My interviewee this week is the wonderful Ramona Liberoff. Currently Senior Vice President of Nielsen Innovation Practice, also a startup advisor to several London based companies and an Angel Investor. Great insight into challenges faced by startup from an advisor and investor perspective.
Hi Ramona, can we start by talking about your journey up to Nielsen.
I have been working for about twenty years and if I look at that twenty year time period, completely independent of my own career, probably the biggest thing that happened was the advent, and blossoming, of the internet. The choices I have made in my career have been in relation to that because I have always worked on what is about to happen, because it seemed more interesting territory. It isn’t always a startup, sometimes it is a businesses exploring it or a business being reshaped by what is about to happen.
How did you identify what you thought would be the next big thing?
I worked in a trends and futurist role previously but in a way that just honed what I already did. For example, we moved into Shoreditch 17 years ago now when there was no sign it would become the neighborhood that it has. I have a particular knack for weaving together various pieces of seemingly unrelated information and figuring out how to find signals among the noise.
I think sometimes it actually helps to be an outsider whether to a country or an industry because you can spot signals more easily. In London, everybody was blinded by the idea that West was best, so no one ever traveled east, let alone lived there! Whereas for me, it was all neutral. It is the same with technology, if you’re not blinded by being too close to the actual technology itself you can spot an opportunity better.
Where did you start your career?
I came out of college in a pretty profound recession, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was the first in my family to go to university so there was no real map for what to do next. I applied for consulting jobs, didn’t get any; applied for teaching jobs, didn’t get any; applied to be a para-legal and couldn’t even get an interview. So I ended up going to graduate school and realizing that it was absolutely not for me. I was not going to make a good academic; I was interested in too many different things, didn’t like the politics, it was incredibly stressful and for no apparent purpose. So I just put on my only suit and just hit the pavement. I interviewed for about 15 different positions and ended up in advertising, in Young & Rubicam.
Where did your career journey go from there?
I went from there to work off Wall Street in investor relations. A lot of the work was around marketing strategy, communications and managing big clients. I haven’t worked much industry–side. I had a brief stint at British Telecom and I have worked in a couple of startups but broadly that is where my general field is.
Startups & Teams
When did you start getting involved with startups?
Pretty early, long before it became mainstream or a normal thing. My father was an entrepreneur, he ran a number of small businesses. Pretty much all of them unsuccessful, but he learned enormously along the way. I have always been interested in what it takes to actually get a business off the ground - commercialization. I have always been an advisor to lots of different businesses that I know. Around the mid-90s I began advising more formally when a lot of the first wave of internet startups were coming in.
So you’ve done corporate and startup which side really appeals to you?
The reason I like big companies is because they’ve got so many needs to change. They have been in a bit of a dilemma, generally running a successful business but don’t see what is happening out in the world. I like being an intrapreneur and whipping up that energy for change to get stuff done. I’ve run several big transformations even in the short time I have been at Nielsen. On the other hand, with a startup you can set the template the way you want it to be. You can bring your own ethics, you can bring your own values, and you can put your own imprint on it. They both have a certain amount of appeal, but with a corporate you do have the scale of resources which makes it quite helpful. You can affect hundreds of people, rather than just a few.
How do you find the difference in team dynamics between a startup and a corporate?
With a startup the personal relationships are critical. In a big company there will always be people you don’t like, who don’t like you and you just have to find a way of managing it. It doesn’t wreck you because your survival is not going to be dependent on 2 or 3 people.
How have you found building teams in a corporate organisation? What have been the big difficulties from a corporate’s perspective?
For me it has been pretty easy. I have a Masters in Organizational Psychology, which really helps. I always think about what makes a balanced team. I’m very aware of people’s predilections to like people like them and I know how dangerous that is. Whether it is using a tool like Belbin’s team roles; asking myself if I have enough completer-finishers, enough implementers, enough shapers, enough plants. Basically, do we have enough of the right capabilities in this team for what we are here to do? The other thing is to be very conscious of what kind of opportunity people want. Some people just want a job, and they just want to be able to do it. That has never been good enough for me, or the teams that I have managed, because I have a sense of urgency. So, if somebody just wants to do their 9 to 5 and go home, they’re probably not going to be the happiest on a team that I run.
How did you come to find the teams that you are working with?
In a corporate you inherit people; I basically took on running a team. It was 150 people directly and another 100 or so. It is not that I chose or didn’t choose, it is more that in some cases people who showed a hunger or an aptitude or a need I was able to provide. There was someone who has worked for me quite closely, for whom I created a role. She was stuck in a dead end job, she was one of the most talented people I have ever met, and she was just in the wrong place. She was a mum of a young child and sidelined a bit so she came to me and gave me a challenge very directly. Instead of thinking ‘oh well, sod you’, I said ‘great, that is exactly what I need’ and I literally took her from her role and had her interview for a newly created position as my right hand to help run this big 50 million dollar project. She has done a fantastic job and she has really thrived. I make the best of whatever team I have, which is often very, very good. If occasionally someone shows particular hunger or aptitude or promise or is willing to challenge, then I do what I can to find them a way to grow.
It is an obligation and a privilege. If you have whatever measure of power for whatever moment in time that you have it, the challenge is how to use it as wisely as possible. It is very easy when you are the most senior person in the room all the time, to think that you must be the smartest and actually you are there in service of all of the talented people who have yet to have their own careers. It is that simple.
Can we talk a bit about Angel Investing, how did you get first get involved?
When I took the job at Nielsen three years ago I did not want to move away from the startup community entirely, I wanted to find a way to stay connected. And maybe find the next opportunity or opportunities. So I met a couple of startups who I have continued to advise and invest in. And then once Angel Academe was set up, and also Clearly Social Angels – which is a social investment early stage network - I joined them and I continued to invest. I now have a portfolio of 8, plus a couple of very small investments I have done through Seeders or CrowdCube. It has become easier because the discovery is better and the sheer number of startups is higher, as is the quality.
Angel investors are typically people who started a business, got rich, cashed out and then now spend their time and their money helping young businesses. So a lot of the people who do it are in their fifties and sixties, in the mainstream. Those of us in our 40’s are just starting to amass a certain level of capital and let’s be honest; it’s harder, these days to have the kind of money in the bank that we used to. This is the first generation that will have a lower standard of living than their predecessors. I think it is partly a function of time. I am also amazed by how much people think it is a function of specialization. There is a sense that to be an angel investor you have to be a finance professional. This is absolutely not true. It helps to have a diversity of skills in the group but you also really need people who can assess talent, you need people who can assess a business plan, you need people who can understand brand and marketing, you need people who can understand international markets. You really do need the full set of capabilities if you’re going to be a good angel investing syndicate as opposed to an individual investor for whom it may just be a bit of fun.
What do you think are the key things that an entrepreneur should look for in their investors?
Money is definitely not just money. For a start, choosing the wrong partners early on, particularly if they have different motivations or a different threshold of timing, can be a disaster. All of a sudden you’re handing over a fair bit of control at the early stage, to an outsider who may not have the patience or the interest in your business to make it succeed. They might push for a sub optimal exit – they could literally trample the startup forever. The other thing to look for is what they bring beyond money, because money isn’t people and money is actually relatively cheap and easy to find these days: relatively. I am not saying it is ever easy. What kind of connections, what sorts of insights, what kinds of hooks into talent, for example, can your investor bring. I guess the other thing is values. Is this a person who you think has the right values that are aligned to your startup. That to me is almost always overlooked. People surprisingly don’t ask much about an investor’s values when they are looking at an investment. They will just take the cash.
What are your thoughts on SEIS?
I think it is brilliant, it removes one of the major barriers, which is the perception that it is a losing game to invest in startups. It cushions the blow. I think the government recognized - wow, I never thought I would find myself saying this about a government of this political persuasion - but I think they recognize that entrepreneurship is something many more people will have to do. The restructuring of the taxation system around EIS, SEIS, and also the social enterprise tax credits is all a very healthy recognition that entrepreneurs need more support than they have had previously. There is a scandal in terms of bank lending and how difficult it has been for startups. In a way this is a corrective measure, against a long, deeply skewed business environment. I think it is quite good.
Success & Challenges
In terms of your overall journey, what do you see as your biggest success to date?
Oh my gosh, I’m not much of a triumphalist. I think, if I have had some success, it consists mainly of those days when I have got up in the morning and been able to do something that is both positive and progressive. Helping clients see things a bit differently. For example, in working with both clients like PepsiCo and Unilever, I have put a disproportionate amount of emphasis on helping them with their social innovations or helping them understand the market potential. I have invested more of my time proportionately, in the things that I think will make the world better and I have had some amazing feedback from the team where I am now, that I have helped them grow as professionals and become better advisors to their clients. Where ever I have been able to have a concerted impact on being both more positive and more progressive, that is a good thing. It is not really so much about my success, it is what have I been able to enable others to achieve.
A couple of people have said to me recently that what they have really enjoyed is that I don’t ever tell anyone what to do, I try and provide a coaching environment where I can ask the questions that help people realize what they know already. Maybe this is a function of age, and figuring out how stuff works best. I actually do not think it works if you tell people what to do, rather it is the humility to create the space to allow people to ask the right questions, so that the answer will become clear. That is how I think I add value to some of the startups I work with, and the teams I work with.
What do you think your biggest challenge has been so far? And how did you overcome them?
I suck at politics, I’m really bad at kowtowing to people in power and I am also really bad at looking backwards. I have struggled with valuing the past as much as I know certain people need the past to be valued. I am always thinking about the future, always oriented to where we are going, what are the challenges, what is going to happen. Finding ways to respect those with a lot of experience while still maintaining my stance if I think the direction is wrong. If we need to be doing something else then I need to express that. That is a balance I haven’t yet figured out.
Women in Tech
What do you think about the state of women in technology and women in leadership positions?
Ah it has become dismal, actually. But maybe not for the reasons everybody thinks; I think there were three major challenges and all of them are very long term problems, they’re twenty year issues. The first is simply the number of women going into STEM disciplines has fallen to a major low. In the 1980s, 20-30% of all people going into STEM disciplines were women and it has now fallen to below 10, so we simply have a supply problem
The second is a perception issue. I read recently that when women are being interviewed for leadership positions, they are far more likely to be judged on their personality, or their perceived personality, than on actual capabilities or achievements. I have been subject to this personally a number of times, enough to know that it is not a coincidence. I think the lack of introspection that a lot of companies have about the way they do things is shocking; there is quite a transparent process in many companies until you get to a certain level. It then becomes a whole lot murkier because there is far less governance there and there are a lot of deep seated relationships involved. I think we have a real issue in terms of senior leadership succession. For example, I have been called emotional, which I am not, particularly compared to a lot of people I work with. There is a confusion between having conviction and when terms like passionate are levied to women, they mean irrational. When a term like passionate is given to men, it means full of conviction. So there is also some double edged swords going on here. A lack of transparency and fairness in succession is one thing I would highlight.
Finally the over privileging of one set of capabilities (i.e. coding in Silicon Valley) at the expense of all the other skills you actually need to make a successful business.
How do you think we can encourage more women now to get involved and champion sort of becoming part of a leadership team?
The first thing I say is that women need to own the facts; the best defense against something is not a personal one, it is a factual one. Secondly, I think women need to stand up and not just take that lying down, stop saying ‘oh well of course, yes, it is my fault’ - because it is not. Thirdly, don’t let people’s skills go stale, or go unmentioned. Mentor, coach and develop confidence, because if you are confident then it will show. The more your confidence shows, the easier it is to compete on an even footing. A lot of women I meet sadly lack the confidence they deserve given their accomplishments and their capability.