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Zendesk's First Investor On How To Spot A Winner

As IPOs go, Zendesk’s was pretty spectacular, with the Cloud-based helpdesk software provider popping 40% on its first day of trading on the NYSE last month, while its current market cap stands at around $1.2 billion. Ever wonder how the momentum for these tech ‘rags to riches’ stories gets started?

In the case of Zendesk, it began six years earlier,  when, as an early stage tech start-up, operating out of the cramped Copenhagen loft of one of its three co-founders, it happened to find its way onto the radar of Berlin-based dotcom entrepreneur and angel investor Christoph Janz.

The Pageflakes co-founder had just sold a start-up and was looking for the next interesting thing, when he discovered their website.

He says: “I loved the product; it was easy to try and the interface looked great. Also, I recall that even back then Zendesk had a beautiful website and was starting to build a great brand around the ‘zen’ theme. Just by looking at the website and the product it was clear that they were not building ‘yet another ticketing solution’ but something entirely different.”

The right tech start-up DNA 

Janz was also quick to recognise an experienced team with the right entrepreneurial experience, domain expertise, tech expertise, and great product design ‘DNA’.

“They had some paying customers already, and it looked to me like this could become a large market, although I didn’t have any numbers and had no idea how big it could become,” he said.

The fact that there wasn’t a lot of data to be analyzed at that stage made Janz’s decision to get involved an instinct one, but by the middle of 2008, he  invested €100,000 ($136,000), other than a tiny ‘friends and family’ funding round, their first injection of capital,  and began working with the team to source their next serious round of funding. But within a few months, with the financial world beginning its slide into meltdown, it was clear that this was not the best time to try and raise money, especially from the European VC market.

Janz said: “We had a lot of rejections. It was mainly a question of stage; the bigger VCs prefer later stage companies that have already mitigated a lot of the risks. In the end we turned to the US, where there were more investors, more choice, and less aversion to risk.”

And very quickly, a dearth of capital investment transitioned into a deluge of VC interest. In 2009 Zendesk closed a Series A funding with Charles River Ventures, and at that stage Janz’s involvement in the company came to a close.

He says: “A few months later they got their Series B funding from Benchmark Capital, based in San Francisco, where they created a board of very experienced advisors and investors. From my point of view, there was not much more that I could do for them.”

He is still in touch with the founders, and has watched Zendesk return to Europe to build the European side of its operations, expand its global workforce to several hundred members of staff, and make that stellar public debut.

Finding the next SaaS IPO 

Today as managing partner at Berlin-based Point Nine Capital, Janz is still investing in tech start-ups, and anticipates further IPOs in the SaaS space, including the much talked about Box and a number of other companies with similar potential.

“There is huge market potential for this sector much farther into the future, as a large proportion of organisations are still using on-premises technology. There are lots of opportunities for start-ups to disrupt the software space and capture some of these new markets,” he says.

But a big question remains; will European investors ever acquire the same appetite for promising early stagers as their US counterparts?

Janz says: “Europe needs more successful start-ups, more entrepreneurs, more early stage funding, as we have been seeing in Berlin over the last couple of years. The fact is, cities like Berlin and London are still lagging behind San Francisco and Silicon Valley; closing the gap, but trailing the US. That said, we are seeing more interest from US investors, who are watching the Europe very carefully.”

And the $900 million question; can he find another Zendesk?

He says: “There are number of startups that we invested in over the last couple of years that remind me of Zendesk in its early days, such as Typeform,15five  and Jobber, and also a few companies that have achieved very significant customer and revenue numbers, including ShiftplanningVend and Clio.

“None of them is at the level of Zendesk yet, but we’re optimistic that some of them will also eventually be ringing the opening bell at Wall Street.”

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