When I started teaching a new venture creation elective to MBAs 15 years and over 2,000 students ago, I’d tell my student teams they each had to come up with — and develop a compelling plan for — a (theoretically) VC-backable startup concept. Made sense, right? MBAs wanted to be part of building the Next Big Thing, and venture capital-backed startups had driven a massive tech boom over the prior decade — a wave I’d been lucky enough to ride.
But, it didn’t take me long to ease up on that “it’s gotta be VC-backable” requirement. Looking back, I had three reasons for that shift:
Startup lessons tend to apply across the board: First, folks immersed in the action-based learning exercise of mapping out a startup consistently reported back, after reentering the workforce, that they were able to apply those learnings and frameworks to almost any entrepreneurial — or intrapreneurial — experience in their careers.
Many people find low-tech businesses more appealing: Second, a lot of teams would come up with quite interesting but low-tech startup ideas. As I discussed in my recent article, “Who Would Invest in Your Startup, and Why?,” low-tech businesses rarely represent interesting investments to VCs, primarily because of low valuation multiples.
A vanishingly small proportion of all startups raise VC financing: Finally, I looked at the numbers and realized that most startups — indeed, even most very successful startups — do not raise money from venture capitalists. According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 saw approximately 556,000 business applications from corporations (what they call CBAs) in the U.S. (That’s only about 18 percent of all new business applications, to make sure we’re not counting sole proprietorships, two- to three-person professional services practices, and so on.) Meanwhile, Venture Monitor data from PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association tells us that, during the same period, U.S. “first financings” from VCs (as opposed to follow-on financings) numbered 2,676, or less than one-half of 1 percent of new corporations started. Now granted, first financings from VCs will tend to occur one to three years after a company first incorporates, but the statistics year-to-year are similar enough that the proportionality doesn’t change in a meaningful way.
But, what I teach and how I teach it completely aside, my real “a-ha” has been a growing appreciation for non-VC-backable startups and how they can represent a genuinely appealing path for many entrepreneurs. Let’s look at the positive side of the ledger for so-called lifestyle businesses:
Ownership and control
Raising equity financing from VCs — or, for that matter, angels — comes with a downside that few talk about: pressure to achieve a liquity event (sale of the company or IPO) within a fairly short time horizon (we’re talking three to six years, typically). Since your company needs to be pretty massive to go public, we’re really talking about pressure to sell the company. If you don’t raise equity financing, you’re in far better control of your own destiny. If you’re in a reasonably protected niche, you’ve got the luxury of time to grow at a more leisurely pace. It’s also up to you as to whether you want a board or directors and/or advisory board, and whom you want to invite to join.
Less dependency and greater chances of success
On the one hand, you’ll need to fund your lifestyle businesses through savings, credit cards, friend-and-family loans, bank lines of credit, small business loans and the like. And while it may sound sexier to load up on lots of VC rocket fuel for your startup, as we’ve discussed, that funding path assumes you’ll be one of the select few who’s successful in attracting VC investment, and it comes with outside pressure to “go big or go home” and sell the company. So in general, you can think of well-crafted lifestyle businesses as being lower upside, but also lower risk. Taking the lifestyle business route, you stand a higher chance of getting airborne and achieving some level of success.
More options in life
If you own and control the business, you can decide the degree to which you choose to grow it aggressively to maximize cash flow or wealth, versus taking a more casual approach. Perhaps you’ll decide to build the business to a certain plateau and then simply manage it for free cash flow that makes work an option. And, building a lifestyle business in this fashion by no means precludes eventually selling the company if you choose — or, alternatively, handing it down to your kids some day.
You can still leverage technology.
Whereas a lot of lifestyle businesses are low-tech in nature, increasingly, we’re finding that even those entrepreneurs are creatively leveraging technology to successfully launch, grow and become more profitable. Social media campaigns, search-optimized websites, customer newsletters and referral networks can all play a crucial role. And behind the scenes, smart lifestyle entrepreneurs are exercising the muscle of low-cost, online tools for everything from brand management to accounting and finance, inventory control, customer relationship management, point-of-sale tools and HR management.
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