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If you are a startup CEO, or work for a startup – these are challenging times. The world as you know it is on hiatus, and uncertainty reigns. I would like to share some wise advice from my friend and fellow board member at the Angel Capital Association, Pat LaPointe from Frontier Angels in Bozeman, MT. This is advice that I hope every startup CEO in our community takes to heart.
Best wishes, and be healthy,
Peter

Dear <CEO> –

I hope you and your families and friends are healthy and staying safe. There is no “sale” worth jeopardizing your health. No meeting is worth exposing yourself or your team to something for which there is presently no cure. Please be careful.

I was running early stage companies in both Sept 2001 and in March of 2008. This feels EXACTLY like those situations. Fear and uncertainty reign. No one person has a completely accurate view of the situation because it is SO complex and unprecedented. In case you care, here are a few observations on how I would apply my own experience if I were running an early stage company today:

  1. If I was selling to enterprise or government buyers, I’d expect everything to stall. Sales pipeline will get rigor mortis and nothing will move forward for months. That means any revenues you were counting on from companies not already under contract will NOT materialize anytime soon.
  2. If I had contracts with cancellation clauses, I’d expect to see half my enterprise customers exercise those clauses. Government buyers don’t tend to cancel in the near term, but commercial enterprises will start shedding expenses UNLESS I’d already been able to PROVE clear cost savings for them. If my value proposition was about generating more revenue for them, they will STILL cancel because many of their clients/prospects will not be buying right now.
  3. If I had less than 12 months of cash on hand, I’d start preserving cash NOW. TODAY. It is incredibly painful to have to lay off people who you worked so hard to recruit and train, and who have worked so hard for your shared future and vision. But you have to think about the business surviving first so you will live to fight another day and have any hope of re-hiring people later. I would triage my accounts payable and stretch my vendors to 90 days or more. I’d call and tell them I was doing that, but I had no choice if the business was going to survive.
  4. Even if I had more than 12 months cash on hand, I’d move to conserve cash immediately. I’d defer discretionary expenditures. I’d look for opportunities to reduce my non-strategic expenses like rent or other things where I may be able to renegotiate the deals.
  5. I would look for opportunities for “customer financing” – getting happy customers to pre-pay for the next 12 months of product/service and offer something special in return.
  6. If I had a revolving line of credit, I would draw it down NOW. The interest cost is small price to pay for the security of the cash.
  7. If I had a termsheet on the table or was in mid-raise with “soft circles”, I’d expect it will fail. Venture funds will continue to invest, but only after a few months go by to allow them to reassess the market dynamics and even then the valuation they offer will be much lower even if there is no apparent reason for that. Angels already have “alligator arms” and are fast shutting down all investing until they understand their own personal liquidity. They are thinking about their families and their own health since the majority of them are over 60. I’d expect them to be cautious and slow-moving for at least 6 months. I’d look to find capital from family and friends and credit cards and second mortgages to stay alive. Another option…
  8. I’d look for opportunities to sell services to customers/prospects for short-term revenue flows to keep the lights on. I’d think about where my expertise is and how I can leverage that near-term to create value for someone.

Bottom line: act fast to preserve cash so you have more options 6 or 12 months from now. Expect the situation to get far worse than you may initially think (e.g. 20% unemployment; 8-12 weeks of “social distancing”; a big viral rebound in the fall of this year; fundraising rounds taking 12-18 months). If it’s any better than that, you’ll be ahead of the game.

I will never forget how my first big exit completely fell apart in the fall of 2001 and took many months to put back together (at a lower price). Or how I had bankruptcy papers on my desk in 2008. Or the incredible pressure of having to keep my family afloat and protect my staff – many of whom had become close friends and all of whom had families of their own. In both situations, I acted too slowly, was overly optimistic about how soon things would turn around, and pushed the company too close to the edge. I was too optimistic and overly confident of my own ability to impact a market being buffeted by forces far larger than I could overcome – no matter how hard or smart I worked. 

But we adapted, learned, and thrived. You can too.

We (Frontier Angels) are huge fans of you and your team and want to help.  We are still investing. What we’re looking for are companies who A) have good market traction, B) have the ability to ratchet-down their monthly burn rate, C) are sufficiently well financed to seize opportunities in the market, and D) have CEOs who are not prone to mistaking hope for judgment. Call anytime we can help with anything.

Stay well; act fast. Remember, YOU are the core of your asset. Take care of YOU.

The marketing dilemma in todays start-up world can be defined by the need for capital to increase marketing, but also the need for marketing to gain capital. Read more

Please, do not ever say these words to an investor. You are essentially telling them to run. It is heard over and over, but it is never true. Maybe no one is doing the exact same thing, but someone is doing something similar and needs to be acknowledged. Read more

The first pitch to investors is in many ways the company’s first date. It is the investors first experience with you and your company.  The end goal is to receive a second date. Yet, with many top notch pitches coming through it takes more than just a solid proof of concept and innovative idea to gain interest. Read more

It is almost deemed common sense to follow where the money is, but one must also consider where the opportunity is as well. This is where the thought leaders get a head start and  potentially receive better returns. The Rocky Mountain region is looking favorable for investing due to recent startup activity and a lack of access to capital.

Startup Activity in the RockiesScreen Shot 2016-07-13 at 10.25.26 AM

Recent startup trends are looking favorable for the Rockies. The Rocky Mountain region states are Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Idaho. All of these states rank high on the Kauffman Index Startup Activity Rank for 2015.

Among these states Montana ranks #1 for 2015, and Wyoming follows at #2. Colorado ranks #4, and Nevada jumped 11 spots to place it self at #10.Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 10.30.43 AM

Fishing for Returns

Angel investors should always consider the water they are fishing in. The Rocky Mountain region is setting itself up to look like a stocked pool. With so much start-up activity, angels can afford to be picky while also diversifying their portfolio. Not to say angels should throw their money in the area assuming one will be a home-run type of investment. Yet, they have a bigger selection to compare and contrast similar investments.

Competitive Deals
Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 11.21.43 AM

The 2015 Annual Halo Report shows that 3 out of 4 Angels invested within their region. However, less than 18% share of all angel dollars are within the Rocky Mountain Region (this yields higher competition among the startups). Therefore, with less money coming from out of the region, and only 18% of total money within, start-ups need to build a well rounded deal to stand-out and gain an Angels attention.

(I.e. More activity doesn’t necessarily equal better returns, but it does yield more opportunity and more investment options. Always do your due diligence/invest smart, but also consider regional activity or trends.)

Finding capital is no easy task. Lots of start-ups struggle early on with where to find the capital they need to bring a great product (or service) to market or to tend to a broken technology in need of some work.  Funding Your Dreams: Calling All Entrepreneurs, a panel at this year’s WILD Summit, covered just this.  Once you’ve determined how much capital you need, how do you put together your fundraising strategy?  Who do you ask for funding and are you offering something in return?  What do you need to know before you start? Read more

Last week at the Angel Capital Summit, the Rockies Venture Club hosted the first-ever University Startup Challenge. It was the first pitch competition in Colorado specifically for students from across the state, and we were proud to host it! Since they presented to real investors at an investor conference, we were looking for the ‘most fundable companies’ instead of just business plan competition winners. These entrepreneurs are all actively working to build their company, and some have real traction in the market. They were also on equal footing with the rest of the companies at ACS for investor funding. 5 of the top universities in Colorado nominated students for the event – University of Denver, CU-Boulder, CU-Denver, University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University.  Read more

When you think of entrepreneurship, innovation and startups – what words first come to mind? I bet it’s not “government,” but in Colorado, maybe it should be on the list. Read more

10.10.10 is an innovative program that combines 10 wicked problems, 10 prospective CEOs, and 10 days together in Denver. The bigger the problems the bigger the opportunities, and they’re intent on finding the most massive problems out there and empowering CEOs to create solutions. The first program launches in August, 2014 and is the first of its kind. Read more

Denver Startup Week was huge for the Denver entrepreneurial scene! It was vibrant with a ton of activities and wide participation from the Denver area. Also in Denver during the same week was the Rocky Mountain Life Science Investor and Partnering Conference, put on by the Colorado BioScience Association. For a bio nerd and startup junkie like myself, it was a very rewarding week. I enjoyed both events, I’m thankful to have been able to IMG_2471participate, and I’d go back next time they come around. CNBC even covered both here and here. My perspective is on the intersection of the events – or more accurately, the lack thereof.

I’m beginning to obsess over this idea. How do we connect the parallel universes of Colorado startup industries? Life Science/Biotech isn’t the only silo, but outside of tech it’s the only one I’m immersed in. Brad Feld talks about the issue in his book Startup Communities, and specifically highlights an unsuccessful interaction with a Boulder biotech group. I won’t say that any person or any group is to blame for the current split – only that we’re here now, and it needs to get better.

Denver Startup Week has been successful twice in two years, and grew significantly from 2012 to 2013. It was not quite, as their signs suggested, a “celebration of everything entrepreneurial in Denver” but it’s getting there, and I only expect the event to grow and become better. It is led by inclusive entrepreneurs, so there is significant community support.

IMG_2473The Colorado BioScience Association’s conference also stands on multiple years of success. Launched in 2009 as a biennial (every 2 years) conference, it brings startups from 5 states: Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Montana. The 1-day event featured 30 big investors from Colorado, both coasts, and in between: VC’s, public company venture arms, and Angel investors. 30 startups also presented, pitching for everything from angel rounds to getting ready for an IPO. InnovatioNews has a great review of the day here.

Within their own communities, both events were huge. However, almost everyone I talked to at DSW about the biotech conference had no idea it was going on, and many at CBSA’s only found out DSW was going on from the signs on 16th St, since Basecamp was only 4 blocks away. It was close enough that I walked over from the Ritz during a networking break.

There are bright spots in the gap, however. Rockies Venture Club leadership, volunteers, and a few of their top Angels were all over both events. The fact that RVC was founded in 1985 and serves a variety of industries probably helps in that area. There are other people building connections and bridges between the parallel universes, and we need to encourage and cultivate that. This year DSW added a manufacturing track, and I have every reason to believe they’ll keep growing the events. Denver did have a broader focus than Boulder Startup Week, in comparison. BSW was also a great event this year, albeit primarily focused on software and internet. I attended and loved it, and I’ll proudly wear the BSW t-shirt with the 1’s and 0’s logo, even though I can’t write a single line of code.

The noble idea that brings entrepreneurs, creators, artists, and (good) investors together is the belief that we can always make things better by creating value. Startup communities grow organically and tend to be messy, and that breeds collaboration and innovation. I have no doubt this chasm will be bridged; entrepreneurs will lead the way, and the process will add value to anyone involved. The Boulder and Denver startup communities were once pretty segregated, and we’ve seen incredible progress there. Connecting the parallel universes within the Denver/Boulder area is a positive sum game and must be seen that way. It will not be an easy or quick process, but it is worth the effort.

Tim is a regular contributor to the Rockies Venture Club blog and a Master’s of Engineering Management student at CU-Boulder. He holds a bachelor’s in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Denver, and has worked for startups since he left his corporate life as a licensed investment advisor.

Twitter: @taharveyconsult