HermannM

Posts Tagged ‘venture capital’

What Black Entrepreneurs Can Do To Fix Silicon Valley

In Business, Entrepreneurship, Interesting on November 1, 2011 at 1:09 am

I hate blogging. I haven’t blogged in over two years and there’s a reason for that. But an issue has emerged that is too important for me to sit back and watch unfold without offering a dose of perspective. You don’t need a Twitter fight to recognize that Silicon Valley exhibits bias in its investment decisions. And, while it’s great that CNN has made waves with previews of its upcoming show on the subject, you don’t need cable TV to tell you that, either. I could quote statistics or hide behind anecdotal accounts of who-said-what to-whom and when, but the end result is still the same. Silicon Valley has a race problem. The question before us is: what do we want to do about it?

I was proud when I read Dylan Tweney’s post about fixing the problem. It was refreshing to hear someone with clout acknowledge publicly what most Americans know, but hesitate to discuss. What also surprised me was his willingness to call out his peers who question or deny the existence of a problem. He showed great leadership in paving a path towards reconciliation across racial lines. I felt compelled to do the same in the spirit of cooperation. The truth is, Silicon Valley’s race problem wasn’t born in the Valley, it is really just a reflection of the last vestiges of America’s 400 plus race problem. The issues are deeper than we think and if we’re going to address it, we’re going to need to do it together. So the following is my advice to black entrepreneurs (existing, budding and otherwise) on what they need to do to fight racism in Silicon Valley.

Consider the history. Although we live in a post-racial society, Silicon Valley social DNA was formed many years before President Obama was ever elected. The majority of venture capitalists are in their 40s or older, which means they attended college during the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s. My undergraduate experience was rife with racial tension and it seemed like every few years, a new issue would occur to deepen the wedge of social distrust. The Stuart murder, the King beating and the Simpson trial all played a role in shaping our racial views and social alliances. While most people have moved on intellectually from that, our emotional networks and spheres of influence take longer to adjust. Just as African American students might have banded together at the “black table” for lunch, so to did our white counterparts who also dined and socialized in an unforced but segregated manner. College was never the melting pot it was designed to be. And divisions that formed along racial lines then, only widened once we got into the workplace. This explanation doesn’t excuse the racial isolation we experience. But it may help explain the reason blacks and whites remain divided on the role of race and bias in the decisions made on Sand Hill Road.

Lighten up. Some of the hostility we’re experiencing now is a tension arising from people who struggle to make sense of what they observe, relative to what they’ve long believed to be true. Don’t react. Let people work out their issues in the absence of public scrutiny. What disappointed me most about CNN’s interview with Michael Arrington was it captured an awkward moment without giving him a chance to reconcile any conflicting views on race, many of which had just emerged when he was introduced to a house full of black entrepreneurs. That moment created a great sound bite from which to generate buzz for the documentary, but I found it to be an irresponsible piece of journalism. When I say lighten up, what I mean is you need to give people time to process your existence, especially if it conflicts with the steady reinforcement of traditional images they’ve experienced of black people and of entrepreneurs. Mistakes are going to happen and black entrepreneurs will do themselves a disservice by succumbing to knee-jerk reactions.

What may sound like ignorance to you may very well be a moment of naive honesty for others. Don’t look for negativity where it doesn’t exist. Not everybody is against you, although it may seem that way. The temper of the times has changed and people from all backgrounds recognize the vulgarity of outright racism. When someone makes a comment that may be construed as insensitive, consider the context. As an example, being called “articulate” is, more often than not, an uninformed but genuine complement. Accept it as such. And let people make their mistakes. Over time, you’ll learn to discern the hateful comments from the ones borne of unfamiliarity. You’ve got to believe there is long term value in letting the other guy off the hook.

Be In The Present. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when in Silicon Valley, do as they do there too. Whether we admit it or not, we carry our culture with us and many aspects of black culture are counterproductive to our success. So we have to leave it behind. When I was growing up, my mother told me I had to be three times as smart as my schoolmates and four times as smart as colleagues to get ahead. What resulted is an over-achiever with a perfectionist attitude. This is something I fight hard to overcome. In entrepreneurship, great is the enemy of good enough. The time it takes to get a project from 20% to 70% is half the time it takes to take it from 70% to 90%. When speed of execution matters, we have be comfortable with projects at 70% of its theoretical potential. I heard someone say that “if you’re not embarrassed by your first release, then you released it too late.” I never understood what that meant until I finally released a beta version of HomeShopr. It sucks but it’s out. I’m actually proud to not be behind a LaunchRock Splash page as so many ventures remain.

Also, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS STEALTH MODE. A common behavior amongst African Americans is to keep their ideas close to the vest. This usually occurs out of fear of it being ripped off or out of doubt that it’s worth discussing at all. In either case, this line of thinking is counterproductive. If you’re operating under the radar, most VCs will assume you lack the confidence to stand by your convictions. As a result, they won’t, and shouldn’t, waste their time with you. And you will have made a bad first impression from which it takes time to recover. Be present and be willing to sometimes make a fool of yourself. There is no shame in having made a bad assumption. If you recognize it quickly and pivot, you won’t be penalized. The myth of the perfect idea is simply that. Your startup has flaws, my startup has flaws, they all do. But the quicker you subject yourself to the scrutiny of the market, the quicker you’ll gain external feedback, identify any major flaws and refine the idea. Don’t lock yourself out of that valuable feedback loop.

Expand your network. If you know another startup founder, ask them for feedback on your startup. The best advice I get is from other founders who want me to succeed. Don’t be afraid to ask for an introduction to others; most people have at least one contact to share. Then go talk to them and so on. Over time, you’ll develop a robust network, some contacts you’ll keep for yourself, some you’ll share. From time to time, it also makes sense to network beyond your comfort zone. I call this venturing into the “unknown unknowns.” The easiest way is to attend a meetup and talk to total strangers. Meeting people is not an art, it is a science and anyone can do it. When I walk up to someone I don’t know, I just look them in the eye and say name name, that I’m working on a digital grocery list and I ask the magic question, “What do you do?” That is usually enough to get a conversation started. A great place to engage new people is at a co-working space. I am also a big fan of meeting strangers via office hours. The bottom line is, you have to be comfortable striking up conversations with total strangers and converting them into allies. The more people you know and the more who know you, the more likely they are to extend certain courtesies they wouldn’t extend to a stranger.

Temper your expectations. Horny men & women have sex on the first date, VCs don’t. If the first time you meet a VC is the day you pitch to him or her, don’t expect them to write you a check; it doesn’t matter how great you are. Very few VCs invest in points, they invest in lines. So help them construct a two-dimensional data set that best describes you. Many investors attend tech events, meetups, pitch nights and demo days. These are the best times to speak with them and establish a first data point on their radar of possible deals. If you see them on a panel, ask an interesting question. If they blog, tweet about a contradiction you’ve observed. Be smart and get noticed. By the time you’re ready to pitch, you won’t be pitching to a total stranger, you’ll be pitching to a stranger who might have heard of you. It’s a start.

Get noticed. If you really want to get noticed, get out in front, way out in front. Every tech community needs leaders to run the myriad of events that holds it together. During Internet Week, or Social Media Week, or Entrepreneur Week, Blogger Appreciate Week or I Hate This Week Week, plan one of the events. Investors say they’re not impressed with entrepreneurs who waste time managing a meetup group but there is merit in demonstrating a willingness to lead and an ability to execute.

Respect the source. The funding bottleneck for most African American entrepreneurs occurs at the seed through Series A stage of capital raising. Unfortunately, these are the riskiest stages and there is no community reinvestment imperative in venture investing. If an investor’s source of funds is from the sale of a business or from generational wealth, they are under no obligation to invest it in a racially diverse or representative manor. Charity and guilt are poor arguments for justifying an investment decision… so don’t suggest them. Unless you’ve got pictures of the investor in a compromising position, you’re only left with making the strongest business case possible to attract investment dollars. This requires you to refine your concept even further, prioritizing pain points, layering feature sets, developing multiple revenue models, accelerating scalability and incorporating defensibility measures every step along the way. If you’re not familiar with any of those words, please consider attending my Art of Pitching workshop next spring (#shamelessplug).

Stay the course. Even if you do all the things mentioned above, there is no guarantee you’ll get funded because, as we stated above… Silicon Valley has a race problem. The hardest part of entrepreneurship is knowing when to pivot, when to give in and when to stay the course. This is largely a function of the size of your wallet, the strength of your support group and the depth of your convictions. But if you choose to stay to course, please know you’re not alone. I am in the same boat with you and so are many other entrepreneurs, black and white.

What I hope comes that out of the current debate is a widespread acknowledgement of a problem and a comprehensive strategy for addressing it. Amidst the initial hostility, I am encouraged by an air of unity that is fighting to emerge. The economics also favor greater inclusion. Venture capital returns have slid in recent years. I strongly believe the lack of diversity in the pool of ideas that get funded plays a role. While there may be an economic imperative for Silicon Valley to change its ways, it isn’t going to happen over night. But I believe it will happen. The question is how long will the current base of investors continue to hide behind a veil of bias to avoid admitting that the best ideas don’t always emerge from the usual suspects, namely young white males. Only time will tell.

Who Said You Can’t “Bite” City Hall

In Business, Finance, New York, Politics on December 16, 2009 at 9:58 am

HERMANN MAZARD
STATEMENT
CITY COUNCIL OF NEW YORK
12/16/2009

I would like to thank the Chairman on the Finance Committee and the members of the Council for this opportunity to speak with you this morning.  My name is Hermann Mazard, I currently teach a graduate course on innovation at Polytechnic Institute of New York University and I am the CEO of a technology startup, HomeShop Technologies, Inc.

My company, HomeShop, has developed the framework for a digital grocery list. Our goal is to create a tool that allows consumers to save time in the grocery store, reduce impulse shopping and eliminate unnecessary trips. We are staunch advocates of the home-cooked meal and given the high concentration of foodies in the metropolitan region, New York would be an ideal location in which to deploy our technology. I am here today because I question the City’s commitment to technology entrepreneurs.  And I am not alone.

Over the last six months, there has been a mass exodus of entrepreneurs who  have found it increasingly difficult to grow a technology business in New York City.  Lack of capital is often cited as the primary reason but the real problem in New York is a lack of structure for attracting and retaining investment capital at the stages needed most. Specifically, at the seed stage.

Historically, federal government has been able to create liquidity for technology investments by lowering the capital gains tax. This tool was instrumental in fueling the flight of capital from the bond market to the stock market; it was also a factor for attracting venture capital and IPO investments during the late 1990s. But times are different now.  Manipulating the capital gains tax rate alleviated a bottleneck at the growth & expansion stage of technology development. Today, that bottleneck exists at the seed stage and early stage of development. Because investing at this stage involves more risk, there needs to be greater proximity between investors and entrepreneurs. In other words, there is no federal program that can address this issue, it has to be done at the state and local level.

Silicon Valley is often referred to as the model for innovation but there are successful technology communities in many other cities including Boston, Austin (TX), Denver & Philadelphia.  What these cities have in common is (a) a partnership between the private sector, the university system and government and (b) a robust investment community.  New York City has the former, not the latter. The City is home to only seven venture capital firms, of which only two are nationally recognized and actively investing. The City also has only three angel investment funds, of which only one is actively investing. The concentration of capital in the hands of so few investors creates a death-trap for any entrepreneur looking to raise capital, especially at the seed and early stage of development. This is why we are leaving. More competition is needed to create a robust investment community. If the goal of members gathered today is to turn the Big Apple into an orchard of innovation, I urge the City Council to address the barriers to attracting and retaining investment capital at the seed and early stage of development.

New York City is the financial capital of the world and the resources to build a robust investment community already exist within the city limits. That capital, however, exists on the sidelines earning a low rate of interest as it waits for the next “bubble” to emerge.  For many years, New York investment houses have made a name for themselves by trend-surfing and riding investment waves. There is one more wave left to be surfed in the form of energy-investing and sustainability-investing as a result of federal stimulus programs.  But that does little to create opportunities for the 95%+ of entrepreneurs who have neither experience nor training in solar energy, sustainable farming or wind-turbines.

What is needed is an investor literacy program that empowers high net worth individuals with an appetite for risk to effectively evaluate the merits of a business plan. The shutting down of the IPO markets coupled with the private sales of social media companies has reduced the public disclosures about new revenue sources and business models.  The net result has been a widening of the education gap between investors in-the-know and those out-of-the-loop. An investor literacy program can change that; a curriculum has already been developed by the Kaufmann Foundation, which promotes the development of angel investment funds.  Such a program could easily be administered in partnership with NYU, SUNY Levin or the CUNY system. It would be an essential first step in broadening the base of investors in New York City startups.

What is also needed is a tax incentive to attract investors, such as the seed stage tax credit implemented in over 20 states nationally. NYC’s QETC tax credit attracts investors to companies that are post revenue but this not where the bottleneck exists. In fact, there is adequate investment capital available at the Series A & Series B stage for companies that generate revenue.  Where the incentive is needed is at the seed or angel stage where entrepreneurs are proving the viability of new business models.  This program, sometimes called a High Tech Investment Tax Credit or Angel Investment Tax Credit creates liquidity at the earliest stage of investing. Implementing such a program in New York City would go a long way in creating jobs and re-energizing the local economy.

I spent time speaking about what the City Council should consider; if time permits, I would like to spend a minute talking about what doesn’t work. As much as we need the money, entrepreneurs could not in good conscience accept a direct investment from the City. State-sponsored investment programs don’t work because the interests and risk appetite of the municipality may not be aligned with that of the entrepreneur or his/her investors.  Too much oversight and the investment vehicle becomes vulnerable to patronage and corruption; too little oversight and it becomes vulnerable to krony-ism with the private sector. A so-called “public option” in technology investing may have seemed like a romantic idea. But the interests of the City are better served by building a robust base of private investors rather than trying to beat the venture capital community at their own game.

That having been said, there are gaps in the funding universe where a public option would continue to prove helpful. This gap exists for immigrant entrepreneurs, women, blacks and Hispanics. Refocusing the City’s direct investment programs (micro-lending, seed fund, pension investing) to groups that have historically had limited access to capital  would level the playing field and create a technology sector that is more reflective of New York’s diversity.

I would like to conclude by saying that New York City is the greatest city in the world.  One source of our greatness, that is rarely talked about, is the high concentration of churches, synagogues, mosques and temples within the five boroughs.  What it tells me is that faith lives in Gotham City.  Well, innovation is as much about faith as it is about technology; given the City’s religious leadership, there is no reason why we should rank behind Boston, Denver or San Francisco in any category much less believing in its people and our believing in ourselves.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak frankly today. I strongly believe that the key to solving the capital issue is to address the structure of the investment landscape. I am available to answer any questions and look forward to working in partnership with you as we turn the Big Apple into an orchard of innovation.

Stay in the Boat

In Interesting on April 27, 2009 at 2:05 pm

We are quickly coming upon “Business Plan Competition” season and I have to admire the gifted entrepreneurs who make a go at starting a business.  Given the economic environment, this may seem an unlikely time to forgo a paycheck in search of greater riches.  But starting a business is like having a baby, it’s never a good time; but we do it anyway.

The National Venture Capital Association recently published reports on 1Q09 and, as expected, the news was difficult to swallow.  Investment volume dropped significantly and many would-be entrepreneurs are opting against the promise of self-determination.  At the same time, many founders and employees of existing startups are re-evaluating their career options, present company included.  The primary concern is the likelihood and timing of exit opportunities and the resulting impact on our wealth.  In other words, is it worth it to stay the course.  My resounding answer is YES, provided you have tangible reasons for being at a startup in the first place beyond the expected financial payoff. In fact, there are many reasons beyond financial to be in a startup and I am extremely wary of those who are “in it” just for the money. Put another way, I would rather be surrounded by idiots who share my passion than geniuses who have neither courage nor faith.

The financial entrepreneur dates back to the 1850s with the San Francisco gold rush. When we were an agrarian society, hard work went hand-in-hand with seedtime and harvest. You put in a hard day’s work, you earned a hard day’s pay (obviously I am black and my ancestors probably didn’t get paid as much as your ancestors, but we were farmers nevertheless). And everybody ate. But then the concept of the “American Dream” was forever changed.  With the gold rush, America’s investment horizon and risk profile was altered and I don’t think we’ve ever really recovered. A few people struck gold and this inspired an army of paupers to head for the hills in search of riskless rewards and easy money. Not many found gold but the concept of the financially driven entrepreneur was forever ingrained in the hearts of the media and the American people.  There are too many entrepreneurs looking for easy money and riskless investments that it is screwing things up for the rest of us. We need to return to better days. If you are part of a startup or you are thinking about joining a startup, here are some reasons why you should stick with it.

  • You want to create real value
  • You want to establish a vehicle for self-determination
  • You possess a unique and valuable skill that cannot be harnessed within a corporate setting.
  • You passion, experience and attention to detail has allowed you to identify a business venture whose risk profile is lower than what “conventional thinkers” perceive
  • You would rather fail with your team of winners than win with a team of Enron-esque losers.
  • You have wisdom beyond your years, while lesser men & women might not.
  • You can’t stop thinking about the startup, its driving you crazy
  • You are an idiot blessed with a God-sized portion of faith

My company is HomeShop Technologies, Inc. and everyday is a struggle. I probably should have quit a long time ago were it not for the fact that all the above reasons apply, especially the last one. There are a lot of easier ways to make money. In fact, had wealth been my only goal, I would have become a plumber. I might also suggest becoming an electrician or drug dealer; both professions offer equally lucrative alternatives to hard work.  But if you are fortunate enough to come up with a novel concept that addresses a real and growing problem and you can attract a winning team, I have a feeling that a winner VC will eventually find you, if you whisper loud enough.  The goal for all of us is to create something that was worthy of the effort put in to achieve it. Now that’s an American Dream worth pursuing.

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