Carla Maree Vella: "If you have a great product then you are halfway home"


Chief Executive of Malta-base technology fund Optimizer Invest, Carla Maree Vella sits down with Gambling Insider to talk about the dos and don’ts when seeking investment for both the start-up and the venture capitalist

Please could you tell us a bit about Optimizer Invest and your role in the company?

Optimizer Invest is a venture capital company with a bit of twist, primarily because we are not investment bankers but entrepreneurs who have chosen to reinvest our finances into more innovation. We go one step further than other VCs since we offer our portfolio companies a collection of services on top of the original investment. So having Optimizer as an investor means that you get access to biz dev, legal, financial and recruitment services. Based out of Malta, we are a lean team but we are a super effective team who are willing to do everything we can to assist and help push towards reaching targets and business goals.

My role within Optimizer Invest is a happy marriage of hunting for prospective new investments and supporting the investments we hold in the portfolio today. I hold an active role within a handful of our portfolio companies, as do all members of the Optimizer team. My role within the portfolio can range depending on the company, so in some cases it is quarterly meetings where we explore business development and growth strategy, in others it’s being part of weekly manager meetings. In some cases I simply act as friendly ear to the entrepreneurs who want to brainstorm or have a friendly chat.

What does the day in a life look like when running a venture capital firm?

The only thing that is the same daily is my morning coffee! Ask anyone in the Optimizer Team, no day is ever the same at Optimizer. It makes our work place very invigorating. With a portfolio of 24 companies there is never a dull day.

We are very close to all the companies within our portfolio so we are constantly communicating with them, following up discussions, talking about new deals or trouble shooting with their teams. This does not include the volume of cases we look at, some of which are not necessarily involved in the gambling industry. We learn something new every day.

What are some of the key factors you look at when evaluating a potential investment opportunity?

We look at a number of factors. We are big fans of product and IP as we are strong believers that if you have a great product then you are halfway home. Adding to this, the product needs to solve a problem or add some kind of value to the user. I’m known within our team to be the one who will ask the questions around user centricity and customer experience. The internet is full of sites that provide no value, so we want to support companies that come up with great solutions.

Apart from this, we look at how the company has managed to develop in its infancy; this gives us a good indicator about the team behind the company and their ability as entrepreneurs. We love working with smart innovative people. We also look at growth opportunities, market expansion and, of course, returns. Finally, we see if “Team Optimizer” can add value; if we can, then it’s pretty much a done deal.

What piece of advice would you give start-up companies that are seeking investment?

Your pitch deck or initial email is like a CV. You have a very short time to “sell” your company and why we should invest in it. Lots of pitch decks we see start by showing the market positioning and competitive analysis, then on Slide 30 they begin to introduce the product, the USP and their numbers.

A simple formula would be less fluff and more concrete info about the company’s product proposition and how you plan to make money. It is also good for us to know how much is needed in terms of investment, and what you plan to do with the money. Another one that I personally like to see is a cap table. I’m typically on the lookout to see if the founders have self-invested. I believe that there is a stronger case when the founders have invested in their own vision both physically and financially.

What are some of the common mistakes made my start-ups when seeking investment?

Not knowing the history of the VC. You would never go into an interview without doing a bit of background research, it dumbfounds me how some entrepreneurs get onto their first call with us and have no idea of who we are. The second one would be lack of patience for us to do proper due diligence. If we are going to invest an amount north of €1m, we can’t be expected to make a decision in one week.

At what point in time do you think it is right for entrepreneurs to approach venture capitalist firms like yourself?

I speak purely from an Optimizer perspective here. We are looking for companies that have already sought angel investment or even better have bootstrapped their way through their infancy. When a company comes to us we like to see proof of concept in the form of an operating business, with an active paying customer base. We love ideas and we listen to them occasionally but incubation isn’t really our focus area at present.

What makes companies in the gambling industry particularly attractive as opportunities for Optimizer Invest?

Optimizer Invest was born out of our founders' success within the gambling industry. We belong in this space and wouldn’t have it any other way. In four short years we have established quite the footprint within the gambling industry, which enables us to see opportunities and spaces within the industry that still have to come into the spotlight. We are looking for those companies who we feel have what it takes to innovate and bring something new to the table. With the right partnership we know we have the network and skill set to assist these companies in being a huge success.

If 'team Optimizer' can add value, then it’s pretty much a done deal
Have the priorities for Optimizer Invest changed at all in the past 12 months?

We are as fast-moving and changing as the iGaming industry itself. Our proprieties in terms of investment have not changed drastically in the last 12 months, but we have certainly zoned into some areas which we would like to focus on when it comes to investment. We won’t invest in areas that are in direct competition with our current investments, so that is a good thing to keep in mind before approaching us.

What do you think makes Optimizer Invest an attractive prospect for entrepreneurs?

We get it. We are entrepreneurs investing in entrepreneurs. Apart from the biz dev, legal, recruitment and financial assistance that I mentioned above, we also invite the new company into our network for 24 portfolio companies and the leaders in these companies. This means that any company within our network can benefit from the network that exists around our current holdings.

What are some of the obstacles you have had to overcome as a relatively new venture capitalist firm?

We are relatively new, but within the gaming sector we are quite well known. I think the biggest challenge for us last year was reaching beyond the audience who know us. I also think that Optimizer has had the reputation for being an incubator and seed money VC, we have moved out of that space and now we look for pre-series investments.

How would you summarise Optimizer Invests performance in 2016?

It was exceptional. Being part of the Catena Media IPO was massive for us, not to mention the number of acquisitions we assisted this year. Further to that we successfully merged with Betit Group Gaming Innovation Group. We hosted our first Start Up Hunt competition which saw over 90 applicants and brought us to a very significant investment within the Fintech sector. We also hosted our very first C-level event bringing together 35 CEOs, CTOs, CMOs, CFO and alike from all our portfolio companies to a two-day educational workshop and networking meet up.

What are your key targets for the upcoming year?

Apart from world domination and investing in teleportation… this year we have big plans to continue supporting our current investments whilst keeping new investments within the iGaming and fintech sector a high priority. We will also launch a CSR project this year which the entire Optimizer Team is very excited about.
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