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Overheard: Houston venture capital experts weigh in on the city's investment future

Is the venture capital model broken? Are lower middle-of-the-country startup valuations a benefit or a hindrance? And what will the impact of the coronavirus be on startup investing? Getty Images

Last week's Houston Tech Rodeo celebrated Houston's development as an innovation ecosystem. One major component of the Bayou City's innovation growth is the amount of venture capital activity happening in Houston.

At a panel on Monday, InnovationMap hosted a discussion between three local investors about whether or not the VC model is broke, if Houston is too far behind the coasts, and even the effect of coronavirus on investment.

If you missed the event, here are some overheards from the panel.

“We weren’t sure whether [Houston] would be the best place or the easiest place to raise money in, but it’s been incredibly welcoming."

— Leslie Goldman, general partner at The Artemis Fund. The female-founded, female-focused fund launched last year and has made two investments so far — with three more to announce in the next few weeks.

“We have a lot of experience and expertise, and a lot of money and deep pockets. But how do we make sure we are taking advantage of everything going on in Houston outside of just investing in other funds?”

— Samantha Lewis, director of Goose, explains that Goose's model is a network of high net worth investors who share deal flow and diligence duties. The organization invests $10 million annually.

“We have a much more operator and business fundamental mindset. When we look at companies at Goose, we ask, ‘what’s the path to profitability?” — not just what the growth rate is.”

— Lewis says, adding that Houston has a different psychology of success than coastal innovation ecosystems, and that's apparent in her investors at Goose.

“As an entrepreneur in Houston you have to understand one thing, and that one thing is that companies in the middle of the country generally get a discount to companies on the coast."

— Blair Garrou, managing director at Mercury Fund says on the discrepencies between valuations of Houston companies versus coastal companies. Garrou explains that, "companies in the middle of the country grow at lower rates than their coastal counterparts not because of their company but because of the amount of capital that you put to work." Coastal VCs want to go all in on the startups with technology that's going to disrupt and take over an entire market.

“I think the question now is can Houston get caught up in the somewhat irrational exuberance so that you as entrepreneurs don’t have to get diluted as much in your investment. My thought is probably not, if I’m being honest.”

Garrou says of this big-money, all-in approach to venture capital you see on the coasts.

“When you talk about all-female-founded companies, the average valuation is $12 million, and all-male-founded companies, $25.5 million is the average. That’s a female discount.”

— Goldman says, acknowledging that while Houston companies are discounted compared to the coasts, companies with all female founders are also discounted despite making up 17 percent of exits last year.

“VCs have raised larger, and larger funds. With more funds, they have to deploy more money. A lot of them are competing with each other and that drives up valuations.”

— Goldman says, adding that she's heard the VC model being referred to as "broken" on the coasts, and it all comes down to valuations and growing VC funds with too much money.

“Whether or not coronavirus becomes the epidemic that everyone things it will be, what’s happening is it’s correcting the market.”

— Garrou says, comparing the pandemic to the 2008 recession. "I think we have an opportunity. If you look at every single downturn in the market, the greatest companies have come from those downturns," he adds.

“So many people are interested in Houston because they do believe Houston has great deals at more reasonable valuations. It should be really good for founders — it’s just a matter of not comparing yourself to what the coastal companies are getting.”

— Garrou says, adding that what's missing is a sophisticated angel investment foundation. While organizations like the Houston Angel Network and Goose exist, Houston is too big for just what exists now.

“I think one of the important things to do as we are growing the ecosystem is remember that we are not going to be a copy and paste model. We need to do it in our own way.”

— Lewis says about Houston's innovation ecosystem. "What we need to think about and embrace is different models of deploying capital," she says citing Goose as an example. "We need to get creative about that."

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Building Houston

 
 

AvidXchange executives explain why a crisis like the pandemic can provide opportunities for growth or realignment. Photo via Getty Images

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

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