As New Orleans snags plaudits for nurturing business startups, investors who have backed many of the enterprises also are finding support in groups that make their investment choices easier and may boost their chances of earning big returns.
Help for the financiers has come with the growth of investor groups that not only attract money for startups but also help spread investors’ risk and focus more of their talents on building successful enterprises.
Clayton White got hooked on the idea of funding startups, often called angel investing, about 15 years ago when he and several business partners experienced a windfall. Just 14 months after the technology company they had co-founded landed growth funding from investors, an eager buyer came along, and the owners cashed out with a better than 400 percent return.
“That’s when I really got interested in angel investing,” White said.
In 2009, he co-founded South Coast Angel Fund LLC. The fund raised about $3 million from 40 investors who put the money into a handful of local startups. South Coast soon will complete a second round of fundraising that likely will approach $4 million.
Hope for a whopping payday, or “exit” from their investment, is a big motivation for individuals who decide to commit funds to help grow a young business. Returns like those White and his partners realized actually pale in comparison to the jackpots enjoyed in the past decade by investors in some technology startups whose value soared into the billions seemingly overnight.
“It’s almost obscene,” corporate lawyer and angel investor Scott Whittaker said of huge public stock offerings such as those by Google and Facebook and buyouts like eBay’s purchase of PayPal for $1.5 billion. “That’s what ultimately motivates people, the potential for big financial rewards,” he said.
So far in the local area, budding groups of angel investors have had to content themselves with the middling returns typical of early stage investing. “If you invest in 10 deals, one or two may pay fairly well, three to six fail completely, and those in the middle provide maybe minimal returns,” one investor said.
But Whittaker said the soaring valuations on select enterprises launched in locations from Silicon Valley to New England continue to lure investors to the angel table.
He said another factor driving angel growth is the increasing support available to investors.
For instance, Whittaker, who in his legal practice has represented both venture investors and entrepreneurs seeking funds, is a member of the NOLA Angel Network, a local group launched early this year by businessman Mike Eckert.
The group brings wealthy individuals together to scout for and invest in promising businesses. Whittaker said it helps to streamline both the search and research processes because investors can pool their time and talents to identify good bets.
Such groups also can help diversify investments among startups in different business sectors in order to spread risk and increase potential rewards. “If you invest in a portfolio of angel transactions, then you have a much higher chance of a good return, similar to diversifying a stock portfolio,” Whittaker said.
Noting a direct relationship between the amount of due diligence investors perform and the returns they get, he adds: “If you do your homework, you can improve your odds.”
If the terminology seems to hearken to gambling, it’s no accident. Betting on businesses is not unlike a roll of the dice.
Historically, the failure rate of business startups is high, which is why it’s important for angel investing groups to scout prospects carefully, and research not only the concept but also the company’s management, the market for its product or service and its “scalability” or potential to grow quickly from a tiny enterprise into one serving a mass market.
What angel investors aim for is a prospect that might deliver bigger returns than traditional investments typically offer. Far from targeting the average growth of a portfolio of stocks, mutual funds or real estate that may average an 8 percent to 12 percent annual return, the sweet spot for angel investors might be 20 percent to 50 percent a year.
“That’s what you need to see to make it worthwhile,” said businessman Kevin Pollard, an entrepreneur and angel investor who also is a member of the NOLA Angel Network.
A former Freeport-MacMoRan Inc. executive who has served on many business boards in addition to founding his own international consulting firm, Pollard said he and other angel investors bring more than money to the startup table.
“We invest with the skill sets we bring from past experience,” said Pollard, who is currently involved, either directly or through syndicated investments, in nearly a dozen young enterprises.
While hopes of a rich exit keep investors coming back even in the face of mediocre returns or outright business failures, some say other rewards are nearly as important as money.
“These investors are successful folks who care about the community,” said Chastian “Choose” Taurman, who co-founded South Coast Angel Fund with White.
Taurman said angel investors enjoy the challenge of finding winners among the many enterprises they examine every year. Even more, they like the feeling of having helped get a promising business and job creator off the ground.
“Money is a way for investors to keep score,” he said. “The investors wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t money in it, but they don’t do it because there is money in it.”
Pollard said the nonfinancial rewards are actually more important to him. “I’m 66 years old, and I need to keep my brain working,” he said. “I learn constantly from this.”
He also loves the camaraderie associated with angel groups. “You get to hang around with a really nice group of men and women who share a broad value base in that you all want to help companies become successful,” he said.