Interview with: Jeffrey Kaplan, Venture Asheville Director. Tech junkie. Media maven. Academic entrepreneur. Dog lover.
Interviewed by: Nancy Critcher-White, Leadership HR Professional and Graduate Student at WCU, studying Entrepreneurship
Nancy (N): Thank you for joining me today, Jeff. While I know many entrepreneurs, when it comes to the topic of entrepreneurial finance, you have a different perspective that I’m interested in learning about. Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed.
N: What is your business background?
Jeffrey (J): Education, Academia, and start-ups. I was a teacher; worked for non-profits, went to grad school, did some sales and marketing. Owner and consultant for Anthroware. Product development and consulting for product developers. For Hatch, I did program events and new venture creation. Bullet points are ok, right?
N: Yes, of course. Bullet points are great. What personal strengths have contributed to your success?
J: I build rapport very quickly. We just met, but we’ve already been bonding and chatting, right?! That trust building was especially important with my consulting and sales positions. And even now with the companies that come to Venture Asheville, I build trust so I can help people in those business cohorts. Other things: I read quickly, usually articles and finance books. I know how to leverage resources and help others leverage resources. Public Speaking is fun. And I have an ability to convey a creative vision.
N: What was your very first entrepreneurial endeavor?
J: In 8th grade, I bought a CD burner. At school, people would give me a list of songs they wanted on the CD and I would download the songs from Napster and burn their CD and deliver to them the next day. Blank CDs were cheap, and I had a good business going. Another guy entered the CD burning business and started a price war with me, plus his parents had faster internet.
N: How would you describe your current business and what you would tell someone who doesn’t know what Venture Asheville does?
J: Two things- Build Entrepreneurs and get companies funded. That’s my pitch. As the director, I direct. I meet a lot of people. Help businesses make connections. I’m usually either meeting with businesses or entities (sometimes other businesses) that can support the businesses in our cohort.
N: I know some folks might come to you with half-baked ideas, what do you look for in the businesses that are accepted into your programs?
J: We won’t take half-baked ideas. If people come to us at that stage in the process, we send them to Hatch or some other business development help. That part of the process is fun, and I still help with Hatch, but it’s not what we do at Venture Asheville. We are looking for businesses that need help scaling. We want a committed founder. I realize a lot of people have side hustles, but we are looking for founders to be all-in. As an aside, I would like to start some workshops on helping people turn their side projects into their full-time work. Other things we look for: Is there a product/market fit? Does it speak to an underserved market? I love unconventional business ideas and novel value creation. Sometimes that might look like an idea or software platform used for one purpose that a business owner wants to use for an unrelated and underserved group.
N: What types of attributes or success are your Angel investors looking for in the businesses they back?
J: Initially, they want businesses that are already making money. They are looking for 10-35% equity. They fund $1,000 to $800,000. They want companies that can grow and scale successfully. They want businesses to sell in 3-5 years of their investment and a 10X return or 7.5X return across all deals. No real estate deals.
N: This interview will be posted for other entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs to view and learn from. As a serial entrepreneur or serial investor, I’m sure you have financed ventures in multiple ways. Do you mind sharing some of your tactics for funding a start-up?
J: Personally, most of what I’ve done is bootstrapping, pinching pennies, and personal savings. It is really helpful to have a working spouse. I’m familiar with all sort of financing tactics because of my work though. Customer financing through pre-sales is a good option for some businesses. Strategic partnerships are something I did a lot of with my Dogphredly guide, which was acquired. I’m thinking of doing some crowdfunding for a current project, oh and equity crowdfunding is a really interesting concept. Seems a little scary but I think we’ll start seeing a lot more of equity crowdfunding.
N: What are your thoughts on financing tactics like angel investors or using crowdfunding as a way to start a business vs. getting a traditional loan or line of credit?
J: When you are in the earlier phases of a business, it’s hard to get traditional financing. I send people to Mountain Bizworks a lot. Lines of credit are great options early on. If you still need money after angel investors have invested, it’s possible their investments will get squashed, so that’s something to be aware of.
N: What general advice do you have for someone who is starting a business?
J: I see too many founders go for the path of least resistance and they don’t stay true to their vision. It’s going to be hard but don’t compromise your vision. Be tenacious and resilient. Be prepared for a lot of shit to go wrong. It’s harder, longer, and more expensive than you think.
N: Do you have any financial advice you would be willing to share?
J: Don’t spend what you don’t have. Take care of your people. Leaders eat last.
N: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you would love for those listening to know?
J: As a founder, you can get pretty far before you need to hire a chief financial officer (CFO). That said, you need to know your basic financial documents, and you need access to your books. You need to know your balance sheets, your PNL, cash flow, income, payroll, and run rate. You’ve got to know what you are looking at.
N: I appreciative of your time today. Thanks so much for your words of wisdom for those reading. One last thing before we end…I’m working on a funding proposal for my husband, A.D. White, independent author/publisher. When I complete the draft would you mind giving your opinion on it?
J: Yes, I’d be happy to take a quick look at the funding proposal. In the meantime, have your husband come to the pitch parties at Hatch for open mic night.
N: You said you read a lot of business and finance books, what are you reading right now?
J: [pulls a book from his bag] This one is “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It” by Chris Voss. It’s non-intuitive advice on negotiating.