Getting to know you: Raj Dhonota

Raj Dhonota

What do you currently do?

I currently invest in pre-seed start-ups.  Pre-seed means start-ups that are only in the mind of entrepreneurs or only in a business plan.  It is by far the riskiest stage of investment, because you are literally investing in a person’s thought, but I find that my experience and knowledge in start-ups helps us mould that idea into a business proposition which has a much stronger chance of success.

I currently speak to over 100 start-ups a month and have to date invested in 60 start-ups.  I look for idea that offer something new and founders that have what I think are the key attributes to be successful in start-ups: hunger, motivation, perseverance; people who can make things happen.

Many of my investments are in solo-preneurs or small teams that other investors think would not be investible at such an early stage, mainly because they lack track record or the full set of skills required to be successful.  My pre-seed investment helps them achieve that track record and plugs any gaps in skills by placing a team around them.

My investments range from tech based ventures to property and FMCG. 75 per cent are tech based, the remainder in food, retail and property.

What was the inspiration behind your business?

When I launched my first start-up I took every risk under the sun.  From being a sole founder and having to everything alone, being underfunded, leaving my job, leveraging as much personal debt as I could to keep things going.  With hindsight, I feel that had I had someone with experience to guide me through my first experience, I could perhaps have made some different decisions which would have meant that business could have survived, still as innovative but in a slightly different form.

It’s that experience which has been the inspiration behind my willingness to invest at pre-seed.  Not only so that I can help those entrepreneurs with great ideas avoid basic mistakes and have the ability to help mould the idea into something that has the best chance of success using my experience and knowhow, but also to give them access to the advice, knowledge and skills they need to help them succeed.

Many potential entrepreneurs stumble because the risks involved in setting out on their own are just too great. Through a combination of providing investment, confidence-boosting resources and mentoring I can help others succeed whilst reducing this risk.

I firmly believe that the entrepreneurial drive is innate and that it’s so important to foster this spirit in any entrepreneur, young or old, looking to start up or grow their business.

Who do you admire?

I think there are a handful of people that I can say I admire and for different reasons.
To start with, for years, I was and am a big admirer of Sir Alex Ferguson, ex manager of Manchester United.  He may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved his single minded relentless desire to succeed.  It’s not difficult to achieve one off success, but to maintain that degree of success and to evolve over 26 years to ensure continued success in such a competitive industry is an amazing feat.  I also liked the fact that he didn’t suffer fools and had an edge to him when it was needed.
I hugely admire Barack Obama.  His outlook, personality, strength of conviction and humility is something everyone can learn from.
More importantly than leading figures, I admire everyday people who have the courage and conviction to follow their dreams and are willing to provide the sacrifice and perseverance needed to achieve their dreams.  In short, they are the people I prefer to back and invest in.

Looking back is there anything you would have done differently?

My journey from my initial venture that failed to today has defined me, my approach and what I am presently doing.  There is therefore little I would do differently in term of my experience.
However, looking back I think that had I had someone guiding or mentoring me that had the experience and knowledge I lacked back then, it may have led to a very different outcome for that business.

What defines your way of business?

Pragmatic and approachable.  With the risks I take at pre-seed level, and investing in entrepreneurs who are just starting out, being pragmatic and approachable is important.  Nothing is ever perfect when working with founders who have never managed a business before and many bring a way of doing things or thinking that does not work for start-ups.
Most people will say I am extremely relaxed, but behind that relaxed approach is a serious expectation that people will fully maximise the opportunity I give them when I invest.  Even as an active investor, I don’t look to manage or control the ventures I invest in or to step into the day to day management.  That has got to be down to the entrepreneurs and they need to take responsibility for ensuring they are doing whatever is needed to ensure their venture is successful with my support.
After appearing on the first series of the Apprentice, Lord Sugar sent a personal message to everyone.  His advice to me was “no more Mr nice guy”.  Being nice does not prevent you from being successful!

What advice will you give to someone who is just starting out?

First, surround yourself with the right people.  That means from founders, employees and advisors/mentors.  The more people you collaborate with, and the more you can reply on, the greater your chances of success will be.
Second, ensure you fully understand your competitors and target market.  Many founders fail to look at these in sufficient detail meaning their proposition is not as strong as it can be.

Third, listen to what your target market is saying and how they respond to your proposition and be prepared to adapt your proportion based on whatever will work in the marketplace.