A startup’s growth stages
No matter how incipient it might be, any business called startup goes through a series of stages until it reaches maturity. Once I have defined it as a venture initiative looking for a business model, the most natural classification of the stages has to do with the type of financing.
1. Founder’s Resources/Seed Money
It is obvious that the first stage of a startup has to do with an investment of money, work and competence by the founder or founders. However, this stage should not be either anarchical or excessively intuitive. Pasion has its role, but a business plan for each stage is indispensable. It all starts from objectives, which may be related to, for instance, prototyping a product or software and, according to that, the effort is clarified. Firstly, a business plan shows you that for a startup you would need more than money. The assessment of the figures in respect of the work done, in working hours or something similar, clarifies things. As of the time when they cease to be dreams, startups may no longer a leisure activity. Successful entrepreneurs say that it also affects your personal life.
2. Support by the Family and Friends
To us, Romanians, it seems strange to have to ask for money or other types of involvement from family and friends. To me, however, it seems recommendable. It is a serious test for the idea of startup. Firstly, a positive reaction by the people close to us may be a good indicator for a future success. Secondly, it is a test of seriousness for the entrepreneur: involvement by the family obligates you to be something else than a mere fund hunter, that is to be serious and engaged.
3. Angel Investor
You may all have heard of this, but I am humbly taking the liberty of telling more here, as I have a track record of three successful exists, one of them being for Vector Watch. It is in this stage that the startup is not profitable yet, but already has the general features of a proper business. In order for such prototype to turn into a valid product that monetizes, it needs a financing surplus. As different from banks or other financing options, angel investors provide such surplus without too many formal guarantees or interests, in exchange for a share of the future business. A competent angel investor is not only a source of money, but also of advice, as the scope of their business background is usually more complex than the one of the startup’s founder. As they are willing to risk their own funds, they would want to closely monitor the evolution of the startup and, if they are a true angel investors, they would know how to do that without undermining the founder’s prerogatives.
In this respect, some entrepreneurs simply look for mentors able to offer them know-how and connections without any financial contribution. On the other end, the so called venture capitalists differ from angel investors by that they do not provide financing from own equity, but from the equity of others. This makes them more similar, comparatively speaking, to banks, even if there are substantial differences.
4. Venture Capital(ist)
They say about venture capital that “it comes before anything happens”. The Romanian equivalent of this term, “capital de risc”, describes pretty clear what it is about. The business entities that ensure this type of capital are after a high return on investment, involving a matching risk. The investment comes with a pack of a governing proposal jointly agreed with the entrepreneurs, which has the role of generating the profit expected by the investor, when they exit one way or another.
5. Exit and Listing on the Stock Exchange
From all the above, it is obvious that, generally, success does not come easy. Experts say that startups become mature businesses in five to ten years. What happens with the business that has begun to nevertheless generate profit at a steady pace? In the globalized world in which we are living, if the business is not a family kiosk, it will evolve towards exit, mergers or joint ventures.
In principle, there are two main types of exit: towards investment funds, which intend to obtain a safe profit without being necessarily specialized in startups, or towards bigger companies on similar markets, companies which are on a look-out for innovation and assets. This is as far as the recipient is concerned, because in respect of entrepreneurs there are two types that can benefit: the founders of the business and the investors of the initial phases, which have acquired a minority, but strategic position.
At the other end of the cycle, there is an exit towards an investment fund or the listing on stock exchange (an objective that is even more remote). These are more complex operations, which, generally, come after other types of contributions in capital and, in the long run, they are all the more necessary.
It used to be the case that one would have some money, and they would go to an advisor who would then, in turn, research different markets and make a recommendation. That person would charge their client a fee for managing the money and a success fee should the placement of funds generate a profit. While the former would vary from, generally, 0.5% to 2% (with the rule being that you pay less when you place more money), the latter could go to up to 20% of your profits. And while, in the old days, one would pay for the work the advisor does behind the scenes to research and get top-notch information in a market, the alternatives nowadays no longer justify paying such high prices to place one’s money. The advisor is slowly being replaced by a user’s own research, online investment management companies, or even Artificial Intelligence.
The price for investing your money has also gone dramatically down, with the rise of more and more digital companies using advanced software to analyse data and generate attractive portfolios.
Stock market investments are also an attractive alternative. However, without experience in the field or a fee-hungry advisor, this can prove to be a problematic choice. The issue is two-fold: on the one side, picking the stocks to “bet” on can be extremely difficult, as it takes serious market research to identify the potential long-term champions; and then, of course, there is the approach that some companies might skyrocket when they are launching new products or tapping into a new market. However, this comes with significant risk, as overnight success is rare, and massive failures have been generating headlines since before we can remember.
One could think that actively investing one's own money is a bold move, but the old-fashioned “keep your money in the bank” option is now a money-losing option.
It’s been 12 years since the modern financial sector started to show its weaknesses, and 11 since the sequence of events that started with Lehman Brothers collapsing nearly destroyed the world economy. The new reality is one of lack of trust in the banks from the younger generation, and of negative interest rates. Yes, in many countries it actually costs you money to have banks take your placements.
As such, it is no wonder that it actually makes sense to find alternative ways to protect and expand one’s wealth. However, there is one significant risk that one should always consider: while not being tied to big institutions such as banks is what has made these alternatives attractive to younger generations in the first place, the downside to that is that, if anything were to happen to them, they will not have an entity behind them to bail them out, which poses an increased risk to customers. As such, research and caution are highly desirable.
Over the last 2-3 years, the shared economy model, championed by the likes of Uber, has been adopted in more and more industries, including the financial one.
More and more platforms are offering the option for people to create portfolios using small amounts of money, relying on the power of the crowd to create strength when put together.
So, here are a few of the options that are out there, and a bit on how they work:
- FinTech is always an exciting field. Have a look at players such as Robinhood and Sofi.com, which offer lending, mortgages and investment to categories of people who would not always qualify for support from a traditional bank.
- Peer-to-peer lending (P2P) uses marketplaces or platforms to match borrowers (people) lenders (also people) - see Mintos, Grupeer, Peerberry, Lendermarket. Those interested can “buy” a share of a loan on the platforms.
- Startups: new and exciting startups are in the news almost daily. Two of the ones that have piqued my interest are forgeglobal.com, seedrs.com. If you have a more serious amount of money to invest, getting “in on the action” at ground level can be incredibly rewarding, both in terms of supporting an entrepreneur who’s just starting out, as well as potentially getting a significant return for your investment. But, as with everything, make sure you do your due diligence and ample research in the space you are about to invest in.
- If you want to go industry-specific, there are now marketplaces for investments in real estate. Don’t have enough money to buy and flip a piece of real estate? That’s okay. You can pair up with other investors, crowdfund and get involved that way. Crowd Estate, for example, promises 17% annual returns.
Please note that I am an investor in some of the companies I have mentioned in this article. This article is not meant to provide investment advice, it is merely an investor’s perspective on alternative investments available. Capital at risk.
If you’re a startup or scale up founder, or if you are working up to launching your idea, events can be useful to see how others do or dit it. It’s useful to see what worked and what didn’t for successful entrepreneurs, how they think, their approach to business.
It can take a lot of time and energy to attend business events, and the gains aren’t always immediate, but success doesn’t happen in isolation – entrepreneurs need a certain vibe and energy to keep going, they need networks, need to be connected to their markets, their competitors and their peers.
I go to a few events every year, and I choose those where I am likely to see new ideas put into action, meet smart people and explore different sectors. I do focus on my key areas (property, fintech and medtech), but I keep my eyes open for what’s going on outside of there areas too. So here is what’s on my list currently.
- Central European Startup Awards – happening this week in Bucharest!
Conflicting agendas mean that unfortunately I’m not going, but I’ll follow it with interest.
This is a regional program run by the Global Startup Awards. In Romania they’ve partnered with Impact Hub, one of the biggest co-working spaces and entrepreneur networking platforms. Annually, they select and award startups in tech / web industries. After the national phase of Central European Startup Awards competition, the winners of each of the 10 countries (Austria, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary) participate in a regional competition, whose winners are announced on November 21st in Bucharest.
2. Disrupt Berlin – 11-12 December, Berlin, Germany
Organised by TechCrunch, Disrupt Berlin showcases emerging trends in the business of technology and is a great place to meet or find information about game-changing founders, startups and technologies.
There are a multitude of conferences, workshops, networking opportunities and companies from all aspects of tech, but focused in on several category tracks. I'm looking this year at Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning, BioTech/HealthTech, Blockchain and FinTech, but there are a few others.
3. Bucharest Tech Week – May 2020, Bucharest, Romania
5 days of conferences hosting international & local speakers, and a B2C gadgets and tech expo. Conferences are focused on innovation (seems to be an umbrella theme, which can fit anything these days though), HR, some coding conferences but also Fintech.
4. Wearable Europe - 13 - 14 May 2020, Berlin, Germany
Conference and exhibition focusing on wearable technologies, applications, and their commercialisation progress. The conference is part of the IDTechEx Show, a series of synergistic events on Printed Electronics, wearable, sensors, IoT, graphene & 2D materials, energy storage, electric vehicles.
5. EU-Startups Summit – 28-29 May, Barcelona, Spain
Some of Europe’s hottest startups and successful European entrepreneurs - over 1,500 founders, startup enthusiasts, corporates, angel investors, VCs, and media from across Europe. The two-day event is a great opportunity for networking, and a meeting point for aspiring entrepreneurs and investors who are aiming to build international tech companies.
6. London Tech Week - 8-12 June 2020, London, UK
A 5 day technology and innovation marathon, with events on connecting global markets, cybersecurity, digital transformation and innovation, for startups and scaleups.
7. Webit Festival Europe - 17-20 June 2020, Valencia, Spain
A huge event, Webit is a B2B and B2C festival and tech fiesta: 15.000 delegates, 450 speakers, 1,500 selected startups, 500 investors, international media.
With specialised summits for many verticals, I particularly am interested in the summits for health, fintech and blockchain. Other summits focus on cybersecurity, mobility, growth, future of food, or digital entertainment & media.
8. Techsylvania – 20-23 June 2020, Cluj, Romania
One of the biggest tech events in CEE, Techsylvania has tens of events, workshops, keynote speakers and panels. It can be very informative and great for networking and for benchmarking ideas, because it has almost 4.000 attendees - engineers, founders, investors, executives and CEOs of IT & digital companies, banks and startups.
There is a startup competition at Techsylvania too, Startup Avalanche, for early-stage startups, which get to meet international VCs and investors as they compete for the Grand Prize – €100,000 investment.