Creative Ideas for Capital

stupomitron helmet2.jpgA great side-effect of entrepreneurs’ optimism in tough times is creativity. At our OpenCoffeeDC last week, discussions got lively when talk turned to bootstrapping — not just self-funding, but all sorts of alternatives for producing live-giving capital and conserving what you do have. Time to put on your thinking caps.

Have you gone through the check list of capital sources? Here are several (offroad from the traditional angel and VC route) that popped up in our discussions, plus a few others.

1. Sales! Duh. Number one will always be revenue. It was just February when Wired magazine chief editor Chris Anderson dubbed this the era of ‘Free.’ (Yeah. A lot of good that’s doing us now.) But don’t blame him — he’s just the messenger. Consumer expectations have been set at $0.00 by big dogs like Google, Craigslist, and Yahoo, leaving everyone to figure out creative ways of making money in the new ecosystem. Wired elaborated with a wiki for Making Money Around Free Content that provides some novel notions for doing so. It’s even been suggested (heaven forfend!) that Facebook start charging — something, anyway, for a premium services (the freemium model) of some sort. Careful thought needs to be given to just what it is that paying customers get, above the non-paying. Look into currently working models (Flickr vs. FlickrPro, Mozy free online backups vs. MozyUnlimited and MozyPro, etc.)

2. Corporate Investment Corporate customers and prospective partners can be turned into investors. In pre-Web 2.0 era, it happened all the time — usually to ensure that the product or service would prevail, the corporation made an investment. The terms were often good, with one twist: if the startup were to fail, the corporate investor got rights to IP. So it was interesting to see Martha Stewart Omnimedia lead a $2.85M investment in Evite-clone Pingg. We’ll probably see many more of these in the coming months.

3. Consulting/Contracting Doing work for hire can be extremely morale-robbing for a startup that had its heart set on making a living with a new web application — but many startups have turned pragmatic. The duality approach is simply more conservative . . . but when external funding is in a state of flux (like now), it may be key to survival. What makes it hard is the emotional and cultural schizophrenia (maintaining a solid reputation in contracting, vs. the live-or-die passion for a product and the customers who count on it are two different head sets), but some organizations appear to be making it work (Intridea, SetConsulting), while other have made the full-scale transition from services to products (37 Signals).

4. CIT GAP Fund Not to be overlooked, Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) provides (through its GAP program) loans of up to $100k in the form of an interest-bearing promissory note that converts to preferred stock in a forthcoming round of fundraising. It’s a great, low-pain process that helped mobile-gaming platform Mpowerplayer and a dozen other Virginia-based startups. (Disclosure: I’m a shareholder in Mpowerplayer.)

5. Venture Loans Used to be, firms abounded that provided venture lending — growth capital and equipment financing to startups that had already secured equity investment from top-tier VCs. It was still a But these firms — which were a notch less risk-averse than banks, and usually in solid association with VCs (they only made loans to startups that already boasted top-tier VC investors). But a few entrepreneurs have recently mentioned offers of ‘loans from VCs’ as a recent funding alternative. The exact nature of these isn’t clear — did they mean convertibles, which pop up whenever valuations get shaken up (like now)? But one thing to keep in mind: promissory notes and loans of any kind need to be repaid, even if the business fails. Moreover, they often have covenants that allow them to be called ahead of schedule. And finally, you may be asked to personally guarantee them. (Did you really want to lose your house?). I say, steer clear of them.

6. Bank Financing Banks, wha? Not often on entrepreneurs’ radar, but if you’ve got any stream of revenue underway, financing receivables can be a relatively straightforward process for smoothing cash flow. In fact, whether you have receivables or not, or venture-capital funding or not, banking relationships should be struck up sooner rather than later. Credit lines can buffer slow-paying customers — this economy is certain to increase receivables aging — but everything you’ve heard about credit lines tightening is true. Even established businesses are seeing them dry up.

7. Factoring At one of my service companies, we relied on factoring to keep cash flowing. (Truth be told, we would have missed several payrolls without it.) Factoring firms — which purchase your invoices and collect on them, advance you some portion (up to 90%) of the invoice, depending on the caliber of the customer, and charge a fee (usually 1% – 3%) — can pull revenue that might normally arrive in 30 to 60 days ARO into a week or less. And, unlike banks, the only due diligence is verification of product acceptance; I bet they’re seeing a pick up in activity lately. Of course, you have to be comfortable with you customers knowing that you’re resorting to factoring (not exactly a sign of stability) . . . so better pick only those you have a close relationship with.

8. SBIRs Not too likely a candidate for social-networking startups, but a wide range of technology companies have taken advantage of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)and other grants. The Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Technology administers the SBIR program, as well as the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program. All told, 11 federal departments participate in the SBIR program and five departments participate in the STTR program, together awarding more than $2B annually to small high-tech businesses. Unfortunately, these things take time . . . sometimes more than a year.


Last bits of advice:

- Hoard cash — but don’t tie it up; in other words, even if you’ve raised capital, acquire PCs on credit (don’t lease them, if the lease lines need to be secured). And never secure borrowings with cash.

- Barter when you can — services of any sort.

- Co-habitate — during the last downturn, we opened up our oversized space to another company. If you’re looking for space, post on Craigslist and message boards to co-habitate — you may be surprised at the response.

- Crowdsource design work (logos, literature) you may need. Consider GeniusRocket, or Crowdspring, which Frank Gruber recently used to update his logo. Or do the logo your own damn self, until you can afford a professional.

- Pay with stock/stock options, rather than cash. Or a mix of the two. Worth a shot.

- Negotiate everything.

Pony in the Pile

This week’s Interact 2008 conferencemad men 2.png — all things interactive media — began upbeat enough, with Ted Leonsis‘s inspirational keynote signaling an ‘anything’s possible, mix-and-mashup’ world of opportunity where entrepreneurs can offer (and perhaps find) fulfillment by providing one of the five keys to self-actualization: relationships, community, self-expression, giving back, or pursuing a higher calling.

But then, the sky began to darken.

With each successive speaker and panel, the mood turned increasingly somber, until by the end of the afternoon — terrabanged by the announcement of the failed bailout and a Dow plummeting 777 points — somber turned to sober . . . and the ad/marketing audience lit out to quench the condition at Happy Hour.

Actually, Leonsis foreshadowed the day’s drama with his own sobering statement: “Today, a marketing person needs to be a mathematician,” and not the English major that he was. Everyone knew exactly what he meant, of course. It’s about metrics, and testing, and deliverables that can be measured — a theme echoed several times during the day. Google VP of Search Product and UX Marissa Mayer talked about nuanced A/B testing, where reducing spacing a single pixel-width — or bathing paid search in a field of yellow rather than blue — resulted in 20% to 40% more click-throughs. Launchbox Digital‘s Sean Greene had asked the panel he was moderating on ‘The Evolution of Advertising Models’ what the near-term effects of the dismal economy would be on ad spending, and the unanimous response was “a shift to what’s measureable” (hopefully, social ads in search of the elusive ‘engage’ metric won’t be left twisting in the wind).

You could almost feel the room heave a collective sigh: “We know, we know — we need to bone up on this technical widgified social media stuff.”

But there was little letup. Avenue A/Razorfish‘s Joe Crump was nearly morose, acknowledging (in a talk aptly titled ‘Digital Darwinism’) that not only is the rate of change of technology overwhelming, but current org charts are woefully ill equipped to deal with it in creative organizations. By early afternoon, Adobe evangelist Duane Nickull and Clearspring CEO Hooman Radfar had applied a thick coat of glaze discussing SOA (tell the truth: did you know that it stands for Service Oriented Architecture?) and widget distribution strategies. Finally, the afternoon wrapped with a panel presenting a glass-half-empty outlook for interactive media employment that could be summed up as a grey-hair lament something like: “We need to hire more whiz kids that understand this stuff . . . but they’re a dickens to manage.”

Good thing we entrepreneurs are optimists. Why, there must be a pony in this pile!

The great words of someone famous come to mind: Out of adversity comes opportunity (or is it creativity?). Either way, there’s a dislocation, a discontinuity, a gap that begs for a solution. Here, the gap is agencies’ and marketing departments’ inability to keep up with technology of social media. So might be the solution?

Maybe training.

Maybe analytics tools or services.

Maybe app-building for hire.

Now, Crump shouldn’t actually be complaining — of Avenue A/Razorfish’s 500 employees, 200 are technical. But I’m not sure any of the best and the brightest (you know who you are) want to bury themselves in an agency with a salary and long hours.

So what’s the entrepreneurial play here?

Although VCs have historically shied away from service businesses — the multiples were usually far greater in product businesses — that scenario has changed. And in fact, it could solve several problems at once. If you’re dismayed that VCs want you to recite your revenue model (even though, like me, you expect you’ll figure it out once users have embraced you), there could be an alternative to raising money altogether: How about getting paid for what you love to do (and do well)? If in the course of providing your service, you’re also building a product, or developing some intellectual property (IP), then you’re in fact building equity in a service business.

I wrote about BuddyMedia creating ‘branded’ Facebook apps (They actually received funding from Bay Partners and others), and they’re a good example of ‘filling the gap’ for big agencies. But a better example may be Set Consulting. President/founder Jared Goralnick is passionate about productivity, and Set gets paid to improve clients’ productivity. But in the course of doing his work, Goralnick also built a product — AwayFind — aimed at avoiding ‘email bankruptcy.’ Voila! . . . a cashflow business, with an equity kicker.

And no VC. Ironically, when you get that combination working for you — and you really don’t need the money — is when the VCs come a-knockin.’