Mustard Seed is an impact investment firm based in London and an investor in Crowdsurfer. Alex worked for Goldman Sachs in London, The Boston Consulting Group in New York, Chicago and Dubai, and Mubadala in Abu Dhabi, before starting Mustard Seed with his great friend from university days at the London School of Economics, Henry Wigan.
Alex, what is the five-year plan?
I must admit I’ve never had much of a “grand plan” for my professional life. In fact, I’m rather sceptical about trying to predict or plan for the future too much, and about people who have very set and strong opinions, given how much uncertainty surrounds us. I’ve always been guided by people I respect in my career decisions, and many of the most important events and transitions in my career have come simply from exposing myself to interesting people. I have always sought to surround myself with good, talented people.
A Canadian friend of mine uses a basketball analogy, which I like – he says, “when you’re around the hoop, interesting things happen”.
One of them was clearly Mustard Seed. Did it come from being around the hoop?
In a way, yes. Henry and I began showing up at leading universities in 2013, hoping to meet entrepreneurs (students and academics) we could help. It was clear to us that many smart people wanted to start businesses with a purpose, and that capital and support networks were not efficiently reaching them. So we decided to focus on solving this unmet need.
Did you too always want to start your own company?
No. I was a late developer in a sense, starting Mustard Seed aged 34. It just felt intuitively like the right time to start a business with a purpose, and I was really fortunate that my great friend Henry Wigan felt the same – there is just no way I could or would be doing this without him. In February 2015, we decided to focus on this full-time.
What is ‘business with a purpose’ in your eyes?
The overall social or environmental impact of a business should be far greater than its financial profit. We passionately believe that solving the greatest of problems in the world drives commercial success in the long run. People seem to be increasingly focused on making purpose an integral part of their careers, and, in my experience, this often comes from helping those we meet along the way. Creating value for others brings meaning and deep satisfaction to our lives.
That’s very much how I feel about Mustard Seed. We invest in and support extraordinary entrepreneurs who are addressing some of the world’s greatest challenges, profitably. To date, we have funded 13 exceptional ventures, connecting them with a network of around 85 Mustard Seed investors to accelerate their growth.
Any names we should be paying attention to?
The list of our portfolio companies is here. They’re all great in their own unique way and we certainly believe they will deliver very strong commercial returns for our investors, alongside a compelling social or environmental impact.
For example, our portfolio company Winnow Solutions helps customers – contract caterers, hotels and restaurants among others – save 3-8% on their food costs and achieve a parallel and very meaningful reduction in food waste.
We’re the largest investor in Crowdsurfer and our ambitions for the company are very big indeed. We have backed the business since its inception, when the visionary and dynamic founder Emily Mackay first pitched the concept to us at one of our university events.
Why did Mustard Seed invest in Crowdsurfer?
Crowd finance democratises traditional finance by providing access to capital. This is very meaningful both from a profitability and impact standpoint. It is here to stay as a necessary part of the financial landscape. However, until its recent emergence, those who have looked to raise and provide capital have not had the ability to connect in a direct way.
Crowdsurfer is rapidly becoming the de facto global authority on crowd finance. There is huge value in being both the databank and the analytics engine of that data. ‘Thomson Reuters for alternative finance’ is a neat way to think about it; this is very much how I see Crowdsurfer. This value is being realised by Emily and her Cambridge based team of data scientists, with expert stewardship from Chairman Richard Baker and a really experienced group of investors including David Gammon, an early investor in Deep Mind, which was acquired by Google. Emily has a clear plan and we at Mustard Seed feel very fortunate indeed to be able to play a role in helping her to deliver it.
You said you are a bit sceptical of “grand plans”. How does Mustard Seed help its portfolio companies?
We focus constantly on building new relationships and cultivating existing ones, where we see mutual value. Meeting interesting people and always thinking how we can get them involved with Mustard Seed and our portfolio companies to add value. For example, we host regular dinners to bring our investors and entrepreneurs together, and deepen the bonds within and between each of these communities.
Making meaningful introductions and working out how people can help one another is something I really enjoy, and constantly keeps my mind ticking. One of my favourite books is Give and Take by Adam Grant, a Wharton professor. It’s basically about the notion that giving and helping others comes back around to you during the course of a career. Along similar lines I really like the quote “plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit”.
For example, we’ve helped Crowdsurfer secure a landmark partnership deal already this year, which is soon to be announced, and expand their shareholder base to include the likes of Peter Sands and Mike Rees, former CEO and Deputy CEO respectively of Standard Chartered Bank. Personal relationships are always at the heart of such dialogues.
Any piece of advice you’d give your 18-year-old-self?
Wow, I have made so many mistakes along the way since then! I think the most important advice I could give my younger self would be never to fear failure and rejection, but instead learn from it and see it as a very necessary condition of achieving things in life.