How To Fund a “Fat Startup”


These days, we focus a lot more on lean startups than startups that require capital to get going. The entire industry has moved away from the “fat” startup category. Investors expect that you will have your product launched, customer acquisition model fleshed out fully, and a team in place before Series A.

However, infrastructure software, hardware, networking, chips—they need capital. Even in cloud software, to build complex technology like personalization and analytics requires some investment.

While we steer people mostly along lean startup paths in the 1M/1M program, I have pondered and investigated the question: How do people fund the “fat startups” these days?

I am seeing a few trends:

—You need track record to get VCs to write big checks right away, so, often, it is the serial entrepreneurs who get these opportunities.

—Some VCs incubate such companies with their Entrepreneurs In Residence, who are typically serial entrepreneurs.

For first time entrepreneurs, the options are more limited.

—The most viable option is to bootstrap using services.

—Deep domain knowledge in a certain business may also give you access to capital.

—A coherent, high-powered team that is willing to work for equity and build a prototype, along with a clear vision of product, customer need, and customer acquisition model, may sometimes work as well.

A few examples:

Ash Ashutosh is a serial entrepreneur who worked as an EIR at Greylock, a top venture firm, and once he scoped out the market need, Greylock gave him the money to build his product. In effect, Actifio, Ash’s fat startup, was incubated inside Greylock, the venture firm.

Andres Rodriguez, founder of fat startup Nasuni, has deep domain knowledge in storage and he is a serial entrepreneur with track record. Raising money was based on those two core factors.

Alon Maor, CEO of fat startup Qwilt, demonstrates an interesting use of bridge financing with Series A (typically, the first institutional round of financing) already negotiated. The product was released 20 months after Series A, which means the Series A financing happened without much other than a clear vision of what the product was going to be and feedback from customers that they wanted the product.

Alon says, “In our case, since we are approaching the carrier space, which is a large software-based capital intensive project, the incubation we did was through 15 worldwide carrier references. We had endorsements from those carriers who said they were behind the idea and recognized our approach as the future of the market.”

Alon did something very nifty. He went to Silicon Valley VCs and sold the concept, and learned that they would be willing to fund his Series A based on the proven customer interest. He also put together a high-powered team of 10 people with deep technical expertise ready to join upon funding.

Then, andthis is where the story gets really interesting, he went to a set of angel investors who knew him from prior companies, and raised a seed round as a bridge into the Series A.

Complex? Yes. Smart? Yes. I would say, very smart.

In this case, funding happened because of a combination of factors: domain knowledge, customer interest, VC interest, and evidence of a strong team ready to come on board post-financing.

Austrian entrepreneur Alexander Zache has deep domain knowledge in art auctions. He is a first-time Internet entrepreneur from a family steeped in the arts business. He managed to raise series A financing from VCs in Berlin on a slide-deck that explained the core concepts, including a phenomenally lucrative business model: his company Auctionata takes 20 percent commission from buyers and 20 percent from sellers, competing head-on with Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Alex says: “Yes, and we have a very credible strategy for bringing that business online. When I look back at that presentation today, I can see that we have executed exactly what we said we would. We have also hit the revenues exactly as we said we would.”

Please note, there are certain VCs who are particularly good at these kinds of investments. Asheem Chandna and Vinod Khosla come to mind in the IT infrastructure space. Chandna’s investment in Delphix is a good example of funding a fat startup based on a concept. Delphix was founded in 2008 by entrepreneur Jedidiah Yueh, who had earlier founded and sold data de-duplication company Avamar to EMC for $165 million. Vinod Khosla is one of the very few VCs who have not abandoned their interest in cleantech, a capital-intensive industry where the lean-startup model has limited applicability.

While the industry is obsessed with lean startups these days, I believe there is tremendous value in understanding how to continue to build fat startups as well, alongside the lean ones.

Sramana Mitra is the founder of One Million by One Million (1M/1M), a global virtual incubator that aims to help one million entrepreneurs globally to reach $1 million in revenue and beyond. She is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and strategy consultant, she writes the blog Sramana Mitra On Strategy, and is author of the Entrepreneur Journeys book series and Vision India 2020. From 2008 to 2010, Mitra was a columnist for Forbes. As an entrepreneur CEO, she ran three companies: DAIS, Intarka, and Uuma. Sramana has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Follow @sramana

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