In this fascinating interview, I speak with Dale Murray, a successful technology entrepreneur turned award-winning angel investor about her entrepreneurial journey, starting and selling a company and her transition into angel investing.
Dale was part of the founding team that launched Vodafone NZ in 1992. She then relocated to the UK and co-founded mobile pioneer Omega Logic, launched prepay top-ups and built gross turnover to £450m within five years. After exiting, Dale turned to investing in start-ups and after early success, was awarded British Angel Investor of the Year in 2011.
Last year, Dale was awarded a CBE by the Queen for her services to business.
Dale, I’m absolutely thrilled to finally have you on YHP, how are you doing?
I’m doing great thanks! It’s nice to be at the start of another year – my birthday’s in January and I always feel excited with a whole year of “new” ahead of me.
So how did it all begin, what were you earliest moments of being entrepreneurial?
I was the 8th employee at BellSouth NZ (now Vodafone NZ). We built NZ’s first GSM mobile phone operator and it was exhilarating being involved right from the start with such a massive venture. From then on I was pretty sure I wanted to own my own company one day. After I’d moved to Britain I started an MBA at London Business School – and that’s when I began to really learn how I could build a company of my own.
Tell us a bit about life during Omega Logic, it must have been difficult setting the business up during those days? What was the hardest part?
The hardest part was gaining sufficient credibility with the network operators (O2, TMobile, Orange…) and the retail giants that sold our topups (Carphone Warehouse, Dixons Stores Group, Phones 4U…). We were “just” a startup and everyone around us was an enormous, financially strong organisation. However we had some great ideas and we could move very, very quickly so that’s why some of the network operators began to work with us.
Can you remember those early days, thinking of the company name, opening the company’s bank account to the first six months or so of running the business, how excited were you?
I was very excited at the prospects for our company – I constantly imagined us as a successful, profitable company employing many people. It’s that vision that would spur me on. I couldn’t wait to go to sleep at night, so I could wake up the next day and get started again.
How were you able to fund it during those days?
We were extremely lucky that the founders had all had strong careers before starting the company, and we each put in £50,000 cash. After we’d used those funds, we sought funding from friends and family, then angel investors. Our bank was also very supportive and loaned us £100,000 on the SFLG scheme, which is now called the Enterprise Finance Guarantee and is backed by the Government.
You built and sold the company, when/how do you know it’s the right time to sell a company and I ask this because of the countless number of companies that get acquisition offers?
I think it’s almost impossible to know when the right time is to sell. What you have to do is decide whether the price and terms being offered are acceptable to you, and your family. Do not be swayed by anyone else – your banker, your non-executive directors, your investors (unless they have more control of the company than you do). It is your company, you are the one who has invested so much effort in it, and you must sell when it feels right for you. If you sell knowing it’s ok for you, then whatever happens afterwards won’t matter because it was your choice. Problems arise when you feel forced to sell, and then you may feel regret later.
They are so many challenges that entrepreneurs go through trying to build a company or making it successful, can you share a challenge you faced and how you overcame it?
There are so many examples that I don’t know where to start. Looking back though, I’ve learned that the best way to overcome obstacles is to have a plan. Firstly, scenario plan – I always think to myself “what are the likely outcomes of this meeting/negotiation/presentation”.
I try to think of where the other person is coming from and what might eventuate. Just running through a few scenarios in my mind better prepares me to respond well, especially if the outcome is negative.
That works well when both parties are being professional but of course sometimes people are just plain nasty. When this happens, I fight back. There are always many ways out of a seemingly insurmountable problem. You have to keep thinking, keep strategising, keep working hard until you’ve worked your way through.
What are some of the most important lessons that you’ve learnt on your entrepreneurial journey?
Nothing beats preparation, hard work and passion. If you really believe in your idea, then you decide what your goals are and how hard you want to work. Everything good stems from hard work and an open, honest, positive mental attitude.
How has the transition been, from an entrepreneur to an investor?
It’s an easy switch – in both situations you’re working with start-ups that aspire to be bigger and better than they are today. There’s never a dull moment, which is ideal for me!
What would were some of the difficulties becoming an angel investor?
It’s hard realising that I couldn’t back every entrepreneur I wanted to. I can only really manage about 10 companies in my portfolio at once, due to time demands. Thankfully there are schemes now like StartUp Loans where many small companies can get a loan to get started and this is a great way to prove your concept, build a prototype, find some customers and give it a go.
What type of companies do you invest in?
Technology companies mainly, though I’ve dabbled in cosmetics and food as well. What’s most important is that the founders are really great people – bright, committed and hard-working.
How do you know what type of companies to invest in, are you more founders centric or more about the product?
I look for companies with a business model that I understand in a sector that is high-growth. All that is a pre-requisite but I would never invest in an entrepreneur I felt uneasy with.
What should start-ups avoid doing when looking to raise money?
They should avoid approaching people until they’re fully prepared. This means having a very clear idea of what your business is, who your customer will be and how your operations and supply chain will work. It means a business plan and some financial projections.
What would you say has been your most memorable moment so far?
Collecting my CBE from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace, with my husband and three children watching. I don’t think I’ll be able to trump that day ever again!
What do you do outside work to unwind?
Exercise, cycling, reading, watching my kids play sport, juicing vegetables (yes I know that sounds weird but my kids and I like making up new concoctions)…
Before I leave you today Dale, what tips can you give to founders looking to raise money for their start-ups?
Practice your pitch. Leave out the jargon, make good eye contact and be polite. You need to be able to simply and clearly explain what you hope to build, why your customers need it and why you are best placed to deliver your business plan.