In conversation with

Libby Gibson

Founding Partner at Piper Private Equity



‘A clear strategy means everybody inside the business knows why you exist and so do consumers. It gives you confidence in what you do and why you do it. It provides guardrails for all the decisions you’re going to make. It stops people from wasting time on things that aren’t essential to the brand; it helps you hire the right people, and helps you think about growth’

As Founding Partner at Piper Private Equity, Libby Gibson knows about what makes a compelling brand story. She’s worked with over 30 brands in the past 30 years, across beauty & wellness, travel & experiences and premium food & drink industries. We caught up with Libby about the importance of brand for growth and what makes a stand-out founder.


Question and Answer

What drove you to set up Piper all those years ago? What was the core motivation for doing that?

The original Piper business was a brand and strategy consultancy that helped businesses use market and customer insights to help define their brand proposition – many of these large businesses lost sight of what they needed to deliver for customers as they scaled.

At the time, Woolworths were the first people who asked: can you help us win? And then, a couple of years later, we were asked to invent the pub of the future by a brewing client who questioned where the was market going. We did our consumer insight work and came up with a business plan and concept that addressed a gap in the market between snooty wine bars and spit and sawdust pubs, aimed at females.  They didn’t like the idea so we decided to start it ourselves – and that was the birth of Pitcher & Piano.

As it grew, we needed money to open more sites, but when we explored the funding avenues we were disappointed at the amount of help and support we could get with the money and we didn’t want to give up our equity to people who’d add no value. So we decided to start a business that really helped fund and grow entrepreneurs providing them with advice, tangible help and money.

When we successfully sold Pitcher & Piano to trade, we decided to focus just on investing in founder-led consumer businesses that had the potential to be brand legends.

And what does the investing process look like? Where do you start from?

It starts with understanding the idea. Businesses need to be clear about why there’s a need for something, where the gap is, who the customer is and what the proposition is. Then there needs to be enough of a team to back and enough proof of the growth potential. Our job is to back great people who’ve done the hard work of starting something but need help to scale and want more than just money.

Piper can provide an ecosystem and expertise in four key areas: brand and marketing, digital and systems, people and culture, and sustainable growth, which looks at how you build a business model that’s financially successful and practically sustainable.

In an interview, you spoke about the need to find people who are willing to accept they need help from others. What are some of the other qualities you’re looking at within founders or their teams? What stands out to you?

We back founders who are passionate about their brand and their team, but who also have a degree of self-awareness of what their limitations are. For example, a lot of entrepreneurs don’t like structure and process and love doing lots of new things, so you need great people who are going to focus on those more operational but essential details.

We’re looking for founders who recognise the need to over-hire not under-hire  who want to hire ahead of the growth curve. It’s very time-consuming to always try to upskill or up-weight somebody, rather than finding someone who can run a £15 million business when you’re at £5 million. That way they’ll learn a lot and pay for themselves, and you don’t have to rehire on that journey.

We worked with you on Wild Nutrition. What was it about that team specifically that gave you so much faith in what they wanted to achieve?

Wild Nutrition’s got two very passionate founders who built the business because they couldn’t find the quality of natural supplements which they wanted for themselves. This brand wasn’t going to offer just another pill or capsule dressed up to be better. It had genuine formulation properties (Food-Grown) that were better and it addressed a very specific audience – the different needs of a woman through the twists and turns of her life They also provided a fantastic service to customers through their team of nutritionists and that was different to anything else in the market.

You could see that they’d created something very special, that they’d gained traction and loyalty from their customers, and that the business had a good team and culture in place ready for growth.

“What a tougher market does is sort the wheat from the chaff and shine a light on businesses that know what they are doing, who are customer-focused, and who meet real customer needs. Tough markets weed out brands that are ‘middled’.”

What do you think we achieved as a group working on that project together? And what do you think Wild Nutrition got out of that project as a business?

It was clear that there was something very special that lived in the founder’s head. It’s a complex market where people need educating and they hadn’t voiced the story behind their ‘why’ in a language that played to their audience and one that would resonate emotionally. It was quite functional in many ways.

Sonder & Tell helped deliver a unifying story about why they exist and what they can help you achieve in your health and well-being as a woman. And then helped translate that across internal and external communication, so that we could repeat a message that educates an audience about what the business does.

We’ve spoken a bit about consumer brands and sometimes it can feel a little doom and gloom when it comes to this market. How are you feeling about the consumer market at the moment? Where do you think the growth opportunities are?

I’ve seen many consumer ups and downs and in fact, now is a very good time to invest because you’re ready for the up. For every cycle, there’ll be a better day.

But I think what a tougher market does is sort the wheat from the chaff and shine a light on businesses that know what they are doing, who are customer-focused, and who meet real customer needs. Tough markets weed out brands that are ‘middled’.

Looking across our portfolio, I can say pretty much everyone’s doing very well. It’s not all doom and gloom out there. You’re always going to have those tailwinds for certain markets, and it’s about finding sub-segments where there is potential for growth. For example, the pet market is still fantastic to be in because people have a ridiculous amount of love and spend a ridiculous amount of money on their pets irrespective of the economic backdrop.

You come from a brand strategy background. Why is brand strategy so important for a growing business? What does it do for them?

I think a clear strategy means everybody inside the business knows why you exist and so do consumers. It gives you confidence in what you do and why you do it. It provides guardrails for all the decisions you’re going to make. It stops people from wasting time on things that aren’t essential to the brand; it helps you hire the right people, and helps you think about growth.

You've been in this business for such a long time, what have been the biggest challenges for you personally in running it?

There’s a challenge of the work-life balance, which I think everybody can understand. It’s very easy to think you’re not doing either of your jobs well. But I think you have to be 100% whatever you’re doing – when you’re working or when you’re being a parent and that’s tough.

Working with entrepreneurs is also challenging – they are unique, driven, extraordinary – they have to be to start a business but they can also be demanding and sometimes difficult people to work with. Finding a way of working with them that keeps them motivated is tough.

Another tough one is saying goodbye to great businesses that you’ve spent so much time building a wonderful relationship with. But I’m pleased to say that we regard them as part of the Piper family and keep in close touch with them. Quite a few of them, having made their money with our investment and exit, then invest alongside us in our funds, so we stay in touch that way too.

What’s next for Piper? What are some of your goals for the next year or 5 years?

Our only goal is to help build brand legends that ensure founders earn the rewards they deserve and our  investors achieve a great return on their money.

We are on our 7th fund, with just over £100 million to deploy and we’ve deployed 30% of it so far, so the next few years are focused on finding more brilliant founder-led businesses to back. We want to do slightly bigger deal sizes. We’ve got the money, we need to just look for bigger deals alongside some of the £6+ million investments we have right now.

We’re also focused on exiting some of our businesses – one measure of our success is our ability to sell our brands on to their next owners really well.

Piper’s great at creating their own brand - you’ve got a podcast, newsletter etc. How do define the culture internally and make sure that there’s a brand in itself at Piper?

We’ve always thought of ourselves as a brand. We go through the same process that we would hope any brand would go through in terms of defining why we exist and our purpose – why we get out of bed every morning. Defining our values and making sure we visit them as a team quite regularly.

And we think about our two customer investors and investee companies and what they want. So we’ve got to think about how to communicate differently to each of them since they have different ambitions and goals.

We want to set ourselves apart from our competitors. To feel like a brand we have to behave with a more engaged personality and emotional connection than a functional or generalist investment house might. That’s been very central.

And then we do fun stuff. We take the team away for three days overseas every year with no work agenda. It’s just time to down tools and to have fun and make sure we connect on a personal level, which we do.

If a brand was trying to get in front of Piper what advice would you give them for communicating with you?

A warm introduction from people we know is helpful, but not essential.

In terms of a pitch deck, often the best thing to do is send the product, to give us an opportunity to experience the brand somehow. We’re great believers in living and breathing our brands. A pitch gets lost in the email system. But if a packet of snacks arrives, everybody in the office will be intrigued. They’ll all want to open it up, they’ll want to know the why.

When you do a pitch keep it simple, don’t make it long. The elevator pitch needs to be captivating. We ask: why is this better and different? That’s our mantra. If you can’t tell me why it’s better and different, I’m not really interested.

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