Founder Focus: Venture Capitalist, Brenda Irwin, Part 1
Brenda Irwin and I were introduced by the big-hearted, visionary entrepreneur and legendary Canadian investor Jim Estill. Little did Jim know he was connecting kindred souls and creating a lasting, cross-continent friendship. Based on the West Coast of Canada, Brenda has had an intriguing career journey from teacher to venture capitalist to teaming-up with an Olympian to invest in healthy living innovations. Brenda’s career journey is one with many inflection points and reflections. Read on.
Q: What is Relentless Pursuit Partners? What problem are you solving or opportunity are you seizing upon?
A: Relentless was created as a partnership between Olympian Simon Whitfield and I to merge our experiences and expertise in the fields of athletics, business, technology and finance. We invest in teams innovating for the benefit of healthy communities, and entrepreneurs committed to active living.
The opportunity spans demographics — from the fit, digitally savvy millennial generation to the active, health-conscientious boomers. Millennials are experimenting with fitness products in coordinated social media communities, while boomers seek innovative ways to engage in a healthy lifestyle. Relentless is tapping into a continuum of health.
How did you and your business partner Simon Whitfield come up with the idea?
Simon and I met at a private event that launched with a 40km road bike ride. Participants, primarily businessmen, were equipped with accessories and tech to support their cycling passion. Following the ride and a quick dip in the ocean, prospective investors settled into a cocktail hour featuring an investment pitch. Attendees were keen to hear about a program and tool that could take their training up a notch.
That singular event planted the seed for our partnership. Simon observed how I assessed the investment opportunity. I listened and learned about some of his business ventures. From that initial meeting, amidst a beta community of sorts, it was clear that investment in sport technology resonated with our friends and networks.
It takes more than a great idea to have a great partnership. Any tips on how to approach a new partnership arrangement? What are the questions that need to be asked before you say “Hey, let’s go into business together!”?
We took a while to get into a rhythm, coming from wildly different backgrounds as professional athlete and venture capitalist. My recommendations have been difference makers for our partnership. Predictable perhaps, but critical nonetheless.
Ask your future business partner:
- What are your short term and long term goals? How long is ‘long term’? How short is ‘short term’? Partner with intention.
- “Where does our business/partnership fit into the day”? Clarify competing priorities. Determine how and where the partnership fits across personal, health, family and professional commitments. Discuss each category. Set boundaries from the beginning.
- Everyone makes assumptions about others. It’s a natural instinct. Clarify your assumptions with these questions: What do you consider your contribution to the partnership? What areas do you want to focus on? Which area could you use the most support?
Allow yourself to be vulnerable with your partner. Candidly discuss strengths and weaknesses. Seek support outside of the partnership to fill in the gaps before they become weaknesses for the team.
And my top tips are:
- Focus. Don’t let either “busy-ness” or the wealth of possibilities get in the way of executing goals.
- Prioritize communication. Identify the optimal method of daily communication. This is critical when you are based in different geographical locations.
- Listen and learn. Invite regular learning from each other.
Let’s talk health and wellness. Why are you investing in this sector? What are the technologies and developments that inspired you to center your investment thesis on this sector?
I am investing in sport and health technology because they are markets of intimate interest to me, have massive growth potential, and touch everyone. The wide spread adoption of fitness trackers and wearable sensor technology is the tip of the iceberg.
Demographics underpinned the decision to target health and sport technology. A specific boomer sub-population was my decision driver.
Have you heard about M.A.M.I.Ls? They roam the countryside on weekends, and at least one evening during the week. Often the herd grows as the journey progresses … and at the end of the day, they settle in at a hipster coffee shop to discuss the day’s ride. My inspiration → “Middle Aged Men In Lycra” modeling healthy, active living.
As a venture capitalist, I watched the transition of business networking evolve beyond golf about seven or eight years ago. The savvy law firms started to organize weekday morning group rides with coffee and treats provided along the way. It was a fascinating shift and one I loved as a cyclist/non-golfer type. The ride where I met Simon was almost exclusively with M.A.M.I.L.s keen to ride with an Olympic athlete on a Friday afternoon. These days, during at least 75% of my business meetings and networking events, I eventually ask ‘do you ride’?
The recreational cycling market is exploding, including the growth of commuting by bike. Just take a look at the growing number of urban centers dedicating resources to become ‘bike friendly’. Add to the mix the increasing prevalence of triathlon clubs, well, we knew the consumer health, sport and fitness technology markets were poised for growth.
Can you tell us about any of the investments you’ve made to date?
Our first-born. The first investment Simon and I made together was in Vanhawks (vanhawks.com). This Toronto based start-up has developed the Valour, a sexy ‘smart’ bike designed for the urban commuter. The integrated technology and sensor functionality is guaranteed to inspire more people to leave the car at home. And while the Valour is the company’s calling card, and hits the sweet spot for the Relentless active living portfolio, Vanhawks’ innovation in carbon-fibre manufacturing has implications in many industries. The pipeline potential for the company is compelling as our portfolio’s anchor tenant.
And then there is Wiivv (wiivv.com), with a head office in Vancouver, BC and manufacturing team based in San Diego. Wiivv has expertise in adaptive manufacturing of 3D printed products. Their launch product is a custom insole that has proven to reduce fatigue and eliminate chronic foot issues, such as plantar fasciitis. Customers use Wiivv’s mobile app to take pictures of their feet to facilitate design of custom, 3D printed insoles. Wiivv has adopted a similar start up strategy to Vanhawks – both companies have launched with a lead product to dial in manufacturing, international logistics and community building.
Perhaps our most industry disruptive investment is Gym Track (home.gymtrack.co). This team is well on their way to changing the gym experience. They have a combination of wearable tech that integrates with a smart pin and barbell attachments to track everything you do, and act as a virtual personal trainer at the same time. Imagine system wide connectivity that is facility agnostic.
Our most recent investment is in ePACT (epactnetwork.com). ePACT has a unique role in the sports technology ecosystem. They solve a simple, universal problem – digital access to current, complete contact and emergency health information while maintaining privacy. Race event managers and sports associations are jumping on board; ePACT’s software solution replaces paper forms, increases safety and reduces risks for athletes and staff.
Do athletes make good entrepreneurs?
Absolutely. Athletes are intimately familiar with the need to ‘do the hard yards’ to be successful and dig deep for the motivation to keep moving forward. This is one of my favorite training tips that I have heard Simon share with others. Successful athletes know, as do successful entrepreneurs, doing the hard work consistently, rebounding from setbacks, month after month is what yields results. There are no short cuts to achievement.
Do entrepreneurs need mentors, coaches or trainers?
In my experience, entrepreneurs who surround themselves with mentors and hands-on coaches throughout their career yield optimal results. Enrolling mentors is not just a ‘start up’ phenomenon. The wise entrepreneur receives coaching from experts in a variety of industries, through all stages of growth, to challenge status quo thinking.
If you draw a parallel to successful athletes, they have a team and a coach to keep them on track, to provide feedback, to optimize training and to keep ideas fresh. Entrepreneurs need to have the same mindset. Identify that person, or group of people that will hold you accountable, and know how to challenge you to take a business to the next level.