Niraj Varia

A native Kenyan, Niraj leverages his international professional experience as an actuary, management consultant and entrepreneur to support entrepreneurs and their businesses that generate large-scale social impact as a result of their commercial success. Niraj joined Novastar at its inception in March 2014. He earned an honours degree in Actuarial Mathematics and Statistics at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland.

What an Investor Looks for in Entrepreneurs

8. Jul 2021

Novastar is one of the first and largest venture capital fund managers backing businesses in sub-Saharan Africa. I wrote this piece to help aspiring entrepreneurs understand not just what we look for, but what it takes to start and scale a business that serves the common good.

Introduction to Novastar 

At Novastar, we support exceptional entrepreneurs building innovative businesses to profitably serve aspiring mass market consumers in East and West Africa. These ‘New Entrepreneurial Stars’ are catalysts for innovation, accountability, efficiency and accumulation of wealth for the common good.

We manage $200 million of venture capital, but do not think of ourselves primarily as fund managers. The fun and focus of our work is partnering with entrepreneurs to help bring ideas to life and multiply their impact.

Our vision is to see sub-Saharan Africa populated by a growing number of entrepreneurs building businesses that serve the common good of the people in the region and the planet we all inhabit.

Investment Criteria

We look for market potential, focused strategies (there is more than enough complexity in execution when growing a business in frontier markets), business model innovation, and a fundamental alignment between commercial success and positive social impact. But the quality of the founders trumps these.

We invest in people first, plans second. Why? When assessing an early stage venture, the only thing certain about the business plan is that it is wrong. Neither we, nor the founders, yet know exactly where it’s wrong, but there are inevitably assumptions that will prove incorrect. The quality of the founding team, their resilience, courage and insight to make course corrections is paramount.

We back entrepreneurs with character, capacity and ambition to build businesses that can transform markets and grow rapidly to scale. Our assessment is not formulaic; what follows is not a checklist. We inevitably make subjective judgments about entrepreneurs we meet. Hopefully the characteristics outlined below stimulate further thought and self-reflection.

bridge teachers and tablets
Teachers and tablets. © NewGlobe Education

Entrepreneurial Character

  • Integrity. The integrity of the entrepreneur(s) is the foundation of the business. If there is evidence of dishonesty or a mismatch between what is said and done we will walk away.
  • Audacity. Entrepreneurs are – by definition – risk-takers. By the time we meet them, they’ve demonstrated courage to devote themselves to a venture with an uncertain future. The courage we’re looking for extends beyond this. Successful entrepreneurs possess the audacity to invest everything in pursuit of their market and then to adjust or even abandon a plan that isn’t working – in spite of time and resources dedicated to it. Great entrepreneurs reinvent when required.
  • Resilience. Building and growing a successful business is hard. There are inevitably more setbacks than successes, particularly in the early days - iterating the business model, struggling to find talent and finance, achieving traction in the marketplace. We’re more interested in how the entrepreneur responds to setbacks and ‘failure’ than success. Great entrepreneurs get knocked down, but emerge stronger and smarter. 
  • Humility. Successful entrepreneurs combine dogged determination, optimistic realism, and self-confidence with a deep humility that is prepared to listen and engage with investors and advisors and embrace constructive criticism.

Entrepreneurial Capacity

We look for high-capacity entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs… 

  • With vision, energy and experience to iterate and grow a business to scale
  • With some experience of a start-up or rapid growth business environment 
  • Who know when to commit the resources required to grow the business, but who recognize that serving the ‘margin sensitive’ mass market entails a ‘cost sensitive’ overhead
  • With capacity to manage high speed, wide scope and large scale… simultaneously.

Such capacity is rarely embodied in one individual. We look for strong founding teams with complementary skills and experience.

people walking through a hospital
Transforming the health sector. © Will Swanson

Entrepreneurial Ambition

We back entrepreneurs who are not content to build sustainable SMEs. “Novastars” have ambition to tackle challenging problems in vast, underserved markets and grow large businesses. In due course, they will be prepared to sell a controlling stake to a strategic investor with capacity to grow the business further and enhance its value to all stakeholders.

We are interested in doing the right things to build long-term value in businesses that respect and benefit all stakeholders. We look for entrepreneurs whose ambition is deeper than fame or fortune. We want assurance that our values and motivations are shared by the entrepreneur(s), so that we are all pulling in the same direction.

We expect a portion of our investments to fail. In one sense, our role in the financing ecosystem is to lower the cost of failure, enable iteration and learning, and signal commercial potential and success. This high-risk investment strategy that embraces failures means our winners must succeed at a very large scale. While we bask in some of the reflected glory, the key to our success is the character, capacity and ambition of the entrepreneurs we back.