Natasha Lytton runs Brand, Marketing & Comms at Seedcamp, the leading European seed fund based in London. Prior to Seedcamp, she led marketing for a number of consumer startups and worked in agencies across global consumer brands. She is also a mentor at the likes of Techstars and Friday Club and frequently runs workshops and speaks about the importance of building brand for commercial growth.
What drew you to venture capital and working with startups?
I love working with startups at that really early stage as they build out their business. Prior to Seedcamp, I'd worked at a number of consumer startups in CMO roles. I was running into the same issue time and time again: I would get brought in 18 months into the company’s lifecycle when there was a functioning product but very little thought when it comes to brand. I believe it foolish not to prioritize brand early on. Brand is not just a logo and a tagline; it is everything you do, think, say, touch and make.
The last startup I worked for, Pronto, was Seedcamp-backed. Though we folded, it was an amazing experience; it moved me further into tech and gave me insight into the VC landscape. I pinged Seedcamp Managing Partner, Carlos Espinal, a few days after we shutdown – when you have just a week’s notice period you have to hustle fast to find that next role – and knowing Seedcamp had a broad portfolio of early-stage companies, I imagined someone would be hiring. Turns out Seedcamp was and they asked how I’d feel about leading their Marketing & Comms efforts. Later that same day I was in with the entire team and I think I signed a contract the day after that. I felt it was the perfect place for me to work with a cross-section of companies and to instill the importance of brand at that earliest stage.
Seedcamp had a great reputation – thanks to the exceptional work and time invested into building the European startup ecosystem over the past decade. I wanted to work with smart people who had time-tested expertise. People who specialized in investing early, who knew what it took to build a business, and how to spot great talent. I also believed I had something different to offer as someone who knew how to take a product and build a compelling brand around it.
There were also some very real brand problems to help Seedcamp solve. One of my first mandates was to help reposition Seedcamp into a VC fund (from an accelerator) and to create everything we needed both internally and externally as we geared up towards launching our Fourth Fund. It was an amazing experience going from working with very early-stage companies, where you have so much flexibility to create and are essentially starting from scratch vs a more established brand with a 10- year legacy and important repositioning piece to help navigate it through the next decade and beyond.
My role now is split across driving everything that touches the Seedcamp brand as well as supporting the portfolio as a whole on their own marketing, brand and comms efforts. I also get involved with the DTC/DNVB dealflow we have coming through as I’m really passionate about that space.
Everyone in VC talks about their network but I truly think it’s what sets Seedcamp apart from others. We’ve built what we call the ‘Seedcamp Nation’; essentially our own fully functioning micro-economy and peer-to-peer learning platform that includes boots on the ground across the world. This features the best possible network to support our founders as they raise, hire, learn, build and grow. We’re fortunate that so many exceptionally talented people want to get involved with Seedcamp and they are a hugely important part of our journey and add amazing value to our founders.
We’ve built the infrastructure geared around our founders. It allows them to take what they need from us and the network as a whole. We’ve shirked the programmatic approach of an accelerator as we’ve evolved our own model; it just doesn’t work for everyone. As the ecosystem has evolved, so too has the type of founder we see coming to Seedcamp. We’re now frequently investing in second and third time entrepreneurs. It’s great validation to see seasoned entrepreneurs coming to Seedcamp. The knowledge gap for a repeat founder versus someone straight out of college is very different and so the support we offer needs to reflect this. That said, the willingness of our repeat founders to engage and invest in the Seedcamp Nation and give back to our other founders is a joy to see. We’ve created a channel of support, operating expertise, and global networks that help with all aspects of scaling and accessing capital.
We are also explicit and transparent in the way we invest and what that process looks like. From submitting your startup's details via our website to our filtration process, partner pitches, and investment forum, we try our best to give startups an answer within a few weeks. We know the raising process is frustrating and time consuming. You’re desperately trying to get a round together and there’s so many moving parts. Collectively, we’ve been doing this for a long time and as a team of founders and operators, we’ve been in those very shoes before. That empathy drives us to create an infrastructure that’s actually productive and efficient for entrepreneurs.
You've worked in communications and marketing for a number of startups and agencies. What did you learn from these roles that you brought to platform at Seedcamp?
I guess I’ve seen how it works from all sides. From agencies to large established in-house brands and then startups, I’ve also experienced growth and failure and can empathise with a lot of the early-stage pains our companies are going-through as well as knowing the tactics for that later-stage growth. The first startup I joined grew rapidly. We secured investment right off the bat and became the fastest growing UK brand in our space. Everything was stacked against us but we created a product and brand narrative that worked and found our ‘disproportionately influential’ customer who would drive our growth.
Then I joined an early-stage company as CMO in the food tech space. This experience was the complete opposite. We had a brilliant team but a seriously difficult market (the startup was comparable to Maple, which raised $100M+ and shut down). Over in Europe, Deliveroo was the delivery darling and had gobbled up most of the money to be had in the sector and investors were losing their appetite when it came to food tech. We weren’t sure if this was a US market versus European market issue. We looked at order delivery patterns and behaviours in New York and SF and believed the demand and trend would, or at least should, be mirrored in the UK. But it wasn’t as strong of a market. And because we were taking a full-stack approach, we were cash heavy - the kind of startup that requires investors to have big balls. It made me realize that consumer plays in Europe are far more difficult than in the United States.
What I learned from those experiences is that getting the right investors is critical. When I work with our portfolio companies on their marketing material and pitches, I dig deep on how they’re framing the startup’s narrative. I know what things an investor needs to see and the metrics that matter to them. But I also recognize that people put an astonishing amount of time and energy into decks without really thinking about the message. I was recently speaking on a panel about this. If you look at the first Uber and Airbnb decks… they were terrible but the vision was hugely compelling. It still comes back to brand and messaging and is just another proof point of how important it is across different segments you’re targeting. A beautifully designed deck means nothing if the content is crap.
Seedcamp, like many other VC firms, has an Entrepreneur-in-Residence program. What's the benefit of having an EIR program?
We have EiRs and Venture Partners who add weight to the Seedcamp team and are of immense value to our founders and their teams. If you think about all the components that go into building a company, no single person can possibly know it all. Our EiRs and Venture Partners are people who have experience operating at the highest level. They’ve been in serious roles, founded and often exited their own companies. Often they miss the thrills of those early days and want to pay it forward with their knowledge and resources. It’s also an amazing position to be in as you see emerging technology being built and get to support companies who in the years to come may radically transform the way we live, interact and buy.
That’s the beauty of it and why we continue to have at people willing to give time to our portfolio. Whether it’s for B2B sales, UX design or building OS, we’ve got the right experts on hand to help. Seedcamp has a massive portfolio – over 280 companies now. How we treat a seed investment will be completely different from when one of our early investments is raising their series C and naturally we’re less hands on. But we continue to see the way Seedcamp's support leads to amazing outcomes. Recently, UiPath (one of our portfolio companies) raised capital and reached a $3B valuation. The founder tweeted at our team to thank us for the important path we played on that journey. It's heartwarming to see the value Seedcamp can generate and the sort of growth being achieved in just 3 years since we first invested.
On Medium, you wrote that “increasingly brands have to do much more and think more creatively in order to stand out and be heard above the noise." How are you helping Seedcamp's portfolio do that?
It starts with asking and then answering some really simple questions: who, what, why, how and for whom? You’d be amazed how many people are creating companies without ever really having thought about this nor their unique position in the market. Correction, they’ll show you their brand on a competitor landscape slide on the top right hand side of the page but they’ve rarely thought about how they’re going to create a proposition that truly will stand out and what that looks like across all ownable assets; touchpoints, messages – you name it. One of the biggest mistakes I see is a lack of alignment internally which means the external facing message often falls flat. How can you possibly expect people to buy into what you do if you’re not even sure yourselves?
Obviously if your product is rubbish, nothing you do is going to really go the distance so what I like to do in workshops I run is to take two similar products and present them side-by-side and ask people to spot the differences between them. One of the most obvious ones for me is Coca-Cola v Pepsi. If you take taste out of the equation and just think about ‘brand’, who wins? For me it’s Coca-Cola hands down. The strongly defined mission: to refresh the world; inspire moments of optimism and happiness; create value and make a difference, bleeds through to every aspect of the brand’s behavior. From the consistent positioning around moments of happiness and shared experiences to innovation around ownable assets and new marketing techniques – they were one of the first to create a bespoke bottle mold and work with partner brands such as Jean Paul Gaultier on the design and one of the most successful to adopt personalization with their ‘share the coke’ campaign – Coca-Cola is consistently one of the most loved brands because its behaviour is strongly linked to its mission.
Then you look at PepsiCo. The purpose, ‘performance with purpose’ no less, is as meaningless as a lot of their failed campaign activations. In my opinion, it’s this lack of a strongly defined vision which has led to so many of their campaigns falling flat. From Michael Jackson’s hair on fire to other flashy celebrity endorsements and that horror show of a campaign with Kendall Jenner last year, standing for nothing makes it hard for anyone to truly buy into or believe in the Pepsi brand. Their activities feel like flash in the pan campaigns driven by celebrity culture rather than true purpose, which is especially important for the younger generation.
Consumers are pretty good at sniffing out bullshit or at least they’re getting better. Whenever brands stand for something inauthentically, it doesn’t fly. This was a fairly longwinded way of saying that brands need to create something that’s real and believable. What you stand for may be polarizing – just look at the latest Nike x Colin Kapernick campaign (which I loved) – or it may be much easier for everyone to support but it has to be real to who you are. If you flip flop all over the place how can anyone possibly trust you?
And that consistency has to start internally. Whenever I do sessions with our startups on brand, the first thing I ask the team to do is write down what they do and why they do it. I’ve yet to have a team all give the same answer. If you're not aligned internally about who you are, what you do, and why it's important, how do you expect consumers to understand? I can’t stress enough the importance of that internal cohesion first. That’s not to say you can’t test and iterate but you have to all be singing from the same hymn sheet.
So, in summary, for me it’s around the clear communication of: why you exist, where you sit in the market and how you express yourself along with proper thought into how you can create ownable assets across every touch point and solid thinking and testing around your brand messaging and why that is going to resonate with your disproportionately influential customer.
I’ve created a really simple framework to help startups think about their own brands here.
With your interest on D2C companies, I was struck by a question you recently posed on Twitter about European startups struggling to create compelling brands versus businesses in the US. Do you have any hypothesis for why that might be the case?
We just don’t build big, sexy D2C brands in Europe in the same way as in the States. In the Crunchbase article I shared about top consumer startups, not one of them was European. Dollar Shave Club, Everlane, Glossier, Casper – all born in the USA. It’s something I think about a lot as to why we seem unable to build these sort of companies here.
Without making sweeping generalizations, I think there’s a different attitude and openness to consumerism in America. Whenever I go to NYC, I’m struck by how much bolder brands are there. It’s in your face; they want you to buy their products. As Brits, we have a tendency to be polite, modest and, if you believe the Richard Curtis stereotypes from the movies, lovingly awkward. That translates into advertising and marketing that often lacks strength or conviction in the message.
So I think part of it is down to cultural differences but then there’s also the reality that propensity to spend online is much higher in the US than Europe– perhaps because you’re often that much further away from a physical store. Add to that, in Europe you’re looking at 28 different countries and 24 different languages – we’re not one homogenous entity.
I also think in the US, the power of ‘wanting’ something in incredibly strong along with the aspirational feeling the product may bring with it. Here it’s much more about whether you need that thing. I always talk about the emotional and rational drivers that underpin every decision. Perhaps in the US the emotional pull is stronger than here.
That emotional play and strength of brand drives you to want products even if you don’t need them. In the US you have startups innovating across everything from contact lenses to toothbrushes and tampons. You tend to get copycat plays a couple of years later across all of these products In Europe but the scale is never as big and many people wonder why on earth anyone would care about cool contact lenses. But consumers get so much joy out of the end-to-end experiences that startups like Hubble create. The flip side of this is Brandless - its beauty comes from being a conscious counter-brand. I love the boldness and confidence of it and the fact both can exist side-by-side.
I’m thoroughly impressed by Seedcamp's commitment to transparency. Your firm has shared a number of investment-related templates from termsheets to advisor agreements, and clearly delineated your investment process here. What led Seedcamp to provide that information and how has it made an impact?
When we raised our last fund, we also released our fundraising deck on our blog. I’ve never seen a fund do that. Raising money isn’t easy – whether you’re a fund or a startup – and releasing our deck was our way of saying that we completely understand what founders go through as we have to go through it too. There was nothing in the fundraising deck that we weren’t confident in sharing externally and that spirit of transparency is one of our core brand values so it felt natural to us to be as transparent as possible to show how we go to the outcome we reached.
Firms list their values but behavior and actions are everything. This is something I tease out when I think about brand positioning and brand values. Every brand has their driving principles. You can run into trouble as a company grows if you haven’t set up the right behaviors from the start. Seedcamp values openness; it impacts our priorities as a firm as well as the people we hire and bring into the portfolio. Our expectations are shared up front. If someone comes to us without the information we ask for, we can say they haven’t done their homework. We want people and founders who have the initiative.
We spearheaded Seedsummit to democratize access to funding by providing resources like termsheets. If you google termsheet, our template is one of the first links. We know it’s a needed resource so we put our formats out there! At Seedcamp, we believe every founder should have the tools to raise capital rather than limiting it to the people who are lucky enough to have the inside knowledge.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in VC?
If I’m honest, I’ve never felt, or I refuse to feel that, that being a woman has held me back in my career – in VC or other.
Some of the most unpleasant situations I’ve faced have actually been with other women which I desperately want us to change as we have got to support one another, rather than view other women as competition. This was something I wrote about in Campaign Mag last year. I personally believe the more we work together and empower each other - especially in industries that are male-dominated - the closer we get to solving the parity problem. I understand with so few women at the top, it can seem like we have to fight to get to that no.1 spot but I just don’t feel it helps solve the problem in the long run.
That said, it’s a certain ‘type’ of woman that tends to succeed in this world. I think you have to be sturdy and resilient and not afraid to stand up for yourself and call out bullshit and bad behaviour when you see it.
Many of the challenges I personally face in VC I don’t believe have anything to do with my gender. If you look at the ‘value-add’ function in venture, the percentage of women is much greater. While the gender balance may swing in our favour, there are challenges too. The primary role of a fund is to make returns and even though branding and marketing involves metrics and deliverables, these are very different in a fund structure. I have to manage my expectations and retrain myself on what great looks like. It’s not the same as being a CMO for one company because I’m working on platform services for an entire portfolio of startups and for a fund where returns take many years. There’s not the tangible immediacy of an e-commerce site, CPAs and customer LTV.
What advice would you give to young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side?
I just think it’s great that something like this exists so huge kudos to you, Nikita, because I’d never even heard of VC when I was at university and thinking about careers. I went to Oxford which tends to be a feeder school into this industry but as a student of Modern Languages, it just wasn’t a world I was aware of. I feel very strongly that this industry should not be one that’s reserved exclusively for those who’ve been to certain institutions and followed the expected trajectories doing MBAs, banking, consulting etc before winding their way into venture. So, don’t be discouraged if that hasn’t been your path. It should be celebrated!
If there are people (male or female) you identify in the VC world who look interesting to you or who you want to learn more from, then get in touch. Do it in a way that’s real and hopefully it will lead to the right kind of response. I had someone get in touch with me recently asking to meet for a coffee to learn more about how I got into VC. They’d spotted a picture on my Twitter profile of me with a (fake) Notorious B.I.G tattoo and so along with asking about my experiences, they also asked about my favourite hip-hop songs. It made me laugh and I respected the effort put into the approach (and the excuse to talk about hip-hop)!
There’s loads of great initiatives out there to help champion and encourage more women to get into VC and start companies. Do your homework, look into the events, resources and platforms out there and if you’re not sure then ask. There are so many awesome women out there willing to help.