Quentin Nickmans isn't just another business angel.
As a co-founder of Hexa and its three start-up studios, he has launched more than 30 businesses with a combined valuation of more than $5bn.
In this interview, Quentin tells us about his career, and his tips to begin angel investing and leading a syndicate.
Early career and first startup
Roundtable (R): Quentin, your story is inspiring for many entrepreneurs and business angels. Can you walk us through your early career and the formation of Hexa?
Quentin Nickmans (QN):
I started working at Boston Consulting Group for four or five years. Then, someone said to me that if I stayed longer, there would be no turning back and encouraged me to see something else.
So I left and first took over a bankrupt company named EatingDesk. Imagine Deliveroo before smartphones existed. When we took over the company, it was archaic, even relying on fax messages! So we automated all processes we could by developing software. In the end, everything was software-based, and we had grown into a nice company.
I loved the first two years. But then, by years 3 & 4, work became repetitive - the company was on track without specific challenges, and I have to admit I was not a fan of the industry, so I sold the business.
Connecting with like-minded people
Not long after I sold this first business I met my business partner, Thibaud Elziere. It was a turning point for me.
We, well in fact he, had plenty of software-based ideas and we partnered to launch them together. That was the birth of our start-up studio eFounders.
It now became three specialized teams under Hexa. Each one works on a specific vertical [B2B SaaS, Fintech and Web3] with a dedicated team of product managers, designers, and so on.
Our principle: we create software companies from the ground up and support them with product, design, PR, recruiting, finance, legal, …
The companies’ founders don't need to worry about anything else than building the next big software company.
Crafting a Successful Angel Portfolio
R: Quentin, any advice for someone who wants to build their portfolio?
First, identify your strengths. For me, it's SaaS, which I understand probably a bit better than the average investor. I know the good questions to ask and the metrics to look at. I understand what qualities to look for in the founders who lead this type of company. It’s crucial to know why opportunities come your way. If the reason isn’t clear, it's a red flag.
Second, network and share. Angel investing is a social exercise. Once you start getting some deal flow, share interesting opportunities with trusted investors. They will share opportunities back. And their insights on why they invest or pass on your own deals can be invaluable.
Third, people over ideas. A great entrepreneur can transform an average idea, but the reverse rarely holds true. Always prioritize the quality of the team.
Fourth, diversify. You never know as an angel what will be the home run outcome that will bring you a fabulous return. To me, you should plan to invest in at least 30 companies over a 2-year time-frame.
Last, be ready to lose the money you invest. Startup investments are risky and completely illiquid.
The Syndicate Lead vs. The Solo Angel Investor
R: How do you compare being a syndicate lead to being an individual angel investor?
Both have their merits. I’m doing both, so here’s my take.
Investing as an individual angel.
As an individual business angel, you have no strings attached. You can invest based on intuition, or the recommendation of a friend, or because you liked the founder. Generally, your investment ticket size (25 to 50k€ in my case) is easy to negotiate as an allocation.
As an individual though, at least for me, it's a side hustle. I do angel investing because I love talking with entrepreneurs. Their drive and motivation energize me and I learn a lot for my daily job at Hexa. The flip side is that as it is a side activity, I don't talk for more than an hour with them when I invest. In general, I trust that there is a group or a lead investor who can do more detailed due diligence.
But if everyone thinks like me… this can backfire.
Leading a syndicate.
When you lead a syndicate, you have larger responsibilities.
As a syndicate lead, I read signing documents down to the details, which I honestly don’t do as much for myself alone. I also go one step further in the due diligence process. I check the term sheet, the liquidation preference, or the right of first refusal... All the key ingredients of start-up governance.
You also act as a seller of the opportunity, even if you are investing yourself. You have to convince the syndicate members to join you on every deal that you select for them. So you will spend more time researching the deals than if you were investing alone. Just by writing an investment memo, you’re checking more things than when you are alone. One solution here is to join forces with other angels to lead the syndicate. The diligence work is then shared.
That said, it is generally interesting to lead a syndicate for at least two reasons.
To me, the most interesting one is that you deploy more capital. You are more important to the founder. You can ask for pro-rata rights, and you’re pretty sure to stay informed if something goes bad. Deploying more capital boosts your reputation, and you should attract better deals.
Since it is a bit more laborious than investing alone, you can be rewarded for it. But it should be done in a way that aligns interests. If you take a carried interest, you can make a bit better returns when there are good outcomes. I don’t like entry fees and management fees though. It's an immediate reward for the syndicate lead, and they should only be rewarded on positive returns, I think.
R: How do you source deals?
It's a mix of strategy and intuition.
First, build a network. The vast majority of the deals I’ve invested in came to me from my network.
Second, build your own brand. Think about what founders like in business angels. For instance, they like when you're a fast decision-maker, or are a domain expert. I've had the chance to build, slowly and silently, a reputation as an easy-to-go angel on SaaS startups. I don’t hide that I’m angel investing, but I don’t scream it either. People who need to know will know.
Third, also aim to work with people who are very well-known themselves.
Finally, know how the market perceives you. With Hexa, we're known for certain verticals, giving us an edge, but not others.
R: Tell us about how you select deals.
First, as a major disclaimer, all I’m saying here is only valid for early-stage investing in startups. For later-stage companies or other asset classes you should look at things completely differently.
In an early-stage startup pitch, there are some prerequisites that need to be there for me. For instance, even before meeting the founders, the quality of the deck, the website, the pitch - I need to see quality. First impressions do matter.
This is my first filter.
Then my second filter is the quality of the team. I care less about the idea than the founders. Their clarity, knowledge, and passion can turn modest ideas into goldmines. In essence, they need to impress me.
Keeping Syndicate Members Engaged
R: Engaging syndicate members can be challenging. How do you maintain their interest and support?
Transparency is key. Regular updates, whether good or bad, build trust.
The best companies report at least quarterly to their investors. It’s important to me that my syndicate co-investors get as much information as I do. So if the founders don't send reports, I’ll insist more on having information than when I’m an individual investor.
Founders also often have ‘asks’ in their reports. These could be introductions, referrals, or feedback. When they do, I actively involve syndicate members. It’s a win-win: founders get better insights, and members feel engaged and valued.