Growth Chair Circle | Featuring Niall Wass, Partner, Atomico and Chair, Glovo and Trouva

5th April 2020

In our first piece in our series on chairing growth companies, theGrowth Chair Circle, Niall shares his insights on adapting his chairing style during the current Coronavirus crisis, mentoring founders effectively and how his scale-up operational experience adds real value to his boards.

A Partner at Atomico since 2016, Niall has led investment into, or is the board member for Koru KidsHabitoLimeOnTruck, Ree Technologies and Jobandtalent. Previously, Niall spent over 15+ years as an executive in early-stage, tech-enabled consumer businesses. Most recently, he was part of the Executive Team at Uber, leading the international business into 50 countries. Prior to this, Niall was COO and CEO at Wonga, and for many years he was at Betfair as Chief Commercial Officer through IPO (now LSE listed Flutter). In his spare time, he chairs consumer focused scale-ups Glovo and Trouva.

What motivates you to chair growth businesses?

Being close to the founder and management team. I have two criteria for chairing a company: I’ve got to like the business model and the people. If I can see promise in both of them, then I’ll explore it further. It’s very rewarding to see the business develop and mature.

One example is where I’ve worked with very young founders, but I had a good feeling about their potential. He’s flourished as a leader over the last three or four years and calls me his ‘personal mentor’. However, I’m learning as much from him as he is from me! I’ve seen him develop into a highly capable leader and the team have matured enormously. Aside from the importance of leadership, the core is to see success in the business model.

Glovo were in two cities – Barcelona and Madrid – when I joined. It’s the team who have the idea and strategy, I’ll help refine their thinking and execution. I’m merely a guide.

What advice would you give someone taking on their first growth chair role?

Make sure you’re comfortable with the stage of growth of the business – whether that’s pre-Series A or pre-IPO. Know what stage you’re getting into and feel comfortable with that, they’re all extremely different. Make sure you love the business model and the team. It’s always flattering to be asked but if you don’t know anything about the sector and are not 100% sure, think hard about taking it on. You’re committing to stay for many years in some cases.

Do your diligence on the business model and gain an understanding of the sector. The founder will be looking to you to help with strategy and advice, so go deep on the team before you say yes to make sure you have a good connection.

For those not familiar with chairing scale-ups, I’d say personal rapport with the founder is critically important, as this role is less about focusing on corporate governance than in a corporate. You’re going to be much more involved in a growth business than you would be in a larger, listed business.

How much time do you spend with the CEO and team vs other chair duties?

I like to physically spend a couple of days a month with the team and, on top of that, one working session a week or so with the founder. Right now, in this crisis, it’s obviously more frequent. I’ll be in regular contact with them informally too. I tend to use WhatsApp with the team, share an article or have a quick chat. It’s an ongoing relationship. The teams know they can reach me anytime.

With my chair hat on, I obviously need to spend time on corporate governance and prepping for board meetings. That’s the necessary, formal piece but less impactful and rewarding than being with the team.

Does your executive experience in high growth businesses (Uber, Betfair and Wonga) give you the edge chairing scale-ups?

Yes, it helps as I can share critical approaches like the need for speed, working out a playbook and fast decision making which are all vital for scaling. Uber was amazing at letting the data talk: there was a time when we were launching in a new city every five days. It enabled us to work on cars coming quicker for example, which meant more earnings for the driver, so I learnt a lot from all of them. That’s what I do, share those learnings.

How do you work with your founders to get the best out of them, particularly right now?

Understanding the EQ of a founder is incredibly important before you join a company.

Some characters can be challenging and can make mistakes but learning from their negative side can be a very useful way to counsel both them and others.

Success can go to someone’s head, previous founders I have worked with thought they’re invincible and so it’s part of my current job to help keep this new breed on an even keel. Equally in a crisis, they need to know you’re there to support them and have your trust.

How have you adapted your chairing style to the Coronavirus crisis?

I’m probably being more direct now, it’s less about coaching and more directive. Our responsibility is to have a survival plan. The founder and leadership team will operate it and present it. I need to be more directive, as I have a fiduciary duty to the board and investors, as well as the team.

In crisis mode I can help give them a bit more perspective. Entrepreneurs tend to be more optimistic personalities and you can help them see a situation. In crisis mode, it’s more about thinking through different scenarios and being better prepared if things don’t go quite as we expect.

For example, playing through scenarios that will have the biggest impact on growth or funding, what will we do in those cases? You can literally be talking about survival. How do we get to a place where we can operate without any new cash in the business? It can mean re-doing all of their business plans and exploring things like what having no cash will mean for our expansion plans and marketing. First you need to survive, then think about thriving on the other side.

What are the main challenges of chairing rather than leading in a crisis?

I’ve had to change my style from an operator to a chair – you have to remember that you’re not the person doing it yourself. You have to remember that you’re the coach rather than a player on the pitch, and that’s very different. If you’re like me and you like doing stuff and don’t see the team delivering, it can be frustrating. I find coaching people around the right metrics, you can help reshape plans and guide them, but it’s for them to execute. You need to give them the breathing room to get on with it.

How do you manage the board and investors differently during a crisis?

I speak to the CEOs more frequently than investors. When I do though, I’m always very open with them, and now more than ever.  Investors may be worried about whether founder teams are taking fast enough action. If they don’t always have the right relationship with the CEO, they might call me. I can gather a bunch of opinions, crystallise them and weigh up the extreme versions. I can be the go-between and sense check for both sides, helping reshape the agenda.

The vast majority of VCs haven’t had operating experience and so haven’t been in a founder’s shoes.  As I’ve led high growth businesses myself as an operator, I understand that in a crisis in particular, the founder needs to get on and run the business and not spend all their time on the investors’ questions.

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