To dig you have to know how to excavate. It’s a little bit the same with start-ups.

Annegien Blokpoel, a former banker and director of investor relations who is also an archaeologist, embarked on her journey into the world of angel investment just three short years ago. Since then, she has invested in no less than a dozen companies directly, and about 15 indirectly, she sits on four Advisory Boards and she has been an active advocate of female investing across the world, most notably in Europe and in Israel.

My vision is that many more women should invest,’ says Annegien as ESIL comms interviewed her one Monday evening, after returning from Rotterdam for a meeting. She’s heading off on an archaeological dig next week, so we are lucky to have caught her for this interview. In 2019 alone, Annegien has inspired at least 30 women to start investing, and she spoke at ESIL’s own Study Visit in the Netherlands on the importance of cross-border investing and how, to be an investor, you don’t need to be rich.

According to Annegien, this myth that investors must be vastly wealthy is one of the core reasons why women tend not to get involved in the investment game.

‘Women think, “oh it’s really complicated so I need to learn it”, then “oh you need to be very rich”, which is not the case, and thirdly they think it’s a responsibility, and they say “I already have my work and my family and then I have another responsibility?” And that’s the interesting thing because you know men actually think it’s fun, so they don’t see it as a responsibility, and they see other men, they say well he is investing so I can invest, and if he invests 1k or 25k then I’ll do the same. Men just start.’

So how much does a person really need to start investing? And how easy is it?

‘If you invest through the crowdfunding platforms or if you invest collectively, with more people, you can also invest €1000 or €5000. So you can say to yourself OK, every year when I have sufficient savings I’ll put €5000 aside and I’ll invest in 2 or 3 companies. If you do that 5 years then you build up a portfolio of 15 companies,’ she says, proving that it is not a past-time reserved only for the mega wealthy.

Women invest four times more in impact than men do

Research shows that women invest four times more in impact-based companies, meaning companies that will bring some kind of societal benefit to the table, than men do. So, if we want to see more ethically-conscious, sustainable companies in the future, we need to increase the number of women investors sitting at the table.

Incidentally, women founders are also more likely to start impact-driven companies, so it’s not surprising that increasing the number of women investors will increase the number of female-run enterprises as well.

Investing in impact is not without its challenges though, which Annegien suggests is why men as a group tend to steer clear of it, preferring instead to invest in the easy cash cow option.

Impact investing is more difficult (than more typical investments). It will take more time, because it’s not about just bringing the product and selling it as fast as possible. It’s also about the sustainable model, which takes more time. What you very often see is that male investors won’t invest in impact because they would rather invest in a Zalando-type of company, and there’s not a lot of female investors around. And therefore you also see that female founders have a much harder time to attract capital,’ Annegien points out.

More female investors = better for humankind

Women make up 30% of entrepreneurs, and a mere 5% of investors. If we want to see more impact-driven businesses, we need to tackle this problem head-on, according to Annegien.

If we get more female investors, a number of things will happen. It will be easier for female founders to get finance but also collectively as humankind we will invest much more in impact than we do currently,’ she says.

Of course, at the end of the day every investor wants to get a return on their investment too. Annegien’s goal is to get a good return on her interest, preferably within 3-7 years.

I always invest in helping the company get to the next level. They should be scalable and profitable. Would I like that this business comes into the world? And do I like the founders?’

The founder-angel relationship is one that surfaces at just about every business angel conference. Veteran angels are quick to point out that the most important factor is having a good relationship with the founder, and working with someone who is open to advice.

If I’m helping a company to grow, I need to like the founders,’ says Annegien. ‘Because it’s always hectic, they need to learn a lot and there’s going to be tension. You need to like them, not only when everything’s good but also when things are tough.’

She also warns that initial enthusiasm in a founder for advice and guidance may wane once the work of the company is underway.

‘When people start, they are often very open for tips and tricks. But then when they are really busy they might say, oh yeah sure it’s important and then they continue to run and they don’t really listen.’ This is where the problems start, she says. Some advice she has for founders is to ask everyone for advice before presenting or pitching.

‘It makes a huge difference. If you get all the good advice beforehand, you can let go of certain things. And if not, you would have had some discussions beforehand, developed some good arguments. As an investor, if you have good arguments, then I accept it. If, as a founder, you want smart money then you should be smart enough to use the smart advice before the pitch.’

Hidden treasure

Annegien’s motto when searching for Europe’s next unicorn is not unlike her motto when excavating a site: ‘Look for the hidden treasures’.

‘One of the things I like most about working with start-ups is that you learn about fields you had no idea about before, and that the world is far more changeable than we think,’ she told ESIL.

She has invested in one company that could be a game-changer in the world of contact lenses. Called Smart Eyes, they are developing a technology that can measure the surface of the eyes. Do you wear contact lenses, or do you want to? This innovation could be for you.

‘At the moment there is basically one type of contact lens,’ Annegien explains. ‘All the big manufacturers make one standard type of contact lens. But if your eye isn’t like the standardised eye, then the contact lens won’t fit.’

It’s not something you might have thought of, but half of all the people who need contact lenses can’t actually wear them because their eyes are too different from the standardised shape.

Smart Eyes is developing a technology that would enable you to buy contact lenses that are especially tailored to fit the grooves and curves of your eye.

‘It is much more complicated than software technology,’ Annegien explains. ‘In the Netherlands we don’t have investors that know how this works.’ Most VC companies, she says, go for solutions that are relatively easy to understand, where you can get your money back pretty fast.

But sometimes, a technology is worth the wait. Something like Smart Eyes could revolutionise the contact lens space, and bring big rewards for Annegien in the years to come.

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