Business challenger Q&A: Ian Milbourn

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Ian

Ian Milbourn is Partner and CFO at Notion Capital, an entrepreneur-backed venture capital firm focused on seed to Series C investments in B2B SaaS businesses.

How did you get to where you are today?

I originally trained as an accountant with Ernst & Young but quickly decided that accountancy wasn’t for me. I was in the entrepreneurial services team, and I enjoyed working with mid-size companies so I moved to the lead advisory team once I qualified. I spent a couple of years advising teams on buy outs and was involved in sell side mandates. My biggest disappointment in the role was spending a long period working with a team and then having to move on to the next job without seeing how the company journey evolved.

I found that a bit frustrating and decided to take a role in a corporate. So I started looking around and found MessageLabs in 2003, where I met Stephen Chandler. I became VP of corporate finance there and went on a really good journey with the company and the senior team. The business grew to 650 employees across 14 countries and raked in £70m turnover. Once we knew MessageLabs was going to be sold we quickly decided to fulfil our ambition of investing in the SaaS landscape and knew we wanted to start up Notion Capital. We’d all been talking for a while and the day after we sold the company, we announced that we were starting up Notion Capital on the belief that SaaS was here to stay and was a true mega trend which could yield good investment returns.

 

What do you consider your biggest accomplishments to date?

It has to be the fundraising success that Notion has enjoyed. To be able to raise your first fund, you have to be credible and have a decent brand. I’m impressed at how our brand resonates within the marketplace in such a short space of time, having only founded the business in 2009. I think that’s because we have experience and have done it before. I was in San Francisco in July meeting corp dev teams and they were all interested in what we’re doing and want to engage with us. Today, we’ve built up Europe’s largest B2B SaaS portfolio which is a huge accomplishment.

 

Are there any important lessons you’ve learned over the years?

I think my biggest focus now is execution. The ability of a business to execute well is a real skill. A problem I see is companies doing too many things and growing too quickly when they don’t have the core in place. Understanding the path to product market fit and relentlessly focusing on that is critical to the success of an early stage company. It’s having an early handle on your money and learning how to get a grip on your next bit of money.

Another key lesson is the importance of finding and keeping good people; this is where Kommol comes in. You think: ‘Oh I don’t need to get in expensive people early on’ but actually, you do. You need to bring in people who can execute plans and expand the skill set of the founding team. People like Michelle are able to attract respected people from big companies and that’s really crucial for companies to grow and realise their ambition.

I was quite lucky because I was told to find a good team early on. I think it’s a lot harder than people think to get companies to a decent level of scale. We did it with MessageLabs and it was hard work. One of my most important roles is to work with teams and enable them to develop their teams. Some founders don’t believe they need to hire people early on but time and time again I see companies recruiting too slowly. Of course it’s hard to get good people out of exciting opportunities and into our portfolio, but it can be done.

 

What do you think are the key things to focus on to build a truly transformational team?

I think you need a charismatic, evangelical, founder-type people who can go out, raise money, recruit and retain really good talent but then you also need the operational guys who can really get things done. Then you’ve got the start of a really good team.The key from here is to identify what resource you need when, for example do you focus on sales or product first? If you get a strong core team in place early on then good things will happen. However, it’s hard because you’ve got prioritise at the right times, and early stage companies all have significant cash resource restraint.

 

Why did you use Kommol?

Where I see the value of Kommol is the team takes time to properly research the market and work with the client to make sure everyone is aligned on what they want, what the role entails and the kind of person that would work best in the business. This contrasts with some of the other firms who are quick to name drop and open the roller deck without thinking about best fit. Kommol really does understand the business and the market the best it can and the team uses that knowledge to work out who they can get. Secondly, the quality of the calibre of candidates the team brings to the table is phenomenal; it’s really impressive. What Kommol is doing is really difficult. The team needs to find candidates who are willing to take a risk. There are a lot of emotional elements. Michelle spends a lot of time speaking to candidates about whether they are happy with things. It’s a difficult job and Kommol does it very well.