• Thursday, June 20, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Maria Rotilu breaks glass ceiling with unprecedented move

Maria Rotilu breaks glass ceiling with unprecedented move

…becomes Europe’s first Black solo general partner with first close of $10m angel fund through OpenseedVC

Maria Rotilu is the Founder & General Partner, OpenseedVC. She is an operator turned investor and founder, and specialises in backing operators-turned-founders building tech startups as early as day zero.

Before transitioning to investing, a better part of the first decade of her career was spent scaling multinational technology startups like Uber and Branch.co in leadership roles such as Country Manager and General Manager.

Prior to Openseed VC, Maria was a Fund Manager at Octopus Ventures First Cheque Fund and before that, she was the Managing Director of the Oxford Seed Fund.

She is a mentor at the Creative Destruction Lab Oxford, was a mentor at the European Innovation Council, and currently sits on the Board of Advisors of the TechNation Libra in the United Kingdom.

Maria holds an MBA from the University of Oxford, a BSc. in Computer Science from Covenant University, and is also certified Chartered Accountant with the ACCA in the United Kingdom.

What inspired you to transition from being an operator to an investor and founder? What are your responsibilities as founder and General Partner?

The origin of building OpenseedVC came from identifying a gap in the market that aligned with my unique skills, networks, and expertise. As an operator and investor, I bring a unique view and I believe that the early stage investment landscape is being fragmented at a time where the most experienced motivated operators will want to launch their technology companies.

This to me is an opportunity to invest in these experienced founders earlier – just as they take the leap and provide support by an elite group of operators, supporting them to get from zero to one.

As a founder and general partner, my job is twofold. At the fund level, and founder level. On the fund front, a lot of my role includes defining the fund strategy and thesis, portfolio construction, structuring the fund, fundraising from investors and limited partners, managing the fund, as a fund is a business, as well as a financial product – it is critical that it runs as a well-oiled machine.

On the founder front, it is three pronged- 1)Find the most ambitious experienced operators starting their companies, 2) critically evaluate them to decide whether or not we invest in them, 3) support them after we invest alongside the operator network to set them up for success as our exit potential relies on their eventual success.

Success in my role as a founder and GP of OpenseedVC requires balancing the needs of both key stakeholders, founders and limited partners, as well as shaping the business of the fund – strategy, operations, culture, brand and so on.

“We are first investors of up to $150,000 in operators launching their technology companies building for the future of commerce, work and health in Africa and Europe”

Tell us about launching Openseed, the process to the launch, what you had to do, the waiting, the launch, the results and the goals

Launching a fund is hard, and launching it is actually just the beginning, so in context that is day zero, as funds are usually at the minimum a ten year endeavour. To launch a fund, it takes a strong unique proposition to the market which is often the result of conviction and data, informed by a unique view that can create a strong USP for founders, and in the same vein build a differentiated financial product for your investors. At the end of the day, you do not have a fund if you cannot find investors, and invest in founders.

It takes conviction, lots of conversations – repeatedly sharing your vision. Hearing a lot of nos, and yes but unwavering in your resolve to see what you believe should exist in the world knowing you bring a unique and competent approach to solving the problem.

What specific qualities do you look for in operators-turned-founders that make them stand out in the tech startup space?

For OpenseedVC specifically, we are first investors in a specific founder profile – operators launching their technology companies. Our sweet spot for investment is just as they take the leap to starting their companies. We look out for operators building across the future of commerce, B2B Software, AI and Fintech ,work and health, across Africa and Europe and US, and we will offer up to $150,000 starter cheques, along with access to its robust network of over 50+ seasoned experts, to support the operators just starting their technology companies from zero to one.

If we had to distill it, I’ll say we are looking for experienced operators with a strong understanding of the problem, a strong track record of building, an ability to clearly and in a compelling way share their vision, an understanding of high growth technology solutions, a large market opportunity and ambition for their company, and of course the ability to iterate and execute quickly to validating signs of market pull.

How much is available for investment in these start-ups?

We are first investors of up to $150,000 in operators launching their technology companies building for the future of commerce, work and health in Africa and Europe. The fund has made its first two investments in the Future of Commerce and Health themes, first is an AI-enabled supplier dispute resolution software in the United Kingdom and the second is a foundational speech to text transcription model for underserved accents, starting with Africa.

How do you identify potential tech startups at such an early stage (day zero) for investment?

We over-index on the team, hence our very specific founder profile – experienced operators. For us, experience is important, and we optimise for operators who have experience building, and at technology startups, and with domain expertise in the area that they are building in.

In addition to this, because of the nature of our model, we are looking for incredibly large outcomes and ambitions.

For example, a benchmark we think of is, can this company generate $1.5million annual recurring revenues by year five? Naturally, very few companies can do this. We are looking for the incredible few.

Can you share a success story of a tech startup you’ve backed from day zero and how it evolved?

I once invested in a maternal digital health technology startup that provided a cord blood banking service. At the time the concept seemed bizarre, but I found they solved for a problem that might not seem apparent, but was.

I believe they had received zero funding when I invested (as part of a previous fund), and now they are quite successful, receiving several follow-on investments from notable global funds and are growing rapidly too. This is one of several stories of first check investments I’ve made that turned out to be successful.

What challenges do they typically face when starting a tech startup, and how do you support them through these challenges?

Many people naturally go for funding first when they think of an idea, and then say it’s so hard to fundraise, but I often say the first problem is finding the right problem to work on.

If you’re an entrepreneur at heart, there will probably be several options of problems you’d like to solve because you’re passionate about it. But passion is not enough – I’d say it’s important, but definitely not enough. There is a concept of the “right to the problem”, which means, what unique experience, background, insight do you bring that make you a strong contender to solve this problem? Then, there is the question of how big is this problem? and why is now the time to build this? Getting all of this right can be tough, but possible when facing a technology startup.

The current difficult fundraising climate is especially harsh for early-stage founders, but we believe incredible companies are born in the most difficult macroeconomic climates. We want to be first believers in these experienced operators to give a great head start, with capital and an extensive operator network that support from start to launch of their technology companies.

At OpenseedVC, our core area of support is providing a peer network of elite operators who are experienced in several areas; software engineering, go-to-market, product, people and so on. They’ve done it before, and they can support specific activities, For example, recruiting, product and code review, and so on, and that can be a critical lever for value creation especially at the early stages.

In your opinion, what sets successful tech startups founded by operators apart from those founded by other entrepreneurs?

We believe that experienced operators reduce the execution risk of startup failure because they have a track record of building, typically, strong talent networks, and because of their experience with high growth technology startups, they understand what growth looks like and often have a large ambition. Ultimately, we are looking for builders, not talkers, or analysts. We believe builders make a great head start as entrepreneurs than entrepreneurs who have no experience building.

How do you stay informed about emerging trends and technologies in the tech startup ecosystem to make informed investment decisions?

Lots of reading, continuous learning, leveraging the insights of domain experts, and seeking nuanced answers to complex questions. It’s not uncommon to find me reading long form analytical articles and attending expert events/sessions on specific topics. I’m constantly on the hunt for insight and trends that deepen our understanding and access to networks of experts in the areas that we invest in.

What advice would you give to operators considering making the transition to becoming tech startup founders?

Choose a big enough problem. Choose a problem that closely aligns with your skills, experience, one where you have a unique insight to the problem. It makes the journey less hard.

Start small. Validate your assumptions cheaply. Don’t obsess about the product early on, try to figure out distribution and seek early signs of market pull. Experiment quickly and continuously. Also, find someone to build with (the journey is hard, doing it with someone you trust makes it less hard).

How were you able to scale multinational technology startups like Uber and Branch.co in leadership roles? What did you learn working with them? Did it in any way influence where you are today?

Working at these large companies in leadership roles helped me see what global best practices to growing a company, and true scale looked like. It also expanded my networks across the world which has definitely contributed to where I am today. Many of the LPs in Openseed are colleagues I’ve worked with, founders I’ve invested in or operators in my network.

How does it feel making history as Europe’s first Black solo GP fund?

It’s bittersweet. Great to be breaking glass ceilings, but also not ideal that this is the case in 2024. I’m hopeful that I’ll be the first of many to come.

What is next?

It’s day zero. The work now begins!

Concluding words

Building anything noteworthy is impossible without a village of believers, sponsors, champions, and supporters. I’m glad to have been supported by an incredible group of people to get to where I am today.