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Paying customers are always going to be a better judge of a product than I am – Barrie Heptonstall, Angel Investor

Barrie Heptonstall is a Former IBM executive and an angel investor in early-stage technology startups, with over 60 investments in his portfolio (one of which is Bright Spaces). He is also Chief Commercial Officer at Small Robot Company, a UK agri-robotics and AI technology scaleup.

Barrie has 30 years of experience in sales and technical leadership, having worked with international clients and governments. He is also working together with Pi Labs, providing B2B sales training to companies like us, who are in their portfolio.

Main takeaways:

  • When deciding to invest, any investor will probably tell you that they are “betting” on the founding team
  • Post pandemic we are clearly going to see some significant changes in the real estate business
  • Being very open to trying new technologies is the key thing for real estate companies
  • Study your competition to find their weaknesses, and deliver what clients want.

Deciding when and where to invest

Barrie Heptonstall has invested in over 60 tech companies and recently in Bright Spaces as well. We wanted to understand what is the driver behind his investments, what does he look for in a company?

There are a bunch of things that are important – but I think any investor will probably tell you that they are “betting” on the founding team.

So that’s ideally 2 or 3 people who have the combination of general business skills, deep technical skills, and knowledge of & passion for the problem which they are solving.

So if you look at Bright Spaces – they have Bogdan and Andrei who have already run a successful agency so have a broad set of business skills – and Andrei of course is a brilliant engineer. Beyond that the wider team shows that they can attract great talent – talented people always want to work for the best bosses. So those things really go together. Bright Spaces had won a hackathon organized by Skanska so that was an early sign that they were onto something great.

What do proptech startups need to grow?

As a Venture Partner at Pi Labs, he has seen many proptech startups. He thinks that while one can build anything they want with software, success comes from products and services that are built in order to be useful to customers.

For me – it is important to see the first signs of customers adopting the product. Bright Spaces started our accelerator program with no paying customers – and a few months later had multiple signed contracts with companies in Romania and the UK.

They showed that their product could be used from small to very large office buildings – and that customers (including very large real estate companies) were willing to pay for it. Paying customers are always going to be a better judge of a product than I am.

Real estate technologies that will shape the future

Post pandemic we are clearly going to see some significant changes in the real estate business., Barrie Heptonstall adds. So what is he looking after, more specifically?

I’m interested in companies that are finding new ways to interpret buildings… That would be a firm like HonestAI (also backed by PI Labs) which has an AI powered search engine to help companies consider new uses for their estate – and it is also Bright Spaces which has the ability to model a fit out of a building and then make a 3D walkthrough.

So you can experience exactly what that space will be like as if you were in it. Then to be able to easily change to experiment with different combinations of things like desks, offices, and meeting spaces.

Is virtual showcasing one of these technologies that will influence how business is done in RE? The short answer is yes, as it clearly has many benefits.

Having worked for a giant technology company for many years, I can easily see someone in a “Head Office” in the USA trying to understand an office space on the other side of the world.

For them, Bright Spaces is magical. Office space is the second largest cost for many companies, after employing the staff, so it is a key decision… and also for the morale of the staff to have a great office with a well thought through office layout.

On the other hand, we also see various obstacles that keep the real estate industry from accelerating the adoption of real estate tech. To them, Mr. Heptonstall recommends:

We can all clearly see every industry being affected and disrupted by tech. That’s 100% true for real estate. Being at the leading edge of technology adoption is going to be increasingly important for the sector – clients experience things like apps and home shopping in their personal life, and they expect the same kind of instant response and user experience in their working life and in the “real world”.

Being very open to trying new technologies is the key thing.

Does it matter where a proptech startup is based?

Are there certain European hubs that favor innovation in Proptech? Are startups bound to fall under certain stereotypes or can it be more difficult for them to grow based on their location?

Our angel investor thinks location is less and less important.

I think you could have made a case 4 or 5 years ago that you had to be based in Silicon Valley to have a major success…. And 2-3 years ago you could also be in London, or Berlin, or New York…. But that is just not the case now.

There is a much wider range of funding available to tech startups nowadays, so for example Bright Spaces raised money locally from Romanian VC and angel investors in the early days. It remains to be seen if you’ll need to have salespeople in the countries where you are marketing your product.

From 2018 onwards, I’ve found clients increasingly happy to meet on Zoom type calls – so perhaps that’s the way things will continue to trend.

The future of office spaces

Things are changing fast and companies must be prepared to embrace agility in order to avoid a new crisis. While office spaces will continue to exist, their role and design might differ in the future.

I’m influenced by what I saw at IBM – which was that regional offices were shrunk in size to become “drop in centres” – whilst the main London HQ and development labs outside London were upgraded to a very high standard throughout and with impressive customer meeting areas.

That whole process has been being refined there for 20 years – since around 2000 we could work flexibly and I have to say flexible working (along with amazing colleagues) was one of the main reasons I stayed with them for so long. They trusted their employees to deliver, and we did.

But the company recognised that it was important to have places to meet clients, to meet colleagues, and which could be used for major engagements like working on a client proposal. Getting the right balance for your firm is the key thing and that takes time to figure out.

The most important entrepreneurship-related lesson learnt during your career

I actually bought a very large house in 2006, and I turned it into a fancy high-end wedding venue.

I remembered that my MBA Professor said you should study your competitors by parking your car outside their factory and counting the lorries coming and going…. So I visited all the wedding venues in the area and asked them lots of questions about how they worked.

They had a lot of rules about things they would NOT let clients do. So I created a venue which had a completely different offering; almost no “rules” and much more focused on what my clients wanted. So two lessons from that – study your competition to find their weaknesses, and deliver what clients want.

To conclude

Barrie Heptonstall is also CCO in a FaaS (Farming as a Service), Small Robot Company. We were curious to learn what motivated him to start on this path and what does the future hold.

I wanted to do something “meaningful” for the planet as my next act. I’d already invested in Small Robot Company, so I was delighted when the founders asked me to take their product to market with large corporate seed and chemical companies.

It matches my experience selling to large corporates – but I’ve had to learn a lot about biology and chemistry… it is amazing what you can learn from Youtube! And I’ll continue to support my investments – and add some more too!

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