How do you build successful businesses? The short answer is it’s hard. Yet from the outside, many assume investing and building successful startups is a pretty straightforward activity. Their thinking: money conquers all challenges, and nobody is more flushed with cash than VCs.
They assume that once VCs identify the companies building innovative products, they’ll simply throw money at them and let them work. In the future, if the company is a success, think IPO or Paystack-Stripe acquisition, the VC walks away with a decent return despite adding minimal value to the growth timeline.
But many times, this never happens. There’s a higher chance that a startup will fail than it getting any traction at all. And startups fail all the time; it’s just the nature of the business world. According to Fortune Magazine, nine out of 10 startups fail. That’s why some investors use the “spray-and-pray” model of investing to increase their chances of cashing out with that golden startup that saves the rest of their portfolio.
In recent years, more investors and firms are harkening on to an old truth. Maybe money is not the single most important thing companies need. Perhaps they need other kinds of support to build high-growth ventures even at the early stages? What if an investor could do more than just dole out money to help a young company make it to the finish line?
This is a reality many investors may need to accept. They must be ready to roll up their sleeves and help portfolio companies execute, especially at the early stages. To do this effectively, more VC firms should, and indeed a few are creating something called venture builders.
A venture builder, sometimes called an incubator, a startup studio, or venture studio, is an organisation that develops new companies or startup ideas and dedicates resources and teams to nurture the product until maturity.
Venture builders take different forms. But two models stand out, with the major difference between them being the origin of the idea.
In the first model, venture builders are out chasing innovative startups for investments. The goal is to tap into a wide variety of ideas from entrepreneurs, pick winners, and help them grow their businesses leveraging the builder’s in-house resources. This model overlaps with traditional VC investing, but the difference is the investor’s level of involvement.
However, the second model is slightly more popular. Here the venture builder conceives the idea for a startup or a bunch of ideas in-house and then assembles a team to execute these ideas while supporting them with much-needed resources, expertise, infrastructure and network.
One familiar venture builder is Rocket Internet, which has incubated many startups, including publicly traded food delivery company, HelloFresh and Jumia Group, the Pan-African retailer and its basket of marketplace services. Other notable venture builders include Founders Factory, a startup studio that has built over 35 companies from scratch and GreenTec. There are also famous examples of corporate organisations deploying the venture builder model. One organisation is Opera which housed OPay for a few months in 2018. Alphabet, the parent company of search engine, Google has also deployed significant resources on moonshot projects, including Waymo, the driverless car startup.
But the venture builder approach isn’t without its drawbacks, and it does receive a fair amount of criticism. For one thing, they seem expensive and may not necessarily be the best use of financial and human resources for venture firms—many of which tend to have lean teams focused on deal-making and due diligence.
A good way to get around this criticism is to limit the number of startups entering their portfolio. Unlike accelerator programs and VCs that tend to back dozens or even hundreds of startups each year, venture builders are most optimal if they support a few companies annually. Three to five is fair enough to ensure the builder provides the best value with the resources they render.
The venture builder model certainly offers merits for early-stage innovation. One notable rationale is they test and validate ideas quickly in-house. After all, according to CB Insights, 42% of startups fail when due to a lack of product-market-fit. Venture builders engage in few core activities: business ideation, building teams, capital allocation and team operations. Each of these activities is key. And like regular startups, builders must prioritise similar growth development models such as prototyping and leveraging design thinking and agile process management. Execution and speed are equally crucial to the venture building model to validate ideas and scale quickly.
These resources aren’t cheap. Venture builders typically invest seed-stage funding in new ideas in return for a significant chunk of equity or a majority. This makes sense and could return many multiples during exits.
Beyond financial resources and access to quality networks, one crucial benefit of venture builders is they’re not shy to provide the much-needed human capital to develop and scale ideas. Talent is key to startup development, but acquiring the right talent can sometimes be expensive and time-consuming, both of which would affect startup execution timelines. CB Insights data shows 23% of startups fail because they assembled the wrong team. Venture builders reduce this challenge with their pool of skilled and experienced teams spread across various incubated startups. They also have the resources and appeal to attract top talent to scale startups to maturity.
As the new startup gains traction, venture builders should spin off the company, allowing it to grow independently and attract follow-on funding from external investors. Like regular VC investments, venture builders can exit portfolio companies through secondary sales of equity, a stock market listing or mergers and acquisitions.
The venture building model is one innovative approach worth adopting in developing economies such as Nigeria, where investors may have little understanding of certain parts of the economy. With the correct information and team to assess business opportunities in these sectors, investors will turn back and chase startups in other more familiar territories. Venture builders, including those owned by investment firms and corporate organisations, can help investors capture the valuable opportunities they would ordinarily have missed.
For example, recent Africa startup funding data from Disrupt Africa, Weetracker and Briter Bridges highlight overwhelming investor interest in the fintech industry, particularly payments and digital banking. Meanwhile, other subsectors with untapped value exist.
Domestic venture builders in developing markets can move quickly to help investors test and validate ideas and allow them a chance to stumble on lucrative ideas that have not been explored.
Similarly, venture builders develop companies at the early stages, potentially valuable companies without the high valuation that blocks investors from joining their rounds. The role of the venture builder is to spot enterprising startups and ideas, validate them and then market them to investors looking to enter specific markets or industries.
The venture building model could also prove helpful at breathing life into old traditional businesses looking for new growth in the digital economy. The model frees corporates from the risks of attempting to pivot their businesses into risky verticals. Instead, corporates can set up a test lab to develop ideas, seed them with limited funding to validate the model, avail them with the institution’s network and resources, and then monitor market reception for the new idea. The venture building model makes it easier for corporates to tap into the startup craze with limited exposure to the risk of failure. Successful bets become valuable standalone ventures which can keep growing and later attract external investment at an attractive valuation.
Trium’s execution approach is a hybrid of the leading builder models. As a member of a closely-knit business ecosystem, we’re able to back entrepreneurs, connecting them to experts and valuable networks to scale ventures successfully. So, if you’re thinking about executing your next transformational idea and need a reliable partner to help you out, think Trium. Let’s build it together.