With all the startups I’ve either founded or joined, I’ve never done so asking myself the question: “How much money would a VC put into this?”
I know. Duh.
I think most of us entrepreneurs and even an overwhelming share of VCs would say that starting a business in that fashion will kill your startup before it even gets off the ground. You should plan your business to acquire customers, solve their problems, collect their revenue, and make them happy – beginning, middle, and end of story. Institutional investment is not a means to an end, it’s a means for rapid growth.
Everyone agrees on this, right?
So why do we, collectively, in the Triangle, spend so much time and hand-wringing worry about the dearth of institutional awareness of and participation in our startup scene?
I mean, not to bring us down, because we’re better than most, but there are still maybe a handful of startups here at any given time that could put a five-to-ten-million-dollar infusion to good use. The good ones in that group? They’ll find the money.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are literally hundreds of seed stage and post-seed stage startups that call the Triangle home. This, unlike any other aspect of our region’s ecosystem, is what makes us unique. We’re extremely bottom-heavy, for lack of a better term. And the support structure that has risen up here at – let’s call it the $50K stage – has done so not on its own, but in response to some good bets available at that level.
A Series A crunch doesn’t scare entrepreneurs in the Triangle, nor should it, because we’ve been living it for decades. This is a great place to start a company and a pretty solid environment in which to build it. It’s a lousy place to ignite rapid and exponential growth. Always has been.
That may be changing, though, and it isn’t because of a rush of institutional investors suddenly discovering the talent here. For the record, a lot of them already know about the Triangle – and the RTP, and Durham, and Raleigh, and the universities, and mind-blowing level of talent, and the quality of life.
It’s not an awareness issue. It’s a risk/reward issue. A lot of these investors just don’t play in the less-than-$1-million recurring revenue range. They don’t need to. And even if they did, they certainly don’t need to find those companies down South or across the country. They’ve got scores, if not hundreds of them, in their own back yards.
The answer might lie in alternate sources of growth – inclusive of, but not limited to, alternate sources of funding. One of the great sources of fuel for Durham’s renaissance as a startup hub was not an inflow of new sources of capital, but rather the rise of the app economy, which lowered barriers to entry while simultaneously opening new methods of distribution.
Startups here were able to go from idea to reality, market, grow, acquire customers, and act like real companies for a very small amount of startup capital. And this happened overnight.
More Rational Pace
A much more rationally paced shift is underway now. That movement is a sort of forehead-slap recognition by large public and private entities that all this cash sitting on the sidelines needs to be put to good use. They also realize that where there’s a startup hub, there’s likely a monstrous opportunity to fuel R&D outside of company walls. That investment, so to speak, has the chance for a return well above today’s market interest rate.
In other words, governments and corporations are starting to act like VCs. They’re not using the traditional model, but it’s close. And in most cases, the startups aren’t giving up much of anything in return for an infusion. Granted, this is no $3-5 million Series A, but they’re not looking for nine-figure valuations either. It’s a new model, and it’s unproven, but that’s what startup is all about.
So this is why Google went out to seven cities that aren’t quite on the tip of everyone’s tongue when talking about startup hubs, and essentially strengthened the startup hubs there. This included Durham, in the form of a partnership with the American Underground, the de-facto largest roof under which startups call themselves home. Google is making a non-traditional investment across a wide array of startups, asking for nothing in return but a chance to keep an eye on the results.
Google gets more than goodwill here – although there is a huge amount of that. They get to put their products and platforms into the hands of some very smart entrepreneurs. Some of those products and platforms, like search and ad serving, are nearly ubiquitous, and the hope there is startups will build products on top of these products and platforms., making them even more ubiquitous.
Other platforms, like Glass, are ahead of their time, and maybe some brilliant mind here will find the use case(s) that will take the technology out of punchline/Porkys territory and make it do cool science-fiction type things we haven’t thought of yet.
And finally, there’s the not-so-crazy-it-shouldn’t-work concept that Google could invest in, acqui-hire, or straight up acquire some of these seed stage companies for their technology, their talent or both.
That last one is the most intriguing, because while the first two (platform build and test bed) are attractive for the entrepreneur, providing the potential for a more rapid growth than the company could have achieved without it, the potential for investment or acquisition is the missing link between seed stage and Series B that the Triangle, with its lack of VC money, so desperately needs.
This is a big step in that direction.
Yes, we already have loads of big corporations circumscribing the Triangle, but here is a big fat warning shot to them from Google – “We’re coming in, we’re partnering with these startups, we’ve got first dibs.”
That alone should be enough to get these players interested in investing a little bit more time and attention to what’s going on at the lower levels here. There are probably a dozen behemoth companies, here and elsewhere, who would do well to scoop up BoostSuite, Windsor Circle, Spreedly, WedPics, Archive Social, Coursefork or any of a dozen other companies of that size today. Not that those startups are necessarily looking to be scooped, but someone will get them at some point if they don’t go public.
Which leads me to my final point. That same warning bell should be sounding in the well-appointed offices of Sand Hill Road. The Google Tech Hub is a big validation. There are probably a dozen startups here that, given the infusion, could grow as rapidly and successfully as, well, at least a SnapChat. Not that those startups are necessarily looking for institutional money.
But if they are, someone will get them at some point.
Not so theoretically.
Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. He is VP of Product at Automated Insights and the founder of startup network and news resource ExitEvent. Follow him at @jproco or read him at http://joeprocopio.com