Is Venture Capital Right for Socially Conscious Startups?

Recently, a friend and founder of a social venture that increases access to basic services for underserved communities in the US, started gearing up for his Series A fundraising. As a mission-driven company, the advice he got about where to look for funding was split down the middle. Due to his company’s social mission, some investors told him to focus exclusively on raising from impact investment funds.

On the other hand, other investors who’d spent time understanding his business model encouraged him to raise venture capital for the strategic advantages it would unlock, including industry expertise, connections, and commercial credibility. So what do you do?

The Questions

If you are a founder building a company whose core mission is to solve a pressing social or environmental problem, you’ll likely find yourself in a similar position, asking yourself the same questions:

  • Should I raise funding from impact investors or venture capitalists?
  • As we scale, to what extent will that external capital support or push back against our mission?
  • How can I ensure that our investors and our company are fully aligned on impact for (inevitably) when the road gets rough?

These questions can all be boiled down to a single issue: Is venture capital right for social ventures? Unfortunately, there is no black-and white answer to this question. However, under specific conditions, venture capital can be a good fit without putting your mission at risk. More importantly, over the long term social ventures may actually be a better investment, as they increasingly benefit from competitive advantages unique to social ventures.

The Sweet Spot

If you run a social venture and are wondering whether venture capital is right for you, your starting point (for entrepreneurs and investors alike) should be to have a solid understanding of the level of impact risk that is embedded in your business model. Start by considering this question:

“To what extent does your business model sit in lock step with your impact model as you scale?”

All social business models lie along a spectrum here, ranging from ‘impact can seamlessly be divorced from the business model’ to ‘increasing margins has the inherent effect of increasing impact.’ The former introduces a high-risk variable as to whether external capital will be helpful or harmful to the mission, while the latter limits it.

For example, Stasis Labs is a cloud-connected vitals monitoring device aimed at decreasing mortality rates among the 11 million under-monitored patients around the world. Because impact is intrinsically linked to Stasis Labs’ core product and business model, and impact will scale in lock step with the business, they’ll sit farther to the right on the spectrum. In this case, limiting impact risk makes them an ideal fit for venture capital.

Toward the other side of the spectrum might sit many one-for-one models, in which a company typically donates one product for every one product sold. This business model is inherently risky for both investors and entrepreneurs, as impact can seamlessly be divorced from the business model.

For the investor in this scenario, increasing impact has the inherent effect of decreasing margins. For the entrepreneur, at the point at which they find themselves in a cash crunch down the road, they may have to scale back on impact — or eliminate it entirely — in order to optimize for survival.

Investing in Impact

Historically, many VCs have been skeptical of social business models as good financial investments, which means that most social ventures will have an extra barrier to overcome when pitching VCs.

However, if you satisfy this key condition of intrinsic alignment, there are a handful of unique competitive advantages inherently tied to key drivers of success that you’ll be able to leverage. As you talk to VCs, you can point to these factors to walk your investors back from the ledge of viewing your mission as a risk, and rather as a competitive advantage:

The Market is on Your Side

Put simply, consumers want you to win, because you are solving a real pain of theirs and something that matters for the world. Additionally, 70 percent of consumers aged 18-34 say they are willing to pay more for a socially or environmentally responsible product.

Better Talent

Mission-driven companies have an easier time attracting top talent, from cofounders and team members to mentors and advisors.

The Rise of Impact-focused Capital

From venture capital to hybrid impact investment firms to philanthropic foundations, capital is converging on impact. From 2015 – 2020, the impact investing market is predicted to grow from nearly $9B to $1T.

Public Support

At their core, social ventures have a purpose that the public can get behind. In the short term, an impact story means you are much more likely to get positive press and PR.

Over the long term, this can return in spades to support the growth of your company through talent attraction and retention, strategic fundraising, and increased opportunities for strategic partnerships.

Application dates for the Techstars Impact Accelerator are coming soon.

Read more about social good startups on TechCo

Zoe Schlag is the author of this post. Zoe is the Managing Director of the Techstars Impact Accelerator in Austin. She is the Founder & Executive Director of UnLtd USA, providing seed funding and venture support to entrepreneurs tackling pressing social and environmental challenges. She is an Aspen Ideas Scholar, formerly a Mentor-in-Residence at Techstars and has worked with social ventures across the United States, India and Africa.

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Techstars helps entrepreneurs succeed. Through the Techstars Worldwide Entrepreneur Network, founders connect with other entrepreneurs, experts, mentors, alumni, investors, community leaders, and corporations to grow their companies. Techstars operates four divisions: Techstars Startup Programs, Techstars Mentorship-Driven Accelerator Programs, Techstars Corporate Innovation Partnerships, and the Techstars Venture Capital Fund.
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