Send me an angel: how Susan Oliver AM is backing Victorian business

Susan Oliver is a leader in the field and a passionate and committed supporter of women-led startups, helping to drive success.

Helping women to thrive in business isn’t a new interest for Susan Oliver, a co-founder of Scale Investors (an angel network) that has injected $15 million into 30 start-ups across the state since 2013.

“I’ve been supporting, mentoring and encouraging women’s participation in the world of work since the 1970s – it’s what I do,” says the 2019 Order of Australia recipient who’s also chair of LaunchVic’s $10 million Alice Anderson Fund which co-invests in women-led startups.

The angel investor is also the co-founder of ‘The Big Issue’ in Australia, co-inventor of two software systems, chair of The Wheeler Centre and Countrywide Renewable Hydrogen and a board member at Grey Innovation Investment Fund, Melbourne Theatre Company, and Fishermans Bend Development Board.

Breaking the mould

Shattering glass ceilings – and backing big picture ideas to make the world a better place – is Susan’s forte.

As the first woman to graduate in the Property and Construction course at Melbourne University in 1973, the “natural risk taker” is well aware from personal experience of the many factors “that can cruel our spirit and confidence and present a barrier to our enjoyment and fulfilment at work.” According to Susan, “we need women to actively engage in work, to participate in rethinking our world and to bring their difference to the table.”

Progress is happening in the workplace but women’s participation specifically in angel startups – both as entrepreneur and investor – has lagged.

Case in point: out of the 104 Victorian startups who received angel or venture capital investment in 2019, just 19 had a woman founder, according to LaunchVic.

But the sands are shifting. As Susan sees it, Victoria’s championing angel investment for women is spurring on job growth. “The focus on women’s participation is an area where this state shines – Scale Investors is unique in its focus, and the Alice Anderson Fund (and Victorian Government support for it) is unique in Australia. Victoria has some excellent angel and early-stage funding groups with a wealth of knowledge and experience.”

Becoming an angel

Helping to even out the gender playing field, Susan co-founded Scale Investors in 2013 with fellow Melbourne business visionaries Carol Schwartz, Annette Kimmitt and Laura McKenzie.

It’s taken off in a big way, engaging hundreds of angels, pumping $15 million into 30 start-ups and leveraging multiples of that through co-investments. To date, it’s had three successful exits, three failures and a number of strongly performing companies in its portfolio including in the agricultural research and online education space.

The venture is modelled on US angel investors group Golden Seeds headquartered in New York City, which since 2005 has invested $US150 million in more than 200 women-led companies that have gone on to raise over $US1.5 billion.

“I approached Golden Seeds because I was seeking advice for my own startup and in Australia was being pretty well cold-shouldered by venture capitalists,” Susan admits. “People from Golden Seeds spent time going through my business idea and tech and gave me solid info – if I’d received that early in the piece, it would’ve saved me years. So where was the safe place to learn and be part of a group with a mutual passion and interest to engage and support women? Addressing that, I decided to start Scale Investors, a Golden Seeds sister organisation in Australia.

“Scale Investors pioneered the focus on women – we now enjoy great support from the Victorian Government and COVID-19 has further highlighted that it’s women’s work that needs support. In the last year or so, a federal funding program for women entrepreneurs has begun – but in 2013 we pioneered it, and made it a conversation.”

Susan’s tips for angel investment.

Got a great startup idea but seeking funding to get it off the ground?

Step 1. Make incubators and accelerators your first port of call.

“After a conversation which will test where you’re up to and how strong your business idea is, you’ll be given advice on which accelerator and investor group is right for you. There’s so much interest and experience now that you’ll not lack for good advice and support” (Check out The Alice Fund for Startups, LaunchVic).

Step 2. Capitalise on the latest trend emerging from the pandemic: fast-tracked digital innovation.

“The pandemic has unsettled patterns of work – for some people it has highlighted the need for a stable and secure income; for others it has jogged them to do now what they’ve dreamed of doing and they’re becoming entrepreneurs. Missing the in-the-flesh coffee chat slows the ferment of ideas and collaboration opportunities. However, the fast track of digital communications has opened and enhanced opportunities for digital innovators and that’s very exciting. Other stimuli are that finally companies believe in the urgency of achieving greenhouse targets and the word ‘startup’ has become sexy and part of our language. Movement is afoot.”

Angel investment check list.

How does your business idea stack up? When deciding whether to invest in a startup, Susan Oliver looks for:

1. A strong business idea where she can see the value to a large marketplace with the money to pay for it.

2. A strong resolved entrepreneur who’s not going to be distracted along the way (it can be a long hard path), who’s passionate about their business, and who’s prepared to take advice and is open to learn.

3. A tech-based business where she can see the tech is achievable and can be defended against copies and newcomers.

4. The right team including the right investors on their capitalisation table.

5. Early proof of customer take-up and validation of their pricing model, understanding of sales cycle and understanding barriers to market entry.

6. A business that will make the world a better place.

7. Also, as an angel, she thinks about what their likely exit is, when that may occur, what further investment is required along the way and what sort of multiple it will earn.