The beauty of bright new days
August 2020. We are already more than halfway through a very exceptional and weird year and this is a special edition of our monthly newsletter where we are exploring a different format in order to talk about the changes we are promoting at Bright Pixel.
We have been gradually shifting from the three-step concept of Labs – Incubation – Ventures that we had started with at Bright Pixel to one that privileges the focus in investments and in supporting the increasing portfolio of startups we have in different phases of maturity.
And that is a big change for us.
We pivoted from a company builder studio with an early-stage fund, to an early-stage VC firm with a broader mandate to actively invest in startups with distinctive or emerging tech.
The following conversation is between Celso, our co-founder and CEO, who is starting a new chapter in his life, and Alex, our Chief Investment Officer. In it, they highlight the lessons learnt as investors in the market for four years now, and talk about what awaits them. Let’s start!
Roadtrip to John’s
Alex: Looking back, it is funny to think of how Bright Pixel was born. I had just joined Sonae IM’s investment team when the project was formally put in motion in late 2015. In the initial discussions around the investment strategy, the main goal was to find growth stage venture capital opportunities in projects that already had revenues (ideally, +1m€) and that had ambitious plans to scale globally. But then there was also a will to dabble into early-stage investments as well. Clearly, one thing that was taken into account since the very beginning was that these were two different worlds. The way you analyse and support growth stage startups is objectively different from early-stage projects… That’s when you came along with way too many ideas!
Celso: I remember this. I knew two things when I left SAPO: I wanted to join the startups bandwagon and be an entrepreneur, and I wanted to get my hands dirty and turn a couple of great ideas into products. I knew nothing about investment funds back then. When we started talking, you crushed my dreams and told me: you have to choose one idea, and one only.
Alex: That led us to brainstorm… a lot. We began by evaluating the ideas you had and also further understanding who could be a part of each project. However, we reached some sort of deadlock. We couldn’t choose one idea over the other. We needed to explore these opportunities with some sort of method.
So, we went on a road trip and spent a few weeks looking at and visiting company builder studios, especially in the US. One of the most interesting conversations was the meeting we had with John Borthwick, the founder of BetaWorks in NYC. He was kind enough to explain to us in some detail the merits and challenges of the venture builder studio model.
Celso: That chat with John was indeed the defining moment for the soon to become Bright Pixel. From there, we fine-tuned the concept, the goals, the underlying assumptions and the team that we needed to execute our vision.
Oxpecker & Hell’s Kitchen
Celso: I recall we kicked off with 11 people with varied profiles and the purpose of nurturing the birth of two projects that we initially chose out of all of the ideas we had floated upon and that could then evolve to a startup through our model.
One of those projects is Probely (originally called oxpecker, believe it or not), which has a fantastic team and a great product, and is now close to reaching their Series A stage. The other project was called Grafly but never turned into a startup and we had to drop it after a while (because we did not foresee how it could scale globally). It failed, which is fine.
We also decided to invest in our first startup literally the night before we formally announced Bright Pixel to the world. It was a pre-seed ticket in EatTasty, a company that started in our kitchen and now has an impressive growth potential in the market.
Alex: And, let’s not forget this, a couple of months later we were also launching our first fund.
Now, we must admit that the setup of the whole company builder model was challenging, mustn’t we?
We had this slightly romantic idea that working on tech projects in the Labs, most of which pilots or proof of concepts with bigger companies, would somehow not only be an important revenue stream for the studio, but also play out as a catalyst to create new startups and invest in them.
Celso: Yes, it sure made a lot of sense on paper at the time. But…
Just a title to increase suspense…
Celso: But then the hard cold reality taught us a few things.
In a nutshell, we found that it’s really hard to turn proof of concept projects and tech consultancy into MVPs and startups. Finding the right balance between generating enough revenues to sustain your operation, with enough volume to cherry pick the winners and upgrade them to MVPs, and having the right people at hand to jump from tech consultants to entrepreneurs, all while staying sharp focused on your early-stage investment activity, is near impossible.
There’s a longer explanation, but let’s keep it short. As a team, we decided to reassess the initial Bright Pixel model, and essentially wind down the Labs and the company builder studio configuration. And that’s what we’ve been doing for the last months.
Bright new beginnings
Alex: That made you rethink what you personally wanted to do, right? Whether you wanted to focus on the role as an investor or go back to your origins and be more in touch with product development and building new things.
Celso: That’s right. I learned a ton over the past few years. It’s been a privilege to have known so many interesting people from the startup ecosystem in Portugal and to have discovered so many amazing companies along the Bright Pixel journey.
I have absolutely no regrets. I have never learned so much about so many new things in so little time. For this alone, I feel immensely proud and grateful.
But as much as I like the startup investments world, helping startups and mentoring entrepreneurs, I like getting my hands dirty with tech even more. Drifting away from technology and building products for end users, and doing it at scale, not just proof of concepts, took a toll on me. So, I’m returning to that.
Alex: Can you tell us more?
Celso: I guess I can now. I’m joining Cloudflare as Head of Engineering for their Portuguese office this month. It’s an opportunity to return to my true passion, technology and product, at a global scale, for a company that I’ve been following over the years and I admire for its mission, ambition and culture.
Alex: Nevertheless, I hope we manage to have you around us at Bright Pixel, as an advisor within our Investment Committee, helping us analyse investment options and following the progress of the portfolio we have built together.
Celso: I will definitely stay close and will do my best to maintain a few advisory roles and keep supporting our startups.
Stay Hungry, Helpful, Humble and Happy
Alex: 2020 has been a hell of a ride so far… Yet, we have been lucky enough to see our 15 startups coping rather well in the midst of all the instability felt because of the pandemic. Now, we are focused on investing in new projects we have been screening in the market for a while ago. We have just announced our investment in the emerging field of unsupervised automated platforms for video and streaming services with the round we led at Replai.io. Hopefully, we will soon communicate another investment in a startup that is working in a sphere that has gained even more relevance as a result of Covid-19’s impact in our collective lives.
Celso: We have been talking a lot about this lately, and I see great potential for Bright Pixel in exploring what will be the trends of the new normal. Paradigm shifts always bring great opportunities. These almost five years of activity provided us with a valuable network of advisors and experts, and a growing alumni community, which will certainly help navigate this future like few can.
Bright Pixel will always have a place in my heart, and I’m sure I’ll be reading about many upcoming success stories from the work you, Junior, Fred, Marcos and the rest of the investment team will keep doing.
Alex: Hope so. Bright new days to come! We will be announcing several initiatives and news from our side in the next few months. Well, it is time to wish you good luck, Celso! And I know I speak for all the Bright Pixel family: we see a bright future ahead of you 😉