A Perspective on Prospering in Uncertain Economic Times

I have been around startup companies for 35 years and have experienced both good and bad economic cycles. We have  now entered uncertain times.

That said, from a company’s point of view, a financial down turn can be a good time to create an early-stage  start-up.

  1. There will be fewer competitors of your same vintage, which can help lesson competition in the marketplace and with investors. This advantage persists over time. As the economy recovers from a downturn, companies will see fewer other companies at their specific stage of fund-raising. Said another way, when your company becomes a teenager, there will not be many teenagers around vying for attention.
  2. Operating costs often get more reasonable (e.g., lower cost of office space)
  3. It can be easier to bring on early employees (who may have been laid off)

And from personal experience, I know that a down turn is a really difficult time to for a company to raise a many million-dollar, later-stage VC round. During the 2008 recession, I had to sell my company at a loss to the investors because I could not raise a $12M series C round.

For investors, capital-efficient, pre-seed companies who can get by for a few years on minimal dollars suddenly looking pretty interesting. And the current environment means that pre-money valuations and valuation caps will be more attractive. The balance of power has shifted somewhat toward investors.

Working to Have a Positive Impact on Society

From the Desk of Bob Bridge

Our network thinks about impact in two ways.

Supporting Impact Companies

An important impact goal for our network is funding companies that are working to address serious societal challenges, such as improving education or healthcare outcomes, or protecting the environment, or empowering or improving the lives of disadvantaged people.

We look for companies whose primary business mission is clearly focused on having an impact, and where impact is not a secondary result or a sideline.

We ask the companies for as much evidence as possible that their product or services offerings actually does have a measurable impact and goes beyond “isn’t that a nice idea”.

Supporting Diverse Founders

It is natural for me, and all of us, to feel most comfortable around others who are most like ourselves and to feel at home in an environment similar to the environment in which we were raised.

As a result, when those with wealth and power, the overclass, all belong to one demographic group, wealth and power tend to get easily shared with others in that group. Such sharing is a natural result and does not necessarily reflect a deliberate strategy to be exclusive or limiting.

Those who possess wealth and power may not have experienced the day-to-day and life-long challenges faced by the underclass, and it easy for the overclass to assume that the same rules that allowed the overclass to be successful in life will allow anyone to achieve similar success. That is not how it normally works for the underclass.

Our network believes that all individuals should have the support needed to reach their full potential. We recognize that glass ceilings exit, and sometimes even concrete ceilings exist and that all entrepreneurs need to be treated with respect and provided encouragement. We welcome diverse founders into a thoughtful and constructive discussion about their business.

By diversity, we think of those who have historically been disadvantaged in term of receiving funding, possibly because they are women or people of color. We strive to support startup teams with diverse C-level founders.

Diversity is neither required nor sufficient to receive funding from us. That said, half of our funding to date has been to teams with a diverse C-level founder.

And we think about supporting diversity more broadly than just funding companies. For example, we mentor Title 1 high school students in entrepreneurship by partnering with the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Superstar program, and we provide a college scholarship to a student in that annual program.

“Efficacy” is my new favorite, social-impact word

From the desk of Bob Bridge.

Efficacy is defined as “the ability to produce a desired or intended result”.

It is often used to describe the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals. Does this drug demonstrate the expected impact on a certain disease? And is the drug effective in a large percentage of the treated patients?

The Southwest Angel Network, which focuses on social-impact companies, sees many companies who are working earnestly and diligently to address significant societal or environmental challenges. The questions that I ask of the companies include, “Can you provide evidence of the impact-efficacy of your product or service?” and “What is the magnitude of your impact on society?”

For example, most of us would agree that early STEM education for diverse populations is beneficial to society. Such training should increase the lifetime earning of those diverse individuals who are today under-represented in technology fields. And technology companies should benefit by having a larger and more diverse employee pool to draw from.

Consider a company that comes to us waving the STEM impact flag. They state that their STEM education lab tools are significantly cheaper than those of their competitors, and so our network should fund them. Our requests include:

  • Please show us evidence that your product offering has higher efficacy in terms of improving educational outcomes compared to competing products. When a market segment has many competing products to choose from, what is the impact on educational outcomes of adding one more product to the mix?
  • One requirement for having a significant impact on STEM educational outcomes is being able to have a company’s offering adopted by the largest possible number of classrooms. So please show us evidence us that your sales plan has efficacy in terms of penetrating the tough-to-sell-to education market.

Consider a company that comes to us and states that they can reduce prescription medication prices for low-income individuals, allowing millions of individuals to pay for the medications that they need. What a wonderful idea! The efficacy question is, “Can you reduce the prices far enough to actually enable significantly more people to pay for their meds?”

Consider a company that comes to us and states that they can improve financial security in retirement for people who are today in their 50s. They accomplish this by offering a comprehensive and well-thought-out online retirement planning tool. Efficacy questions include:

  • Do you have evidence that your tools change the spending, savings and/or investment behaviors of your tool users? Without a change in behavior, there is no societal impact.
  • Consumers today have a wide range of retirement products and services available to them. Can you demonstrate that your tools have higher efficacy than the plethora of competing options in terms of improving financial retirement outcomes?
  • After you have demonstrated that your tools have high efficacy, can you now please describe the efficacy of your go-to-market plan? If not many folks use your tools the overall social-impact is small.

Bob Bridge, Executive Director

My Path to Social Impact Investing

From the desk of Juan Thurman:

I have always been interested in Science and Technology.  As a boy, one of my favorite authors was Isaac Asimov.  He told fantastic, page turning stories based on what science and technology could one day make possible (and some that has come to pass, even in Asimov’s life time).  Of course, the technology was super cool, but more importantly it improved humanity.  His robots did the dangerous/hard/mundane tasks humans no longer wanted to do.  Self- driving cars were just one part of the automated transportation infrastructure, solar energy check and of course space travel was available to most.

This interest has led me to a fascinating and fulfilling career.  From my first job engineering, designing and testing off- road vehicles to make sure their large tires protected sensitive environments like the permafrost; to more recently, leading a team of dedicated professionals selling communication solutions that powered the creation of apps to help depressed patients feel connected,enable municipalities to alert citizens of harmful weather events and more.    Most of my career has been in technology sales, bringing education, innovation and efficiency to businesses that needed them.  Yes, many deals were straight forward and only lead to incremental cost savings.  But, the deals that I found most interesting and motivating were those that made people’s lives better.  I can still remember talking to an entrepreneur who asked if he could use cloud communications to better schedule home health aids or another who was connecting teachers, parents and students.

Recently, like many of you through happenstance and luck, I was re-evaluating my career and goals.  So, I reached out to a number of people that I admire and respect and had some great conversations.  (I encourage you to do the same from time to time).  One of the people I spoke to was Bob Bridge, Executive Director at Southwest Angel Network (SWAN).  He told me about SWAN and the amazing social impact companies that they have funded.  He then invited me to their next pitch dinner and after listening to companies working to reduce food waste, ensure the elderly get to their medical appointments on time, and improve the quality of our drinking water, I joined as an Angel.  I have had the opportunity to learn from some great Angels, mentors and supporters as well as some amazing and interesting entrepreneurs.

So when Bob, asked if I would formally help him run and grow SWAN, I of course said yes.  There are a great number of entrepreneurs out there who not only want to start a new company, grow that company and become profitable, but also want to positively impact this world we all share.  They need our help.  That means access to capital, mentoring, guidance and support.  Bob, has started an important, vibrant and growing angel network.  I hope to help grow the network and support more entrepreneurs who want to make the world better and drive outstanding returns.