Startups

For immigrant founders in the UK, office hours with VCs are rocket fuel

Comment

Image Credits: Owen Smith / Getty Images

Lyubov Guk

Contributor

Lyubov Guk is a founding partner at Blue Lake VC. She supports early-stage international founders working in the U.K.

More posts from Lyubov Guk

All three of us are immigrants to the U.K. We were each greeted with the classic “catch-22” of trying to open a bank account and finding a place to live: To get a bank account, you need an address, but to rent a flat, you need a bank account.

This is just one of the (very minor) points of friction immigrants face when moving to a new country. Entrepreneurs who set up a business in a new country encounter more challenges. Lyubov’s own experiences as a Ukrainian immigrant in the U.K. gave her both great empathy for the trials immigrant founders face, and the belief that immigrants often make and build world-leading businesses.

Beyond personal experiences, academic research seems to point to an almost inverse relationship between the contributions immigrant founders make and early acceptance by the ecosystem.

Designing an international founders open office hours pilot

With personal experience as her motivation, Lyubov piloted a program that would offer a softer landing for immigrant entrepreneurs in the U.K. The pilot was an “International Founders Open Office Hours” program that would help immigrant founders boost their social networks and local know-how by meeting with VCs in the U.K.

Instead of the usual pitch format, the meetings were informal conversations that aimed to help founders build up this essential — and for immigrants, missing — social capital. The program was inspired by Playfair Capital and its Female Founders Office Hours.

The initial start was rocky, as it coincided with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Lyubov and her Blue Lake partner, David Gilgur, were helping families and friends in Ukraine by day and drafting the program plan by night. Early on, there was the challenge of bringing VCs and partners on board. Blue Lake had been active for a few years but was still a new name in the investment ecosystem. Asking for investors’ time meant that we had to prove we could launch something impactful that key players would want to be a part of.

The pilot program ran for three months and offered startups 1-to-1 conversations with top U.K. investors (angels, accelerators, family offices and VCs). The aim was simple: enable founders to establish new connections, ask questions and obtain feedback from “insiders” in the U.K. ecosystem.

How did we find international founders?

As is the case with many pilot projects, a significant multinational marketing budget was out of the question. So how did Lyubov and David go about publicizing the pilot so that immigrant founders — from all over the world — knew about the program?

Their own experience as immigrants helped. Lyubov started promoting the pilot in the region she had the closest relationships in: Ukraine. Utilizing an extensive regional partner network ensured a significant inflow of Ukrainian founders.

To reach a wider cohort of immigrant founders new to the U.K., Blue Lake partnered with the Tech Nation Visa Team and the U.K. Department for International Trade (DIT). Both actively promoted the initiative, spreading the word across their channels, including mentioning the initiative in their widely disseminated newsletters. Soon after DIT promoted the event, we started seeing truly diverse inflow of founders from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe.

Participating VCs brought their own networks, which helped spread the word. Many U.K.-based VCs are themselves immigrants, and they helped promote the event in their respective regions, which also helped diversify the cohort.

The pilot launch

In February 2022, Blue Lake VC and Tech Nation’s Global Talent Visa team launched the pilot. More than 40 entrepreneurs applied within hours of the launch, and we capped applications when we quickly reached 180 startups. The remaining applicants joined the waiting list for the next iteration of open office hours (more on 2.0 later).

At the end of the first three-month pilot, here’s what we learned from the 186 startups and 120 meetings on which we received feedback.

Country of origin

Applicants hailed from more than 20 countries, including Belgium, Estonia, Germany, India, Italy, Nigeria, Pakistan, Portugal, Singapore and Turkey. 61 of the participants were from Ukraine, which underscores the mass immigration and the need for these founders to quickly hook into the U.K. ecosystem (it also likely reflected our own personal network, and who our office hours message reached).

Gender

26% identified as female. We’d like to see a higher gender mix.

Education

The majority of founders are well-educated professionals aged 30 years and over, with years of expertise and diverse backgrounds.

Sectors

Startups across the technology sector, including clean tech, deep tech, edtech, fintech and medtech attended.

The application form was designed so that we could learn more about the aims and needs of these founders. Academic research has found that transnational experience could help identify new opportunities and link together otherwise disparate social networks. At the same time, without personal connections in the ecosystem or the right associated brands, research suggests that investors are unlikely to invest in immigrant founders.

Emerging research shows that access to accelerators and VCs can boost startup performance even if the startup does not raise money from that investor. Gonzalez Uribe et al. (2022), for instance, show that going through the due diligence process with a seed-stage VC fund in the U.K. can increase a startup’s performance by approximately 20%.

Was it the access to money, the social network, insight into “how things work locally,” or something else that the applicants sought? To understand the pain points, our application form asked: “Other than direct investment, what support would you find the most valuable?”

For 41%, it was “Introductions/Network,” while 21% chose “Mentorship.” Less than 5% sought “Sales and marketing,” nearly 3% wanted help with “Fundraising strategy” and only 2% chose “Team.”

Rather than value through direct access to money, fundraising strategy or prospective team building, founders prized access to the “right” U.K. network. There was overwhelmingly positive feedback from participating startups that the initiative delivered on these aims.

What’s next?

In startup language, the first installation of International Founders Open Office Hours verified initial market demand and developed the minimum viable product (MVP). Now, it’s time to iterate and scale things up.

The vision is to continue to involve more startups from more countries and become an integral part of U.K.’s tech ecosystem. The larger ambition is to build a home for all great immigrant founders in the U.K., helping them to start building valuable connections from the first day of their journeys. Blue Lake is adjusting the application and feedback forms to learn more, and more systematically, about the support immigrant founders seek, what works and what doesn’t.

With Immigrant Office Hours 2.0 (launching in Q1 2023), we want to deliver more startups-investors connections and help more founders scale up.

More TechCrunch

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

11 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

13 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck

As part of 2024’s Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is showing off some updates to Android that should be useful to folks with mobility or vision impairments. Project Gameface allows gamers…

Google expands hands-free and eyes-free interfaces on Android