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Increasing Your Chances with The Refinery

Twenty-five plus years ago, I started my own management consulting company. Like most entrepreneurs back then, I started with an idea, wrote a 50-page business plan, bootstrapped and worked like a dog to launch.

Early on, things went pretty well. There was demand for our services, we earned revenue right away, hired people and grew. As we grew, the challenges became greater, the problems more challenging and getting to the next level of growth wasn’t as easy as anticipated.

How was I going to maintain our level of revenue while entering new markets? What direction should I take to make our technology more robust? I didn’t know how to set up back office operations, so when I needed an accountant, I used the guy I met at the local watering hole. When negotiating prices, I didn’t consider what my business model was. Marketing? I was a quantitative geek, so what was marketing? Truly, I was out on my own with no backup support. Not only was it risky starting my own business, it seemed impossible to take it to the next level, with no one to provide feedback, recommend resources or provide insights.

A lot has changed since then. Now starting a company can be more of a group effort, as “entrepreneurial ecosystems” crop up all over the country. These ecosystems provide the support network critical for the higher success rate and sustainability of new businesses.

An entrepreneurial ecosystem is made up of the organizations, institutions and people who have launched and grown companies successfully before. It is an entire community that provides support to help early stage businesses grow. The community includes the investors, the mentors, advisors, lawyers, accountants, universities and local community resources.

More intentional support comes from accelerator programs that pull all these elements together into a fast-paced, feedback-oriented, structured approach for startup companies. Accelerators provide opportunities to practice, test ideas, fail and learn. Y-Combinator, and Techstars, two of the most well known accelerators, have posted promising results, with 80-to-90% of the 800+ companies completing their programs still in business. We have already seen the early results at The Refinery, our New England- based accelerator program for women-led companies.   All but two of the 19 participant companies in the program are still going.

Among the early successes of the Refinery, Level Up Village (LUV) was at an inflection point when they joined The Refinery’s Fall 2014 Accelerator Program. They had bootstrapped, their product was in high demand, and revenues trending positive. How big could they take the company with their existing technology, team and funds?

Participating in The Refinery’s accelerator program provided LUV with growth options, a stronger business model and the confidence to raise their first outside round of funding. This financing enabled them to build out their team and a more robust technology platform that would allow them to scale well beyond their existing capability. Amy McCooe, Co-CEO, describes the Refinery as a program that “Won’t let you fail”.

Gestvision is developing a breakthrough diagnostic test for preeclampsia, a major contributor to maternal and fetal mortality, and was a participant in The Refinery’s Winter 2015 Accelerator Program. Gestvision won the local SBA InnovateHER competition sponsored by The Refinery and went on to the finals in Washington DC in May this year, which provided significant visibility for their unique solution to this pressing medical issue. The opportunity to meet multiple investors during the program gave the company breadth of exposure and the validation needed to raise significant funds.

With investors ready to go, Gestvision expects to close a round of funding shortly to stay on track for their official 2016 launch. Participating in The Refinery’s accelerator program also allowed Gestvision’s leaders an opportunity to improve their financial model and get expert guidance on its go to market strategy and strategic partnerships. In talking about Gestvision’s participation in The Refinery, Wendy Davis, CEO, said, “There are things that women need to be conscious of, such as how we present ourselves and talk about our projects. They (The Refinery) also help women identify role models, which are really hard to find”.

The peer to peer relationships established in accelerator programs like The Refinery provide entrepreneurs the opportunity to share their ideas, get feedback, and many times result in crucial pivots for companies. AdapTac, a Refinery Fall 2014 program participant, relied heavily on cohort peer input when refining the product for launch. Participating in The Refinery gave AdapTac exposure to and feedback from key EdTech leaders, and an introduction to the U Penn/Milken competition where the company went on to become an award winner.

Candice Hughes, AdapTac CEO, says “accelerators that have a focus on women-led firms such as Astia, Springboard, The Refinery and others, are highly valuable as a means to encourage women to launch new firms, to create role models, and to provide a place where we feel we belong.”

Both The Local Vault, (TLV) an online marketplace for selling and buying high end pre-owned designer décor, and PregPrep, a natural conception kit, were able to work through team roles and leadership challenges while in the safety of the Winter Refinery program.

“The Refinery was a game changing experience for PregPrep on so many levels. … it forced us take ownership of our leadership roles and learn the presentation skills needed to speak with confidence to potential investors and partners. Without the Refinery, PregPrep would certainly not be in the position it is today. ” 

TLV co-founder, Patricia Espinoza told me that “It wasn't easy taking time out from our hectic business, but deciding to participate in The Refinery was one of the best decisions we've made as a company. The program challenged our team to fine-tune our business model and it gave us the confidence to "go big."

Being an entrepreneur is not a solo effort anymore, and connections with other entrepreneurs mentors, investors, educational institutions, local community resources really matter and can make the difference in long-term success. Joining a high quality ecosystem like an accelerator program can help an entrepreneur make important changes in strategy, strengthen their business model, gain visibility with investors and be part of long-lasting support structure with multiple advisors, which will significantly improve their chances of success.

Looking back, access to an entrepreneurial ecosystem or accelerator program like The Refinery, could have changed the direction of my company, and made it easier to grow.

Janis Collins is the co-founder of The Refinery, an accelerator for women-led companies.   The Refinery combines an intense content-rich program with one-on-one mentoring by experienced and successful entrepreneurs.  Applications are now open for its third twelve week program which begins September 9th, please go tohttp://www.Refineryct.com to learn more and apply. 

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Improving Your Chances for Funding: Join an Accelerator

Raising money can be daunting for most entrepreneurs.  When do you start?  How do you access capital throughout the life cycle of the company?  How much should you raise and how do you balance that with valuation and amount of equity you give away?  How do you stay informed on the new and emerging funding sources and vehicles (such as crowd funding and SAFEs)?  How do you simultaneously chase down multiple funding sources, so you drive the process rather than be driven by it?  How do you keep everyone interested and updated?

Raising capital to fuel your startup business is a top priority for the CEO.  And you need to do this concurrently with developing your product, marketing, selling, building your team, among many operational tasks.  It’s a delicate balancing act.  Drop the operational ball and focus too much on fund raising, and you won’t survive the due diligence process and competitors will eat you for lunch.  Focus too much on operations and ignore fund raising means you’ll run out of the cash fuel for your business and you won’t make payroll. 

Here’s Where You Start….

Bootstrap by using sweat equity, accelerate customer payments, get favorable terms from vendors and asset financing for equipment, PO or inventory.  If you need to raise capital beyond this, look to friends and family first, because the next steps require a concerted effort, take significant time and major support……

Joining an accelerator programs is a very effective way to have a built in support team in place to help with your fundraising.

You can waste a lot of time chasing the wrong funding sources (where there is no fit between their investment profile and your company in terms of industry or stage of development).  You need to be targeted in who you spend time with, and methodical in your approach.  Cold calling investors with no warm introduction is a waste of time.  Accelerators can assist you with targeting the right investors, leverage your efforts and provide warm introductions.

You need an inside track from accelerator leaders and mentors who know the right sources of capital and will make the right connections for your company.

Accelerators can help you qualify for government grant or loan programs from your state.  They can help you compete for prizes sponsored by startup organizations, universities and government agencies.  They can get you on the right crowd funding platforms, know the right angel networks and individual investors.  When the time is right, accelerators can help you identify, successfully pitch to and navigate the due diligence process of venture investors. 

And not all accelerators are created equal in terms of funding assistance.  The ones that focus on helping you build strong operations and a long-term fundraising plan are the most helpful.

The accelerators that focus on helping you build the engine of your company with strong content and mentoring will allow your company to withstand the scrutiny of that first one hour meeting with a prospective investor and their lengthy due diligence process.  Developing and executing a fund raising plan with a well thought out long term view, will help you drive the process and access all the different forms of capital you will need until you are cash flow positive.  Investors won’t invest in you if your underlying business engine is faulty and you are “building a bridge to nowhere”. 

In sum, accelerator programs can significantly increase the odds of your company being funded, improve your ability to locate the right funding sources, secure the best terms and help you create a long-term funding strategy that will finance the growth of your company throughout its entire life span.

 Jennifer Gabler is the co-founder of The Refinery, an accelerator for women-led companies.   The Refinery combines an intense content-rich program with one-on-one mentoring by experienced and successful entrepreneurs.  Applications are now open for its third twelve week program which begins September 9th, please go towww.refineryct.com to learn more and apply. 

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How Women - Led Startups Become Billion Dollar Companies

Whoever would have thought a woman could start a billion dollar company out of her Connecticut home? Martha Stewart did. And there other women in our state primed to follow in her footsteps.

Stewart’s ethics aside, she is a stunning example of how women take on entrepreneurship. She used initiative, determination, marketing, resourcefulness, and just plain hard work to build a global media company starting out of a kitchen in Westport.

For me, this proves the point that women tend to start companies on a shoestring, work like a dog to build it, use less capital to grow, and perform at par or greater than male-led companies.

Continuing in this trend of starting big businesses in the home, women led ventures seem to be bubbling up everywhere in Connecticut. In 2012, there were 98,000 women-owned businesses in our state.

Who knows which one will be the next billion dollar company?

As an Executive in Residence for CT Next and through my own passion to mentor entrepreneurs, I have met with over 200 Connecticut startups in the past year, of which around 25% were led by women. All of the women-led startups are still going, and many of the others not.

One startup I like, and think has the chances of making it big, is TurqSport, founded by CEO Susan White in her Greenwich, Connecticut home.

Susan addressed a market need with a cool product. TurqSport swim briefs make it easy for men and boys to get in and out of the surf without chafing.

Test launched in 2012, she sold out in one week. Now in 40 stores and sold online, she is about to hit her stride in her second full season.

Already designing the next phase for women and other activities, Susan has that “women-led” thing going for her:  an appetite for hard work, willingness to operate on a shoestring, incredible resourcefulness, and brilliant vision.

Significant sales and the need to hire more employees is pushing Susan to move out of her home office. If I had to bet, and who knows, maybe one more billion dollar company will have started in Connecticut.

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