Howard Tullman joins Nick to cover key players in the Startup Ecosystem, including:
- Placement Agents
- Fundraise Brokers
- Funding Platforms
- Colocs / Co-working / Startup Hubs
- Media, Information & Event Outlets
- Perspiration Principle Books
- Howard’s BLOG
- Article: You Can Pivot, But You Should Never Twirl
1- Accelerators vs. Incubators
- Accelerators tend to have a very competitive selection process that involves a series of applications and interviews. Incubators allow most startups that have the money to pay for the program to enroll.
- Accelerators typically have a grant or provide funding to the startup, in exchange for equity or they may do a convertible note… Incubators usually cost money. So the startup pays the person running the incubator to be a part of it.
- Accelerators operate in cohorts, over a fixed time period. So a group of startups are admitted to the cohort, they spend the next, say 3 to 4 months, in the accelerator, and then they “graduate” at the end. Many startups will claim to have graduating companies that are prepared for a seed round. Incubators typically do not have a finish date. So startups can stay for as long as they are getting value from the services and programs at the incubator… assuming they continue to pay to be a part of the incubator.
- Maybe you’ve heard of some of the more famous accelerators out there like Y Combinator or Techstars. A side note that’s worth mentioning is that, in some cases, venture funds are created and focus just on graduates of these accelerators. Like any rigorous selection process, the startups that get admitted to these cohorts are no joke. Doesn’t mean they’re going to be successful, but it is a pretty rigorous filter… so some startup investors like to focus here b/c a portion of the vetting process is complete and they’re dealing with a team that has received some money, has access to great services through the accelerator and has a pretty powerful network from the accelerator.
Tip of the Week: Communicate when you syndicate
Nick: Today we have Howard Tullman on the show. He is CEO of 1871 and general managing partner of 2 high-tech, early-stage venture funds. Personally, I’ve had a very positive experience interacting with startups and other players in the industry over at 1871. If you don’t know it, it’s based in the Merchandise Mart here in Chicago, and it’s home to many startups, mentors and advisors; an accelerator; and even the Starter League, formerly known as Code Academy. While only a couple years old, it really functions as the central technology hub of the startup ecosystem here in Chicago, and, both in size and influence, really continues to grow. And the man responsible for a great deal of 1871’s success is its CEO. Howard, thanks so much for joining us.
Howard: Great. I’m glad to be here.
N: Before we jump into all the questions of the day, can you give us a sense of how you got involved in the venture investment industry?
H: Well, I got involved in 2 different ways. I’m an investor in a lot of venture funds personally—I’m an investor with JB Pritzker at New World Ventures and MK Capital, which is Mark Koulogeorge and Bret Maxwell, both Funds 1 and 2. And as you mentioned, I have a couple funds of my own. One of the first was Chicago High Tech Investors, and we invested in New World, BlueStar, and KB Ventures. We got about 16 of us together, aggregated around $5 million, and then invested $1 million or $1.5 million in each fund, and that was early 90s.
N: Great. Before we get into this topic, previously I’ve had some guests on, and we’ve covered venture capitalists, angel investors, and their constituencies. So we’re not going to go too deep on those today, but I’d like to touch on some of the other major players on the investment side of venture first. Let’s start out with funds of funds. We’ve discussed venture funds, but can you give us a feel for what funds of funds are and how they fit into the big picture?
H: Basically, instead of investing in one fund and its management, which may be focusing on a certain market or a certain strategy, funds of funds aggregate 20 or 30 different fund and let you spread out over a broader range. The problem is that when they get beyond a certain size and diversity, they start to look just like S&P; it’s the same kind of tracking. You’re not necessarily going to hit a home run, but you’re never going to lose; you’re just going to track the market. Our first fund was a fund of funds, but the other problem is that you look at it and you think, “I don’t want to pay twice.” How many people are charging you a fee? We decided we’re going to invest in other funds, but we’re not going to charge a management fee or an override. Otherwise you have a situation where each fund is charging a management fee, so you’re paying twice.
N: Fees on top of fees, right? Do you find that typically funds are diversified across different asset classes—a mix of traditional PE, venture capital, etc—or do you find that they operate
within their own asset classes?
D: I think they operate within their own asset classes. It’s very rare that someone would say, “We’re a single-purpose fund, but we’re going to invest in gold and real estate.” Now, JB Pritzker, because he’s using his own money, basically has that flexibility. But a traditional fund pretty much has a mission statement that defines what it’s going to do. It could be a vertical market, like medical and health care, or a stage investor—early-stage or late-stage. But very few people could tell you they’d developed expertise across multiple asset classes.
N: Do you find that the LPs that invest in those funds of funds are typically on the retail or the institutional side?
D: Totally big institutions.
N: Good deal. So let’s move on to placement agents. There are placement agents that play a key role in venture and often are some of the best people to know from a networking standpoint. What I’m driving at here are the folks that connect a fund with an institution or a retail investor, an LP, that is well-suited to invest in that fund.
H: That’s really something that’s network-driven, and in the last few years, since there hasn’t been a rash of new funds, that’s been mostly historical relationships. Most funds today are on Funds 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 or 7, and they’re on the model that you disperse 40% of your fund and then you start raising your next fund, and you go for a higher, greater amount. What they do it they go back to these guys before they have a good track record, because they’re trying to get these guys to put their next money in before they have many exits. But if you’re calling one of these giant funds and you have a relationship, I don’t think you need somebody to hold you hand when you’re doing Fund 2 or Fund 3. As these big funds are getting priced out of early stages because they need to put $4 or $5 million to work and nobody needs it, what’s really filling the gap is corporate venture funds. And there have been 50 to 100 new corporate venture funds coming back into existence of being newly funded. These big corporations will tell you they’re not doing enough R&D, so they’re funding investments into startups on the side to see new ideas. What they won’t tell you is that it’s basically an off-sheet investment, and so in 2 or 3 years they’ve either made it or they haven’t, but in the meantime, they haven’t hurt their earnings or hired any new staff.
N: Yeah, I come form the industry side. I did M&A for a big multinational, and we would call it “open innovation”: working with very early-stage companies and helping them, whether by providing access to our channel, taking equity options, loans, or strategic coaching to try to get them to that stage where they can become an asset or become acquirable. In that time, we saw significant contraction of the R&D folks in the organization. The organization’s always looking to de-risk.
H: Yeah, sure. People are expensive.
N: Just touching more on that corporate side, can you talk about corporate industries here in Chicago? How do they plug in to the startup ecosystem, being these big, monolithic players that don’t traditionally work with very small, nimble teams?
H: Right now we have 3 specific initiatives for that. 1871 has an initiative for innovation days where companies will come in and explain their problems. We’ll curate our portfolio companies and give them maybe 10 that we think could work. They’ll pick 5 or 6 and then have demo days where they come in and see the companies and engage with them. On a state level, Illinois has something called the “Corporate Startup Challenge,” and that’s doing exactly the same kind of matchmaking on a structure basis, and they’ve had about 50% success rate—50% of the matches have generated some kind of partnership or relationship. So the companies have a willingness to do it, but we’re still creating the structures that allow them to do it. Some one was telling me a story about a company that one of the giant insurance companies was willing to work with, but one of the requirements was a $5 million performance bond. That’s not cheap, and it’s not something a startup is going to want to pay just to get in the door. But a lot of these companies have substantial risk profiles, so they’re likely to have requirements. Same thing with healthcare now: HIPA and these unbelievable requirements make it very difficult for a startup to engage with these big companies.
N: So you touched on this before: fundraise brokers. I’d like to jump into that. From my experience, I’ve noticed that some fundraise brokers will also operate as venture capitalists or other key players in the industry. There’s a pretty famous VC in Chicago that I know has been brokering a number of startups or capital, but if we focus on those that operate as fundraise brokers purely, what function are they performing and why?
H: Well, I’m not sure that they perform a function I’m in favor of, because they’re basically mini investment bankers, and the minute something goes wrong, they run for the hills and say, “Look, I wasn’t vouching for the numbers; I was just an intermediary; I wasn’t doing the due diligence.” That’s not what they said going in, but it’s what they say the minute something doesn’t work out perfectly, so I have not been impressed with these guys. I’ve had startups come to me and say, “These guys want to invest in me, and they have a network; what do you think,” and sometimes I’ll say, “Well, they do have good connections, so I think they can help you,” and sometimes I’ll say, “Well, I don’t know these guys from Adam, and if I don’t know these guys from Adam after 50 years in this town doing this business, I don’t think you want to take a low valuation from them so they can do you some alleged favors.” I’m much more impressed with what’s going on in fundraising platforms than with these broker guys.
N: And just to be clear for the audience, they take more of a transactional role of linking up capital with promising startups and they get their cut and then go along their merry way, not usually taking a risk position on either side.
D: Not usually. Some of them will say, “I’ll take some stock, or a portion of my fee in equity,”
but as often as not, they want to get paid out.
N: Good deal. So one of the more interesting players that have been evolving in the industry are fundraising platforms. I really wanted to touch on this because it’s changing and causing some shifts in the industry, and I wanted to get your insight. So tell us about what fundraising platforms are, and can you give us some examples of different types of platforms?
H: Sure. So first of all, a fundraising platform is a person or company that makes it possible for a company trying to raise money to reach out to people who might be interested—not individually, but really more of a crowdsourced thing. In the United States, we’re a generation behind the rest of the world in equity funding: you can sell anything you want, but you can’t sell stock. You can pre-sell your product or sell a T-shirt for your movie or whatever you want, but it’s not an equity investment. The JOBS act was an attempt to get in on what’s going on in Israel and Europe: to allow companies to sell equity to investors, including investors they didn’t know and investors all over the world. The SEC has sat on it for about 19 months and they’re scared it’ll lead to unregulated fraud and scams of all sorts and another dot-com crash, but to small businesses this is a very appealing thing. To have 100,000 $1 investors is a lot more manageable in this day and age of digital communications than to have 1 800-pound gorilla managing your business every day. So companies like OurCrowd—with John Medved, who spoke at 1871—OurCrowd has done $200 million worth of equity crowdfunding. In the United States, Indiegogo is the leader in this space—people think of Kickstarter as the generic term for it, but the guys behind Kickstarter have said if and when equity funding is legal, they still don’t want to be in that business. They won’t be in this business, so Indiegogo will be the leader in this space. 1871 is actually working with Indiegogo to get them to open an office in 1871 and help prepare our companies to do this and to do it skillfully.
N: And so that we clarify, we’ve got sort of the Indiegogos and Kickstarters as they exist now.
H: Right. Those are campaigns, and then we have things like AngelList which are essentially listing services for venture opportunities; they’re not really enablers of company presentations. They’re more telephone directories of opportunites.
N: Any candid thoughts, Howard, on how the investment side of this industry may change, not as much on the startup side, but thought on the investment side of the industry—angels, venture capitalists—just any candid thoughts on how that may change?
H: I think that as the transparency of the world increases, and as people have a better vision of the facts surrounding a company, I just don’t think the next two generations are going to use their fathers’ and their grandfathers’ investment advisors. I think people are going to say, “We can just hook up with opportunities directly.” You’ve got a world where people can’t earn anything in a savings account, so I think there’s going to be a tremendous change. I don’t think anybody’s going to go to Charles Schwab and have investment advisors in the same fashion, so many of these intermediaries that purport to give investment advice are going to have a hard
time convincing the next few generations that they add any real value.
N: All right. Let’s move on to the non-investment side. We’ve talked about some of the investment players, but there’s a number of key players on the non-investment side that are critical for investors to connect with.
N: So let’s start with incubators and accelerators. Can you highlight the differences between the two and walk us through their value-add in the process?
H: Sure. An accelerator is the highest pecking order, and it’s going to provide some financing when you engage with it. It has a fixed time frame—maybe 8–16 weeks. It culminates in a demo day where it will introduce you to investors who might potentially be involved with the next round of financing. An incubator may take an equity interest, but doesn’t usually, and the time frame can be up to 2 years. Some of them haven’t worked out a strategy for getting rid of people; I was just with some guys from Indianapolis, and they said, “Jeez, we have people hanging around and we don’t know how to tell them to go away.” I think of 1871 as an incubator, and we’re trying to provide education and support—a lot of networking and infrastructure—so that’s an incubator. As you go down the pecking order, you have coworking spaces that don’t really invest in creating an ecosystem, and then you have landlords who are basically real estate guys, and they’ll buy a few desks and coffee machines and call themselves incubators or coworking spaces without much value-add, and I haven’t been impressed; I don’t think they’ll be around long.
N: I’m curious how you would define 1871. You mentioned an incubator; you mentioned coworking spaces or a startup hub—which category do you think 1871 fits in?
D: Well, I think we’re a startup hub that is also an incubator, but you have to understand that we’re very big. By the end of the year we’ll have 100,000 square feet of space and 4 or 5 hundred comanies. We have accelerators in our presence; we have Impact Engine. We have 20 or 30 companies at any instant of time that are performing as they are an accelerator, and they’re in our space as well. We’ll have the Startup Institute, a group that teaches people to work in startups. We have the startup school you alluded to before. They’ve changed their curriculum from 9 weeks to 9 months, and they’re trying to train people on code, then on UI, and ultimately on being an entrepreneur. They’re trying to turn out being who are not just coders; they’re also capable of turning their ideas into a business. We have all of that going on, and then we have the universities doing all kinds of research around incubation and startups and entrepreneurship. So I think 1871 is all of those things; we’re just not in the business of selling desks. Our members certainly contribute to the economic success of the place, but all we really care about is creating a hub for the city and how many successful businesses we turn out for the city and for the state.
N: It certainly feels like a central nervous system to me. You’ve got the brain over at the Merchandise Mart and then all of these connections with incubators and investors and accelerators.
H: Well, and we just announced Google for entrepreneurs, and drop-in rights for our members with 8 different Google incubators. We have similar relationships in Tel Aviv and London with Level 39. If you’re going to make a global business, it’s a very powerful value-add for us to be able to get you in any major market and get on your feet; you’re not going to get that from some real estate guy who had some extra space.
N: Okay. Before we wrap up on key players, I want to touch on media and information outlets, as well as event outlets—your TechCrunch, the Built In Chicago, even Meetup. At first, I didn’t realize the value of getting plugged in as an investor. Can you highlight the major types of media players, and why it’s important for venture investors to utilize both outlets with broad geographic scope as well as those in their area?
H: Well, I think there are three buckets. The first bucket is things like Shelly Palmer or TechCrunch of Gizomodo or things like that that have a tremendous amount of information, and you can’t read it all, but if you want to be informed you have to go to these reporting services. They may just be rumors, but if you don’t know where Apple or Facebook or Cisco is going, you won’t be able to understand the whole technology market. So one of the things you need to do as an investor is use these people who are doing pretty good reporting so that you know what’s happening. As far as things like Built In Chicago, it started as a media play, and what’s it’s really morphed into is a connector for 20,000 folks, and there are companies saying, “Hey, we need people; can you help us?” So really what it’s turned into is a job board that’s competitive on a local level with LinkedIn. You can’t be following Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and 14 other things every day, and that’s why you have Facebook doing over 50% of the sharing, followed by Twitter and LinkedIn and Instagram. The missing player is Google+, which has all these people it pushed into joining, but they aren’t sharing. That’s where people are going—I think the WhatsApp acquisition was overprices, but it’s a global strategy. So things like LinkedIn and Built In Chicago are meetup services. And lastly, there are events, which I think are going to shrink in duration. But things like Tom Friedman’s New York Times even in San Francisco, one-day events, are still attracting lots of people who will listen to 20 smart people curated by Tom Friedman. TED is mostly a novelty now, but in terms of things I’m interested in—technology, education, entrepreneurship—there are still a few conferences every year that you just have to go to. I think those are important tools that entrepreneurs should make sure they’re exposed to with the velocity and volume of change going on.
N: Can you give us a sense for some of those conferences that you’d recommend?
H: Well, there’s the GSV conference on education that runs with Mike Moe and her team in Arizona every year—150% of everyone that matters in education finds their way down there for 3 days. I mentioned the Tom Friedman thing, and there are a couple of sort of ad hoc things. Frankly, Inc does a great job, whether it’s at the Inc GROWCO conference, which this year was in New Orleans, or the Inc 500/5000 in Arizona later this year, where I’ll be speaking. When I go there, I’m consistently impressed that I get to see 40 or 50 people who are curated. I’ve pretty much given up on panels where there’s a moderator and you ask a minute-and-a-half question that someone answers in very general, generic terms and half the guys are trying to be entertaining and half the guys are trying to be informative. To me, it’s much more valuable tog et a guy who knows what he’s talking about and have him talk for 30 minutes, then have 7 or 8 of those for a few days, especially if you’re paying attention. That’s much more valuable than getting someone to tell his “war stories;” I think those get a little old, especially when you don’t know whether the guys telling them knows what he’s talking about or just got lucky. I’ll listen to Mark Cuban talk, because I think Mark Cuban has demonstrated 4 or 5 times that he has a really interesting approach and really good tools to understand and take advantage of startup business.
N: So for people that are new to startup investing–maybe new angels, maybe young people that want to get into the industry as a professional or a practitioner—any recommended resources that they should be accessing, whether it be on the topic today or just anything on getting involved?
H: Well, on the topic of startups, I’ve written 8 books now—they’re called The Perspiration Principles, and they’re all on Amazon and digitally, and they’re not expensive—and they’re a whole course on what goes on in a business and how to be an entrepreneur, so I certainly recommend those. I recommend my Inc blog, which is something I do every week. The best thing to do is get your feet wet. Get involved at 1871 or something in your community, and talk to some guys and just determine what points you want to hear more on and what points would help you, and you can do that for a year, just pretending. Think about, “I have $100,000, and I’m going to invest $10,000 in 5 different companies, and what are the factors that determine whether this guy has a shot?” We do this every day at 1871, because we don’t just let anybody walk in the door. We want to know if you have a team and a reasonable prospect and so on, because if we’re going to try to make you a success, we want you to start as high up on the curve as possible.
N: All right, good segue. Tell us more about what you’re up to at 1871.
H: Well, 1871 has been around for about 2 years now. We have about 250 startups, all the universities there, 7 or 8 venture funds, 2 or 3 accelerators, 2 or 3 incubators. 1871 2.0 will be launching in September or October this year and we’ll add 25,000 square feet with a focus on vertical markets where we’ll cluster companies around ed tech, fin tech, fem tech, internet, real estate, food, and startups. We’ll have 15 or 20 companies centered around education, and we think that generates tremendous synergy and serendipity and happy accidents. By and large, they’re not competitive with each other; they’re cumulative and additive. We’ll also have space for more startups from both coasts and we’ll have space for our alumni companies, which will become part of this new and expanded 1871. We’ll also be focusing on startup engineering to improve prospects, and we’ll be working with Indiegogo, probably in a lab setting to create better marketing materials. It’s a lot to do to raise the bar in terms of the resources a company needs to be successful and what we can do to make them successful.
N: So you wear a lot of hats, and you’ve got a wide breadth of experience in venture. How did you decide to take the CEO role at 1871?
H: The mayor and the governor actually made me do it.
N: Not Rahm, right?
H: Exactly. It’s hard to say no to Rahm or the governor. I wanted to do it, and it was a heard search because it’s a nonprofit, and I’m enthusiastic about working with all these companies. And not to toot my own horn, but I’m experienced, and it was hard to find someone experienced enough with startups to tell these guys what we thought of their startups. And, again, the governor and the mayor, having invested in 1871, wanted to make sure it would be successful. It’s about real metrics, real accountability, and creating real jobs. We want to create companies that are sustainable, because in the last 10 years the only real job growth in this country has been generated by startups.
N: So tell us more about that startup environment here in Chicago and how you’ve seen it change.
H: Well, the Mart and 1871 have become the go-to for technology in the city. We’re just a mile from the Mart, and we have 7,000 tech jobs now. Illinois added about 3,400 tech jobs just in the last year. And we’re in the national and international market; we’re the largest in the country in terms of what we do. Just in the last month we’ve had Sheryl Sandburg, Mark Cuban, Steve Case, Ben Horowitz, David Cameron from London, and every dignitary stops by here. We have a group of entrepreneurs right now that were brought by the State Department to learn about entrepreneurship at 1871. We’ve had groups of startups from Turkey, Tel Aviv and London.
N: If we could cover any topic in venture investing, what topic do you think should be addressed, and who would you like to hear speak about it?
H: I think the biggest challenge today is focusing beyond B2C. You know if you want to start some dumbass building or crazy idea, in B2C there’s someone in California who will throw money at you, and those are all about home runs, and they’re prepared for that. That’s not the nature of what goes on in Chicago. In Chicago I think we’re going to see more B2B companies taking advantage of the fact that there are so many big corporations in Chicago. 33 of the Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Illinois, 28 in Chicago proper. That’s the second-highest concentration in the country. If you want to start a business today, it’s all about the customers, and this is a great place to start with a great standard of living and a lot of talent and great capital and customers. I think the guy in the country who best understands what we’re going through is Clay Christianson, who’s a friend, and he teaches at Harvard and really invented the idea of disruptive innovation. You have to really understand that to look at a group of companies, and you have to understand the difference between invention and innovation. We’re very focused on innovation, which is about businesses saving time and money and being more efficient. Very few people understand how to make that into a science, and that’s one of the things we’re into at 1871.
N: So we touched on this before; we talked about some resources for new people to angel investing. How about advice? If there’s any piece of advice that you could give to someone who’s brand-new to startup investing, what would that be?
H: Well, there are 5 components you have to look for. It’s all about the jockey, never the horse. It’s all about whether the person you’re investing in will get it across the finish line. If not, forget it; the best ideas in the world don’t mean anything. If you break that down, what are the 5 things that you want to make sure this person has to decide whether you want to put your money on them? Number one is passion; they have to want desperately to do this. Number 2 is preparation, that they have the tools and skills to do it. Number 3 is perspiration, that they’ll put in the work that it takes. Number 4 is perseverance, that they’re not going to give up. And number 5 is principles; if they’re scumbags, you don’t want to do it. Every business begins with a dream, but you want to back the entrepreneur whose dream isn’t about making money, it’s about making a difference. That’s what’ll keep them working; if it’s about money, it’s off. If I were to give somebody advice, I would use that checklist. It’s worked well for me for 20 or 30 years, and I think it’s what it takes to be successful.
N: Always great advice from Howard. I was reading an article of yours recently; I think it was Pivot, Don’t Twirl. Great message in the article. You always have a sense for how to give advice and how to summarize things in a way that s easily consumable. So check out that article and in general, what is the best way for listeners to connect with you?
H: I think just firstname.lastname@example.org; couldn’t be easier.
N: Excellent. Check out the blog; it’s tullman.blogspot.com. His Twitter handle is @tullman. Howard, it’s been an absolute pleasure to have you today; really great of you to do it, and I hope we can do this again sometime.
H: Great. Happy to be here, and thanks for the opportunity.
N: Thanks, Howard.