thinking positive

Houston founders optimistic about COVID-19 recovery, survey finds

According to a survey from Houston Exponential, the Bayou City's startup founders see the light at the end of the pandemic's dark tunnel. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Given the current economic environment, you might think founders of Houston startups would view the future with a healthy dose of pessimism. But you'd be wrong.

A survey conducted between April 23 and May 7 by Houston Exponential, a nonprofit that promotes the local innovation ecosystem, revealed that Houston startup founders largely see the future through a lens of optimism. For example:

  • More than half of the startups that said they were harmed by the coronavirus pandemic believe they'll begin bouncing back before the end of this year.
  • 70 percent of the startups that said they were hurt by the pandemic believe they'll begin recovering before they run out of cash. "They're saying, 'We're making it through this to the other side, and we're going to be better on the other side," says Bryant Chan, director of product at HX.
  • 80 percent of startups said they planned to add employees within the following 12 months.
  • Two-thirds of startups said they had a funding runway of at least six months.

"Houston is a resilient city, and its agile founders are the most adept at making the best of any situation," HX states in a summary of the survey results.

HX sent the survey to more than 1,000 startup founders in Houston. The survey results include responses from founders of companies with 30 or fewer employees.

Harvin Moore, president of HX, says he wasn't surprised by the generally optimistic outlook of Houston startup founders. In part, that's because local startups as a whole aren't swimming in deep pools of venture capital, according to Moore. Lower valuations lead to lower overhead and shorter cash runways, translating into abundant resilience, he says.

Moore suspects that if a startup founders survey were to be conducted in a VC hotbed like Silicon Valley, "we would probably find less resilience just because there were higher burn rates and, therefore, more dependence on runway."

Chan says startups in Houston hold an advantage over startups in hotspots like Silicon Valley because they're used to practicing "capital efficiency."

"Hopefully, we will maintain that as an advantage," Moore says.

Despite the optimistic elements of the survey results, Houston startups are encountering obstacles. Those include:

  • One-third of startups with at least six employees said they carried out layoffs or furloughs as a result of the pandemic-scarred economy.
  • Thirty percent of startups said they saw contracts fade and revenue shrink because of the pandemic.
  • Nearly one-fifth of startups that said they were raising capital before and during the pandemic saw their valuations decline by 10 percent to 20 percent.

One of the most noteworthy findings in the negative column was that the No. 1 hiring challenge for startups (cited by 21 percent of them) was offering competitive pay.

"Founders are finding talented candidates in Houston, but are unable to meet their salary demands," HX states. "It's common for startups to compensate early employees through company equity in lieu of salary, but with such economic uncertainty, employees may prefer that guaranteed cash and liquidity."

Before the pandemic, the top hiring challenge for Houston startups likely would have been finding the right talent, Chan says.

Despite such challenges, the path ahead for Houston's startup community seems to be pretty smooth, particularly as organizations like HX keep pursuing more access to angel, early stage, and seed funding.

"We have a strong economy, low cost of living — all these things that are solid about Houston and are not going away," Moore says. "We're confident that 2021 will be a great year. 2020 is probably going to be — for most people in Houston, just like around the rest of the country — the year of reimagining and repositioning and recovering. For some companies, it's going to be a huge inflection-point year."

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Building Houston

 
 

As of this week, Lara Cottingham is the chief of staff at Greentown Labs. Photo via LinkedIn

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

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