A Chat With Nic Brisbourne of Forward Partners: An Early Stage Venture Capital Fund

We invest in pre-seed and seed-stage UK based start-ups with bold ideas and big ambitions.

We invest early at low valuations for significant equity stakes, typically initial cheques of £200k-£2m, but with over 50% reserved for follow-ons so we can support our founders as they grow their business.

We focus on three core sectors: ecommerce, marketplaces, and Applied AI start-ups. Over the years we have built expertise and a track record in these verticals. It  means that we can apply learnings from our experience – as investors, advisors and through our studio that improve the odds of success for new companies. Over the last eight years we’ve made 65 investments and currently have 45 companies in our portfolio.

We believe that capital should be supportive a key point of differentiation for Forwards is our ‘Studio Team’. We’ve brought expertise together to help portfolio companies with strategy and execution as they build their business and accelerate growth. Founders and their teams don’t have to use Studio, but we find that many of them chose Forward precisely so they can leverage our experts’ know-how.

We also see that growth capital needs to evolve. That equity funding isn’t right for everyone or at every stage of a business’ growth. We created Forward Advances to solve some of these problems. We launched it in 2020 during the pandemic and we believe its USPs could really disrupt the traditional SME lending market and post-seed venture capital too.

Forward Advances provides revenue-based lending which matches the revenue peaks and troughs a business might experience. This makes for more flexible paybacks that frees start-ups from the tyranny fixed repayments, allowing companies to confidently invest in growth when opportunities arise – whether it’s a tweet from a Kardashian, market expansion or Black Friday. It also leverages data from new platforms such as Open Banking, Shopify and Google ads to better understand a start-up’s trajectory.

Using these data insights, we can advise start-ups where best to target their digital marketing spend, helping them to supercharge revenue grow. Borrowers can also use our Studio’s other services and expertise too, including brand and marketing support, go-to-market planning and product development.

Forward Partners Investor Profile: Portfolio & Exits | PitchBook

Why did you start Forward Partners – how did you come up with the idea?


We started Forward in 2013. We saw few investors focused on early-stage pre-seed companies, and not many were providing the follow-on, ‘value-add’ support that Studio provides to help companies grow fast and to help investors de-risk their investments.

The studio was a core part of our business model and vision: to build a team of experts that could help companies grow faster,be more successful and beat the odds – and that’s what we’ve achieved. Today, Studio’s team of 13 helps start-ups and founders with digital marketing, building a tech platform, recruitment, people strategy, fund raising, finding their first customers. By laying on this expertise, not only do we help founders and companies grow, we also de-risk our investments.

Often, founders will come to us with just an idea and nothing else, as was the case with Patch, the UK’s leading ecommerce site for houseplants. We helped CEO Freddie Blackett to make his vision a reality – taking it from conception to fully operational ecommerce site and marketing strategy within a matter of weeks.

How has the company evolved during the pandemic?

We’ve adopted well to remote-only working and have leveraged technology to sustain effectiveness in serving our investors and founders. Culture has also been a key focus for Forward. We’ve worked hard to support our employees, offering weekly wellbeing sessions – including yoga – an allowance for health and meditation apps, and assessments to make sure working from home is as good as it can be.

We’ve also been highly supportive of businesses in our portfolio. Our Studio supported a range of start-ups to achieve their goals: from accelerating the development of next-gen career discovery app WouldYouRatherBe’s to bolstering Patch Plant’s development team as they coped with huge increases in sales as people spruced up their homes during lockdown. And we’ve worked closely with childcare marketplace Koru Kids to navigate the impact of the lockdowns – which decimated its ability to provide nannies for working parents just as the closure of schools sent demand for its services rocketing up 150%.

Overall, our focus on sectors that have benefitted from Covid including ecommerce and marketplaces means that the portfolio has performed very well: companies representing 50% of NAV grew revenues 100%+ in 2020.

We’ve continued to invest for the future too: with a strong pipeline of 4,434 leads, Forward Partners invested in two first time investments over the past year and in six follow-on rounds. They included Fair HQ, a technology platform that helps companies to embed diversity and inclusion into their business, APEXX Global, a platform that consolidates global payment providers, and Silico, which connects data, actions and outcomes for enterprises through AI analytics.

We also launched Forward Advances in the teeth of the pandemic and which we think is fundamentally reinventing SME lending. We’ve also grown our headcount by 50% and we filled around 20 roles for the portfolio last year.


What does the future hold for Forward Partners?


It’s an exciting time for VC investing and for start-ups as we exit the pandemic. Covid has accelerated super trends such as digitalisation and ecommerce. Given our strong expertise and track record in these sectors we see a great future for Forward Partners as we continue to invest capital.

We continue to meet a steady stream of exciting and inspirational founders, both through our network but also through our own programmes, including Office Hours, our monthly quick-fire sessions with pre-seed founders and the Forward Founders Programme to discuss their big ideas, and provide feedback. Right now, we are prioritising female founders. They are incredibly unrepresented in our industry, securing just 11% of all VC funding and this despite clear evidence showing that start-ups led by female founders grow faster and generate better returns for investors.

We’re really proud of the fact that 44% of our companies are led by at least one female and/or BAME co-founder. There’s some great talent out there with clever ideas and we want to explore in as wide a pool of talent as possible. We’ve just concluded a Founders with a number of highly promising individuals too. The programme is a highly curated five week course that equips first-class founders with the tools they need to turn their back-of-a-napkin concepts into venture-ready startups. And at the end of the programme, we’re prepared to make a pre-seed investment of up to £500k into the best of the bunch. We’ve been holding two Programmes a year for the past 3 years.

And lastly we are particularly excited about Forward Advances. Given its use of superior data and in-built flexibility on repayments, we believe it is a superior lending framework for ambitious start-ups and we see enormous potential for this part of the business.