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为融资困难的初创企业呐喊

Chadwick Matlin 2011年05月10日

当一家默默无闻的初创企业的创始人开始大声抱怨愚蠢的融资流程时,他听到了数百个声音的回应。

    如果存在科技泡沫,亚当•尼瑞显然并未受益。尼瑞是小企业财务分析服务提供商Profitably的首席执行官。该公司不提供炫目的签到(check-in)软件、口口相传的社交网络或游戏层。其共同创始人未曾在另一家曾受TechCrunch推崇的初创企业中惨败。你们中的大多数可能永远都不会想到要用这款软件,这是一款专为一板一眼的财务专业人士打造的节省时间的应用软件。

    但等等,别急着走开。让尼瑞受到瞩目的不是他的应用软件——而是他对应用软件经济的看法。“当他们说有科技泡沫时,我认为他们是越来越担心一些行业的某些交易被高估了。我可没有。不管是这样,还是那样。”在曼哈顿联合广场,尼瑞一边吃着燕麦粥加果昔的早餐,一边解释称,科技泡沫可能存在于那些按最新趋势调整商业模式的初创企业中,但对于其余企业,那些不想通过提供二维码户外寻宝游戏,将只能通过图片和本地优惠券进行沟通的五人社交网络扩大一倍的企业,泡沫根本就不存在。

    “我所看到的是所有创业者都在努力寻找融资,每天都是如此。人们打电话给我,希望获得我的帮助。人们想知道怎么找到投资者,投资者不感兴趣。我看到人们总是很挣扎。我看到聪明人也无法达成交易。”

    他们给尼瑞打电话是因为几个月前,他一度成为了无泡沫初创企业的代表。在寻找融资多月后,3月份他终于完成了Profitably的第二轮融资110万美元。为了庆祝,也可能只是为了做一了结,他在Profitably的博客上发布了一个3,000字的帖子,描述了一次又一次融资失败后心情“陷入的无尽黑暗”,以及最终融到Profitably所需资金的幸运。尼瑞发布该帖的同一周,几乎无一用处的照片分享应用程序Color完成了首轮融资4,100万美元。这样的对比令人骇然。在泡沫之中,有人落在了后面,一个新水手挥舞着双手、提醒我们不是每个人都能在狂欢后走向辉煌。

    尼瑞在帖子中尽量只描述Profitably的经历,不将自身遭遇推至一般趋势。但有些仍赢得了他人共鸣。尼瑞表示,关于该帖他收到了三四百封邮件。创业者的评论留言多达几十条。天使俱乐部New York Angels已根据尼瑞的批评,调整了一些流程。而科技媒体被创业者的痛楚所震动,对他的报道就好像对一位“意外吐真言”的政客。

    尼瑞表示,他发帖的目的是为了给初创世界增加一点透明度。“为何这类博客帖不多,是因为人们害怕。创业者们害怕这么做,可能会吓跑未来的投资者。”Profitably内部每个人都知道其他人赚多少钱,尼瑞认为应将些许这样的透明也注入Profitably的外部交易。他希望透明度将带来社区的形成——由很多准备放弃的人们组成的社区,就像某个时刻的尼瑞。

    和足够多的创业者聊,你肯定会听到很多人希望自己不是孤独的——这或许有些讽刺意味,因为他们在办公室呆的时间这么久。这就是为何孵化机构——给予初创企业一个网络、帮助它们打造成真正企业的伞状组织——如此受欢迎。但即便是孵化机构,也没有打造出尼瑞希望创建的社区。

    由于市场中充斥了各种初创企业,孵化机构已成为汇集机构。不管品质,只需吸引注意力。一家顶级孵化机构的演示日(Demo Day)——即创业者们上台试图说服有钱阶层的奇怪程式——已成为一道景观,展示的初创企业获得融资可能只是因为参与其中。如果能成为尼瑞设想社区的一员,也能给它们带来这样的机会。

    尼瑞的帖子在称赞融资示范效应的同时,也发出了警示。Profitably就是融资“一窝蜂心态”的受害者,这种心态使得从未获得融资的初创企业很难向外界证实其投资价值,使得尼瑞这样的创业者陷入了无尽的绝望中。这时孵化机构也不能提供多少帮助——被忽视的、不热门的、不那么惹人注目的初创企业没有自己的社区。有数百家初创企业处于这个层面,被束之高阁,最后只留下一个可讲给孙辈听的故事。

    但有些初创企业,像Profitably,凭借一点运气,打拼出了另一番天地。慢慢地,尼瑞找到了其初创企业的出路。怎么做?找到一个社区。他搬入了曼哈顿一个初创企业共同办公空间General Assembly。突然之间,当风险资本家前来拜访一家初创企业时,也会顺便拜访一下Profitably。这就是尼瑞寻找的社区。而且就在这里,最后融到了资金。

    因此,我们可能并没有陷入科技泡沫,我们陷入的可能是两难的科技业融资方向。

    If there is a tech bubble, is certainly hasn't given lift to Adam Neary. Neary is the CEO of Profitably, a financial analysis service for small businesses. It doesn't feature check-ins, a bespoke social network, or a game layer. Its cofounder hasn't crashed and burned at another startup that was once the darling of TechCrunch. And most of you will never have any reason to use it. It's just an app that saves people time—and the people, in this case, are the decidedly unsexy demographic: finance professionals.

    But wait! Don't go clicking into another tab. What makes Neary important isn't his app -- it's how he sees the app economy. "When they say there's a tech bubble, I think there's an emerging fear that some deals are being overvalued in some sectors. Not for me. I don't know one way or the other." Over an oatmeal and smoothie breakfast in Manhattan's Union Square, Neary explains that a tech bubble may exist for the startups bending their business models to the latest trends, but for the rest of the crowd, the ones that don't want to make a QR-code scavenger hunt that doubles as a five-person social network in which you can only communicate through images and local coupons, the bubble isn't exactly a fact of life.

    "All I see are entrepreneurs all around who are struggling to get funding. Everyday. People are calling me, they want my help. People are asking for directions to investors, investors are not interested. I see people who are struggling all the time. I see smart people not getting deals done."

    They're calling Neary because, for a brief moment a few months ago, he became the face of the non-bubbled. In March, after months of searching, he finally finished Profitably's second round of funding, at $1.1 million. To celebrate, or perhaps just to find some closure, he took to Profitably's blog, where he wrote a 3,000 word post about "plunging into darkness" of one failed fundraising meeting after another, and the ultimate luck involved in finding the money Profitably needed. Neary published the post the same week that Color, the photo-sharing app that does next to nothing, debuted with $41 million in funding. The contrast was jarring. Here, in the midst of the bubble, was someone left behind, a landlubber waving his hands, reminding us that not everyone can chart a course for a South by Southwest afterparty.

    Neary made sure to describe only Profitably's experience, careful not to extrapolate its plight into a trend. But something about it resonated for others. Neary says he received three to four hundred emails responding to his post. Entrepreneurs left him dozens of comments. New York Angels, a funding collective, changed some of its processes in response to Neary's critique. And the tech press, jarred by an entrepreneur teething on the hands that chose not to feed it, covered him like it would a politician making a Kinsley gaffe.

    Neary says he wrote the post in an effort to inject a little transparency into the startup world. "The reason why a lot of these blog posts don't happen are people are terrified. Entrepeneurs are afraid of doing it. They're worried they're going to scare off future investors." Internally, everyone at Profitably knows what everyone else makes, so Neary figured he should graft a bit of that transparency onto Profitably's external dealings as well. With transparency, he hoped, would come community -- a community of people who were ready to give up, just like Neary was at one point.

    Talk to enough entrepreneurs and you're bound to hear many of them mention this craving to know that they're not alone -- ironic since they spend so much time at the office. It's why incubators -- the umbrella groups that give startups a network to help groom them into real companies -- have become so popular. But even the incubators aren't building the community that Neary set out to create.

    Since the market is so flooded with startups, incubators have become aggregators. They attract attention regardless of their quality. A top-flight incubator's Demo Day, the strange ritual where entrepreneurs get on stage and try and seduce the monied class, has become such a spectacle that the startups on display are now likely to get funding simply for having partaken. Their membership to that community promises them as much.

    Neary's post was as much a note of caution about that dynamic as it was an ode to it. Profitably fell victim to fundraising's "herd mentality," in which it's hard to prove to someone you're worth an investment if someone else hasn't already invested. That's when entrepreneurs like Neary get thrown into an exhausted pit of despair. And that's where incubators aren't of much help -- there's no community for the ignored, the unbuzzed, and the not-quite-disruptive-enough. Hundreds of startups fester in this nether layer, folding in on themselves until there's nothing left but a story somebody tells their grandkid.

    But some startups, like Profitably, scrap and luck their way into something else. Eventually, Neary found a lifeline for his startup. How? By finding a community. He moved into General Assembly, a coworking space for startups in Manhattan. All of a sudden, when venture capitalists came to visit a startup down the hall, they came to visit Profitably too. Here was the community Neary was searching for. And here, finally, was the money.

    So perhaps we're not caught in a tech bubble. Maybe we're caught in a Tech-22.

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