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.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Think about the power of impact investing this Earth Day. Getty Images

For almost 50 years, Earth Day has been recognized as the largest civic-focused day of action in the world. Since April 22, 1970, Americans have sought out ways to be stewards of the environment through planting trees, riding a bike to work, or cleaning up a community garden. While these actions are admirable, other strategies and tools are also available that can have a positive impact on the environment.

Investors are getting behind companies that put environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors as priorities in their operations. According to a 2018 survey by the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing and Morgan Stanley Investment Management, 84 percent of respondents are considering or currently pursuing ESG investing.

ESG policies may include issues such as safety policies, human rights, and climate change. These policies may not be part of the traditional financial analysis but can still have financial applications. Investors have the opportunity to financially support and affect change in companies that are taking the lead on ESG policies. This is impact investing. With impact investing, companies and individuals can shape the future with money that is already slated to be invested.

According to the Morgan Stanley survey mentioned above, more than $22.8 trillion is invested sustainably. As the impact investing movement continues to grow, we are seeing an increase in funds dedicated to social and environmental change. According to the 2018 survey, 77 percent of asset owners believe they have a responsibility to address sustainability through investing. And, 31 percent of the respondents said climate change is their leading focus.

If you are interested in incorporating impact investing into your portfolio, the first step is to choose your social and environmental investment criteria. In honor of Earth Day, you may be interested in focusing on green investing in industries or causes such as clean water and alternative energy. Or, you may be interested in investing in corporations that have made strides in environmental sustainability and clean technology.

Next, determine the best way for you to invest. Whether by debt, equity, or assets, impact investing can involve making the kinds of investment decisions that regular investors are generally making anyway, such as buying stocks and bonds in Fortune 500 companies or broadly diversified mutual funds. According to respondents in the Morgan Stanley survey, public equities and real assets, such as infrastructure and real estate, are the most attractive asset classes for sustainable investing.

A common concern with impact investing is whether investing with a strong focus on ESG will give investors a rate of return needed to meet their investment goals (i.e. retirement, college savings). According to a study by the Global Impact Investing Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping break down barriers to impact investing, 82 percent of respondents said their investments made an impact and 76 percent were pleased with the financial performance. Additionally, another 15 percent reported outperformance across each of these dimensions.

As investors are pursuing ESG practices and investments, a large number of companies are continuing to incorporate measures such as water and energy conservation into their ESG policies. Corporate boards and investors are incentivizing their CEOs to provide high-quality, diverse workplaces that lead to greater employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity while having a social and environmental impact. Whether investing in organizations or corporations, impact investing provides a way for investors to tackle big problems with their money. This Earth Day, on Monday, April 22, you can identify investments that can help you achieve your financial goals as well as satisfying your desire to have an impact.

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Dominic Cellitti is a financial adviser with the wealth management division of Morgan Stanley in Houston.