Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Attitude)

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Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

Although you’ve completed years of education and gained some experience, there is still much to learn.  Whether this reality hits you as daunting, exciting, or somewhere in between, you probably don’t realize just how much your attitude matters when facing future learning.  Many of us were raised with reminders to “think positive”, but probably didn’t realize just how important this is when facing something new.  This concept is particularly relevant in the startup world.

Generating success isn’t just about getting something new to “work”; but rather, in the case of startup companies that require assistance and investment from others, it’s more about what comes along with the quest for capital.  Investors tend to have many choices where they can put their money, and there are often far more options than what can be financed.  For this reason, those with capital have the latitude to select the opportunities that represent the best “fit”, in terms of returns and the ease of getting there.  A big part of this has to do with attitude.

Why it Matters

One of the “screens” that early stage investors tend to use to evaluate investment opportunities is the attitude of a company’s leadership, particularly in terms of responsiveness to advice.  For all that is known, there is much more to learn, and investors typically bring a host of knowledge that is critical to moving a young company forward.  Although they might not understand all of the intricacies of a startup’s technology platform, investors understand enough to generate success, as well as many other things that entrepreneurs typically don’t have the depth of experience to appreciate.

What is powerful is when experience and emerging ideas come together to build something that is both competitively advantageous and soundly executed.  In order to do so, startups need to be receptive to good advice and demonstrate an ability to work well with those who have more experience than they do.  What many startups don’t realize is that investors have better things to do than fight with entrepreneurs who will never see the light, and, as a result, will bypass these situations for more productive opportunities.  Don’t let this happen to your business!

Get Started

Experienced investors know that smart entrepreneurs will do whatever they can to reduce the risk of rejection.  Since grace in times of what could be a hearty dose of reality isn’t a given, take the opportunity to get some practice; here’s how:

  • Learn how to focus on “breathing”: If you’re not in the routine of receiving constructive criticism, it’s time to get used to it.  When facing times of difficult questions or advice, learn how to respond.  Practicing how to reflect on the question, “count to 10”, or give all ideas a “positive life” for a period of time can help.
  • Reflect on what you don’t know: Step 1: Accept the fact that you don’t know everything.  Step 2:  Accept the fact that there are things that you will be wrong about.  Step 3:  Make an active effort to learn about what you don’t know.  Step 4:  Reconcile the first three steps and move forward with a positive attitude, not grudgingly or with resentment.
  • Refresh research skills: Although it might be easy to find information online and think that this alone addresses the question or combats the advice, this is only half the battle.  Investors know that understanding what to do with the information is what really matters.  Think about it.
  • Practice developing responses: Startups seeking capital will be asked a lot of questions and face a great deal of advice.  Make the most of these opportunities (yes, these are opportunities!) by learning how to address inquiries directly with responses that are thorough and relevant, yet concise, and then utilize “smart advice” for all it’s worth!

There are lots of entrepreneurs who take the position that pushing forward with reckless abandon is what matters; be difficult, be original, never surrender.  The reality is that when investment capital from others is needed, this type of approach just doesn’t cut it, and although some things might be worth fighting for, the list should be short.  Failing to do so can result in alienating the audience that startups have such a critical need to engage in order to move forward; one that’s counting on your positive attitude.

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Finance & Business Acumen)

Hand and aces

Published by CPA Canada in Careervision

You’ve spent a good portion of your career in the business world, working with those who manage, keep track of the numbers, and hopefully understand it well.  In addition to this practical experience, you’ve probably spent a number of years completing formal business and finance study.  It’s easy to take management and finance for granted, when it’s a big part of what you and those around you do on a daily basis.

Although entrepreneurs tend to end up in the leadership role in startup companies (often by default), most lack actual business experience; this is particularly true in terms of finance.  The bulk of the emphasis tends to be placed on the product, service, or technology (entrepreneurs are typically guilty of this!), resulting in the business and finance aspects that are so important to any company being overlooked.  This can also be a function of entrepreneurs simply preferring to spend their time on what they love, and it isn’t accounting.

Those who have formal education and experience in these areas have knowledge and skills to offer to startup companies, to a degree much more than they realize.  What’s important is to understand what the real needs are and why, so that the opportunity to prepare in advance isn’t missed.

Why it Matters

As already explored in this series, startup companies lack the stability of more established businesses, and one of the main areas of risk is cash flow, closely followed by the challenge of attracting investment capital to support growth.  Non-financial entrepreneurs typically don’t realize the degree to which their venture is at risk in financial terms, nor do they understand the needs of early stage investors, when it comes to raising capital.

As a result, startups often find themselves in double trouble: (i) short of cash and the skills to manage it; and (ii) an inability to provide the financial oversight and reporting that investors require.  The outcome, too often, is a predictable death spiral, where these two factors get caught in an endless loop, resulting in the business running out of cash and being unable to generate what’s required in order to stop the plunge.

Get Started

Chances are that you have underestimated just how much the business and finance skills that you have learned and practiced are of value to startup companies.  Put a lid on the typical excitement and hype associated with new technologies and opportunities and focus instead on accentuating the value of what you have to offer:

  • Become acquainted with the “hands on” finance role: Since startup companies are small, the “accounting person” often has to do it all: transaction entry, generating financial statements, and dealing with billing and banking matters.  Recognize that startup work is much more involved than a lofty oversight role and that the buck will truly stop with you.
  • Map out routine processes: Make the most of limited time by developing checklists to guide task completion, including on a weekly and monthly basis.  Most entrepreneurs don’t have the financial experience to do this and it will make everyone’s life easier, as well as provide the discipline that investors seek.
  • Revisit financial accounting, in reporting terms: Recognize that internal reporting and recordkeeping often differ from what external parties expect to see.  In order to keep investors and financial institutions happy, ensure that you’re able to produce monthly financial statements in the standard financial accounting format.
  • Master cash flow management: Being able to manage cash with confidence is critical, and may not be a skill that is practiced much while working in a larger company.  Cash flow management is not an area to be learned on Day One of working with a startup, so get lots of advance practice now.
  • Learn about what investors require: Early stage investors look for a qualified person in the Finance Chair, as it’s this individual who will take care of their investment.  Recognize this and seek to learn about their particular needs, in terms of reporting and ongoing operation of the finance function.

Early stage investors recognize that the majority (if not the vast majority) of startup companies fail.  There are a variety of reasons for this, including products that aren’t competitive in the marketplace and an inability to attract enough customers.  What’s more typically the problem, however, is poor execution on the part of Management, in terms of not running the business well.  At the core is often a lack of financial acumen, resulting in the company running out of money before it even had a chance to get started.

EVENT: CVCA Insights, Data Release Roadshow (Apr 6th, Halifax)

Pleased to be co-sponsoring this event with innovacorp!

Join us for a morning of networking to mark another great year in the private capital industry.  The CVCA‘s Chief Executive Officer, Mike Woollatt, will discuss the 2015 Market Overview, including transaction and fundraising data, most active Venture Capital and Private Equity investors, top firms, rising investment sectors, and other insights.

Registration is required by March 30, 2016 and seating is limited.  Reserve your place today!

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Early Stage Financing)

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Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

One thing that most start up companies have in common is a lack of resources, including people, capital, and “stuff”. The root of this shortfall (or the thing that can resolve it) is money, something that can be hard to come by in the startup world.  Once entrepreneurs have exhausted their own funds, and often that of friends, family, and anyone else they can convince, the only remaining option is to find an investor.  This is a big step for many young companies, as it represents the first time that the money ask goes outside of “the circle”.

There’s another important reason why approaching an investor is such a significant step, and it is simply this: most entrepreneurs have no idea what investors need to know in order to make an investment decision. Put another way, investors, be they experienced angels or institutional funds (such as venture capitalists) have very specific expectations in terms of the information they require.  This includes content and format, as well as fitting within the investor’s particular mandate.  While it might sound simple, it’s anything but, and most of what investors receive doesn’t meet their needs at all.

Life in a corporate job usually doesn’t involve spending time in this area, especially in terms of just how critical it is to success. Financing matters are typically handled by others, and access to this type of external party is limited.  In this series, our focus is on understanding the significant differences between a startup environment and the corporate world so that you can place a greater amount of emphasis on developing some of the skills that will serve you well in advance of when they’re actually needed.   So far, areas we’ve considered include risk, rejection, and money.  Understanding the expectations of early stage investors couldn’t be more important!

Why it Matters

Entrepreneurs tend to show a lot of confidence when discussing the topic of investors. They’re excited about the product/service they’ve developed, and generally expect that others will be equally impressed.  Comments like “so-and-so wants to invest” or “is ready to cut a cheque” are often heard, but as the process moves forward, these seemingly slam-dunk situations tend to fade.  Impressed or not, entrepreneurs are often left to wonder where the money went.

A big part of the reason for this is that young companies lack the ability to package an investment opportunity in a manner that meets the needs of investors. Be it the business plan that lacks context, too much emphasis on the product, or a financial forecast with questionable assumptions (or none at all; startups can’t forecast!), investors aren’t buying.  Entrepreneurs tend to respond by offering up information that is used to run the business, or even worse, more technical information, in the hopes that the tide will turn.  No such luck.

Get Started

Not understanding the needs of early stage investors is a very common problem in the start up world. Rise above it by taking the time to understand what investors want to know, well in advance of when the bank account is empty:

  • Research the topic of early stage financing: Venture capital and angel investing are specialized areas that are not understood well, and reading about it in a text book isn’t sufficient. Tap into resources produced by investor networks, associations, and similar sources to understand how it works and the preparation that is required.
  • Recognize that investors have specific needs: Many entrepreneurs simply do not do this. They believe that all they have to do is provide “what they have” and the investor will adapt. In a world where deal opportunities vastly outnumber the supply of capital, this isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
  • Learn how to write a business plan: Bypass the folklore that “investors don’t read business plans”; they do. In addition, they challenge entrepreneurs on their business model, target markets, and the financial outcome of implementing the plan. All of these areas are very difficult to address well in the absence of having developed an investor ready business plan.
  • Network with experienced advisors: Those who specialize in the area of early stage financing have a clear understanding what is needed to raise the likelihood of getting to yes. Although there are no guarantees in life, their expertise can be invaluable. Look for those with a demonstrated early stage financing background, such as a former venture capitalist.
  • Practice accepting rejection gracefully: As simple as it sounds, doing this well can be the difference between ultimately receiving capital and burning your bridges. Chances are, you won’t raise money on the first (or even on the tenth!) try, so learn how to make the most of these interactions by asking questions, seeking out network contacts, and leaving a professional impression. Too many entrepreneurs do the opposite.

Thinking that your product or service is so great that investors will line up to put money in is a path to failure. If there is a scenario out there where all of the stars will line up to secure easy capital, chances are, it won’t be your company.  These are rough lessons that are best learned before they happen, so take the time to understand the complex world of early stage investing and prepare for it.

COVER STORY: Canada’s Venture Capital Report Card- Building on regional successes to stoke the long term fire

Cover story, as published in Private Capital, Q4 2015

The Conference Board of Canada’s most recent Innovation Report Card includes some impressive venture capital benchmarks, but there’s much more to consider when looking beneath the surface.

Decreased venture capital investment levels in peer global markets, which are largely a lingering byproduct of the financial crisis, coupled with brisk, but isolated investment activity in select geographies here in Canada raises questions about our ability to sustain a high ranking when conditions improve elsewhere.  Perhaps, even more importantly, these findings put the focus on what actions should be taken to bring improvement to Canada’s weaker markets, of which, there are quite a few.

The Findings

Canada

Increased venture capital investment, primarily in Canada’s large provinces, coupled with lagging investment in European countries since the recession have resulted in Canada moving from being one of the weakest performers to one of the strongest. Specifically:

  • Canada’s ranking has improved from third worst in 2009 to second best in 2014 in venture capital investment, relative to 15 peer countries. Canada earned a B grade and a fifth place ranking overall.
  • Canada’s venture capital investment has more than doubled, from nearly $1 billion (.07 per cent of GDP) in 2009 to over $2.3 billion (.12 per cent of GDP) in 2014.
  • The number of companies receiving venture capital in Canada has increased from 378 in 2009, to 416 in 2014. Peak levels of approximately 450 companies receiving venture capital in 2011 and 2012 have not been met in recent years.
  • The vast majority (80 per cent) of Canada’s venture capital investment in 2013 was later stage, with only 20 per cent taking the form of early stage financing. This falls well short of international trends where more than 60 per cent of venture capital targets early stage financing. The report notes that Canadian venture capital took a much more balanced approach in 2009, when financing was more evenly split between early and later stage.

The Provinces

Provincial venture capital investment levels and rankings vary widely, from A to D-, with six provinces receiving a D or D- ranking. Specifically:

  • Both BC and Quebec rank as A’s in terms of venture capital investment (representing .16 per cent and .14 per cent of GDP, respectively), outpaced only by the US (.17 per cent of GDP).
  • Although companies in Ontario received more venture capital money than that of other provinces, the venture capital investment level of .11 per cent of GDP was sufficient to earn a B ranking.
  • Propelled by two venture capital deals totaling $60 million in 2014, Newfoundland and Labrador received a C ranking.
  • Canada’s remaining provinces received a D ranking in venture capital investment, with Manitoba and Prince Edward Island receiving a grade of D-.
  • Substantial increases in venture capital investment levels from 2009 to 2014 have occurred in four provinces; Ontario (117 per cent), BC (91 per cent), Alberta (81 per cent), and Quebec (61 per cent). All other provinces have experienced declines.
  • In terms of the number of Canadian companies that received venture capital funding in 2014, the highest levels occurred in Quebec (151), Ontario (142), BC (60), Alberta (27), and New Brunswick (19). The remaining provinces ranged from one to nine companies receiving venture capital.

The Fuel

Canada’s much improved ranking was assisted by the fact that, with the exception of the US, venture capital investments declined in all of the other peer countries between 2009 and 2013. Canada weathered the recession better than many countries, contributing to more stable venture capital investment levels. In fact, venture capital investment levels have now returned to the pre-recession level of $2.3 billion. Contributions from the Venture Capital Action Plan (VCAP) have helped, as well as the ongoing participation of BDC Capital, which the study cites as Canada’s largest and most active early stage technology investor.

Venture capital investment in Canada from foreign sources has continued to rise. Traditionally, it has represented approximately 30 per cent of the total, but increased to more than 37 per cent in 2014 from US sources alone. Clearly, venture capital investment levels are positively impacted by foreign participation and our own public policy that encourages investment.

However, we must also be wary of the fact that Canada is currently standing out in a cohort that is performing well below its pre-recession standards. What we do next to continue to separate ourselves from the pack now could have long-standing consequences.

Viewing Canada’s current position of strength as an opportunity to make the necessary improvements to “lift the level of all boats” is a much more proactive approach than simply benefiting from the rise of the tide.

The Fire

Improving venture capital investment levels across the country and generating long term sustainability are important areas of focus. The Conference Board cites a number of factors that contribute to establishing a successful level of venture capital investment, including the presence of those with money to invest, companies that are investment worthy, and a means to connect the two.

Much could be said about the challenges of establishing venture capital pools in particular geographic areas and the difficulties of allocating a portion of funds in existing pools to investments with a higher risk profile. Regardless, fueling the venture investment process requires a stable of “investor ready” companies, enabling venture capitalists to invest well, work with high potential businesses, and generate the returns that are so important in attracting fundraising over the long term.  These are critical components in generating a sustainable venture capital environment.

Venture capitalists recognize that the presence of investor ready businesses and the right approach to get there are, in many ways, the fuel for generating a vibrant investment environment. Too often, the focus tends to be on leading with capital, and although this approach might find some initial success to “get money out”, it does little to generate the level of returns to stoke the fire for the long term.

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Rejection)

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Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

Chances are, you’ve had some real success in your life thus far.  Perhaps, you’ve graduated with a business degree, obtained a professional designation, won a job or two, and maybe even received some awards or honours along the way.  Although you might have experienced some disappointments, they tend to pale in comparison to the accomplishments that are well worth celebrating.

As you progress in your career, the odds are that you might experience a setback or two unlike anything you’ve encountered thus far.  As the stakes get higher, the likelihood of success can get proportionately smaller, and what keeps us trying is the realization that the potential rewards are often greater.  Having said that, in the corporate world, jobs can be like buses, with another one coming along at any moment.  If you miss the first one, sit tight, as another opportunity isn’t far away.  There is a certain kind of comfort in this.

Working with a start up company can be quite different in this regard, and it’s important to understand the implications if you’re considering making the switch from a corporate job.  In this series, our focus is on understanding the significant differences between a startup environment and the corporate world so that you can put a greater emphasis on developing some of the skills that will serve you well in advance of when they’re actually needed.   So far, we’ve considered the implications of risk, the ever expanding job description, and money.  Let’s talk about rejection.

Why it Matters

If you’ve met someone who works with a startup company, they can probably tell you lots about the upside; the excitement, thrill of doing something new, and the opportunity to “chart your own course” (they will soon learn otherwise!).  What they probably don’t talk much about are the odds of getting to the point of real success, which can be startlingly bleak.

With an abundance of new ventures launching wherever you look, the reality is they are challenged to find the necessary resources, customers, and capital to be successful.  In a world where demand far exceeds supply, many upstarts don’t last very long.  This reality is particularly true in the case of seeking the necessary capital to expand products, market effectively, and support growth.  Many entrepreneurs consider this to be the easy part, as who wouldn’t want to support their venture?  As the months go by, it becomes clear that just getting an investor meeting is difficult, much less making a pitch and getting funded.

In reality, the odds are stacked against startup companies.  Chances are that your venture will be rejected again and again; by potential customers, investors, and partners.  Those that work with startup companies, regardless of their level of success in life thus far, are likely to face rejection in a way that they never have before.  This can be disheartening, as well as quite a shock to the system.

Get Started

Although no one likes to spend time thinking about the downside, doing so is a good way to strategize to get to a better place.  This includes planning to face rejection and how to rise above it:

  • Develop sound problem solving skills: Those who find resilience in difficult times tend to have an ability to think creatively and solve problems.  As simple as it sounds, many people just aren’t very resourceful and lack the ability to determine what to do next.  Practice problem solving by approaching situations with a Plan B, Plan C, and even a Plan D.  Make it a “game” for yourself to strategize how you might get over hurdles, even in situations where they don’t actually occur.
  • Adopt a flexible mindset: Those who last the longest during difficult times perhaps have the greatest ability to be flexible, in terms of adapting to circumstances that are different than what was expected.  If funding isn’t received when anticipated, or turns out to be less than planned, surviving the setback can be all about how flexible a company can be.
  • Learn about early stage financing: Since financing is so integral to success and so elusive at the start up stage, it’s an important area to learn about, sooner rather than later.  Understanding how this niche area works and what investors look for can help you to be better prepared to respond to challenging situations.
  • Have an outlet for countering setbacks: Rejection and setbacks are stressful, and having a coping mechanism for challenges that are unlike anything previously experienced is important in order to keep going.  Find what works for you, be it creative interests, sports, exercise, or meditation and practice on a regular basis.  The startup world is truly a marathon and it’s important to develop longevity.

Preparation won’t end rejection, but it might help to make it less frequent.  It will also put you in a better position to withstand the many setbacks that will come and find the ingenuity and wherewithal to keep going.  The entrepreneurial world isn’t like where you’ve been.  You’ve got to train for it.

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Managing Money)

ThinkstockPhotos-481992234Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

Although you might think you know the meaning of the phrase “the buck stops here”, working with a start up company will reveal an entirely new definition.  Call it life or death, the last quarter, the final frontier; money matters in a way that it never has before, and is a topic that will find its way into most conversations, from morning til night.

In comparison, most who work in the corporate world think about money in just a handful of ways: the paycheque (and when it’s coming), annual raises (and the likelihood of getting one), what the next job pays (and is it worth the trouble), and perhaps, whether the company has a budget for a particular initiative or event.  Most of these interactions seem distant, somewhat detached, and of a lesser frequency.  In a lot of ways, there is a relative amount of stability in these periodic musings.

Working with a start up or, what investors often refer to as “early stage”, company can be an exciting place, but it’s important to fully consider what’s involved before making the switch.  In this series, we will do exactly that, so you can make an informed choice, and perhaps, benefit from placing a greater emphasis on developing some of the skills that will serve you well in advance of when they’re actually needed.   So far, we’ve considered the implications of risk and the ever expanding job description.  Let’s move to the issue of money.

Why it Matters

Start up companies are often born from ideas, not to mention the endless enthusiasm of the entrepreneurs who lead them.  As with building a new home, start ups have a tendency to need everything, from supplies, to people, to technology.  These are basic costs that are often funded by the founders and typically have little to do with attracting customers.  Before long, a young bank account can find itself empty, and often much more quickly than expected.

With some of the novelty having worn off, (but, enthusiasm not dampened), entrepreneurs start to more fully appreciate just how much is involved in attracting and maintaining customers.  Familiar phrases at this stage include “long sales cycle”, “it’s more work”, and “not what we expected”.  Converting leads into sales and having the resources to fulfill the needs of customers require money, and guess what?  It’s often needed in advance of receiving customer payments, which makes the need for cash flow management (and actual cash) all the more critical.

Those who work in the start up world need to find comfort with this “edge of the razor blade” existence, otherwise what they’re trying to build probably won’t be around for very long.  The reality of being in this situation can be a shock to the enthusiastic system of those who truly believed that the world couldn’t live without their product.

Get Started

Building a new relationship with cash can be difficult, especially when it’s unexpected.  The good news is that you can plan for it, making the transition less daunting.  Here’s how to get started:

  • Review your expenses: Take a look at your current expenses to fully understand what they are (you might find some surprises during this process!).  Identify items that could be cut or reduced, and think about the lifestyle changes you could make, if necessary (is now really the time to get rid of your roommate?).  This will provide you with a baseline of information and some alternatives for when you’re ready to enter the start up world.
  • Build a war chest: Cash in the bank provides both security and options, and saving in times of a steady paycheque is seldom regretted in the future.  Recognize that working with a start up could (and likely will) result in unexpected expenses and an uncertain income stream, so take advantage of cash flow while you have it.
  • Take cash flow management to a new level: Cash flow forecasts are often something that is part of an accounting education; mechanical, at best, with less emphasis being placed on accuracy and outcomes.  Start ups live and die by their cash flow, and if you haven’t managed money in an environment where results are everything, expect a white knuckle ride.  Take the opportunity to get some practical experience by managing your own cash flow and see how well you do.
  • Expect the worst: You might be wondering where the “plan for the best” portion of this phrase went; no need to mention that, as entrepreneurs have it covered!  You can be a valuable resource by planning for the downside that will happen, particularly in terms of money.  Be sure to build in contingencies for delays and potential customers that will change course midstream.

One of the main reasons why young businesses fail is simply because they run out of money, and this can have little to do with the quality of the product or service that they provide.  Surprisingly, growth actually requires cash.  Learning how to work with money in advance of having to do so is a bonus on all levels: improving your comfort level (or managing your anxiety), providing realistic information, and increasing the likelihood that the company will survive.  You hold the key to ensuring that the buck stops on solid ground.

The New Road Ahead: Implications for Canada’s retail venture capital industry

Published by the Canadian Venture Capital Association in Private Capital

Retail venture capital in Canada, where tax credit eligible money is raised from individual investors, has been a controversial topic over the years.  Since the launch of the first Labour Sponsored Venture Capital Corporation (LSVCC) in the early 1980’s, retail funds appeared across the country, providing investors with access to federal and provincial tax credits and investing capital into young companies seeking to drive Canada’s innovation economy forward.

With the announcement of the “Sunset Clause” in Ontario in 2005, eliminating the provincial tax credit for retail funds over a five year period and the significant decline of fundraising levels in the aftermath, many were left wondering what the future might hold.  The Venture Capital Action Plan (VCAP) initially arrived on the scene as part of the 2012 federal budget, allocating $400 million in new capital over a 7 to 10 year period, with the objective of attracting an additional $800 million from the private sector.  The 2013 federal budget announced the progressive elimination of the LSVCC tax credit program over 2015 to 2017, leaving an asset class that once raised billions with an uncertain future.

With limited venture capital dollars being raised in recent years and a lack of specific details around how and when the bulk of VCAP dollars will flow, there is a climate of uncertainty around what the impact might be on VC funds and, ultimately, the companies in which they invest.  Reflecting on an asset class that has been a part of Canada’s venture capital landscape for 30 years, opportunities for involvement in the future may become apparent, as further details around VCAP come to light.

The Good

Canadian retail venture capital has made a significant contribution to the financing of Canada’s early stage companies, including:

  • In terms of investment, from 1996 to 2012:
    • Retail venture capital funds invested $7.8 billion into 2,419 Canadian companies, representing 53% of all VC-backed companies in Canada at the time (1)
    • In technology sectors alone, retail funds invested $5.5 billion in 1,190 companies, or 45% of all Canadian VC-backed companies at the time (1)
  • In terms of exits, from 1999 to 2013: (i) of the 29 companies that exited by sale with a purchase price in excess of $200 million, 19 were backed by retail funds; and (ii) of the 37 companies that undertook an IPO in excess of $30 million, 22 were backed by retail funds (1)

Over this timeframe, it stands to reason that the level of fund manager expertise was increasing, as part of the typical growth and development of a young industry.  This is reflected in the trend of shifting the investment strategy to focus on later stage co-investment and investing indirectly in specialized private sector venture capital funds, thereby becoming a supplier of capital to the broader VC industry.  As an example, Quebec retail funds have committed $830 million to 59 private independent funds, of which 29 are based in Quebec, 10 in the remainder of Canada, and 20 in international locations. (3)

Retail venture capital funds have played a key role in generating investment in areas that are typically undeserved.  As an example, retail funds in Saskatchewan have invested an average of $80 million per year over the last three years and $600 million in 193 companies since inception, while leveraging significant co-investment from outside of the province.  Saskatchewan’s residents and economy have benefitted, in terms of companies being able to remain in the province and the employment that has been generated as a result. (2)

The Criticisms

Although varying themes may exist, criticism of retail venture capital funds includes poor performance levels, inappropriate structures and governance models, fund managers lacking the necessary expertise, and funds being too small to provide a sufficient amount of capital to support the developmental needs of early stage companies.

Research into these areas, among others, indicates that although there is room for improvement, a number of the typical criticisms may not be entirely valid (and, at a minimum, are outdated).  Consider the following:

  • Although the performance of Canada’s retail funds has been poor, it has been comparable to the rest of the Canadian venture capital industry.  The net 10 year return as of June 30, 2005(4) for retail funds was -1.4%, compared to private independent funds at -3.9%, other captive funds at -3.6%, and an overall industry return of -3.0%.  The issue of poor performance is not due to the retail sector alone, but rather, is driven by broader factors, including timing, fund size, and a lack of experienced fund managers during the period. (5)
  • Given that the Canadian venture capital industry is significantly younger than that of the US and Europe, it is not entirely surprising that the level of experience and expertise among fund managers would require additional development.  This issue, however, is not unique to the retail segment, as other venture capital funds in Canada were arguably facing the same challenges, especially back in the 1980’s and 90’s.
  • The structure and governance model of some retail funds may have been less than ideal, in terms of areas such as fee arrangements and independence.  Although this criticism should not be generalized to all retail funds, even a limited incidence of this type of weakness can reflect poorly on a broader group.
  • Although some retail funds have been challenged by a lack of size and ability to provide the degree of capital that early stage companies often require in order to fully develop, research has indicated some improvements in this area.  In addition, considerable consolidation occurred in the industry several years ago, reducing the number of small funds.

Despite the foregoing, the retail venture capital industry has been challenged by an overall decline in appeal from the channels in which capital is raised, a situation that has been difficult to overcome.  The reality of this type of circumstance is that it can be difficult to find a way forward, regardless of positive achievements and the presence of change.

The Future

It’s no secret that Canada is significantly underserved in terms of venture capital, lagging behind that of key global markets.  Early stage companies that seek to drive the innovation that Canada requires in order to be globally competitive have a critical need for financial support, particularly in terms of venture capital.  Under the circumstances, Canada needs more venture capital, not less, so it’s important that new initiatives such as VCAP truly represent an incremental source of capital, particularly given the phase out of retail tax credits.

Retail venture capital funds have demonstrated the ability to support private (non-retail) funds, invest in and play a key role in developing early stage companies, and effectively benefit regions that are typically underserved.  The opportunity to work in concert with VCAP in some manner seems worthy of consideration, to preserve and continue to grow these important strengths.  Funds that have had some success and continue to have the opportunity to reinforce their achievements through good performance may be well positioned for collaboration going forward.

Change and evolution are often two-fold, where the increase in ability that is gained through experience raises the opportunity to develop and implement strategies that better serve the future.  This occurs in many industries and is a necessary part of growth.  Blending the best of both worlds into the future may be an important step in moving Canada’s venture capital industry forward as a whole.

Sources:

(1)  Thomson Reuters

(2)  Thomson Reuters and Saskatchewan retail funds

(3)  Retail Funds and Teralys

(4)  Represents the only hard data that compares retail venture capital with the rest of the Canadian venture capital industry undertaken by Thomson Reuters in 2006 for the CVCA.

(5)  Review of Main Criticisms Concerning VC Investment by Canadian Retail Funds (G. Durufle, 2013)

Go Big or Go Home: What does it take to build a great company?

Published by the Canadian Venture Capital Association in Private Capital

If early stage companies know little about the expectations of venture capitalists (see Bridging the Gap, Spring 2011 edition of Private Capital), they probably know even less about the working relationship between the two parties post-investment.  While VC’s might see the next steps as obvious (“let’s go and build a great company!”), early stage companies may be exhausted and overwhelmed from the due diligence and closing process and may simply be wishing for things to return to normal; but will their world ever be “normal” again?  Most VC’s certainly hope not.

If the devil is in the details, the challenge is in the goal: taking a largely unproven, early stage business and building it into a great company.  To a VC, this means the elusive “big win”; the company that grows from mere obscurity to sales of $50 million, $75 million, or more.  Beyond the cash that is generated, these winning companies are leaders in their markets, innovators in their industry, and perhaps, most importantly, they share in this powerful vision of top tier growth.  They too want to build a great company, and will take whatever assistance and valuable insight they can find in order to get there.

If a journey begins with a single step, where do you start?  Surprisingly, there may not be a lot of magic in terms of starting the relationship with a new portfolio company off on the right path.  As with the preparation for raising early stage capital, the fundamentals also matter when building a business.  Although strategy is important, what can be even more critical is successful implementation (i.e., getting it done!), while being in tune with the industry and market to know when to shift gears and make the necessary changes.

Investee companies need to take the necessary steps to build the business to support future growth, and not get caught up in the status quo.  And while distractions often arise, it is critical to focus on the fundamentals and the ultimate goal, a discipline that can be difficult for young companies.

As part of this process, a number of key areas require careful and consistent attention, including:

Fundamental Area Critical Success Factors
Aligned Objectives Management buy-in to the short term and long term objectives, as well as the exit strategy.  Willingness to use experienced resources/advice to grow the company.  Consistent focus on what is in the best interest of the business
Product Focus on sustainable competitive advantage. Strong understanding of industry and market developments to guide future product development efforts.  Ability to deliver new products and product enhancements on a timely basis
Market Demonstrated ability to reach and penetrate target market(s) through an appropriate strategy (i.e., pricing, advertising, promotion, distribution, etc.).  Strong focus on competitive landscape and market developments, making necessary adjustments to grow market position
Management Management team includes those with aligned objectives, the right skills and expertise, and strong implementation skills.  Problem areas are addressed on a timely basis
Financial Results & Capital Requirements Timely and accurate financial information that is used to track progress and make adjustments where needed.  Established short term budgets and long term financial targets, as well as the necessary capital to achieve results
Exit Strategy Well developed strategy, including estimated timeline, key milestones, and exit approach.  Should consider market and industry trends and outlook

Given the importance of building the business to support future growth, management may lack the experience to do so, but can gain valuable assistance from the expertise that VC’s bring to the table.  In order to raise the likelihood of success: (i) management needs to be receptive of this type of assistance; and (ii) VC’s need to take an active role in providing it.  Although it is a given that VC’s don’t run companies, this process can mean that early stage investors might have to roll up their sleeves more than they would like, particularly when difficulties arise.  Failing to do so could result in a company that never really reaches its potential, falling well short of “great”.

Beyond providing assistance with the fundamentals, important problem areas for VC’s to play an active role in resolving include the following types of situations:

When the founder flounders Just because a CEO has what it takes to start a business and manage it in the early days does not mean that they have the skillset and desire to build a company.  It’s been said that many high growth companies have at least three CEO’s during the course of their history: one to start the business, one to grow the business, and one to position the company for exit.  All of these situations have a different focus and require different skillsets.  Chances are that all of these skillsets do not reside within a single CEO, so a change in leadership as part of the strategy should not be surprising.  It can, in fact, represent an opportunity to drive growth in each stage of development.

Where the issue can become really problematic, however, is with a CEO who is truly out of their element.  This situation can be typical with early stage companies, where: (i) one of the founders was arbitrarily put in the CEO position, but clearly lacks the necessary skillset; or (ii) the investee company hired the best CEO they could afford, on a very limited or part time budget, and got what they paid for.

In any event, VC’s need to recognize situations where the “CEO has to go” and take swift action.   Weaknesses at the top normally don’t turn around, and sub-par performance results in opportunity that is forever lost.  Although CEO recruitment is often a time consuming process, leadership is beyond important and maintaining a poor CEO and hoping for improvement does not represent a strategy for resolving the problem or for generating solid financial results.

When financial management gets no respect Many young companies underestimate the importance of the finance function, including the critical nature of timely financial information as a management tool, as well as in terms of attracting capital.  Companies with a significant technical or intellectual property component, in particular, tend to put the majority of their resources into technology or product related areas, while downplaying the need to hire a qualified Controller or CFO.

It is often up to the VC to drive change in this area, as they truly recognize just how much a good CFO can do for a company, especially when there is more capital to raise.  VC’s need to ensure that companies build a finance function that can support future growth and create the necessary level of confidence to attract future investors.  The bottom line is that sound financial management is always critical, and you simply won’t build a great company without the right resources and systems in the finance function.

When the culture isn’t a learning one Building an early stage business can be an isolating process and the founders and their team can become overly focused on internal activities.  Growing a business requires a more balanced approach, with sufficient focus being paid to customers, competitors, and market developments, as well as to internal matters.  CEO’s who tend to rest on their laurels and what they already know, without upping the knowledge ante, can be a problem, as well as a sure fire way to get stuck in the status quo.  Successful businesses are always learning, from the CEO’s office throughout the ranks, and building for growth requires new knowledge and skills.

VC’s can be an important catalyst in this regard, setting expectations for CEO’s to actively network and stress the importance of continuous learning throughout the company, as well as seeking out collaborative relationships, perhaps with other investees.  VC’s have almost constant access to industry events and professional development opportunities crossing their desk, and taking a moment to invite portfolio companies along can help to set these important expectations and fuel growth.

When the company needs more help than a VC can provide Early stage companies often lack the experience to address issues that arise, while maintaining forward motion.  This is often the case in “business as usual” situations, so imagine how much of a skill and knowledge shortfall could occur when building a company to support significant growth.  Assisting an investee company in this area could become a full time job for a VC, and that’s just not workable for the long term, given that there is an entire portfolio to manage.

Hands on advisors can be a real help in this type of situation, and VC’s should play an active role in making it happen.  Early stage companies may lack the experience to fully understand the type of resources they need to assist with a particular situation, and as a result, are often not well equipped to identify the type of assistance they require.  VC’s, on the other hand, have typically seen the same situations many times, understand what is needed to support growth, and can be in the best position to diagnose the problem and suggest a handful of qualified advisors who can help; they just need to make the effort to do so.

Helping portfolio companies go from good to great is not just about the big moments; it’s also about paying careful attention to the fundamentals and taking timely corrective action when needed.  Setting expectations of disciplined implementation, seeking out the right resources for assistance when needed, and not tolerating sub-par performance can help to make the most of investment opportunities.  It could be the difference between a breakout company and those that just plod along.

Bridging the Gap between VC’s and Entrepreneurs: A fresh look can be well worth the effort

Published by the Canadian Venture Capital Association in Private Capital

There has been plenty of talk about the state of Canada’s venture capital industry over the last few years; Are returns improving? When will fundraising levels increase? Are more deals getting done?  Although the industry, like many others, moves in cycles, there are some things that seem constant: the gap between the expectations of venture capitalists and how entrepreneurs approach fulfilling these requirements is a good example.

In times of limited capital, bridging this gap to establish the necessary common ground for an investment to occur is critical, particularly for entrepreneurs.  The great divide may be as simple as this: entrepreneurs often focus on building technologies, while VC’s focus on building companies.  Although both aspects of the equation are required in order to capitalize on a market opportunity, why is it so often a zero sum game?

While entrepreneurs are busy perfecting existing technologies, developing new ones, and perhaps focusing on securing support for ongoing research and development, venture capitalists are focused on assessing investment opportunities in terms of key business fundamentals: Product, Market, Management, Financial Requirements and Potential, and Exit Strategy.  VC’s focus on all of these areas, as each one is integral to building a business to capitalize on a market opportunity and generate growth to the point where a successful exit can be achieved.  Many entrepreneurs, however, concentrate their efforts on one or two of these areas, most often the Product category.  Is it any wonder that so many transactions fail to occur?

The very fact that this gap still exists makes it worthy of a fresh look.  The crux of the issue is the opportunity that is lost when an investor and entrepreneur simply are not on the same page, each having different expectations and requirements in order for a transaction to occur.  How often have venture capitalists mused “great product; but they just don’t have a clue about business…”?  In cases like this, they might as well be speaking different languages (and, in fact, they probably are).

Entrepreneurs need to do their part; by taking the time to increase their level of business and financing knowledge and to actively listen to what a VC requires in order to move forward.  Expecting the process to change and balking at the requirements is not realistic or constructive; not as long as VC’s have the money.  Entrepreneurs need to make a conscious decision in terms of whether or not they are truly committed to fulfilling the requirements of the financing process and stick to it.

Venture capitalists, on the other hand, may not have the time or resources to address the areas of development within a potential investee company; and it is not typically their role to do so.  However, there is much that a VC can do to positively influence and expedite this process.

Recognize the language gap:  Venture capital is a complex business, and it does not take much to confuse those who do not work in the industry.  Given that many entrepreneurs lack knowledge of the financing process, they can quickly become “lost” in discussions with potential financial partners.  A VC might think they have been clear in their expectations with an entrepreneur and may be surprised to learn that only a small percentage of their message was actually heard.  Although it may sound simplistic, making a conscious effort to communicate expectations in a plain and straightforward manner increases the likelihood that the message will be both heard and understood.

Demonstrate the fundamentals:  Many entrepreneurs wonder what it is exactly that venture capitalists are looking for in an investment opportunity.  Although the final analysis may be in the eye of the beholder, as much as things change, the fundamentals stay the same.  Articulating the fundamentals in a clear and concise manner is much easier for an entrepreneur to absorb and fulfill.  A simple table, such as the one shown here, not only can help an entrepreneur to better understand the requirements, but also to identify the areas where assistance is needed.

Fundamental Area Items to Address
Product Proprietary technology (i.e., patents, etc.); stage of completion (i.e., market readiness); sustainable competitive advantage; future product development opportunities and capability
Market Demonstrated market need for the product; identification of primary and secondary markets; competitive landscape; strategy to get the product to market (i.e., pricing, advertising, promotion, distribution)
Management Management team members; qualifications; roles and responsibilities; gaps in management team and how they will be addressed; board of directors/advisory board members; advisors under contract
Financial Requirements & Potential Current and projected financial results (including Income Statement, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow); schedules and key assumptions; sensitivity analysis; estimated valuation; amount of financing required and use of funds
Exit Strategy Industry life cycle/outlook; timeline; key milestones; and exit approach

 

Provide clear action items:  After meeting with a VC, an entrepreneur might walk away with the basic understanding that they “need to improve their business plan” in order for an investor to take the next step.  In practical terms, what does this mean?  Although the VC might have made reference to particular areas, the entrepreneur may simply be at a loss in terms of what they need to do to fulfill the requirement (or simply, how to start).  Providing clear action items (i.e., “develop a table that summarizes competitors in the following categories”, etc.) can help create the “to do” list for an entrepreneur to fulfill what is being asked of them.  Examples can be particularly helpful.

Suggest practical, hands on assistance:  At the end of the day, some entrepreneurs lack the experience and focus to address the needs of a venture capitalist.  Utilizing an experienced business advisor who understands both the early stage financing process and building a business can be an effective way to bridge the gap and a valuable resource when the going gets tough.  An advisor with this type of experience understands both sides of the coin; in terms of where the business needs to “get to” in order to meet the expectations of the VC, and how to work with an entrepreneur to get the job done.  This role can also be the translator between those who speak the language of venture capital and those who do not.

Is it worth the effort?  Sure it is.  Aren’t we all looking for that one great deal?