Category Archives: Angel Investors

In Praise of Angels: how angel investors are shaping impact investing

I love angels. A 2011 CBS News survey found that 77% of American citizens believe in the existence of angels. And whilst I was born in the United States, these are not the angels I’m praising in this blog! I’m referring to a group of high net worth investors (HNWIs) who invest in the early stage impact-oriented deals that we support.

From the very start of ClearlySo, angels have played an immensely vital role in our company’s development. In 2010, we began by doing “Social Investment Speed Dating” in which 8 to 10 angels met 8 to 10 potential investees.  Believe it or not, these speed dates resulted in numerous transactions.

In 2012, we brought structure to this network and launched a small tightly-managed and very engaged group of investors called ClearlySo Angels who sit at the centre of our much larger Individual Investor Network. These two networks formed the backbone of our business in the early days and remain vitally important to us for identifying the future stars of the impact investment sector. Angel investors also provided much of the capital which has enabled our firm to survive.  We have over 40 angel investors at present and are always looking for great angels to join our growing base of supporters.

Long before a meaningful institutional investment impact investment marketplace formed, angel investors in the UK where the only game in town. Frankly, an institutional market is only still starting to form.

So, what makes angel investors so great? First, they can do what they want. They do not operate through committees, subcommittees, task forces, departments and all the fabric that is required of large financial institutions. Angels can act on impulse – they can do as they please and can do it quickly. Angel investors also have a substantial amount of money, particularly when they act as a group.  At ClearlySo, we currently have over 700 angel investors in our networks, and this means we can galvanise a significant amount of capital for early growth impact businesses.

Angel investors typically possess skills, expertise and experience which have helped make them wealthy in the first place (especially those who have made rather than inherited their wealth). When they get involved in young companies, they significantly enhance the human capital of the business and the social capital via the contacts and networks they possess.

Therefore, angel investors are a critical part of the UK ecosystem for growing important high-impact businesses, which can deliver great returns and change the world in the process. A good example is the story of Justgiving, which was recently highlighted in a blog post by my colleague Mike Mompi.  Since the formal launch of our networks in 2012 we have assisted 95 early stage impact businesses to raise more than £44m of capital. Many of these growth companies have also gained nationwide recognition – nowhere has this been more celebrated and more obvious than the UKBAA’s recent Angel Investment Awards ceremony, which took place on 6th July 2017.

Several of my colleagues from ClearlySo attended this dinner and we invited several our investor and investee clients to join us.  In the run-up to the ceremony we were aware that six of our previous clients were up for awards which made the evening particularly exciting for us. We were delighted that four of ClearlySo’s former and current clients – 3 impact businesses and 1 impact angel investor:

Bulb Energy won Scale Up Team of the Year.

Fair Finance won Best Social Impact Investment.

Powervault won Best Angel-Crowdfunding Investment.

Meganne Houghton-Berry won Angel Investor of the Year.

(You can find a full list of the other winners here.)

These awards have been going for twelve years, but the special category for impact has only been in place for five years (ClearlySo clients have won the award four times out of those five!).  This signifies how recently impact entered the mainstream.

Apart from the shameless bragging on my part, I think there are a few important points to make about the significance of this event. First, is the rising importance of angel investment in the early stage ecosystem in the UK as exemplified by the growing popularity and influence of the UKBAA and of HNWIs generally. Secondly, it’s fascinating to us that in just five years organisations and individuals linked to impact have seen their share of the awards grow from one token award in 2012 to 3 awards into 2017. I believe in the next 10 to 20 years it will be considered weird for a business not to have some impact story. Perhaps by that point there will be no need for impact categories and we will recognise that all firms deliver impact.

This is really the essence of our thinking at ClearlySo. It also formed the core concept around which ClearlySo ATLAS was developed. ClearlySo ATLAS is our recently launched product which expertly and efficiently assesses the impact of all investees of private equity and venture capital fund managers. Angels have led the way in impact investing, and I believe that PE/VC firms will be right behind them. Both Angels and PE/VC firms have significant and influential stakes in their investees, and as they start to care about impact, the world will see change.

While UK financial regulations mean that we are not yet permitted to market to mainstream retail investors, we hope that will change and look forward to the day when all individuals will become impact investors. Now more than ever we need them – and lots of them.

 

 

Let’s start thinking about exits

Barely a week goes by without the arrival of a new, innovative and exciting enterprise into the impacting investing world. At ClearlySo we mentor, advise and promote companies until they are ready to set sail across the sea and spread its impact far and wide. Occasionally the companies have to put into port to replenish their coffers, take on fresh supplies and even repair a few leaks. But our job is to do all we can to make sure these enterprises don’t sink along the way to achieving their goals and missions. Okay, enough of the nautical metaphors…

Most enterprises have a catalogue of goals, missions and impact KPIs, and achieving these is what makes them exceptional and impactful. But what is far too often overlooked is the financial destination for many of these companies once they have achieve scale and stability.

In July, we saw what we believe is the world’s first successful exit of a high impact business from equity crowdfunding, as Europcar bought E-Car Club (a car sharing club using electric cars). This acquisition was a hugely positive moment for the impact investment sector as it set a benchmark for future equity exits.

July also saw another impact investor success story in the form of Scope repaying the £2m that it borrowed from investors in 2012. As the first major charity to launch, utilise and repay a charity bond, Scope has proven the concept of charity bonds as a tool to raise additional capital and increase its impact.

Unfortunately, examples such as these have been very few. Let us not forget that impact investing is still in its infancy and most deals are medium- to long-term and so haven’t realised significant returns yet. Perhaps this explains why exits and building bridges to secondary markets have been consistently overlooked.

It was therefore unsurprising to read in the GIIN and JP Morgan survey earlier this year that investors placed ‘difficulty exiting investments’ as the 3rd biggest challenge to the growth of the impact investing industry today.

Admittedly, this barrier is still eclipsed by the top two challenges, a ‘lack of appropriate capital across the risk/return spectrum’, and ‘shortage of high quality investment opportunities’, both of which the impact investment industry is relentlessly trying to solve and overcome. However, I feel more attention and time is needed on discussing viable routes to exits for those companies and investments that are coming of age.

Is listing on Aim a viable option, given the heavy upfront and ongoing NOMAD and brokerage fees? Good Energy has shown that this can work, as they reach their three year anniversary on AIM next month with their share price doubled since listing.

Can secondary markets flourish and produce the sort of liquidity that investors crave? A new entrant last week on the Social Stock Exchange, Capital for Colleagues Plc, shows continued growth and demand from companies to achieve scale. But will such sector-specific platforms be able to entice the type of investors these businesses need in the long run?

Perhaps clearer thinking around exit strategy even before the investment is made is the missing ingredient to opening up liquidity, attracting appropriate capital, and eventually building deal flow. By plotting a distinct route from one port to another at the start of a company’s journey, we can go some way to solving an important challenge to investor confidence and sector growth.

First published in Third Sector in August 2015.

The Value of Superfruit, Brands and Social Media

Of all the companies we have worked with, few are as colourful as Aduna, a firm that uses two West African superfruits and turns them into healthy beauty and snack products for the “North”.  The website is a glorious rainbow of hues and reinforces the valuable brand, which Aduna has created.  Brand value is extremely important—although starting with products with naturally astonishing properties is essential, (Aduna first focused on Baobab and has since added Moringa).  Unless you are able to create an attractive brand, the company will struggle to be sustainable, and the poor communities Aduna assists will be deprived of the revenues these amazing can generate.

A good friend of mine called Tony Piggott, who had spent 30 years in advertising, was well aware of this and started a project called Brandaid.  Clever name!  More than most, Tony (now CEO of JWT Ethos) appreciated the value of brands and how impoverished developing country communities would remain so, unless they could seize the power of brands for their own benefit.  Brandaid helps artisans in emerging countries gain western brand-value-creation expertise.

I first came across the Baobab fruit myself when my son returned from six months in Senegal and he encountered these fruits, grown on ancient community-owned trees, which possess amazing natural properties.  However, due to lack of meaningful markets, these fruits just tumble to the earth and rot.  I was staggered when just two years later I came across Andrew Hunt at the Global Social Venture Competition and his vision and drive impressed me massively.  Since then, ClearlySo has worked with Aduna on two angel investment rounds totalling £750k, and one of our angel investors has joined his Board.  This is the case in about 1/3 of all the businesses we support, and more like 3/5 when we consider only those who have pitched to our Clearly Social Angels network.

We do many of the things one might imagine a firm like ours does with regard to investor and investee preparation and investment facilitation.  In the case of Aduna, we were able to help in a very particular way.  At the time of writing this piece, Aduna is one of the nine finalists involved in the “Pitch to Rich” competition sponsored by Virgin (Rich, as you may have guessed, is Richard Branson—and I guess he is also quite “rich”, so it’s a double entendre).  If Aduna were to win, they would be showered with money, advice and some fame, as you can imagine.

Becoming a finalist was the result of a public vote and Aduna were in a fight with a few other enterprises, and trailing by a bit.  Under the whip of two of my colleagues, Clare Jones and Mike Mompi, we “took to the social media airwaves” to try to increase the vote for Aduna.  The result was that they came from behind to win by less than 20 votes—we were delighted to be a small part of that story.

Although this is not a core aspect of our normal business offering, Aduna is not a normal business.  From time to time, we are able to assist our clients this way but Aduna was uniquely suited for a social media assault.  Again, it does not work with all companies—there is something quite special about the mixture of West Africa, an appealing brand and superfruits when you are trying to attract social media attention.

We look forward to working with some more Aduna-like entrepreneurs in the future.  I can see a few in the pipeline already!

First published in Third Sector in June 2015.

Joining the Crowd

At ClearlySo, we have helped over 50 organisations to raise about £60m in capital since the beginning of 2013.  This has not been easy, and even though more than half has come from institutional investors, it is angel investors and high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) that have proved an extremely reliable mainstay of our business, funding the bulk of the high-impact organisations we assist.  ClearlySo launched Clearly Social Angels in March 2012, and it forms a small but vitally important element of our individual investor network of over 600 angels.

However, we are limited, due to regulation, to market these high-impact opportunities only to HNWIs and institutions.  As a result, retail investors are unable to play a part in the Impact Investment Revolution.  This was a point made in a recent report by Triodos as part of the G8 Social Investment Task Force, entitled Impact Investing for Everyone.

Crowdfunding is a cost-effective mechanism to gain access to retail investors; we have begun to engage with the sector to provide this access as part of our service to the companies we serve. This source helps to complement the funds our HNWIs can provide and should broaden the market for impact investment.  It is worth noting that crowdfunding platforms have been pursuing us for a few years; the sorts of companies we assist are often the type of company that touch people deeply, and can therefore be more successful on crowdfunding platforms.  We suspect that the crowdfunders also are comforted by the fact that our angels have already priced the deal, made significant commitments and undertaken due diligence.

Our first foray into working with a crowdfunding platform has been with Extremis Technology, which designs a range of revolutionary new shelters specifically for disaster relief.  In this first test case, we are working with the CrowdCube platform.  The entrepreneur, Julia Glenn, has written of her experiences in crowdfunding in a blog.  She notes that crowdfunding is not a replacement for active publicity generation, but rather demands even more of it.  In addition, she makes it clear that having a commitment up front is critical for success – crowdfunders seek to follow the crowd, not initiate.

Although one hesitates to extrapolate too much from a first test, there are a few points to highlight. Joining a crowdfunding platform means two diligence exercises, rather than one.  As this becomes more common, perhaps these processes can be merged.

Whereas we seek to prepare companies for presentations to investors, the wide-ranging questions, which come with a crowdfunding exercise are of a different magnitude.  Crowdfunders ask very detailed, incisive questions through the online forum on the various platforms. In a similar vein, media interest is greatly increased.  Our fundraisings are intentionally discreet; only by exception is publicity generated.  Crowdfunding is exactly the opposite and requires serious attention to keeping the flow of media interest going.  Progress also  takes place in a fishbowl.  If momentum is positive, this can be helpful, but otherwise this transparency can make success less likely.

Nonetheless, for companies that have a “public appeal” (including charities and those calling themselves “social enteprises”), crowdfunding can bring the company to a new audience and forge interesting new connections.

We expect to work more with crowdfunding networks over time, and believe it offers a useful add-on to the services we can provide.  For impact investing to scale, crowdfunding is essential.

First published in Third Sector in May 2015.

Social Impact Investment Legends

I tend to consider what to write in this column only as deadlines approach. Quite a bit has been going on the sector, offering an array of potential topics for discussion. However, the recent death of my good friend and colleague, Stephen Lloyd, whom I have described as the social impact investment sector’s leading legal light, means that at this point in time my mind is frankly on him and people like him. I wrote a piece to honour Stephen on the ClearlySo blog so I will not repeat myself. However, he was so significant that it would do him a disservice to neglect him in this piece.

On writing about Stephen and his life I felt a depressing sense of déjà vu. I recalled having written also after the death of two very different but also significant individuals in the sector: Sarah Dodds and Anita Roddick. As founder of The Body Shop, Anita needs no introduction and her influence on the sector has been enormous. The Body Shop, together with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, were the first two “big hits” of businesses that generate significant social impact. Also, each fundamentally changed the way we thought about consumption.

Sarah Dodds, like many of the hundreds toiling away in the social investment space is less well known but equally loved and admired by those who knew her well. The Canadian born Dodds spent years here in the UK working in particular with early-stage ventures that had scalable potential. She spent much of her career here in the UK at UnLtd running their ventures arm and dedicated herself tirelessly to helping many early stage social entrepreneurs achieve scale.

I feel a sense of rage at the premature passing of these three great people, but I also thought it might be worthwhile to explore some of the characteristics common to them—I have come up with three I thought were worth sharing.

First, the most noticeable trait all three of these people shared was a deep abiding faith and conviction in what they were doing. All three believed, almost as a matter of faith, that the endeavours on which they were embarked had the potential to change the world for the better. Each chose their own path to achieve this although, like any who are cut down before their time, there was much more still to be done. But this sense of dogged determination is something I admired in all three.

Second, all three seemed incapable of doing anything else. It was as if they had received a custodial sentence and were legally required to commit to community service to the sector for society’s collective benefit. They all seemed to have no choice in the matter and I could not imagine them doing anything else.

A third characteristic was an inability to do things the way they were supposed to. They each drove people around them a bit crazy with their desire, commitment, drive and work rate. Although loved by many this did not mean that their colleagues always found them easy to work with. We should recognise and accept that when people are embarked on world-changing ventures, their single-minded focus, their inability to easily say no, or to be told “no”—all of these qualities which contribute to their success—can mean they can be frustrating at times.

I offer these observations above because I wish to remember my friends and because their passing away before their time raises existential questions I do not attempt to address in this piece.  But also, these three great individuals from the social impact investment space serve as role models for many actively engaged in the sector, and also for those considering social impact investment careers.  I think we could not ask for better models.

First published in Third Sector in August 2014.

Taking the long term view in seeking social investment

Practitioners like us in the social finance sector spend a significant part of time explaining to business which generate social impact the advantages of securing capital from social investors.  We argue that they are the sort of investors who are more willing to take a long term and client-centred view.  Furthermore, because they are positively motivated by the social impacts generated, they have greater alignment with the goals of socially-oriented enterprises than conventional investors, which can lead to many tangible and intangible benefits.

The fact that social impact investors value these non-financial outcomes is what underpins social finance.  In conventional finance, investors seek to maximise risk-adjusted rates of return over an increasingly short time horizon.  Increasing “short-termism” and the obsession with profit and return maximisation at all costs has been seen by many to be the underlying cause of the financial crisis.  Social investors value social impact and are keen to support the businesses which generate this.

This unsurprisingly resonates with many enterprises generating social impact.  Their reason for being is not about profit maximisation, but driven by a set of social objectives combined with a need for sustainability.  Thus businesses oriented towards impact, often described as social enterprises, share their ethos with emerging social impact investors.   They also express distaste for the ethics of conventional finance, and a frustration with banks and their short- term behaviour.

Thus it has caught us by surprise recently when a number of successful social enterprises balked or hesitated at financing possibilities from social investors when mainstream banks seemed to offer slightly better rates than social investors.  Suddenly quaint concepts like “values-alignment” were quickly jettisoned in the pursuit of the lower interest rates; even from the “evil high street banks”.

There can be times when social investors are more financially attractive to social enterprise borrowers than banks—as they value the social impact and make an implicit or explicit trade of risk-adjusted return for social benefit.  Some recent ethical bond issues would fit into that category, such as the well-publicised Scope bond.  Socially-oriented businesses like the Ethical Property Company (EPC) make it very clear that equity investors are very unlikely to do as well, from a purely financial perspective, purchasing EPC shares than buying stocks in conventional property companies.  EPC shareholders explicitly trade off returns for the important social impacts generated.

But there is not always such a funding advantage.  Sometimes banks offer very attractive terms.  Housing Associations, even the most ethically oriented of the lot, find the current glut of very cheap bank debt hard to turn down.  Other large socially oriented enterprises we know also find it tempting.  But we would urge them to try to resist temptation (unless the gap is ridiculous).

As we have seen over the last few years banks do literally come and go.  Even those which have not gone under will enter and exit lending markets at speed.  SMEs up and down the country have learned that “relationship banking” was more of a slogan than a genuine approach—at least for most commercial banks.

To build a new financial market means supporting investors who take a long term, values-oriented and client centred view.  This might be necessary even when there is some short term cost to be paid.

First Published in Third Sector in April 2014.

Debt, Equity and Sustainability – Part 3: The great social enterprise lie

I have recently written two blogs with the above title; always intending to write a third, which I have decided to publish in Third Sector Magazine. The series assesses sustainability from the perspective of debt and equity in the economy.  The first piece questioned high debt levels and the importance, as we moved out of the crisis, of encouraging more equity investment. The second analysed the banks and chastised politicians for their criticism of them.  To demand more bank lending while at the same time placing increasingly stringent requirements upon banks which raise their cost of lending, felt unfair and unwise. This third and final piece addresses an ongoing debate around whether social enterprises really need debt or equity.

Whenever the demand for capital in the social enterprise sector is discussed someone proclaims that “what the sector really needs is not equity investment but reasonably/fairly priced debt”.  This statement is normally met with nods all around, but it is highly misleading.

It is true that many social enterprises cannot receive investment in the form of equity. Their legal structures preclude issuing shares. What many therefore seek is debt capital with either a low interest rate or no interest rate at all. Anything exceeding 5% is considered aggressive and beyond the pale. Institutions seeking such “obscene rates of return” are cited as evidence that the evils of the commercial sector are creeping into our beloved social sector.

This is unfair. Most mainstream investors are looking to secure a return that covers their own cost of capital and takes into account the risk of the underlying enterprise. It is in this latter aspect where the problem lies.  Social enterprises (SEs) seem ignorant/unaware of or indifferent to their risk of failure or refuse to recognise that this is a necessary part of the calculation of a fair rate of return. Social enterprises do fail (although research suggests the risk is lower than with conventional enterprises), especially early-stage social enterprises, and social investors need to adjust for this if they are to become sustainable.

The fact is that for small, early-stage social enterprises the likelihood of failure is very high and the required rate of return to compensate makes the cost of the debt seem really high, if not downright “Wonga-like”.  In conventional markets this high risk is offset by the hope for high returns, but typically such investments are structured as equity and not debt, and the return is only realised when the enterprise is exited—not possible for many social enterprises.  Quasi-equity, where the return on a debt instrument varies with the success of the social enterprise, is one answer, but we have found that successful social enterprises can feel “ripped-off”, because their own growth makes the return to investors seem high, after the fact.  They quickly forget that if things had not worked out the investor would have seen zero return, or even a loss of capital (up to 100%).

Thus what we believe SEs are really looking for is for capital which to an investor gives them “equity-like” risk, but at a cost that matches what the highest quality companies pay for debt in the financial markets.  Perfectly reasonable to WANT this; quite different to EXPECT a cost which does not reflect underlying risks.  Social investors agreeing to offer capital at this “wrong” price are playing a valuable role but they will not be sustainable.  For them to become sustainable, their capital base or their returns need to be subsidised by some party valuing the social impact generated by the SEs (Government, foundations or wealthy angels being the most likely candidates), or the risk needs to be reduced (same candidates).  Finding these pots and blending them into the mix to facilitate transactions is a key to social finance.  Being clear and honest about what is really going on is vital.

First Published in Third Sector in November 2013.

Angels are a vital component of the social investment ecosystem – and it works

The social investment sector appears to be growing rapidly and holds considerable promise. This is especially important at the current time, as severe cuts in central and local government spending are having serious consequences for the level of public services.  The advent of Big Society Capital (BSC) and a host of governmental actions made it very likely that the social economy will grow rapidly over the next few years. According to a widely read report done for BSC by Boston Consulting Group, the social investment market will grow to approximately £1 billion in 2016, and will expand by 40% per annum in getting there.

What is also true is that despite the rapid pace in fund commitments made by BSC, it will take years for these funds to find their way into the market.  This is because the commitments are done on a matched-basis and each of the fund managers needs to raise other funds elsewhere—and this process often takes a long time. Thereafter, each of the fund managers, if they are doing their job properly, will take years to invest the funds.  Thus it will take quite some time for the institutional side of the impact investment market to form and function effectively.

In the interim, angel investment is essential.  As delayed as the institutional market may be, the retail investment market is years behind that. Financial promotion regulations make it very difficult to offer social investments to individuals.  What remains are thousands of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) and sophisticated investors who are able, and increasingly ready and willing to back social entrepreneurs.  Not only is the capital these HNWIs absolutely critical, but the expertise, contacts and networks they possess make them extremely valuable particularly to early-stage social entrepreneurs.

Next week ClearlySo expects to close its seventh deal this year, raising over £1.5 million for a wide range of social entrepreneurs.  Without this capital and the advice of these angel investors, the entrepreneurial hopes and dreams would remain just that—only hopes and dreams.  Much of this capital has come via our social business angel network called Clearly Social Angels, although of course as these deals were getting done we have also been able to reach out to our broader individual investor network and other contacts from other networks—a social angel ecosystem is emerging.

We look solid to the development of the institutional social impact investment marketplace, and in time the retail one as well, but in the interim and for the coming years we are grateful for the difference these angel investors can make and are making.

First Published in Third Sector in July 2013.

Social Enterprise (SE) Tax Incentives must benefit SEs, Not the Rich

In 2010, I wrote a piece in this magazine arguing against tax incentives for the social enterprise (SE) sector, saying they were ineffective, complex and unfair—I have also added elsewhere that they are distortive.  Such advice seems to be falling on deaf ears.  Our sector, and impact investment generally, is very much in favour, and this Government is committed to further encouragement through fiscal incentives.

Despite the fact that ClearlySo may be a beneficiary of state largesse I remain opposed to it. Hyping the sector further could actually delay its necessary path to sustainability. Supporting a sector already predicted to grow at 35%+ per annum by BCG and others is unnecessary, wasteful and likely to have unintended consequences.

In the likely event that my advice is ignored, I urge the Government to target the incentives on social entrepreneurs rather than impact investors, for three reasons. First, it is social enterprise, and the positive social outcomes they generate that we seek to encourage, rather than impact investment, which is a means to an end. Government incentives should be targeted at intended beneficiaries of any programme, and the best chance of doing this is to directly incentivise SEs.

One problem in adopting my approach is that there is no single category of social enterprise. However, CICs, Industrial and Provident Societies and co-operatives could be suitable beneficiaries. Another approach could be to reward the desired social impact itself. In this way many social businesses, structured as limited companies (not as CICs, etc.), could also benefit from the scheme.  I appreciate this approach involves complexities but they are not insurmountable. Government would identify those outcomes it seeks to support and the credits could reflect anticipated savings in public services budgets commensurate with the outcome achieved. This is similar in concept to “payment by results” structures, but might cost less to implement.

The second attractive aspect of this proposal is that, if done cleverly, it could enable capital markets to amplify the impact of such subsidies/credits. Imagine if Government announced credits to reward the generation of certain easily identifiable social benefits and made it clear that more would be forthcoming.  The capital markets would favour social businesses and enterprises which generate these social impacts and incorporate estimates about future policy changes, thereby lowering the cost of capital to many SEs. Even today, capital markets value social impact, for example, in anticipating punitive charges on polluters. My approach would use the capital markets to work also when positive externalities are generated.

The third argument against incentives for impact investment is that they would only benefit the rich, as they alone have meaningful savings to benefit from fiscal incentives. A recent report by Lloyds Bank reported that 30% of UK households have no savings and a further 19% have savings of under £1,500. That’s half the population unable to benefit from these incentives.

I am as keen as any practitioner to help ensure the social sector grows faster, but we need to be careful for what we wish for, aware of practical issues around implementation and mindful that this is not the time to be creating loopholes for the well-off.

First Published in Third Sector in November 2012.

Our Destructive Obsession with New/Cool Social Enterprises

Recently ClearlySo was asked to raise capital for a business we know well.  It has been going for over a decade, is well-established in its marketplace, and sells products people like at affordable prices which generate a satisfactory gross margin.  The firm has over £1 million in sales, operates at breakeven and achieves considerable social impact; but the road to get there has been long and difficult.  The lessons have come painfully, yet the CEO has matured greatly, he has built a strong Board with an effective Chairman, and with a bit more capital they could thrive.  Sadly, investor’s initial reactions are somewhat unenthusiastic—I won’t say too due to client confidentiality.

At the same time other newer companies we help easily grab investors’ attention—though they lack many of the key ingredients to success.  A charismatic founder might be in place, but there is no battle-tested team or Board.  A breath-taking PowerPoint presentation has been assembled, but the route to market is unclear, and the business plan, though replete with colourful graphics is bereft of anything which resembles hard evidence.  There is sometimes no product or even a prototype—just the best of intentions and glorious aspirations.

The social enterprise sector must allow for innovation—for where else can the experimentation take place in solving social problems, but things are way out of balance.  In my judgement investors and governments are obsessively fascinated with cool early stage ideas.  We can dream together with the entrepreneur about what might be but forget that things almost never work out as well as planned.

This is all charming in a way, like the romantic notions of a new love, but it has damaging consequences.  Entrepreneurs and their teams have slaved away, experience is gained, customers won, networks established—but as targets are inevitably missed, and reality bumps romantic illusions aside, investor fatigue sets in, funding is challenging to secure and the enterprise collapses.  From a social impact standpoint it is a disaster.  A ten year old business has done the hardest thing—survived—but it never achieves scale, as the dollars move on to the next new thing.  From the financial perspective the unsuccessful investment sours investors on this and potentially other deals.

I think we need to focus more on teams and enterprises that have withstood the test of time and remember that most new businesses fail.  The best indicator of future longevity is years of survival—especially crisis filled years like these.  Maybe we also need:

  • A fund which only invests in firms after year 3 or 5?
  • Mentoring programmes which have a similar focus?
  • A ban on start-up investment in the social enterprise sector (that is not a serious proposal, just checking if you are still reading)
  • Government to shift investment to social enterprises which surpass a certain size or longevity threshold?

I also think we have to stop being so impressed with what sounds cool.  It’s great for cocktail parties but will not help us get the sector to scale.

First published in The Social Edge in May 2012