In conversation with

Billy Fox

Brand Investor at Active Partners



Billy Fox is one of the brand investors at Active Partners, where he spends his time unearthing the most exciting companies across the consumer landscape and meeting amazing founders. Since 2005, Active Partners has been redefining what we think of the consumer economy. Think Finisterre, Cubitts, Leon… The list goes on. We spoke with Billy about what sets Active Partners apart from other investment funds, when the right time is to invest in brand and why it matters, and which are the next exciting categories bringing innovation.

Question and Answer

Could you tell us a bit about Active Partners’ mission and the impact you aim to have on a founder’s journey?

Active is a fund that’s purely focused on the consumer economy. We back and build brands that define a particular category. In my mind, that’s whenever a consumer is at a purchasing crossroads, the first thing they think about is one of our brands. If they want healthy fast food, they go to Leon. If they want immersive entertainment, they go to Secret Cinema. Or if they want to look sexy on a bike, they go to Rapha.

Since 2005, we’ve been trying to build those brands. They look and sound amazing, they have a community that does a lot of the marketing legwork for them, and they have a best-in-class product or service at the core of what they’re doing. We’re growing that breadth to continue redefining what we think of as the consumer economy, and we’re also going into B2B and B2B2C.

Our mission is to back and build category-redefining brands. And to impact that founder’s journey has a lot to do with making sure they are thinking about brand at the right time, helping them build something that an incumbent (think of a Unilever) can’t replicate. That manifests in multiple ways: the right people at the right time, the right agencies, and external help.

What do you think is special about the Active Partners founders community?

It’s probably the commonality around the importance of brand, and the diversity of businesses we have within the portfolio.

Even though all our founders are building different businesses, with different business models, and in different areas of the consumer economy, they all have a great story. If I take two bookends in our early stage fund, one being a carpet recycling business, the most B2B business we have, and the one being a D2C makeup business, the most consumer brand we have, they both rely on having a great brand message. It’s the uniqueness that whatever business you’re in, you’ve got to think about your brand story.

In your own words, why does brand matter? To founders and also to you as an investor?

To founders, it gives a purpose to what you are doing, rather than just selling something in a vanilla envelope. Brand gives you a reason to do what you do and creates an experience for the customer.

To investors, I’d say a lot of investors don’t appreciate the value of brand because it’s not an ROI. It’s a much longer and more expensive journey to go on, but going back to communities that can’t be replicated, it’s brand that allows you to do that.

“Get out there, test it, listen, gather data [...] get back to the drawing board to properly invest in that brand to create the next foundation for growth.”

We’d love to hear about your favourite growth story from the Active Partners portfolio. What was the role of brand and voice?

Rapha is a great case study in terms of the power that brand and community can have in growing a business, especially on an international level. We backed them from the start and worked together for over 10 years before selling it to the Walmart family in the U.S.

Their brand story was bringing together like-minded people who shared their love for cycling, and giving them every excuse to love it even more. And they brought more people into the category through apparel. So they have their three C’s: content, community and commerce.

They understood that having physical touch points where their community members can get together and actually touch the products, and see their peers in the flesh, would create a sense of customer advocacy. And that’s how Rapha launched their clubhouses in tier-one cities, part retail space and also a cafe where customers can go and sit, and get immersed in the Rapha world just by looking around the shop.

There’s a lot of market timing involved in this story too. Rapha did create the category of premium cycling apparel, and it coincided with an increasing love of cycling. It gave people a space to manifest that growing love. Rapha took off because it was exactly what the customers wanted. You’ve got to build a brand at the right time.

We’re often asked when is the right time to invest in brand. What advice would you give a founder grappling with this question?

It changes from business to business. But you need to spend a little bit right at the beginning to set out the skeleton of what the brand is and what it stands for. Get your brand pillars, and create a first iteration of a brand statement, so you have something to work towards. But don’t spend so much money on it because it will change.

Brand is a fluid, moving beast that, especially in the first five years of your journey, will chop and change, mainly depending on customer feedback. Just because you built a brand for customer A, doesn’t mean they’ll love it. Maybe customer B loves it much more and therefore, you should probably tweak the brand. Get out there, test it, listen, gather data. And probably when you are Series A to Series B, with a £5M turnover, get back to the drawing board to properly invest in that brand to create the next foundation for growth.

What categories do you have your eyes on? Where do you think there’s exciting innovation coming? Any brands in particular?

Tools businesses selling to other businesses to allow them to do something in the circularity space is something we really like. They don’t need to spend money on acquiring customers or educating them on the category, so they are the ultimate beneficiaries.

Passionate Hobbyist categories that seem niche on the surface but when you scratch it, they are incredibly deep. They have absolute diehards at their core, but also a lot of people who dip in and out of the category with a high purchasing intent. Birdbox, for example, is a digital bird box that registers when a tweety bird stops at your bird box to eat food, it will recognise the type of bird and send you a notification. It’s appealing because it gives people immediate access to bird-loving and bird-watching.

Social entertainment is another one. For example, Puttshack and Padel Social Club – tying back to the Passionate Hobbyist. We backed a brand-led version of a padel club, that’s not just about padel, it’s about community and a space to drink and food pre and post-game.

We’re also looking at feminine health and products and services for underrepresented groups of people, especially businesses that start from a solution to the problem, and then think about brand afterwards. You can build a very loyal and passionate community and business as long as the product serves their needs.

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