Houston Voices

7 ways to escape the Valley of Death, according to University of Houston research

Finding funding is tough and might get you in the mother of all holes — the Valley of Death. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

To walk through the valley of death means that death and misery are low points (valleys) in the human experience through which we all must inevitably walk and experience.

Although not as morbid, in the world of startup businesses, the valley of death is still grim. It is a low point in your startup's life where your business suffers and all seems lost. Specifically, it describes how hard it is to cover negative cash flow while you wait for your startup to start generating revenue from actual consumers. Sadly, only 10 percent of startups will survive the valley of death after the first three years, according to a Gompers and Lerner analysis.

"Our startup overcame the valley of death by making believers out of investors. Often, you have ideas that are worthwhile, but you have to find investors who also believe that," says Jason Eriksen, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology and chair and co-founder of Alzeca Biosciences.

Alzeca develops advanced imaging technology that helps physicians detect Alzheimer's at a much earlier stage than ever before. Alzeca is one of 28 groundbreaking and innovative startups changing the world at UH's Technology Bridge.

"Initially, our investors rejected us because they were disappointed that we couldn't cure Alzheimer's, and that we could merely stage it. That sent us spiraling into the valley of death. We overcame that by making other investors believers. We made them believe in our technology for detecting the disease early and that it would be life-changing for millions of sufferers," Eriksen says.

Here are another seven ways to dig yourself out of, not just a hole, but the mother of all holes: the valley of death.

1. Gather resources.

Planning your business is a good way to minimize risk. Such preparation involves determining how much money you will need to get to the revenue generation stage, and how much money you will need to cover costs in the likely event you fall into a financial hole. The more resources you've accumulated beforehand, the more padding you'll have if you fall on your face.

2. Don't quit your day job.

Keep your day-to-day job to keep money coming in and your personal finances covered. Use your weeknights and weekends to put in work on your company while you wait to generate revenue. You'll be making money while you wait for money. This way might take longer, but with proper planning, you can ensure that your lights will stay on while your startup struggles to bring in revenue while spiraling in the valley of death.

3. Find funding from friends and family.

"Angel investors and venture capitalists will feel a lot better about investing if they see you already have money at stake," Eriksen says.

That pre-investor money usually comes from friends and family. There is some weight to the idea that you should never mix business with family, but there are exceptions.

You're more likely to secure funding from friends and family if you show them you have a more-than-solid business plan. Your loved ones will want to see figures and metrics that have tracked what your business has done or what it is projected to do. They will also want to see that you are an expert in your business. It would also help to show them a payment plan where you outline when and how you will pay their money back.

Once you have friends and family funding secured, you're a lot more likely to acquire more funding from investors, and the long, hard road out of the valley of death begins.

4. Call for crowdfunding.

One smart way to jet pack out of the valley of death is to launch a crowdfunding campaign. If you know your tech, service, or product is a game changer, crowdfunding will put that to the test. This is where you'll obtain funding from everyday people who like what you have to offer enough to put all their faith in it in the form of dollars and cents.

5. Enter competitions and apply for grants.

Enter as many competitions as you can.

"Because of the government's recent surge in focus on tech-based and energy-based startups, there are now more startup competitions available in major VC (venture capitalist) geographic hotspots like San Francisco, Boston, New York, LA, and San Jose," Eriksen says.

While those cities are the startup hotspots, their activity reflects the current market for startups all over the country. Thankfully, that activity is at an all-time high, so you can rest assured that startup competitions are abundant in your own city, too.

This is your chance to show the world your hoverboard and attain funding you don't have to pay back, all without even relinquishing any equity. These competitions are, get this, competitive, so it would wise to register as early as you can.

6. Consider joint venture.

There might be a company out there that sees your product or services as congruent to their own business. Reach out to them and try to convince them that a joint venture would behoove both companies. This approach is not uncommon, and companies have been known to advance funding early on with the expectation that you'll reimburse them once your revenue starts rolling in.

7. Borrow if need be. 

Somewhere out there is a loan with your name on it. Wallowing in the valley of death can really leave a business owner feeling desperate and alone in the world. So desperate, that is, that they might mess around and apply for a loan. This alternative is the nuclear option. A last resort. It's only a viable approach if you're willing to put your home or other big assets on the line as collateral.

Typically, banks will only approve loans to startups that are cash-flow positive. So maybe this option is best if you've succeeded with a few of the aforementioned approaches so much that they helped your company start generating revenue. Once you've reached that point, that's the prime time to apply for a loan or line of credit.

"The phrase 'valley of death' is appropriate because it is a death sentence for the vast majority of startups," warns Eriksen.

That doesn't mean you go down without a fight.

When Buster Douglas fought Mike Tyson, every fan, expert, and sportswriter counted him out. For the entire fight, they were right. His defeat was inevitable. Then the tenth round happened.

Not only did he not go down without a fight, he won the bout. He beat the champ, and the odds. If you want your best chance at beating the odds, you do everything you can. You fight. Loans, competitions, crowdfunding, joint ventures; whatever it takes.

"The valley of death is only a death sentence if you allow it to be."

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

The author, Rene Cantu, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

The University of Houston is $50 million richer thanks to an anonymous donor. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

On the heels of its $1 billion fundraising campaign and a first look at its new medical school, the University of Houston announced the single largest gift in its history.

The $50 million donation was donated anonymously. The donor is said to be a CEO and a veteran with a history of giving back.

The gift challenges the university to raise $50 million to match it. It will be used for endowed professorships, specifically aimed at attracting top teaching talent to the university.

Chancellor Renu Khator called the gift transformational, and said it will allow the university to become globally competitive by attracting outstanding faculty.

The billion-dollar fundraising campaign will be concentrated in energy, medicine, and global engagement programs.

UH Regent Tillman Fertitta said he met the mystery donor.

"He's smart to remain anonymous," Fertitta said. "He can walk out of the door without strangers saying they have a project for him to consider."

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