Jos White – the entrepreneur behind MessageLabs – has set up an investment vehicle and advisory business to help early to mid-stage digital businesses. He tells Real Business about investment cycles, "impatient money" and spotting the next big thing.
White set up MessageLabs with his brother Ben in 1995. The pair sold the business to Symantec for $700m (£397m) in 2008, making it the second largest transaction for a private company in the history of the IT security industry.
"I took some time off after selling MessageLabs but I soon got restless,” says White. “A lot of entrepreneurs started approaching me with their business ideas – some were interesting and some were utterly mad. I decided to set up an investment fund so I could assess the opportunities properly."
Together with Ben and three other former executives of MessageLabs (Stephen Chandler, Chris Tottman and Ian Milbourn), White launched Notion Capital in May last year. “Our proprietary fund was approximately £25m, which we raised ourselves. We started out on a part-time basis and kept under the radar. But by the end of the summer we realised we had a really strong proposition. Banks were sitting on their hands, refusing to lend to small firms – and here we were, five investors with not just strong financial backgrounds but real experience of building businesses. We wanted to be the kind of investors that we wish we’d had when we were running MessageLabs."
White says he wants to help entrepreneurs avoid the same mistakes that he made: “Take cracking the States, for example. We sent a handful of sales people out to the US. We thought it would be a good way to test the market but it didn’t work. For several months, we just had people wandering around like lost sheep. If you’re going to take on America, you need to have a proper presence out there – you can’t just route all of your calls back to the UK.”
In 2002, White personally moved out to New York to set up MessageLab’s US office, convincing the board to invest $10m (£6m) in the project: “I explained that we probably wouldn’t see a return on investment for three to four years – but that the States had the potential to be our biggest market.” He was right: when the company was bought by Symantec six years later, MessageLab had ten million subscribers – four million of which were in the US, three million in the UK and the remainder in Europe.
Notion Capital has made three investments to date (Cellcrypt, which specialises in encrypted voice-calling for mobile phones; insurance software firm Selfnet; and Gloucester-based on-demand computing firm Star, one of the shortlisted companies in last year's Customer Kings competition), each being between £0.5m-£1m in size.
White tells Real Business what he looks for in a business: “I want to see a passionate leader in place who can sell the new company to all audiences in a truly compelling way,” he says. “The technology would ideally be unique, patent-protected and difficult to replicate. And the market needs to be growing."
Notion’s investment cycles are typically between five to six years. White says that if you’ve got “impatient money”, venture capital isn’t for you.
"We’re now looking to raise a second fund of approximately £100m from high net-worth individuals, endowment funds, family offices and institutional investors,” he adds. “We want to be known as the entrepreneurs backing entrepreneurs, not scary bankers in suits."