Having gone from disruptive entrepreneur to investor and mentor, irrepressible Irishman Paul Kenny knows all sides of the VC game
Paul Kenny’s star rose as one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the online space in the UAE as his “daily deals” website Cobone flourished in the immediate aftermath of the financial crash – when having fun for less was an idea that everyone in the country could embrace.
Having sold it to Tiger Global Management for a reported $40 million, he has managed to maintain his status as a dynamic young business leader with the establishment of Emerge Ventures, an emerging market early-stage investment vehicle he co-founded, and his other role as managing director of AYM Commerce, an investment holding company specialising in breakthrough digital technologies and online business in the MENA region.
Add in his previous career with Jumeirah Hospitality and then Emirates, where he helped deliver record online ticket sales, Kenny is someone who, on the regional business level, has worn a number of different hats.
He is a business coach to other business leaders, sharpening perspectives and performance of senior management in large organisations. He is a razor sharp VC investor who is notoriously hard to please, but win, lose or draw, will always leave a start-up’s team motivated and ready to raise their standards.
He is a digital champion who helped shape the online grocery business in the Middle East and North Africa.
And this coming February, he will be a mentor to the winners of the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA), for students who own and operate a business while attending college or university. Those winners will be revealed on February 3 at Dubai Knowledge Park.
Kenny's work ethic is about energy, action appetite, and fun. He thrives on progress, on forward motion.
When asked for his advice about how best to kick off the new business year, he says simply: “Don’t just think about it - do it.”
We asked to him to describe his journey from entrepreneur to investor and the key lessons he learned along the way.
“When you start your first business, your mentors are everyone you know – your parents, your friends.
"I launched my first venture when I was 25. I just had an idea and I went and raised some money. It started to grow and I just rode with it – I didn’t really have a network around me that had been through the same thing. And I think when you start a business, there is a difference between you, the entrepreneur, in relation to the outside world – you feel like you are the odd one out.
"Until you start a business, your mentors are everyone you know – your parents, your friends, the corporate environment you’ve been in. But when you start a business, none of these mentors understand the kind of advice you need, or even understand the same language in which you’re now speaking. I had that problem when I was 25, so I didn’t actually have a mentor for the first two years – and that was one of my biggest mistakes.
"When I started out in Cobone, I was friends with everyone, but then when you have to fire a friend, it’s very difficult. What I learned since those days is there needs to be a balance. For example, as MD of AYM Commerce, I would not go out socialising with the team. Instead, I would largely stay in my own social circles. That said, I am close to the team, very open with them and build a lot of trust through being super honest and blunt.
"Success can be interpreted in a number of different ways, but I feel that the number one factor in anyone’s life that can lead to success is the ability to make a decision. Decisiveness really can control your ability to succeed."
“When I invest in an entrepreneur, I invest in the person, not the business – always the person.
"An entrepreneur may have the worst business model, or no idea about the financials, but I’m still looking for a person with perseverance and hustle; that’s key for me. If I meet someone with a great business idea and methodology, but they complain, bicker and moan, I won’t touch them.
"The reality is that I see really bad entrepreneurs with amazing business ideas, and I just think “'that’s a pity'. Instead, I’d prefer to find a really great entrepreneur, or someone who is mouldable and give them an idea, then I know they will run with it. If an entrepreneur of the right kind of raw character can portray themselves as someone who is mouldable, then they will generally get backed. The truth is, most investors would know very quickly – within a couple of minutes – whether they would back that person.
"In terms of finding entrepreneurs to work with, an investor wants to see someone who has bought their idea to a certain point that shows they can progress, or has had to endure a certain amount of pain, or issues or barriers that they have overcome. If I can see that the individual has somehow found a way around the challenges they faced, then this shows some kind of proof that they have carried it forward against all odds – that’s what I look for.
"The power of your business plan itself is one of several points that would build trust with an investor, but it is not everything. If someone is a wizard with Excel and can produce an amazing plan, but they haven’t actually executed anything, it is telling.
"Like a lot of investors, I base a lot of weight on execution. For example, someone who has reached 12 customers is proving their ability to execute and that the plan works.
"Most people don’t pre-validate their business and establish if their business is worth doing, especially in sectors such as e-commerce. If the market is not that big, you will find it hard to show investors how they will get their money back. A lot of entrepreneurs don’t realise that to get to one percent of any market is very difficult to achieve and costs a lot of money.
"The kinds of businesses and entrepreneurs that investors fight over are ones that have traction, ones that are actually prepared to receive money. Everyone wants money, but very few are actually prepared to receive it. If an entrepreneur is at a point where they have a trade license, they have staff, customers and some demonstrable growth, they still may not be investable, despite these factors being present. For example, is there basic corporate governance in place? Do you have audited financials, or even any financials? Is it possible to even invest in the holding company that issues the visas? (Many people don’t think of this.)
"By the time many entrepreneurs seeking funding catch onto these issues, it can take a further four months to become investor ready. So, basically, the more prepared as an entrepreneur you are to actually receive money, the more likely it is you will receive it. Often, an investor might go through a checklist of maybe six necessary criteria and if the entrepreneur doesn’t have them, then unfortunately, it’s a case of “no thanks”.
"If an in investor is going to write a cheque for, say $100, he is looking for ways to de-risk his money as much as possible. So, if the entrepreneur can show the investor all the ways in which he is reducing the risk on the money, then this is very significant. Entrepreneurs need to think in detail. If they tell an investor they have regular board meetings, they need to be prepared to show the minutes. Who is on the board? Why are they there in the first place?
"I believe that most people are not cut out to be entrepreneurs. It is a difficult road for someone who is employed and likes the security of knowing how they are going to pay their bills every month, doesn’t want to deal with the drama of entrepreneurship, or investors and so forth. This is about 99 percent of people, I think, who may have great experience or skill in a particular discipline, but who would struggle to turn that skill into a business, especially given all that this entails. I see true entrepreneurs as people who are comfortable in the discomfort of not having the same security as an employee.
"Personally, I like the discomfort and also the lack of certainties that come with being an entrepreneur, also as an investor, and actually as a mentor too. I don’t place a priority value on being stable – and I love the challenge of continual growth and learning.”
Danube App is Aym’s biggest collaboration to date
One of Aym’s flagship projects, the Danube App, was launched in conjunction with the Saudi retailer in May, 2017.
Aym developed the technology and the e-commerce platform for the app, which enables Saudi customers to order fresh goods and produce to their front door.
Between iOS and the Google Play Store, the app has been downloaded over one million times.
In Saudi Arabia, the app has remained in the top 10 in the Food & Beverage section of the Apple store since it was launched in June.
The Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA) returns for 2018
Paul Kenny has been drumming up support in the country’s universities for the UAE leg of the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards, the winners of which he will mentor ahead of the finals in Toronto in April.
The competition aims to find the next generation of entrepreneurs and anyone currently enrolled in a bachelor’s degree programme and running a business for more than six months with over $500 in revenue is eligible to enter.
The finals for the GSEA UAE competition will be on February 3, and the winner will go on to represent the UAE in the GSEA Global Finals in Toronto in April, where there is up to $20,000 in prize money up for grabs… as well the honour of being mentored by Paul Kenny, of course.