Technology and entrepreneurship have always been Mike’s foundation. He wrote his first piece of code when he was 6 (on a BBC Basic!) and had his first entrepreneurial endeavour at 13.
After studying software engineering, Mike went on to work at Deloitte, Accenture and now Google. But there’s always been a side hustle. In 2007, he founded an experiential events business called LOST Events, hosting daytime music festivals that sold out in under 10 minutes. And then there was an eCommerce business for a niche fashion item that he can tell you about over a coffee.
A passion for investing led him to be part of our first cohort of Explorers. He’s now an advisor, angel investor, Startmate Coach and LP.
You have a massive role now covering the VC and startup ecosystem across JAPAC. What’s been your journey to the Google for Startups team?
Technology has always been part of my life, ever since Dad brought a BBC basic home in the mid-80s. I was fascinated by it and started writing very simple programs from an early age. I went on to do software engineering at Uni and IT consulting as my first career. Ironically when I joined Google, I shifted away from tech towards media–albeit digital media and adtech–and only returned to my tech roots last year when I joined Google Cloud.
I’ve battled between working for a large enterprise company and wanting to go off and chase the dream of being a founder or work in the startup space.
Then, the opportunity came up to work for Google for Startups, which has a mission to level the playing field for underrepresented founders. In Australia, we supported accelerators such as Blue Chill’s SheStarts and Fishburners’ Fempowered. I always felt like there was more Google could and should be doing, and my first step was to start meeting VCs to understand more about the space and how we could be helpful.
One of our senior Googlers in Australia, Anil Sabharwal, a Venture Partner at AirTree, introduced me to James Cameron, and that was one of my first meetings with a VC. James is awesome. He talked me through the startup landscape, the role VCs play and gave me ideas for how to add value. From there, I went on a tour, meeting 15 or so different VCs. I found myself getting so energised from those conversations at the intersection of investment and helping founders grow their business.
Then in May last year, I moved to Google Cloud as the Head of VC & Startup Ecosystem for JAPAC. My role is all about building: I’ve been busy building our team, the strategy, investor relationships, awareness of our credit programs, playbooks and our Go to Market for events and initiatives. Big, messy, and complex but super fun. I feel incredibly lucky.
My team works with VCs and accelerators to support their portfolio companies as they grow their businesses.
Our end goal is to get more startups building on Google Cloud, with the starting point being the Google for Startups Cloud Program, where we give early-stage founders up to US$200,000 in credits. The idea of being able to help startups on their journey and grow the ecosystem is what I’m passionate about.
How did you get started angel investing?
My first foray was attending a Sydney Angels pitch event; there was a startup where I liked the founder and the pitch. I helped with the due diligence but ultimately didn’t feel I had the confidence or conviction to invest.
Up until that point, I had always said no after hearing the idea pitched–this was the first deal I'd taken to the next level. I put a lot of effort into the due diligence, and I was left with a lagging feeling when I ultimately said no. I realised at some point I just needed to jump in.
So when I was passed another opportunity in a space that I felt more comfortable with, I decided to dive in. I understood the product and had my confidence boosted by an investment firm that was leaning on me for DD. I spent some time with the founder, asked some tough questions and got some good responses. It was enough for me to invest, although I still felt I was gambling. I needed more education and more experience.
How did you think about due diligence now vs when you first started?
I’d never done due diligence before. I had no framework, so I just went back to first principles. You hear the words due diligence and your brain goes straight to contracts and lawyers, but it’s not that at all.
What you’re trying to do is get to a level of confidence to make a decision one way or another. Within that, there’s a lot of grey area and stuff that hasn’t played out yet. But you just need enough information to push yourself in a particular direction so that your brain starts talking to your gut, and you know whether it feels right or wrong.
It’s a journey. It’s a process. You get better at it over time.
Besides passion, what do you look for in a founder?
A big vision that they have absolute confidence and belief in. They’re not too specific about how they will achieve it, but they know it’s a problem they’re passionate about solving.
They’re also great at pivoting when they need to. It’s a tricky balance when you’re 100% committed to something to listen to the people around you and make sure you adjust if necessary. Some founders refuse to change direction, even when it’s obvious they should.
What questions do you ask the founders you meet?
- Why do you want to build this? What drives you?
- What problem are you solving? Why has nobody else solved it?
- How will this idea scale significantly?
- Who is the target audience and what is the plan for reaching them?
- For DTC companies: How much are they expecting to spend on advertising to reach their customers?
- If it’s a B2B startup: what is the business sales cycle and how high do you expect the sales team salaries to be?
They need to have a clear mission and purpose. I want to see passion, understand their motivation and gain confidence in a well-thought-out plan.
How did you find the Explorer program?
The Explorer program came at a really good time for me. I’d decided that I wanted to move more into the startup and VC world, and this was an amazing opportunity to connect with super smart people handpicked by AirTree, not because of how much money they had but because of their connection to the ecosystem.
One piece of advice I took from the program was don’t be that guy that’s always asking a lot of questions and a lot of the founder’s time but never writes a cheque.
I’ve still got great relationships from my cohort, and I do my best to keep the chat going to see what everyone’s up to. An amazing amount of sharing goes on, and it’s a great way to build your community.
So many people at Google are interested in angel investing but don’t have the education, so I built my own little AirTree Explorer program for fellow Googlers. Kylie Fraser and Rachael Neumann kindly came in and took 55 Googlers through an angel education program we shaped together. These Googlers are all on a mailing list now where I send deals and VC fund opportunities. A bunch of them joined Flying Fox’s Syndicate, which is a great way to enter the world of angel investing: Kylie and Rachael choose the investments and do the due diligence but then allow syndicate members to increase their stake if they so wish. It means you still have a decision-making requirement rather than passively investing in a fund.
What do aspiring angel investors need to get started?
For me, I needed 3 things to fall into place before getting started:
- The core education and knowledge of how it works. You can’t get experience until you start doing it, so you need something to cover for the lack of experience.
- Surrounding myself with the right people to ask questions. I found a few people when I got started who were quite experienced. I shared deals with them to get their feedback. This is also a good way to build your network, which is essential for the third part.
- A plan to get deal flow, particularly, how you’ll get into competitive deals.
You also need confidence, and that’s always been my biggest problem. I’m a data guy, but often there’s insufficient data to drive the decision. If I think back to that first deal, and having said no to so many beforehand, a lot of it is about confidence. So much of what you read is that all of your investments will go to zero, apart from a few. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes other people had, but that stopped me from jumping forward.
Everybody makes bad investments. It’s about finding and surrounding yourself with enough deals so you can find the good ones.
What advice do you have for founders pitching to angel investors?
Finding angels that know you and believe in you is the easiest path to early funding success. Failing that, pitching to angel syndicates has its strengths. Fundraising can be a distraction, but it’s also critical. Rather than having lots of individual conversations with people who are spinning your wheels, use that time effectively to speak to a group of angels through a syndicate. I did the Explorer program with Cheryl Mack who has since founded Aussie Angels–there are some excellent syndicates on there worth checking out.
Check that the syndicate has a track record of doing deals. Founders sometimes take any conversation they can get, and it can be demoralising hearing people say, “Oh, that’s great!”, but never giving you a hard yes or no.
In your pitch and presentation, be clear on the problem you’re solving and why it matters to you. When you demonstrate your passion, this sets things off in the right direction. Remember, most investors are backing the founder. Show confidence in what you’re building, demonstrate your expertise in the subject, and lay out a clear vision with lofty goals. Be sure to look in the mirror and remind yourself you’re amazing. Good luck!