Tech money man William Reeve on why he won’t splash out on any old start-up
Don’t offer William Reeve one of those artisan, foam-caressed-into-a-picture cups of coffee.
The tech entrepreneur is exasperated by the offering at the King’s Cross hipster cafe where we meet: his simple Americano doesn’t exist but there are six types of milk. It’s breakfast time, but instead of croissants we’re offered gluten-free fig scones.
“They’re tripping us up with coffee bureaucracy before we’ve got the coffee,” grins the co-founder of £200 million movies rental business LoveFilm and holidays firm Secret Escapes.
The prolific start-up investor might not be known to the average corporate suit, but among the beards and Buddy Holly glasses of Shoreditch’s tech start-up scene, he’s a celebrity.
He is now CEO of Goodlord, which is turning the property rentals process digital, and chair of £245 million fintech firm Nutmeg.
Reeve used to chair £150 million snacks firm Graze.com, backed £2 billion-plus property site Zoopla and sat on its board, conceived and put up cash for Secret Escapes (which is said to be mulling a £500 million IPO), and has 32 other angel investments on the go. In short, he’s a busy man.
He receives five outstretched begging bowls from tech founders each week. “They’re deleted instantly unless they follow my rules: you have to get referred by someone I know.”
Or, as his website bluntly puts it: “Professional contacts should be made via the appropriate company’s ‘contact us’ page. Investing contacts should be made via another investor or entrepreneur. Social contacts should be made via a mutual friend.” Luckily, Reeve is a lot friendlier in person than his rottweiler-like (don’t) “contact me” page suggests. He can just afford to be picky.
Having pocketed big sums from major business sales, Reeve doesn’t need to work. His first success was online consultancy Fletcher Research, which he set up in 1997 advising the likes of the BBC, Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Barclays on capitalising online. He sold it, to Nasdaq-listed Forrester, two years later for $20 million.
Then came LoveFilm, which Reeve co-founded before it was sold to Amazon in 2011 for £200 million. “That was when I started thinking, ‘do I want to work now?’ But without it, I’d be like a shark who didn’t swim. Work is a natural hobby.”
And so he’s at Goodlord’s Hoxton office five days a week, wooing letting agents to put paperwork, deposits, and signatures online.
Reeve was brought in by an investor to turn around the wobbling firm last year; now it has 100 staff who are processing almost 10,000 new tenancies each month for professional landlords, agents and councils.
“Goodlord’s founders are from generation rent, so are its users. Letting agreements don’t need to be parchment and quill. We’re modernising.”
Reeve is not generation rent: he lives in Hampstead, is a private landlord elsewhere, and is two decades older than most of his staff.
“They’re mostly millennials. I feel very old,” says the 47-year-old, although in his pale blue shirt, Puffa jacket and Hoxton-y tortoiseshell glasses, he doesn’t look it.
He’s obviously very talented, but it’s hard not to wonder, when staring at the vast array of firms who’ve tapped him on the shoulder for expertise or investment, whether tech is the home of a new old boys’ network: a place where it’s hard to break in from the outside.
Reeve, who went to Perse School, Cambridge, then Oxford, laughs, at first: “well, quite a few [tech entrepreneurs] went to the same school, albeit St Paul’s rather than [Eton], but I don’t think it’s an old boys’ network — it’s a tight community. Being in the heart of the cluster helps. But nobody’s doing this because their dad did it.”
Reeve started early: after graduating in economics, management and engineering, he spent almost two years at McKinsey (where he met his wife) before launching Fletcher and going on to flourish in tech.
Now he kicks off angel investments with £20,000, “then I make up to six investments in the same business, although usually my follow-on cheques are smaller. I try to think of it as throwing the money away. it’s like charity but I’m backing a guy that I like rather than a cause I support. Sometimes that money gets thrown back at me, but not always.”
Failures include invoices financing platform Satago, which collapsed after Reeve invested alongside Betfair founder Ed Wray, and Hubbub, a site which delivered fresh produce in which Reeve had invested £100,000 of his own cash.
His other splurges involve holidays and restaurants: “I don’t have kids, so I can be out a lot. Most evenings I’m meeting mates, and I love to travel. I was in Prague last weekend, and my wife is Australian so we go there a lot. I organise two or three really big meals for friends every year in restaurants. That’s probably what stands out most on my credit card bill.”
Reeve puts his own success down to “being in the right place, at the right time: the internet took off when I was in my formative career years.
“They always say the guys who do best in a gold rush are the ones selling picks and shovels, not the ones who dig for gold. Fletcher was picks and shovels, but it made me want to dig for gold.”
He clearly does a good job finding it, as long as he’s had his non-poserish coffee first.