The most exciting financing described in a new book co-authored by venture capitalist Seth Levine amounted to just $37 — in food stamps.
A mother had dropped them off to her daughter who was going through a rough time during the recession in the late 2000s. How that daughter used $37 in food stamps to start a business and quickly create $500 in profits is the magic of entrepreneurship and just as magical as anything that has ever happened in Silicon Valley.
The daughter-turned-business founder is an example of what Levine and his co-author, business journalist Elizabeth MacBride, decided to call a "new builder." The new builders are a rising generation of entrepreneurs who are far more likely than the business founders of America's past to be "Black, brown, female and over 40."
The kind of help they need — financing, advice, maybe just a handful of introductions to good suppliers or customers — isn't what venture capitalists provide.
In fact it would be a lot healthier if the Silicon Valley model of technology startups — seeking at all costs to get to "scale," meaning very big — hadn't sucked up so much attention, financial capital and even entrepreneurial aspiration.
MacBride and Levine's new book, "The New Builders," launches next week. It's a result of a conversation they had a couple of years ago about highlighting the work of successful business owners working a long way from technology clusters like Seattle or Silicon Valley.
They once envisioned it as a "lighthearted" project, Levine said this week. After digging into the data and hearing a few stories, they came to understand that in fact "entrepreneurship is dying," as they put it.
What characterizes the new builders isn't that their dreams are for business that will likely stay small. It's that they share a problem of being completely disconnected from commercial banks and other financing sources. And they don't have the kind of family and professional relationships that can make starting a business less of a lonely and daunting task.
Levine's participation in a book like this is at least a little interesting, because he's very much part of the growth-obsessed culture of technology startups and institutional venture capital. A 1994 graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, Levine cofounded the Foundry Group venture firm in Boulder, Colo., in 2007.
Now with about $3 billion under management, Foundry Group has put money into other funds including those of Matchstick Ventures and Arthur Ventures here in the Twin Cities as well as operating companies like the marketing technology firm Drip.
"I'm not talking truth to power, I mean I'm right in the middle of the power structure," he said. "I'm not for a second arguing that venture should go away … or that big businesses are bad and small businesses are good. But venture has eaten up our understanding of an entrepreneur."
A particular fascination has developed with unicorns, a term that means a privately held business that has grown to a value of $1 billion or more. We have lately had almost comically absurd examples, like that of a New York-based real estate company called WeWork, which got to a $47 billion valuation without ever really showing it had a sustainable business. We should care a lot less about unicorns, although congrats to founders who created a business that valuable, Levine said. How about more attention on our economy's camels?
"First of all, they're not mythical," Levine said. "They are more like the workhorses. They are hardy, they are survivors. They might not be as sexy as these unicorns, but you get an army of these camels, an army of these new builders, and that's really what our economy needs to help grow."
Better access to financial capital is a must for the new builders, particularly now that the community banking sector has contracted through industry consolidation. Modest innovations like the financing offered to entrepreneurs by the payments company Square are a good start, but there's a need for so much more.
He also argued that a far sturdier social safety net, including affordable health insurance, would nudge entrepreneurs to push through their fear of being left with nothing if the business didn't work out.
The baker who got started with $37 in food stamps, Danaris Mazara, obviously started with nothing, and she appears several times in "The New Builders."
Her start came during the recession in 2008 and 2009. Her husband had been laid off and was sliding into depression. Her factory job at Samsung didn't pay enough to cover the bills.
She wasn't following her dreams of one day ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. She was desperate.
She now employs 16 people, although nothing about the path she walked sounded easy. And it's hard to imagine how she would have succeeded without a program called Entrepreneurship for All.
The authors call EforAll an accelerator, providing the technical training, coaching and mentors that a tech startup gets from the well-known accelerators such as Techstars. More than half the participants in EforAll programs are immigrant entrepreneurs.
As Levine well knows from his day job, no entrepreneurs succeed by themselves.
Even though the EforAll program sounded like a godsend, a focus on technical training suggests that one way to get more capable small-business owners is if we can somehow fix the entrepreneurs.
One of the lessons of this book is how it would be so much better to invest the time and attention it would take to make financing companies, municipal licensing authorities and any other institutions important to business owners just a whole lot easier to work with.