Growing investments

Houston startup founder plants the seeds for innovative capital raising

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, wants to create a connection between business and their communities. Courtesy of NextSeed

After eight years as a private equity lawyer, Youngro Lee quit his job to start NextSeed, a digital avenue for businesses to raise capital from the community they serve.

"One thing that I always realized in my professional career is that private equity is not the stock market," Lee says. "It's only open to wealthy, accredited individuals. I didn't like that. I thought it was in inefficient process. It's really hard for entrepreneurs to raise money if it's only open to this small group of people."

Since its founding in 2015, NextSeed has helped dozens of companies — like restaurant group, Peli Peli, and brewery, Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co. — raise money online from individual investors.

"Our mission is to connect businesses and individuals to their communities," Lee says. "That's why our businesses and the people we work with are largely focused on retail or consumer-facing businesses. No matter how our company evolves, we will stick to that as much as possible."

NextSeed is expected to grow and evolve its services in the near future.

InnovationMap: What changed so that NextSeed could exist?

Youngro Lee: When the Jobs Act happened in 2012, essentially a series of laws allowed for online fundraising for companies — including to non-accredited investors. That really caught my eye. I decided to leave my legal career to leverage this new law to start NextSeed, which is a platform for businesses to raise capital for from anybody.

IM: What were your first steps in starting NextSeed?

YL: It was really just understanding the changing law to really come to the conclusion that this could work — and then understanding the parameters that need to be put in place to make it happen. And then there's no easy way to do it, so I just quit my jobs and went for it.

IM: How did NextSeed get its initial funding?

YL: We found angel investors to get the company started. As we made some progress over time, we found some other investors along the way.

IM: How is NextSeed different from anything else out there?

YL: For businesses, it's a completely different way to raise capital. We find businesses legally compliant ways to raise money and put it online, and they get to engage with the community through their page.

IM: How is it different from crowdfunding sites?

YL: There are so many different types of crowdfunding platforms. What we're doing is investment or securities crowdfunding. Kickstarter, for instance, is asking for support or donations with a reward, but NextSeed is allowing for investing in financial securities that's being issued by the businesses. Even amongst the investment crowdfunding platforms, there's usually a focus on specific assets, like real estate, tech startups, or small businesses — that's what NextSeed focuses on, small businesses debt securities.

IM: How do you get new clients and relationships?

YL: A lot of it really is people to people. Investors telling people about it, and businesses telling other businesses about a new way to raise capital.

IM: What do you wish you'd known before you started NextSeed?

YL: Nothing ever goes to plan. I think especially for startups, there's a lot of accomplished companies out there, and a lot will try to give you advice or support. It's helpful, but the reality is that circumstances of a startup is so unique that you really have to be flexible to the feedback from the market when you're starting your business or launching your product.

IM: How does Houston's startup community compare to other major cities?

YL: I think it's changed dramatically. When I started in 2014, there was nothing like what there is now. There was nothing like Station Houston or Houston Exponential. In general, the Houston community has really embraced and has an interest in what a startup is and how it can make a good impact on the Houston economy.

IM: How has startup funding changed throughout your career?

YL: There's definitely more people interested in investing in startups, but a lot of misconceptions on both sides — companies and investors — on what a startup needs in terms of support. It is a lot better now than it was four years ago. I think the key for Houston to understand is Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley. New York is New York. Houston's innovation ecosystem is really different from other markets. I think Houston needs to find what works for Houston and not necessarily replicate what other markets seem to be doing.

IM: What's a mistake you've made in your career and what did you learn from it?

YL: There's so many. One I made, and I keep making, is as a startup founder you're so used to doing everything in a specific way. I've definitely held on to more responsibilities or decisions that I should have delegated and entrusting others to do them. As you get to different stages as a startup you have to grow the organization. What I've learned from not being able to give up control or be more flexible is that it doesn't work. It's a team effort, and you need every member of the team to feel empowered and part of the entire process.

IM: How has NextSeed's team grown over the past four years?

YL: NextSeed started with three co-founders and now we have around 18 people. We are definitely still in transition process from a mature startup to an innovative financial institution. We are officially becoming a broker-dealer to be able to service a larger base — financial side, business side, as well as our investors. The goal was for NextSeed to keep innovating and bring in new technologies and processes

IM: What's next for NextSeed?

YL: Over the next couple month we will be expanding our capabilities to work on larger projects and different types of investment opportunities.

IM: What keeps you up at night, as it pertains to your business?

YL: As a startup, "almost good" doesn't work. You have to get it right because competition and standards are so much higher for startups. So, especially given that we are focused on technology and finance, I want to make sure we set ourselves up for a high standards and meet expectations.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

Trending News