ANGEL INVESTORS

Startup help that’s heaven-sent

ROBERT LANDRY ILLUSTRATION

Startup business partners Stacey Simmons and Keith Crawford began their enterprise as many entrepreneurs do: They hatched a great business idea and spent months refining it. While holding down full-time jobs, they devoted every hour they could spare – and every dollar they could squeeze from their own savings – to shaping the idea into a marketable concept. And like many startups, in time they began to run out of financing options. They worried that their idea would die on the vine.

But then, a group of angels swooped in. OK, they weren’t ethereal creatures descending from the clouds, but rather a group of ordinary folks mostly dressed in business suits. The group is, however, known as SouthCoast Angels.

In the lingo of business development, “angel” investors are individuals who contribute money to help promising businesses get off the ground. Some 40 area businesspeople reached into their own pockets to create SouthCoast Angel Fund, the region’s first financing pool designed specifically for startup businesses.

Several area venture capital companies have for years provided funding to select companies that have demonstrated a measure of viability and growth potential. Firms such as Advantage Capital Partners and Frantzen, Voelker & Conway Investments LLC, for instance, are active in seeking out prospects in need of growth capital. However, entrepreneurs who haven’t yet progressed to that stage of investment often have a tough time scratching for the money needed to become viable.

The SouthCoast Angel Fund won’t put such aspiring businesses on easy street, but its founder says the fund provides an option that didn’t exist before.

“The entrepreneur community here is growing by leaps and bounds,” says Clayton White, who last year began examining local startups and enlisting financial support for the new fund. “This is the way you create high-paying jobs in the economy,” he says.

White has walked the walk. In the 1980s, he and several partners started a company that specialized in systems integration and information technology for manufacturing plants. After selling the company in 2001, White, who holds both a master’s in business administration and a law degree from Loyola University, co-founded a business consulting company. Eventually, he also began to focus on attracting more venture capital to the New Orleans area.

Convinced that Louisiana needed to join the rest of the nation in having its own genuine angel fund, White began approaching local businesspeople about forming one. “We got 40 individuals to commit,” he says. Last year, he and other members of the new SouthCoast Angel Fund began scouting for places to put their money.

In March, Simmons’ and Crawford’s business, called Omnicademy LLC, became the angel fund’s first beneficiary.

Omnicademy is a social networking platform that enables colleges and universities to easily share their courses with one another. The platform helps institutions of higher learning enjoy economies of scale while providing useful tools for faculty and improved course access for students.

After conceptualizing the platform, Simmons and Crawford spent more than a year looking for startup capital. “We reached out to all early-stage investors that we knew about in Louisiana and one in Texas,” Crawford says. While the business idea was well-received, Omnicademy wasn’t yet at the stage of development that venture capital firms are likely to fund.

Last year, Omnicademy joined dozens of budding enterprises that made pitches to SouthCoast Angel Fund. When the partners got word that SouthCoast would provide them with $500,000 in startup capital, the news truly seemed heaven-sent.

“If we hadn’t secured this funding, we would’ve continued to limp along with this concept as a part-time project, and eventually probably shuttered the concept, losing the money we invested ourselves,” Crawford says. Instead, the capital will enable the partners to fast-track their business plan.

White says Omnicademy benefited from the business diversity represented by SouthCoast Angel Fund’s investors.

He says the membership, by design, reflects a wide range of business expertise and interests – including higher education – that enables the group not only to evaluate an array of business proposals but also to participate in mentoring each business.

“Our overall vision is to not only fund companies, but also to be a resource to the small business community,” White says.

SouthCoast expects to invest between $250,000 and $500,000 into each company it selects for funding. In each case, the fund will take an ownership position in the target company, and one or more fund members will take a seat on the company’s board of directors. SouthCoast’s aim is to help guide a company’s growth for a period of five years or so, and then help sell the business and realize a substantial return on the angels’ investment.

SouthCoast members meet regularly to review proposals. Then, selected companies are invited to make presentations to the membership. White expects that by the time the fund is fully invested, it will have partnered with 10 to 15 new businesses. “Then we’ll probably form Fund No. 2,” he says.

As the group reviews business proposals, SouthCoast also continues to seek more angels. To become an angel, an individual must meet SEC standards as an “accredited” investor. The individual must have a net worth of at least $1 million, excluding a primary home, and an income of at least $200,000 or household income of $300,000.

Members commit amounts ranging from $50,000 to $300,000 to the funding pool.

White says angel investors recognize that the success rate for startup businesses generally is low. “We know these are high-risk companies, and some aren’t going to make it,” he says. But he says that having dozens of investors pulling on the same rope for each enterprise is a valuable asset. “The beauty of the fund is that every angel is invested in every company,” he says.

For more information about the fund and how to become an angel, visit southcoastangelfund.com.
 

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