Angel and venture capital investing in Wisconsin has many faces. They range from sophisticated fund managers, inside the state and out, who handle multi-million-dollar deals to the casual investor who may join a hometown angel network and take part in one five-digit deal a year.
One of the most familiar and humble faces belongs to George Mosher.
Mosher, who was inducted Nov. 4 into the Wisconsin Investor Hall of Fame, was an angel investor when very few people even knew the term. He's made 150 investments over time and remains remarkably active today – investing in about 20 deals in the past year. Mosher is also a wellspring of knowledge about what works and what doesn't when it comes to early stage investments.
Speaking to fellow investors on the eve of the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, Mosher said one of the biggest lessons he learned over the years should have been self-evident to him from the start: Angel investing is harder than he thought it would be.
"We all know it's fun to talk about the successes," Mosher told a crowd of investors during a pre-conference meeting in Madison. He quickly added, however, that failures often teach investors and entrepreneurs alike a lot more.
A long-time Milwaukee resident who got his start in the furniture business, Mosher said his early investment in BuySeasons, a Milwaukee-based online retailer of costumes and other supplies provided a 10 times return on his investment. The company was sold to Colorado-based Liberty Media Corp. in 2006. Mosher was one of the about 35 investors in Prodesse, a biotech company that was one of the state's biggest exits. It was sold for $60 million in 2009 to Gen-Probe, bringing a return of about eight times Mosher's initial investment.
Among the 15 other winners Mosher said he's had over the years was BioSystem Development, a Madison-based biopharmaceutical tools company. The company, which first gained notice in the 2004 Governor's Business Plan Contest, was acquired by Agilent in 2011. Mosher said he tripled his investment. "But there were also losers – in total, I've had 45," he noted.
Mosher said he currently has exactly 100 open investments. Of those he outlined several he saw as having potential for strong returns, including a Wisconsin company that repairs wind turbine gearboxes.
A member of Golden Angels Investors and Silicon Pastures in Milwaukee, Mosher also outlined some challenges confronting all early stage investors. Among them:
* A strong "headwind" in the economy from regulations and a reluctance to try new ideas, including among potential buyers.
* Innovative software products are hard for non-technical people and investors to understand.
* Intense competition in the market and the ability for people to quickly swarm to a new idea that is gaining traction.
Mosher also noted that some entrepreneurs who seek funding from investors focus on the wrong selling points.
"There is too much focus on the technology. Entrepreneurs have to build their own market and build customer relationships," Mosher said. He added it has become too easy for entrepreneurs to become distracted and "respond to every opportunity that shows up in an email."
Some of Mosher's themes were echoed during the two-day conference, which drew 550 entrepreneurs, investors and others to Madison. Panel discussions drilled down into whether or not Wisconsin has the right investors for the times – meaning, in some cases, are the investors tech-savvy enough? – to the challenges of attracting out-of-state investment. Perhaps most important, how can Wisconsin incubate more homegrown early stage funds to pick up where Mosher and other angels like him leave off?
There are signs of progress. A state-leveraged early stage capital fund is likely to begin making investments in early to mid-2013, and so will a $30-million fund launched by the State of Wisconsin Investment Board and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The Brightstar Foundation in Milwaukee is organizing a fund, and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has announced plans to put $10 million of his own money into a fund. There are rumblings of other investor activity from outside Wisconsin's borders.
It all starts with individual investors, however, like George Mosher – people who take the initial risk and learn to roll with the punches. Wisconsin could use a lot more like him.
-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.