The Startup Blueprint series shares stories of founders and team members from some of Aotearoa's most epic and fast-growing startups. Hear about their journeys, learn from their insights, and maybe leave with a dose of inspiration.
We spoke with our very own Jo Wickham, a Partner here at Icehouse Ventures, about her illustrious career that has spanned mergers and acquisitions, entering international markets, hustling in bootstrapped startups, and supporting founders to achieve their vision.
We kept this edition close to home, and are excited to bring you a little bit of the life story, smarts, and wit of Jo Wickham, Partner at Icehouse Ventures.
From the paddocks of Oamaru, a 'Magic Circle' law firm in London, to taking a bootstrapped Kiwi startup to IPO, Jo has lived a rich and varied life, with a career to match. She has a deep war chest of knowledge, stories and experiences that span mergers and acquisitions, entering international markets, hustling in bootstrapped startups, and supporting founders to achieve their vision.
We love Jo equally for her big brain and her sense of humour and are excited to share a slice of both with you, so buckle up and enjoy this Startup Blueprint interview.
Give us the run down on the exciting life and career you’ve had so far and how it led to becoming a Partner at Icehouse Ventures.
JW: Hard to imagine a more exciting time and place to grow up than rural small-town NZ in the 80s, let me tell you! In all seriousness though growing up in a homogenous cultural wasteland really did foster a lifelong ambition for wanting more – I would say that the nadir of my early formative years has been instructive to reaching my zenith as a Partner at Icehouse Ventures.
I studied law at Canterbury University not so much out of a passion for the law but recognising that it would provide a great foundation for learning how to think. And, because I’m terrible with numbers. Now I work in finance.
I took a graduate position in a law firm in Queenstown to be close to family and so I could snowboard as well as cut my legal chops. Great decision now that I have 3 sons. According to them, the fact the old girl can still shred is my only redeeming feature. Like the rest of my peers, after an obligatory two years out in the real world, if you can call Queenstown that, I headed to London for my big OE. There, I was fortunate to land a highly coveted position in a magic circle law firm called Clifford Chance ahead of Oxbridge grads after a serendipitous encounter with a kiwi friend in some toilets. I’d like to say being great is enough to get these types of jobs, but timing, luck and networks go a huge way – the kiwi-mafia is strong in London. That said, I’m a strong believer in taking personal responsibility for creating a larger surface area for luck to strike. For example, by being the type of person you’d like to help if you bumped into her on the other side of the world in some toilets.
Clifford Chance was a complete baptism by fire – an incredible experience. I was there for 7 years but I’m sure I did about 14 years’ worth of work during that time based on my working hours. I worked in the private equity real estate team doing property joint ventures in emerging markets during the boom times of the mid-2000s and setting up private equity real estate funds. Fund formation work that would come in handy with my current role. To give you a sense of scale, the largest transaction I worked on was Blackrock’s $9.3bn deal to acquire Merrill Lynch Asset Management in 2007 – being flown first class to New York purely to attend the closing party at a club in the meat packing district was another surreal moment for a 27-year-old farm girl from Oamaru. I’m trying my best to make a legal career seem exciting as per your question!
My first real in-house experience of finance was a secondment in my final year in London at Credit Suisse Asset Management (CSAM) working in alternative assets (funds of hedge funds more specifically) and it was there I started to get a sense of the impact you can have, and the incredible privilege that comes with being a capital allocator.
I came home in 2011 to do grown up things like buy a house and have children and spent the next few years working for a boutique M&A legal practice in Auckland called Harmos Horton Lusk. Again, I was fortunate to land on my feet – doing corporate law, capital markets and M&A transactions but also random bespoke private client work for high net worths. Top tier work for and with fantastic people.
Alas, law firm life and hours were not super conducive to starting a family and I knew in-house was the place for me after my time at CSAM so I decided to go in-house following the birth of my first son. Funny the sliding doors moments you have in life, but I applied for a job on Seek for a company I’d never heard of called Vista Entertainment knowing absolutely nothing about software. Vista Group’s now CTO Chris South had the misfortune of sitting right outside my office so became my tech support for difficult hurdles like turning one’s computer on. In all seriousness though, the patience of that man teaching me about tech! Luckily, they weren’t hiring me for my technical nous. They were in fact hiring me because of my capital markets experience as they planned to list in 6 months’ time and wanted to get their house in order to go through the process. The IPO went well, a war chest was raised, Vista Group was formed and proceeded to acquire about 8 companies in the same vertical. Unbeknownst to me, being buy-side on those tech M&A deals was also going to come in handy in the future. You’d almost think I had a long-term plan for my career.
I moved into a role as Movio’s Head of Commercial (a B2B SaaS MarTech and Vista Group company) in my final few years at Vista Group and loved being closer to the commercial action. Acquiring founder-led high-growth companies (essentially picking up at the trade sale where venture left off), helping bake them into the Group and supporting founders to reach their vision’s full potential gave me a sense of purpose I’d not experienced career-wise before. The limitless, borderless potential of tech was addictive.
I was at Vista Group for 9 years and had 3 sons during that time – but as year 10 was approaching, and the boys were getting bigger, I decided it was time for a new challenge. I’m a big fan of Claudia Batten’s concept of squiggling – it’s the times I’ve gone off-piste and tried new things that have supercharged my personal growth even if they were uncomfortable at the time and career-suicide according to the conventional legal career path. I ended up having a lot of coffees with a lot of super interesting people who were kind enough to give me their time recognising that my next job was unlikely to be advertised on Seek and went to a few Arc Angel events organised by the lovely Lauren Fong. I then got introduced to Robbie through various channels and the rest is history!
During the scale-up journey it’s common for startups to acquire other companies, which is something you’ve had a lot of experience in. Can you explain what founders should consider when creating an acquisition strategy?
JW: M&A activity is absolutely a way to grow faster, but acquiring companies is quite a different skill set to building a company from the bottom up and I’d recommend you either have in-house expertise in that area or you hire good advisers. I think founders need to be clear about purpose or strategy behind the acquisition. For example, are you acquiring the target because:
- Strategic fit: you are helping a company expand its product or service offerings or enter new markets enhancing its competitive position and revenue streams. Movio fit this thesis as a target for Vista Entertainment as it had the exact same customer base without nearly the same market share. Vista was an effective distribution channel for Movio, and Movio provided a high-end complimentary offering to Vista’s software suite.
- Market expansion: you are acquiring a company in a new geographic location to gain market share in that location, expand its customer base and reduce competition. Vista was the only global cinema software provider but did face some tough competition in local markets – especially in the US. One way Vista addressed that was buying competitors in the US, decommissioning their software and shifting customers over to Vista software.
- Tech & Innovation: acquiring a company with more innovative tech and IP that can accelerate your R&D and allow you to stay ahead. Vista’s acquisition of a digital creative studio for the entertainment industry called Powster sat firmly in this category. Powster’s founder was a top creative talent in the industry too so part of the acquisition was about talent acquisition.
- Economies of scale or synergies: merging will lead to cost savings through operational efficiencies, shared resources and reduced duplicated efforts. The sum of two companies combined may be greater than the sum of its separate parts i.e. 1 +1 = 3. Further, the target may simply provide incremental revenue that increases the bottom line.
- Diversification & vertical integration: acquiring companies along the supply chain can lead to better control, reduce dependencies on suppliers and potentially lower costs – demonstrated by Vista Group’s vertical acquisition strategy. For example, Vista expanded beyond B2B to acquire consumer-facing Flicks.co.nz - a movie review and information website/content creator.
Acquisitions can be complex and carry risks, cultural clashes, integration challenges, financial strain and unexpected obstacles – the success of the acquisition often depends on how well the acquiring company manages these changes and aligns its strategies with the goals of the acquired companies. If this is a strategy to pursue, make sure you have a playbook and a team with the right experience and dedicated to doing it properly.
Another method for expansion is entering new markets, again something you've been through (you rockstar). What are some of the unexpected challenges your team (should we name the company/s?) experienced when developing and executing your go-to-market strategies?
JW: Understand the commercial, competitive, legal and regulatory landscape of different markets, not to mention their culture and individual quirks. Never assume that one go-to-market strategy is going to work in a country, simply because it worked in another country. Each country has its own unique challenges.
Japan was challenging because they always said yes, when they really meant no, the US was challenging because it’s actually 50 different markets being federal, Russia is challenging for many many reasons (even pre-Ukraine war) but to pick one, it was nigh on impossible to get personal data out of the country but had no local data centres, European countries are challenging with civil law legal systems – for example, France’s employment laws are diametrically opposed than those of the US, China had a completely different business model where software was given away for free and revenue was made on clipping tickets sold. Not to mention time zone challenges and miscommunications – my favourite was trying to organise calls between the UK, NZ and LA during GDPR implementation at a time that wasn’t horrendous for everyone.
I’d say the biggest challenge was always local distributor arrangements – first of all figuring out which countries it was best to go into direct, and which it was best (if not essential) to find a local distribution partner. The impact of a great local distributor can’t be underestimated. Vista’s market share in South America and India was incredible due to amazing local partners, but awful in Spain and France – and the time, effort and distraction that goes into unwinding those arrangements can be really challenging. Beware of exclusive distribution arrangements that don’t have clear performance KPIs.
My advice would be to talk to another company who has entered that market recently and do your market research. Be really clear on who your competitors are and how you are going to win. Find good distribution partners and negotiate appropriate deals that make sense. If any of our portfolio companies reading this are looking at appointing a local distributor (particularly an exclusive one), please come talk to me!
"Understand the commercial, competitive, legal and regulatory landscape of different markets, not to mention their culture and individual quirks. Never assume that one go-to-market strategy is going to work in a country, simply because it worked in another country. Each country has its own unique challenges. "
You were there when Vista Group was listed publicly. Can you share what that experience was like and why you thought it was the right move for the company?
JW: Vista Group was bootstrapped by four founders. The founders mortgaged their houses and ran a lean mean business with impressive capital efficiency driving growth out of revenue. It took 20-odd years, but they grew their business on their own terms with lots of ups and downs along the way. Listing is obviously a nostalgic time for the founders and listening to stories of their early days, the wins, the losses, the hard work, the camaraderie, and friendships (and marriages and divorces!) was great fun. Although it may not feel like it while you’re in it, those early days really do seem to be the best days you look back on fondly later. I realised I really wanted to be part of the early stages of a company’s journey, creating something from nothing that delivers value to all the stakeholders involved – being involved at this end of a company’s growth journey is what I love about working at Icehouse Ventures.
Listing made sense for Vista. Vista had a ~50% global market share, close to ~$100m ARR and consistent 20% year on year growth. The founders were in their late 50s/early 60s and had sacrificed a lot to get to that point. It was time for them to take some money off the table and hand the batten over. Getting the systems and processes in place to go public wasn’t easy – retrofitting is always harder than baking in the right processes from the beginning and that’s something I really try to help our portfolio companies with now. Starting as you mean to go on it builds great discipline and makes life easier for your poor in-house counsel down the track.
As I mentioned earlier, the IPO went well. Vista reached a billion-dollar market cap for a day or two before the pandemic hit shutting the box office almost overnight. Similar to the GFC, it’s those tough times where I’ve learnt the most and have been the most instructive for my career. I think Einstein has a quote something to the effect of, “in the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity”. Vista was lucky to be listed when the pandemic hit as it meant the company had relatively quick easy access to capital. Vista managed to raise $65m through a placement and rights issue to keep the company well-capitalised through the pandemic - one of the first NZX-listed companies to do so.
We're incredibly fortunate to now have you as a leader at Icehouse Ventures. In your role as Partner and the work you do leading deals and supporting our portfolio companies, what are the qualities of a founder and their company that gets you excited to potentially invest?
JW: Everything comes down to people. The qualities I look for in a founder are grit and resilience, someone who will get punched in the face a thousand times and pop back up every time. Intelligence is essential – I have a soft spot for a polymath too. Trustworthy and straightforward founders who do what they say they are going to do.
EQ and self-awareness are important. To my mind, you need to understand your own limitations in order to outgrow them. Also, the ability to be a pied piper and draw people (investors, employees, customers) to your cause. The ability to tell a compelling story and sell the future you are about to build.
I don’t think the above traits mean that you need to be an outgoing A-type person either, I put myself firmly in the introverted camp, but I do think you need authenticity. Authenticity is probably the trait I most admire in others and hope others find it in me.
In terms of their company, all the usual things the venture business model requires in terms of an A-team, a large new or growing market, a unique solution to a real problem and a competitive moat. An answer to that perennial contrarian question - what do you know to be true that others don’t? But, most of all something that really has the ability to change the way we live in the future in a meaningful way.
🔥 Quick-fire questions
What about your work inspires you most?
JW: Easily the people I have the privilege to spend my days with. On the one hand, we have roughly 2,500 investors on our platform, all with unique backgrounds and expertise across different sectors. It’s a privilege to meet our investor base and hear their fascinating life stories and backgrounds. On the other side of the coin, I get to meet and work with inspiring driven founders and have them patiently answer all my questions, regardless of how dumb they are - bliss! This is a dream job for the naturally curious.
But most of all, my colleagues – I feel incredibly fortunate to work with the team we do. I love these two photos from our team retreat recently – us at the start of the day and us at the end. It says it all if you ask me! Icehouse Ventures is very much a startup cult like many of the companies we invest in. I love this Peter Theil quote: “The best start-ups might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults. The biggest difference is that cults tend to be fanatically wrong about something important. People at a successful start-up are fantastically right about something those outside it have missed”.
Icehouse Ventures Team Retreat AM / PM
What resource do you find yourself sharing most with early-stage founders?
JW: My time mainly but also my book recommendation list – reading is so important but there is so much content in this space it’s hard to know where to start so there is nothing like a good reading recommendation list. Life is too short for bad wine and bad books. "The Power Law” by Sebastian Mallaby would be my go-to in terms of understanding the history and therefore the future of venture. Message me if you want my list.
A word or phrase that reflects how you approach life at the moment?
JW: The Pareto principle is a favourite go-to of mine. I’m often asked how I manage three young kids, and a more than full-time job as a partner. Listening to other women answer that question, I’m often dismayed at the perfectionism and belief that you can have and do it all – the Sheryl Sandberg “Lean In” school of thought. Perhaps those women can. Not me. I’m not Sheryl Sandberg. I refuse to break myself trying to be. So, my answer to that question is by doing everything but doing it just a little bit shit – and having the confidence to believe that my kids and colleagues are still bloody lucky to have me, even if they only get 80%. My sanity is tied up somewhere in that other 20%.
You can find Jo, here.
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