"The crucial ingredient in any startup team is the quality of the founders"
John Lazar CBE FREng is a judge for the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, and mentor for the Academy’s Enterprise Hub. John is also an angel investor and serves on the board of several tech organisations. Previously, he served as CEO of Metaswitch Networks, a leading provider of cloud communications software, which he joined in 1987 as a software engineer.
John was recently interviewed by The Times for their angel investor Q&A series. In the interview, John described what he looks for in a founder: “a combination of attitude, energy and enthusiasm”, someone with sector knowledge who understands the problem they are trying to fix, and is open to feedback. He highlighted the importance of listening to warning signs and learning lessons through your experience, particularly when it comes to investment: “if you get burned, you learn your lesson”.
We decided to ask John a few questions of our own, to find out a bit more about his experience as an Africa Prize judge and angel investor:
What was the first company you invested in, and what was it that made you say yes?
My first two angel investments were almost simultaneous: Topia and Arachnys. In both cases, my decisions were driven by the intelligence, resilience and energy of the founder CEOs, respectively Brynne Kennedy and David Buxton. Both companies are still going strong!
As a judge for the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, you come into contact with many innovations across sub-Saharan Africa. Are there any areas of innovation that you wish you saw more of?
I am a huge believer in the ability of African entrepreneurs to build smart appropriate solutions, with solid and innovative engineering. I would like to see more:
entrepreneurs thinking earlier about how to scale their businesses beyond a purely local problem or environment, ie regionally or even globally
‘deep tech’ emerging from Africa (but this will also depend on improvements in African technology education and research).
Cities like Lagos, Cape Town and Nairobi have thriving innovation ecosystems. What has enabled these environments? And where do you see gaps?
Each innovation centre has followed a different trajectory, via a combination of funding availability, a stream of local talent, involvement from the diaspora, etc. – and often there has been a local facilitator or ’catalyser’, such as the iHub in Nairobi. While the environment is much richer than a few years ago, the biggest gap remains in providing funding, and associated expertise and support, to early-stage entrepreneurs, with too much money still chasing a relatively few high-profile ‘darling’ companies.
We need a stronger ecosystem across Africa, and we also need more local world-class engineering training up to PhD level.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur preparing their pitch to an angel investor?
Founders are naturally passionate about their product, and the problem they are trying to solve. While it is important to communicate this passion, it is just as important to put your own agenda aside. Don’t get trapped inside your own reality – make sure you step back and communicate clearly and simply from the potential investor’s point of view.
What makes a great startup team?
The crucial ingredient is the quality of the founders, and in particular, their attitude, energy, sector knowledge, openness to feedback, and determination combined with flexibility.
I think it is a mistake for an early stage investor to demand a highly-detailed business plan, with spurious accuracy, but I look carefully at the founders’ business credibility: are they solving a real problem, with a clear path to impact and revenue? And, since I am interested in engineering, I spend as much time with the CTO as the CEO!