Henrik Aspen is a General Partner at Verdane Capital. He has been active in the acquisition of several new portfolios of direct investments, and he works closely with companies primarily active in the software sector and in internet retail. He is also responsible for Verdane‚Äôs activities in Finland.
Henrik holds an MSc in Economics from Stockholm School of Economics (Sweden) and a CEMS Master from the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland). He is also a graduate of the Swedish Naval Academy.
Henrik, firstly, congratulations on your ‚Ç¨300m growth fund ‚ÄúVerdane Edda‚Äù that you recently announced. Tell us a little bit about the focus and background of the fund since it has a slightly different scope and complements your existing suite of funds.
Thank you! The fund will capitalise on the experience and expertise we have built over 15 years of investing in technology enabled companies in the Nordics. In fact, we have made over 170 investments in software and consumer internet companies, so our knowledge base is extensive and our networks vast. This was driving increasing deal flow for us, and for slightly larger opportunities which didn‚Äôt really fit into our current funds that mainly acquire portfolios of companies. So, we established Edda to go after these opportunities, and this means that Edda will focus on single companies.
Verdane Capital is still one organisation with one investment team ‚Äì same people same culture. The objective is simply to be able to execute on opportunities up to ‚Ç¨50m investments whereas our main fund has a concentration cap at around ¬†‚Ç¨30m. We often come across attractive companies at a later stage (e.g. higher revenue) within sectors where we have particularly strong expertise, such as consumer internet and niches within the broader enterprise software space. With this new fund we can execute such later stage investments by acquiring shares form existing shareholders, invest primary capital, or a combination of the two.
You have a focus on technology-enabled growth companies in Northern Europe. Why do you think this focus is of particular interest?
This is an area where Northern Europe, and specifically the Nordic region, is particularly strong, due to factors such as good technology infrastructure, a tech savvy population and perhaps paradoxically quite high labour costs, which make automation and digitalisation worthwhile. We think that there are many exciting companies out there which we can help grow into regional champions or international success stories.
We have invested and built successful tech enabled growth companies originated from the Nordics for the past 15 years. The Nordic market is unique in the sense that the domestic markets are very adaptive to new technologies but not large enough to support growth beyond a certain stage. This implies that international expansion is part of the DNA from the very start. If you build a company with the objective to expand into your neighbouring countries within 2 years, and Europe, UK and the US within 3-5 years, there is a ‚Äòmust build to last‚Äô mentality that plays into every aspect of scaling your business. Today, we see similar thinking in Germany, where technology companies which used to target domestic customers (global brands) only and grow with such customers internationally, have started to shift focus earlier and target UK or US customers at an earlier stage.
At the moment, we have several later stage growth investments together with yourself and your team such as Smava, Babyshop, Searchmetrics and Navabi. Has there been a common theme in these investments that you are trying to replicate in general in your search for successful growth companies?
We typically like to back niche players that are number 1 or 2 in their respective markets. We look at every investment opportunity individually although there is a pattern as to where we see Verdane having strong angles based on experience, knowhow and network. Broadly our track-record within digital consumer and enterprise software has helped us a lot. That said these industries are so broad, so we have to break it down to niches such as specific omnichannel niche market focuses (e.g. Navabi), consumer fintech (e.g. Smava), or B2B content marketing solutions (e.g. Searchmetrics) where Verdane has specific knowledge. ¬†When it comes to digital consumer, we really like e-commerce players who carry their own brands, in addition to third party brands.¬†We generally advise these sorts of players to really stick to their knitting and focus on what they are best at.
How does Verdane differentiate itself in the current market environment and what is your view of the model for growth investing going forward?
The management teams that we work with often emphasise our flexibility in approaching a deal, and our deep sector expertise. Based on the large number of investments we have made in relevant business sectors, we can typically make connections that can be hugely valuable to the firms we work with ‚Äì for example to another company in our portfolio that has implemented a specific¬†warehouse solution, just to give you one idea. Going forward, we think flexibility will continue to be very important, and real value-add will become ever more important.
Where do you see the use case for growth debt to complement your financing and what are you looking for from a debt partner?
Flexibility is key, and the ability to understand a growth business of course. Debt plays a very important role in growth investing today as debt providers have a great understanding of the dynamics in growth stage investing. As revenues and cashflows in today‚Äôs subscription-based economy are quite predictable, conservative debt levels can be very complementary. We typically look for a debt partner that understands the company and its market, and buys into the business plan so that the debt package can be structured accordingly.
Verdane has a longer track record of also doing portfolio acquisitions and secondary direct transactions. How do you see the market for such investments going forward?
We see more opportunities both in the Nordics and across the EU and UK and think that this market will continue to evolve. We are able to provide liquidity in a flexible manner, and there is always a value attached to that, but perhaps particularly when the business sentiment turns gloomier than it is today.
We often source by interactions with management as well as the current VCs or PEs. Again our objective is to align stakeholders (not only shareholder) agendas and let the company grow to its full potential. We try to construct deals where we take all stakeholders interests into account where we for example structure deals where the selling VC/PE investors are entitled to a share of the potential upside.
Furthermore, there is no such thing as ‚Äòdiscount to NAV‚Äô but we evaluate each company by analysing it bottom-up based on unit economics. Almost all of the investors who have sold portfolios to Verdane on this basis are well established and successful firms where a transaction has been very beneficial for the selling GP and its LPs.
We have actually known each other for more than 30 years, which seems like a very long time. If you look back at the market development, your career and involvement with growth companies, management teams and co-investors, what would be your strongest memories and learnings?
Every case is unique and there is no such thing as one plan fits all, even if two companies would almost be identical, there are always implications that are specific in each case. What I like to think Verdane has been good at is the fact that we have managed to foster a great positive culture that underpins who we are and what we do. We have grown as a firm quite significantly during the past 24 months, but we put a lot of emphasis into ensuring that we embrace diversity but foster culture and core values. If you ask a management team in one of our holdings I think (hope) they will say that we provide insight and support to help them build their business to reach its full potential.