Grown, Not Born
5 minute read

Grown, Not Born: Andy Davis' Journey from Self-Taught Entrepreneur to Inspirational Leader

Andy Davis, is an angel investor and Co-Founder of 10x10 and ex-Director of Backstage Capital London. The 10x10 group of black founders has recently launched the 10x10 Fund, committed to investing in Black founders. Andy is spearheading efforts to make European investing more diverse and inclusive by raising awareness of underrepresentation, and providing financial, strategic, and networking support to Black founders. He sat down with us to talk about his experiences running startups and managing people.

Sarah: Thanks for talking to us Andy, how would you describe what you do?

Andy: I’ve been a startup founder my whole life, starting businesses in healthcare and education, and then software businesses from around 2008. I have no formal education, no university degree, I’ve never worked under anyone either, so I had to learn a lot of things on my own, especially as I started back when the ecosystem was just getting going, there wasn't much of one back then.

I have experience solving problems with software, getting resources together in the form of venture capital and making some mistakes along the way (or a lot of mistakes). But I’ve had one or two positive things happen in my experiences as well!

After being a founder, Arlan Hamilton started Backstage Capital, the first diverse VC fund. She wanted to set up in Europe, and myself and two other people helped to set that up in 2018 and ran it until 2020.

I'm now setting up a new fund called 10x10 Capital, investing exceptionally early in Black entrepreneurs (before the market knows they exist). And that fund stems from a group myself and some people set up in 2015 called 10x10. It started off as a WhatsApp group of just black founders. I was one of the only black founders around at that stage and it was just a way to support each other.

So I guess I'm an ex-founder and a community builder.

Sarah: Can you recall the first few months when you started having a team and needing to lead them? What did it look like?

Andy: I was incredibly young, probably 19 or 20 at the time. Making our first few hires we had problems with incentives. When you make a hire, you're excited and you trust that the person is going to put in the same work as you.

You’re hoping they’re going to come to whatever the problem, the solution, or the organization, with the same motivations. You talk about incentives initially, then when they say yes, you believe that they're as equally incentivized as you are every single day, and thus that you both come with the same intention, work ethic, and enthusiasm, when that's just not always the case.

So initially, I learned a lot about how people have to be aligned. And now I say to my founders, that you have to hire based on mission and just hire missionaries. If the hire doesn't align with your mission, and they don't live and breathe it when you're super early, it becomes a tough battle throughout the journey.

You have to hire missionaries.

This is especially true when hiring people only compensated in equity. Often, equity is exciting on day one. Later on, their equity in their minds needn’t be of the same value as it was 100 days ago (which is interesting, as it should be worth more). This can lead to them producing less, quite deliberately. This isn’t with any negative intention in mind, but they just care a bit less as time goes on.

We say hire slowly, fire fast. I think what we did back then was the opposite. We hired really fast and we fired really slowly. Interestingly, we're talking about the first few hires, but then when there's a few of them, when there's now a group, their behaviour becomes what we call company culture as well, right?

I remember even the last startup I was running, 2017-18, before I left Backstage. In the last few months, I went from buying out my ex-co-founders and hiring and executing strategy, raising money, and building products, to just managing every day. That was now my job, everyday. You need to be able to lead the people you hired  back onto the mission when they sway off. You need to be able to be there for individuals on a high, but also on a low. I think alongside that, you need to also be able to lead people to work together.

I went from buying out my ex-co-founders and hiring and executing strategy, raising money, and building products, to just managing every day. That was now my job, everyday.

The ride isn't going to be smooth, you need everyone just to be able to buckle down but also be there to support each other. I think that we don't talk about that often enough, teammates supporting each other.

And it’s down to us, the leaders, the founders, to make sure that we translate our leadership skills, and that we help to train the team, especially those who are going to be managers as well, because we won't be the only leaders.

Sarah: Great story! Can you share more about how you assess performance within a team? What do you look at to know if a team performs or doesn't?

Andy: It's such an important question. I've been building companies. A good friend of mine, who has started and sold a few companies always says, start at the exit and reverse engineer it.

When I hire, I’m interested in conversations. All I want to see is in the person's previous work. I just want to see one inkling of magic, just one.

I think getting the right answer to ‘what do you care about?’ lets you screen for the mission piece really early.

I just want to see one inkling of magic, just one.

Even at the fund, I'm going to be hiring, because we're closing the fund this quarter. And someone asked  “are you looking for people with technical skills?” I said the secret ingredient to success in what we do is just to care. If you care really about this mission, you'll go above and beyond. You'll do everything it takes, as I hope, I do every day. And that's how you succeed. I think the outputs are really important but I think there's a bunch of what I call DNA traits.

So you want to make sure you hire great people, you hire mission-driven people and then you give them the tools to do their best work.

I think if the person's great and they believe that what they’re working on is great, and they can tell that story to us, and we can share it with the world then its fantastic.

That's what always starts. I don't know if I'm answering the question, but success, I think, is when great people are satisfied with what the work they have done. To me that probably plays a part in good leadership as well so I try my best every day to create that culture and enable everyone to bring what they believe is their best self.

So you want to make sure you hire great people, you hire mission-driven people and then you give them the tools to do their best work. And that's how I see the role as a leader and a manager. The definition is quite flexible, quite open. I realise that this probably sounds weird but it isn't just about them adapting to the environment, the culture. It's also about me adapting to them. So that's what a company and team is for me. We have to just make sure that we appreciate that to the max every single day.

Sarah: What strategies do you use to prioritise between tasks when everything seems urgent? Which I'm sure is the case in your life right now.

Andy: I thought recently that the reason I stopped getting the most important things done is because I wasn’t treating things the same way as I did when I was a founder. I used to have one rule: if this doesn't align with our mission, we don't do it. So, that's how I think about things now. In front of me, I've got a bunch of Post-it notes, which I go and organize in different ways by colour. And so:

  • blue is the fund
  • green is the founders
  • pink is the community.

I look at them every day. I list them out, and I put them in order of priority. And the priority has to be:

  1. Is this pushing the fund forward?
  2. Is this helping the portfolio?
  3. Is this building openness into the community?

The fund stuff has to get done. It just has to. I have to earn the right to leave this my office.

I just have to go: "before I go to the gym, before I go and eat something, have you replied to all the LPs or have you sent these 10 new emails? Have you done this task for these founders in my portfolio?" I now prioritize things that way.

I have to earn the right to leave this my office.

Sarah: That's my vision as well. When you hire great people, you don't need to push them. You're more there to unblock, free up their time and their focus so that they can achieve what they're good at. Okay, what animal would you compare your management to?

Andy: The Duolingo Owl, it’s just politely aggressive. Be aggressive. And not with like customers or people, but be aggressive in how you go to operate every single day. I don't know how that trait is related to owls but yeah, be Duolingo.

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