European VC fund Lakestar is announcing today that it is launching a new €350 million (£253 million) fund, Lakestar II. It will be lead by Klaus Hommels, the investor who has previously backed Skype, Spotify and Facebook.
The new fund follows Lakestar’s first fund, which was launched in 2013. Lakestar I, as it is now known, is a €135 million (£97.9 million) fund.
Lakestar says its new fund will focus on early stage investments, such as seed funding and Series A rounds.
What follows is an edited version of Business Insider’s interview with Hommels about his new fund and the current state of tech startups in Europe:
Business Insider: Why don’t you start by telling us some more about your new fund.
Klaus Hommels: I let the framework be very flexible because, for the moment you might have some hypothesis on the sector, but that might change.
I would not want the fund to be limited by a framework that I have in the fund docs. What I mean by that is, for example, the Nest example. Nobody had ever looked at hardware. The day after Google bought Nest, every VC was looking at hardware. None of the VCs had told their LPs that they were going to look at hardware at the time they raised the fund. So I want to avoid that, meaning we’re pretty stage-agnostic. We can do €500,000 [£362,000], but we can also do €45 million [£32.6 million] as an investment. Leaving alone the technical framework, I think we historically like B2C models, we like markets where the founder has a passion for changing the market in a considerable way. Also it might be a tougher ride, but I think in general those are models that intrigue us more than some of the lighter models.
BI: There’s a lot of seed funding and early stage investments going on in Europe right now, with investor Saul Klein also focusing on newer companies. What do you think of the competition in early stage investments?
KH: Historically we have been doing that. The two or three biggest companies in Lakestar I are the ones where we seeded and went all the way, or where we are still the only VC in. So I think that is something that has historically proven that we are pretty efficient in that. Secondly, what has changed my view regarding the ecosystem is that now, the companies and entrepreneurs in Europe are more varied, more mature. The visions are bolder in terms of geographical spread or tasks to solve.
My perception is that in the last three to four years they tried to accelerate quickly, there is a legitimate reason to give them more early on, more money, in terms to speed up the development. That’s something that in the US has always been the case. You have like $US20-30 million [£12.7-19 million] investments as an A or B [round], but that was never possible in Europe. I think that has changed over the last year, and we have seen in our own portfolio a lot, and that we want to do. Therefore, the increase in fund size is justifiable.
BI: What trends within Europe are most interesting to you right now?
KH: The general things that everybody is looking at right now are fintech, and people are starting to look at health. I do not have a final take on it. We are looking at it, and some models are surely very interesting. But in general I try to also go with entrepreneurs that we have known for a lot of time. And those that have the passion and did already do something successfully, where they have proved that they are not doing it for the money, but rather for the excitement and the passion of solving that problem. And then I’m pretty agnostic on what they feel they want to do. So this is something which we are in a fortunate situation since we have backed so many of the big companies, we got to know a lot of people working in these companies that then have self confidence and they are, in some cases, spin-outs of these companies where we know the people pretty well and then we back them, like with Lookback. Which was spun out of Spotify.
BI: What’s the biggest different between the European technology scene and tech in the US? Is it the amount of funding available, or the experience on hand?
KH: My perception is that Europe has developed amazingly in the last year. And with London being for sure the heart for fintech, I think every company where it is important to have a nice user interface, a nice graphic environment, are Scandinavians, especially the Swedes are fantastic in those. So, for example, when it comes to gaming, it’s very important how the haptic and the look and feel is, that’s why the Swedish companies dominated the gaming environment, with Rovio, with Supercell, with King, with Minecraft. There are certain specialisations happening. I think Berlin is on a great track. You have roll-out models where it’s execution-heavy, this is what you see now.
Elsewhere, it’s the first time since around two or three years ago where more technology-minded people start to become entrepreneurs, which hadn’t been the case in the 2000s. If you look at it, the reason is pretty simple. In the 2000s, people that had a technological background, in Germany they didn’t have economics at school, it was not a subject. So they had a situation where they were working on a technology issue, and in their daily life they discovered an insufficiency which they wanted to solve with technology, the idea for a startup, but they were just too shy to become self-employed because they had no clue about bookkeeping, founding a companies, all these sorts of things. That’s why they stood by the sidelines, and therefore most of the startups that were founded were founded by business people, and since they cannot came up with technological innovations, they more or less copied them. The generation of people that have a technological background that discover the situations where they want to be self-employed, now they all have economics at school. The level of confidence to jump and become self-employed is a totally different one. That’s why I think, also in Berlin, you can find a totally new breed of company that is way more technology-based rather than execution-based.
BI: A lot of startups in Europe feel that in order to be successful they have to go to the US and crack that market. Do you feel that succeeding in the US is still vital?
KH: I think where startups are nowadays doesn’t matter so much. Historically, with the limited scope of European ecosystem, it was very difficult to bring companies over because we lacked the contacts, we lacked the confidence, we lacked the financial means to do so. But with the latest examples I think it gets more and more likely that you have to go to the US. And everybody cooks with water, yes? In the end, you have the decent chance that you start to be connected, and if you are invited to the US, you see that it can help you over there. It will be a compulsory path to market your services in the US once you have the product for that. If it’s a very local product then obviously it doesn’t make sense, but if you look at startups like GoButler, all of the companies that I’ve seen. If you have a little traction in the US, it’s immediately way bigger than if you have some traction here.
BI: A lot of big US VC funds like Google Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz are starting to turn their attention towards Europe. How do European VC funds stay relevant?
KH: On one hand, they are smart. And they only come over once they have reached a certain size. Talking about Google Ventures, or Andreessen, or Insight, or Sequoia, which are the ones that do seed here. That means, on the flipside, that they can only do something with bigger cheques. If you do earlier stage and then develop these companies, like we have very close relation to all of these, then it’s a totally natural progression that you invite these people for these later rounds where you need more money, and then have to take the head in settling in the US. I think that it doesn’t always solve all the problems for European companies to take US money, but the structure is in a way that really for earlier and series A, it doesn’t make so much sense for US companies.
BI: One of the big questions in Europe right now is where the Silicon Valley of Europe is. Is it London, Berlin, or somewhere else?
KH: Everybody who you talk to will have a certain tainted view. I try to answer it with facts. Those that say London, London has the advantage of the same language as the US. At the beginning it had a pretty decent adaptation of creating companies. But I think at the end it will be Berlin, for a very simple reason.
If you found a company, what is the most expensive thing? It’s the first dilution. In Berlin, a developer can have a decent apartment for €300-350 [£217-253], and he has a nice life. So the average salary of a technology person that you have when you start a company is something like $US38,000-40,000 [£24,200-£25,400] in Berlin and $US56,000 [£35,600] for London. If you take rental space, again, way cheaper in Berlin than in London. If you really bootstrap something it is so much more unbelievably cheaper to get to a certain level in Berlin than it is in London.
Furthermore, all the talent from Poland and Hungary, it’s very easy for them to go by train to Berlin and then live in a cheaper city than to fly to London to be in a very expensive city. I think the moment you want to do a financial services startup, the functionality will probably overrule my logic, but if you are more or less undecided or just want to join a startup where you’re not the boss, then I think you would probably go a decent way of risk litigation if you go to a cheaper place rather than an expensive place.
BI: And perhaps the other big question, not just in Europe, is whether we’re in a tech bubble. What do you think?
KH: Here’s my view: It’s very, very difficult to really analyse whether it’s a bubble or not. The observations are that there are some higher prices. There’s a lot of money going in. But unlike never before, we’ve never had a situation where you have so much quantitative easing, and this overlays in general with an inflation in asset prices. I’m not sure how to calculate that out of the equation. I tried it once, and if you look at price/earning ratios of all industries versus the tech industry then I think it’s difficult to argue we have a bubble because with the implicit growth rate tech has against the old economy, the implied price/earning ratios are not way, way higher than for the old industry, meaning that, given the stronger growth, they are actually pretty reasonably priced in comparison to some older industry stuff.
The second observation is that the IPO price of Microsoft in 1987 was $US700 million [£446 million]. Cisco floated for $US400 million [£254 million] and Amazon was almost $US200 million [£127 million]. I’m mentioning that because asset managers like Fidelity and T. Rowe Price were asset managers with a lot of money that invested in public equity. When they had the chance to invest at these valuations in public tech growth companies. So now, where’s the regulation? IPO readiness costs are $US10 or $US15 million dollars [£6.3 million or £9.5 million]. The IPO valuations of companies are way, way higher, like Alibaba, Facebook, Twitter. Meaning that companies like Fidelity and T. Rowe Price, if they only invested in public equity, the whole line that was there between the $US700 million or $US800 million [£509 million] market cap of Microsoft when it listed, to the $US15-20 billion [£9.5-12.7 billion] where they list now is for private investors and not accessible to the T. Rowes of the world.
In my view, what has happened there is just that the window is different, meaning that the same money goes to those companies, but before they were listed and they got it through the IPO and secondary offerings or additional offerings, and now they are not listed and they get the money in very high volume D or E rounds.
The T. Rowes need to take part in the value creation between the $US1 billion [£637 million] and $US15 billion, and they can’t if companies do not go private. So what you see is in the inflation of the different rounds, you have A, B, C rounds, we are probably now something like 30% or 40% higher than in the years before, but with the D rounds we are probably 300% or 400% higher. For me the perception is that companies before floated with $US1 billion and therefore every financing after that was not calculated in private rounds but in public rounds. Now they float with $US15 billion, and on the way from $US1 billion to $US15 billion all of the financing that happens then is calculated in the private rounds. That blurs the picture a little bit because this window has just moved a little bit.
Here’s another observation: Unlike ever before, the internet has become so unbelievably structured. I was running around in the 2000s meeting BMW and the supervisory board wasn’t interested in digital, the CEO was not interested in digital, they didn’t even have a board member for digital. Everything that you wanted to do with them, every time you wanted to do a B2B sale, it was very hard. B2B sales took 18 months because it was not structurally ingrained in the old industry.
Now Cameron, Merkel, everybody talks about digital. Every supervisory board member talks about digital. Every CEO has a board member for digital, meaning B2B sales are now down to 6 months because it’s structurally ingrained and everybody is looking at it and it’s part of everybody’s thinking process. That is totally different than we’ve ever had it before
Of course we have some situations where we all feel that there are some exuberances. That’s a normal part of life. That comes and goes. Especially the structural element makes me believe a little bit that there will be a very broad and very profound move into digital topics from every industry.
BI: Finally, here’s a question that a lot of startups in Europe will be interested in, what kind of investments are you most interested in?
KH: For me, I’m a little bit of an odd guy in this field because I was fortunate enough to do something so that my fridge is full. What I’m most excited about is if there is an entrepreneur that really has the passion to change a certain industry and if you are allowed to be part of their journey and be instrumental in making this dream come true and afterwards change an industry. I think that is totally satisfying.
In the beginning, when I invested in Skype, there was no idea where the journey went because it was so early. And now, you can say that somebody wanted to change the telecoms industry, and 10 years later this company makes 8% to 10% of the global long distance call volume, that is where I say ‘cool.’ You had a hypothesis and you really went for it and it changed behaviour and became a brand. Same with Spotify as well. These are models that will have a serious impact on an industry and the industry will probably never look like it looked before. These things, I like them a lot. I’m really intrigued by them a lot.