Blog: Houston Isn’t Silicon Valley and That’s a Good Thing

Published on November 11th, 2019

Houston Isn’t Silicon Valley and That’s a Good Thing

As WeWork’s fall from grace continues to dominate the headlines and we monitor the slew of layoffs and dipping share prices afflicting this year’s Silicon Valley darlings, we reflect on Houston’s own startup ecosystem. How are Houston startups and investors similar to and different from Silicon Valley early-stage deals? What are the drivers and factors that may be unique to Houston and how do they influence outcomes? Jamie Jones, Executive Director of Lilie, sat down with early stage investor and Rice Business alum, Dougal Cameron of Golden Section Technology Venture Capital (GSTVC), to discuss the Houston startup and funding ecosystem. From that discussion, a number of key features emerged:

From Cameron’s experience, Houston investors have historically focused on unit economics and profitability, in addition to top line growth, as their key performance measures. As an enterprise software investor, he notes that an indicator of a healthy venture that warrants early stage investment is one where profitability can be achieved as the venture reaches the $1M revenue mark. Cameron, like other early stage investors in Houston, are interested in ventures that produce sustainable growth not only growth for growth’s sake.

While early stage investment capital in Houston does flow, it does not do so at the same check sizes and the same velocity that you may see in Silicon Valley (Analysis of Pitchbook data indicates that Houston firms raised $28.1M in seed and early-stage funding in Q3 2019 versus $2.86B for Silicon Valley based ventures). The belief is that the density of the capital network in Silicon Valley means that if you get one $500,000 check then you will very likely to get others. Cameron noted that he believes the effects of loss aversion are on full display—no firm wants to be the one that passes on the next Google. However, in Houston, entrepreneurs must be scrappy to pull together funding and ensuring they hit milestones along the way in order to drive scarcer investment into their ventures. From Cameron’s perspective, Houston entrepreneurs own their cash balance and strive to keep their overhead low by working out of cheaper spaces, leveraging friends and family to contribute to the venture in its early days, etc.

With fewer investment dollars flowing in Houston, the use of Simple Agreements for Future Equity (SAFEs), which are common in Silicon Valley, are rarely used in Houston. Why? Cameron believes that using unpriced and loosely binding agreements may work in an ecosystem where startups are pushed for rapid top-line growth and may be burning through tens-of-thousands of dollars per month and will need to raise capital quickly, which will drive a pricing event. However, in Houston, investors may prefer arrangements that provide some downside risk. Examples include convertible notes that include a lien on assets, which would be virtually unheard of in Silicon Valley, or through priced fundraising rounds. Without broad and deep capital networks and the pressure of rapid top-line growth, near term pricing events are not guaranteed, pushing Houston investors to prefer other deal structures.

While everyone agrees that Houston and the robust startup ecosystem that is growing across the city needs more cash to catalyze growth, Cameron firmly believes that new capital coming into the city must be the right type of capital. Capital that will not negatively distort the ecosystem by driving early-stage entrepreneurs to strive for top-line growth that is not sustainable through a profitable business model, will not offer exorbitantly-sized seed rounds removing the entrepreneur’s need to be scrappy and cost conscious, and must understand that many Houston entrepreneurs seek to build businesses that have lasting impact and are not only “growing to close,” the model Silicon Valley seems to have embraced over the past 7-10 years. Cameron is nervous that first big checks that come from outside Houston will push unprofitable businesses forward and will sour the market for local investors that are starting to engage in startup-investing.

While everyone always looks to Silicon Valley as the model of the ideal startup ecosystem, Houston may offer a look into the model of the future—one that is focused on building durable, profitable businesses by right-sizing growth over the venture’s life-cycle. For Houston-based entrepreneurs, this means the opportunity to access capital that emphasizes sustainable, smart growth.

By:
Jamie Jones, Executive Director of the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Rice University.
Dougal Cameron, Managing Director, Gold Section Technology Ventures and 2013 Rice Business alum.

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