Investor spotlight: Earlybird’s Ciaran O’Leary talks Berlin hype and tough decisions

Ciaran O'Leary
Ciaran O'Leary

Ciaran O'Leary

Ciaran O’Leary is a partner at Earlybird Venture Capital, which backs the likes of Madvertise, 6Wunderkinder, Moped and Ubitricity (and a whole host more not based in Berlin). The firm moved its official home base from Hamburg to Berlin last year and also has outposts in Munich, Milan and Istanbul. It raised a new $100million fund, focusing on early-stage investments in disruptive internet businesses, in April.

Here, we ask him about Berlin, the most extreme thing he’s done for a portfolio company and what really gets his goat:

What appeals about Berlin?

The trajectory it’s on. There’s a lot of talk – is Berlin over-hyped? Of course it’s over-hyped, every good tech scene in the world is over-hyped, but it’s still completely relevant because it’s still the best ecosystem in continental Europe and with London the best in Europe…

Of course the media has expectations of all these companies becoming overnight successes but that’s not really going to happen – it’s going to take time and be a lot of work; not too sure what people were expecting.

media versus money hype – Berlin

hype monster – Berlin

Get the full set of slides we took that image from – O’Leary’s talk at the European Pirate Summit – here. Recommended.

What’s missing in Berlin?

Seed [fundraising] is pretty OK – but as soon as you want to raise over a million, three million, four million, it becomes more difficult…

The other thing that’s missing – a function of the tech scene being very young – is a few big companies where teams that really know their stuff are spinning out of. Also, a world-class engineering school. It isn’t crucial but it would be nice.

Can you give me a snapshot of your daily routine?

Daily – I wake up, I check Twitter and I have a couple of searches for the companies I’m invested in. I like to really find out how people are talking about their products.

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Obviously, meetings are a large part of everyone’s day but… We’re not building products, we’re not coding. We’re meeting people, bringing people together. So it really is, from meeting someone for a coffee in the morning time, which I usually do on my way to work, until maybe having dinner with one of our entrepreneurs for dinner in the evening time, I’d easily meet up to eight to ten people a day.

Half of the day is spent working with our portfolio companies and that’s especially around hiring and making tough decisions, for good and for bad. And the other half is spent meeting new teams and doing some due diligence and forming an opinion on it.

What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done for one of your portfolio companies?

It’s difficult to give one example, but this isn’t a job where on Friday evening you can say, OK, I’m not going to think about it until Monday. You’ve got such an intense relationship with the entrepreneur and the company and the products you’ve invested a couple of million in and some of it is your own money, because we invest into our own funds…

I guess the most extreme thing a VC can do that entrepreneurs care about is investing and backing them up in difficult times, when others have lost belief. Of course we’ve done that a lot, but it’s also our job to pull the plug early so we have to do that a lot also.

Workload-wise, I’ve flown to the most bizarre places at the most bizarre times to hire people for companies, to convince them to get on board.

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And then there are the small things, I think they are more important – the things that show you care – meeting a product manager for a few hours on the weekend to run through stuff isn’t extreme, but it’s a signal you care.

What’s a pet hate you have that you see in other investors or founders or maybe even yourself?

I hate inspirational quotes. When I see people saying, this is such a great article, and it’s completely obvious, gullible, that makes me go, argh, you’re inspired by that? Also, when people are very judgmental and opinionated on companies or people they’re actually not very close to.

What’s some life advice you wish you’d given yourself as a child?

I studied business, even though at school I was always much better at chemistry, physics and history… So I would say that, throughout your school and university life, it’s more important to do stuff that you’re passionate about. At the end, I’m a firm believer that if you’re driven and you’re semi-smart, you can pretty much do anything.

What about for someone just starting out as an investor?

One thing that’s really healthy is self-doubt and crises of confidence, regularly. Try and find entrepreneurs that are a lot smarter than you, that you can learn from.

And also realise, because at the beginning everything sounds great, you have to be prepared for the tough times. If you’re not willing to go through some tough times, then this is definitely the wrong business.

Image credit:  marfis75
Image credit:  Rob Shenk

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