We’ve all heard it before – great teams with not so great ideas get funded before great ideas with not so great teams. While many translate this to a great management team, it does not end there – not by a long shot. Few who start companies are Elon Musk with the reputation and prior success to attract capital just by clinking a glass or tweeting a call to action. So, you have a great team and yet in today’s risk averse market, even in the VC world, what’s one to do? After four of my own start-up experiences, I figured something out. The board was just as important as the management team. Maybe more important. You put together a terrific, experienced, reputation-laden board where their interest is the key to the VC capital door and often the talent door.
The lesson became clear when I had to decide whether to sink my own half million into the new idea Steve Levin and I were incubating and evaluating that became Bioformix and now Sirrus. Every other time it was someone else’s money for the most part. Still, the teams were o.k. and we raised some capital, but there was always something jot right, always something missing. When it was my own money, it became very clear. After doing due diligence for a decade plus, I realized that I was not nor would my wife let me put in all of that cash, most of what we had, unless others truly believed in the idea that were the leaders in the field.
So, after we had done a few experiments on the idea, made sure we were differentiated from everyone else and had a compelling story with even a big potential customer involved, we started to call on who we thought were experts in the clean and green field. All we heard was if Doug Cameron is interested, they may all become interested. Doug is a very well respected and recognized leader in the green and clean chemistry filed, had worked for Vinod Kosla and Piper Jaffray and now runs First Green Partners with his own partnership. Well, Doug was interested. Doug got Piper interested. Doug got Bob Pangborn, another green chemistry luminary formerly of Dow interested and then Jim Millis interested. I contacted an old friend of the family and colleague, Kieran Drain, who had led Nanogram and had a series of very senior C-level positions throughout the chemical industry, including Ciba and Avery Denison.
That’s when it hit me. They really loved the idea and were pushing me to form the company. If I could get them on the board of a company that did not yet even exist legally, then maybe the angels and then the VC’s would take us seriously. At least maybe it would open the door and get us the attention. Of course, having them on board also meant we had a wealth of deep experience and contacts to help facilitate and accelerate our success. I asked, they accepted. Doug, Bob and Kieran. Now we had something special.
Not only did they convince my wife we should put in the cash to create the company over a period of about six months, the board caught the attention of our first Angel investors after that led by John Habbert of Queen City Angels and after that first angel investment then Braemar Energy Ventures. We actually had competing VC’s and then term sheets in 2011. Now, over $30M later, Sirrus is a great, accelerating, exciting company that will transform manufacturing and energy consumption. While I’m not the CEO anymore (yes founders, it is a good idea to step aside – king of nothing is indeed a poor proposition), my family has a major holding in the company and I serve on the board of a company that would never have gotten off the ground were it not for board we sought out and created. Yes, the management team was great to start, but the board was the key that unlocked the door to a very bright future.
Think about that. If you have that great idea, don’t just put together a great team. Do not just find a leading customer or two. Those teams and their first prospects may delude leadership a wee bit into how great and right they are. The board – a good one, one that enhances and challenges – proves the idea does really have merit relative to all of their other experiences and investments. That relative part is the key. If you find that you cannot attract a board, the odds of you raising capital declines dramatically and the likelihood that you have a great idea is not so likely. Put a solid initial board together, and the sun seems to shine a bit brighter and you tend to have an air of real confidence that will impress just the right people – the ones with the money.