Episode 18: From an impressive early career in Silicon Valley through Apple, Yahoo and Skype to founding partner at Passion Capital, this weeks’ guest Eileen Burbidge has experienced an incredible journey in tech. In this conversation with Jay and Rupy, Eileen shares her secrets on becoming a successful venture capitalist, whilst staying a decent, humble and kind person. They also have a laugh at a few stories from her past.
02:20 Early days in Sillicon Valley
04:06 Thoughts on Steve Jobs , Larry Ellison & Elon Musk
08:49 Beginnings as capital investor
14:46 Jay receiving venture founding he didn’t want
17:16 Treating all founders equally
20:09 Managing family and business time
25:40 Fertifa and other new ventures
Passion Capital’s website: https://www.passioncapital.com/
Fertifa’s website: https://www.fertifa.com
Eileen’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/eileentso
Previous guests include:
Apologies for the typos, this is an AI transcription[:
All right. Today's topic is early-stage investing. We speak about the[:[:
Think of the likes of Monzo, think of Go Cardless. Think of um, actually my third company Screen Loop. And before that, she was actually in Silicon Valley and she actually worked for the likes of Apple, Yahoo, and also some Microsystems.
That is the grit that this incredible woman shows.[:[:
I got really lucky, right? Nobody knows this. Yeah. It's hilarious that you think I got away with it. So obviously I was not given that much of a choice. I was told I was either going to get a medical degree, a legal degree, or engineering. And yes, as we know, computer science wasn't like really, it was the easiest of the engineering disciplines.
So yeah, that's what I[:[:
Like why would you leave? I thought at the time, cuz I had grown up in the Midwest part of the US so four Seasons, very heavily winter, and so I got to the bay and I was like, Why does anyone live anywhere but here? Right. The climate's amazing. You've got the ocean, you've got Tahoe, you've got all this outdoor activity.
It was phenomenal. And then of course, yeah, the ecosystem as we would call it now, but I didn't call it that then. Was thriving. Right. It was awesome. I mean, it was a lot of fun. I've only watched a few episodes of like silicon, like the TV shows and stuff. Yeah, it was really jumping. You would walk into Starbucks and you had to assume everyone in the queue was in tech and worked at a company.
If they didn't work at a startup, they worked at, you know, one of the big companies everybody did. Like you don't have this experience where sometimes, for instance in London, you get into maybe a black cab or the driver says, Oh, what do you. Here. I don't know about you. 18 years old. I still say I'm in it because that's what a cab driver knows, right?
What do you, what do you say, Tech? I'm in tech. What? A cab driver. Like what does that mean? You're gonna fix me, like Spotify. Really? So I still say it, And they still don't really know what that means. In the Bay Area in the nineties, obviously, everyone was in tech. Everyone loved it. Everyone was working on a startup idea or knew somebody who decided to do that crazy thing and go work at Google for options and the whole thing.
How hilarious. I loved it. I would say that I learned more though in the.com sort of a bust, so the two or three years that I stayed after the boom because that's when you. Wow, an entire cohort just got really lucky and that, you know, you mentioned the whole Asian thing. I was brought up to think you work hard, you'd probably, you know, make enough to look after yourself and your family and you'll get what you deserve.
And it's a meritocracy and you gotta put it in and go through the.com boom. And then the bust you saw, actually not all the smartest people I know did well. Not all the hardest-working people I saw did well. Some of the best people I would. Just got unlucky with their timing. And so for me, it was really, really interesting those last couple of years about how much of a role luck has to play in things, what timing does for you, and also just not to buy into the hype.a company that went public in:
I worked for an incubator, you know that that raised 150 million in order to incubate and be like a venture studio. Yeah, it was on the cover of the business week after it spectacularly failed, I worked at Palm Source, which is the operating system for the Palm Handhelds. You know, PDA. Yeah, and I had been in the Newton Group of Apple, right?
So I worked at startups and big companies alike. I[:[:
Right. It was, you know, the PepsiCo guy had come in, thought he was gonna run John Scully. I was there with Guy Kawasaki when he came back. And so it was before Steve Jobs came back. And obviously, I dunno if. No, but we were very sensitive to it at the time, and I mentioned I worked in the Newton Group, which was the personal digital assistant, basically iPhone 20 years too already.
He hated that. Really? Oh yeah, he, he, It's like on record you could go. He hated it. He thought it was ridiculous and stupid, which is why it was really funny watching him launch the iPhone, but he hated Newton and he killed it when he came back. And I think even when we were there and he wasn't there, you kind of knew this wasn't a Steve Jobs eat type thing.
And I don't know, I mean, I obviously mad respect for him, obviously, but also like Larry. Sin like Elon Musk. My first impression and thoughts about people like that are, do you really have to be an asshole to be successful? Yeah, totally. I would love to show that. No, you don't have to be, because what everyone says is, Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
So he yelled a few times and he like fired people on his look at what he did with the business though, and I feel like that shouldn't be a trade-off. Those things should not be mutually exclusive. Can we not talk about business leaders who are crazy successful and actually decent human beings too?[:[:
Or people are just gonna like steamroll over people. Have a revolving door of talent, lots of problems with, you know, people and also just maybe pr. . And also who do you wanna spend time with, right? Because we chat with people maybe more or less than I should, but you know, we're supposed to be there to support our entrepreneurs and to work with them and give them cover and we've got their back.
And that's harder to do when you're like, Oh, I don't wanna give that, you know, Or actually, maybe I'll just call that person next week you wanna talk to and work with and, and you wanna see people succeed when you're rooting for them. Yeah. You know, as individuals. So I. Not everyone feels the same way. It might sound really naive.
It might sound like it's actually foregoing my fiduciary responsibility to maximize returns. But my belief, my hypothesis is that I'll see better longer term returns because these people are investing in the qualities that I think will produce better businesses.[:
Brian, we speak a lot as well. You probably get so many messages from founders. From, you know, you're working in the government as well for like supporting them. Like how do you allocate your time? Because I struggle, right? I really struggle, but then I see you whenever I message you. You generally get back very quickly.
You're very quick. Even Tom from Monzo, he's got an incredible ability. Just get back to people 24 7. How do you do that? Like, You gotta teach me some skills. Like literally you get back to me every time so[:[:
Late today in first. I'm so late,[:
Do what you can do. Try to manage expectations, I guess, which is I'm not always gonna get back right away, and maybe it's that I was so unresponsive for so long. Now you're like appreciative. If I just respond one time, I dunno. Maybe I just set the bar really low. Maybe also it goes back to what we were talking about earlier.
I enjoy talking to you. Yeah, I enjoy it. Seeing you succeed or flourish or even work through a challenge, cuz it hasn't always been about great things or fun things and I enjoy watching you problem solve. So I wanna be part of that, or I wanna play part or at least not be a bottleneck. Let's talk a[:
We're skipping forward ahead a bit because we know that you are number seven at Skype. Is that?[:[:
Everything is tech now, even in medicine. But traditionally, you know, once you leave a company, you either go and start your own, you race capital yourself, or you know, go down the fund route. What was the decision process for[:[:
So I was pregnant with my firstborn, and with all respect, Yahoo. The great business of course at the time, but also good maternity leave, and good corporate benefits. It was sort of a good PLA versus the sort of startup route at the time. Both some[:
Alumni. They are[:
So in a way, I guess we all self-selected, right? By going to what we now think of as a big corporate. But it was one of your options. You know, it's before maybe Google landed here, it's certainly before Facebook or Alphabet did, or you know what I mean? Your choices were Yahoo and maybe AOL, you know like it's pretty early days, but, so I had gone to Yahoo and I only got.
St because my friends who were the Skype founding engineers based in Estonia, had 5% of Skype when it was sold to e. And they decided to set up a private, sort of a super angel funder, like a private fund of theirs, 50 million euros, it's called OSI or asi, out of Estonia. And they started wanting to invest, but there in Estonia weren't really keen on traveling to London all the time or kind of being in the flow, but they would send me a.
Business plans and Sarah to say, What do you think about this product idea? What do you think about this person? Oh, by the way, the person's coming through London not gonna be coming through Estonia. Could you meet them for us and tell us if you think they're full of shit or not? So I just started doing that and we weren't using the right vocabulary of semantics, but it was basically I started helping them do due diligence.investments in London between:
Actually, that first cohort of four companies did really, really well. Yeah. Which ones? So one is a treat. No way. Oh, tree. Well, yeah, we did Tre. Well, yeah, I know those guys. Yeah. Yeah, we did. It was Wahanda when it was first set up with the Yahoo alum. Yeah. Yeah. This one. And actually, LO is just, he's just launched Fund, So Lo and Salim were the co-founders.
And then another was Mandalay, which sold Dori er now Lexus Nexus. Oh,[:[:
And then I realized quite enjoyed it. I even considered for, you know, I don't know a little bit about moving to Estonia, kind of making it for it is before you kind of did remote working in the whole thing. Yeah. Now it seems so obvious that I should have just kept doing it with them, but that wasn't gonna happen.
And then I met my yeah, co-founders for passion. Started thinking about the same thing and met them through those investment activities by the way. So we then decided to set up passion very much in the image of what I'd seen in San Francisco when I was there.[:[:[:
Everyone's got great offices for entrepreneurs to rock up, right? But we were the first ones to do that. We were the first ones to hold office hours, which no, everyone kind of does. We were the first ones in Europe to publish infographics, which is now completely normal for everyone, weekly. Um, and we put our term sheet in plain English.
Because it was like, you know, the top of a term sheet, Every term sheet says this is a non-binding term sheet. So then it's like if it's not binding, why are we using these words, which make it all sound legal and such? So we put that in English too. So[:
We're getting loads of guys from the US coming and you're getting new people to create their own fund. Like how's your philosophy changed now? Like what? What do you think makes you guys unique today? Cause things have evolved so much.[:
I think it is harder and harder to differentiate yourselves. I think what we've got going for us is, and this is gonna make us sound so old now, but it's heritage. The fact that our original motivation is still probably what motivates us. You know, we haven't gone on to raise, you know, the first fund was 37 and a half thousand pounds.
The second fund was 45 million pounds. Third 1 45. We haven't. You know, 60, 75, a hundred, or tried to just AMAs more capital under management or whatnot and just try and be multi-stage. We still really like and value working in the earliest stages. We really like team building, company building, and getting the product market fit.
We really feel like that's where we add more value. That's where we enjoy having conversations. If you start getting into conversations about your profit margin and you're trying to get. Three percentage points out of your cost of goods. So like I just gloss over, right? That's not my thing. But if you started asking me like, I don't know, you know, should we hire the salesperson first or another like backend dev and you know, how do I get the culture to work and how are we doing remote working and hybrid and all?
Like, those are the kinds of things I really love. Getting involved in,[:
And then somehow, like Eileen just like slid some messages to me and I was like, Um, I don't wanna raise, but I dunno what's going on here. And she just kept on pinging me, pinging me, ping me, ping me. And then eventually I. I took your money and B upset so many other venture capital funds because they went, I said no to them and I dunno what happened.
I dunno what she did to me. . I don't actually know what she did. So can you explain what you did to me? Cause you seem like the best negotiator ever. Cuz I didn't want money from a venture capital fund and I got venture capital on my cap table. I was like, watch this happen.[:[:[:
Yeah. You know, there's this saying that I've said searches, you know, any fool. Full price, right? Anybody can just pay the sticker price. But certainly for me, something I watched my mom do when I was growing up, and obviously I used to cringe. I mean, I hated it. Yeah. I was super embarrassed. Like, why do you not wanna, you can afford it?
Like why are you trying to play off? But, um, what you learn is, I think if you put yourself in the other person's position if you understand that there's something to benefit both, I'm not just trying to take advantage of somebody. Hopefully, I didn't take a venture, but it's like, listen, I think we can hopefully help.
We can be useful. I think we can, you know, offer good advice without the overhead or whatever reasons you didn't want a venture capital investor. I'm sure that's the way I pitched it, which was, But we're not like other VCs maybe. I don't know. I don't know. Negotiating has been something I wouldn't have thought was great cause I wouldn't like to characterize myself as a salesperson.
Yeah. But actually, at some point in passion, we realized after two or three years, so I do actually negotiate most of the term sheets, even if they're not, you know, quote-unquote my deals.[:
Who are my friends? And they all just kept on saying, Take Eileen's money. Take Eileen's money. Like literally, I was getting a WhatsApp from them constantly. Like, Take her money, take her money. I'm just like, I felt like I got slight, I was like, I'm gonna lose all my friends if I don't take money. I, I don't know what happened.
But, you have managed to build incredible relationships with like some of the top founders in the UK. They all love you, right? If you had to, I guess, understand how you did, Are you able to explain cuz you have built probably the best relationships I've seen from venture capital?[:
I think so. I One of the people that I know you're referring to, I think part of the reason is, and this is the whole firm, all of us at Passion, we see so many founders. We can only invest in so many. But I hope that we behave in a way that's, even if the ones we don't invest in they will know. We'll get their back or we'll help if we can, You know, obviously, maybe we can spend less time than certainly our portfolio companies and that's the first priority.
That's, you know, what we tell our founders, but hopefully, we're still supportive. We'll give advice, we'll give feedback. They can bounce stuff off of us even if we haven't invested. And so, for instance, one person that we have in common, I think we missed that deal. Completely. We didn't get to invest. I was really annoyed cause we didn't even see it.
So it's not even like we made the wrong call, we didn't even see it. So that was our bad. But by the time I met this founder, I actually sort of was like, What is it that you're working on? What is it doing? It sounded amazing. And I was like, I can't believe we missed it. And then I was like, How come we don't hear more about you?
How come you're not? And I'm not saying this is what people should go for, but at the time, cuz this is quite some time ago now, you know, Tech Crunch was the thing if you got into Tech Crunch, it was gonna, you know, you're gonna see all your graphs go up to the right and you'd probably, it'd help with the fundraising and everything.
I remember this founder was really straightforward. They were like, I don't know. And I was like, Well, what are you doing? Are you doing? And he's like, Well, you know, we use so and so for pr. And I was like, First of all, why are you paying for pr? That's a whole nother topic. But then, then I was like, Your PR sucks because I've never heard of it.
So actually, I don't know if he's told you this story. The way we kind of hit it off, I was like, I will get you more exposure or attention or response from the next. And I, I'm not gonna charge you for it, but I bet you I can. And so he was like, Yes, sure. I mean, he had nothing to lose in it, right? Yeah. Yeah.
And then I did, I think I, I don't know what I did, I'm sure social media, but I think I mentioned to a couple of other people maybe invited to, you know, a round table or a conversation or a discussion. Only because, by the way, not just to prove about I'm combated, but. But also because I thought what they were doing was genuinely valuable, right?
I was already kicking myself for having missed the deal. So thought this is bonafide, like a genuinely good thing that they're building. Sounds like they're doing really, really well. I don't know why more people aren't hearing about this as an example of a great UK FinTech. So I think it is about that we try and treat everybody the same with high integrity and also try not to be as much over.
I know we can be, but as little overhead as[:[:
So mine are 16, 14, 12, and 10. And then I have a seven-year-old stepdaughter with my current partner. And the secret to this, by the way, the year-old, like yeah, we co-parent. So I co-parent with my ex-husband. So the older four are with us for a week, and then with their dad for a week at the same time. My stepdaughter's with us for a week or with her mom for a week.
So we have a house full of five kids like today, which is why I have to leave to do a couple of school pickups or we have a house of no kids every other week. Wow. I've got some married friends who are like, How do I? Yeah. . Yeah.[:
I mean, how have you managed[:
It's such an opaque, you know if Jay hits me up and is like, Oh, can you meet tomorrow at 10? And I'm like, Oh no, sorry, I can't, He doesn't know. We're not an internal company, so it's not like, Oh, I know you don't have any meetings. Like he doesn't know if I'm meeting with new founders or existing founders. So if I need to protect my time, I really can.
And I, I think that's, we're very, very lucky because of how opaque it is. And I know lots of investors like to pretend they're really, really busy. And of course, you could be busy, you could fill your days with. And like panels and lunches and meetings, you can also protect your time. So I'm really lucky about that.
And then I think actually what really brought into Sharp focus, because I think you're giving me credit for, for fighting balance, but I think it was a pandemic that really triggered it for me because first of all, I had a nanny. So I had somebody who would come in and right before Covid probably did the school pickups until about dinnertime, so I could go to the.
After school dropoffs and be in an office from, you know, anywhere between 9, 9 15 until five. So that was completely fine. And then also work after the kids go to bed. Now we don't have a nanny, so I go to the school pickups, but I was so lucky for so many years. But I think what the pandemic and lockdown taught me was because I did.
Home learning with my youngest. So my stepdaughter, who's five at the time, can't, It's not like, Oh, just listen to that zoom honey and let me know what we're gotta do afterward. Like, you know, she's obviously gonna space. So I was listening to all her lessons. We, you know, I'd have one earpiece and one ear, and she'd have one.
And so I was going through all her lessons with her and then doing the work and then doing the homework. And so I, I kind of did like homeschooling basically, or home learning with her. When I did that, I enjoyed it, first of all, but realized what I hadn't done. With any of the older ones, right? So since the pandemic, I'll go do the school pickups because I had so much time with all of them and I really, really enjoyed it.
I really enjoyed it and it made me realize how I didn't have that at the ages of the older ones and how little time I've got left. So I'm gonna make the most of it now.[:[:
Yeah, a little bit. I think that's a good metaphor. But you still think of the fund. As your baby, right? So we launched the fund. You know, we pitched it to institutional investors, limited partners who invested in the fund and trust us with their money. So you do still think of the fund itself and the firm as your baby, but then yeah, you're probably right.
You think of the little hatchling that you've decided to invest in. And I guess, you know, I should probably mention, cuz I gotta give a shout-out. So I'm spending a lot of time, as Jay knows, with one of our portfolio companies now. So I'm kind of. Operator side now two. And I think what's really hard about that is I probably do wanna invest even more time when I'm on the operating side because I've hired people to work on this company right with me.
While in a fun situation, obviously, I'm a custodian of people's money. It's not like I sold people's vision to come work with me. You work with, you know, give me your 40, 50, whatever hours a week. And because we're gonna build something together that's on the operator's side, and so that makes it probably harder.
To do the balance, but um, yeah, you do feel like they're all your babies.[:[:[:
Hormonal or sexual in nature. Those benefits, for lots of reasons, which is a whole nother podcast, are apparently not covered under private medical insurance, right? But everyone goes through, everyone's got a reproductive health system, whether they're gonna choose to have children or get married or not, whether they're in a heterosexual relationship or if they're the same sex, actually, if they're L G B T, a hundred percent of those people need support to start a family, right.
All of these things exist for every single person on the planet, and yet it's not covered under private medical insurance. This whole area of hormonal, reproductive, and sexual health's not covered. So we do that for Tifa for over a hundred thousand people now at different companies across the UK and a few countries in Europe.
He was like, Yeah, obviously that was gonna happen. Which was infuriating, by the way, cuz that's my partner saying, I told you so when he didn't actually even tell me he so, so I think it does look really natural now. At the time I didn't think. That I would have the time exactly to your question. So I didn't know that I'd have the time to commit that I would be satisfied with, And also, this one's an enterprise SAS business.
I mean, we do impact health outcomes for individuals, so we're very much a consumer proposition, but our channel is employers, so we are a b2b. You know, business, and we're selling to companies and I don't have that background. I might give you my opinion on how to do it, but I've never used HubSpot. I've never done BV sales calls in this type, That's my forte.
Right, exactly. Good. The type of people I was looking for would have that background, so I didn't think it would be me.[:[:[:
Oh wow. It's an amazing question. I have to say. It's the one I'm running now, then it is for it. I thought you're gonna say that. Sorry. I gotta say that. I gotta say that. But I think, I think maybe to fill in the blanks, part of the reason I feel so strongly about Tifa right now is that I've mentioned the children that I.
I maybe haven't mentioned, but you know, I'm 51 years old, so I'm P menopausal and I'm on H R T now. I also had two miscarriages between my first and my second born, and I also had two terminations in my twenties when I was working at Apple. So I've been through a lot of these journeys. I am an example that you can work through them, you just.
You carry on, you work, and this is fine. So maybe somebody would be like, You don't need a benefit from your employer. But I am also then firsthand witness to the fact that maybe it would've helped my well-being of it if I'd taken a day off, maybe if I'd actually had someone to speak to. It might have made that easier, and I would've been more productive as an employee for the companies I was working with during all those things.
And actually coming off the pandemic, we clearly see companies recognize the duty of care to employees, right? They're looking after well-being finally, and it's the right thing to do. And so I feel like it's so important to have companies like ours filling that gap for this area of wellbeing, which no one else is covering.
Got this incredible family. You're looking after kids, you've played all the games in life, right? And I'm just like, What? What excites you now? Cause it feels like there are so people that probably listen to this like, wow, Eileen's done so well in all these areas. And now I know you said you're gonna spend more time with your kids and then you know, you've now taken an operating role in this company.
I'm just, How did you weigh up that decision? It must have been so hard because now you're gonna have less time with your kids to now do this. What made you go for this decision? Cause it's,[:
I think I know I'm really lucky because I'm happy and I feel lucky to have all those facets of my life and to have those opportunities. You're right though, in terms of like this upbringing role, I needed it like a hole in the head, honestly, because I don't think I was responding, you know, all that quickly to things even before I picked this up.
And I don't think it helped. But I think for me, this one is so important. I feel so passionate about it. I also see a huge commercial opportunity, so it's like a no-brainer from an investment thesis point of view. But I also see the difference we make for people. You know, we've had for Tifa babies that were born, we had twins that were born last December.
We've got three women who are pregnant now. You see those pictures. Or if you're gonna help somebody make a decision about their trans surgery, Changing people's lives, Right? So I think to the point that you made, it's the impact. We're actually doing something that's impacting people's health outcomes, their livelihoods at work, which they've chosen for their career, and also just, you know, their life and their fulfillment and what they're sort of after in terms of their life choices.
So it does feel like this is the right thing to do. Somebody's going to succeed at it. I'm sure. I think there are some very successful US companies that could come and just land here and do it, but I feel like we should build a category leader here.[:
Where's the best place to for Twitter? You're, you're very active on Twitter, right?[:[:
Yeah. Well, hopefully, we can do a Part Two. Um, I'd love to. Yeah. There are so[:[:[:[:
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