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

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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