Alston Zecha Podcast Transcript

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Alston Zecka: [00:00:00] VCs in many ways are actually anthropologists who just happen to do finance and I totally subscribe to that. On the big picture level I think just the opportunities here in the UK and in Europe for tech, yes we're going through a bit of a downturn right now but that opportunity is just huge. There are two times the number of technical developers and yet the average salary is 40 percent less than the US and on top of that the total investment in tech is 60 percent less than the US.

Alston Zecka: So just structurally there's so much opportunity here and we're already seeing it with more 1 billion, 10 billion, even 50 billion companies being created.

Amardeep Parmar: Today on the podcast we have Alston Zecka who is a partner at EightRoads and was the ex co founder of  Pay11 which merged with SumUp. In this podcast about his childhood growing up in Hong Kong, being inspired by all the different entrepreneurs around him, then moving to the UK where he was a bit different and he had to try and stand out and find his own feet again.

Amardeep Parmar: He tried to start up a [00:01:00] startup, which failed in his early days because he didn't know the game. And then after that, he went back into the corporate world where he was very successful and then had another stab in it. And that was pay 11. And you might recognize what they do. If you ever tried to buy some contactless at many different places.

Amardeep Parmar: So that was able to grow massively. It then merged with sum up. And since then he's done various things. And now he's a partner at Eight roads, which invests in pan Europe. at different stages. He's been able to have this multitude of different things in his career, and we learn all about the different struggles he had along the way as well.

Amardeep Parmar: And he's very passionate about showing what's possible for you. So, Austin, when you were growing up, what did you want to be? What were you thinking your future was going to look like? 

Alston Zecka: Yeah, well, so after I figured out that running a sweet shop by day, sorry, by night and working as a mountain climber wasn't really going to be a professional job.

Alston Zecka: Weirdly, I actually thought I wanted to go into banking. To be fair, I was growing up in the 1980s. Uh, in Hong Kong. And so everybody thought [00:02:00] finance was cool. And so I'd always thought that I would definitely do something in the professional sphere. I think the other thing is I come from a family of entrepreneurs going back like three or four generations.

Alston Zecka: And so growing up, there were lots and lots of stories about all the interesting, different things that relatives had done. And so these were two things that really inspired me definitely go in the field of commerce. And so I'd always assumed that I was going to do that. At the same time, I had zero clue.

Alston Zecka: What exactly that was going to look like. I just thought, wow, I am going to, on the one hand be materially well off. And on the other hand, I'm going to do cool things that are like going to make an impact on the business world. Um, and then it took me another like 30 or 40 years to actually turn that into a career.

Alston Zecka: Uh, and, and so, you know, if anybody looks at my CV, it might look utterly random because I've basically had like five different careers in a 25 year period. 

Amardeep Parmar: And  you said like going into banking, but you also had this entrepreneurship side. How did that marry up? Because banking is considered quite professional, quite corporate, but then you're also inspired by the entrepreneurs in your family.

Amardeep Parmar: So what, [00:03:00] how did that? 

Alston Zecka: Well, I mean, firstly, you're now asking what was going through the mind of an eight year old. So, you know, be very careful about that. But no, look, look, I mean, like I said, I think what I'd always wanted to do was a business that was going to be big and meaningful. And I think that's also a reflection of the fact that at least when I was a kid, I I didn't really think too hard about which side of the table I was going to be on.

Alston Zecka: And in a sense, you might even say that that's then been reflected in my career. I've had periods where I have been a banker or I have been a consultant. Uh, I have been an investor and there's other times that I've been an operator in a larger company, or I've actually been like running my own startup.

Alston Zecka: So, but again, coming back to it, like I probably didn't think hard enough about it when I was eight years old. So yeah, I mean, I guess water finds its own level eventually, doesn't it? 

Amardeep Parmar: So once you like started your career, right? So you decided, okay, I'm going to go into banking to begin with. And then you went into that world.

Amardeep Parmar: How did you find it? Were you enjoying it? Was it what you hoped it would be? 

Alston Zecka: So I guess I've been really lucky on the one hand, that I've always found something to enjoy in my different jobs, [00:04:00] but different things. And it's probably only been. After I'd been in the job for a while, or maybe even after I left that job that I could reflect on the relative enjoyment of each of them.

Alston Zecka: So I would always find something there, right? And especially when you're young in your twenties, the mantra is look, just work hard, get great experiences. Just don't be held back by anything like this is your time just to build the foundations. And I'd never actually received that advice, but actually it's really, really good advice.

Alston Zecka: You know, I think the reason why I only did banking for a short stint, and then in any case, I went back to studying before I then figured out what I was going to do. That was actually a really good break that I didn't get on that pure banking hamster wheel. That's when I tried my hand at my first startup.

Alston Zecka: And that's when I then went into management consulting. And so that's probably the time that I did think to myself, Oh, I would probably want to do something a little bit more like business as opposed to finance oriented, pure finance oriented, something that was a little bit more operational or at least closer to the [00:05:00] operations.

Alston Zecka: Uh, and, and so that's ever since then been very much more where my interests have laid. 

Amardeep Parmar: And where in the world were you at this point as well? Cause you obviously said you grew up in Hong Kong. 

Alston Zecka: Ooh, okay. Yeah. So. I guess I'm going to have to keep this relatively brief. I grew up in Hong Kong. My parents moved to Thailand when I was a teenager, but I moved to the UK myself for studies when I was a teenager.

Alston Zecka: And then I stayed here through university. So my first job was in Paris. And then that startup that, that very first startup I mentioned that was actually in Asia. So I was working a little bit in China and in Thailand. And then I started my first job in the UK in management consulting. 

Amardeep Parmar: ‘Cause what's interesting, like we talked about this before as well, how

Amardeep Parmar: a lot of people have been on this podcast and successful break like Asian entrepreneurs in the UK. Often they've actually come from abroad and come with a different mindset, right? And you obviously grew up in Hong Kong where you're part of the majority. And then you've come to the UK and then you're part of minority and that different mindset.

Amardeep Parmar: And how did you feel like across that journey? Did you ever feel like, was that a big thing for you, that cultural shock? Or was it not really [00:06:00] something that affected you much? 

Alston Zecka: My first day here as a kid in the UK, at school, someone said to me, very innocently, Zecka, why is your skin so dark? And that wasn't a racist thing.

Alston Zecka: That was just... Like from date, but just curiosity, right? But from day one, it was very clear that I was other and, and let's not forget, we actually are the global majority, but yes, we are the BAME or however you pronounce it here. Right. And so I do think suddenly for me, I probably did benefit from having much more reference points, family in Asia of entrepreneurs, also family now, Asian Americans who, who, some of whom are also entrepreneurs.

Alston Zecka: That definitely helped me with my worldview. I don't think that needs to be that way. And I think we're starting to see many, many more British Asian entrepreneurs who are like born in the UK, but, but hopefully also, you know, the examples of people like me and other entrepreneurs, right. Or business people who have come from abroad, but are Asian here that hopefully [00:07:00] also widens the world view of people.

Alston Zecka: Yeah. I mean, I definitely was aware that I was other in many cases, that was a positive because it also meant that I had to work harder. I had to learn faster. I had to recognize that I had to have something that was better than me because otherwise, you know, I wouldn't be able to stand out. So, you know, I think in my case, that ended up being a positive.

Alston Zecka: I knew what was possible from having reference points outside, but it sort of forced me to up my game when I arrived here. But equally, it could go the other way, right? And I think that's why we're having this conversation to try and, you know, focus on those positives. 

Amardeep Parmar: Yeah, because you also mentioned that they went to work in Asia again afterwards, right?

Amardeep Parmar: And I guess it's that aspect of home, right? Where you feel comfortable in different places and that's an advantage for you, right? That because you've lived in different countries, then other people might not see that as or understand the local culture in different places. You can go to different areas and thrive.

Amardeep Parmar: And they mentioned about being a management consultant, and I think we can mention this at who you sat next to as well. [00:08:00] So it's that kind of high performing environment. Can we say who you sat next to?

Alston Zecka: Uh, yeah, I guess so. Sure. Yeah. I mean, as well. So I, I actually, I sat next to Sujata, um, from Monzo. I actually sat next to, he's not Asian, but one of the senior partners at Borders and Capital.

Alston Zecka: Um, the list goes on, right? So if you're in that environment, that just gives you an even greater sense of what's possible. Yeah. I think that's absolutely right. 

Amardeep Parmar: And like from there, so you have said you tried one startup, which didn't quite work out. Can you tell us why that failed? 

Alston Zecka: Uh, the, the list of points is insanely long, but you know, I guess I'll boil it down to, to, to, to two things.

Alston Zecka: One is just structural, right? We were ahead of our time. In fact, I'm not even sure even now it would have worked. I'd like to believe so. But the second point was, and this is really key actually for some of the things that we might talk about later. We didn't know the game, like we were trying to pitch also to VCs in the States, um, and, and, and other, other sort of sources of finance.

Alston Zecka: And, and we didn't know [00:09:00] the first thing about how to write a business plan, how to present ourselves. We didn't understand that even if our idea was really smart, we needed to make it more accessible to them, simplify it. And we needed to get into the lingo and improve our networking to get access to more sources of finance.

Alston Zecka: And that really was a bit of a struggle for us. Uh, well, thirdly timing, it was just after the dotcom bust, but, but yeah, I mean, I would really focus on that second point because that was just something that we just couldn't get our heads around. 

Amardeep Parmar: And then after having that experience. What made you then go and try and start up another thing again?

Amardeep Parmar: Like, where did that inspiration come from? Did you, did it hold you back at all, thinking like, oh, I tried it before and it didn't work out, or what if I do it again? 

Alston Zecka: I'm a sucker for punishment. No, I, you know, in fact, in a sense, that was why I wanted to try it again. I thought, part of me thought I had unfulfilled business.

Alston Zecka: I had sort of asked myself, look, what do I want out of life and out of my career? And to the point that we talked about before, I didn't really know exactly what I wanted, but I knew what that feeling was. And part of that feeling [00:10:00] was that sense of independence and of making something and making something happen.

Alston Zecka: And, and, you know, trying your hand at a hypergrowth startup. I mean, that's sort of the quintessence of that. And so that was a really big driver for me to have a go again. 

Amardeep Parmar: And obviously you managed to do that. What was the idea? Tell the audience, like what actually happened there?

Alston Zecka: Uh, yeah. So I was one of the three co founders of a business called Payleven.

Alston Zecka: Payleven is a mobile point of sale device and, and we were one of the first to go live pan European. In fact, I think we were live in the most markets in Europe in the early days. And what we were doing was we were basically providing a device that could help you process a card payment that would connect to your phone.

Alston Zecka: So you didn't have to use the expensive equipment that traditional people would provide you with. And on top of that was mobile. So anywhere where you had mobile phone connectivity, it would work. And we were also riding the wave of the massive uptick in card payments, which we've now seen over the last decade.

Alston Zecka: The reason why this idea won't sound that strange to people nowadays is because, you know, our successor organizations have, you know, gone on to really [00:11:00] fulfill that vision. Uh, what happened ultimately to our business was we merged with another company that was roughly the same size as us and that business sum up.

Alston Zecka: Um, I believe by last count actually in terms of processing volume is the largest processor in Europe that provides something like that ahead of, you know, some other brands, including an American brand called Square. 

Amardeep Parmar: So how  did, what made you get into it in the first place? Like, why that problem? So obviously it's interesting now, because when you talk about it, it's like, that's obvious, right?

Amardeep Parmar: Because we all use it. Like when I pay, when I had my food at lunch, when I pay it into the market, I probably used a payment thing that's done by SumUp, right? But at the time, it wasn't obvious that that kind of was going to be about. So what made you believe in the idea that this was something which you wanted to take that risk on and throw yourself into?

Alston Zecka: Yeah, a couple of things. I mean, the first one was just, I had not too long before that lived in the States and it wasn't square in particular, but it was just more card acceptance in the States. And then especially, I mean, the [00:12:00] UK card penetration is reasonably high, but when you go to France or especially go to Germany, You couldn't convince them to take your card payment, even if you would pay extra.

Alston Zecka: They just wanted cash. So that was obviously just an observation that this was something that over time needed to happen. We needed to have more electronic based payments. I think the second piece is, you know, what does accepting card payments do for a merchant? It actually often helps them earn more money.

Alston Zecka: And there's the hidden cost of cash in terms of the effort to handle, do the reconciliation and processing. If you've digitized it, you can actually very materially accelerate, you know, your bookkeeping at the end. So, so kind of understanding all of these things. And, you know, I, I mentioned my first failed startup back in the early days, totally different world.

Alston Zecka: It was in travel tech, but again, it was about empowering small businesses. And, and like I said, I come from a family of entrepreneurs, many of whom actually weren't doing like Venture backed businesses, but doing their own businesses. And so I've long had an interest in things at the smaller end, smaller merchant ends.

Alston Zecka: So this was a really perfect coming together of, you know, two or three major strands [00:13:00] and a huge opportunity. I mean, literally millions and millions, tens of millions of small merchants were not accepting card payments back in the day. So there was just this tremendous white space for us to do something better.

Amardeep Parmar: And you said you had a couple of co-founders as well, right? Yes. So how did you work that relationship out? Like who, what was your role? How did you divvy up those responsibilities? Because I think that's a huge problem for so many founders of who does what.

Alston Zecka: You know, I, I would love to tell you that we were sort of really thoughtful about it.

Alston Zecka: In our case, it kind of just fell out naturally. So, uh, I was introduced to, to Raphael and Constantine through mutual friends. And we first started sniffing around the idea and, and also full disclosure, it was actually more Raphael and Constantine who were the original people with the idea. And then I, I sort of loved it and we got involved.

Alston Zecka: Um, but Raphael was actually at that point in time, already 12 years in payments and CTO and technical guy. So guess which was the bit that he was obviously going to do. And Constantine had already some pretty good experience in terms of customer acquisition and online marketing. So that was a bit that he was [00:14:00] going to do.

Alston Zecka: Uh, so, so it kind of just naturally fell out from that. 

Amardeep Parmar:  And then what was a bit that you did? 

Alston Zecka: Oh, yeah. Yeah. So I was the COO of the business and in a payments company, that's actually a very broad description. So one part of what I was doing was actually taking care of the customers from the moment they said they wanted the service.

Alston Zecka: Because it's also a regulated service. And so unlike many other things, it isn't just a case of somebody saying, Oh, I want to buy this. We actually would then also have to choose whether we could accept them because at the end of the day, it is a banking related product. And so I was taking care of everything that was involved from that point onwards.

Alston Zecka: So that man, I was customer support, customer service. Um, I was feeding back to the product team, what they needed. But I was also then working with our partners, everyone from the regulators, because we were a regulated payment institution, as well as companies like Visa and MasterCard, um, and trade associations as well.

Alston Zecka: So I had a very broad role. You could say that I was doing everything that wasn't obviously tech and everything that wasn't obviously sales and marketing. 

Amardeep Parmar: And what was it about that role that you enjoyed and think about as [00:15:00] well, because you had this corporate career where you worked in management consulting.

Amardeep Parmar: How was that feeling of working on something which you're a part of like in that way, because obviously as many people listening today, who probably are working at management consulting firm, they're working in banking and they have this idea that one day I want to do something like what you've done.

Amardeep Parmar: But it's a big unknown for them, it's a big uncertainty, like, how was that transition for you to get really your hands dirty again?

Alston Zecka: The transition, if I'm going to be honest, was really easy in one regard, because I wanted to do something like this for such a long time. This was real, this was rolling up my sleeves, this was making it happen, and every day, even if it was something as basic as, Oh, I've now written the new...

Alston Zecka: Uh, legal document, uh, and I've made our application to the FCA. That, that was progressing the business. So from that perspective, it was really, really easy. But what I would say to anyone who does aspire to be an entrepreneur is you should go in with your eyes wide open. So the positives are, I think you will never have [00:16:00] a better day in your career, in your working life.

Alston Zecka: Then as a founder of a business, when things go right, I mean, orders of magnitude better. And like I said, I've had like five different careers in my life across five different industries. So I can say that with confidence. Many founders say it's almost addictive because I mean, those highs are so high and you are making an impact.

Alston Zecka: You're making an impact, not just on your customers and on the world, but also on your team, right? Because there's something just so exciting about it. On the flip side, I think you also have to recognize that the lows are some of the lowest you'll ever have in your career and the stress is high and it's that roller coaster.

Alston Zecka: I cannot, I mean, one of the best days in my career at Payleven was on that same day. One of the worst things that ever happened. Uh, it was mental and I would not give up those  experiences for anything else, though, you know, and that sense that it's yours and it's your team's like, no one can ever take that away from you, regardless whether you succeed or not.

Amardeep Parmar: And could you share like what some of those massive highs were and some of those lows as well? 

Alston Zecka: Yeah. I [00:17:00] mean, it's actually, it's as simple as shipping product that first day it took us nearly 12 months because we had to get regulated. We had to build a technical solution. We then had to test it. And then we had to integrate with five other partners as well.

Alston Zecka: And then we also had hardware components. So it was just a massively complex thing. And so that first day, just before we started shipping product, we actually built a pyramid out of our hardware devices. And then for that very first customer live started processing, like everybody was like stamping their feet and clapping and cheering.

Alston Zecka: It was just amazing. So, I mean, that's just on the one hand, a very simple example, but hopefully I've brought to life, like the blood, sweat and tears that brought up to it. You know, on the flip side, like the worst days were, you know, when it didn't work out with an individual. Yeah. Unfortunately that is the nature of things.

Alston Zecka: And, you know, there were people that we had to show the door to, you know, that that's the hardest at the end of the day, because, you know, it's still a people business, you know, you're doing this because you also want to grow the organization and, you know, having to [00:18:00] let a member of your team go. Uh, and that can sometimes be quite acrimonious as well, even if it's the right thing to do for the team.

Alston Zecka: And, and dare I say it, sometimes even the right thing for that individual, because, you know, if the organization, if there's not a good fit, I mean, that's not going to be the best progress for your career, but that can seem very patronizing saying that at the time. In fact, I may have said that at the time and not done it quite right, which may have increased the acrimony.

Alston Zecka: So that was definitely one of the hardest moments. That and the couple of times where we were only a few weeks away from totally running out of cash and having to shut down the whole business. Yeah, maybe that was also a little bit stressy. 

Amardeep Parmar: Yeah. And what's some of the mistakes you made as well? Because obviously we can say like it went amazingly and you got merged, but obviously even with all of that background you had, there's so many mistakes you made and things that didn't quite go to plan.

Amardeep Parmar: And what did you learn from that that you can share? Hopefully a few people listening make, don't make those mistakes. 

Alston Zecka: So the actual list is just so insanely long because I do subscribe to the fact that you learn more from your mistakes. But let me highlight probably a couple of things. The [00:19:00] first one that I would highlight is thinking about the quality of your team.

Alston Zecka: Especially if you're trying to build a hyper growth startup scale up, you know, you're doing something very, very unnatural, right? I mean, you're trying to not even double every year, which is already insane. But actually, if your first year, you're trying to triple more every year and to find the people who can be on that journey and willing to roll up their sleeves right now, but still be good enough for the organization a year or two down the line, you've got to be so careful about whom you hire.

Alston Zecka: And I kind of alluded to that earlier. We did cut corners and perhaps we didn't quite hire at the caliber that we needed to because we were, you know, watching the pennies. So we were pennywise pound foolish. So, you know, hiring really top talent, obviously making sure you can afford them, but hiring really top talent and asking yourself the question, is this the right person in all regards?

Alston Zecka: You know, technical skills, but emotional skills as well for today, but also for tomorrow. So that was probably the one huge thing. The second [00:20:00] thing was for us, again, I alluded to this earlier, not sufficiently appreciating the game. Something I take great pride in, 12 years now after we launched the business, was that strategically, we called it so right.

Alston Zecka: Obviously, there's many things in the detail that have changed, but big picture, what you see a company like SumUp or Zettel doing in the market today, it's almost exactly right. What we called out in our initial business plan back in 2011, 2012. So I take great pride in that. But on the flip side, these huge blind spots that we had, you know, we were first time founders and to be absolutely honest, we developed a huge chip on our shoulder that in retrospect meant that we actually showed really badly to the VCs because we thought that we had to be smarter, work harder, be clearer about our strategy and really deliver on our promises more than our competitors.

Alston Zecka: And that was totally true, but actually what that meant was, and this is the reason why ultimately in the end, it [00:21:00] was only an okay result was we lost the war for capital. We lost the war because we didn't play the game. We didn't know how to play that game on the fundraising side. So how could we have been more thoughtful, you know, thinking through.

Alston Zecka: All of the aspects of our strategy for our business, not just the operational strategy and sort of the commercial strategy, but the financing strategy and the people strategy, those were two pretty big blind spots for us. 

Amardeep Parmar: So you mentioned there is an okay result, right? So with the merger, how did that actually work?

Amardeep Parmar: Because I've had many people on here who have been acquired, right? But to have two companies of similar size merged together is something that many people haven't experienced or wouldn't know how to relate to that. So how was that experience for you? One, I guess, once you got approached or whether you approached them and then going through the actual steps of doing that.

Alston Zecka: Yeah, well, you know, so candidly, seven, eight years on, it's a lot easier to say now because we all still have shares in SumUp and SumUp's last external valuation was eight and a half billion. But, you know, that, that can wash away a lot of sins. At the time it was pretty tough, right? So there was a fair chunk of eating humble [00:22:00] pie.

Alston Zecka: There was definitely an acknowledgement that even though we were a similar size, you know, let's be honest, we were going to be the junior partners in this. And ultimately there was not going to be a seat at the table for, you know, yours truly. And there was a lot of soul searching there, but I think we were also objective enough to know that the market would benefit from consolidation.

Alston Zecka: This was long term the right thing to do because we were then going to create, you know, ultimately like a really strong organization. And, you know, if I'm going to be totally honest, I sort of knew it in my heart of hearts, but at least me personally, you know, at that point in time, we were 150 person organization.

Alston Zecka: I was tapping out as a manager, you know, um. My co-founders may beg to differ, but I thought that I was absolutely awesome between zero and 50 people. I was, you know, totally fine between 50 and a hundred somewhere between the hundred and 150. I started becoming just, you know, not that great as a, as a senior leader [00:23:00] and as a manager.

Alston Zecka: And, and, you know, I alluded to it before, not everyone can scale with their organizations. And, you know, I think that was a learning journey for me that it's now a learning journey that I talk about with the founding teams of the startups that I backed. And you know, there's an irony there, because professionally, I've had tons of experience as an advisor, and even as an operator in a thousand plus person organization, and you know, I've invested in previous lives, and As a managing consultant, I advise companies with 5, 000, 10, 000 plus employees.

Alston Zecka: And I've started myself and done okay from zero to a hundred. Kind of understanding what you're good at and what you're not good at. So coming back to it, sorry, I've sort of meandered a little bit around the.. 

No it’s really interesting. 

Alston Zecka: topic, but you know, knowing where your own limitations are and, and, you know, a few months later there was almost relief because I wasn't a good manager because I was really good one on one.

Alston Zecka: But trying to get that scale, I wasn't scaling as a manager to manage now, you know, an organization where my direct reports, you know, I had, I can't remember, like four or [00:24:00] five, and then ultimately we were responsible for 50 or 60 people out of that one 50, and I was not scaling it doing that. And so that relief that I couldn't quite explain, it only dawned on me, frankly, two years later that I was like, ah.

Alston Zecka: It's because I wasn't actually any good at doing that job. So yeah, coming back to it, it was the right thing strategically, but actually in my heart of hearts, part of me knew it was the right thing for me. And so that was how I got over emotionally, the fact that, you know, we were, we were pulling this together with one of our competitors.

Amardeep Parmar:  I really love that as well. Cause it's, you hear sometimes people would talk about how. Everything they did was perfect, right? We made all the right decisions. And that's not the reality, right? Like you said, it's even with management and leadership, I think that's one of the hardest bit. And you mentioned it earlier as well about the people side of the business is that you can see a problem, solve a problem.

Amardeep Parmar: When it's sort of a people, people are way more complicated than coding or anything like that. And trying to get the relationship right, when you've got a small organization is one thing. When you've got so many people working up to you. And [00:25:00] then you have to, on one hand, think about making sure the organization is doing what needs to do.

Amardeep Parmar: But at the same time, trying to balance these interpersonal relationships, it is a very stressful thing to do. And for some people, it's something they're natural at. And it's a classic thing at corporations, right? Of where to get promoters to get paid more, you have to manage more people, but it might not actually be what you're good at.

Amardeep Parmar: It might be actually really good at this technical part. You're really good at your job, but you're not a good manager. And that's one of the struggles of different people. It's like, okay, I need to get, I want to get paid more, but then I have to take on management and I'm not a good manager. 

Amardeep Parmar: And I think it's something that a lot of people are now trying to think about in a different way of like.

Amardeep Parmar: How can we have this different parts of people where instead of making the manager, we can actually just get them to be the bit that they're in. There's only genius of.

Alston Zecka: Yes. Look, I mean, huge topic. If you find the ultimate solution, please let me know first. But I mean, it's something that I discussed with my founders as well, right?

Alston Zecka: Because now we're talking about how they're growing the organization and how they can do that. And, you know, everybody solves it [00:26:00] in a slightly different way. And like I said, I wish we could find the panacea, but absolutely right. I mean, especially working in tech. You know, these are people organizations.

Alston Zecka: You know, you don't actually create that much tangible IP. So it's your people and, and, and, and recognizing exactly that, how can you get the most of them? Because otherwise you do have that paradox that you're going to promote people to their point of incompetence. And then ultimately you're setting them up for failure.

Alston Zecka: And nobody wants that ultimately. 

Amardeep Parmar: So you mentioned there about helping the founders there, right? So we haven't got too much time left, but I'd love to get into your transition into venture capital and what's behind that. How you found that journey now?

Alston Zecka: So you know, because I am jack of all trades, master of none and at the same time, I really empathize with founders.

Alston Zecka: I think I've been lucky to stumble in on this and I love the variety. I love the variety of different business models. Um, you know, Eight roads is a pan european fund. So I love the variety of geographies and cultures and problems that we're trying to solve. Um, and I talked about [00:27:00] the founders journey. Uh, and the company's journey.

Alston Zecka: And I love that, that sort of that whole life cycle. And so that that sort of suits me down to a tee. Someone far more illustrious of VC than I correctly said, VCs in many cases, in many ways are actually anthropologists who just happened to do finance. And I totally subscribe to that. You know, I, you know, I love having this conversations, thinking about people, organizations and thinking about the one to one relationships with founders.

Alston Zecka: So, so that's been really exercising and, um, You know, like I said, uh, you know, I, I found out that I was tapping out as a manager and part of the reason for that was I was definitely one of these more project guys. I love, you know, running around from one project to another. I don't want to say VC is exactly like that because I also have relationships with my portfolio companies that last, you know, five, six, seven or more years, but there is still much more of a project based element to it and being a problem solver.

Alston Zecka: Uh, and. Not actually having to manage tons and tons of people. So it [00:28:00] turns out that actually suits me better. 

Amardeep Parmar: You've obviously made a few investments so far. What are some of the ones which maybe you backed them where other people weren't looking at that and it's kind of proven right? So where do you feel quite validated?

Alston Zecka: At the time when we invested in a Norwegian company called Tiber. So Tiber is not just a green energy retailer, but they do two or three things very, very different from anybody else. We think in the European, in the whole of Europe, uh, the first one is they are much deeper tech on the customer experience.

Alston Zecka: So you get an app, it has pre integrations with your whole smart home capabilities. Um, and this enables you to do smart charging and enables you to control everything from your energy from that app. And a lot of people were saying, well, why are you trying to do this? This is a company that's founded out of a 50, 000 Americans.

Alston Zecka: Yeah. Uh, population town on the west coast of Norway, you know, isn't that story kind of played out? We're seeing it here in Europe. And on top of that, how you, I mean, we're seeing it here in the UK and how are you going to scale that across multiple [00:29:00] countries? And so definitely that took a lot of flack, but you know, that was one where recognizing the founders were really on something very different.

Alston Zecka: And that they were able to scale across multiple countries. That's definitely been one that's really inspired me. I know that's not a UK example, but you know, it's just, it, you know, it's just something that really captured that zeitgeist. Now we were very lucky to get there, you know, a little bit earlier than anybody else.

Amardeep Parmar: And before we were talking as well, you mentioned how Like Eight Roads is really specialized within Europe and trying to help those companies and you've got that expertise there. What do you think it is about Eight Roads that enables you to really make a difference to the companies that you invest in?

Alston Zecka: So  we're part of a global organization. So we have teams in the US as well as in all of the major tech hubs in Asia, and that's full investment teams feet on the ground. So having that global mindset and that global access, that is one key point of differentiation. The second point I would make is we are very actively involved and either as the investors or as advisors, we specifically choose [00:30:00] people who have startup scale up experience and expertise.

Alston Zecka: So people who have been founders and have led organizations. So they've been head of sales. They've been head of marketing products, CS, um, tech, et cetera, of companies that have scaled from one or 2 million to hundreds of millions of dollars. So I like to say we have people in our team. In everything that's relevant for scale ups who have both the IQ and the EQ to be helpful.

Alston Zecka: I think the third thing though, at the end of the day is I would like to believe that we are pretty down to earth people and having that sense of service towards our founders. I really buy into that because if I'd had that support, maybe I would still be on that side of the table. You know, we really.

Alston Zecka: talk about and measure actively, um, how we're doing with our founders and we even measure our net promoter score with them. So that's very much something that we live and breathe by. 

Amardeep Parmar: And what is actually most about your future bit roads? 

Alston Zecka:  On the big picture level, I think just the opportunities here in the UK and in Europe for tech.

Alston Zecka: Yes, [00:31:00] we're going through a bit of a downturn right now, but that opportunity is just huge. The population in Western Europe as a whole is slightly more than the U S. There are two times the number of technical developers, and yet the average salary is 40 percent less than the U S and on top of that, the total investment in tech is 60 percent less than the U S.

Alston Zecka: So just structurally, there's so much opportunity here and we're already seeing it with more 1 billion, 10 billion, even 50 billion companies being created. So from a big picture perspective, that's super exciting. On the bottom up, it's this opportunity that I talked about to continue to add value. I'm hopefully getting better at my job.

Alston Zecka: I'm hopefully showing more track record and being able to hone my advice with the founders. And so, you know, something, the venture game is, um, you know, is a multi year, almost multi decade thing to get better at. So I'm constantly being challenged and I'm constantly seeing more opportunity. I mean, that's a great coming together of what you need to build a career.

Amardeep Parmar: So we're going to need to do  quick fire questions now. But [00:32:00] first one, who are three British Asians you'd love to spotlight that you think people in the audience should be paying attention to?

Alston Zecka:  I don't know them, and I don't know a ton about the specific details, but the Issa brothers. So do you know Mohsin and Zuber Issa?

Alston Zecka: I mean, you know, these guys started off with one petrol station in Bury, Lancashire. They then built... Like a multi billion business of petrol stations and four quarts. And then they bought Asda from Walmart, the world's biggest retailer. I mean, enough said, right? So, I mean, that's just a phenomenal story.

Alston Zecka: The second person I would highlight of course, is Will Hsu from Deliveroo. I mean, just phenomenal business, um, and just the sheer drive. I mean, the guy still pedals on his bike to deliver for himself as well. So at that personal level, that's just phenomenal. Staying in touch with the customer. The third one.

Alston Zecka: is a gentleman who's no longer with us, um, sadly. So David Tang, um, he's originally Hong Kong Chinese, but he was also a well known, um, entrepreneur and an investor and philanthropist here in the UK. So he founded a business called Shanghai Tang, which is really cool, retro, chic, Shanghainese, where [00:33:00] he also founded Chinese restaurants, including, um, China Tang, which is one of the best Chinese restaurants in London.

Alston Zecka: Um, but he was also an advisor to London Symphony Orchestra, and he was a journalist, a columnist for the FT. I almost think about him as like being a kind of an Asian Oscar Wilde in terms of his acerbic wit. So, I mean, this guy was a real Renaissance man. I didn't know him, but actually my aunt was lucky enough to consider him one of her, you know, her great friends.

Alston Zecka: Um, and just the style and panache and creativity that he had. And so, you know, I talk about these three guys because they have done things in different spheres. But they talk about, you know, the different aspects of, you know, how great British entrepreneurs, uh, British Asian entrepreneurs can be, you know, across all different spectrums of, you know, of industry.

Amardeep Parmar: Awesome. So if people want to find out more about you, find out more about Eight Roads, where should they go to? 

Alston Zecka: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so our website, has tons of information about our teams, our investments and myself. Um, you know, or ping, hit me up on LinkedIn. 

Amardeep Parmar: If there's anything that you need help with.

Amardeep Parmar: What can the audience help you with? 

Alston Zecka: Always up for [00:34:00] hearing, especially about new cutting edge technologies and cutting edge ideas. I, I spend a lot of my time in FinTech, so always interested to hear about that. I also spend a lot of my time in the more deep tech and, and, you know, tech infrastructure. So those are three areas I'm particularly interested in.

Alston Zecka: And I think those are also areas which are constantly innovating and where Britain's at the cutting edge. So, so please. You know, let me know if there's anything good. 

Amardeep Parmar: So  thank you so much for coming on. It's been really insightful. Have you got any final words for the audience? 

Alston Zecka: Yeah, I, I think the last thing, if I could say, because we didn't get a chance to touch on it, and it is something I'm fairly passionate about, is this awareness and understanding of what is possible.

Alston Zecka: I think what has held back, if I may say, many British, Asian entrepreneurs is not knowing the game, not understanding. How it works, this broad picture of, you know, for you to be successful as a business, you know, you also need to have networking. You need to understand the financing side of things and the art of the possible.

Alston Zecka: And I think British Asians, you know, on that mom and pop shop level. I mean, there I said, um, [00:35:00] I think we are some of the best, uh, and actually the amount of personal risk and effort to, to build a hyper scaling business, it's actually no greater. It's different in certain areas. You've got to handle more stakeholders and there's many other elements, but actually, if you can build a very successful bootstrap business, where you have the capabilities.

Alston Zecka: To go and do something else that could also scale and become like the next tech unicorn. So, so if I could just find a way to encourage more awareness and more sense of what's possible, I think that would be really powerful for the whole community.

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