must be the money

Houston-based venture firm closes recent fund and reflects on COVID-19's effect on investing

Two Houston venture capitalists weigh in on the state of startup investing in an economic climate recovering from the COVID-19 crisis. Getty Images

It's no secret that — in light of coronavirus-caused closures, market disruption, and historic unemployment — venture capitalist might be a little more hesitant to join in on a startup's investment round. Yet one Houston VC group has managed amidst the crisis — and even succeeded in closing its most recent fund.

Fitz Gate Ventures, which operates out of Houston but with the support of Princeton University, announced the closing of its Fund II on May 5. Focusing on seed and pre-seed rounds, co-founders and managing directors Mark Poag and Jim Cohen will be looking for startups across industries — usually with some revenue and customer base — to write around $500,000 checks to.

At a virtual panel event hosted by Houston Exponential, the investors say they have appreciated focusing on smaller deals in times like these — it's allowed them to work closely with their portfolio of 15 startups, two of which (Cheers and Spruce) have roots in Houston.

"We are definitely more hands-on with our founders," Cohen says on the panel, noting that it feels like they are having board meetings daily — virtually, of course.

Most of these meetings, Poag explains, are focusing on making sure the portfolio startups have enough runway with their cash reserves to make it at least through the end of the year without any new sales. Of course, that's meant cutting salaries and employees and finding other options to operate in a lean way.

Fitz Gate also has stayed in touch virtually with its Friends of Fitz group — a unique network of Princeton-related professionals (such as faculty, fellow VCs, domain experts, etc.) that give the investors and their portfolio companies a strategic advantage.

While the video conferences are useful to stay in touch with existing portfolio companies, Poag says he — as well as other VCs — might be wary of making new investments in this capacity.

"We haven't invested in any new companies since the COVID situation, but it will be interesting to see if we and other venture capital firms get comfortable with making investments without an in-person meeting," says Poag on the panel.

Generally, Cohen says he has observed a different investment environment since the beginning of March, and there's no clear indication when things will change.

"I think in the short-term, investing will be slower. Basically, people are still trying to figure out what's going on," Cohen says, noting how, in March, the tides seemed to change every 24 hours. "Now, things have started to slow down, but the ground is still shifting beneath our feet. I think most venture investors are proceeding cautiously."

Something else to keep an eye on, as the Fitz Gate founders have experienced, is that startups are making changes to their products in order to provide a more relevant offer to customers. One of the fund's portfolio companies is Houston-founded Spruce, which recently started offering disinfecting deals along with its concierge services to apartment dwellers.

"None of our companies have pivoted to change anything they are doing fundamentally to take advantage of the situation," says Cohen, citing some supply chain software startups and a charity-based startup that have also seen business success during the COVID-19 crisis.

However, approaching VCs for the first time is now a different story, amidst the crisis. While the Fitz Gate founders explain that they open and respond to every email inquiry from startups, that's not the case for most VCs who prefer a warm introduction — but maybe not even that considering the current economic climate.

"If you're approaching a venture investor today, you might get a bit of a weird look," Cohen says of startups looking to fundraise.

On the virtual panel, the duo shared some insight on their passion for venture funding, as well as some general advice for startups. One key takeaway from the investors was a reminder that most VCs are funding between 1 and 2 percent of deals that come across their table.

"Don't get discouraged," Cohen says. "Any venture fund you talk to, they're not geniuses. They are operating on very limited information about whatever it is you pitched them in a really short fashion."

While it is disheartening to hear a "no" from an investor, it doesn't mean the startup's idea or product isn't valid.

In wrapping up the call, Cohen remarks on the environment for Houston innovation. While he admits the ecosystem lacks access to funding, he observes that this will change in a matter of time.

"It's amazing how many startups in Houston — and the support infrastructure," Cohen says, noting startup development organizations like The Ion, The Cannon, and more. "So much going on in this ecosystem, so I think, in that sense, it's an incredibly vibrant place to be as a founder."

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Building Houston

 
 

New study shows Houston has minority-owned startups than any other Texas city. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

Both Houston and the state of Texas earned high rankings on a recent study by Self Financial that looked at the percentage of minority-owned startups in regions across the U.S.

"Today there are nearly 170 thousand minority-owned startups in the U.S., employing over 700 thousand people and generating close to $100 billion in annual revenue," the report said. "Based on demographic trends, these numbers are likely to grow as the population continues to diversify on racial and ethnic lines."

According to the report, about 30 percent of startups in Greater Houston are minority-owned. This is the fifth highest percentage in the country. There are nearly 5,600 minority-owned startups in the MSA, employing more than 22,700 people and bringing in more than $3.1 billion annually, the report found.

The Bayou City outranked New York but just a tenth of a percentage. But neighboring San Antonio edged out the Bayou City for the No. 4 spot, with roughly 31 percent of startups being minority-owned.

The top three cities on the list were all in California. The San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metro had the highest percentage of minority-owned start ups. Roughly 46 percentage of startups there are minority-owned. The Los Angeles area and San Bernardino area followed in the second and third spots, respectively.

Dallas was the only other Texas metro to make the cut. According to the study, roughly 24 percent of startups there are minority-owned, earning it a No. 9 spot on the list.

The state earned a No. 4 spot on a similar ranking. According to that report, nearly 27 percent of startups in Texas are minority-owned and are responsible for employing more than 87,000 individuals and turn out roughly $11.5 billion in sales annually.

Still, Self Financial argues that minorities are underrepresented in the startup economy in cities, states, and throughout the U.S.

"Non-Hispanic whites, who represent around 60 percent of the U.S. population, own nearly 80 percent of the nation's startup businesses," the report says.

In Houston, nearly 64 percent of the population is considered a minority. And yet, those individuals only represent about 30 percent of startup ownership. Even in top-ranked San Jose the gap is wide. The population in the metro has a 68 percent minority share, and only 46 percent of startups are minority-owned.

St. Louis had the narrowest margin among large, high-rated metros. Minorities represent about 26 percent of the population there, and 25 percent go startups in the city are minority-owned.

In Texas minorities represent about 59 percent of the population, but only 27 percent of startup ownership. Nationwide minorities represent about 40 percent of the population but own about 20 percent of startups, according to the study..

Nationally minorities are most represented in the start-up economy in the accommodation, food services, and retail sectors. And the report adds that the demographic has faced exceptional challenges in 2020—from a business perspective, the largest roadblock was (and is often) access to capital.

"Minority households have lower pre-existing levels of wealth and savings to put towards a new business, while banks and other creditors are less likely to approve loans for Black or Hispanic small-business owners than they are for white business owners," the report says. "Without upfront capital to invest in a growing business, minority entrepreneurs struggle to run and scale their operations.

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