Should you invest in a startup?

Can regular people even invest in high-flying startups? And is it worth the financial risk?

Yuya Shino/Reuters/File
A man walks past a logo of Airbnb after a news conference in Tokyo, Japan (November 26, 2015).

Can regular people even invest in those high-flying startups? Should they?

Some of the biggest and most valuable companies today were startup businesses in someone’s garage or dorm room not that long ago. Apple, Google, Facebook, and eBay are spectacular startup success stories that come to mind. A small investment in a startup in its early stages can quickly grow to be worth millions of dollars. How can a regular person invest in a startup? And is it worth the risk?

How Startups Grow — And When to Invest

Initial funding for most startups comes from the founders of the business themselves. A brand new startup has no product, no customers, and usually lacks a detailed business plan. You can see why it is hard to find anyone besides the founders who are interested in investing in a brand new business.

As the startup gets rolling, additional investments to get the company growing may come from friends and family. By this time, the founders have clarified their business plan at least enough to be able to explain their business concept to others and are making progress toward launching a profitable product or business. This stage of startup financing is often the best opportunity for a small investor to get involved, since the startup is often strapped for cash. A little bit of investment can buy a lot of equity in a startup at this point.

The next funding stage for startups is typically “angel” investors. Angel investors are successful local business people familiar with the business area of the startup. They have significant assets, are willing to take a risk with some of their money in exchange for a big potential payoff. Investing in a startup as an angel investor is another opportunity for a regular person to invest in a startup, although the level of investment required at this stage of development is significantly higher than in the earlier days of the startup.

As the startup grows, the next step up for financing is venture capital. The venture capital stage of funding often involves millions of dollars of investment in exchange for a substantial amount of equity in the startup. Venture capitalists require extensive documentation of financial records and intellectual property ownership in addition to a rock solid business plan and time commitments from key personnel.

After one or more rounds of venture capital investment, the startup may sell stock through an initial public offering (IPO), raising more capital to support growth and business development. At this point, the business is no longer a startup, but is an established corporation. If you invested in a startup that reaches IPO, you are going to be rich!

How Risky Is Investing in a Startup?

An unfortunate fact is that most startups fail within a few years, for a number of reasons. Sometimes startups simply run out of cash and have to close shop because they can’t pay their bills. A key contributor may decide to pursue another opportunity and effectively pull the plug on any chance for the startup to survive. The anticipated market can fail to materialize. Technical issues can derail a key product launch and doom a startup to failure.

Many personal finance advisors do not recommend holding individual company stock and instead recommend to diversify by holding funds consisting of many stocks. This strategy reduces the risk that your investment in an individual stock will be ruined by an Enron-style meltdown. Investing in a startup is much more risky than holding individual company stock in an established company.

If you invest in a startup, there is a good chance will lose your money. The startup may fail before you have a chance to sell your equity and make a return on your investment, or even get your principal back. However, there is a small chance you could make a lot of money if the startup you invest in is successful. If you are interested in a high risk, high reward investment opportunity, then investing in a startup may be right for you.

How to Find a Startup for Investment

Investing in a startup takes a lot of work to find the right business opportunity. You need to find a startup that has a good chance to succeed based on the people involved and the business opportunity.

Some people who invest in startups have a motto: “Bet on the jockey, not the horse.” This means to look for company founders who have experience working in the type of business they are trying to start and have a track record of success rather than focusing on the details of the business plan of a startup. The business plan will likely change a lot in the early days as obstacles pop up, and talented people will have a better chance to find a way to succeed anyway.

Look for connections with startups at business development centers or business incubators in your community or at nearby universities. Another place to learn about local startups is to watch for stories about inventors developing a new product or startup businesses in your local newspapers or on TV news reports. Once you start meeting entrepreneurs, they can often introduce you to others who may be a good match for the startup investment opportunity for you are seeking.

How to Invest in a Startup Without Risking Your Money

If you are interested in getting the upside potential of a startup investment but the high risk makes you uncomfortable, consider contributing sweat equity to the startup instead of money. You may be able to convert your time and skills into equity in a startup, keeping your cash safe.

Most startups have tons of work to do as they launch initial products and seek sales, but not enough cash to hire many workers. A cash-strapped startup may be interested in taking your labor in exchange for some equity in the business. You might be able to commit to working a certain number of hours per week for a year in exchange for ownership of a percentage of the startup. If you have relevant experience or connections with potential investors, the founders will be more interested in taking you on as a partner to help the startup grow.

This article is from Dr Penny Pincher of Wise Bread, an award-winning personal finance and credit card comparison website. This article first appeared at Wise Bread.

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