Movers & Shakers Q&A with Harry Briggs, principal, Balderton Capital


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Harry Briggs, principal, Balderton Capital

1. What is the greatest opportunity for your business as an investor in the retail/consumer-focused sector?

We don’t look for opportunities, so much as great, visionary entrepreneurs.  When we meet an entrepreneur who’s identified an opportunity that others have overlooked, and we believe the entrepreneur has the talent and energy and ambition to build a big company, we get excited.

So, for example, when Balderton met Ivan Retzignac and Andrew Bucher, the founders of Medicanimal, we were excited that they were a bright and ambitious team, who really understood the veterinary health and premium pet-food space – a big market that many had overlooked – and that they had the talent to build a brand and a substantial business in that space.

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2. What is the biggest challenge to your type of business as an investor in the retail/consumer-focused sector?

Can I cheat and give two? The first is managing our time efficiently: we meet thousands of smart entrepreneurs throughout Europe every year, but only a tiny fraction will go on to build ground-breaking businesses that have the potential to become publicly-listed, billion-dollar companies. This means we have to prioritise ruthlessly.

The second challenge is never believing that we know best: great entrepreneurs usually defy conventional wisdom – so we have to challenge our biases and prejudices every day.

3. With the benefit of hindsight have you missed any big investment opportunities?

Of course – many.  For example, one of the first businesses I met at Balderton was NotOnTheHighStreet – and whilst I loved the team and the products (my sister is an avid customer), I underestimated how far that business could scale.

Another would be my former-colleague Chris Morton, founder of Lyst: our team felt, when he was starting out, that there was too much of a potential conflict with another of our investments; but his business is scaling rapidly, and he has the potential to be one of the great e-commerce entrepreneurs of Europe.

4. What is the future of the physical store?

It’s a tough one.  I believe that once people shift more than, say, 10% of their purchasing online, they rapidly move to more than 50% online shopping.  Which means the high street becomes a place to socialise, a place for top-up, emergency or last-minute purchases, and of course a place for experiential shopping.

But we also shouldn’t underestimate the three-dimensional experience of a physical store: a Burberry flagship, or a car showroom, or a Selfridges food hall, has the power to assault all your senses, and provide a memorable, meaningful brand experience.  A website – particularly on mobile – remains the poor cousin of a physical store when it comes to discovering a new brand and building an emotional connection.

5. What will the high street look like in a decade?

I obviously have no idea, and whatever I say will look dumb in a decade. But if you force me to hazard a guess, I’d expect three categories of high street survivor:

1) Places that bring people together – cafés, pubs, restaurants, gyms, educational centres.

2) Places for urgent purchases – fresh food, last-minute gifts, off-licenses, ready-meals.

3) Experiential shops that are mostly about reinforcing a brand – these might pop-up in a high street for a few weeks, then make way for another brand – it might be Aesop one week, L’Occitane the next, and a new local artisan business the week after. This will inspire people to go to their high street because there’s something new, and something they don’t want to miss.  And for brands it provides a way to develop an enduring emotional relationship with new customers, which can be continued and sustained online.

6. Will mobile devices be the primary sales channel in the future?

Primary for categories where the customer knows what she wants: say, for Ocado, Amazon or Medicanimal.  But less so, I imagine, for categories that depend on inspiration and discovery – for travel, for luxury, for fashion – where the browsing can be part of the experience.  That said, mobile needs to be part of the mix for every category now: ignore it at your peril (and I still see some appalling mobile sites!).

7. What retail/consumer-focused businesses do you admire?

Where to start! I’d have to mention Yoox (a Balderton investment), who brought dozens of leading fashion brands online a decade ago, and continue to innovate dramatically in terms of online brand experience, efficient fulfilment and depth of data analytics. It’s an unsung European pioneer. Among the giants I continue to admire Inditex, Ikea, and Amazon.  And at the smaller end, I admire Jack Wills, Anya Hindmarch, Orlebar Brown, Charles Tyrwhitt, The White Company, Green & Blacks, Ocado, Naked Wines and Innocent – in all cases bright British entrepreneurs who’ve crafted real, meaningful brands with devoted fan-bases.

8. If you hadn’t been involved in this industry what would you have liked to do?

Write a number one single, obviously.

9. What marks out of 10 do you give yourself so far for achievement as an investor/entrepreneur?

2 or 3, as every day I learn something that reminds me how little I really know

10. Who would you place in the Top 20 Multi-channel/e-commerce Movers & Shakers?

Chris Bailey / Angela Ahrendts (Burberry), Chris Morton (Lyst), Matthew Moulding (TheHut), Federico Marchetti (Yoox), Nick Robertson (ASOS), Jason Gissing/ Tim Steiner (Ocado), Rob Shaw (Jack Wills), Anya Hindmarch, and Rowan Gormley (Naked Wines).