Money minds

Intuition or analysis: Here's what venture capital investors are looking for in startups

Are investors making decisions based on their gut feeling or by the numbers? Getty images

Conventional wisdom tells us people reside on a spectrum, having a natural tendency to process information in one of two ways. Those on one end of the spectrum process new information with their faculties of intuition, or gut feel; those on the other with their faculties of analysis, or logical reasoning. A fundamental understanding of this framework is valuable in the world of entrepreneurship and venture capital.

If you unravel the personal accounts of well-known entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg or some of the great venture capital investors like Ben Horowitz or John Doerr, you are likely to encounter the co-founder and long-time boss of Intel, Andy Grove. Many have gone so far as to say that Grove is the person most responsible for creating the Silicon Valley — and in effect the Silicon Valley ethos — that drives American startup culture today.

"The question of gut feeling versus analysis is framed wrong. These are not independent. Gut feel that does not rely on analysis as a sanity check…is likely to be very arbitrary and very likely to be wrong. Analysis that is not answering questions that are raised by somebody's intuitive judgment…is a sterile analysis. So, the best of these things is a synergy between intuition…and analysis, and that synergy is better than either intuition or analysis."

— Andy Grove, 1999

Instead of a spectrum, Grove proposes that intuition and analysis ought to work as a feedback loop, with one continually feeding and reinforcing the other. This framework is critically relevant in the context of entrepreneurship — and specifically in the context of approaching VCs — on two accounts.

The first is that VCs try to understand how these two systems work together in an entrepreneur's mind, and factor that understanding into their evaluation. VCs want to understand the entrepreneur's product vision, empathy with the customer base, personal principles, and prior experience, with the sum of these parts and others providing insight into the entrepreneur's intuitive nature. VCs also want to understand how an entrepreneur leverages data to, for example, develop go-to-market strategy, structure the organization, and improve the product, all of which inform the VC's perception of the entrepreneur's analytical capacity.

As business data becomes ever more available, asking the right questions using one's intuition and developing answers through sound analysis of the data becomes increasingly important. Entrepreneurs who demonstrate they have sufficiently integrated these two systems together will enter the fundraising arena at an advantage.

The second reason Grove's framework is helpful is that VCs also use both analytical and intuitive approaches when evaluating entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs who have the most success in striking meaningful relationships with VCs appeal to the VC on both fronts.

VCs pride themselves on their ability to make intuitive judgment calls on an entrepreneur, often coming to a decision in less time than it would take to read to this point in the article. They listen to the gut feeling that tells them whether or not an entrepreneur listens intently to questions and responds well to feedback. Likewise, they also enjoy the process of walking through the entrepreneur's analysis of the market opportunity, financial projections, and other data-driven subject matter. In this case, the analysis is more geared towards the business opportunity than the entrepreneur's personal characteristics. Therefore, winning a VC's investment requires an appeal to both the VC's intuitive and analytical faculties.

Part of what kept so many great innovators of the 21st century looking to Andy Grove as a business sage was that he would help guide them through their own psyches as they sought to make business decisions. Today, VCs use the same framework to evaluate entrepreneurs for investment that Grove used to advise them in business. Entrepreneurs who understand the significance of and relationship between the intuitive and analytical faculties — both in the context of building their businesses, as well as in the context of appealing to the disposition of the VC — will approach investors from a position of relative strength.

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Moody Heard is investment analyst at Mercury Fund, a venture capital company based in Houston.

Houston has the potential to be a great place for startups, but it might need some fine tuning. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

I often think about why Houston's entrepreneurship ecosystem hasn't taken off as much as it should, given the talent pool and the industrial gravity that's concentrated here.

I joined Station Houston as one of the very early members in January of 2016 and since then been watching all the moving parts in the Houston innovation ecosystem as an entrepreneur. I wanted to share four practical ideas on how Houston can emerge as a startup hub.

1. Houston entrepreneurship needs to focus on deep tech and multidisciplinary endeavors
I believe a lot of breakthrough innovations will come from the interaction between different scientific disciplines or industries. We can target startups built on multidisciplinary sciences and provide a support system for them to thrive in Houston. We have the absolute best engineers, rocket scientists, and doctors in Houston, yet they aren't talking to each other as much as they should. Programs like Pipes and Pumps are great, but we need a modernized initiative that goes beyond holding a one-day event per year. A methodical and continuous program that brings professionals from energy, space, and medicine together to address the challenges these industries face. This may sound crazy, but it works. For example, my last startup commercialized DNA Sequencing in the oil and gas industry. Another startup is using microfluidics to simulate the reservoir, and there are startups using satellite data to identify methane emissions. Now, imagine if we were systematically identifying these opportunities and incubating these startups in Houston. We would be unstoppable and, more importantly, we would be ourselves. Let's help our entrepreneurial doctors, scientists, and engineers launch deep technology startups instead of trying to make apps.

2. Houston needs a structured startup program
Let's be honest, coworking space and 30-minute sessions with mentors isn't going to cut it. First-time entrepreneurs need a lot of help to gain experience and kick start their business model. What's missing is a structured program that can take a talented entrepreneur from the idea stage to raising their seed round (better or at least similar to Creative Destruction Lab or Breakout Lab).

3. Focus on helping the entrepreneurs, and the ecosystem will flourish
Any initiative around entrepreneurship that doesn't boil down to helping entrepreneurs is effectively useless. We need to pass all activities through the "entrepreneur benefit" filter. The current suite of entrepreneurship activities in Houston are skewed towards self-celebratory warm and fuzzy feeling for the ecosystem; we need to shift the attention and resources to entrepreneurs who are in the trenches trying to make it to the next level. Once we have good entrepreneurs, we will have good exits which makes investors happy and incentivize them to invest more. Those entrepreneurs then start building other companies or turn investor and this cycle gradually builds the ecosystem. What's happening now is quite the opposite; all the attention is on building the ecosystem and hoping that it's going to make everything else happen/

4. Houston could be the home for moonshots
Moonshots come from the application of deep technology, and I can't think of a better place to be the home for moonshot startups than Houston. From cure for cancer to rockets to Mars, to reversing climate change via CO2 capture and utilization. That said ideating and incubating moonshots requires vision and the appetite for risk-taking. The good news is that this model really works. As proof look at the OS Fund amazing and astronomically successful portfolio of the companies. According to Bryan Johnson, "OS Fund is investing in deep tech companies that marry hard science and technology to solve big problems and make money." We need a new breed of investment firms such as OS Fund in Houston.

Imagine if we had a portfolio of multidisciplinary deep technology startups in Houston, going through a rigorous program and had the support of the Houston industrial magnets and investors to take off. Now that's what Houston deserves.

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Moji Karimi is co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Cemvita Factory Inc.