Guest column

Failing to fundraise can be the downfall of Houston startups — here's what you need to know

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.

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Building Houston

 
 

Camilo Mejia, CEO and founder of Houston-based Enovate Upstream, has big plans for increasing efficiency across the oil and gas sector. Photo courtesy of Enovate

A Houston energy tech company announced a new artificial intelligence platform that aims to digitize the oil and gas sector to provide the best efficiency and return on investment at every stage of the supply chain cycle — from drilling and production to completion.

Enovate Upstream's exponential growth, says Camilo Mejia, CEO and founder of the company, has already led to two new strategic partnerships in the works with European and Latin American companies.

"We see a better future in the oil and gas industry," Mejia shares in an interview with InnovationMap. "Our team worked in various roles in O&G, and we don't think the industry will end up as some people may think. The future will be different and digitized, we are just here to facilitate that transition to give back to the industry that gave us a lot."

The company's proprietary cloud-based ADA AI digital ecosystem is challenging the assumptions of the industry by using new technology powered artificial intelligence to provide historical data with AI to give real-time production forecasting. Thanks to the cloud, users can access the information anywhere in the world.

The new platform combines three models — digital drilling, digital completions, and digital production — that provide precise data that can be customized to the client's needs, integrating into an existing platform easily for a real-time view of their return on investment and carbon emission output.

Mejia shares more about his company's growth and what goals Enovate Upstream is setting to continue the course of digitization in the oil and gas industry in the Q&A with InnovationMap.

InnovationMap: What inspired Enovate Upstream’s focus on artificial intelligence technology for the upstream value chain?

Camilo Mejia: For the past five or six years, there's been talk of digitalization, and the value of data. The next level is not the value of the data, it's about the automation, how you can improve operations, and how you can help customers to make better decisions. Every single technology that we are developing here is about the return of investment.

Our AI concept is about the physics behind the data. We are accelerating digital adoption by properly showing the tangible value of the technology by speaking the same language and showing the value from the oil and gas perspective, which was one of the challenges other AI technology faced to break into the industry before. Our artificial intelligence component upgrades this technology to optimize the industry while integrating it with this digital ecosystem all in one place. The digital ecosystem we're building covers the entire value chain.

One of the challenges the industry faces is around capital allocation — how we can help customers to properly allocate capital into projects, which is a fundamental way we forecast new projects. Another challenge is the size of the organization that ranges from corporations to small businesses. They have many opportunities to improve cost but that varies across companies.

We are overcoming that challenge in order to develop a technology that can show the inefficiencies between the sizes. The third challenge is the adoption of digital technology. There are two different ways of deploying artificial intelligence. One is data-driven analysis, data-driven models, or data trading — this is the foundation.

IM: What fundamental changes do you think your cloud-based ADA technology can provide across every stage of the value chain?

CM: The biggest change we have in the platform is revising the workflow based on the production size. We use the data the customers already have, to develop a model that changes the way we forecast production in the industry. Before you deploy the capital and execute the project, you are going to have a better idea of the maximum potential profitability, so you can make better decisions at any stage from that point.

One of the inspirations for this was Tesla. The automotive industry was failing to provide a self-driving vehicle because it was using mathematical approaches, but Tesla overcame that challenge using data of millions of drivers to drive and park the cars efficiently, optimizing the process.

We are doing exactly the same, which is applying mathematical equations only for drilling forecasts, production forecasts, and using the data from the wells to see how the projects are behaving. We also integrate the modules so every single module is communicating with each other at every stage to correlate back to a production forecast to set your targets or operation based on that expected return of investment.

Our concept is about the return of investment, in order to develop the ROI concept, you got to plan the events right and the varying size production, that becomes the second component. The third component is about optimization of operations, which is about automation to improve operations and therefore decision-making. We are developing technology that has a very modern interface to automate operations in a more intuitive way so customers can be independent in the process and make the best decisions.

IM: At the moment, there is a need for virtual connections. How does your technology allow certain hands-on tasks to be handled remotely?

CM: In many ways, we have a big project in the Gulf of Mexico. We place technologies that we are using in today's market and deploy a platform that customers can use independently. We can also automate operations to the cloud by just deploying, trimming the data out of the field straight to the cloud so that people in the field can actually use the AI component to optimize operations. We don't require face to face interaction using the cloud environment.

Since the coronavirus these digital components have been on demand, we have grown about 500 percent from the end of Q1 and into the middle of Q2. We are experiencing an acceleration in the adoption of digital technology, but the ability to deploy the technology through the cloud has been instrumental in gaining more traction in the market. As a matter of fact, just as an indicator, we have been hiring people since the start of the coronavirus.

IM: Enovate Upstream started a year ago since then you’ve experienced exponential growth. What are a couple of goals that the company will achieve by the end of the year?

CM: Our strategy is focused on the next level for the company, which is securing funding round with investors in London. We are also aiming to facilitate the deployment of our technology globally. We are focusing on the United States and Latin America, but we hope to expand our funding round to Europe and the Middle East.

Our other goal lies with our partnerships, we are working through a distribution channel, through larger service companies that are facilitating the commercialization of the technology. The focus is on enabling these companies to properly support the customers by doing more technology integration and increasing the value creation.

The next goal is obviously to sustain the company, even though we have been growing, there is a lot of uncertainty in the market, and we are focusing on building the culture of the company, which is challenging in a virtual space.

IM: How has Enovate Upstream navigated an unstable market amid your rapid growth?

CM: That's a good question. I think the lesson is that you can always end up in a different direction. Coronavirus is having a big impact on many businesses, often negatively, but for us, it was instrumental to realize the full potential of the technology we were developing.

We saw that the activity was going from operations to the financial sector with companies selling assets to sustain their business. There were a lot of customers trying to decide what kind of wells they need to continue producing, so that was a market that we didn't capture before.

We grew the technology in that direction by starting a second company called Energy Partners. We created a joint venture with some producers in South Texas to make better decisions in asset acquisition. It was instrumental for us to realize the full potential on the finance side, as opposed to operations where the initial focus was.

We have assets in South Texas now and from a technology standpoint, it's the ideal way to test our analytic technology. We use our technology to properly evaluate the return of investment to make decisions about acquiring assets to optimize the operations and increase production. We have the opportunity to prove the technology with our investments, so we can actually build trust with customers. We are 100 percent sure that the technology works the way we say it works.

IM: There’s a huge emphasis on sustainability in the energy industry. How does your technology reduce carbon emissions?

CM: There are two kinds of components here. The first one is about optimizing operations — personnel transportation at the field level. We have studied calculations of what carbon dioxide output looks like to reduce it in terms of optimizing transportation, technology, and contributing to innovative ideas. We are currently initiating a feasibility study on a carbon capture technology, and working with customers to provide value in the technology in various aspects.

IM: I see several partnerships have already begun. Are you looking for more and what role do these partnerships play for your business?

CM: We have two partnerships about to close. One is with Telefonica, a Spanish telecommunications company, and another with Pluspetrol, an Argentinian production company. Telefonica provides cybersecurity services to oil and gas companies, we actually work with them to deploy our technology in Latin America and Europe. They provide the cloud and cybersecurity component while we provide the AI component.

In terms of our technology development, Pluspetrol has been one of our partners from the very beginning and we continue developing more technologies with this particular customer. They provide us with access to real data and real operational conditions that facilitate technological innovation.

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