June 21, 2024

‘High conviction, low volume’: Playfair launches $70M pre-seed fund for European startups

Early-stage investments inherently have a greater danger of failing, but these challenges also occur with potentially greater rewards — acquiring in at the ground flooring of a startup’s journey offers VCs far more negotiation clout. This is significantly genuine at the incredibly early pre-seed phase, where by organizations may possibly hardly have a operating item to shout about. And this is a little something that London-based generalist VC agency Playfair Cash is aware all about, supplied its aim on backing tremendous youthful startups that have but to make significantly of a ripple in their respective industries.

In its 10 calendar year historical past, Playfair has invested in around 100 corporations, together with very well-founded unicorns such as Stripe, and Mapillary, a startup that exited to Fb back in 2020. These precise investments were being from Playfair’s inaugural fund which wasn’t focused on any unique “stage” of organization. But Playfair transitioned into extra of a pre-seed firm with its 2nd fund announced in 2019, a emphasis that it’s keeping for its new £57 million ($70 million) third fund, which it is asserting today.

While a lot of early-stage VC funds may possibly search to make a handful of dozen investments annually, Playfair has saved items rather trim through its record, committing to no far more than eight investments every single yr, even though ringfencing some of its money for a handful of comply with-on investments. Its most up-to-date fund will come amid a swathe of fresh early-phase European VC cash, which includes Emblem which announced a new $80 million seed fund final 7 days, while France-based Ovni Capital emerged on the scene final month with a $54 million early-stage fund.

‘High conviction, reduced volume’

Playfair, for its component, seeks out founders “outside of dominant tech hubs,” as well as founders performing on jobs that could operate more tangential to where the most important buzz and “buzzy-ness” exists. This is maybe even a lot more integral if its mentioned objective is to only devote in a handful of startups every 12 months — they really don’t have the luxurious of spreading a ton of revenue about to boost their chances of acquiring a winner. “High conviction, reduced volume” is Playfair’s mentioned ethos listed here, and pinpointing correct differentiators is a main element of this.

“I’d say probably half the funding in our portfolio is pre-product, pre-traction,” Playfair controlling lover Chris Smith discussed to TechCrunch. “And the other half have some form of really early traction, probably a MVP (negligible feasible merchandise) or a pair of POCs (proof-of-ideas). But we are inclined to spend where there is extremely minimal in the way of traction.”

It wasn’t that long back when autonomous vehicle technologies was all the rage, dominating just about just about every trade present and tech conference. And there was just one specific party numerous a long time back again, the EcoMotion mobility event in Israel, that Smith suggests definitely helps to highlight its expense ethos.

“I went in to search at the roughly 120 firms exhibiting, about 116 of the companies had been accomplishing autonomy for automobiles,” Smith stated. “And as an trader, I seem at this and feel that if you’re composing tons of checks a year, you almost certainly just commit in heaps of them, and check out and find a winner — but we do not, we only do six to eight [annual investments]. So my look at was, ‘I never want to engage in in that space’. The only actual distinction amongst them was no matter whether they were being selecting LIDAR or laptop or computer eyesight. There just wasn’t enough differentiation.”

Having said that, at this exact same convention, there ended up 4 companies executing one thing fully various. A person of them was Orca AI which was developing a collision-avoidance system for ships, and it was this organization from a sea of samey startups that Playfair finished up investing in — both of those in its 2019 pre-seed funding round, and its follow-on Sequence A round two yrs later.

“That’s where by we like to glance,” Smith claimed. “We like these nascent markets — I phone them ‘overlooked and unsexy sectors’. That is in which we definitely like to get caught in, and where I see the opportunity.”

A massive chunk of early-phase specials fall apart in the thanks diligence stage. But if a enterprise doesn’t have any market place traction or even a totally-doing the job solution nonetheless, how precisely do VCs go about choosing who’s well worth a guess? When 1 of the oldest expense cliches claims a thing about the worth of ‘investing in people today instead than organizations,’ that is perhaps even much more true at the tremendous early phase. And though possessing preceding exits and success in the company environment can be a beneficial indicator, there are a lot of points that can eventually establish no matter whether a founder or founding group are intrinsically investable.

“We glimpse for a few matters, including illustrations of extraordinary performance,” Smith claimed. “And I imagine the crucial point is that it does not necessarily have to be in the business entire world, or even in the area they’re developing the company.”

Playfair funds staff portraits Impression Credits: Playfair Cash

By way of case in point, PlayFair not long ago re-invested in AeroCloud, a four-yr-previous SaaS startup from the Northwest of England which is building airport management software package, owning also invested in its seed round some two many years previous. AeroCloud co-founder and CEO George Richardson had been a relatively effective qualified racing driver since the age of 15, but he did not really have any immediate experience of the aviation sector before placing up AeroCloud.

“He did not know everything about airports right before he started off the business,” Smith claimed. “But we thought, if a person can podium at Le Mans and exist beneath these types of huge stress, that is an remarkable character trait route for a founder.”

Of course there are many other factors that go into the because of diligence procedure, like meticulous business study to build the scale of a problem the startup proclaims to be resolving. But some form of prosperous keep track of history, in just about just about anything, is a valuable barometer at the early investment decision stage.

“If you can participate in a musical instrument to an extraordinary stage, or [if you’re] a specialist racing driver, or golfer or regardless of what it is — I do assume that is fairly a handy predictor of upcoming effectiveness,” Smith explained. “But it is [investing due diligence] a mix of spending a good deal of time with the founders and receiving to comprehend what helps make them tick. Then heading truly deep to guidance the thesis.”


A whole lot has took place in the earth among 2019 and 2023, with a global pandemic and main financial downturn intersecting Playfair’s second and 3rd resources. In the broader sphere of Huge Tech, startups, and undertaking cash, we have noticed main redundancies, plunging valuations, and delayed IPOs, but in the early-stage earth Playfair inhabits, it’a been a somewhat distinctive expertise.

“At pre-seed in which we spend, we’re really insulated from what’s going on in the IPO markets, or what is happening with progress resources,” Smith claimed.

That’s not to say very little has changed, even though. Its third fund is much more than double the size of its next fund, which reflects the dimensions of checks it is now possessing to produce for organizations, expanding from an regular of close to of possibly £500,000 formerly, to all over £750,000 now, considered that figure may possibly creep up toward the £1 million mark. So what has driven that adjust? A combination of elements, as you may count on, together with the very simple point that there is a lot more funds close to, and the economic conditions that absolutely everyone is presently dealing with.

“In 2021, there was this outrageous peak, now it’s settled all over again — but rounds are however substantially bigger than they have been in 2018-2019,” Smith stated. “We’re actually truly privileged in the U.K. to have the SEIS  and EIS techniques (tax-economical strategies for traders) due to the fact they brought in a ton of angel funds, and then also money from cash that just take benefit of the tax breaks — there is mainly just far more cash all-around. I truly consider inflation has performed a section too. So while in some senses the value of setting up a startup has fallen, such as obtain to particular instruments, at the same time salaries have long gone up a whole lot. So, startup founders back in 2018-2019 could possibly have paid out them selves £30-40,000 [annually], you see founders now becoming paid maybe £60-70,000. So founders will need a lot more to be capable to dwell comfortably although they create their firm.”

This, of class, follows via to the selecting and setting up of groups, who will also now be anticipating far more cash to counter the charge-of-residing will increase throughout society. Throw into the mix, potentially, a increasing comprehension that a fledgling organization may well require a tiny additional runway to stand a opportunity of succeeding, and all this could possibly go someway towards detailing growing check-sizes in the early seed phases.

“I imagine that Europe has it’s possible acquired a several lessons from the U.S., which is that there is no point in placing seriously smaller quantities of money into organizations, offering them truly small runways, placing avoidable strain on them, and then observing them fail,” Smith mentioned. “You want to give firms more than enough income so that they’ve obtained 18 to 24 months, time to pivot, time to determine stuff out. That improves the probabilities of success.”


Even though not one of a kind in the early-phase financial commitment fray, Playfair has a sole confined companion (LP) in the sort of founder Federico Pirzio-Biroli who supplies all the money, and who ran it originally as both equally a controlling companion and LP. Smith stepped in for Federico for the 2nd fund, and Federico has since moved to Kenya exactly where he now has a a lot more passive job in phrases of day-to-day involvement. And possessing a solitary entity providing the capital simplifies points significantly from an financial investment and administration standpoint.

“It offers us a ton of pros — it implies I do not invest 40-50% of my time fundraising, and I can shell out my time performing with our founders,” Smith explained. “And I think it is also just a huge vote of assurance.”

This “vote of self-assurance,” in accordance to Smith, stems from Playfair getting currently returned the entirety of its initially fund in money, assisted in part by various exits. This quantity will probable receive a key increase much too, with Stripe gearing up for a bumper IPO — Playfair invested in the fintech giant at its Series C spherical in 2014 before it narrowed its aim to pre-seed. And for its 2nd fund, Smith mentioned they’ve achieved someplace in the location of 95th percentile for TVPI (overall price vs compensated in money).

In accordance to Dealroom details, some 19% of seed-stage organizations elevate a Collection A inside of 36 months. By contrast, Playfair says that 75% of its fund 2 investments have now also elevated a Sequence A expense, and in 2022 on your own its portfolio companies secured $570 million in abide by-on funding from different VCs.

“Success for our founders is mainly the similar as success for us, which is acquiring them from pre-seed to a prosperous Series A spherical,” Smith reported.

And although Playfair does ordinarily go the lead-trader baton on to a different VC firm for subsequent rounds, it will typically direct once more on the seed spherical, as well as taking part in Sequence A rounds and quite occasionally later. In aspect, this is as considerably about exhibiting self esteem as it is providing money, which is very important as a startup is gearing up to hit the marketplace.

“I feel that is genuinely critical, mainly because if your current pre-seed investor will not direct your seed, that can be really a hard moment to go out to the market place, when you may perhaps not have that lots of evidence-factors to test and get a different exterior investor in,” Smith extra.

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