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Q&A: What to do after raising $17 million

Firebrand Ventures

As the expression goes, the harder you work the luckier you get.

So it’s no wonder John Fein was able to raise $10 million more than his original goal for Firebrand Ventures, a Kansas City-based venture capital fund.

The news was announced Wednesday that Firebrand Ventures had raised $17 million for its seed stage venture capital fund. Fein in the Managing Director of Firebrand Ventures and said it has 49 limited partners and will look to invest in roughly a dozen companies at the seed stage level over the next 12 months; The typical investment will be $200,000.

But immediately, Fein will be able to get some help.

“We haven’t announced it yet but she’s starting on Monday,” Fein told Clay & Milk on Friday. “It’ll be great to have help and someone to take some stuff off my plate but there are also very few women in venture capital. It’s a dramatically underserved demographic and a difficult industry to break in to. But women for whatever reason have gotten the short end of the stick.”

Fein spoke with Clay & Milk on Friday to discuss what’s next for his Midwest-focused fund, what Iowa companies can do to attract more venture capital to the state and how he went from not being hired at Dwolla, to owning a small portion of the company.

Our Q&A is below:

Describe that feeling of surpassing your fundraising goal?

JF: I had talked to a lot of fund managers throughout the last two years to get their feedback and advice. People who had raised multiple funds. And several told me we would raise a good chunk of our funds in the last several weeks before you close it.

But that’s what happened. So while it went over $7 million, we really raised a significant percentage of the fund in that last several weeks before close.

How long were you fundraising?

JF: Technically the raise was 18 months. We did our first close in September of 2016, I was going to do a final close a year later, which is fairly typical, most funds have about a year or less after their first close but timing wise, it was in September and I felt like a lot of people hadn’t really resurfaced after the summer.

I felt like there was still a lot of demand and people haven’t really spun back up after the summer, so I extended it another six months and I’m glad I did, it paid off.

Take us into that process?

JF: Lots of meetings.

Fundraising can be an exhausting process and at times it was definitely exhausting. There’s a lot of similarities raising capital for their startups, this is my startup. I started from scratch and raised money for it.

And having been a founder in the past it’s definitely similar with highs and lows. But the best thing I got out of the fundraising was not the capital, it was the relationships I built with all these folks. Meeting people in the community, that was the greatest benefit and we have a fantastic group. I’m really pleased with the relationship building that resulted from that.

In the beginning, it’s hard to get momentum going for a first fund, especially when it’s something relatively new to the area. I had offers to do other things, one or two people said to forget Firebrand and come do investments for people. Some of them were attractive offers but it was early so I stuck with it.

It was taking a leap of faith, there was no safety net and so that was one of the things that really propelled me forward. It was one of those situations where failure was not an option.

And before Firebrand Ventures you were..?

JF: Early in my career when I lived in San Diego I was part of five different startups, one of which I co-founded. So I had the startup and founder experience and not only did I have the experience, but I had it during the book and dotcom bust, so after that, I joined a company called Prescription Solutions, which hired me to spin up their new operation in Kansas City.

I joined them in 2005 and relocated to Kansas City in 2006.

I had the opportunity to spin up a $2 billion business from scratch, so I had this startup experience in California and now I had this experience of scaling a large operation. Midway through that project, that company was acquired by United Health Group and as what happens, things change.

I needed to get back to that feeling of building something special and being in that entrepreneurial environment. So I just started showing up to startup events.

In 2012 I met Ben Milne and a lot of serendipitous things happened during that time period. I fell in love with Dwolla, I loved their culture, Ben was this dynamic leader with a huge vision. I just gravitated towards all that.

We were trying to make a way to make it fit that I could work with them, we tried and for whatever reason, it just wasn’t a fit.

Less than a year later, I joined Tech Stars as Managing Director. I never imagined I would be an investor in Dwolla, they had just raised their Series B when I first met Ben, then they raised their Series C.

Ben and I had kept in touch, so I think we always had this mutual respect and he called me one night about an opportunity to invest in Dwolla after I launched Firebrand. It was very serendipitous and it did not take me long to make that investment decision.

When did you lead Tech Stars Kansas City?

JF: Several times in my career I was just flat out lucky. In 2013 David Cohen emailed me one day out of the blue. I learned soon that someone had mentioned me to them to spin up their new accelerator. And I wasn’t sure at the beginning, I thought I would start my own business again.

But the team is such an amazing collection of energetic, down to earth A-players who cared more about entrepreneurship than any other team I had ever met. That led to me joining Tech Stars Kansas City. I ran three programs over three years, it was a fantastic learning experience.

Firebrand Ventures is similar to Tech Stars with seed stage investment?

JF: It’s the same experience I had at Tech Stars, they are essentially seed stage investors. I got an incredible learning experience in how to be a seed stage investor. It was this almost overwhelming amount of knowledge as Managing Director and I felt like that was a perfect segway into Firebrand.

For us we are right in the middle, we look for companies who are raising between $500,000 and $2 million. Then we invest in those size rounds with an average size check of $200,000.

We like to see revenue, traction, some early indication of product-market fit. That’s what seed is for us.

What is your strategy for finding companies?

JF: Most of the companies we’ve invested in have come to us as referrals from trusted folks in our network. That will probably continue to represent a majority of our investments.

I’m still close with Tech Stars, it’s something that I think is fantastic and those relationships I’ve built are still very strong. So I mentor at most of the Tech Stars programs, so that’s a great source of deal flow.

Then I have quite a large network of Vc’s and angel investors so we share deals together as well. Then on top of that it’s visiting startup communities and building relationships. Sometimes I get good tips from that as well.

What do you look for in entrepreneurs?

JF: The way we describe it as investing in exceptional founders. For us, that word exceptional can be applied to being an exceptional creator and scaler of a business. It’s hard, so we look for founders who are obsessed with solving a big problem in a better way.

And then people who are honest, integrity, hardworking, reliable, it’s some of those things you look for in any good relationship in your life. It’s important for us to do business with good people.

So if we are sold that a founder has all of these things and are determined to build something special, it’s still not going to work unless we have a connection with them. So we definitely have a no-jerk policy, we have to connect with them and feel like they are going to do business the right way.

When you find that magical combination, more often than not we are going to invest in them.

What can Iowa companies do to attract more venture capital?

JF: People know about Insurtech in Iowa, a lot of people know about Dwolla, but I think Iowa needs to continue to produce successful startups and successful exits to bring attention to it.

Des Moines is like most emerging communities in the Midwest, it’s on its way for a 10-20 year journey, some of it is making deliberate choices to put elements in place, some of it is just time for startups to continue to grow, get funded and eventually have exits.

And after they have exits hopefully some of those profits are put back into the community.

More: John Fein starts Firebrand Ventures – Aug. 22, 2017

Q&A: What to do after raising $17 million | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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