Monday, February 11, 2013

"Are You Fundable?" at Ultralight StartUps

We Test the "Rules" of "Are You Fundable?" on Ultralight StartUp Pitches

Ultralight Start-Ups Investor Feedback Forum is one of the leading entrepreneur venues in New York. As founder, Graham Lawlor said to me, it attracted a high quality of pitches. But are they Fundable?

We at the Innovator Evening (iEvening) are friendly competitors and at the Feb 5th event, 3 of their 8 pitches have presented at our iEvening & Startupalooza events in the past.

Since we offer a workshop and a-soon-to-be released book entitled “Are You Fundable?” – it is worth taking a look at what the “rules” are? In other words, what makes a plan fundable (F), what requires a Champion (C), what would appeal to a special interest investor (S) and what needs to bootstrap or rethink its plans (B). This is a distillation of our observation of thousands of business plans and their outcomes. Feel free to disagree – but it will definitely get you thinking.

The winner was an unusual offering that we would not typically see taking the prize at an event like this: a health-related crowdfunding site focusing entirely on giving.

At the same time, the quality of presentations were good. What was missing was the proverbial young engineer with a better, faster, smarter solution to a big tech problem. Oh wait, there was one. He came up quietly to the VCs at the very end, handed out his card and they practically devoured him.

So, while they may have stumbled upon this one breakthrough start-up they had these to really think about. All were good – but were they fundable? (Hint: that’s the name of my upcoming book…..)

1.  Sashka Rothchild - Standbuy
This was the winner – a crowdfunding site for cancer patients to raise money for the unexpected costs of their treatments. Using a very slick site designed by co-founder, Mark Kozlowski who worked at R/GA – a very high end ad design and production company – and citing some critical numbers. she wowed the judges. About a third of all Americans experience cancer and most will find that their insurance just isn’t enough – and they so they wind up owing thousands of dollars. It also helped that a VC happened to have an emotional attachment and was also the first investor in Indiegogo – one of the first and most successful crowdfunding sites.

Sashka had her own cancer experience to relate, which was also compelling.

This is a very interesting proposition on a lot of levels because it is the kind of deal most Angels avoid and  is as much an indictment of our medical system as it is a kind of solution.

Angels have never been fond of crowdfunding sites partly because it depends on the kindness of strangers – a foreign concept for most businesspeople – and because it tends to challenge the Angels’ dominance. But Standbuy won because it was a (C) – a startup that found a champion who happened the first VC to fund IndieGogo and who also cares about cancer. Because of that other VCs will follow.

If you analyze the deal what you get is a site that invites people stricken with cancer bills to hold out their cup. Unlike regular crowdfunding sites there really are no perks – not even a t-shirt or tayband to lure you in. This is about pure compassion for someone you don’t know or really don’t know well. Moreover, the site asks for a 1% premium over the crowdfunding norm of 7% because it is purely focused on cancer.

At the end of the day, what you have then, is an extremely well-designed site that makes asking others to help with your dire needs seem dignified.

You would think that a “misery site” would charge less not more. So, I am hoping that extra 1% would go to promotions which would then attract more potential donors. Otherwise, an enterprising cancer non-profit might be encouraged to go after the same market by charging less - or even more – but then turning the entire donation into a tax deduction.

For that reason this is all about a (C)hampion and not a fundable site in the ordinary sense that investors generally would want to invest if they could. They would want to know how big it could be, how sustainable and what the returns are. Would it have an exit? Who would buy it and why?

We might get some ideas if we went to the biggest issue first. Just how bad is our healthcare system if middle class people who pay their health insurance are reduced to a kind of Hunger Games of sad stories so they can pay for treatment that should have been covered by their premiums?

Very bad. That’s why the Standbuy solution is OK for now but clearly, it isn’t enough. For one thing, I happen to think cancer treatment has become something of a racket. You may not want call it that because of how many people it helps - but if you are reduced to holding out a begging bowl on your way to the clinic then the facts speak for themselves.

For example - a family member was having a mole removed by a plastic surgeon. He saw something that had a slight chance of melanoma. In an abundance of caution we went to the “Big Clinic on the Hill.” After tests, expertly managed patient paranoia, the child turned out to be okay. But, the exploration cuts had made their mark and what a deft plastic surgeon would have gladly done for $1200 was now a $45,000 gouge.

So what exactly did they do for 40x other than dig deeper, take out a couple of lymph nodes and run a slew of tests? (Not to mention, somehow placing me on a number of cancer research Telemarketing lists.)

That’s the solution investors are really looking for – cut the bloated belly of the fear factory and you have an (F) – a fundable proposition that investors anywhere would jump on instead of a (C) – something only a special kind of investor would push.

I am not a big fan of the name, Standbuy because (a) for a very specific site it doesn’t suggest cancer and (b) you really aren’t buying anything. Standby or buy could anything other than cancer.

But since it is staking out a very big issue with disrupting it, it does make you wonder. How about:

i.  CancerBids. Once you break apart the system – each segment can be handled by subspecialist at routine costs. So, you put your care out to bid – and you watch those bills come down. Not all chemo is the same nor is radiation – but that’s what the ratings are for.
ii.  PayitFor.US – in this site I give strangers money but then 5% goes towards an insurance fund that guarantees me a payback if I or my family members get cancer. The best donors also go to the top of the PayitFor.US promotion list if, sadly they are stricken. All donors get an "I gave at the office" pass whenever they get hit up by cancer research charity.
iii.  TreatmentTravel. Get treated for less at places like Costa Rica or the Caribbean. Or the Poconos. There are plenty of fine places that are inconvenient to get to but wind up being affordable. The site guarantees the standards of treatment and helps manage the insurance boondoggle.
iv.  Lab_on_a_Chip. I didn’t make this up but he third world is buzzing over this lowcost device that can run dozens of test in real time. Invent one for cancer and the bloated belly of the cancer beast will be sporting a six-pack in no time and you will be able to afford your longevity.

Rating: (C)hampion

Minteye, one of two runners-up is a cool product that turns those ever annoying Captcha’s into far less frustrating process that also happens to be an advertising opp. Instead copying some bizarrely twisted text, you simply move a slider until a swirling image becomes visible. The now visible image is an ad and you just passed your Captcha test. So why wouldn’t sites want this?

2.  Larry Levine - Minteye

The answer is complicated. Capthcas are a tolerated service not an ad game. So now they are disrupting the model but only if they can sell the ads which is quite a big. As a result Minteye wants to license it to ad networks. Good idea but not for investors. Like affiliate sale systems ad networks  have a way of leaving you with the very short end of the stick. So that model is not too fundable. Then you have the team, which consists of a savvy Ad-seller and some tech execs who are not the primary developers but the US representatives of a distinguished Israeli development team.

Angels always prefer to deal with the primary developers so a significant number of investors will pass on that basis alone. The team is not young and that has consequences. While we can argue all day over whether or not anyone over 50 is Fundable, we can all agree that the older you get the more substance you have to display. In other words, you should  have everything ready to go – the customers, the products and so the capital is just the rocket fuel. At least, that is the case with an product improvement. Their experience and relationships  should have delivered key accounts that are ready to go. Instead they have a great product with no current takers and for that, their veteran status cold actually count against them. Also, the name. Minteye is what? A new flavor of Visine?
Consider this an (S) – for the right Ad Tech specialty investor – which is harder to find than you think.

3.  Amrish Singh - Threadmatcher  
Threadmatcher is the other runner-up, a site that helps men buy and put together outfits. It also helps you find good deals on these ensembles. On a competitive level there are numerous that help men match clothes. There was even pitch along those line on “Shark Tank.” Apparently, all this competition is focused on this one issue: men don’t know how to make outfits and the death of the suit (remember Today’s Man?) has taken them from the simplicity of throwing on a suite and grabbing tie to figuring how to put together a look.

Unfortunately, the men who don’t know how to put an outfit together probably don’t care that much and the ones who do, already know how. And remember men hate asking for directions. So, unless you can find the Zappos of men’s clothing, outfit matching site remains the elusive goal of a many an entrepreneur – a virtual haberdasher’s Holy Grail.

Since the execution looks good this is a (C)hampion – if someone likes them it could happen. Likewise there may be some clothing players that need a matching site so chalk up a lesser (S). But on its own, not generally fundable.

4.  Alden Levy - MyBillRegistry
This is a site that, like Standbuy, uses crowdfunding for a purpose. In this case, it is about funding your loved ones’ education needs and other sundries while at college. Or at least, that is how they started. Their Champion (C) is Scholastic, which has some type of test sponsor relationship. Unlike Standbuy, their original charter was unlikely to have the mass reach that a heartwarming cancer story might, but then again, every student has an extended family that might be willing to throw in a few bucks to help Johnny or Janie get through college.

The site is well designed – not as slick or evocative as Standbuy - but still very professional. Now they have extended their plan to encompass medical bills and eldercare. While their name was decent to begin with - registry is associated with great beginnings as in wedding registries - but it withers when applied to the exigencies of healthcare. They need a name that is more evocative of caring.

For now, they suffer the double-edged sword of a single sponsor. It’s great having them but now investors want to see to two or three otherwise they will think of it as a specialty product that won’t grow on its own even though they have extended their reach. Educational products are usually a specialty investment product to begin with so unless they can find a way to break out with an equivalent of Scholastic in the healthcare field they are an (S) for specialty investment.

5.  Igor Kirtchakov - LienLog
LienLog happens to be my favorite just because they are opening up an arcane area of investment that supposedly smart investors like Robert Kiyosaski tout as a way to sell their expensive training programs. Apparently, you can make some pretty spectacular gains by guying up tax obligations backed by real property. But only specialists have this game figured out. LienLog hopes so open that up, make these investment opportunities easier to discover and manage. Most of all, they hope to attract enough of these investors to create a liquid market. This is a very big promise and not easily done. The name is also too specialized – compare with SecondMarket – they need a much broader title like – LienMarket or TaxTrader. As a result, this is another (S)pecialty investment for which only a hedge fund owner or property tycoon who loves this space would put up his money.

6.  Viktoria Ruubel - Merocrat

 Generally, I like sites that take apart the mysterious and make it affordable. Merocrat does this with the Fashion World where the magic is locked up in overpriced Fashion Ad Agency boxes. So they open up the process for creative bidding by individual creative talents and hope to make a killing off the historically fat referral fees. Maybe, but fashion is not awell-understood industry by the predominantly male investment business and at the end of the day this is another Ad or Fashion Specialty product that needs a (C)hampion or will have to settle for a (S)pecialty investor in the Ad tech/Fashion marketing space which is crowded with deals and not that many investors.

They also have a chicken an egg problem of finding enough creatives to keep enough potential customers happy and vice versa. As anyone who has worked in the ad world knows, it is all about finding clients who are unhappy with their current agency enough that they are willing take the pain of firing them. Or, they have this great new product that needs a great new agency. Either way, it is all about finding those people at exactly the right time otherwise inertia just keeps them where they are. The fundability problem is that Ad Specialty people investors tend to want to enhance the market not disrupt it and non-ad people need to see a provably disruptive idea. This needs significant sales figures to attract a (C)hampion but is not generally Fundable as it stands. Also the name Merocrat says neither Fashion, nor ad sizzle – but something administrative.

7.  Joe Blewitt - Epion Health
What happens when you have  patients sitting about in a doctors office in the age of relatively cheap tablets? In theory, you have 30 or 40 minutes of captive attention of millions of patients. Epion Health hopes to integrate functionality with Electronic Health records and big pharma to create a high value medium. As industry vets they have relationships in place with major healthcare providers and their cloud-based software integrates it all.   

So, they should be Fundable, shouldn’t they?

They are - until you spend a half hour in  doctor’s office where you quickly realize that no is one reading those doctor magazines any more. They are glued to their smartphones, Gameboys or iPads. And while you’re waiting to see the Doctor do you really want to suck up medical information or would rather be distracted until the moment of reckoning arrives.

Generally, investors hate deals that require you to invest in a third party platform just to seed the market. Either you make the platform or it already exists and you build on it free of charge. Since they need to raise money in order to give out the devices, they have a challenge.

Recommendation – go with an app that lets you check in, make your copay and manage your doctor’s appointments. That means they can interact on their own device. Once the doctors like the service they can buy their own tablets or have the pharma pay directly. I could be wrong, but the tablet remains the barrier between (F)undability and (S)pecialty investor.

8. Oisin Hanrahan - Handybook
Handybook is a very slickly presented site that enables the harried homemaker to book a house handyman just easily as they order Lincoln and a driver with Uber. 


Who wouldn’t want to be the next Angie’s List? This might even be better because homeowners are always hiring a fixer and they don’t have to pay to join. On the other hand, what homeowners really prize is a friend’s referral. So these sites tend to do well with newer homeowners and less so with people who have settled in. In any event, this is hardly new ground and so it rates low on the Fundability scale but the right (C)hampion or a (S)pecialty investor who has reason to could well invest in it because the execution looks so slick.


l said...


So you don't like the name of my company. You don't like that I am over 50. And you got it wrong, that our business model is to license the product to (only)ad networks, and that somehow, to you, this is similar to affiliate networks? For the record, our business model is to license our products (we have 5 under development) to large publishers that have their own sales teams, and to large e-commerce companies (that also have their own sales teams), and to ad networks (but NOT only to ad networks).

To paraphrase an old quote, Those who can do (start-ups), and those who can't critique.


Larry Levine, VP Strategic Partnerships,

Startupalooza said...

If Wrigley's merged with Bausch & Lomb then "Minteye" would be a great name for their first product.
But for the product that's supposed to knock out Captcha? I don't know. On the other hand the product does kind of resemble the swirly design on those red mints with the white coating you get at restaurants. Perhaps that's what they were thinking.

I never said I don't like that you are over 50. I love that. What I said is that investors get mighty leery at that age and unlike me, will never tell you that. At the very least, they will expect you to arrive with a package of relationships and deals in place commensurate with your years of experience in the field.

As for the licensing approach, I don't have a problem with that but investors generally shy away from it because it is hard for them to get a return of and they don't see an exit. You could do well but not them.

In general, they prefer to finance the building of a growth enterprise they can sell. They never like funding a company whose fate is in the hands of a third party sales department. Kevin O'Leary on TV's "Shark Tank" would love your deal but consider what he would offer you - $50,000 for 60% of the company, or a direct royalty on each sale with just a few pennies down. In other words, not the kind of deal you are currently looking for.

To finance a licensing deal you probably need a special kind of deal structure and a special kind of Ad tech investor. Or a strategic partner who has the channel and just needs your product.

If you don't like the critique - and it comes with plenty of helpful advice - then you are not going to have much fun on your journey through the funding process.

The worst part is - they probably won't tell you any of this - just a bunch of maybe's.

So, if you hate critics, maybe you should force them on to a chain gang where they have to launch a start-up.

Oh wait, I just did that.

Stay tuned.

l said...


First, I said nothing about hating critiques. I was merely pointing at the source of the critique, which is one man's opinion, and from what I can see, that man (you) seem to have no credentials of experience as an investor. If I am incorrect here, and I may very well be, my apologies in advance, and please point me to the investments you've made. The fact that you spend time critiquing the name of a company, and then spend additional time defending or joking (sorry for not having a sense of humor that would allow me to ascertain which) seems rediculous to me. How about a critique of companies using names such as-- Amazon, YAHOO, Zappos, YELP, or numerous others??? Can you offer any witticisms for name choice here?

Forgive me for noticing how you generalize on the whole population of investors with statements that begin with, "Investors don't like.........". It really doesn't matter what follows, as one (in this case you) cannot generalize about an entire population of any group, and certainly not a group as diverse as investors. As for "who I can do well with" again, let's leave it up to each investor to decide. another of your generalizations that "liscensing approaches" are hard to get a return from is just your opinion, expressed as a generalized truth, which it is, of course, NOT.

Finally, introducing reality TV, ala Shark Tank, which is an entertainment product whose revenue model is based on acquiring an audience to which to sell to advertisers, as a proxy for real word Angel investing is as far from a valid analogy as I could possibly think of.

So to briefly summarize, you seem to lack the experience and credentials as an investor to speak for that community, you tend to generalize and then apply your generalizations to a specific (in this case our conversation about my company), and you introduce false equivalencies, as in Shark Tank = Angel Investing.

If your response to this posting is as flawed as your previous one was, I wil have to decline further participation in this debate.



Startupalooza said...

While I do occasionally invest in Start-Ups my function is to direct great deals to investors. You could look up Violin Systems (expected to go public with $2 bn valuation), Pond5 ($1m NY Angel deal) Partsearch (Idealabs $0-65 million). These were all deals that originated at our forum. There are plenty more.

When you have looked at as many deals as I have. you see patterns - some obvious, many hidden. "Are You Fundable?" tells you what they are how ton use that to improve your funding chances and if necessary, find better alternatives.

Or you could argue.

Nothing like a good argument to get people thinking!

PS as for names: Amazon, YAHOO, Zappos, YELP actually mean something. Minteye means nothing....until you associate it with a hardcandy often given out at restaurants. Embrace it - or find a name that tells people what you do.

(How do I know this? Look for Advertising Age, ADWEEK, a seminal book on Cigarette Branding and my association with the founder of the focus group on my bio......)