We have an internal saying here at Brightspark, that refers to a stage that most of our portfolio companies go through at least once in their journey; we affectionately call them the “teenage years”. Just like teenagers, early-stage companies go through ups and downs, including periods of high pressure and uncertainty – they are trying to figure out who they want to be when they grow up.
At Brightspark, a big part of my role as Managing Partner is to work with the founders of the companies we invest in, and support them through both the good and the bad times. Being a mother to three teenage daughters myself, I think it’s really interesting to see how similar my experiences as a mom and as a VC can be.
The “teenage years” of early-stage companies
Growth spurts, mood swings, identity crisis etc.
At the beginning of their journey, seed startup (like children) have huge potential and big ideas for the future. However, they often need guidance and a little bit of handholding. They can be fragile and experience a lot of pitfalls, emphasizing the importance of a strong support system. Although there are a lot of unknowns, it’s still an exciting time for founders and investors as companies begin to realize their vision.
Then, the “teenage” years happen after a few years and typically after two or three rounds of funding. It’s a perfectly normal part of the development of both startups and humans – many things need to be figured out before reaching maturity.
Teenage companies have some idea of what they want to become, but the path to get there is filled with ups and downs. I’m sure some parents will relate to this: there are good and bad days, and it can be impossible to predict which “mood” you’ll get at any given time!
Companies at this stage need to choose their close circle wisely, carefully build their board, group of advisors, and management team to make sure that everyone’s values are aligned. Some teen companies will experience questionable growth sprouts, some will go through a teenage rebellion, and most will have an identity crisis or two.
In these defining years, startups face high pressure to deliver a working product, create value, and build their technology. Most are not at the point where they can meet all those expectations just yet. They have to deal with the unknowns and are questioning themselves.
As a result, they often pivot to figure out the best path forward. Experimenting with different directions can be essential for an early-stage company to define the best path forward. It’s a perfectly normal part of any journey. After all, who hasn’t gone through “ a phase” during their teenage years?
The role of a VC during “teenage” years
Support, communication, guidance etc.
Early-stage companies experience many ups and downs, so it can be stressful for an investor to oversee. You know that the company has potential (ex. good team, funding, technology), but you also worry about them heading down the wrong path (ex. hire the wrong people, rebuild their technology).
The role of a VC during this time can be very similar to my role as a mother of teenagers. The worst thing that you can do is to try and fix their problems for them. Being a supportive resource leads to much better results.
It’s very important to us that the founders in our portfolio see us as a sounding board. We want to be the first person they call. We want them to tell us the bad news and good news – either or are much better than no news at all.
The key is empathy. While the teenage years of a startup can be gruelling for the investor, we know it’s even harder on the entrepreneur. We always tell founders that once we invest in them, we’re all on the same boat and going in the same direction.
Behind the scenes: Hopper's growth story
As one of Hopper’s first investors, we have been with them through many cycles: from the slow growth in the early stages to an identity crisis, and finally – a major leap into adulthood.
In the early days, the Hopper team was focused on slowly building the foundation for what the company is today. The management team was working out of the Brightspark office, and I remember that the guys were always busy building new algorithms and experimenting with new ways of processing a massive amount of data in a continuous fashion. They would have a new build, try to process it on the home-made specialized servers, and then wait for the result. Half the time it would crash after a few hours. Then, they would start the entire process all over again.
From an outsider’s perspective, this progress might have seemed slow but to me, these ‘baby steps’ were needed to build the technology that Hopper has today.
As long as the team kept on building upon their big vision of disrupting and owning the travel tech space, my main advice to them was to not get discouraged and to keep on going.
After a few years, Hopper had a clear vision and their focus shifted to developing the culture, team, and product needed to disrupt the travel industry.
Before they were a predictive mobile platform, Hopper was a website with engaging content that helped people discover new travel destinations. They garnered some positives responses, but it wasn’t the huge success that we were looking for in light of the market opportunity.
Hopper listened to what their users wanted. Consumers were really intrigued and interested in their flight prediction tool, a small feature of their product at the time. Going back to the drawing board could have seemed discouraging, but through this “identity crisis”, Hopper was able to discover a better offering and a perfect product-market fit. The company made a very bold move: they went mobile-only and focused on flight prediction. Hopper changed overnight.
To say that the company experienced a growth spurt is an understatement. In less than three years, the company grew from 20 employees to almost 200. The app has been installed more than 30 million times. To help the company stay focused and work through the growing pains, the best thing we do as their VC was to be available when they needed us and provide our expertise in areas that were new to them.
Today, the company is closer to maturity. Hopper has validated its identity and has achieved key growth milestones. Their technology is not only working, but it’s also leading-edge. Hopper is building models that are able to process more data than anybody else in the market, and it has become the #1 flight booking app in North America, with millions of users. Just last month, the company completed one of largest private financing rounds in Canadian tech history.
However, Hopper still has a few busy years ahead to focus on growth, creating value, and achieving their vision of taking travel to the next level.
Bringing it all together
How investors can survive the startup teenage years
1. Patience is key.
It’s important for investors to have a long-term perspective on their VC investments because it can take many years of ups and downs before seeing tangible results. Sometimes, companies even face multiple cycles of the “teenage years”! Managing expectations and understanding that returns will take time is key. On average, it takes 7 years for a startup to experience an exit event (and sometimes, there is no exit event at all).
2. Relationships are built on trust.
At Brightspark, we invest in entrepreneurs that we can trust to be smart, work hard, and make the right decisions. This allows us to be a supportive sounding board when needed, without having to step in and fix their issues for them.
3. The bad news is always better than no news.
We always tell entrepreneurs that we want to know all the news: the good and the bad. After 25 years of being VCs, the bad news don’t make us panic – we know that they are an inevitable part of the journey.