Zehra is Head of the Founder Community at Republic as well as part of the investment team. If there’s anyone helping founders establish themselves, it’s Zehra. She hosts some of the best parties for founders that are motivating and tailored specific to their needs (and not just a random party) and finite time.
Recently we had a great chat about her angel investing journey and what that’s been like for her so far. Below we talk about how she got started, her best advice for aspiring angels, and some of the biggest challenges new angel investors face and how to overcome them.
It’s been a long journey, but going back to the beginning of everything - I set up a company when I was growing up back home in Hong Kong. It was an e-commerce company. I was very into fashion, and so that was my starting moment for having an interest in the space.
I graduated high school in Hong Kong and then went to Columbia University in New York and realized that I have this innate interest in starting businesses. The American market and the way that VC works was entirely new to me.
Working at startups from pre-seed to Series B was just an incredible learning opportunity. I interned at companies for two years. I did a few three month projects and the common problem that they all had was fundraising.
Naturally, no matter how much money they raised, no matter if they were Series B or pre-seed, it was always a problem that happened for every single one of them.
So it got me interested in how they’re thinking about what companies they invest in and how do they make those choices?
It became a natural next step for me to want to learn more about VC. I was still an undergrad and wanted to just understand more about what this industry looked like.
I got very lucky with Republic and now I get to do a lot of really exciting things that are investor facing. Working with VCs, sharing deal flow with them, but then also working with founders who are looking to fundraise.
During my time in undergrad, when it was around a year before I graduated, I worked at this incredible company called Kulfi Beauty.
I was an intern for them and it ended up being one of the first checks that I had ever written and a company that I'm very proudly involved in as an angel investor. I love them, their products are amazing.
I grew up in Hong Kong, but I was born in Singapore. I'm Pakistani as well. I love being in VC because a lot of people are starting to invest in these emerging markets, particularly Pakistan, so I’m always enthusiastic to help founders back home as well.
I think when you're just starting out you have the capital and you want to start deploying, but then it becomes a matter of being one of two things for a founder.
The first one being you're either a group of angel investors that will be a one line item on their cap table, or you're a strategic angel investor who may exist as their own line item that provides more insight and has relevant experience in the space.
When you're brand new to angel investing the hardest part is probably finding great opportunities. There’s an abundance of choice and you need to figure out what industries you want to focus on and are excited about. Then seek those people out and understand which other angel investors or syndicates have theses that you believe in.
There are so many companies fundraising, but you want to make sure that you're aligning your portfolio with your beliefs. Your thesis could be something very specific, or it could be very generic.
I think that specificity is oftentimes the hardest thing to really pin down because you don't want to just be following whatever is popular. I mean, you certainly can do that, but as an angel investor, I'm assuming you also want to build a track record and a reputation for your value add.
Before you even start writing checks, I would really think specifically on what your thesis is, what you want to be investing in and why, and just write that down to yourself and start thinking with that perspective and connecting with other people on Twitter and on LinkedIn who are communicating that same perspective.
I have sent so many cold messages and I receive a lot of cold messages. For context, when I was in undergrad and I worked at 14 different companies, almost all of those I got through cold messaging.
I would cold message founders on LinkedIn, email them, and DM them on Twitter. The most effective format for a cold message is knowing who you're talking to.
I find a lot of people write cold messages that are generic, like, “hey, you seem interesting, let's connect”. That's awesome, but it doesn't really tell me why you want to connect.
Rather say “hey, would love to connect. Here are a few things that you've done that I really admire. Here's something I do that I think kind of fits what you talk about on Twitter or the industry that you're in, would love to connect”.
It's so simple, but it's highly effective because then the person knows that you've done your research and why you want to talk to them.
I think the second thing is using platforms like Notus, which is a new startup. They're incredible. It lets you analyze your network and who's in it.
My favorite feature is that if you find someone you want to connect with, you can actually put their information in Notus and it will tell you who you're also connected to that has a strong relationship with that person, and then you can turn a cold email or a cold DM into a warm introduction.
My ultimate green flag is a founder who can communicate effectively, simply and efficiently.
As a founder, being able to reduce your business to one sentence so that everyone understands it is an incredible skill set that not everyone has. I connect with a founder who is able to tell me, “I solve X for Y,” and it's just a simple statement.
Around 99.9% of the pitch decks I see, even after looking at the whole pitch deck, I still won’t know exactly what the company is doing.
Another one is action-oriented founders. As an early stage investor, operator, or founder, you have to have people who are biased towards action.
If people aren't biased towards getting things done or biased towards producing results, they're more of like a planner and a goal setter, which is totally fine, but in those earlier stages, you need to be actively thinking about how you're going to execute.
Producing things and being action oriented is a rare skill set. Whenever I get a sense that a founder is more on the planning side or not really biased towards just doing things and trying, it's sometimes a red flag for me.
I think I have gotten this incredible following on Twitter from being an operator and a community builder. Those are two things I'm very proud of. So, interestingly, I'm kind of in a similar position where I have this great audience, but I haven't really built it on being an angel investor.
On my Twitter, I think there's a lot of clear enthusiasm in the fact that I love to build a community. Even for myself, I think that I need to start talking more about angel investing.
I think this is what a lot of newer angel investors deal with, where a lot of them are experienced operators and founders themselves who have created a community through building startups and starting businesses, but they don't know how to make that pivot.
Part of the strategy that I'm employing is doing a lot of community building stuff for angel investors.
Whatever you specialize in, for example, if you're an operator at a fintech company, find fintech angel investors and start communicating with them. Your experience as an operator in fintech is going to allow other people to inform themselves on how they should be assessing certain businesses.
In a nutshell, if you're looking to get started with angel investing and getting that to be part of your personal brand, use something that people know you for.
I'm leaning heavily into consumer tech and consumer social. In my heart, I'm a consumer.
The other industry that I'm starting to educate myself more on is women's health and femtech specifically. There are a lot of elements of women's health that are very poorly researched and underfunded.
For example, in Pakistan women are six times more likely to have hormone issues and PCOS, and these are not analyzed. I guess it fits under the consumer umbrella.
Healthcare, specifically hormone health, is something I'm actively looking to angel invest in.
There are two I really admire that come to mind. One is an angel investing group built up of operators, specifically female operators, it’s called The Council. They angel invest collectively in other companies. Because they're operators who have highly relevant experience, their perspective on investing is awesome. I think that they're building such a cool community.
The other person that comes to mind is Jenny Fielding. I believe she angel invests but also has her own fund. She's invested in some incredible companies at a very early stage and she’s just an awesome person. She’s also very real and provides very unbiased, clear advice on investing.
One is in mental health and they just had their pre-seed led by a tier one VC, which is super exciting. The other one is in women's health.
Be specific about how and who you want to invest in. As soon as I told a few people that I was interested in angel investing, so many different deals were getting sent my way.
It is overwhelming to go through each one and understand if you like the company or not. You don't want to be overwhelmed immediately with that abundance of choice, especially because when you're starting out as an angel investor, I'm assuming you're not writing ten checks every month. Selectivity is really important in the beginning so you don’t overburden yourself.
Tell people which stage you’re looking to angel invest at and in which industry. You’ll get relevant deals sent your way and you can spend time learning about the industry and learning about the space.
Even if you’ve only had experience in a certain industry, you can use that to apply it to your investment thesis. Don't feel like you're boxed in because of that experience. You can pivot and start investing in other companies as well.