Funding issues? It’s not because you’re (black)…
It’s not because you’re a (non-white) founder that you can’t raise the money you need for your startup. It’s because your money-story isn’t green enough.
It all started when Ms. Tatiana Walk-Morris, a writer for ChicagoInno.com, reached out to interview me about my experience as CEO of Jammber. This kind of press is extremely valuable for startups. Good press is free marketing and, just as important, potential investors use local and national press to help gauge momentum. Plus, ChicagoInno, is a local publication that has supported Jammber since our inception, so I was beyond excited.
That excitement not withstanding, neither of us were quite ready for the interview and how starkly different our perspectives would be. It was a great conversation. She was very professional, kind, gracious and enthusiastic about my success. But our perspectives were so juxtaposed that there were multiple awkward silences and I doubted she would include me in the article at all!
The article was about how hard it was for (black) founders to raise capital and I just couldn’t relate. A narrative that I felt was just as important to convey. However, I would be reminded of our polarizing perspectives when the article finally came out last week, about 3 months after we spoke.
I’m always excited to get Jammber more press. Jammber is an exciting company! We’re solving a very difficult problem that touches the lives of anyone who creates music and also the hearts and minds of all anyone who listens to music as it becomes the soundtrack of their lives. We’re taking something as boring as project management and redesigning it for creatives in a sexy and easy-to-use way. It has broad implications because, in the world of entertainment and music, the more organized you are — the more money you make. Streaming has ushered in a wave of compliance needs for music companies and Jammber is one of the only companies providing a solution. In addition to being CEO and Co-founder, I’m also an investor. As investors, we really like the broad reach Jammber affords supported by trends around workflow platforms and vertically focused solutions that favor a model like ours.
That’s exactly the story I had in mind to share with Ms. Walk-Morris as I was waiting for her call. But that is not what the call would be about.
On one end of the phone, a talented writer and compassionate black woman was preparing to use her platform at ChicagoInno to champion the unfair landscape of fundraising for minorities. Her purpose-driven mission was underscored by the numerous interviews she’d had with many disheartened minorities. Budding entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas or prototypes and yet zero investments dollars to show for it. Their frustration impassioned her. And to be clear — her article and mission are important! On the other end of the call, me — a coffee colored entrepreneur of African, Irish and Native American descent who had never known those fundraising limitations and, in fact, had raised more seed capital than many startups ever do.
Jammber has raised $2.4MM in seed capital. Our close-ratio with angel investors is upwards of 70% with a close cycle typically within 4 weeks. What’s more, we are alums from the 2015 Project Music Accelerator in Nashville, TN and we are the only company from our cohort to have raised that much money and still be in business today. (Notably, all of my fellow alums were white-ish — and none of us cared).
My perspective in raising capital was vividly singular. Ms. Walk-Morris’ perspective was itself just as validly enriched by numerous accounts — and both perspectives were true. But after reading the article she wrote on the topic and our phone call I was compelled to lean our truths into the future I am lucky to be personally experiencing. A future where investment capital is largely color-blind and gender-agnostic. So, I consider Tatiana and I partners in the same goal; albeit with different platforms.
Several years ago I remember standing in my living room screaming at the television, shaking my balled fists, jumping up and down angrily at the results of the competition. It wasn’t due to a frustrating loss by my beloved Chicago Bears. Instead, it was while watching a documentary on (black) founders who were pitching their various companies in Silicon Valley seeking funding for their startups. All of them pitched their companies and all of them were rejected. The host of the show presented those events as evidence of the tough road for minorities. “And this demonstrates how hard it is for Black Americans to raise money in this country”, she concluded.
“WHAT?!? NOOOO!!! GRRRRRR!!!!” As I heard the narrator draw her conclusion I was filled with anger and despair as I screamed at the TV, “it’s not because you’re black!! YOUR BUSINESS PLANS FUCKING SUCK!!!!!!!” It bothered me even more that this was a national broadcast to countless people and potential entreprenuers.
I’ve been an entrepreneur for over two decades. I’ve designed and engineered products that have minted billions of dollars for my teams and employers over the years. I’ve had solo-exits and have been a part of large group exits. But even with all of my experience I have never gotten a pass on a sub-par pitch or business model. As far as I could tell, all the pitches featured on this documentary lacked monetization strategies, financial planning and what I call investment perspective. They were good ideas from smart people that were in their early stages of development — but not yet investable. Even as a (black) accredited investor myself I would not have written a single check of any amount. Instead, to follow them more closely I would have mentored a few of them because some were very close to being ready. Which brings to mind the words of hip-hop mogul Pitbull, “ask for money, get advice. Ask for advice, get money twice”.
“Ask for money, get advice. Ask for advice, get money twice.” -Pitbull
This timely debate on the reasons why “non-whites” obviously raise less capital warrants a consideration of what racism is and how propaganda works. Racism starts with intentional oppression. Mental oppression is most effective when you can tie it to things people cannot change about themselves or their environment; such as their skin color or the law respectively. If it’s “illegal” to escape slavery — as it still is in parts of the world — or if you are deemed inferior because of your DNA, these mostly immutable elements create a paradox in the mind in a way specifically designed to perpetuate failure and bondage. When you’re told your success is out of reach because of something you cannot change — it can be one of the most potent of all disheartening poisons. This is the basis of most “isms”: to project hate, fear and judgement onto aspects of fellow humans they often cannot change about themselves. Frankly, we’re going to boycott those types of “isms” as much as we can.
Of course, there are racists in the world. Obviously. But they are the minority. Instead, most people are good people and naturally curious. Being curious and searching to find similarities with someone who looks and sounds different from you is not racism — even if it’s awkward sometimes. It’s something much more valuable. It’s the evolution of all human connection. Afterall, new connections have to start somewhere.
To drive it home just a little further: we’re all just people. Most of us are uncomfortable in a room surrounded by people we’re not sure how to identify with. But, when we find shared identity it can quickly ascend high above any gender, skin color or cultural differences. When it comes to bringing different people together, I’ve found shared vision is especially effective. This is something the late Anthony Bourdain consistently demonstrated while sitting at various kitchen tables around the world.
I look nothing like my investors. Most of us have very little in common in our backgrounds and I can pretty much guarantee many of them have never tried the foods I grew up on like Mexican menudo and “chittlins” smothered in hot sauce. Most of them have never heard the words, “Sir, is this your car?” (Yes, motherf$%*@er, it’s my car!) Nonetheless, when we stand in a room together we are very much aligned. We have a common goal and vision to create a company that generates millions or billions of dollars of wealth while changing lives for the better. We trust each other to do our jobs and we do it together. Racial and cultural differences give way to the power of shared vision — with me as it’s primary architect. In fact, those differences become our strength. But before they ever invested in this dream that is Jammber they had to believe I was “investable”.
But before they ever invested in this dream that is Jammber they had to believe I was “investable”.
I’m not discounting the challenges many minorities have had in raising capital. And for women the stats are staggeringly depressing and should embarrass most investors. But I am suggesting the landscape is changing rapidly and as more of us associate our various skin colors, backgrounds and cultures with extraordinary success — the more investment capital will follow others like us.
So focus on what you can change. Make your money-story so “green” that it transcends all other prejudice. I promise you, it will take some heavy lifting, but the investment dollars will come. (Unless of course you can find a way to bootstrap your company which is FAR better!) That being said I do want to present some actionable thoughts along these lines around raising capital. If you’re not sure where to start, hopefully these 7 principles will help — no matter your gender, ethnicity or what kind of food you like.
1) Know the game. Be an expert in raising capital. There’s TONS of content in books and online about what investors are often looking for. Service businesses, like consulting companies, have very different valuation models from SaaS companies which is still different from real estate or manufacturing companies. What is a “valuation”? How is a business model typically valued? How will it generate a return on investment? If you cannot tell this simple story of return-on-investment (ROI) on a spreadsheet it may not be as readily investable as you think it is. Don’t expect investors to just “get it”. And your numbers need to be VERY conservative because they will still be wrong.
[This many customers] * [This much revenue each month] * [12 months] = [ANNUAL REVENUE]
[ROI] = [ANNUAL REVENUE] / [VALUATION MODEL] / [Everyone’s Ownership/Shares] * [X number of Years]
2) Investors are simply looking to trust. There is no way for an investor to know if you will generate a return on their investment or not. So they lean heavily on conscious and sub-concious gauges. Some are biased, such as “does this person remind me of other successful people I know”. Others are innate and abstract like, “do we vibe and do I like this person”. But it all comes down to trust models.
(As an aside, personal checks from individual “angel” investors are almost always easier to get than institutional capital funded by other people in the early days. Learn the differences and why.)
3) The more your potential investors are teaching you about your business the less likely they are to invest. Investors follow entrepreneurs. They don’t lead them. So if you find that you’re walking away with more questions than answers then it’s a good sign you may not know your business as well as you should. Or maybe you know it really but you’re not as confident as you need to be. Get candid feedback from investors you’re not expecting a check from.
4) It’s not about believing in you. It’s about them believing in their believing of you. Every investor brings a range of experience to any deal. They don’t know your story, your hardships and most importantly they don’t owe you anything. In fact, from the moment you accept their check you owe them something! Just to expand on this, they have to believe you’ll help their dreams come true before they’ll help yours come true. What are the core values for this investor? Have they invested in similar companies before at similar stages in similar geographies? Do they write checks in the size you’re looking for? Have they invested in similar businesses? Qualify the fit.
5) Investing is a team sport. Investors like to share risk. I try to always have 2–3 who say yes in the same time frame. Investors feel even stronger about their decision to invest if other investors do at the same time. Use their shared enthusiasm to generate synergistic momentum.
6) Don’t project your insecurities. Getting a “no” doesn’t mean they are biased. It definitely doesn’t mean you’re not “good enough”. Understand the reason for the “no”. Don’t walk away with your own conclusions. Don’t internalize it. Chances are it’s something you can fix if the investor is a good fit. But if you do find out they are some racist, misogynistic asshole then “turn on your heels” and leave. Use that negative energy to fuel your competitive side.
7) Rejection comes for everyone, regardless of race, gender or background. It helps mentally and emotionally to, not only study companies that have raised money successfully, but also the stories of those who didn’t. Why did so many great companies like AirBNB and Pandora, companies led by (white) people, have to practically beg for capital after getting consistent rejections? Knowing that it applies to them too can help prevent you from internalizing rejections as you polish your investment story.
There is so much more I’d like to share in terms of always “moving towards the close”, being selective in the investors you pick and getting money while you want it not while you need it. But my main point is this: I know there is a shortage of investment capital going to women and minorities in this country — but I’m suggesting that maybe the larger perception is actually a smaller latent truth that is dangerously amplified by other temporal factors. Reinforcing media? Law-of-averages; (white) people get rejected just as often but there are more of them trying so it doesn’t appear that way? Maybe it’s simply that your business plan doesn’t come across as investable as you think it is but lacking candid feedback as to why? Whatever the reasons — I want to encourage you to never ever embrace the lie that it’s because you are a (non-white) or (female) founder.
You have tremendous capacity to create value. As a founder it becomes your craft. All in all, create a compelling investment story on how you will generate 10x-20x returns on their seed investment within 5–7 years — based on rational facts (we don’t need anymore Theranos companies) — and more times than not, people will invest. For every investor in the room who refuses to invest because your skin is a different color 100’s of others will say “yes” if your money-story is green enough.
Lean into our future meritocracy of fundraising where the ROI we generate becomes a bigger story than bias. If we’re lucky the doors of entry will open even wider in the wake of our shared successes.