By Martin Kidston
A handful of Missoula startups gained the ear of a global venture capitalist on Friday, one who’s traveling the country in an Airstream trailer pitching advice to rural entrepreneurs while searching for the next promising investment.
Paul Singh, who has invested in some 1,700 companies in 50 countries, sat with the founders of several local startups over morning coffee before holding open office at The Loft in downtown Missoula.
“If you want to be a good investor, the key is to listen to a lot of pitches and invest in the least worst thing you heard,” he said between meetings. “The reality is, we don’t know what’s going to work. Investors are not idea pickers. Nobody knows where the market is going to go or what ideas are going to win.”
Over the past week, Singh has stopped in Bozeman, Butte and Helena as part of his Montana Tech Tour. His travels brought him to Missoula on Friday where he met with the founders of Geofli, Hestia, Heaven Scent and Bloom Content, among other startups.
While his advice was free, it was also to the point. He urged one company founder to focus on the original intent of her business and take future endeavors slowly. He urged another company looking to launch a pilot version of its medical software to think otherwise.
“The reality is, in 2016 there’s no such thing as Beta software, there’s no pilot software,” he told the founder. “Once the software is out and working, it’s out there. If you’re not a little embarrassed by the first version, you probably waited too long.”
Singh has served as a founding partner in roughly 500 startups and has seen a pattern emerge among entrepreneurs looking for capital. More times than not, he said, they spend too much time pitching their product and too little time talking about their company’s sale’s engine.
“It’s something that comes up in each set of office hours around the country,” he said. “The thing you should all fight away is this focus on how it works or what’s happening in the back office. The sale’s engine is the only thing that keeps you alive.”
Singh has spent the last seven years traveling the country by plane in search of investment opportunities. That method limited his reach to cities served by nonstop service from San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Last year, he sold his house and car and decided to drive around the U.S. and Canada in his Airstream trailer. Good ideas can come from smaller markets – markets he couldn’t reach by airline. He’s now focusing his time on cities with populations under 300,000.
“I want to find the best companies I can and invest in them as fast as I can,” he said. “I started going to all the cities where it was easy to fly in and out. But I realized I never got to understanding what it was like to live somewhere and work somewhere.”
During his stops, Singh also sets time to meet with local mayors and policy makers. It all plays into the investment equation and helps him understanding where a startup found its beginning.
“I think founders here in Missoula seem to be just as savvy as their peers all over the country, just as capable and just as ambitious,” he said. “What seems to be sort of missing is this sense of urgency. They need to be a little more urgent.
“I’m coming here wanting to learn as much as I can about all the founders and policy makers, but I also want the other side of that to be true,” he added. “I want founders to get as many opinions from me as they can and other investors coming to town.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org