January 16, 2023

The Angels Team

Italian Angels for Growth (IAG) is the largest business angel network in Italy. Over the years, more than 500 leaders from the business, financial and industrial worlds have been IAG members, investing time, skills and capital in the growth of innovative startups. Founded in 2007, IAG recently celebrated its 15th anniversary: in this interview we discuss the role of the business angel and its evolution with IAG Vice Chair Paola Bonomo.

Your career began at McKinsey & Company, and then you took on leadership roles in the digital world at eBay International, Vodafone Italia, and Facebook. You currently serve on the boards of large companies such as TIM S.p.A., AXA Assicurazioni S.p.A., and other companies. How did you get involved in the innovation ecosystem and why did you decide to support it yourself?

My passion for digital was born in the mid-1990s, in California, while I pursued my MBA at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. We were merely at the dawn of the Web we know today and, upon returning to Italy, I came home with a passion for the Internet and the opportunities to invent and reinvent business models that were then starting to surface in the online world. When the time was ripe, I was able to work in this field in Italy as well: the decision to invest in building the necessary skills paid off, because in the following years I led practically every digital area of a business, from marketing to product, from eCommerce to customer service.

While working at eBay from 2005 to 2009, I met several startups, as well as entrepreneurs who at that time had more traditional businesses and then launched ambitious projects in the digital world. At that time, I realized that an ecosystem could develop in Italy and that I could also play a role. And I met IAG.

You have been a member at Italian Angels for Growth since 2009 and have held the position of Vice Chair since 2020: during these years the startup world has grown exponentially. Italian Angels for Growth has analyzed more than 6,500 startups, has a network of over 500 angels, over 100 investments – which have gone on to raise 300 million Euros –, and 11 exits. How has the role of the business angel evolved in both the Italian and international ecosystems?

In recent years, of course, many things have changed. First, we have become many more! There would, however, be room in Italy for thousands more angels since this activity is still not as well-known as it could be.

The second important change is that our way of operating has become highly professionalized: having learned in some cases from past mistakes, we have developed several useful tools - for example, standardized investment contracts - that allow us not to reinvent the wheel for every deal. For this we have to thank the specialized partners who have helped us along this path. Within IAG, we then developed policies that guide our members and champions, for example a conflict-of-interest policy and one that covers reinvestments and bridge rounds. In 2021, after significant work by the Board of Directors, we introduced a Code of Conduct.

The third change is, in my opinion, the most important one: the business angel and this is now happening all over the world has become better at teamwork. Years ago, it was common for a group of angels (or even an individual) to be the only investor in a round. Today, the size of seed rounds has grown, seed players have multiplied, and we have all realized that examining an investment from multiple perspectives is helpful in better understanding its potential and areas of risk. That's why we are happy to co-invest with other angels, with seed-stage funds, with family offices; having multiple players on board at our typical seed stage is of great help when the startup gets to Series A and beyond.

In 2017, you were recognized with the Business Angel of the Year award in Italy. What are, in your opinion, the requirements and characteristics of a good business angel?

With an angel investment, entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial teams open the capital of their startup to one or more minority investors. The angels contribute money, experience ("pattern recognition": familiarity with certain business issues, market development, obstacles to growth), contacts, networking, and the ability to open doors, for example at large corporations that B2B startups target as clients for their products. Angels sometimes also act as coaches vis-à-vis startup teams: some of us even happened to provide something approaching psychological support, especially if the founder was at his first experience in such a context.

So, I don't think there is a checklist that defines the perfect business angel. Everyone contributes to the work we do with their own experiences, which are often complementary to those of other angels: for example, in the role of co-champion of an investment we often find a champion with a more industrial and business profile, and another who brings financial or professional expertise. Among other things, we need to dispel the myth that it takes decades and decades of experience to be a business angel: there are in IAG several angels in their 30s a, and even a few in their 20s, who bring content from their business or professional background and deal flow from their networks, both aspects of great importance.

What are the mistakes to avoid?

The angel often falls in love with a startup, and in my opinion falling in love is never a mistake. However, as we invest at the seed stage, one must be aware that many projects will fail. Sometimes a team that excels in the startup phase will run out of steam just when it should be pulling twice as much in the growth phase, or an entrepreneur will get stuck in the trenches of execution when they should be looking up and looking at strategy. Our role as investors is to do everything, we can to get the engine running at full speed, but to avoid therapeutic overkill when it loses steam and can't get going again.

During your journey as an angel investor, you have followed Italian and foreign tech and digital investment opportunities: what are the differences between the international and Italian investor environments? What best practices should we acquire from business angels in other countries?

In the early years of the association, we travelled to meet and get to know angel groups operating in different ecosystems, and through these benchmarking trips we could see that, details aside, our way of operating was quite like what one encounters abroad. This cross-pollination continues for example, in May 2022, some 20 members and associates participated in a tour to Israel and while we are a group that operates on a broad spectrum regardless of the investment sector, I believe we are well structured and, most importantly, we have a dedicated team that supports the activities of members with great quality and professionalism. Of course, abroad there are more frequent "vertical" groups or groups dedicated only to certain types of investments: for example, those who seek to invest only in startups led by female entrepreneurs (we have an example of this in Italy as well, Angels4Women, founded in 2018, with which IAG has a partnership); but it is also common to meet groups of angels who are all alumni of a particular university, or who have other experiences in common; in Tel Aviv, for example, there is a group whose members are all former employees of Intel!

In 2015 and 2016, you were recognized as one of the Inspiring Fifty, the fifty most inspiring women in European technology, and in 2017 you won the Golden Aurora award as the best female Business Angel in Europe. In 2018 you were also among the founders of Angels4Women. What is your advice to future female entrepreneurs and/or business angels?

I don't think female entrepreneurs or angels need advice! If I had to give any, I would give it to venture capital fund partners: diversify your teams. It's happening strongly in the United States, because there's a growing realization that having a better gender balance and listening to the perspectives of those with different life experiences and backgrounds is critical to any investment thesis that can succeed in the years, we have ahead of us.

Tell us an anecdote from these years at IAG.

In 2015, during Antonio Leone's presidency, we were looking for a new Managing Director, but it took a few months to identify and bring on board the right person, Aurelio Mezzotero (who later joined us in early 2016). A member, Maria Cristina Fenoglio Gaddò, stepped into the role on an interim basis during this transitional period, allowing the work of the group to go on smoothly as planned. I think this episode epitomizes the spirit of IAG, which is to roll up our sleeves to make things happen: the association thrives on the commitment of members in bringing deal flow, in screening sessions, in committees, and in all of our group activities and the time that Maria Cristina invested in her role as interim MD was a perfect example.

Who impressed you the most among those you met and got to know at IAG over the years?

IAG would not exist without the idea of Francesco Marini Clarelli and without the passion that Francesco dedicated to the creation of the group, of which he was the first Chairman. Francesco believed in it even when it seemed like a somewhat crazy idea. In the early years of IAG, anyone who met one of us and had never heard of angel investing would get confused with City Angels and think that the purpose of our group was to go to the train station at night and bring blankets to the homeless a most laudable mission, but not what we were about! That is why I think Francesco was a visionary.

The IAG calendar is full of events and opportunities to learn more about the venture capital world from an investment and networking perspective. These include the Retreat, a 3-day event where all IAG members participate in a mix of public conferences, members-only events, updates on portfolio startups, and playful socialization. Can you tell us about one of these moments?

I have never missed a Retreat, so the memories are many... for quality of the playful and recreational activities I want to mention the one in Bologna in 2016, where not only the members who brought more skills in the kitchen, but all participants including beginners, tried their hand at preparing, starting from water, flour and eggs, tortelli di magro and green tagliatelle: which then, with great satisfaction, were the main course of our Sunday lunch.

What do you wish IAG for its future?

In the coming years, some of our investments that are still somewhat unripe today will mature: so, I hope for a number of successful exits.