Gotham Gal & Eric Hippeau Talk Good Money, Bad Money at Springboard
Springboard Enterprises let the media have a closer look last week at what its accelerator for women-led companies has been up to. The annual forum, held in New York, gave 10 startups in digital media and technology the chance to demo their ideas. A pair of high-profile players from the New York investing scene also offered advice on how, when, and whom to raise money with.
Eric Hippeau, partner and managing director with Lerer Ventures, said between the push and pull of investors and founders there can be downsides to raising money. For example, sometimes when businesses are very successful, founders may quibble about selling, though the time is right. “You should sell it because you made a pact with [investors],” he said. “It’s a contract; I’m a venture capitalist and I want my money.”
He also encouraged founders to get the most out of their investors by asking them to make introductions, help with customer acquisition, review the business plan, and use the product themselves. Investors should do more than make promises and then vanish from sight after putting in funding. “If your investors are not using the product, they’re just passive,” Hippeau said. “Just having money is not enough. It’s tough to build a business.”
Understanding how to dole out pieces of the business across funding rounds, he said, is also crucial for entrepreneurs. “Some of the greatest entrepreneurs, once they’re fully funded, if they end up with 10 percent, or if it’s a group and they end up with 20 percent, that’s a lot,” he said. Founders should keep that endgame in mind and then reverse engineer their funding plans over time, Hippeau said.
Lerer Ventures generally invests in teams, not solo founders, he said, unless she or he is a repeat entrepreneur known to the firm. It is also vital to Lerer to see at least one technologist among the founders. “The engineering part needs to be integral and in many cases needs to come first,” Hippeau said. Even media businesses such as Huffington Post and BuzzFeed began with the technology. “They are content and journalistic organizations but we first built the platform and then we added the journalism,” he said.
Angel investor Joanne Wilson, known in the blogging world as Gotham Gal, believes New York’s startup scene is establishing a lasting foundation. “Tumblr being bought by Yahoo is really one of the first large companies we’ve seen have an amazing exit and stay in New York,” she said. “We’re going to see more of that going forward.”
She spoke about the importance of “good” versus “bad” money, warning that companies who struggle to get funding might wind up with dead weight rather than proactive investors who help move the startup forward. “To me, when an investor puts money in your business, they work for you as much as you work for them,” she said.
However the struggle to find the right kind of investors, she said, can be a litmus test for a startup’s real world prospects. “If you can’t get good money, you should really ask, ‘Should I be in this business?’”
Wilson said founders should approach their investors for help when scaling up rather than continue to think like “scrappy entrepreneurs” struggling to fill vital roles. Discussing with investors what the startup needs to move to the next level can make a significant difference, she said.
Founders should be careful, though, about dishing out too much of the company early on, Wilson said, cautioning against selling more than 20 percent in each funding round. In one instance, she met an entrepreneur who, after taking money in her first round, only owned 11 percent of her company. “I was so upset I called her lawyers,” Wilson said.
Raising money the wrong way can lead to a less than happy ending. Wilson advised the founder to stop raising money, close the business, take a year to regroup and then restart the business, and get rid of the investors or get them to refinance the business in an intelligent way. “In the end, she had to close the business and that was the end of that,” Wilson said.
The companies from Springboard’s accelerator paid close attention to her words as they planned their own strategies to grow. Though Springboard, based in Washington, DC, has largely operated outside the news spotlight, companies that have graduated from the accelerator since its launch in 2000 include Zipcar, iRobot, and Constant Contact. Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar, helped kick things off for this year’s forum. Last week’s demo day was all about digital media and technology, though Springboard also runs accelerators for life sciences (as well as for companies based in Australia).
The demoing companies came from diverse sectors. For example, understanding what an audience wants is a mystery that every media outlet tries to figure out, and Rachel Payne’s FEM—based in Laguna Beach, CA—developed technology that helps discover why people watch different video content. Her company’s platform draws upon studio metadata, Web analysis, social media, and other behavior-tracking info for video discovery and content recommendations aimed at the female audience.
“We curate all videos from publishers and recommend the most relevant video at the right moment to the viewer and, over time, personalize that offering,” Payne said.
She sees FEM’s technology as a way for media companies to grasp what resonates with the female audience, particularly their motivations such as career advancement and improving nutrition.
Payne was joined on the demo day by nine other presenters from across the U.S. and Canada, with half the companies hailing from New York.
30Second Mobile— Digital media company based in Chicago that offers written and video content within 30 seconds to consumers on the go. Led by CEO Elisa All, the startup so far has developed 30Second Mom, an app and website that lets mothers access information based on their interests. The company plans to develop apps for other segments such as weddings, health, travel, and careers.
Blueye— A Web, mobile, and social apps developer run by CEO Shannon Smith, also from Chicago, that created a platform used by brands and agencies to create marketing programs and provide consumer insights.
Cream.HR— Hailing from Kitchener, Ontario, CEO Caitlin MacGregor calls her company “Moneyball” for hiring. Cream.HR aims to stem the pain of bad hires, which can lead to extra costs to find replacements and lost time. “It’s also about hiring the most productive people,” MacGregor said. “Those people are in the top 15 percent of the workforce.” Rather than rely solely on résumés and work experience to try to predict performance, companies use Cream.HR to assess applicants’ problem solving abilities, work ethic, and personality priorities. MacGregor said her company’s platform also helps candidates who might be overlooked get on the short list for jobs. “We’ve removed the bias from hiring and let strengths speak for themselves,” she said. Cream.HR has soft-launched in New York with plans to open an office here in early 2014.
Crowdnetic— It is no secret New York is steeped in the financial industry, and local startup Crowdnetic is tapping into those roots. CEO Luan Cox’s platform provides real-time data on private offerings and transactions and technology infrastructure for the crowdfinancing market. The technology connects intermediaries and issuers to investors. Cox wants to sell access to the technology and data to banks, brokers, venture capital firms, solo investors, and others.
Indira— What happens when a doctor, biotech investor, and former Miss Florida USA seeks a new challenge? She creates Indira, that’s what. This New York-based company founded by CEO Carrie Mantha offers customizable designer apparel at mass market prices. Indira focuses on special-occasion fashion needs such as bridesmaids’ dresses. Mantha plans to also pursue the market for proms and quinceañera celebrations.
Modalyst— CEO Jill Sherman’s New York-based online marketplace puts accessory designers in touch with independent boutiques. Sherman said independent shops can benefit from the collective buying power of placing orders through the platform and better compete with fast fashion retailers.
Skycrane— “We do all the time-sucking, administrative tasks that you don’t want to do so you can get back to focusing on generating revenue for your company,” said CEO Erin Valenti. Her company, based on Salt Lake City, UT, developed a mobile-friendly Web-app that takes the heavy lifting out of back office work. Skycrane handles such tedium as entering expenses by pushing the work out to skilled workers in its network, freeing up small and midsize businesses to get back to making money.
Tactile Finance— Operating out of the NYU Poly Technology Incubator, Nicole Hamilton’s company developed software that helps customers navigate complex financial products such as mortgages. The platform can be used by mortgage professionals.
weeSpring— Allyson Downey, CEO of New York-based weeSpring, said her company is like Consumer Reports for the Facebook generation. The platform provides shopping advice from people in users’ social networks. Rather than giving a star-based rating, users offer short comments on products. Downey started with parents as a target audience that wants word-of-mouth advice on practical products they need for their families. She said weeSpring also offers consumer insights that brands want. “We look like a consumerfacing product; we’re actually a data and analytics company that’s powered by parents,” she said.