Sherry Coutu: "Solving problems with technology is a beautiful thing"

One of London’s superstar tech investors on how she picks her investments and what tech trends are taking hold

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Sherry Coutu really likes solving problems. So much so she’s carved an enviable career out of it.

But when I speak to the Canadian serial entrepreneur/investor, I can’t help wonder if the biggest problem of all is time? I don’t understand how she finds it.

If she’s not making an appearance as an advisory board member on one of the seven board positions she holds, including LinkedIn, Artfinder, Care.com and Cambridge University Press, she’s probably got her head down working on one of her not-for-profit board positions such as Cancer Research UK or Silicon Valley Comes To The UK.

And if she’s not seeing to those, you’ll probably find her on a stage somewhere holding her own in a panel discussion, almost certainly talking tech. In fact, that’s how I first came across the digital doyen, in The Hospital Club at Internet Week Europe discussing the pros and cons of Silicon Valley giants like Google moving into London’s East End technology cluster.

She has investments in 40 companies, businesses that employ a total of 80,000 people in 22 countries and have a combined turnover of £1bn (that’s an average of £25m per company).

 I’m not sure I can think of a better person to have a chat with about the ins and outs of investment – albeit a very quick one, in the small twenty minutes window her schedule allows.

With such a diverse portfolio, and array of business interests I wonder how she would simplify exactly how she earns her bread and butter.

“The common denominator is strategy,” she explains. “Typically I like to work in industries that are changing. I like to understand how industries unfold and overtake others, how the players, incumbent or new, will play their cards in the big chess game.”

It’s a nice analogy and one that does some way to uncovering the complexities of her job. To dig a touch further, another mutual character emerges from Coutu’s complex patchwork of responsibilities and interests. Data.

“I’ve been in love with data for years,” she says with a half chuckle.

“I believe in big data and the power of information. Companies that harness their data, which they have or can obtain, can be of tremendous benefit to consumers and those businesses that understand this can reap huge rewards.”

Data is having something of a moment. According to our eponymous columnist Data Baron, data is the new oil and the rush to understand it is the gold rush of the 21st century. Something which I have no doubt Coutu both subscribes to and celebrates.

“I have had a fascination with following trends all my life and data use is really emerging at the moment because of new technology and this provides huge opportunities.

“Of course it can cause problems.  If companies ignore data and the technology that drives it, don’t reengineer and give customers what is now possible, their customers will go to someone that will.”

It is these willing participants, who aren’t afraid to embrace new technologies, that Coutu likes to dive in with – and she isn’t just about start-ups. She works with large, established companies to see what tech will allow them to achieve and how this fits in with their legacy.

Saying that, she has an eagle eye when it comes to pinpointing potential.

“I love helping little companies who have spotted a problem, where consumers were being abused for want of a better word, and are using technology to provide a service.”

That’s exactly what she did with LinkedIn, “it disrupted the recruitment industry” and what she did with Zoopla, “they understood how the world of real estate should look.”

Using technology to solve problems is one of the oldest strategies of all time. It’s a skill that has pushed the human race into a clustery intergoogley mass of technological advancement. So there has to be more to Coutu’s investment strategy, how does she decide where to place her bets?

“I studied at Harvard a long time ago and specialised in entrepreneur finance and entrepreneur management and I practiced this for a long time when I founded my own company, so I definitely have views.

“There are certain ways to evaluate which companies to go for. Have they found a real “problem”? How big is the market and how underserved is it? Does the team have a chance of addressing the problem?”

“The funny thing is, so often people will spot a problem at the same time. When LoveFilm was created, so was Screen Select and Video Island, and I had to decide who to invest in.

“The thing that differentiates companies is the management team, how well they work together and how well they can address the problem.”

LoveFilm

With that in mind my attentions turn to the current technology landscape. Coutu sits in an almost “all seeing” position – watching as start-ups come forward, scale up, sell out or go home. So what are the hot trends? Which niche areas are we about to see explode onto the scene?

“I spend a lot of time looking at mobile health – platforms like PsychologyOnline which allow practitioners to treat people online and can therefore help treat thousands more people and save the NHS millions – are solving a huge problem.

The fact that the second annual Mobile Health summit took place earlier this month in Cape Town, with attendees from over 200 countries, serves to validate Coutu’s point.   

The second niche about to light the tech world on fire, according to the angel investor, is “edu tech”. “Companies working in technology will make the world a far better place for both students and teachers.”

Having made notes about the burgeoning trends about to slap Silicon Roundabout across the face I have time for one more question. While attending a tech networking event the other night, I managed to find myself in the middle of a heated debate.

One gentleman, the CEO of a dating site (that shall remain unnamed), was arguing vehemently that the London technology scene had become obsessed with getting investment. Start-ups, he argued, were completely foregoing bootstrapping, blinded by the flash of cash and unceremoniously whoreing themselves to investors.

As one of London’s most influential and successful investors I was dying to know what Sherry would think.

“I think in Silicon Valley it is often the case that companies seek financing without really thinking through their issues. There is huge value in bootstrapping, if you don’t have money you focus on helping the customer, not on splashing out on tech.

“I wouldn’t say this issue is inherent in the London scene, but it is beneficial for companies to think hard about the problem they have discovered and how customers can benefit. You can do lots of cool things with technology, but it is only meaningful if you can solve real problems and when that happens, that is a beautiful thing.”

Indeed it is.

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