In the world of startups, we continue to hear complaints about lack of funding. Most startups ignore the fact that the venture capital world is a marketplace. It’s not quite as efficient as some markets, like the public market, because it’s driven by a manual effort to source, vet, and fund companies (the great promise of crowdfunding platforms is to change this dynamic). But an entrepreneur plagued by lack of funding opportunities should consider a simple truth: some piece of their pitch (idea, market, talent) has no market in the investment community.
I recently attended the Association of University Technology Managers Conference in San Diego, where there were ongoing conversations about the desperate need for gap funding (investments to “bridge the gap” between research grants and Series A venture rounds). Of course, these seed rounds (venture capital by any other name…) still require significant vetting. Once the technology, IP, markets, etc. are vetted, what do investors turn to when making a decision? Talent. It comes down to the track record of the management team’s ability to execute. Typically, a university-based startup team does not have a track record as entrepreneurs. So VCs are hesitant to invest—hence, the lack of gap funding arises.
The “right” management team with the “right” idea will always attract capital. Capital is never the carte blanche answer to why startup ecosystems fail—or succeed—to develop and grow. Capital is transportable and capital is smart. Investment decisions are ALWAYS about the people. Universities are doing a great job of providing training (startup bootcamps and the like) to help train technical talent on the “business model” side of developing a startup. But it’s almost impossible to train against a lack of real world experience. I am trained as a Civil Engineer, and in college I learned structural engineering. They didn’t entrust me to design a bridge right after I graduated. I first worked under an experienced engineer to learn, then they let me design under close supervision, and then eventually I was allowed to design under governance of a licensed professional. This may feel old school to some, but it takes time for people to develop—and, in turn, for ecosystems to develop.
What’s the answer, then, for university-based startups? If you need gap funding, you need gap management. Period. This means training under a startup management team of serial entrepreneurs with proven track records. Technical founders are not CEOs. MBA CEO-types won’t be much help either. Deep IP requires hands-on development, of the product and the people. If your idea is solid, and you’re struggling to find investors, then the problem might be the leadership. A good starting point for self-evaluation is 8 Traits of an Investable Startup CEO.
Oh, and by chance if you actually did convince someone to invest in your company and you don’t meet those eight traits, consider joining a CEO Peer Group to hack your learning curve before your investors figure it out. Your Board of Directors exists to help the company and provide governance for investors; they are not your mentors or your peers. There are a lot of CEO Peer Groups out there; some are good and some are not. Contact me if you want a recommendation. Whichever route you take, make a commitment to invest in yourself before expecting anyone else to do so.