4th Nov 2019 in Business
It’s a strange mysterious world of angels, venture and the dream of a unicorn – all part of the journey of start-up businesses across the globe. And, in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter Raise Ventures is helping start-ups understand that the reality isn’t what it is portrayed in thousands of publications and books that purport to support.
With a potent team of four seasoned investors and business people they collectively literally, raised the bar for start-ups in Belfast.
Raise Ventures, however, is not focussed on just helping businesses get cash, according to Marty Neill.
“Money is not the journey, this is where people go wrong,” he said. “They think that money is the journey.
“Investment is useless without advice and experience, and guidance, wise investors don’t just give you money and leave you to it.”
And, it is a lesson that Raise Ventures is keen to emphasise as they continue their programme of backing companies get started on their path through a six-month partnership, that begins with communications.
Jenny Ervine explained: “We’re very much front ending our program. The first six weeks out of six months is almost everything you need to learn about a business. But those real principles of, if you get an investor and you get a sensible deal this is what you should be looking for.
“I know in that early stage, when you’re having conversations, because conversation can take a long time to actually get investment, with us you know that you’re prepared.”
It is the multi-skilled background of Raise Ventures that adds the value, more than just ‘what stake is available’, ‘how much you need’ or ‘help me reach markets’ approaches.
It’s no surprise that they are based in ‘Silicon Alley’ – otherwise known as Commercial Court – in the heart of Cathedral Quarter, however, it is not out of a desire to be in one of the coolest postcodes in business. Practicability in terms of the location and associated infrastructure is an ethos that speaks to Raise Ventures approach.
“From that we saw there is a real need for start-ups get help with the foundations of their business,” Jenny explained. “It can be about building the team, building the expertise, finding the gaps that they don’t know are there. Then being about to fill that with experts and marketing is one of those problems that start-ups always need help with. That’s what brought us to Raise Ventures.”
Jenny explained how that developed: “We were thinking we’re entrepreneurs and if we can help entrepreneurs from our successes and our mistakes, then we would like to run a program that’s for entrepreneurs by entrepreneurs.”
The team at present is made up of Marty, Jenny, Matt Johnston, and Michael McDowell. The mix of background, but common experience is what helps them understand the issues and solutions faced by start-ups.
With thousands of so-called start-ups becoming ever more visible Matt said there needs to be caution for all involved.
“The danger is people think you can walk into a building and walk out a year later with a business,” he said. “You can’t. You can walk in with an idea and walk out a year later with a slightly better idea.”
It is what has led to the Raise Ventures practices, the first stage of which is working with the right cohort of start-ups.
“The idea is six companies come in and get their mentor and their advice, their office space, the connections, and get investor ready” Jenny said. “In return for that, we’re giving our time, our energy, for 6% of the company. We’re really helping them found their company, get them from idea stage to business stage. And, their successes and then we’re successful. If they’re not successful, then we’ll not be.”
She admits that for some companies giving away a stake in their company can be a frightening experience.
“It is scary. A start-up is partly about getting those cost tables right,” she said. “Getting the shareholding right early on, is really quite challenging.
“You need to get that right to make sure that it is founded correctly, set up properly, and ready for the next two or three rounds of investment to bring capital into the business.
“To build whatever product or service it is that you’re building. So, 6% isn’t a lot and we’re very, very flexible in terms of what we offer. We don’t want to hold anybody up in the next investment round. She continued: “If a good investor came in and said ‘you know, we want to invest in this company but we don’t want minority shareholders; then that’s okay too. We want to be flexible and supportive to the companies. That’s the most important part.”
For Matt, the development of his own iPOS point of sales company gave him the realisation that for all the fun of a new business eventually there comes reality knocking on then door.
“When you start running a business and its chaotic and fun and everybody is running about and really cool stuff but at some point you’ve got to pay your investors back,” he said “You’ve got to get serious at some point. I call this the great big ball of wool guys and here’s the next big ball of wool; running down the street chasing it like a kitten. At some point you’ve got to go ‘I’ve got it all I don’t need another one’.”
With their own experiences the Raise Ventures team understands that there is a certain mindset they are looking for, as much as the product itself.
“They have to be hungry, they have to be determined and you have to be resilient. You need to have passion for your product and know it inside-out and upside-down and live and breathe it, 24-7,” Jenny explained. “Having the drive to succeed and resilience and knowing that you will make mistakes and knowing that you will get 100 nos before you get a yes and being able to pick yourself up and get off the ground and go for the next meeting. Go for the next pitch.”
Matt agrees with that assessment: We are about providing an environment where people can get progress, rather than an environment where they are treated like children. I don’t need children, I need real adults who want to go on a journey in their lives. That journey is hard and yes there’s not a lot of perks.”
Despite these reality checks Jenny is confident that the future of entrepreneurship is safe in Belfast.
”I was making a list only yesterday of the number of start-ups in Belfast and I think I had 50 names written down on the page. And that was only off the top of my head.
“It’s amazing that there’s that kind of entrepreneurialism in Northern Ireland.”
The Raise Ventures Accelerator programme has recently heard pitches from several businesses to add to the successes they have already achieved. As well as the Accelerator programme Raise host regular events to inform businesses, have a space in Silicon Alley for businesses for hire.
To learn more visit www.raise-ventures.com.