Lawrence Black got his first taste of entrepreneurship when he was about 6 years old in Columbia, where he bought a Cal Ripken baseball card for $2 at a Holiday Inn show. Five tables over, he sold the Orioles star’s card to another dealer for $2.50. Then he did it again.
“I’m thinking, ‘I don’t believe that just happened,’ now I had $3,” he recalls. Today, at 47, he’s principal in his own big financial enterprise, a $10 million redevelopment of the former Southern Bleachery & Print Works, the 900,000-square-foot Taylors Mill.
It’s one thing to earn a 150 percent return on a $2 investment, but where do people like Black get the tens of thousands of dollars in the first place to become a so-called “angel investor?”
Black, who moved to Greenville five years ago, says he did well in the ’90s tech boom. Since then, he’s become an investor/partner in nearly 160 companies, putting him among the 200,000-plus U.S. angels who pour some $25 billion annually into more than 71,000 startup deals, according to an Angel Capital Association report in 2017.
Angel Investors vs. Venture Capitalists
Angels differ from venture capitalists. VCs are typically corporate partnerships that invest in a fund—think hedge funds. An angel with a Securities and Exchange Commission accreditation has a net worth of at least $1 million—excluding personal residence—or income of $200,000 over two years.
In the ACA survey of nearly 1,700 such investors nationwide, the typical angel has a portfolio of 11 companies and provides a median investment of $25,000.
An angel must be accredited to join the Upstate Carolina Angel Network, which opened in 2008 and now boasts 300 of them in two dozen groups. UCAN also has two “angel funds” in the Carolinas under VentureSouth, a member, incidentally, of the ACA.
Investing primarily in tech startups, UCAN dives deeply into due diligence, drilling into a company’s financials and its leadership’s experience.
“That’s not a trivial task, sourcing the deals and evaluating the deal structure,” Co-Founder & Managing Director Matt Dunbar says. “It’s nothing you want to do on your own.”
Only about 2 percent of candidates win a first-round investment of $500,000 and $1 million, Dunbar says.
“Basically, what we’re doing is we’re taking a bunch of at-bats. We’re swinging hard. We’re going to strike out a bunch because inherently we’re taking a ton of technology risk and market risk,” he says. “We don’t know if they’re going to work or not, but we’re swinging at pitches that, if we hit it, we can hit it out of the park.”
Black apparently has. He’s still a member of a company he invested in years ago—NextGen Venture Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based network that “closed on its first fund at $22 million,” the Wall Street Journal reported in March 2017.
Character Speaks Volumes
He bases much of his decision on an entrepreneur’s character. He recalls financing in a guy whose first company went bust but later insisted on paying back his backers—an almost-unheard-of gesture.
He told the young entrepreneur, “‘You can pay me back by closing this company out and starting another company and I’ll invest in you again.’ He did. He lost 35k in his first company and made 80k on the second deal.”
While hardly a huge sum for high-rolling angels, Black says:
“If you’re focusing on money all the time, if you’re not focusing on a product that you’re creating, you’re not focusing on the consumer experience, you’re not focused on building an organization for the long haul, then you’re not focusing on what you need to be focused on to be successful