Teamwork makes the dream work

Investors join forces for citywide alliance to increase access to early-stage capital

Teamwork makes the dream work, and this new investor alliance hopes to make Houston startups' dreams of seed funding come true. Getty Images

Securing funding for your startup is now a one-stop shopping experience. Over 200 accredited investors have teamed up to create the Houston Investment Network Alliance — a platform that promotes investment opportunities and mentorship for early-stage companies.

HINA is a collaboration where participating investors can partner up to co-invest in startups, co-host investor events, and share opportunities.

Behind the alliance are four Houston investment entities: the Houston Angel Network, Rice Angel Network, GOOSE Society of Texas, and Cannon Ventures.

"HAN and the Goose Society have invested over $150M in early stage companies over the last decade. The appetite for startup investing continues to be alive and strong in Houston," says Stephanie Campbell, HAN managing director, in a release. "The birth of new groups like RAN and Cannon Ventures demonstrates a new and growing appetite for investment."

Each of the organizations have connections to Rice University and previously worked together on a sports technology-focused pitch night hosted at The Cannon, a West Houston coworking space lead by CEO and founder, Lawson Gow. Gow is the son of David Gow, owner of InnovationMap's parent company Gow Media.

The Cannon launched its own fund, Cannon Ventures, about seven months ago. It has four startup partners: SEATz, Win-Win, Data Gumbo, and SeeHerWork. Each Cannon Ventures startup partner will received anywhere between $100,000 to $400,000 of seed funding as well as access to space in The Cannon and its accelerator opportunities, Gow says.

Cannon Ventures has already also collaborated with the other HINA organizations. The Rice Angel Network is even based out The Cannon.

"We're increasingly co-investing with other angel networks," Gow says, "because it's hard to start a company and raise money, so the more we can do that to help Houston startups get the money they need."

According to Gow, Houston's thriving startup scene and deep pockets is a perfect opportunity for HINA.

"One of the great things about Houston is we've got a lot of money here," he says. "One of the most transformative things we can do for the startup community is get a lot of high-net worth individuals is get them off the bench and onto the field and activate them as regular angel investors into Houston-based startups. That's a really important goal of Cannon Ventures is to grow our membership base and get ore people involved."

The second most common reason for startup failure is running out of funds. A Texas expert has tips for avoiding that downfall. Getty Images

Startups are pulling outsized financing rounds and debt acquisitions at an unprecedented rate despite the high 80 percent failure rate of startups overall. Among the three primary reasons why startups tend to fail, running out of cash falls in the number two spot on the list at 29 percent — following no market need.

But startups need to recognize that their time and a strategic fundraising effort are tied together as critical resources to allocate properly to drive their fundraising efforts.

Despite a multitude of ideas and approaches in the pursuit of the very elusive product-market fit and monetization, the majority of startups fail to raise funds or run out of cash after initial fundraising success. For the startup to be successful, it is imperative that funds, finances, and related resources are allocated productively and precisely.

A key part of the startup CEO's job is to understand how much total cash remains on hand and whether it is enough to carry the startup towards a milestone that can lead to successful financing as well as a positive cash flow. Just as important is how to allocate their time and efforts to the fundraising process along the way.

A constant battle

For starters, valuations of a startup do not change linearly over time. Simply because it was twelve months since raising a series A round does not mean that it will be easier to raise more money or be ready for a step-up in valuation. To reach an increase in valuation, a company must achieve certain key milestones that are relevant to showing progress to market and in most investors eye's progress towards monetization.

It is important to understand what potential investors think is worthy of a step up, but generally valuation is pretty flat in between inflection points where key milestones are reached that earn a big increase.

Active vs. passive investment pursuits

Given that it often takes six to nine months and two-thirds of a CEO's time during a major round of fundraising, optimally you should align progress points into major milestones where efforts can be concentrated for fundraising success approaching the inflection points. That does not mean that the CEO can ignore fundraising in between those major milestones, but should think about waves of active and passive fundraising activities.

Active fundraising is obvious, which is the typical efforts to craft a pitch, meet with investors, nurture investor prospects into lead and following investor types. Most of the effort should be put into the early investors that will lead the round as the first checks are always the hardest.

From my experience rounds develop their own momentum when reaching about 40 percent of their target and even more when reaching 60 percent as long as the prospective investor pool is large enough. However, the CEO cannot ignore the company's progress while the raise is actively underway, as they will typically meet with prospective investors multiple times who will want to hear about progress each time.

Passive fundraising is less obvious, which happens in the gaps in between active fundraising where one round closes and before the next round starts. The primary passive activity is general investor networking, where the CEO should be out expanding their network, meeting new prospects and trying to identify the mostly likely early investors or best fit for the company.

I'm not suggesting this is really a passive activity, as it takes a lot of work. But this should be an ongoing between rounds. This passive effort gives the CEO a chance to put most of their emphasis on the progress of the company to the next milestones, but avoids a cold start to the next fundraising round.

Regardless, there are two best practices in this passive mode. First, use networking techniques to identify good prospective investors for your company and two to work on getting referrals to investors well before an actual fundraising round is open. Getting a referral is obviously to your advantage, because it takes you out of cold-calling mode that has a low success rate.

Meeting an investor while you are not fundraising takes the pressure off both the CEO and investor and gives them a chance to get to know each other personally. Again, many will not be your round leaders or champions to other investors, but this lower pressure effort gives investors a chance to listen and reach out to potential experts in their networks to validate the problem and your solution.

With the relationship established and your solution validation received, moving to an active discussion about investment comes more naturally as well as targeting of the best lead investor candidates leading to due diligence, negotiation and closing the funds.

Within a technology development firm like my firm, VIC, we have the benefit of "always-on" VIC Investor Network that we are constantly working to refresh and expand. Because of our large portfolio, seventeen companies at the time of writing this, there is a good chance that almost any life science investor can find something that suits their interest, experience, or passions.

Each member of the firm can allocate their time between active and passive efforts for the companies they are most closely involved with while still providing a wide portfolio of other companies that might be of interest to a prospective investor. Even with a portfolio of companies, the same concepts of active and passive efforts apply.

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James Y. Lancaster is the Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development. Lancaster, who lives in College Station, oversees business there, in Dallas, and in Houston.