Alex Baker is a Partner at Relay Ventures, an early stage venture fund focused on mobile software, at which he oversees direct investments in mobile payments, apps and services companies. He is also a regular speaker at industry conferences like Canadian Innovation Exchange (CIX), Visa Innovation, IDCEE, CTIA Wireless, and Mobile Monday.
An engaged venture capitalist passionate about accelerating startup growth, Alex is an active board member and observer in supporting Bionym, Influitive, ClearFit, TouchBistro and Kira. He is actively involved with Canadian accelerators like Next36, DMZ at Ryerson University, Imagination Catalyst at OCAD University, and sits on the Board of Directors at HIGHLINE (prior to the merger, he was also on the boards of GrowLab and Extreme Startups).
Before he joined the VC world in 2008, Alex was a management consultant with BearingPoint and PwC Consulting where he covered business strategy, implementation of retail banking, and credit card and loyalty marketing solutions while working with institutions like Visa, American Express, PayPal, Bank of America, BarclayCard and CIBC. Prior to that, he helped launched the AIR MILES for Business program at The Loyalty Group.
Alex and I recently connected to discuss the mobile trends he has his eye on, traits he looks for in entrepreneurs, his most recent investments, and his personal advice for startup founders. Over the course of our call, it quickly became apparent that Alex is not only a very accomplished businessman, but also quick-witted, family-oriented, and genuinely fanatical about mobile startups.
Q&A With Alex Baker
What’s the best part about being a VC?
Meeting people on a daily basis who are smarter than me! The thing about this job that’s super cool is that you’re constantly meeting new people who are challenging the norm and recreating the foundations of the world.
Relay Ventures is specialized in mobile investments. Have any particular trends caught your eye recently?
In the last six months or so, we’ve started digging really deep into four categories.
The implications mobile is having on:
1) Healthcare: Both from a data collection standpoint and as a delivery medium.
2) Education: We think it’s going to be even more transformative than the PC has been in the classroom.
3) Commerce: We’ve seen the emergence of Apple Pay and people getting comfortable with mobile payments, and also the trend of people buying things in store on their phone. The whole concept of building passive payments into products – so you don’t even feel like you’re paying for something – is going to enter into more stores.
4) The Internet of Things: The category we think has huge growth potential is wearables. They’re going to drive that market in much, much faster ways than mobile devices ever did. Because people already have connectivity in their homes through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the cost of acquiring add-on technology is much lower.
What’s the most interesting project you’ve come across recently?
In the Canadian marketplace we recently closed a round on a company called Bionym. (The Nymi) is a wearable that uses your ECG, or heartbeat rhythm, and a unique identifier to log you into your devices, manage your devices, and enable remote payments.
You’ve been in this industry for a while and met a diverse range of entrepreneurs. What traits do you look for in a founder?
We ask whether you want to back a horse, or back a jockey. (At Relay Ventures) we like to find jockeys and breed horses. We look for great entrepreneurs because we understand that products are going to change all the time. In terms of qualities we look for in founders, passion comes first. We also look for entrepreneurs trying to solve problems that have plagued them in the past – things they themselves were seeking a solution for.
We also don’t shy away from funding people right out of school. Age doesn’t matter – they just need to find big markets that they’re building products into and need to create a great experience for whoever they’re building the product for.
You’ve been involved with several Canadian accelerators over the years. What have been your major learnings and takeaways from those experiences?
Patience and time to germinate ideas tends to win. Trying to push a product through a development cycle too quickly just to say you have a product in market doesn’t necessarily win.
While we all support the concept of MVP at an early stage, at the end of the day, you need to makes sure the product works and has value for a particular consumer base, and that the proof points are sticky – they’re not a one-off user base. 12, 13 weeks are too short. Companies need time to germinate at this stage.