer of the European technology start-up scene, Julie Meyer, who launched her first fund, ACE, this year, argues that entrepreneurs are still broadly underestimated by the financial services industry.

It was a British trait that Julie Meyer hadn’t encountered until she arrived in France to start her first semester at the acclaimed business school INSEAD.

While speaking with a number of fellow MBA students about the amount of time she had poured into the rigorous application process, the Californian-born Meyer met some from the UK who claimed that they hadn’t spent any time preparing or studying for their entry.

It was only later that she realised the same students had, in fact, devoted as much time as she had working on their applications, but they had downplayed their effort because, in the classic British way, they wanted to exude ‘effortless success’.

Now, after building a successful 13-year career in business in the UK, which includes the management of a growing venture capital fund, a highly successful networking business and a growing media profile, does she feel that she has pulled off the very same sought-after mannerism of appearing effortlessly successful?

‘You can probably look at the circles under my eyes and see that it is not true,’ Meyer replies, in between short bursts of laughter. ‘I suppose to a certain extent I have adopted some things, some British mannerisms, subconsciously. You go native a bit, and probably adopt things.

‘But I don’t think it’s effortless success that I’m trying to achieve – it is more that I prefer to live in a world that is positive, rather than negative, so that is the kind of world that I try to create in my everyday life.’

Meyer moved to the UK after graduating from INSEAD in 1997. She saw her future in the European internet business and thought that London was, and still is, the centre of the world. Her first position was with New Media Investors, which has since been renamed SPARK Ventures, where she worked on deals involving lastminute.com, WGSN (now EMAP), and Argonaut/ARC Cores.

Soon after, she founded First Tuesday, a networking forum for established technology entrepreneurs. She exited the business in July 2000 when First Tuesday was sold to Israeli private equity firm Yazam for $50 million. But five months after the deal was completed, First Tuesday was sold back to its members for £1 million. It no longer operates in London.

In August 2000, she launched Ariadne Capital, an investment and advisory firm that has the catch line ‘entrepreneurs backing entrepreneurs’. She is also one of the investors in the online version of the BBC TV show Dragons’ Den.

An avid reader, Meyer says she feels like a sociologist studying the British mind, not necessarily because she seeks to become British, although she is set to become one, but because she wants to be influential and effective in the UK.

BEHAVIOURAL BEGINNINGS

It is this same drive to understand human behaviour that perhaps led Meyer into pursuing a career as an entrepreneur in the first place and, more recently, as a venture capitalist in technology.

Earlier this year, her firm launched its first venture capital fund, the £20 million Ariadne Capital Entrepreneurs (ACE) Fund to make direct investments into internet and mobile internet companies at the seed stage.

Meyer says the firm is seeking to invest in companies that are ‘digital enablers’, meaning businesses that enable a larger entity or industry to transact, interact or develop online.

She explains, ‘In the network-orientated world that we are in, the digital enablers are the key to unlocking high growth in any industry. So whether you are in construction and property, media, financial services or oil and gas, you need to find these enabling technologies that understand how to cut ecosystem economics.’

Meyer’s team of six directors generally meet about 100 companies a month, mostly based in the UK, with prospective ventures tending to be businesses with enabling technologies, such as apps, software or other business services.

Portfolio companies include Monitise, a mobile banking and mobile payment services provider, and Everyclick, a software-as-a- service browser-based plug-in that enables online transactions.

An early portfolio company was Skype, and other successful clients include BeatThatQuote, an online comparison site for financial companies that was sold to Google for £37.7 million in March this year, and Digital Stores, which was sold to EMI last year. Meyer also runs Entrepreneur Country, a forum for entrepreneurs.

While the chief executive is bullish about the quality of possible investments on offer, she says there are always difficulties in attempting to develop and grow portfolio companies. A primary problem, she observes, is that sometimes founders aren’t capable of being the head of product, and it can be difficult to replace people in this role.

‘I’ve found that the most successful start-ups have a duo of founders: one business-oriented and one product-oriented,’ she continues. ‘When we have had to source that person [a new head of product], and introduce him or her to a team, that can be tricky. It’s like an organ transplant – if it works, the life is saved, if it is rejected, it’s bad.’

BACKING ENTREPRENEURS

Despite the challenges of working with passionate people, Meyer has an unwavering belief in entrepreneurship, which appears to be more than a marketing ploy.

She says that entrepreneurs are ‘broadly underestimated’ among corporations and the wider finance services industry, and that it is only when they are worth £10 billion that credit is duly given.

Squarely to blame for this ‘imbalance’ is the established finance industry, she says, which has ‘forgotten its place in the order of the world’ in helping growing economies and inspiring enterprise.

Meyer explains, ‘A lot of the venture capital and banking communities are made up of very status quo people. They evaluate industries by pretty much looking backward at what has happened. The only way you can really buy into the future is to stand shoulder-to- shoulder with somebody who has a unique insight into the future, aka an entrepreneur.

‘The finance industry views itself as an industry unto itself,’ she declares. ‘It is there to back the industrialists of the day, and the current industrialists of the day are the digital entrepreneurs – it doesn’t get any more basic than that.’

It is this type of straight talking that sets her apart from her contemporaries. In a recent appearance on BBC Breakfast, she was asked to speak with a young woman in her early 20s who had been bullied after appearing on the programme University Challenge. She told the girl to stand her ground and ‘push back’ against people who were teasing her.

‘At that age, sometimes you don’t realise that people will see what they can get away with, and what you have to do is push back,’ she explains. ‘If people try to make inappropriate comments, they need to see that they are going to meet some steel.’

Asked if she follows her own advice in her personal and professional lives, she says, ‘I definitely push back. People just need to be trained. You train people to let them know how you want to be treated, and I don’t understand, frankly, why more people don’t adopt this approach.’

Undoubtedly, Meyer will use this approach to continue expanding her firm. In five years, she aims to have £150 million under management, have launched a second and possibly third fund and score ‘even a couple more home runs’. Maybe she will even achieve her goals effortlessly.

See also: Interview with Julie Meyer of Ariadne Capital and now Dragon’s Den judge

Todd Cardy

Todd Cardy

Todd was Editor of GrowthBusiness.co.uk between 2010 and 2011 as well as being responsible for publishing our digital and printed magazines focusing on private equity and venture capital. Connect with...

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