Legend has it the wife of King Louis XVI of France, Marie Antionette, uttered the words “let them eat cake” on hearing the starving peasants were in revolt against bread shortages. We’re talking late 18th century, and although the Queen would have probably said the words in French (something like ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche‘) there’s no evidence that she actually said this at all. The saying actually predates her birth.
But the attribution persists, and has been used to show how out of touch the nobility were at the time, resulting in the French Revolution, and King Louis losing his head.
The words rung in my head this week as I indulged in a discussion I’d had many times before, relating to Perth’s burgeoning startup sector. The weight of opinion agreed that there’s not enough early stage funding deals going on. As to why, there was a distinct divergence of views.
I’d like to explode a few myths if I can …
Myth 1 – If they were good deals, they’d get funded
I hear this one a lot. If they were good deals, the argument goes, then eventually (or even swiftly) they would get funded, as an investor would see the opportunity was too good to miss. Some may pass, but eventually a good startup business would attract money.
However, this argument rests on the Perth market for startup funding acting perfectly, which (let an old economist like me remind you) only exists where there are a large number of buyers and sellers, such that no one buyer or seller can influence price. Perfect markets also rely on a perfect spread of information, freely available to all, and homogeneous (exactly the same) products.
Perth’s startup sector is no perfect market. While there are a good number of startups to choose from (300 at last count?), there are a very limited number of private investors willing to back them. There is one VC fund (and that’s already fully invested, 2/3rds in biotech) and one angel group which meets 4 times a year and maybe does 5 or 6 deals annually. Meanwhile, there are plenty of potential investors dripping with (business, mining or property) money removed from startupland.
Neither is there a perfect spread of information, with only a privileged few getting in front of the investors, and as they are all very different, each startup investment opportunity needs to be considered individually, one by one, a bit like buying an investment property. It’s time consuming, uneven and sporadic, at best.
I have no idea what makes a good startup investment (well, I have some idea, but I am not arrogant enough to say I know which one will be a unicorn and which will fade to nothing), but I believe there are many more out there worth a $25,000 or $50,000 investment that are currently being funded. I am seeing too many move away from Perth for funding (and securing funds) and too little getting funded here; and yet, Perth has far more high net worth individuals per capita than anywhere in Australia, and is one of the top places in the world for multi-millionaires.
There is a distinct disconnect between those that might have spare money to invest and those that could do with a decent little early stage investment that could give them 6 to 9 months of road, get them to market and revenues to see if there is something viable there.
Myth 2 – They shouldn’t be raising money anyway
This argument goes that startups should forget about raising money anyway (far too many think the capital raise IS the end game, clearly it is not) and should start pitching to customers instead. Get to minimum viable product (MVP), get early clients on board, earn revenues, and maybe they’ll find that they won’t even need investors at all, or if they do, they’d secure a better price, be able to raise more money and give away less equity in the bargain.
Bingo – I agree 100%.
However, most startups are either doing exactly that (out of necessity) or cannot get any further without something else investing upfront. They’ve piled in their own cash, savings, credit card debt, taken money from family and friends, spent months on the idea, with no pay back, giving it their all. They have got somewhere, and now are looking for some extra help.
Some ideas just need money to get off the ground. You have to spend something to build it, you have to get out there to see if it works, and this may take $50k or more beyond the funds available to the founders.
Most successful startups have had early stage money. Very few are profitable or cash flow positive from day one (or after the family and friends money has gone). Often there are dead ends, false starts, wasted attempts, and this is all the cost of learning. If you’re doing something very new, disruptive and game changing (surely what the investors want to see?) then it simply takes some funds upfront. Like buying the investment property.
It also takes time. The successful ones will tell you it took 5 or more years to make money. It certainly took my startup this length of time, and others like realestate.com.au, carsales.com.au and others took 7 or 8 before profits appeared.
Mel and Cliff from Canva understood this. There they are today, smiling out at us from the front page of the local weekend paper. They’ve raised millions and millions of funds – are they profitable, or cash flow positive yet? They were helped off with a cool $3 million raise a few years ago, which took them away from Perth to Sydney, and have since raised many millions more. Nick and Al from Simply Wall Street could not raise money in Perth, but have successfully raised $750k from angel investors, also in Sydney (why not in Perth?). Talking to their lead angel at a lunch function a few months ago, he told me that in their case, they had an idea so disruptive, “you just had to give it a go to see if it worked.”
Not all startups deserve money, some may not be at the right stage, but somewhere along the line, many do, and the vast majority of these simply aren’t getting the funds they need, despite there being ample in our city. Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.
Myth 3 – The entrepreneurs are unrealistic
Sure, owners of anything are unrealistic about their valuation. I think my property is worth more than it is, and also my car. The price is determined only when someone is willing to pay for it what I am willing to sell it for.
But with a limited number of genuine local startup investors the power is weighted heavily on the buy side, such that in some cases the negotiation is more like staged bullying (running down the efforts of the down trodden entrepreneur, and finding all sorts of reasons not to invest). Meanwhile, the poor startup trudges back to their lean canvas to see if they can eke out another month or two.
Perth investors have grown fat on the ability to exit their investment through an ASX-listed entity. We have seen 60 ‘back door’ listings announced over the last 2 years, as the mining downturn takes hold and now empty shell companies look to evolve into a tech company. This is a highly expensive and dangerous way for a genuine startup to raise funds. While potentially fine for a commercialised organisation with revenues and a clear growth path, it is clearly not suitable for the early stage venture (or only in very rare cases – FMG was in fact a back door listing, but I wouldn’t classify that as a tech startup.)
Sure entrepreneurs are unrealistic, but so are investors. You can’t have it both ways, you can’t have your cake (or bread) and eat it. It’s a punt. It’s a riverboat gamble. It’s like betting on the horses. You will probably not see that money again. Yes, it’s probably illiquid, for years. But if you win, you win big, so it’s best to make a few bets, to cover yourself. The more you make, the more you spread your risk. You may say ‘no’ to 20 before saying ‘yes’ to your first. But you might do 2 or 3 a year.
Myth 4 – It’s good they get money elsewhere & leave
The argument goes that we should not worry about our best and brightest startup ideas leaving our shores to get funded elsewhere. Sometimes they just need to spread their wings, bless them, and once they make their money they will return and help our ecosystem back here.
OK, maybe. But why can perfectly good Perth ideas get funded in Sydney, Singapore or San Francisco and not here? Why should they have to leave to get funded when we have so much money in the hands of private individuals in our fair city (and come July a nice little tax deduction too)? Why should they have to leave our great lifestyle, family and friends… unless they really want to?
To me, this argument is lazy. While it’s perfectly fine for businesses to go wherever they want (fly my darlings fly), it is not fine to have so few early stage funding deals that jobs and income that could have been created here (and stayed here) are exported to other cities or countries. We are competing in a global marketplace, the gloves are off, it’s either get nimble and innovative, disrupt your own market or someone else will do it for you. Where is the post mining diversification we so badly crave? Even during the boom, people were worried about us becoming a one trick pony. Now that pony has well and truly run its race, where are the up and coming industries? They need to be backed. We have no idea what great businesses might flourish and grow unless we give them a helping hand.
Startup investment is not for the faint hearted. It’s not a slam dunk. It’s not for your nest egg, it’s play money. Many thousands of high net worths in Perth could make two or three $25k to $50k investments a year, and not even notice it. Conservatively, that’s $250 to $500 million of available funds a year, that would make a tiny fraction of a dent in the portfolios of many, yet revolutionise our local economy.
Perth could become a regional tech startup sector, offering a great lifestyle, climate and investment funds to plucky entrepreneurs who want to cash in on a place that just happens to sit in the same time zone as 60% of the world’s population.
It would be almost criminal (and certainly negligible) if we don’t do this.
Why a tech startup? Because the best ones have highly scalable business models. Those guys and gals down at Spacecubed hammering away at their idea on a laptop could have $100 million businesses in a few years (just as Canva does today after a relatively short 4 year journey). This type of growth is hard to do with traditional bricks and mortar businesses.
It’s the most speculative investment these investors will make, but for many of them, it’s the best fun they can have. They can add some value to the startup (sharing hard won advice on commercialisation, open some doors) and it can give them plenty of dinner party conversation.
If we can throw enough darts at the dart board here in Perth, we will hit some bulls eyes. It’s a numbers game. It’s a funders’ game.
So, let them eat bread. Cake will come later. Perhaps.
Photo Credit: Flickr.com, Heather Katsoulis