Angel Investor Chris Smith on the Value of Running Lean and the Necessity of Creating Great-Looking Pitch Decks

Written by Tom Fairey

10 March, 2022

6 Winning Tips for Entrepreneurs

Growing up, Chris Smith was a successful student in a great school, and naturally, his parents told him that he would go far in life so long as he was a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant.

But Smith did not like blood and he was not that comfortable with numbers, so law it was. He went to UCL, where he earned a Bachelor of Laws, and then BPP Law School. Out of school, he served as legal counsel.

“I did not give that much thought to what I was going to do,” he told me during an interview for my podcast, Back Yourself.

He easily got an internship and his path seemed to be laid out in front of him — until he started to look around and see how two-dimensional the other legal students were. And the work was not that great either. He spent most of his time photocopying, and when he looked at those above him, while they were making buckets of money, their jobs did not seem that fun.

“I thought, maybe I was going in the wrong direction,” he said. “But at that point, it was too late.”

Smith worked as a lawyer for 10 years, which he describes as playing the role of someone he was not, something akin to acting.

“I did not get any satisfaction from the work I was doing,” he said.

But the seeds of entrepreneurship had already been planted. In college, Smith had a small telecom company. The company used paid access codes that made international calling free. Smith went to the company’s headquarters and pitched to them his connections to students in London — just the sort of people who would want to make discount international calls. He was given his own numbers and a commission. Things went slowly at first — the first month he earned less than what it would take to buy an ale, but he soon partnered with a web developer who took over the marketing.

Though this was a small start in entrepreneurship, Smith learned some important lessons. For starters, partnering with a co-founder can be an excellent way to gain strategic skills. Further, you can’t scale if you don’t own the fundamentals — in this case, because he was leasing the access codes rather than owning them, he could not move the IT to his own servers, which would have greatly increased his ability to expand and make money.

Smith eventually left his telecom, but it gave him foundational experience when he moved up his own corporate ladder years later. After 10 years as a lawyer, Smith had had his fill. He transitioned, serving as a private equity associate at Weil Gotshal and Manges and then moving to Olswang to focus on technology startups and growth businesses. That kicked off a chain of investment manager, corporate development, head of product development, and angel investor roles. His angel investment experience led him to ProducePay, SuperAwesome, Eidi, HIre Space, bidstack, and Enertiv.

Pitching Is Dating: Make Sure You Make a Great Impression

Smith’s role as a board director, board observer, and angel investor means he has seen more than his fair share of pitches and business ideas, and he has some solid advice to pass along. 

  1. Treat it like dating. Don’t tell everything on the first date. If you come in with a 40-page pitch deck, you’ll never get to have a real conversation about what it is you are doing and you will never learn about the investors.
  2. Make your pitch deck look great. Nothing turns investors off like a pitch deck with misspelled words and clip art. If nothing else, make your cover page beautiful.
  3. A lot of companies take too much money too soon, and because of that, they are obligated to scale fast, which may not be the right move at the right time and may lead to collapse. Smith often encourages companies to take less money than they are offered. Further, “If you have tons of money you get lazy, and you start hiring too many people too soon. If you run lean, you just find really effective ways of doing things.”
  4. If you have spent more than a few hundred thousand pounds on your MVP, you have spent too much money. Instead, spend as little as possible and prove there is a market for your business.
  5. If you are B2B, your first hire should be someone who can run the tech, leaving sales to the founder. If you are B2C, your first hire should be someone who can do the marketing, to get your word out and start interacting with customers.
  6. If Smith had to leave VC today and start something, he would start a business in autonomous transportation, specifically off public roads in places like ports and factories.

The Takeaway

Everybody has what it takes to control their own destiny. For Smith, he just had to spend 10 years in a field he did not like before he realised it was time to pursue his own path.

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