Listen and empathize — an interview with Pippa Lamb

Female VCs are still few and far between. According to DiversityVC, in 2020 only 13% of VC partners in the UK are female — a humbling statistic that has not improved from two years ago.

This makes us all the more excited to speak to Pippa Lamb, a Partner at Sweet Capital, about her experience. Pippa has invested in a number of notable companies including Mos.com, Electric Playbox, WeVat, Peanut, Wellthy, and The Pattern. Several of these have female founders.

Peanut
is a social network for women who seek support and advice from those in similar life stages (Peanut’s cap table includes EQT Ventures, Index Ventures, and Female Founders Fund).

Mos
, another company Pippa backed, helps students pay for college by simplifying access to financial aid. It was launched by Amira Yahyaoui, a former Tunisian human rights activist. (Mos’s cap table includes Sequoia Capital, Garrett Camp, Zoom Founder Eric Yuan, Jay-Z / Roc Nation, and Stripe Founder Patrick Collison, amongst others).

Pippa’s current achievements follow a fascinating career. Her first job out of college was with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where she worked on Prime Minister David Cameron’s first state visit to China. After graduating from the University of Oxford, she joined J.P.Morgan and spent five years in London and Hong Kong, before leaving to pursue her MBA at Harvard Business School (HBS).

Before joining Sweet Capital, Pippa gained private equity experience at LVMH-backed L Catterton. At Sweet, the investment fund established by the founders of King.com, she focuses on early-stage consumer tech. Pippa also represents the fund on Her Majesty Treasury’s
Investment in Women Code.

Paweł Michalski (PM): What do you consider the most appealing thing about working in venture capital?

Pippa Lamb (PL):
Put simply, I think it’s the chance to work with amazing people who do incredible things. Helping these people on their journeys is very rewarding. Sweet Capital was founded because of the experience my colleagues had building King.com. It was not a smooth transition from start to finish — on the contrary, there’s probably no challenge they didn’t face at some point themselves. For Sweet, the incentive is not purely financial — it’s about giving back to the next generation of founders.

PM
: In this context, what is the most critical part of your job?

PL
: I think it’s the ability to build a trusted relationship with founders. You need to be able to put yourself in their shoes. At Sweet we don’t have outside LPs, we only invest our own capital. For that reason, we are aligned with the founders from day one.

PM
: But how do you empathize with founders, exactly?

PL
: The most important lesson is to listen. And to be very clear about what the founder and their customers want, not what you, nor what any other VC wants.

I took a class at HBS called “Founders’ Journey”, which explores the human side of entrepreneurship, and the toll it can take on people. There are complexities to the founder/investor relationship. Doing this job, I’m grateful to have grown up around a father who always ran his own business. Fundamentally, I think you need to be able to relate to what the founder is going through — there shouldn’t be a hierarchy. We’re here to learn from them, not the other way around.

PM
: What do you consider your favorite accomplishment so far?

PL
: It’s very personal, but over the years, a few of our founders have struggled with depression. Some felt comfortable confiding in this with me, and we worked through some of their issues together. Being able to build a trusted relationship like that is incredibly rewarding, beyond anything related to investing.

When you’re a founder, your start-up is your life. So if your company is struggling, other parts of your life can feel tough too. Founder mental health is a hugely under-appreciated issue, despite it being extremely common. I’d like to see that change. Open discussion should not be taboo.

This is one of the main motivations behind the Founders Retreat that we organize each year, where we gather all of our portfolio founders together. It’s a rare opportunity for the founders to come together and share stories openly.

PM:
What are the biggest challenges of a VC career?

PL
: I think it depends on the individual, but in general you need to be a self-starter, happy setting your own schedule. Sometimes the work can be quite solitary in nature, and the hours are unpredictable.

On a more theoretical basis, when I first started in VC, someone told me: “At the early stage of investing, there will always be a hundred reasons to say ‘no’. It’s about finding that one reason to say ‘yes’.” Being comfortable with the “unknown” is a learning curve, especially if you came from later-stage investing.

PM
: What has been your favorite deal so far?

PL:
I definitely can’t single out one company, but as you mentioned earlier, I’m a huge champion of some of our female-founded companies. At Peanut, Michelle built a business which solved a pain point of her own — it feels authentic. At Mos, Amira grew from being a human rights activist in Tunisia, fighting for democracy, to now being a tech founder in San Francisco, fighting to democratize access to education by helping improve access to college financial aid. What an incredible story to be a part of.

Another is a company still in stealth that I had discovered through being a huge fan of the product. I tried everything to contact the founder but to no avail. Finally, after six months, we managed to get a meeting, and we convinced her to let us be her first investor. I’m pleased to say the company has grown around 700% since then, and I remain extremely positive.

PM
: Pippa, looking back, how do you define your twenties?

PL:
As I was nearing the end of my undergraduate studies at Oxford, I attended a talk by Evan Davis, the former BBC Economics Editor. His advice to us near-graduates was to spend your twenties taking the most challenging path, where you would learn the most. I definitely tried to do that, and step outside my comfort zone whenever possible.

My first job after Oxford was with the British Foreign Office, as I spoke Mandarin, and had a passion for international relations. I still do. Being half Chinese and half British gave me an interesting perspective on the economic rise of China, and its relationship with the UK, and the rest of the world. I worked at the British Consulate General on the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and then at the British Embassy in Beijing on Prime Minister David Cameron’s first state visit to China.

I hadn’t initially planned to go into finance but loved business, and wanted to learn some analytical skills that would equip me to run my own company one day. I joined J.P. Morgan and ended up spending five years there, in London and then Hong Kong. I rounded off my twenties with an MBA, taking up a Fulbright Scholarship at Harvard Business School.

PM:
How did your time at Harvard Business School help you decide to get into venture capital?

PL:
My motivation for doing the MBA was to explore different industries, and to learn from those around me. I’ve always loved student journalism and became Editor of the Harvard Business School student newspaper, which carried the privilege of interviewing people like Alan Horn — Chairman of Disney Studios, Drew Houston — Founder of Dropbox, or Michael Lynton — Chairman of Snap. I helped organize the HBS Entrepreneurship Conference, took part in an HBS Startup program, and interned at Glossier — a VC backed beauty company. I fell into the startup ecosystem out of curiosity rather than design, and my move into venture capital followed that.

PM:
What prepared you the most for becoming a VC investor?

PL:
Although public equities and private equity are very different from VC, there is a consistent base of fundamental analysis that you need to do. I believe that my previous jobs gave me a solid understanding of the macro; VC is more about the micro. It’s about the founder, the team, the timing.

Much of what I’ve learned about investing in early-stage startups has come on the job. A big part is about being humble — and again, listening.

PM:
What does a typical day look like for you at Sweet?

PL:
Cliché as it sounds, every day is different. I spend a lot of time in meetings — a combination of meeting new founders, and board meetings with portfolio companies. I try and restrict the time spent on emails to specific slots each day, rather than always having my inbox open.

Along with all of the company meetings, we get a ton of inbound messages, so I find it important to ringfence time to be offline, and spend time on research or sector news.

We have twice weekly investment team meetings where we run through dealflow and important fund updates. The Investment Committee convenes whenever there is a deal to be presented, rather than on a set schedule.

PM:
Are there any tools that make your VC life easier?

PL:
I’m an obsessive note-taker and a Notion-convert.