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Profile: Playfair Capital: Meet, Play, Love

Previously in this blog I have written about the possibility of a disconnect between investor and start-up. It seems that when it comes to funding deals, much like sexual exploits in the bedroom, and quitting your job to open a fish restaurant in Santorini, everyone is talking about it, but few are doing it.

We have recently been treated to a new addition to the English lexicon, that of “conscious uncoupling”, but what about “conscious coupling”? Should matching a promising business idea with an experienced investor really be as hard as trying to get panda bears to mate?

And, let’s be honest, if deals aren’t getting done, we have only ourselves to blame. Shoreditch is our dedicated “mating zone”, replete with exciting tech, digital, fashion and many other kinds of company. Meanwhile, looming large on the horizon the City of London and Canary Wharf limber up like 2 lovesick alpha males, eyeing each other suspiciously, and preparing to battle it out for the affections of those bewitching entrepreneurs. Summer is here, and Tech City is on heat. Tinder is on standby.

And yet? Well, here the mating analogy ends, because in business, unlike in the bedroom, the phrase “there’s the quick and the disappointed”, has some positive connotations!

Scratch beneath the veneer of bland government speak about a first billion dollar valuation, and London being a “digital hub”, ignore the incubators, accelerators, and funding “competitions”, which (about as effective as Anne Robinson chairing a focus group on how to lose with dignity), and you will see real business being done, between real people.

Last Wednesday I visited the Warner Yard premises of Playfair Capital: its founder, Federico Pirzio-Biroli, was recently featured in The Evening Standard’s Silicon 60 feature, as an angel investor in early stage companies who is prepared to take on levels of risk that would make less experienced investors’ eyes water – in other words; a maker, a doer, and, if your punchy new start-ups’ strapped for cash, a life-saver. Osborne, eat your heart out.

I was actually there to meet Nathan Benaich, who joined Playfair in 2013 after earning his PhD in Oncology as a Gates scholar at the University of Cambridge, but more of that later. As I approached the yard in Farringdon, just round the corner from the ever popular Betsey Trotwood pub, in the driving rain, past tradesmen smoking thoughtfully outside their offices and warehouses, and busy hordes of urban professionals emptying the shelves of the local Tesco Metro, I felt that buzz that you only get form those special areas of London where it feels like something unique is being achieved, and that everyone is quietly excited to be a part of it.

At the heart of this sits Warner Yard; the yard was taken over by Playfair in 2013, who quickly turned a collection of derelict warehouses into “a co-working space for technology-enabled start ups”. They have done a great job. As you enter the building you notice straight away how the light permeates every corner of the building through the cleverly angled glass roofs, especially the café at the front, which is brimming with smart looking hipsters, no doubt putting the world to rights over green tea and avocado and brown rice salads!

I’m greeted by Playfair’s newest recruit, Tallula Barrow, and seconds later Nathan appears looking fresh, focused and in a surprisingly good mood considering he has agreed to spend the next hour with an unknown blogger in a cheap, rain spattered suit.

Intelligent people tend to be open minded and friendly, probably because they can do so with impunity, and Nathan has no qualms about taking me on a tour of the building; start-ups and seed funding prospects on the ground floor, companies that have won funding, such as Duedil, which has raised around $22m USD since Federico took them on as an angel back in 2011, on the second, and the top floor is reserved for investors such as Hummingbird Ventures, Ben Wirz, of the Knight Foundation, who have funded both Upworthy and The Tab, and former head of the World Economic Forum, Martin Bruncko. There’s only time for a quick glimpse; nobody looks up from their work, but I’m sure I’ve seen those distressed leather sofas before; Dragons Den, perhaps?

Co-ordinating a project on this scale, with so many different ideas, projects, egos and industries all under one, albeit impressive, roof, must be hard work, but Nathan shows no signs of strain and appears to relish the challenge. He talks about Federico affectionately, referring to his time at Passion Capital, a significant influence on his career that helped him find his feet as an investor, and also Federico’s charity work in Africa on behalf of the UN, and Oxfam, lobbying government aid organisations such as DFID, and USAID to be more transparent about aid expenditure.

It became clear that Nathan and Federico’s business goals were aligned when they kept bumping into each other at events, meet-ups, and exhibitions, where each noted the other’s single minded passion and enthusiasm for the task at hand, and ability to create opportunities for the people they worked with.

Had he not been so active, Nathan’s academic background would have surely landed him a top job in the industry of his choice anyway. He holds a Doctorate in Philosophy; Cancer Biology from Cambridge University (he is also a member of the Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club, CUTEC), and graduated with highest honours in Biology from Williams College, Massachusetts, before that.

In short, we can be thankful that Nathan, born in France but educated in the US, has chosen to focus his energy on Tech and start-ups, and even more so that he has chosen the East of London as his home. He is bullish about London’s status as a global Tech player, and barely seems to have noticed the negative headlines that have dogged “Tech City” over the past couple of years, brushing aside the accusations that the concept is over-hyped, has produced few success stories, and is struggling to maintain a foothold in the City as the cost of office space drives early stage enterprises further and further from where they need to be.

When you are working hard with dozens of start-ups, such as Osper, the world’s first bank for kids, Planvine, a fully automated listings provider, and Westore, self-storage experts, you probably don’t have time to listen to unfounded speculation, and when you can point to a fund that has invested in a production line of promising early stage companies via a stable of eager investors, you may even find said speculation a tad patronising. But really what makes Playfair a success is the thought that goes into creating an infrastructure that is intellectually robust, that optimises the chances of success, and provides a set of guidelines, theories and actionable goals that leaves nothing to chance and nobody in any doubt as to what they must do to succeed, grow, and inspire.

Playfair is a match maker par excellence

Playfair is a match maker par excellence

It’s clear that Playfair has a big role to play in what is now a critical period for the start-up story, as the culture created over the next couple of years will likely remain in place for decades to come. What has happened in Shoreditch since 2008 is nothing short of revolutionary, but can the New World Order deliver, or will the change ultimately be an ephemeral one?

What is certain is that change must be at least in part orchestrated by the everyday citizens of Tech City. Too often, we hear of investment angels rounding up promising graduates, locking them in a room, sending them to Palo Alto for 6 months, and hey presto, we have a new start-up!

This is too simplistic for words, a lazy approach that ultimately benefits no-one, stifling creativity at source. Nathan agrees that sometimes the most promising entrepreneurs are overlooked in favour of a fresh faced grad with a shiny new degree, however he insists that Playfair Capital was not set up to fall into this trap.

Nathan and Playfair maintain a presence at many of the events that make Shoreditch tick; that do-it-yourself spirit that draws 300 people to Shoreditch Town Hall on a Monday night, to stand for 2 hours and listen to pitches by hard-working people with real experience, is what drew investment to the area in the first place.

Nobody, not even Playfair, knows where the next big story will come from, and most people agree that early stage investment can never be a perfect science. By exhibiting all the hallmarks of what has brought the East End to the world’s attention once again, however, Playfair are making playing Cupid look easy.

Contact details:

Twitter: @playfaircapital; @warneryard; @nathanbenaich; @fede_r1co


Read about Techstars, no. 1 startup accelerator and proud to call Warner Yard home;

Read Nathan’s thoughts via his latest blog post:

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