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Venturing Onward: What do Investors Really Want in a Start-Up? 

Wednesday, Mar 20 2013

Of the three San Francisco-based tech companies -- Koozoo, Zumper, and Contextly — that put it on the line last week at South by Southwest's Accelerator start-up competition, only Koozoo advanced to the second round, where the team got to spend a bit more time in front of the coveted technorati crowd. The co-inventor of the Ethernet, Robert Metcalfe, was among the judges. In the end, Koozoo also came up short. A social network for maps called Plotter was the victor and to the victor goes an oversized $4,000 dollar check, free hosting from Rackspace for a year, and other tech swag.

Koozoo's Drew Sechrist knows that even making it into the competition was a success. "We got in front of the community we care about," he says. The start-ups on stage represent the latest in what's out there in the world of apps and tech; they're one side of the coin. The other is the judges, those who invest. For Sechrist and others in the tech industry, getting into the same room as some of these judges might mean the difference between a public offering and a private cry.

So who are the people behind the people behind the birds, tweeting, angry, or otherwise?

There's Google, NBC News, angel investors, venture capitalists. Also Ray Bradford, a judge for the Innovative Web Technologies section of the competition and investment partner at Menlo Park's Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Bradford focuses on investments for the firm's digital practice and, a year-and-a-half into his post, he's heard many dreams from hungry entrepreneurs.

Bradford is a gatekeeper, his firm a powerful one. When asked about what he looks for when evaluating an entrepreneur and their ideas, Bradford offers an aside about an ESPN Outside the Lines piece on Michael Jordan he recently saw. The gist was that it's not about being the best, but it's about one's refusal to lose. Though a bit trite, it applies for a start-up business: An entrepreneur's scrappiness and dogged determination go a long way.

"In our business model we are trying to find a company that is going to be the next household name," he says, that name preferably becoming a Google or Twitter. It's Bradford's job to be ahead of the curve. The uniqueness of vision, large market viability, and product defensibility are things that need to be taken into account when evaluating a potential investment.

KPCB isn't interested in companies that will be passing trends. An entrepreneur that really wants to build a meaningful business for the long term, that's the stuff. "A lot of really smart entrepreneurs are seeing up through a year of [their business]," he says. Now that's the secret sauce.

The 27-year-old Bradford is a Stanford MBA graduate who most recently helped Amazon Web Services grow its cloud infrastructure business. Featured in last year's Forbes "30 Under 30: Finance" list, he is someone startups would love to have in their corner. He sees the genesis of an innovative business. Common folk see the finished product.

So, young entrepreneurs, what does it take to get in a room with Bradford? "I want people who are building really great products and changing people's lives," he says. If that sounds like a tall order, it is. Nobody said it was going to be easy getting a meeting. Bradford's time is valuable and his insights doubly so.

One thing Bradford also takes into account is the entrepreneur's story. He wants to know what drives them. How did they come up their idea? Their journey will give Bradford a portal into how that particular entrepreneur thinks. Call it part of his vetting process, but when he meets someone with a product that excites him, he's all in.

What it comes back to is the salt of an entrepreneur. Their ambition and drive. "The [people] who have an idea and won't be denied to go build it, venture capitalist be damned ... you want to see that focus on product to grow your business," he says.

Though he hasn't been at KPCB long, Bradford knows through experience that his intuitions and assessments will eventually be able to be broken down and evaluated. A sortable track record of accomplishments and failures. Pattern matching he calls it. Data analysis is big business. Bradford knows it. The data on him, however, is still being compiled.

He has to go now. He is needed in the SXSW Accelerator green room. It's almost time for him to be a judge. Before he departs, he offers some old startup adage: Be stubborn on the vision, but be flexible on how to get there. Time to go to work.

About The Author

Ian Joulain


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