The oddest investment I've ever made

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After the start up I co-founded was acquired, I thought I’d become an active, if not prolific, angel investor. It sounded great: Ideas without operations, upside without intensity, writing a cheque rather than scrambling to make payroll. But five years later, I hadn’t invested in anything outside my Vanguard account. 

Part of this was due to my psychological make up. Often, I’m binary. When it comes to projects, I’m either all in or all out. But it went deeper than that. It felt like the start up experience had become, if not corrupted, then at least commoditised.

What I’d liked about start ups, the rebelliousness, the constant screw ups, the life and death nature of the pursuit, I couldn’t find on the other side of the fence. And maybe because I’d raised money myself, I could see the sleight of hand that founders used to cover up holes in their pitches. It wasn’t that these founders weren’t smart. They were. For me, they might have been too smart. Too coached. Too certain. The spreadsheet going up and to the right unerringly. I might have been guilty of that myself.

The problem was that, after some of these pitches, I didn’t feel anything. It didn’t seem to matter. There was an air of ‘if this doesn’t work out, I’ll just go back to EY’. And startups shouldn’t be like that. They have to matter. They can’t be completely rational. Because if they were, no-one would (or should) risk the hardship they entail in the first place.

And so, I decided that angel investing wasn’t for me. And the moment I decided that, I found something I did want to invest in. The only problem was that the person in question wasn’t looking to start a business. And he’d never heard of PowerPoint.

About eighteen months ago, I had a bumpy rash on my arm. It got worse and spread to my back. I went to see a dermatologist. It got worse. I saw four more dermatologists, none of whom actually helped.

Then, I was introduced to Christopher Rowland Payne. When we met, I pegged him for a classic English eccentric. All pocket squares and florid ties. But as we sat down, something odd happened. He actually listened. He diagnosed my problem (keratosis pilaris) and gave me a rather unusual, and practical remedy involving a loofah. And then we talked for another hour. It was the oddest experience, being in the presence of a person in total command of his subject.

Six months later I went back. I had some red and scaly skin on my face called seborrhoeic dermatitis. Again, CRP gave me some odd instructions to limit my vasoreactivity (hot blood). Some involved dietary changes, sweets rather than chocolate, some involved limiting my hot baths or not exercising to redness and some involved loitering in the lobby. I’m still not sure what the last one is about. But at the end of our meeting, he gave me a tube of face cream. The bottle was plain white, the face cream was plain white and it had a label just stuck on by hand.

Surprisingly, the face cream worked.  My seborrhoeic dermatitis, while not a complete thing of the past, is much more manageable. And when I asked CRP what the face cream was, he explained that he’d invented the formula twenty-five years before. He’d studied old dermatological text books to find ‘gems from the past’ and updated them with new ingredients. It turned out the face cream helped with not just dermatitis but also rosacea and eczema as well as being a good daily moisturiser.

For months afterwards, I’d call his clinic and ask them to send me more face cream. And the idea started to percolate that maybe other people would like the product as well. I spoke to some of CRP’s patients. They loved the face cream too.  More importantly, there was something romantic about a doctor beavering away in a basement trying out new formulas from old leather-bound books. It was part of a noble tradition, now ancient history for heritage brands like Louis Vuitton or Christian Dior, of lone enthusiasts inventing something new. CRP’s face cream was twenty-five years old. It was a heritage brand! That nobody knew about.

So I spoke to CRP and helped him start a website where people could order his face cream online. You can check it out here

And I managed to break my duck as an angel investor. I didn’t invest in a business with a plan or a powerpoint or a prototype.

I just invested in a person and a product I really like.