Collaboration, failure, and the universe of numbers
Podcast transcription - 13th June 2018
Peter Cowley: Welcome again to another Invested Investor. Today we have David Gammon who I have known for about six or seven years and co-invested with several times and learned a huge amount from. First of all David, can you talk a bit about your background and how you got into angel investing?
David Gammon: Sure. Thanks Peter and thank you very much for inviting me to come and take part in this wonderful podcast series. You're doing very important, good work. Thank you.
Peter Cowley: Thank you.
David Gammon: My first job was that I began my career working for my family construction company and Charter in the United Arab Emirates in 1981. I don't have a degree, I have an HND in business management, which I took from Oxford Polytechnic. I have to say that I have used the practical things I learned in that course every week of my working life: How to look an article of association, how to read accounts and all that kind of stuff.
David Gammon: When I went to Charter I was put in the accounts department and I really learned the difference between the three main corporate statements, which are the profit and loss account, the balance sheet and the cashflow statement and how they interacted and interrelated. I was very lucky to get this knowledge as it's really been the foundation of my business knowledge and the basis upon which I make all my analysis.
David Gammon: In 1982 I returned to the UK and I worked as a financial analyst for a business expansion scheme fund.
Peter Cowley: You were in the early 20s there were you?
David Gammon: I was in early 20s, exactly, 21 to be exact. This introduced me to spreadsheets, how to construct them and how to manipulate them because what I did is, I would get a business proposal for someone and then I would try and reconstruct their spreadsheet from a printout. This taught me how assumptions in spreadsheets are extremely important and getting a balance sheet to balance from a profit and loss account is actually extremely difficult. Usually you can complete destroy someone's P&L account by looking at their balance sheet, which is a useful little thing.
David Gammon: A year later in 1983 I decided to start my own fund management business and I became a licensed dealer in securities.
Peter Cowley: That sort of sounds slightly precocious and very driven.
David Gammon: Absolutely. I have always been very ambitious and I wanted to make a mark and I wanted to run my own business. I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My father started his own company that became a global construction company. My uncle was the founder of Rio Tintos, Inc. He bought the mine from General Franco shortly after the second world war and turned a one-mine venture in the south of Spain into the world's largest mining company.
David Gammon: My other uncle came fro the Johnnie Walker whiskey family, so if you like I've been surrounded by entrepreneurs all my life. My brother and sister run their own businesses. It's very natural, it's what I always wanted to do. I started my own business basically in fund management that I knew very little about. The way I began this is by asking my family members, which is like many businesses and entrepreneurs I meet today, it's just asking family and friends for support, and I was very lucky that they supported me.
David Gammon: I decided to invest this money into emerging European markets: Spain, France and Italy. I chose those markets because they were really nice places to visit, I spoke a little bit of the language and despite having no knowledge whatsoever of public stocks and shares really, they were using an open outcry Napoleonic system of making prices and I found this very theatrical and very amusing. I did this reasonably successfully. I was very lucky with my timing.
David Gammon: In 1985 Behrings headhunted me to join their startup European securities business and I was the second recruit in Behring Securities Europe. I moved from the buy side where I had been managing money, to the sell side where I was brokering. I then went from Behrings to Salomon Brothers, Salomons to Robert Fleming and I ended my investment banking career in 2001 in Crédit Lyonnais in a senior management position.
Peter Cowley: During that time you had lived in Madrid, I think, for some time hadn't you?
David Gammon: I spent six years in Madrid. My thirst for starting business and being an entrepreneur is demonstrated because when I joined Robert Fleming, I joined them on the basis that I wrote a business plan to develop their continental European business from the continent of Europe and I was asked where I would like to go and set it up and I said: Madrid. I got on a plane, went to Madrid with a check, a two million pound check, to start the company in the early 1990s. I had no employees, no office, nothing, and I set the whole thing up. We ended up with around 40 people in Robert Fleming - Spain in 1998.
David Gammon: We were one of the larger foreign brokers operating in Spain. We did privatizations of banks, we did some large deals, but the thing that was really different, I suppose, was that it was my idea that you could sell stocks and funds to the same customers using the same people. Historically, a fund would be sold by a completely firm and a stock would be sold by a stockbroker. In Europe I put the two together and this, for a while, became very successful. Robert Fleming was acquired by Chase and then JPMorgan in 1999 and I left the firm just before that happened.
David Gammon: If we go to the modern time, in 2001 I started Rockspring. I left the city, really very happy I had learned so much there about people, about finance, and decided that ... In 2001, all the rage was technology and despite knowing absolutely nothing about technology, I decided this was a place where I wanted to exercise my peculiar financial analysis. I and my wife with my three children, we set up Rockspring with 16,500 pounds of equity and we built it from there. We've now done 34 startups and we've had some successes and we've had some learning lessons.
Peter Cowley: Yes. We'll come to those later. This was in 2001, so that's 17 years ago. Why did you go into angel investing? You were a family office, almost. What triggered that change?
David Gammon: Wanting to actually do something more useful than just advising institution. I saw a lot of similarity between the problems that public listed companies have that are micro and small cap, and actually startups. It's all about getting the right team together, having the right people on your board, having good shareholders that actually buy into your vision and having a message that people can understand. You will notice in all that I have not mentioned once the product or the technology, because that is not me, that's not what I can add anything to. I look for other people to help me, like you. You Peter, you know a lot about technology.
Peter Cowley: Well, it's the people that matter to me. Again, I was too enamored by tech in my early days of investing and nowadays it's the people that have to enamor me, not the tech.
David Gammon: Yes. It's really the people, isn't it, that really make the difference at the end of the day? If you back the wrong person it doesn't matter how good the technology is, it's just not going to happen. I also think you have to be very careful with your shareholder construct from the first day. A lot of people don't pay any attention to this, but actually if you get disruptive shareholders, people who don't support or people that don't contribute or people that over-contribute.
David Gammon: It's as bad to find someone who's interfering in a negative way, continually trying to give advice even though they're well-intentioned, than it is to find someone who gives absolutely nothing but a check, because to get something off the ground and started is a lot of hard work.
Peter Cowley: Yes. Advice to the entrepreneur, how does an entrepreneur know which people ... If you've got somebody like you pledged the money already, you would have views on who should come in or out, but if you take an entrepreneur that hasn't yet found somebody like you, how does the entrepreneur choose which money is going to be positive or which might be negative?
David Gammon: It's all about the lead.
Peter Cowley: Right.
David Gammon: You have to find the right lead investor, and this is true of every round that a company ever does, all the way to IPO and beyond. The lead is really the key. If you have a good, sensible lead investor, they have a network and they'll do that work for you, so don't expect the entrepreneur to be able to do it. I wouldn't think that would be fair because a lot of these people are straight out of university. However if you choose an experienced lead investor and that's what takes the time in so many deals is finding the right lead, then that is magic, that makes it work.
Peter Cowley: Yeah. David, you've done 34 deals over the last 16 or 17 years. You cannot tell me all those have been successful, so let's just talk about the ones that have gone wrong. What have you learned about various journeys, less successful ones first, and then the successful ones.
David Gammon: I think I have had my fair share of ones that I call 'lessons'. Most of the companies that didn't succeed so well were my earlier investments. I found it easier to avoid them the more mature I've become. Therefore in the first few years I was perhaps a bit more enthusiastic with the idea and less aware of the people side of it. I think that probably the failure that most people would associate with me immediately is Library House.
David Gammon: Library House had a wonderful concept, a really, really good idea. We were trying to do two things: Firstly is create a community in Cambridge where angels could come and meet and talk to other professionals, other angels and other institutional investors perhaps interested in investing alongside, and creating a kind of community at heart. The other side was gathering data on companies in the angel sector, because the thing about angel investing is very un-transparent, so getting information, consistent information about the company is very, very hard to do.
David Gammon: What I didn't realize is that these two aspects of the business just didn't gel together sufficiently well. It's very difficult and expensive to gather all the data, whereas the events by the remarkable Mark Littlewood, what a success he actually....
Peter Cowley: The Cambridge one, not the London one.
David Gammon: The Cambridge one, yeah.
Peter Cowley: Because there's another one in London who is well-known.
David Gammon: That's right, the Cambridge one. He was magic and the whole thing, the whole place was buzzing and it worked on that side, but on the other side, the data side, it didn't work and, in fact, one really conflicted with the other in some ways. Unfortunately the business model just wasn't sustainable. I think that the thing about the ones that have failed, like Library House and there have been others, is that the business model just couldn't be put together to make it work.
David Gammon: The other area where I've had business failures is when there have been conflicts with shareholders. It's hard for me to give you specific cases here and to name them, but there are two or three companies that I've been involved with that have not been resounding successes where different shareholders have had different visions and different plans for the company from the very offset, but because they didn't come out and you didn't know it, you discovered it as the journey went along, then these conflicts became more and more important and the poor entrepreneur founder would spend more time managing shareholder relationships than managing customers or managing the board and the shareholders rather than the customers.
David Gammon: The whole emphasis for the founder then moves away from running a proper commercial enterprise towards managing people which are non-productive to the business. I go back and say that having a common vision, having a really good lead shareholder who can actually bring it all together, if they are a good lead they will protect the founder, allow the founder to run the business instead of really having the whole burden upon their own shoulders.
Peter Cowley: Would it be fair to say that these conflicts appear more later on in terms of the amount of money raised, i.e. when you're getting out of angel territory into VC territory.
David Gammon: No. I have actually shockingly found it across the board.
Peter Cowley: Right.
David Gammon: I think some people are very well-intentioned, but for whatever reason they become ... I think the word I would say is 'over-involved'. If you have three or four angel investors who are over-involved and in conflict, it's a disaster.
Peter Cowley: Right. It's not just the VCs who, of course, have a different modus operandi in that they're managing somebody else's money.
David Gammon: Yes.
Peter Cowley: Not their own money. It's also within angels as well.
David Gammon: Absolutely, and I would emphasize that. Of course, VCs have a very different business model to angels. What VCs have to do is invest as much as they can as cheaply as they can, and remember that they are buying ... Once we angels have already invested for a few years, so our business is to try and sell as much as we can as expensively as we can. But actually, a lot of VCs from the early noughties have really learned this lesson and are beginning much closer collaboration.
David Gammon: I'm very hopeful. In the early 2000s I found it very difficult to find like-minded VCs but today in Cambridge we actually have some VCs who are really high quality. They know what they're doing, we have very close relationships with them, we can have a sensible discussion with them. They want to build the business, we want to build the business.
Peter Cowley: That must be true in London as well, there must be VCs that you happily co-invest with.
David Gammon: For sure, but I haven't really co-invested with many London VCs.
Peter Cowley: Right.
David Gammon: I think it's because the investments I make tend to be hardcore technology and that has not been a sector that's been to date, I know it's changing now, but up until now it's not been really very interesting. If you take DeepMind, for example, there were only a few individuals in the UK that invested in DeepMind despite showing it to many people. They just didn't think that it was possible to do what Demis said was possible to do, whereas I really did believe him and had good reason to.
Peter Cowley: And a very good result, as we know.
David Gammon: And one of the best results, yeah.
Peter Cowley: One of the best. Can we just go back to business models. The reason that most, or many ... Not most, but certainly three-quarters of journeys and entrepreneur journeys fail is due to either lack of money from investors or not getting to the point of break even. Of course, during that journey if that's not working and the money is less easily available, entrepreneurs will pivot. You mentioned Library House, the business model, failed. Did they try or did you try to pivot on that route?
David Gammon: Yes, I think they did, but I think it was too late, the realization was too late. It was just as simple as that. I think that the temptation to say: Well we'll give it another year, we'll give it another two years, give it another three years, all that means is that angels are writing out more checks to reinforce a negative they already know is true. I tend to call for early action, which may give me a reputation for being aggressive, but actually if something is failing I'd rather just move on than just stick with it and then resolutely say: We'll make it work. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. Patience has its qualities, I completely agree, but once something really is proven that it just doesn't seem to be the right timing or the market isn't ready or you've got to pivot, delay is very expensive.
Peter Cowley: Of course, there may be a conflict there between the investors and entrepreneur about the necessity of the timing and the direction and the angle of pivot that is required. How would you cope with that?
David Gammon: I think one has to actually have a very blunt conversation with the entrepreneur and sometimes it's better for them to move out of the way. This may sound shocking to some people listening to this, but if you look at Google for example, Larry Page and Sergey Brin actually got part of the way and allowed Eric Schmidt to come in and actually really run the business. It wasn't that the other two were not capable and able to run the business, it's just that their model didn't really work.
David Gammon: In the early days of Google they really didn't have a proper monetization model. The monetization came when they realized the value of the data. It's now all so obvious, but in the early noughties, late 1990s, it wasn't so obvious and really Google's success was down to the bravery of the two founders to actually allow this transition to take place. I think that sometimes, particularly if an entrepreneur has not run a company before, it can be quite wise to say: Okay, I've tried to go down this route, it's not worked, therefore perhaps I can learn something from a new CEO and actually take a sidestep, not forever, but for two or three years to allow someone else to show them, or at least help them get to where they want to go.
David Gammon: This is, I think, extremely tricky conversation to have with someone because they think they've failed, which they haven't, it's just that's the way it's been and I think that is ... One of the things I would say to entrepreneurs that's really, really important is that don't think that having a new CEO just coming in and helping you, to learn from them is failure. It'll make you a better entrepreneur.
Peter Cowley: Exactly. When I'm deal leading or sitting on boards I do sort of warn the founders, CEOs that they may not be the CEO on exit of the business and that the only way they can do that is to grow at least as fast as the business grows in terms of their own ability. You don't happen to know whether Larry and Serge actually volunteered to bring Eric in or whether it was shareholder pressure that did that.
David Gammon: I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was a combination of both, but they were definitely enlightened.
Peter Cowley: Oh, they learned a huge amount. As we know Eric stepped down in the last year or so, so he was many years wasn't he? It must have been ten-plus years that he was the CEO.
David Gammon: Oh, at least. But it's a really good example because it really does show what a difference it can make to brilliant people. I mean, Larry and Sergey are geniuses, right?
Peter Cowley: I have no clue. I've never met them, but you probably have.
David Gammon: Yeah.
Peter Cowley: We heard earlier that you met Elon Musk, so I suspect you mix with different circles from me. We talked about, but not in detail, some failures. DeepMind was a wonderful success for you and Rockspring. Can you talk about one or two other successes and why you think they've been successful.
David Gammon: I think a company that I would say has been an outstanding success is Frontier Developments. I joined the company as a private company and what Frontier had done to that time was develop video games on PC and consoles for third parties. They were a third-party developer, so a customer such as Microsoft, for example, would come along and say, "Would you make a game for us?" Then it would be costed by Frontier and they would add a margin and that would be the price.
David Gammon: This model is very good, it's safe and it's secure, but it doesn't maximize your revenue potential from your own creativity. David Braben, who is the founder ...
Peter Cowley: Who we are intending to interview before long.
David Gammon: Fabulous. He will either collaborate or not what I'm about to say. It's that we decided it would be a good idea to change the business model and to actually publish our own games, so to actually own the IP in the game and to publish it ourselves. This is a huge pivot, it's a full pivot from a B2B business to a B2C business and that, we knew, was going to take funding.
Peter Cowley: And fraught with risk.
David Gammon: And it is fraught with risk. We made a plan. We decided to IPO on AIM and we raised the money from some very enlightened public market investors. There are some truly fantastic British institutions out there who are working on AIM who are willing to take the risk and support our companies. So about two years after I joined the board as chairman, I had also taken a position, I had bought shares in the company, we floated.
Peter Cowley: Around about a pound or so, wasn't it?
David Gammon: One pound 30 if I remember rightly. Now the share price is 14 pounds, so over a period of four years we have grown the business, we have proven the model, we're about to launch our third franchise in the summer of 2018, which is based on Jurassic World, we're calling it Jurassic World Evolution. It's going to be very exciting, and that follows Elite Dangerous that came three years ago and Planet Coaster that came out last year.
Peter Cowley: It should be pointed out that actually David, who I had known before it floated and I was an investor earlier on, had been running the business for many years before you got involved.
David Gammon: Yes. He'd been running the business for a long, long time, since 1988, I think. David basically has spent his whole career running Frontier Developments and has been a phenomenal success. He's another true genius.
Peter Cowley: Yeah, and he's over angel investing, which we will come to when we interview him.
David Gammon: Absolutely.
Peter Cowley: I think you mentioned earlier you've got one specifically important tip for angels.
David Gammon: Collaborate. I have been very blessed that I've been able to collaborate with a lot of like-minded angels. I'm not a technologist. I don't have any knowledge of technology. I don't have the academic background. I didn't take any A-levels, well I failed the three A-levels I took. Let me put it ... I got U, F, O grades.
Peter Cowley: Unidentified flying object, that is.
David Gammon: Exactly. I've always been ...
Peter Cowley: That's how you remember it.
David Gammon: That's a high flyer.
Peter Cowley: Yes.
David Gammon: I didn't qualify to go and get a degree anywhere so I missed out on all that learning and training and teaching, I'm sad to say. Not the best route, but it forced me to collaborate because I need someone to be able to tell me whether the technology is possible, viable, whether it could possibly work, and the only way to do that is to work with other people who have got that background, who are academic and who can do all that.
David Gammon: I rely completely on teamwork. I don't make angel investments on my own, I only work with other people. I work with leads I trust or I lead myself and bring in people that I trust. Collaboration as an angel is the most important activity. To go one step further, Rockspring is a family company, so every investment the founders of the business come and present to my wife and children, before any investment is made, we make a collective decision. They have saved me from some bad ones. They have told me not to invest in some that turned out to be great successes. No shame in that. We have invested in some very good stuff. Without them, it wouldn't have been possible.
David Gammon: The other thing is, it's jolly good fun investing with your family. After all, the money that I have is really belonging to my children and what they do with it is their decision, but whilst I can, I want them to be involved in the decisions that are made with regard to what effectively will come through to them. I would urge anyone out there with a family, if you want to do angel investment, get around the table together, get people to come and present, have a lot of fun. As I said, we started Rockspring with 16.5 thousand pounds. If you've just got 1000 pounds, if you want to make one investment, do it with your family and do it together. It brings a lot of joy and it's fantastic.
Peter Cowley: As you pointed out earlier, the youngest of your three boys was only eight when he joined this community of investment.
David Gammon: Absolutely, he did.
Peter Cowley: The amount he's learned from that.
David Gammon: Absolutely. I learned a lot because the kind of questions that Cameron would ask would include things like: Is this dangerous to use? That's not the sort of question an adult actually gets around to asking an entrepreneur that actually is very relevant because a lot of stuff is quite dangerous, or could be dangerous. I'm very grateful that they don't hold back, they come out with these questions and they're really very good questions. I learned a lot from them and I continue to do so.
David Gammon: We continue to act exactly in this way today, so I don't make any investments without the investment committee sitting down. My wife Sarah brings a completely different aspect to the whole thing. She is fantastic.
Peter Cowley: Her background is?
David Gammon: She established her own company on leaving university. She got a degree in business management and she started her own company in the early 1980s putting on art exhibitions in company offices, it was extremely successful. On Cameron's birth actually she stopped running the business, but she did exhibitions all over sort of companies, everywhere. She's really got a first-rate commercial brain. Not only that, but brings a different perspective to the three boys and myself and it's extremely important to have this teamwork. Very grateful to her.
Peter Cowley: Okay. David, thanks very much for that tip for the angels. What about for entrepreneurs, what tip or tips have you got for them?
David Gammon: I think the thing that I find most difficult with entrepreneurs, if I'm going to invest or listen to them, is secrecy. It's no point having a business plan and trying to raise money if you decide that actually you can't reveal how the technology works, for example. You can't persuade me to write out a check of any amount without being able to explain to someone who is more intelligent, academic than me: How this is going to work, what is it going to do and who or what problem are you trying to address. Who are you addressing this to?
David Gammon: It's really absolutely fundamental and I have found that some people are very reticent to share this information. They say it's a trade secret, or even worse, I might have to sign an NDA. If I hear the word 'NDA' I know I'm not going to make the investment because I could not sign hundreds of NDAs every single year and then police them. I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday, let alone what someone told me a year ago, two years ago or five years ago. I would say: Please don't be secretive. If you are secretive and you don't want to reveal it, then don't raise any money from people because it's just not wise.
Peter Cowley: Yeah, there's just one exception to that actually, I believe, is that if there's some intellectual property that hasn't yet been filed as a patent. If it's already been filed, that's fine. If it hasn't been, there is a case then to sign a short-term NDA while it's filed because otherwise there's a possibility of that defensibility being challenged.
David Gammon: I would agree that is wise Peter, you're absolutely right.
Peter Cowley: But I only do that once or so a year, so yeah.
David Gammon: I would agree with that completely. But I do see though that software, for example, you have no excuse because you can't patent software. You've got to be able to explain what your software does, how it works, where it's going to be addressed and what's unique about it. If you can't do that, it's not going to work. You're absolutely right about hardware.
Peter Cowley: Yeah. There is talk ... Some people can patent software in The States, but ... While we wind down I have two things I want to ask you. One: We've had some interesting conversations over lunch over the years about your philosophical views of life. Do you want to just throw a little bit to the listeners about there's a level of depth about you that I really love when we get into those conversations.
David Gammon: I think you might be referring to the fact that since a young boy I've been thinking about what thought is. I was intrigued when I was little. It just didn't seem possible to me that thought came from the brain, this kind of substance that is in one's head. I remember during one history lesson that a teacher told me that originally people thought that their thinking resided in their stomachs or in their intestines because if you were hungry it overwhelmed you with everything else, and this kind of opened up a way of thinking.
David Gammon: The other great love of my life is numbers. I believe numbers have characters. I think we can learn an awful lot from them in terms of the way we live, what this is all about, the universe, just by thinking about the characteristics of numbers. I want to give you an example. Just one very quick example is that you can look at life as an individual thing saying that: I've got a life, I'm David, you're Peter, et cetera, or you can actually look at life collectively. But I find it very hard to think about: What is all life?
David Gammon: However, if you think about numbers, each number is from one to infinity or zero to minus infinity, there is the collection of no numbers. That whole thing together is the universe of numbers, and then I can kind of understand the universe of life because I can see a connection. That's the kind of thinking that I like doing and I've been very lucky in my life that I've met a lot of people who like engaging in these kind of conversations.
David Gammon: For example, if I talk to Demis, who is the founder of DeepMind, I found this whole idea of: Where does thinking come from? Can we put it into a machine? Well that would be really interesting if we could put it into a machine, so I couldn't help myself. I would have to back Demis either way. And of course, the machine is only as good as the thinking that's gone into it, so the answer is: The machine doesn't think for itself. So far we've not been able to put thought into a machine.
Peter Cowley: Well so far, exactly, yes. But Demis' premise for DeepMind is artificial general intelligence, isn't it?
David Gammon: Yes.
Peter Cowley: Or AGI, which is moving towards where it's replicating at some minor element so far of the brain, the brain thinking.
David Gammon: Yes, but remember, and this is the key thing: The brain is made out of atoms, it's the material structure. A chip or DRAM or memory is made out of atoms. They are made out of metal, a brain is made out of organic matter, but actually they're made out of atoms and they're one and the same thing. I don't think you can put thought into atomic structures. That means not just machines but also organic matter like a brain. That's the difference. So the then thing is: Where does thought come from? What is thought and what is it consistent of? And then we have more than we have time to discuss.
Peter Cowley: We have ... Exactly, then we have another hour to discuss.
David Gammon: But maths helps me understand that more. It's a clue. If you like, if you think about maths, it can give you clues as to what is going on and it's no kind of fluke to me that binary code is what we use to communicate with machines, one and zero, that's what it is. All software is one and zero, it's nothing else, those are two numbers.
Peter Cowley: The final question, of course, David, which I ask everybody is: You're five or so years younger than me. What are you going to be doing in five or ten years' time? Much of the same or are you going to change?
David Gammon: I'm going to change. Firstly, I have a desire to share more of what I've learned and I'm probably going to use the medium of books to do that, so I have a plan to write some books, books about angel investing. I've actually invented about 12 business plans that I thought it would be fun to run and kind of make a series of books out of what happens to these businesses based on successes and disasters. The other one is really to further this theme about numbers. I'm very keen ... I'm going to write a book about that because I've got a lot to say on the subject. Maybe no one will read them.
Peter Cowley: I hope they will. Thank you very much David. I've learned even more. Every time I meet you I learn things about angel investing, about people, et cetera. Again, on this podcast, I've learned a tremendous amount more. Thank you very much.
David Gammon: Thank you so much, Peter. I wish this project all success. Well done for doing it, it's wonderful work.
Peter Cowley: Thank you.
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