When did you realise you wanted to spend your career focused on technology?
When I was on the ground in Cairo for SoundCloud. Egypt was the second most important country in terms of usage for the company after the US. It was amazing to see how excited people were about the product and how important it was to them. At that stage, something like 40% of Egyptian smartphone owners were monthly active listeners on SoundCloud. People would stop me in the streets and offer me hugs because I wore a SoundCloud t-shirt and they felt a sense of shared community. There was a whole new genre of music (mahragan) that was being created in Egypt, and SoundCloud was spreading it around the country and across all of North Africa, the Gulf and beyond. All this, thanks to a young Berlin-based company founded by two Swedes.
I’m a Californian who grew up in Asia and now lives in Europe. I’ve always looked at things from a pretty global perspective, but that experience really drove home the impact and leverage that building software and tech at scale can have on people all over the world. Often, the products we create in software can have ramifications that scale to exponential levels that we could never have predicted when we first set out to build them, particularly when that software helps to create or foster communities and the relationships that drive them.
You’ve lived all over the world. When and why did you first move to Berlin?
After growing up in Jakarta and Hong Kong, then settling in California, my first job was in New York City. I was definitely in the middle of the rat race.
I first moved to Berlin for love in 2014 and immediately felt at home in the city. I arrived there after leaving my job at Goldman Sachs and joined a small startup that quickly went bankrupt. I ended up helping to sell the furniture. In many ways, that was a really positive experience as it allowed me to see how things go wrong, and to have a period of self-reflection and work out what I wanted to do moving forward. I took some time out, drove around Morocco with goat herders and French teachers and the thinking I started there eventually led me to SoundCloud, and then on to Balderton.
Compared to many other global capitals, Berlin operates at an unhurried pace. But this is often a strength. People operate very thoughtfully. It’s like a creative commons that draws people from around the world. It has open immigration policies, people from diverse backgrounds and a cost of living that allows people to take risks. The right entrepreneurs take those ingredients and harness them with purpose and drive. When I moved here, I felt like there was a blank canvas in terms of what you could do and achieve. My career has been a beneficiary of that. Without it, I think I might have rejoined the rat race.
In the last couple years, it is noteworthy to see that many high quality, formerly California-based founders and product managers have elected to move to Europe more broadly, and Berlin is often their destination of choice. The city still feels as if it is shaping itself, and attracts people who want to have a hand in that creative process.
Why has Balderton not had partners based outside London until now?
We are big believers in the value of person-to-person interactions. Historically, we wanted our entire team to sit around one table, to better foster collective discourse. We also believe that strong, authentic relationships with founders, built on trust, are the most valuable asset we can have. Part of being able to build those relationships means we need a stronger presence locally.
That’s why we’ve made this commitment to Berlin and to the DACH ecosystem more broadly. We have been actively supporting Founders in Germany for more than a decade. We led Wooga’s Series A in 2009, Contentful’s Seed round in 2012 and almost a decade later continue to serve on the Board there. We were also early investors in companies like Frontier Car Group, Sophia Genetics, Infarm, Dalia Research and Kaia Health which are all well on their way.
More recently we have partnered with businesses like Demodesk, Ory, Vivenu, Finoa, and McMakler. We’ve also strengthened our team by adding Shikha Ahluwalia, who we are privileged to work alongside. Shikha grew up in Germany but veered off the well-trodden path to move to New Delhi and become an entrepreneur. As we work to find the next great company Shikha will sharpen our lens.
What do you look for in founders?
I feel very fortunate to work with a broad set of Founders that share a clear sense of purpose for how they want to impact the world. They are not discouraged at all that their vision might be on the periphery of what is currently possible. For example, Taco and Ties at VanMoof are driven by a vision of fossil-fuel-free inner cities around the world. Thomas and Aeneas at Ory believe that all online user identities, auth and access control should be zero trust by design and underpinned by open-source software. Leo and the team at Rahko want to harness quantum computers and machine learning to help discover the molecule that will more effectively treat or even cure cancer. Chris and Henrik want all kinds of institutions to be able to participate meaningfully and securely in cryptocurrencies.
I also look for companies that are building or supporting communities organically online. Whether the company is an open source infrastructure company, built alongside contributions from a decentralized community of developers across the world, or an electric bike company with an engaged global rider base acting as a catalyst for a global movement, I look for companies where either the user or customer acquisition motion is organic rather than mechanical.
Where would we find you outside of work?
Usually with my family or in the water.
I used to be a competitive swimmer. I spent years in the pool and was honoured to help lead the Men’s Swimming Team while at Princeton. These days I prefer to be on a surfboard and am very at home in the ocean. Around Berlin, I make do with the plethora of lakes we’re surrounded by.
I also like hacking around with front-end frameworks, making and listening to music, and shooting black and white photography.
I have a young son who loves exploring the world. He’s only fifteen months old and it’s incredible to watch the pace at which he grows and learns. These days I’m getting a doctorate in Berlin playground social structures and etiquette.