A new Australian program is helping female entrepreneurs attract funding.
Start-ups led by women in the US use a third less capital than those led by men, according to US venture capital firm Illuminate Ventures. This has to be good news for ever-frugal seed investors in emerging businesses – and also good news for a new Australian offshoot of the business accelerator program, Springboard Enterprises.
The program was started in the US in 2000 and aims to help female entrepreneurs attract funding for their businesses. It has just launched in Australia, with the first round of applications now open.
More than 500 early-stage companies have participated in the US program, which has helped raise more than $US5.5 billion ($A5.3 billion) for participants.
An early alumnus of the program was Chicago-based entrepreneur and angel investor Lauren Flanagan. Through the program's coaching on how to speak the language of investors, she was able to raise $US23 million for her then business WebWare Corporation, a "software-as-a-service" company that offered software on a subscription basis, similar to the cloud computing model that predominates today.
She now runs BELLE Capital, a venture capital fund based in the US midwest, is managing partner of Phenomenelle Angels Fund and chief executive of strategic advisory business SCIO Corp.
'Good old boys' disadvantage
Flanagan says the Springboard program helps bridge the gap between scalable businesses that are run by women and the investment community.
“It's often difficult for women to raise capital because of a lack of access to the 'good old boys' network,” she says.
She says the community Springboard participants gain access to is just as valuable as the entrée it delivers to the venture capital world.
“It's hard to be a CEO as a woman with no peer network, so having a peer network is worth even more than the funding," she says. "We say Springboard is a bit like the Hotel California – you can check out but you can't really leave because of the peer community.”
Flanagan says the coaching Springboard participants receive helps them to tell their story so investors can understand their business, figure out how they can make money from the enterprise and understand how founders have tried to de-risk their enterprises.
Commenting on the research cited above that shows women are more efficient with the use of capital, she says she suspects it is because women are able to do more with less or because they are more frugal generally.
One of the Australian sponsors of the Springboard program is professional services firm Grant Thornton, which is also a sponsor of the US program. Paul Gooley is Grant Thornton's Australian national head of corporate finance and also a board member of Springboard's Australian franchise. He says the program helps young companies become commercially viable.
“Many businesses fail in that capital-constrained part of the investment cycle. Springboard helps bridge the gap from a business idea to commercialisation,” he says.
Grant Thornton is providing financial assistance to the program, although Gooley declined to say how much, as well as marketing and public relations support. It will also offer participants help in developing their financial reporting.
Why it's needed
Melissa Widner is a partner at venture capital firm Seapoint Ventures and co-founder of Head Over Heels, a network for female entrepreneurs. She cites a study by Dow Jones called Women at the Wheel: Do Female Executives Drive Start-Up Success? as a key reason why an initiative such as Springboard is needed. The research found that of all venture-capital backed companies, only 1.3 per cent are led by women.
“We need to focus on getting the 1.3 per cent figure up," says Widner. "We know that women are starting companies but they're not growing them because they don't have the same access to networks.”
Participants in the Springboard program will typically be looking to raise between $500,000 and $10 million. Businesses that go through the program generally come from the worlds of technology, new media and biotechnology.
These are the sectors where Springboard in the US has a track record. Although Springboard's capability in the US is primarily in these areas, it will also accept applications from female entrepreneurs with growth businesses from other sectors that are seeking capital. If those applications are successful, Springboard will then find investors who understand and are best matched to that business and their industry.
Plenty of interest
Flanagan says that despite the venture capital landscape being in its worst state for 10 years, investors associated with the US Springboard network have already expressed interest in investing in Australian early-stage ventures, as have investors from the Asia-Pacific region.
Australian investors already involved with Springboard's Australia arm include Investec, One Ventures, Starfish Ventures, Foundry, Right Click Capital, Anacacia Capital and AFG Venture Group.
Springboard participants also receive support after capital raising. For instance, they can tap into the network to get advice about how to establish a great board or how to get good legal advice.
The program aims to attract 20 participants in its first year, and 40 in its second. So far nine businesses have started the application process.
To qualify, companies must have a profitable market opportunity with competitive advantage, a track record of milestone achievement, a woman in a senior position with a significant equity stake, and a credible management team or ability to attract one. They must also be based in or have significant operations in Australia.
Companies that apply will undergo a rigorous screening process before being selected to participate in the accelerator program. Applications close December 15.