Nick Greenhalgh is a Co-founder & CEO of Luca, a mental health screening and prevention startup for professional and elite university athletes. Luca is backed by Antler, an early stage VC fund
There’s a mental health pandemic in elite sport, but little is known and less is talked about it. Some 35% of elite athletes suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression, compared to 25% in the general population, and yet less than 10% seek help. High performance environments and the power dynamic that exists between athlete and team are contributing factors. Luca’s independence and confidentiality provides athletes with the confidence to report honestly and engage fully, and teams still receive visibility through aggregated and anonymised data reports.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I played professional rugby immediately after school for a couple of years at Northampton Saints. I, probably a little naively, went into it thinking I’d be a rugby player until my mid 30s. That wasn’t to be. I really struggled with injury and ultimately left the professional game after being diagnosed with navicular (feet) stress fractures. I was nearly 21 and decided it was time to start undergrad and move on with my life. I didn’t consciously leave top level rugby behind for good, but that’s how it worked out.
After undergrad, I spent 6 years at AlphaSights, a knowledge search firm that was a startup when I joined and is now a 1,500 person global organisation. It was a great experience and I learned a lot but it didn’t fully fill the void that rugby left in my life. I left to do an MBA at Oxford as I wanted to have the time to really work out what I wanted from my professional life and to have the opportunity to try a couple of things which I did through internships. Entrepreneurship has been described as the closest thing in business to professional sport and that’s possibly why I’ve decided to give it a go!
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
For me, entrepreneurship is all about willing something into existence, going from zero-to-one in the words of Peter Thiel. It can be a product, a service or a new business model. It’s having the vision to picture a better tomorrow and then the passion, ability and energy to bring it to life. I’m full of admiration for anybody that tries, and have even more for those that make it work!
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I met my co-founder on Antler’s incubator programme earlier this year, so we had 2 months of developing the idea before they invested in us. Luca is also very similar to the idea I developed with some MBA friends during the ‘Entrepreneurship Project’ module back in early 2020, so in all it probably had a good 4 or 5 months of work before Antler decided to invest, and before we were all in.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I’m not sure about skills, as they can be learnt or hired for, plus we’re not successful, yet(!), but from what I’ve experienced so far, I think it really helps if you naturally have or can quickly develop the following attributes:
* Ability to deal with uncertainty – everything is uncertain in the early days. You don’t know if what you’re doing is going to be successful, you don’t know if what you’re prioritising is the right thing to be, you don’t know if you’re pushing hard enough, or too hard, the list goes. Having the ability to put all that to one side, to take things task-by-task but still checking in every so often to make sure you’re aware of the path that you’re going down, is incredibly important in my mind.
* Resilience – this gets talked about a lot and rightly so. Startups have many ups and downs in a single day or week, let alone a month or year. There will always be people that don’t get what you do or investors who fundamentally disagree with your thesis or business model. Even the most successful businesses will have received so many nos in their time. Startup fundraising takes months for a reason and that’s because there are many more nos than yeses. You have to be resilient for someone to reject the thing you spend all day, everyday on, not take it personally, and be able to shake it off and move onto the next one.
* Passion – you shouldn’t go into entrepreneurship if you’re doing it for the money. It’s too hard. You have to want to build something and ideally you’ll love what you are building, and are super passionate about the problem you’re trying to solve. Startups are multi-year journeys if you’re successful. Spending 10 years of your life on something you aren’t particularly passionate about probably isn’t a good idea and I think you’re much less likely to be successful or happy if you do. My co-founder and I are fortunate in this respect. We know how real and big the problem is and that energises us.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I have two. Firstly, working on your own thing is totally different to anything I’ve experienced in my professional life up to this point. Not one minute I’ve spent on Luca has felt like a waste of my time or that I’m wasting my life at work – that’s a big role reversal. The second is that the wins feel so good. When people buy into what you’re doing and building, it’s super satisfying. Conversely, when they don’t it’s hard for sure and that’s why resilience is so important.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Good question. I’m a bit of a performance and wellness nut, so I absolutely love Whoop. It’s a biometric wristband tracker that has amazing sleep data. The product’s super cool, they leverage athletes to market their product really well, and have the right balance on the content side. Not too much science, but enough to keep their well informed customer base engaged and learning. Oh and they have a podcast, and I love a good podcast. If someone from Whoop sees this – I’d love a free membership as it is expensive, especially for an entrepreneur. 🙏
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’d probably ask Will Ahmed (CEO) about how the idea behind Whoop evolved and what the product pipeline looks like. I imagine he’d only be willing to discuss the first part though.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Getting invested in by Antler was a great feeling. They run 12 week programmes two or three times a year for 50 or so people that think they want to start a business, but don’t necessarily have a co-founder or a fully developed idea. So the first couple of weeks are all about working out if you think you could build a business with 1 or 2 of the other 49 people. Once you form a team, you then use the remaining weeks to develop an idea and if they like you as a team and are suitably impressed with the progress you’ve made and the potential of the idea, then they’ll invest in you. Meeting a co-founder and receiving investment all in a 3 month period was pretty cool.
It’s amazing how quickly your life can change! I didn’t know Vas, my co-founder, who’s a Greek software engineer, before the programme and it’s highly unlikely our paths would ever have crossed. We now speak everyday and are all in on building Luca together. Hopefully that feeling will be surpassed pretty soon when we’ll have our first paying customers onboard.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
We’re still really early, so nothing big springs to mind. That’s not to say we haven’t made any, it could just be that they haven’t unearthed themselves yet. This goes to the uncertainty point, feedback isn’t instant. You won’t know if the product or go-to-market strategy, for instance, is right until at least a handful of months into having users or trying to sell the product. We’re about to go out and fundraise again, this time from angels, and I know we’re going to learn a lot from that process.
How have you funded your ideas?
We received pre-seed investment from Antler, which meant we didn’t have to bootstrap. That said, we’re trying to be very frugal and keep as much money in the business as we can. The upcoming fundraise will help us grow the team, develop the product and also extend our runway.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Nope, we haven’t engaged in this stuff at all as of yet. Which is potentially one of the mistakes that we have made! We do need to explore grants and that’s been on my to-do list for a while now. Please let me know of any relevant grants or pitch competitions etc that we might be eligible for given our sector focus!
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
We’re based in London so I can’t really answer this question. I’m an MBA alum from Oxford and the business school has been helpful in spreading the word, as are things like this, so we appreciate the exposure the University can provide. We haven’t really leveraged anything else, so again, please do let me know if we’re missing out on some great support! Actually one other thing; it’s been really helpful having a big MBA community. Being 300+ students per year, there’s always somebody that knows someone who can help with your current challenge. That’s been great and we’ll continue to ask my MBA peers for help.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
There’s so much content online, arguably too much, especially if you don’t know which noise is good noise. There are a handful of great newsletters, Benedict Evans being one. If you want inspiration, look no further than the Acquired podcast. And pretty much all of YCs content is very good. You can also go down the twitter rabbit hole if you want, but that’s probably not essential.
Any last words of advice?
Don’t overthink it, give it a go! Also, action is the most important thing. Getting started is way more important than reading up on entrepreneurship or speaking to people.
EnSpire Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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