Fri 28 August 2020 – 3:49 p.m.
Leadership | Women in business
Jackie Vullinghs is a Principal at Airtree Ventures and invests in areas such as health, fintech, cybersecurity and AI. She studied history at Cambridge University and then had a varied and fascinating career in investment banking and start-ups. She moved to Australia in 2017 and brought with her a wealth of knowledge in fintech, leadership and personal publishing.
How has your career at Merrill Lynch and Citigroup, two immense multinational investment companies, influenced your later career with startups?
There are two elements to this. I got a degree in history from university and then my graduation job was selling equity derivatives on a trading venue, which was very different from my underlying degree. The big thing I learned was that if you put in enough hard work, you can learn pretty much anything and that you don’t have to feel restricted by what you did in college.
The other thing I learned was that I didn’t want to be a little cog in a big machine or work in a company where I couldn’t see the impact of my work and its results.
Why did you switch to VC and what do you love most about the job?
When I went to a start-up, I was absolutely thrilled. It was really the energy that comes in a growing sector, not a shrinking one. It’s an industry where there is hope and excitement and energy and people are working on things they were passionate about and that’s really exciting. What I miss about startups is the breadth of topics to cover when you play a general investment role. Also just the practice of investing which I really enjoyed.
VC is a brilliant mix of two things I’ve done before.
It is a job that is meant for curious people. Every day you get to know new industries, new technologies and new business models. I would do that in my spare time. The idea that I can do it as a job is pretty amazing.
Was one of your career moves predictable?
No, I only knew what VC was a year before I started working. It wasn’t on my radar. It was really just an iterative process of approaching things that I enjoy.
How did you identify these interests?
It wasn’t a special moment. When my partner and I decided to move countries, it was a clean moment. Neither of us moved for a particular job, wondering what we would most like to work on. I had a hunch that I could really enjoy VC. It wasn’t a disadvantage to give it a try.
Is there any difference in Australian start-up culture compared to other places you’ve worked?
Not really. The industry is moving very fast around the world and the Australian startup ecosystem has started eating but is quickly catching up.
What are the first signs of a promising business that other VCs may be overlooking?
I think that in the earliest stages, the most important thing is the team and the market.
The team: Do you have a lot of experience in the industry? Do you have a unique understanding of the problem you are trying to solve? Are you trying to solve it in a new and interesting way? This could be because you are deeply rooted in the industry and seeing the market move in front of other people, or because you have a range of experiences that you bring to a new industry, to see it in a new way and Way to see. We are looking for the “why you” and the “why now”.
What we’re looking for for other VCs might not be: I don’t think there are any specifics. In the early stages, it may not be intuitive that sometimes it doesn’t have to be the first product. If you have a brilliant team and a fast growing market and the original product doesn’t hit just right, they can spin and find the right fit in the market.
Examples of a good team?
There are a number of factors. Resilience and drive are enormous, industry experience and a combination of complementary skills in the founding team are good.
We are looking for technology, product and growth. Do you have experience in all three areas of the founding team?
In terms of specific examples, Canva is a good example of product, technology, and growth. Cam is technology, Mel is product, and Cliff is growth. Having these complementary skills was really valuable to her.
You wrote about the “unfair advantage” where a company uses its advantages to grow from a good company to a great one. How can smaller businesses struggling to scale or develop their brand loyalty best develop such an advantage?
I think it’s different for every company.
Most suitable [advantage] A number of companies really try to incorporate the recommendation into their customer journey. Mobilize your early fans, your most loyal customers, and allow them to be your growth engine.
Should there be different approaches for different customer segments?
Your existing customers should be the ones who are bringing in new customers. The best marketing is for your best friend to tell you something is great – that’s the most trustworthy recommendation.
A consistent example of a product-managed transfer is sending an email with Hotmail and adding “Sent with Hotmail” to the end of the email. Or you want to activate your community – Glossier in the USA uses its community to spread the word and give its customers the opportunity to stand up for new customers.
In addition to a hectic schedule at Airtree, you run a website, newsletter on Substack, Twitter, Linkedin, and blog on Medium. What are your top tips for building a lasting and relevant personal brand?
The reason I started writing is because writing helps me think more clearly. You think you understand a subject until you try to write. Then you will see any gaps in your understanding. The process of writing makes you smarter about the subject – that’s why I write. It’s a way for creativity between meetings and emails.
Regarding barriers to posting online, the hardest part is overcoming your fear of posting. I remember the first time I tweeted I was scared I said something stupid. The more you do it, the less you care. It’s a repeat thing and you need to overcome this initial hurdle and keep pushing your way. At some point you realize that hardly anyone is listening anyway, so you don’t have to worry.
Overall, did people react positively or negatively to your publication?
The great thing about posting is that people tell you the nice feedback, not the negative, so it all feels positive!
I’m starting to use Twitter as an early feedback mechanism for what I should write. So if I ask a question on Twitter and get a good answer, I know I need to spend more time on it.
On July 23rd, you posted a tweet calling women who wanted to get into angel investing – and you got a great response. Can you tell us a little about why you started this initiative and what you want to achieve?
I had a conversation with a friend and we were talking about the wealth gap between men and women and, essentially, it’s not just about income but wealth as well. Investing is how you create real wealth, and women do so much less. So I sent out this tweet without spending a lot of time thinking about it and received this really great response that made me think I really need to do something about it.
It’s early days, I’m still trying to figure out what will become of this.
Is there anything that will help you keep going while publishing?
Force yourself to do it when it feels like it’s not giving you anything back.
I wrote online for a couple of years before anyone noticed. For me, it was really a pleasure to write better and try to learn more about something by writing, and that’s where I got the satisfaction. So it didn’t really matter that no one read it. I recommend finding that thing – it’s really about finding internal satisfaction about the creative process and shouldn’t have much of an impact on your brand to begin with. Over time, these things build up. And I’m very much at the beginning of the journey.
After all, we know that you’re a huge fan of books and podcasts. Tell us what you are reading and hearing right now!
I’m reading a historical fiction by Hilary Mantel. She is brilliant because she really researched the story and you are sure that it is historically correct, but she also builds up those brilliant characters and dialogue so you can learn about the story in an interesting way. I read A Place of Greater Security.
I am also listening to an audio book by Maria Konnikova called “The Biggest Bluff”. It is the story of a New York PhD journalist who decides to learn about the influence of luck and skill by learning to play poker. She gets one of the world’s best poker players to teach her and the whole idea is how far she could go in a year. It turns out to be really, really good. She also tells the story well, weaving in lessons from life that she learns through this process.
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