Big Picture, Finance and Etc.

How international development organizations can help scale BOP businesses

dfi bop business

Most discussions regarding the scaling of base of the pyramid (BOP) models focus on financing the BOP companies themselves. While this is obviously very important and the way to go in the majority of cases, there are other ways development finance institutions (DFIs) could help BOP ventures scale.

My first company, PV Inova, was a BOP business in Brazil. It developed and patented a public GSM telephone that allowed low-income commuters to place cheap calls while on public transportation vehicles. We raised significant amounts of funding (equity, debt and grants) from different sources and closed partnerships with players such as Brasil Telecom, Oi Telecom, the Municipality of Porto Alegre, and Metro Rio. The venture received public support and media attention, and earned awards for social innovation and product development. However, ultimately the business did not thrive due to lack of large-scale financing. We then pivoted the company into a different business line, away from BOP.

What did I learn from this experience?

When you are in a capital intensive business (PV Inova for example demanded expensive hardware production), the conventional financing options do not necessarily work. Why? Because the BOP startup does not have the balance sheet to take on large amounts of financing, be it debt or equity. This is where there is a role for development finance institutions (DFIs).  DFIs could finance the large companies that are willing to purchase from or partner with BOP startups.

To illustrate this, I‘ll refer again to my own experience. After launching a pilot on 400 buses in partnership with Brasil Telecom in the city of Porto Alegre, PV Inova came back to the table with the telecom’s directors to negotiate the expansion of the business. Nevertheless, because margins were (by definition, as with most BOP businesses) thin and the project relatively small in the eyes of a large company, they ultimately decided not to continue to invest. They did however leave a door open in case we could come up with “interesting ways” to finance the scaling of the venture – which we couldn’t do at the time.

However, what would have happened if I had brought to the table a DFI willing to provide funding for Brasil Telecom to purchase the first large order of phones from us? This could have been the ultimate nudge, or tipping point, to make the transaction viable, representing the best of both worlds for all parties: (1) PV Inova would have been able to scale the business; (2) Brasil Telecom to finance the growth of a low-income targeted business and explore new market and branding opportunities; and (3) the DFI would have leveraged the expansion of an innovative BOP business while taking the lower risk of a large company’s balance sheet.

My experience negotiating with large companies from the “weak side” tells me that the involvement of a DFI could add real value to closing the deal. Also, risks for all parties could be manageable because, at the end of the day, the DFI should be paid back regardless of the success of the venture. Innovative and sustainable business models require innovative and sustainable financing solutions.

Andre Averbug is an entrepreneur and economist.

See also Copycat Businesses Can be Great. Photo: Reuters for The Telegraph

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The Benjamin Button Startup

baby startup

Guest post by Suhail Kassim

A new startup is like a baby

A startup needs to be cradled and nourished. Even so, there is no certainty that the baby will grow up to be a lean mean fighting machine. In this post, I begin to investigate the phenomenon of some exciting startups which then refuse to grow up — the “Benjamin Button” startups.

Introducing the Benjamin Button startup

A very small minority of entrepreneurs seem to be amazing at finding the right sort of help in their early days. They join rock-solid incubators, find top-notch mentors, maneuver their way into active university forums, win famed business plan contests, know where the hungry angel investors sit. These entrepreneurs are obviously off to an awesome start. Destined for greatness, right?

Not necessarily. Many (if not most) of these startups struggle to fulfil their potential. They stubbornly refuse to scale-up, linger on until they lose relevance, then meet a slow yet inevitable demise. The internet is littered with outdated websites of nascent ventures that never monetized. The chrysalis never transforms into a butterfly. 

I call such ventures “Benjamin Button Startups”, named after Benjamin Button children who refuse to show signs of growing up.

Startups fail all the time, what’s the big deal?

In my personal experience, there is a growing trend of highly promising startups running into the ground. This trend is disturbing for at least two reasons. 

Firstly, this sends a hugely discouraging signal to all other startups: if these poster children fail, despite everything going in their favor, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Secondly, outside startup hotbeds like the Valley, the early stage ecosystem is typically not vibrant. It often has limited resources that can only support a few chosen entrepreneurs at a time. Hence their imperative to succeed — and thereby to return more to the ecosystem than they took out of it — is higher. When they do not, it causes a small ripple. Just a few such ripples could shake up the already fragile ecosystem. The already wary seed investor will turn away, LP funding will ruthlessly re-route to greener pastures, incubators will be left with tarnished reputations, the Fortune 500 executive will politely decline to mentor the university business plan winner. 

What makes a startup a Benjamin Button?

Sometimes it seems to me such startups are victims of their own early success. The founder confuses the “first big win” with the ultimate destination. He/she gets caught up in all the attention, the award ceremonies, the media buzz, the blogosphere hype. Some entrepreneurs succumb to the heady temptation to become celebrities today instead of business moguls tomorrow. They end up doing a ton of calorie-burning activities like giving guest lectures, mentoring other startups, speaking at jazzy forums. As a result, they stay stuck in the “successful-student-startup” mode instead of growing up. And if the founder does not grow up, the startup won’t either.

There is also an element of hubris. Entrepreneurs sometimes think the same skills needed for early wins will carry them through scale-up. This is almost invariably not the case. Early stage success can happen through blue sky thinking, strong personal and professional networks, hyperactive multitasking, good mentors, and a couple of passionate co-founders. There is adrenaline rush after adrenaline rush. Scaling up, on the other hand, needs grit, patience and the ability to fight boredom. It needs long nights out working on a particularly stubborn piece of code while dining on ramen noodles. It needs the founder to hyper-delegate and decentralize or risk falling into the “Founder’s Trap”. It needs a different kind of mentor and adviser — not someone who can ideate but someone who has actually implemented. 

Also, for VC-stage companies, the VC is always more demanding — and less polite — than the angel investor. Unlike a basement startup with three high school friends who are bootstrapping off their pocket money savings, here the money runs out quicker: the VC-stage venture needs to pay its “employees” (it’s no longer just the co-founders) market-pegged salaries (and, gosh, benefits!) — and I’m not even including joining bonuses and annual bonuses and small stock options to the first 100 employees… . In some ways, starting a venture is akin to a part-time Masters program, while scaling up is like a full-time PhD program. Not every MBA gold medalist is suited to do a doctorate in business administration.

Finally, there is the culture of failure. Some ecosystems reward failure — the Valley places a premium on “fail fast, fail early, fail often” — which reduces the tolerance level needed to slowly but surely cultivate a fledgling startup, leading to premature demise of ventures that should have succeeded. Other cultures punish failure — and in such places, the founder is tempted to grab whatever minor victories he/she can — whether it be to speak at a forum or give a newspaper interview — at the cost of focusing on the core business itself.

See also Time To Start a Business – or Not. Illustration: covenant-harvest.org

Have you witnessed instances of Benjamin Button startups? If yes, do you agree with the reasoning above? What are the other explanations as to why this happens? Leave us a comment and let us know your thoughts!

5 Bad Excuses Not To Start a Business

entrepreneur startups

Lame reasons to give up before you even start

I often hear people claim to have good ideas for a business, but say they can’t pursue them for one reason or another. Some of course are valid, but others are misconceptions that deserve to be revisited. Here are the top five from my experience.

1. I don’t have the business skills

Not having business experience is not necessarily a problem. There are several ways for a person with a good idea for a product or service to develop it into a business, regardless of his/her background. First, you can look for a business savvy co-founder, someone you trust and that can take the lead on the business side while you focus on developing your product. Second, you can look for structured initiatives that support startups through mentorship and guidance, such as business incubators and institutional programs, like I-Corps and others. Third, you may join an accelerator, like Y-Combinator, TechStars and dozens of others, where mentorship and funding come hand-in-hand. (However, as I point out in another post, you do have to bring something to the table other than just an idea.)

2. I don’t have the technical skills

This is the other extreme to the excuse above: not having the technical skills to develop your product or concept. This is even less of a problem because, if you have the business skills and can articulate the commercial value of your idea, finding engineers or coders to build a prototype or MVP should not be so hard. You might engage them by offering equity (even bringing someone in as co-founder and potential future CTO), royalty payments, or raising a little seed capital to pay consulting fees. You can also explore partnerships with universities and other research centers. If you got something big and present yourself properly, finding the right resources to build your product should not be a deterrent. (Note: In my companies we have built software and websites without previously knowing much about coding – we simply mobilized the right resources).

3. I don’t have the time

Well, you don’t have to immediately quit your job or drop out of school to launch your startup. Most entrepreneurs begin to develop their ideas working a few hours at night and on weekends. If you are really passionate about your idea, you can certainly put on 30+ hours a week even if you are working full-time or going to school. You can also involve people who would put a few hours of their own. After 6-12 months in this “part-time” fashion, you should be able to at least reach a point where you can make an educated decision about betting the next couple of years full-time on it.

4. I don’t have the money

Raising funds for early stage is certainly not easy. But nowadays, building a prototype or MVP is much cheaper than it used to be, so funding needs are much lower on average than say 10+ years ago. There are several free or cheap tools for building products (open source software, Wix.com and others for websites, 3D printers for hardware, CrowdSpring and the like for design etc.) and marketing them (Salesforce, Facebook pages, blogs etc). Similarly, funding has become a bit easier with tools like Angel.co, that match angel investors with entrepreneurs, crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter, and the angel clubs and networks that sprout all over the place. Also, don’t be shy to approach family and friends for seed capital or loans, they will likely appreciate your efforts (as long as you are transparent about the risks). Finally, you may be able to get a lot done without any funding at all, just by bootstrapping and involving the right partners, who would work for equity or success-based returns.

5. I don’t have connections (nobody knows me)

Today it is easier than ever to make your voice heard and connect with people. Even if you don’t know anyone in the industry and don’t have a track record to show for, if you build something that people care about, you will be able to reach the right persons. Check your LinkedIn connections (if you don’t have a LinkedIn account, get one yesterday!) and see if anyone in your network (2nd and 3rd levels included) knows a person you need to reach: ask for an intro. Sign up for all relevant Facebook/LinkedIn groups and take part in discussions. Participate in industry events, meet people, shake hands, network. Cold-call if you have to, just make sure you do it with taste. Start blogging/tweeting about your product or industry. In other words, if you don’t have connections, just make them.

If you believe you have a winning business proposition, as well as the drive and guts to pursue it, none of the issues above should deter you from going for it!

See also Time To Start A Business – Or Not. Picture: ThinkingForward (Tumblr).

Are you sitting on a good business idea? Leave us a comment!

Copycat Businesses Can Be Great

innovation copycat business

Innovation is relative, originality overrated

Innovation is one of the sexiest words in the business vocabulary. However, originality can be overrated, especially when it comes to the opportunity of bringing a proven business concept to a new market. The world is full of examples of copycat business models that were successfully replicated in new countries.

The Chinese watched the successes of Amazon and eBay and launched Alibaba, which today has higher revenues than both U.S. firms combined. Indians followed suit with e-commerce Flipkart. Brazil’s Peixe Urbano, in turn, mirrored itself on e-coupon websites like Groupon and LivingSocial. Pretty much every country or region in the world has its own travel booking website, inspired by Expedia and Travelocity. And on and on we go.

The main benefits of copycat business models

The first benefit of being a copycat is the fact that the business model you are implementing has already been proven elsewhere. Of course, this doesn’t mean it will be a hit in your country, but at the very least you can incorporate several lessons before developing the product and launching the business. The risk therefore is considerably lower than that of an outright innovation, with no benchmarks to fall on. In fact, lessons learned can be applied not only at entry, but also from the moves and mistakes your reference company makes along the way, for it will always be a few years ahead of you. You benefit from the best of both worlds: innovation (at least in your target market) and proof of concept/benchmarking.

Second, pitching the business to investors and potential partners is easier than with other startups. What’s not to understand when you tell someone you want to start “Colombia’s SalesForce” or  “Turkey’s Paypal”? Investors quickly relate to your idea and can tell you if they like it or not. This may seem trivial, but it comes in handy when you are dealing with people who are used to listening to dozens of business ideas every week.

Third, copycats have the privilege to be born with a potential exit strategy already in place. If you are Turkey’s equivalent of Paypal, and market conditions are favorable, you can always approach PayPal for an acquisition or at least a partnership. Of course there’s no guarantee of that happening, and they may decide to compete instead, but the path is clearer than for many startups. In fact, copycats are often approached by their inspirers wanting to expand into new markets through strategic acquisitions.

Challenges with copycat companies

Nevertheless, there are a few particular challenges associated with copycats. Barriers to entry for replicated business models are by definition low and you usually have no IP edge. The innovation doesn’t belong to you and, unless there is some sort of local IP protection (rare), anyone with the same idea and resources can jump in. As an example, after the first couple of crowdfunding websites emerged in Brazil, dozens followed suit, ironically “crowding” the market. The only things that keep you on top are first-mover advantage, fast market-share growth, good marketing and continuing innovation.

Also, adapting the business model to a new market can be tricky. Country and cultural differences have to be taken into consideration. For instance, in certain regions of the world, you can’t really launch a peer-to-peer lending website because charging interest from peers is not considered a socially acceptable practice. Also, trusting strangers in web2.0-type interactions may not be something that the local meme supports (yet).

Macro role of copycatting

At the macro level, copycatting plays an important role in technology transfer, from developed markets to developing ones. New solutions and businesses are internationalized at fast pace and relatively low risk, benefiting the economy by fostering local innovation, creating complementary businesses and generating jobs. It is also one of the best ways for budding entrepreneurs in less mature markets to learn from more experienced ones. A copycat venture is a great first gig for an entrepreneur. And, who knows, we may get to a point where increasingly we shall see Silicon Valley startups copying innovations from Brazil, India and other developing markets.

See also An idea Is Just That. Image: Brad Jonas for Pando.

What’s your favorite copycat business? Leave us a comment!

Not All Angel Investors Are From Heaven

angel investor

On Angel Investors

As entrepreneurs, in the initial stages of the startup, we often think that the answers to our problems will come in the form of an angel investor. By definition, angels are high-net-worth individuals who get involved early in the company’s life, bringing capital, sector knowledge and network, and relevant expertise.

Angel investors usually invest anywhere between $20k-$300k and take on 10-30% ownership. They spend some of their time coaching entrepreneurs, opening doors, helping the company build the team and product, participating in strategic decisions.

Not all angel investors are the same

However, not all angel investors are the same. Reality has “expanded” the definition of an angel and many times what we see is well-off folks with no particular value-add (beyond the dough) playing the angel role almost as hobby. This is particularly true in less developed markets, such as Brazil (which I know from experience) and the rest of LatAm. Being rich and successful doesn’t necessarily make someone a good angel.

As an example, a retired C-level executive from a large pharmaceutical company may easily have a couple of hundred thousand dollars to spare and decide to invest in a startup. Why not help a couple of smart kids with a brilliant idea for a new technology or web business? What better way to stay busy and motivated!

The problem is that often these investors often have no idea what they are getting into. They just don’t know the real challenges and risks of starting a company. As time goes by, the product doesn’t launch as planned, the bank account gets thinner, and the investor gets nervous.

Entrepreneurs also get frustrated because they had expected miracles from this angel. After all, he is the older, successful mentor, who’s been there, done it all.

But it turns out the guy you looked up to actually doesn’t know much more than you when it comes to building a tech company from the ground. His rolodex only has contacts of retired people from irrelevant sectors. And as he sees his investment going down the drain, he doesn’t think you’re that cute and inspiring anymore.

Of course, I’m painting a pretty extreme scenario here. But the point is that you shouldn’t necessarily accept the first person who’s willing to invest in you. If the angel investor is not a good fit, it’s better to hold your horses, bootstrap the business a bit further, until you find someone who can actually add value to the company.

Originally posted on the Entrepreneur Academy (NEN). Image: nenonline.tv. See also Time To Start a Company – or Not.

What’s your experience with angel investors? Leave us a comment!

MBA For Entrepreneurs Can Still Matter

mba for entrepreneurs

MBA and entrepreneurs

At times it seems MBA programs are passed their glory days. Every so often we see articles saying that they can be a waste of time and money, especially if your goal is to become an entrepreneur. My two cents: if you have no business background and you can afford it, a good MBA is still a great thing! My background is in economics and I wouldn’t have started my first company without the skills and confidence I acquired in business school.

MBA for entrepreneurs

If your undergrad is in the sciences or the arts and you want to start your own company, an MBA can be a good idea. Some will say that all you need is a business-savvy partner; but you know what, it’s not ideal to rely solely on others. Of course you will not become a management guru overnight (you don’t want that anyways), but by going to business school you at least learn the basics, the jargon, and know where to find the answers. You can sit down in front of an investor or Board and not look like a big question mark when they start talking about P&Ls, financial ratios, or SWOT analyses.

In a good business school you also meet interesting people, from different countries and sectors, expanding your network and perspective on things. You can bounce off ideas with smart people and potentially find the partner you’re looking for. You become part of an alumni group that can be of service in the future. Hey, even some of your professors might not be as dull as you think and give you good advice and open doors for you.

Depending on your age and where you currently stand professionally and financially, it might be that a two-year full-time program doesn’t make sense anymore. The opportunity cost can be too high. But you can do a one-year program, there a great ones in Europe, Canada and a few in the US. Or do a part-time executive program. If you can afford it, it’s never a waste to learn new skills and meet good people.

See also Entrepreneurship, Innovation and ProsperityImage: linkedin.com

Are you an entrepreneur and attended business school? Leave us a comment!

In Seed Capital Fundraising, You Gotta Choose Your Pizza

early stage funding seed capital

Seed capital and ownership

A common mistake entrepreneurs make, especially in the startup’s early stage, is to worry too much about valuation and dilution. The business, after all, is their “baby” and they can’t give away too much too soon – every share is worth fighting for! Well, guess what, the business is almost as much of a baby to those who are willing to back you up so early. Overvaluing the company from the get-go generates problems on several fronts.

Seed capital must be priced with care

First, very often the early investors are “3Fs” (friends, family and fools) or an angel who is only within one or two degrees of separation. Selling an overpriced product, even if you didn’t do it with bad intentions, may leave everyone with a bad taste in their mouths; especially if an institutional investor comes in a year later and values the company at half the first round. It’s hard to explain that to your uncle.

Also, overpricing makes it more difficult to raise new rounds. It sends the wrong message to more sophisticated investors. The impression is that you either don’t know how to value a company, purposely overpriced it, or the company simply lost some of its value. Neither is a good story to tell when you are sitting across the table from a VC.

Obviously, at the same time it isn’t good for anyone that the first couple of investors grab more than say 30-40% of the company. The entrepreneur needs to remain motivated, ideally also vesting some of the equity (more about that in a future post). But getting obsessed with dilution is bad for your startup. The more deep-pockets have their skin in the game the better and greater the chances the business will grow for everyone. After all, which would you prefer: 90% of a pizza or 10% of Pizza Hut?

See also Not All Angel Investors Are From HeavenImage: generalstorecafenj.com

Have you raised seed capital with 3Fs or angel investors? Leave us a comment!

Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Prosperity

entrepreneurship innovation prosperity economic growth

Entrepreneurship and economic development

What is the common ground between the economic prosperity of the Netherlands in the XVII-XVIII centuries, nineteenth century England, twentieth century U.S. and, more recently, countries such as South Korea, Singapore and Israel? Although the question could be answered from different angles, fundamentally it can be inferred: in their own time, these countries promoted economic systems where resources were efficiently channeled to the most competent entrepreneurs and endeavors.

Canadian economist Reuven Brenner summed it up perfectly: “Prosperity is the result of matching talent with capital and holding both sides accountable”. The “capital” can come from one or more sources: capital markets, government, savings or inheritance. The “talent” may be fostered internally – through education, incentives for innovation and entrepreneurship, development of a risk-taking culture – and/or imported, with the opening of borders to skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants. Finally, “accountability” is constructed through solid institutions (political, economic, regulatory, legal, social) that promote a stable business environment, where contracts are honored and a long-term perspective is installed.

Back in time, on entrepreneurship and prosperity

In the XVII-XVIII centuries, the Netherlands had the most developed capital market in the world. It operated the forefront of financial instruments, both debt and equity, which enabled people and companies with good business ideas to grow their ventures. Therefore, at a time when most societies were divided essentially into castes – with royalty, nobility and aristocracy keeping their wealth generation after generation – the Dutch popularized the access to capital and implemented a socioeconomic system that was (by the time’s standards) more democratic and meritocratic. Moreover, in addition to having effective institutions, it opened its doors to immigrants from diverse backgrounds, welcoming for example Spanish Jews and French Huguenots, who brought innovations from their countries and who, by definition, were mostly entrepreneurs (what is more enterprising than venturing oneself into a new country?)

A century later, England became the engine of the Industrial Revolution within the same logic: capital-talent-institutions. Innovations, both technological (e.g., steam engines) and of process (e.g., revolutionary management techniques) were only possible due to an economic system where risk was properly rewarded and the process of trial and error was stimulated. In the second half of the twentieth century, the United States, in turn, established itself as the major economic superpower based on: capital (Wall Street, Silicon Valley and its angel investors and VC/PE funds, R&D subsidies); talent (Americans and immigrants educated in universities such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT); and institutional climate (pro-business laws, efficient legal system, overall social fabric etc.)

Immigration was especially important in the U.S. As proof, 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, including giants such as Intel, Google, eBay, Apple and GE. Furthermore, ¾ of patents developed in American universities had the participation of immigrants. It is no wonder that immigration reform is constantly brought up within the debate for promoting American competitiveness and sustained economic growth.

Recently, the most successful cases of economic development were the Asian Tigers. The political, economic and institutional reforms that occurred in these countries, combined with investment in education and the development of capital markets, enabled a flurry of investments and skilled immigration, driving the growth and development of these countries. Another interesting case is Israel, a nation created just over half a century ago, in the middle of the desert, and that thrives due to skilled immigration and education, dynamic access to capital (private and public), a culture conducive to risk taking, and solid institutions.

Traditionally, the quest for prosperity has been driven by top-down policies, often based on unrealistic economic models. Looking at economies through the lenses of “capital-talent-accountability” gives us a clearer view of the issues at hand, from the bottom up. It provides better grounds for understanding the underlying factors that build an economy and allows for more factual and entrepreneurship-friendly policy making.

Andre Averbug is an entrepreneur and economist.

See also An Idea Is Just That – Not Yet An InnovationImage: source unknown (anyone?)

What’s your opinion about the link between entrepreneurship and prosperity? Leave us a comment!