Craig Fenton takes a unique approach to entrepreneurs and startups, and that has helped him make remarkable progress in the world of venture capital.
“I just love working with founders who have very disruptive ideas, who are thinking fresh about an unmet need or a poorly met need, and who are out to disrupt in a constructive and positive sense and change the user experience of a particular domain,” he told me during a recent interview for my podcast, Back Yourself. “I find that really energizing and interesting, and I get to meet a lot of different people who are different from me.”
Fenton’s day job is at Google, but he also runs a record label, is heavily involved in venture capital, and has a ton of wisdom to share.
Lead Strategy and Operations and the Ultimate Startup
At Google, Fenton leads strategy and operations. In that role, he helps plan business operations, including actions such as defining how success is measured through objectives and key results, defining how the organization presents itself to the market, addressing operations, organizing designs, deciding where to make strategic investments, and organizing how to engage thoughtfully with industry and government about content.
Google, of course, is the ultimate startup, and the company retains that mindset. Although it has 140,000 employees and true global scale, the company can still respond quickly and act fast when it sees an unmet need, an opportunity, or the demands of responding to a crisis like COVID-19. The company focuses on agile operations, works cross-functionally, and likes to pilot, experiment, change, scale, and more — all of which are typical of startup environments.
The Back Story: How Fenton Went From Commerical Litigation to Angel Investor
Fenton has a long and successful career already. He attended the University of Auckland, where he received a bachelor of laws degree with honours and also a bachelor of commerce. He later received an MBA from the London Business School.
Out of university, he was a senior associate specialising in commercial litigation and advisory, and then in late 2000 landed a role as a senior manager at Accenture. Fenton moved up the chain of command at Accenture, staying at the company for more than 16 years, with roles including managing director of territories around the world, including at one point being held accountable for a $3 billion business target across 124 countries.
Along the way and since then, Fenton has played a role as an investor in a number of companies, including:
- Mycare: A two-sided platform that matches carers with those who need care
- MeasureMatch: A company that matches data scientists with those who need their services
- C2-Ai: AI systems in 11 countries that help reduce clinical errors and improve patient outcomes
- Connected Analytics: Enables businesses to attract, retain, and reward loyal customers through a loyalty reward system
- Kwara: Digitises financial cooperatives and gives members a way to manage money and build a credit history
- KEAKIE: Streaming platform with DJs, radio shows, and podcasts
- Fetchmyorder: Order and pay for food and drinks in bars and restaurants and have it safely delivered
- Tahora: Workplace community building and well being
- WeSki: Ski vacation site that pairs flights, rental cars, accommodations, ski passes, and more into a single quote
And that’s not all. He has his pilot’s license, founded an independent record label with a social purpose, is a general partner with Unknwn Capital, and is an author of Playful Curiosity, which be bills as “a manifesto for reinventing education.”
How to Scale Your Own VC: Partner With the Right People
Currently, Fenton has 14 companies in his venture capital portfolio, but not that long ago he was looking for a way to scale his own operations. Unknwn Capital did that.
Through Unknwn, Fenton was able to partner with a broader group of people. Unknwn now has Fenton and two general partners. Most funds raise money up front and then invest it, with investors believing in VC and trusting the team but being largely at the whims of the partners.
Unknwn is a private membership of limited partners who get the opportunity to opt-in or opt-out of the deals that Fenton and his partners present. It’s a demanding job but also one that he finds calming and that lends him balance.
“Like anything, it’s being intentional about it and scheduling time,” he said.
How Fenton Landed His Role at Google
Fenton likes to be “comfortably uncomfortable.” Already at Accenture for years, he was wondering what else might give his life purpose. He made a short list of possibilities, paired it with his belief in technology, and simply wrote the head of Google in Europe and introduced himself. He wasn’t necessarily looking for a job — he actually just wanted to meet someone new, something he tries to do two to three times a week.
While he was simply signing up for a chat, he wound up with the role at Google, where he has been now for coming on five years.
Fenton has now met a lot of founders. What is his advice? You need both confidence and humility, plus an idea that is disruptive and creates value, he says. The biggest mistake founders make, he said, is becoming too mechanical and too transactional, simply looking for money so you can go from one race to another.