Paul Lê, born in Evry-Courcouronnes in the Parisian suburbs, is the co-founder and co-CEO of La Belle Vie, a French same-day grocery delivery company created in 2015.
His syndicate, Unhiders Angels, is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs from difficult backgrounds build networks and access capital.
Lê hopes that Unhiders – now open to new applications on Roundtable – will encourage investors to look beyond the conventional profiles of typical entrepreneurs, and focus on talent and hard work, no matter where they come from.
Lê spoke about the importance of fighting spirit, how building trust is key to growing a network, and Unhiders being like a ‘private club’ for open-minded people.
Roundtable: Could you tell me about your investment background and why there is a need for a syndicate that focuses on more diverse entrepreneurs?
Paul: We started Unhiders Angels at the same time as we invested in Roundtable, six or seven months ago. But my co-investees and I have been investing in these companies for years – I’ve invested in more than 30 companies, mostly in France.
In general, it's very difficult to access companies that are not part of the Paris ecosystem. VCs and business angels are more confident investing in a company that has been built by founders from the top schools. Otherwise, it's harder for them to understand who you are and what you are going to do, because they don't know you.
I’d say, when you do seed and pre-seed, background is around 30% to 50% of an investor’s decision. And that's a big problem.
When you don't have the background or track record, you get less money and you have to prove yourself more. When you’ve gone to a good school and worked at McKinsey, it’s easier to present your PowerPoint and get money. It's much harder for people outside of this ecosystem – but that struggle also makes a good entrepreneur.
I've been through this myself. My parents came to France 40 years ago from Vietnam. When I started my company [La Belle Vie] ten years ago, I did not have access to a network, and it was much harder for me to get access to capital.
Roundtable: Does Unhiders invest in all industries?
Paul: Yes. All industries based in Europe. We started with around 15 people in this syndicate, all with different professional backgrounds, so we are very open.
Roundtable: And how do you find and select deals?
Paul: I'm very active in various diversity-focused associations. People know me now and they trust me.
I want to see the fire in people’s eyes. I'm just looking for good people and good business. That is the basis of any investment.
Roundtable: What mentoring do you provide to entrepreneurs?
Paul: We need to mentor entrepreneurs at the beginning, to shape them to fit into the startup ecosystem, to present themselves to VCs in the right way and so on.
Once every two or three months, we sit down and we talk about KPIs. We give advice on how to achieve them, and then we want to see how the entrepreneur executes. So, by the time we share a deal with others, we already know this entrepreneur is a hard worker.
It's probably the most interesting part of being a business angel, to advise people and see how they improve every day.
Roundtable: Does providing that amount of resource affect the number of deals that you do?
Paul: Yes, of course. I have my own company. I don't have that much time. That's why we are opening the syndicate beyond our original 15 members: other people can help us find dealflow.
We are very picky as to who can get in: it's like a private club. It's easy to show the startup to someone that has money. Money is not the problem. It’s time: time to help people, to grow their networks. And to be available to founders.
Dealing with failures
Roundtable: Given that you are investing in entrepreneurs that don’t start from a level playing field, how do you judge and deal with failure?
Paul: Obviously not everything works out. That's a huge part of the business. I mean, failing is okay. But not fighting is not okay. Being an entrepreneur is all about that fighting spirit. You can learn most things. But you cannot learn to have that spirit.
Everyone I’ve worked with has fought for their business. They haven’t given up. I'm very proud of that. Whenever they have a problem, I think I'm one of the top three people that they can call any time.
Roundtable: How long do you work with people?
Paul: I can work for any length of time with founders. You only invest the money you can afford to lose, and in people you trust. If you make your money back, or make a return, you’re lucky. With this kind of mindset, you avoid stress.
Members of the Syndicate
Roundtable: Who are you looking for in terms of joining the syndicate?
Paul: I'm looking for very open-minded people, who can focus on business metrics rather than background.
The worst thing you can do is go about things in the regular way. What I mean is asking founders about their background, yet you don't know anything about their lives or what they have been through. That's just a waste of time.
For example, look at a company I’ve invested in called Asap.work [a temporary employment agency in the construction industry]. Nobody knew the founder, Mathias Mouats. And now he's doing so well. All the VCs are running after him. When I first met him, he was doing a couple of thousand euros per month. Now he is going to do a couple of million in two years. That’s incredible.
Roundtable: Do you have any views on required ticket size?
Paul: No. We don't look for a specific ticket size. Our main aim is to help people. And when you have that aim, people want to give you a big place on their cap table.
Money is not the primary driver for business angels. If you don't get your money back, you gain something else: network, reputation.
Successful entrepreneurs need to be very humble. Of course, they’re intelligent and they work hard, but luck also comes into it. This means you have to give back and share your success.