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.

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Building Houston

 
 

A Houston-area family has made it their business to help Houstonians reduce waste in a convenient, sustainable way. Photo courtesy of Happy Earth Compost

Jesse Stowers has always strived to do his part for the environment. From recycling and making eco-conscious choices, the Stowers were doing everything right, but was it enough?

The family of five was throwing away two trash bags of waste a day that would later end up in landfills until Stowers stumbled on composting as a solution. In May, he launched Happy Earth Compost, a company set on making Houston more sustainable.

If you're unfamiliar with composting, get ready for a crash course. Composting is a sustainable method of decomposing organic solid wastes and turning that waste into compost, a substance that helps plants grow. Food scraps and household items like rice, pasta, meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, fruits, coffee grounds, spoiled food, and tea bags are just a few of the many things that can be composted rather than thrown away.

"Your food waste and compostable waste is anywhere from 25 to 50 percent depending on the family," explains Stowers. According to Happy Earth Compost, one human creates an estimated 1,642 pounds of trash each year.

When looking at striking statistics, it's clear composting has a direct impact on the future of our environment. In Houston, 81 percent of waste ends up in landfills that pile high, and the city exceeds the national waste average by 25 percent. While the smell of landfills may make you wince, the repercussions of exhausting those landfills are even more displeasing.

Not only are the plots of land permanently lost from agricultural and home development, but the landfills also emit methane gas, a greenhouse gas that's 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to The Independent.

What started as the Stowers family's resolution to be eco-friendly became a full-blown business plan. After Stowers attempted to compost at home for his own family, he soon partnered with New Earth Compost in Fulshear, Texas, as a drop-off location for the waste and did a test drive of the service with his neighbors back in March. Happy Earth Compost now serves 350 homes in the Greater Houston-area and has plans to expand to College Station.

Happy Earth Compost has created a service, with pricing ranging from $15 to $35, that provides Houstonians with the bins to compost and picks up the waste from your door. The buckets can be picked up weekly, bi-weekly or monthly while the company does all of the labor and dirty work to help you compost. A new $5 drop-off option is also available for Houstonians who are willing to drive to one of the applicable farmers' markets.

Subscribers can also get free compost to use in their gardens, what gardeners often call "black gold" because of its value and benefits, says Stowers.

Members receive equipment and instructions upon registration. Photo courtesy of Happy Earth

The family-owned business' typical week involves picking up buckets from 300 houses, dropping off compost, cleaning those buckets, and starting the process all over again.

"It's not the most glamorous thing, but it's getting people set up to do it. We're trying to make things easy for everybody by doing the hard work on our end," he says.

Ease is a key feature that helps the service stand out to Houstonians. Composting in Houston no longer requires the personal labor of investing in a compost bin, balancing the mixture of materials, measuring the temperature of your compost, and ordering worms to help accelerate the process (you read that right).

At various farmers' markets around Houston, Stowers is quick to point out the convenience of the program he's created. "It's hard to convince people to compost. It's easier to convince them to try something that's beneficial and simple," he explained.

Jenna Arbogast, a Happy Earth Compost customer, had dabbled in composting on her own but never committed to maintaining it at home. "When I found out about Happy Earth Compost, I so excited that someone was taking the initiative to extend this city-wide. Being that we are such a large city, we have such a great opportunity to heal our environment," says Arbogast. "I really love contributing to something as a collective. Even though I could compost at home, I really wanted to support this initiative," she says.

To Arbogast, who has been using the service for three months, convenience and transparency have made Happy Earth Compost a joy to work with. "You get all the benefits of composting without the maintenance, and you're supporting a good cause," she says.

Since its May launch, the Happy Earth Compost Instagram has grown by over 1,900 fans. The Stowers family has been amazed by the response and hopes to expand to more households in Houston.

"I think there's definitely a movement to be more sustainable to actually consider what we're doing and take care of our stuff, including the earth," says Stowers. He envisions a future where composting is taught to future generations as a fundamental need for the environment.

"It may not cost us now, but it will cost us eventually. What can we do now to make a difference now?" asks Stowers.


Jesse Stowers started his family business in May. Photo via happyearthcompost.com

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