The media would have you believe that securing venture capital support and funding is the epitome of “making it” in the startup world. But, leaving aside the influx of much-needed capital, what many fail to realise is that VC partners aren’t always a good strategic fit.
So, when Fitbit was looking to light a spark under its fledgling line of smartwatches earlier this year, it didn’t tap another VC. Instead, it turned to Adidas, the shoe and apparel giant known for reinventing itself.
The product – the Adidas-branded Fitbit Ionic – dropped at the end of March and seems to have reinvigorated interest in Fitbit’s Ionic model, which made its tepid debut last year.
Not only did Adidas lend financial support to Fitbit, but it also lent the smaller company the fashionable, influential fan base that Adidas has carefully cultivated in the past few years.
Even though the collaboration hasn’t yet propelled Fitbit past Apple in the smartwatch space, the lesson here is clear: Your startup might accelerate growth by forming a strategic partnership with bigger, established businesses — not just VCs — to access financial backing, mentorship and expert guidance.
The sum is greater than the parts
Companies across a wide range of industries, from technology and retail to media and telecommunications, are investing in startup partnerships. In 2014, Wells Fargo created its own startup incubator to nurture new clean-tech businesses in the marketplace. The incubator, known as IN2, has invested nearly $6 million in 20 companies since its inception.
In successful collaborations, the relationship is symbiotic, with many layers of engagement. We saw a successful example of this at the Ameren Accelerator in St. Louis. Rebate Bus, one of the startups in our 2017 cohort, used the investment and mentorship to get off the ground and scale growth.
During its accelerator phase, Rebate Bus received funding and mentorship and has since secured a partnership with a large company to run a 90-day trial. The large company, for its part, added Rebate Bus’s valuable new technology to its arsenal to stay competitive in the marketplace.
One unintended benefit was that Rebate Bus added five new jobs to the St. Louis market, as well.
In addition to providing financial support, collaborations with bigger companies provide an opportunity to tap into a deep well of knowledge and senior-level management expertise that only a more established brand can provide.
And, because the larger company will likely share a common mission with your startup, it will be concerned about more than just return on investment – something you can’t always say about a VC.
Cultivating a successful partnership
Just like any healthy relationship, this sort of collaboration won’t be successful without care and attention. Here are three ways to build and sustain successful relationships with larger companies.
1. Don’t use a partnership as a crutch. Business relationships are fragile. In fact, statistics from The Association of Strategic Alliance Professionals show that nearly half of business alliances fail. That’s why it’s extremely important to set relationships up for success from the outset.
One of the best ways to do this is to approach the partnership as only one facet of your overall strategy for your business’s growth, not its make-or-break point.
While corporations want to create an environment that spurs growth for everyone, they don’t want startups to become dependent on them. Show potential partners that you can stand on your own two feet and leverage a partnership to everyone’s benefit.
Related: The Foundations Of Growth
2. Don’t paint your partnership into a corner. So many venture-backed startups expect to see 12 years of growth in 12 months. These impossible expectations can hamstring a business partnership from day one. Instead, set time lines and goals with your potential partner that are specific and challenging, but also realistic.
Research from the American Psychological Association shows that setting these types of goals led to higher performance 90 percent of the time in the companies examined.
It’s critical to set these expectations early to ensure you and your partner are aligned from the start. The good news is that established companies whose sole purpose for a partnership isn’t ROI should be more open to realistic financial benchmarks.
3. Practice reciprocity. For startups seeking investment, landing capital can begin to feel like the endgame. But remember: Established companies are expecting something out of a partnership, too.
Older companies, meanwhile, are always looking for fresh perspectives; and startups usually have innovative ideas to contribute. It’s important to clearly communicate what each partner brings to the table.
Take the career-finding solution PathSource, for example. Co-founder and CEO Aaron Michel didn’t even consider partnering with a company that didn’t share PathSource’s goal to help people find better jobs. That’s why the company finally landed on a partnership with the GED Testing Service, the country’s high school equivalency testing administrator.
As Michel wrote in The Next Web: “A great relationship is a balance of give and take. When you approach a potential partner, don’t bother contacting them unless you know why they would want to speak with you. Know what you have to offer them.”
Legacy companies have a tremendous amount to contribute to entrepreneurs; often, these companies have even more to offer than a venture capital firm.
When both partners know what they want out of the relationship and know what they’re willing to give, the end result for both can be more lucrative than what each would reach on his or her own.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
What Funders Look For From The Funder’s Perspective
Essentially, Secha brings three key ingredients to the table.
Secha Capital is an FMCG and Agri fund that is focused on the ‘missing middle’, established but small businesses that need additional capital to assist them to reach next-level growth.
“We look for founder/market fit and product/market fit and recurring revenues,” explains Brendan Mullen, co-founder and Managing Director of Secha Capital. “We believe there are businesses that are too big for government grants, but too small for traditional funds, and that’s our focus.”
As a result, Secha addresses capital and management gaps of companies, and chooses its sectors based on research and surveys.
“We’re investment thesis driven,” explains Brendan, who contacted Danie because his team had been researching the fragmented packaged biltong sector in South Africa.
Essentially, Secha brings three key ingredients to the table:
- Growth capital: Often used as working capital, but can also be used to purchase machinery.
- Human capital support: Secha joins the team for a minimum of nine months and also sources an intern from a management consulting group or international MBA programme. The result is a skills transfer, a new perspective, additional bandwidth and operational support. “It’s often difficult for SMEs to attract the best and the brightest. We look at it like human capital arbitrage; bringing in a high-level person to really assist with projects and operations.”
- Channel access. This is the side of FMCG that requires the most persistence, and in many ways Brendan already has excellent contacts that the companies he invests in can leverage off. “It’s important to know buyers and be able to make the right connections and introductions in this business. That’s an invaluable level of support for entrepreneurs.”
For any entrepreneurs considering funding, it’s as important to consider what the investor brings to the table over and above capital — afterall, you are giving equity in your business away, a decision that only makes sense if the ultimate goal is growth.
From Secha Capital’s perspective, the first test that Stoffelberg passed was the taste test. Brendan saw the brand in a retailer and bought it. He then did some research and found a business with a one-page website and limited marketing — which meant there was an opportunity for Secha to add value.
“We were specifically looking for businesses in this sector that owned the entire processing part of the value chain. We wanted to be price makers, not price takers.”
An additional plus point was that Danie and Oom Stoffel had already secured their Halaal, HACCP and export certifications, which proved grit.
“We realised that they are the experts in meat. One of the key things they had in place was an exceptional team. Chris Bothma, who worked on the Blue Train as a head chef, is not only Stoffelberg’s chef, but he’s in charge of production, product innovation, recipes and he manages a team of 25 at head office. He’s also a shareholder in the business. Finding the right subject experts drives growth, and was a big plus point for us. If we find a business that has product/market fit and founder/market fit, we know it’s just a case of adding some other capabilities to achieve real growth.”
What funders look for
For Brendan, there are a few key areas that he considers when making an investment. First, he regularly taps into his networks to stay abreast of what’s hot and new, and what consumers are asking for. This will often lead to an investment thesis.
Next, he looks for a large TAM (total addressable market) with adjacencies. “You ideally want a large TAM in a fragmented area, with products that tend to be grudge purchases because top alternatives are not available, as well as a team or founder who really knows the industry, what’s broken, what can be fixed, and how to get recurring customers from that solution. In addition, we want to see what new value-adds you can you bring to the table.
“Stoffelberg is re-invigorating a dormant market, while another one of our investments, nativechild, is operating in a niche growth vertical within a much larger vertical and can expand from there.
“Look for opportunities in fragmented value chains, where there are no clear brands in that specific section of the market. Find that, and you can find a slice of that value.
“I also believe in founder/sector fit. Stoffelberg wouldn’t be here today if Danie and Oom Stoffel didn’t know the different players in the value chain, couldn’t anticipate pricing and didn’t understand consumer pain points. Domain expertise is huge.
Why Not Getting VC Funding Might Be Better For Your Business
Here’s why lifestyle businesses appeal to so many entrepreneurs.
When I started teaching a new venture creation elective to MBAs 15 years and over 2 000 students ago, I’d tell my student teams they each had to come up with – and develop a compelling plan for – a (theoretically) VC-backable start-up concept. Made sense, right? MBAs wanted to be part of building the Next Big Thing, and venture capital-backed start-ups had driven a massive tech boom over the prior decade – a wave I’d been lucky enough to ride.
But, it didn’t take me long to ease up on that “it’s gotta be VC-backable” requirement. Looking back, I had three reasons for that shift:
1. Start-up lessons tend to apply across the board
First, folks immersed in the action-based learning exercise of mapping out a start-up consistently reported back, after re-entering the workforce, that they were able to apply those learnings and frameworks to almost any entrepreneurial – or intrapreneurial – experience in their careers.
2. Many people find low-tech businesses more appealing
Second, a lot of teams would come up with quite interesting but low-tech startup ideas. As I discussed in my recent article, “Who Would Invest in Your Startup, and Why?,” low-tech businesses rarely represent interesting investments to VCs, primarily because of low valuation multiples (often due to limited growth upside).
3. A vanishingly small proportion of all startups raise VC financing
Finally, I looked at the numbers and realised that most startups – indeed, even most very successful start-ups – do not raise money from venture capitalists. According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 saw approximately 556,000 business applications from corporations (what they call CBAs) in the U.S. (That’s only about 18 percent of all new business applications, to make sure we’re not counting sole proprietorships, two- to three-person professional services practices, and so on.) Meanwhile, Venture Monitor data from PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association tells us that, during the same period, U.S. “first financings” from VCs (as opposed to follow-on financings) numbered 2,676, or less than one-half of 1 percent of new corporations started. Now granted, first financings from VCs will tend to occur one to three years after a company first incorporates, but the statistics year-to-year are similar enough that the proportionality doesn’t change in a meaningful way.
But, what I teach and how I teach it completely aside, my real “a-ha” has been a growing appreciation for non-VC-backable start-ups and how they can represent a genuinely appealing path for many entrepreneurs.
Let’s look at the positive side of the ledger for so-called lifestyle businesses:
Ownership and control
Raising equity financing from VCs – or, for that matter, angels – comes with a downside that few talk about: pressure to achieve a liquity event (sale of the company or IPO) within a fairly short time horizon (we’re talking three to six years, typically). Since your company needs to be pretty massive to go public, we’re really talking about pressure to sell the company. If you don’t raise equity financing, you’re in far better control of your own destiny. If you’re in a reasonably protected niche, you’ve got the luxury of time to grow at a more leisurely pace. It’s also up to you as to whether you want a board or directors and/or advisory board, and whom you want to invite to join.
Less dependency and greater chances of success
On the one hand, you’ll need to fund your lifestyle businesses through savings, credit cards, friend-and-family loans, bank lines of credit, small business loans and the like. And while it may sound sexier to load up on lots of VC rocket fuel for your start-up, as we’ve discussed, that funding path assumes you’ll be one of the select few who’s successful in attracting VC investment, and it comes with outside pressure to “go big or go home” and sell the company. So in general, you can think of well-crafted lifestyle businesses as being lower upside, but also lower risk.
Taking the lifestyle business route, you stand a higher chance of getting airborne and achieving some level of success.
More options in life
If you own and control the business, you can decide the degree to which you choose to grow it aggressively to maximise cash flow or wealth, versus taking a more casual approach. Perhaps you’ll decide to build the business to a certain plateau and then simply manage it for free cash flow that makes work an option. And, building a lifestyle business in this fashion by no means precludes eventually selling the company if you choose – or, alternatively, handing it down to your kids some day.
You can still leverage technology
Whereas a lot of lifestyle businesses are low-tech in nature, increasingly, we’re finding that even those entrepreneurs are creatively leveraging technology to successfully launch, grow and become more profitable. Social media campaigns, search-optimised websites, customer newsletters and referral networks can all play a crucial role. And behind the scenes, smart lifestyle entrepreneurs are exercising the muscle of low-cost, online tools for everything from brand management to accounting and finance, inventory control, customer relationship management, point-of-sale tools and HR management.
Building a VC-backed startup can be bracing and both personally and financially rewarding. Been there, got the t-shirt. But, nobody’s going to feel sorry for you if you get your lifestyle startup to the point where you’ve created life options such as hiring a general manager and calling in from the lake house a couple of times a week to check in.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
7 Questions A Venture Capitalist Will Ask You Before Investing In Your Business
Are you ready for external financing?
It’s no secret that the number one cause of business failure is running out of cash. However, an injection of cash alone does not necessarily mean a business will be successful. Our role as a VC is to identify businesses that have a unique mix of skills and offerings that, when mixed with the right capital partner, are in the best position to succeed.
These businesses are generally run by entrepreneurs that seek to have an impact on some sector of society and have the drive, foresight and emotional intelligence needed to succeed. Finding businesses run by entrepreneurs who exhibit these qualities is a big part of our secret sauce, but equally, it’s important that we can work with, collaborate and align interests with these entrepreneurs, so that success ultimately results in both founders and investors alike realising profits and investment returns.
Understanding what VCs look for
After identifying businesses with potential, we spend a lot of time working with the entrepreneurs we’re considering investing in, asking questions like:
- Are we funding a business, an idea, a lifestyle or a big dream?
- Who are the clients, how did the business acquire them and why do they use their services?
- Does the business have a competitive advantage that’s difficult to copy?
- Can the business scale?
- And finally, is the founder and entrepreneur ready?
- Are they prepared to sell some of their company and work with external partners? Do they listen, seek and take advice?
- And when (not if) the company runs out of money, are they the first employee to forego their salary?
If you want to prepare yourself for a capital raise, these are the questions you should be asking yourself in preparation.
Right partners at the right time
Starting a business is hard. Partnering with the right investors with aligned interests is crucial and being comfortable in answering the above questions is just as important.
If answering these questions makes you uneasy in anyway, perhaps you aren’t ready for venture capital financing. Like most things in life, success comes down to people, and partnering with the right people and investors at the right time, is key. Not all entrepreneurs are comfortable working with partners. Understand what you want from a funder before you start looking for investors.