Take Two Yields One Speedy Startup

Will Anderson, a 2006 Stanford B-school graduate, knows something about making the most out of a business failure. Despite winning the 2005 Business Association of Stanford Engineering Students (BASES) business-plan contest, his company, Adaptive Hearing Solutions (AHS), which aimed to revolutionize the hearing aid industry with its sound filtering technology, proved to be a dud. “We had gotten to the point where we could test the technology, but in the end, the tests didn’t pan out,” says Anderson. “The assumptions didn’t hold, and we had to give up. Otherwise, we could have spent four years trying to make something out of nothing.”

Since shuttering the fledgling business, Anderson, 30, started Start-up Fund, an incubator designed to test potentially VC-worthy business ideas. Anderson was determined not to waste any more time than necessary on ideas without legs. “The purpose of Start-up Fund was to find, test, and launch one company that would have a high probability of success (compared to a typical seed-stage startup). Once this company was formed, Start-up Fund would be folded into the new company. It was not meant to be a perpetual new venture incubator,” says Anderson. His plan was simple: He’d spend about one month assessing each opportunity, identifying the critical assumptions upon which its success would depend, and then spend the next four to six months testing the assumptions, with a target budget of less than $100,000 per idea.

Multiple Pitches

For money, he relied on a handful of investors whom he knew through Stanford and the BASES business plan contest. Unlike traditional investor/startup relationships where investors bet seed capital on a single entrepreneurial venture, Start-up Fund relied on investors willing to throw in between $50,000 and $150,000 each, who would count on Anderson’s experience with the failed AHS to determine each idea’s viability. Since Anderson wasn’t pitching one idea, investors had to be convinced that he would be able to find good ideas, identify and test the critical assumptions, and then execute a business strategy to make the company successful. And Start-up Fund was designed to own equity in the company that resulted from it, so the investors wouldn’t receive a payout until the company achieved a successful exit in either an IPO or acquisition.

The ideas Anderson tested came from a variety of sources. Some of the 10 or so on his list were his own. Others were technologies developed at Stanford or ideas referred through contacts in VC firms, where partners see a lot that are just too early for their funds. “It used to be the case that an engineer could get funded with little more than a patent application,” says Anderson. “But, in the last seven or eight years, VCs are now doing less but bigger deals. This means they have to chase the bigger, later-stage deals and can’t focus so much on the seed deals. This is the market gap that I wanted to exploit,” says Anderson.

The Bottom Line

Anderson believed an entrepreneur with a good idea might only need $100,000 to test a potential blockbuster, but with all the other costs—including manpower, technology, market research, and other resources—the actual cost could approach $500,000 to prove its worth. Start-up Fund’s system was designed to wipe out the extra $400,000 in expenses.

Many times, entrepreneurs need to raise seed capital from a number of different investors, only later going to the VCs if the idea has the promise of scalability and big profits, says Anderson. But he believes it’s important to do the testing before building out a whole company structure. “You wouldn’t want to build a huge sales force before you know your technology,” says Ira Ehrenpreis, general partner at Technology Partners, a Palo Alto (Calif.)-based venture capital firm. “The [venture capitalist’s] discipline is in the initial identification in what the elements of risk are, and ensuring that you’re capitalizing a company to reach discrete risk mitigation milestones,” Ehrenpreis adds.

Start-up Fund embraced that idea. It just sped up the process by removing the inefficiencies of the startup process. It enabled Anderson to test several ideas under one legal entity, without going through a separate fund-raising process for each, while maintaining the ability to kill an idea that didn’t pass validation. “Rather than investing $500,000 to test one idea under the old model, a similar amount of money could test three or four ideas under the Start-up Fund model,” says Anderson. And they would get a bigger stake in the resulting company—providing it is successful.

In the Driver’s Seat

Anderson was in the process of testing various ideas when he hit pay dirt: a Web-based automobile loan origination platform with products aimed at solving problems faced by dealerships, lenders, and borrowers. He quickly set about launching the new business, folding Start-Up Fund into it and maintaining the same pool of investors. His new company, Risk Allocation Systems, closed its Series A funding and officially incorporated on Mar. 21. On July 1, the Redwood City, (Calif.)-based company will launch its first lending products in California, with initial customers consisting of Bay Area automobile dealerships and lenders.

“For me, I just wanted to build and manage a fantastic company. Start-up Fund gave me a better starting point for doing that,” says Anderson. Today he is doing what he originally set out to do—using his experience with failure to increase his chances of success.



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