James founded Level One Fund in 2019, building on his experience in scaling B2B and B2C platform businesses. Prior to venture James scaled 51Talk’s North American business and became a pioneer in China’s online English education industry. He also launched the world’s first on demand telepathology network for preclinical cancer research at HistoWiz.
Outside of work James keeps himself busy by obsessing over healthy food, reading, and trying to get his daily 10,000 steps in.
What excites you about investing?
Learning from the smartest people in every field is extremely exciting for me. When you take a step back and consider how many bright minds are tackling today’s problems, you can’t help but feel optimistic for the future.
What’s one of the most valuable traits you look for in founders?
There are many, but one trait that’s definitely in the top few is walking through walls. What I mean by that is having the ability to make something happen even when no one else thinks it’s possible. In startup lore there are many examples of founders who were told that something would be impossible (a deadline, building a product, etc.), yet pushed forward anyway because of a strong conviction that a possibility for success existed. While these pursuits don’t always materialize in success, many times they actually do.
Having the foresight and vision to ascertain whether there is a possibility that something can work is a rare trait, or even gift, that is extremely valuable when building a company.
Share an important lesson you’ve learned from investing.
Sometimes the human element can be lost in translation when investing. I think it’s crucial to get to know the people making the dreams come true because when you strip away everything – revenue, user growth, product development, marketing – the true foundation of any company is the people.
That’s why our team believes so strongly in building trusted and long lasting relationships with the teams we back.
Talk about an often overlooked risk that companies encounter during the growth phase.
One of the most frequent pitfalls that I’ve seen during the growth phase is the assumption that all revenue growth is fungible. By that I’m referring to situations where a founder might expect that growing revenue from $10M to $50M will have the same level of difficulty as growing it from $1-10M.
In some situations where product market fit is vibrant and very compelling to users this may not be an issue, but in some situations the tactics used to grow from one milestone to the next may need to be revamped in order to take it to the next level.
Share a major differentiation point that you look for in companies.
It’s not uncommon that companies jump into the fray to solve a problem – either an age-old problem or a newly discovered one – by using old tools from an existing toolbox.
What can really differentiate leaders from followers in a market is the founding team’s capacity to “think outside of the toolbox,” as I like to put it. Looking in nonobvious toolboxes, mixing tools, or even creating new tools can be the key to truly unlocking something new.
If five companies are building solutions to solve a problem yet they’re all using the same tool, then this can sometimes be a race to the bottom. Although it’s riskier and more resource intensive to create something new or combine disciplines that have never been applied together, following this path can be the key to true 10x better solutions rather than simple incremental improvements.
What are you most proud about at Level One Fund?
I’m proud about all the moments when we were a founder’s first call during a difficult time.
It’s great to receive calls with good news but we’re here for the good and the bad times, and the difficult moments put you to the test and are a true demonstration of what kind of partner you really are. Celebrating something positive is easy – anyone can do that – but when challenges arise it makes you realize how important it is to have the right people around you.
As a team we take building relationships with founders very seriously, so for us this is one of the greatest indicators of our success in that. These moments deepen those relationships in meaningful ways.
Get to Know Me
The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a compelling interpretation of an epic story, and there are many memorable scenes that speak to experiences we may go through in one form or another throughout our lives.
Favorite kind of day off?
At home while it’s raining, with tea and a good book or documentary.
Middle Eastern – it’s my comfort food and I never get tired of it!
William Blake. Many artists fit into a particular era or derive style from others that came before, but Blake is one of the few with a totally unique perspective. His art also pairs with his poetic work and a unique philosophy of his own design which tie it all together.
Favorite musical artist?
Linkin Park. Their music ages with you, and as you gather more experiences in life its value as a tool of interpretation grows. They also cut straight to the heart of complex issues that are often difficult to describe.
What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
Frankenstein and Siddhartha are two favorite novels. For poetry, I love the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, as well as anything from the six major British Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley, Byron, and Keats). On the drama front, a less obvious pick from Shakespeare that’s one of my favorites is Richard II.
What’s something that you love learning about?
Space, because it’s an unexplored frontier with a seemingly infinite number of mysteries for us to uncover. When you start thinking deeply about its incomprehensibly vast scale – in terms of both time and distance – it makes you really appreciate how fortunate we are to live on this beautiful planet that is so perfectly suited to supporting life.
Staying healthy. It’s a form of investing in yourself, and it enhances every other aspect of your life. Eating right, exercising, and being mindful are crucial for a long and happy road ahead.