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Houston expert examines the importance of early-stage investors in the innovation ecosystem

A Houston investor and leader at Houston Angel Network weighs in on the importance of angel investors in growing startup communities. Photo via Getty Images

In a flourishing startup ecosystem, the roles of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, startup development organizations, policymakers, research institutions, and universities are well documented and understood. Less obvious, however, is the role of early-stage investors, aka, “angel investors.”

These unique people are often the first non-family money to invest in a young company, often while it is still refining its business model, completing its minimum viable product (MVP), or finding product-market fit. Excellent angel investors, however, provide value to the ecosystem far beyond their ability to write a check.

Most angel investors bring deep expertise within their domain. These can be 20- or 30-year industry veterans with invaluable been-there-done-that experience in a particular technology, discipline, vertical, or regulatory environment. They can share insights learned from various industry trends that have succeeded and failed, which often save startups significant time and effort. Or they may bring complementary business expertise such as legal, accounting, technology, financing, or startup strategy. Many angels have launched or worked in multiple startups themselves, which gives them an ability to quickly understand and assist with the unique challenges of early-stage business.

Additionally, good investors are aggregators of knowledge. They constantly read about the sectors in which they invest, learn the latest trends, and watch for innovations that they believe will change industries. As forward thinkers, they know how to look past buzzwords to find what is truly unique or different. They often ask the “hard questions” that cut to the heart of the matter. Wise founders learn how to listen and use this feedback to improve their company and strategy.

Many angel investors serve as mentors to startups and share their hard-won knowledge. Most start with informal or unpaid relationships either through an SDO or personal referral. If they form a meaningful connection with a particular startup, this could turn into an official role as a compensated advisor. The best of these relationships are mutually beneficial and ultimately profitable if the company has a successful exit. Similarly, angels may become advisors to venture capital funds that want to bring their insights to their portfolio companies.

Investors are natural connectors in an ecosystem. As they search for, invest in, and mentor great startups, they foster connections across the innovation community. Relationship-building is key to all business success, and a wise angel knows how to respectfully leverage connections for mutual benefit. However, be careful not to ask an investor to share connections too soon. One of the fastest turn-offs is someone who asks me to open my rolodex before earning my trust and respect.

The most obvious benefit that investors bring to the innovation ecosystem is fundingfor early-stage businesses. This infusion of capital enables young businesses to identify, create, and grow value, which is the ultimate point of innovation. I mention it last, however, because savvy entrepreneurs know the difference between “smart money” and “dumb money.” Dumb money is not a pejorative but a label for money that has no voice or utility beyond its monetary value (which makes it silent or “dumb”).

Smart money, on the other hand, brings many or all of the other attributes discussed above: knowledge, expertise, mentoring, and connections. In terms of value, smart money is worth many times more than its cash value.

As the Houston innovation ecosystem grows, we need more accredited investors with a passion for innovation to learn about angel investing and determine if it is a fit for them. Given its very high-risk profile, it certainly isn’t appropriate for everyone. However, angel investing is a powerful way that investors can help solve society’s biggest challenges and contribute to a thriving innovation community.


Mitra Miller is the vice president and board member of Houston Angel Network.

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