Andrés Diana, SeedInvest LA Managing Director, sat down with entrepreneur, investor, and former Shark Tank host Kevin Harrington to discuss his investment philosophy and strategy.
See below to hear the entire interview:
What is your overall investment philosophy and how does it differentiate you from others.
As an investor, I generally try to stick within the industries and the types of deals that have worked for me in the past. The biggest challenge that I’ve had is when I get into areas that I’m not skilled in or don’t have experience in. It seems like that’s where I tend to do very poorly or not as well.
I started 30 years ago in the world of As Seen on TV, in the infomercial space. Inventors would come to me and they’d have an idea. They’d say, “Hey, I need money to finish my idea so I can go sell it.” In the early days, I didn’t have all the capital that they would need, so we would either go raise money or bootstrap it to get products to the marketplace. I made my profits selling products on television. Now I had money to invest.
I found that I could invest in somebody’s product, and a product could do tens of millions of dollars. It could do a hundred million dollars and bring back, for a $200,000 investment, $50 million in sales with a $5 million profit. You get spoiled as an investor when you put up $200,000 and you get back $5 million. Having said that, if every deal was like that, obviously those would be the only investments you’d have to make. The risk is you put up $200K and you can lose it all on 3 out of 4 deals. It’s a much riskier kind of an investment. You’ve got to be able to write 4 $200,000 checks and have 3 of them gone completely, and have that fourth one bring you back $5 million. I’ve gotten killed in the options side of the business. I’ve gotten killed in minerals and futures and things like that. Oil has been devastating for me over the years. You’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them in some of those deals.
There’s two sides of my business. One is the total risk side of taking something from the beginning and launching it. The other is jumping in after it’s already tested successfully and providing roll-out capital. That’s less risky, because now you’re already jumping in when something’s already been made, already been tested, already successful. Now they need money for medium. They need money for inventory. You don’t get as high a return, but it’s a lot less risky. It’s a more bankable type of a deal. That’s the other side of the business that I’m involved in. Same industry, just a little less risky. Still, higher returns than you can get in many other places in the marketplace.
What is the earliest stage that you would invest in a company?
I invest in pre-revenue for sure. I don’t like a long-term payback. I’ll do pre-rev, I’ll do start-ups, but I don’t like things that are going to take more than a couple of years to return the dollars. If somebody comes to me and says, “Look, I need $200,000 today,” or “I need $500,000 today, and in 10 years, you’ll get your money back,” that’s not for me. I want to be able to see my money, follow my money, and have it coming back to me, with its return, within a two-year period of time. I’m prepared to either see it lost or returned back with a big return within those two years. Then I’m playing with my own money on an ongoing basis, instead of wondering, are any of these assets going to be fruitful? I just like to be able to follow it and track it so that within a couple of years’ time, I know where I am with that investment.
How do you know if an investment is going to be able to return within the period of time that you’re looking for?
If I’m dealing in the world of product development, I call what I do, in some ways, venture marketing, instead of venture capital. An entrepreneur will have a business or a product, and they need marketing dollars. They need to expand it. They need to build it. I’m going to bring the marketing dollars to the table. I gave a public company a marketing campaign that cost me $150,000. In return, I got a million restricted shares of stock in the company. The stock was trading at a dollar a share.
Now in one year, that stock could be worthless, and I’ve lost the 150. In this particular case, in nine months, the stock was $18 a share. I say nine months. There’s another part of the story. The chairman of the company sold a million shares at nine months, so the stock went from $18 to $8. I still had the million shares, and it was still worth $8 million on $150,000 investment, but that started a negative path. By the time the year ended, the stock was down to $4. To make a long story short, that 150 turned into millions of dollars for me, and it happened in a year, because I took a one-year restriction on the stock. I put the marketing campaign in that created the buzz to take it to $18 a share.
Do you focus investments that are primarily centralized around marketing, to deliver the capital necessary to get that quick return that you’re looking for?
Let’s put it this way. They need marketing. They may need some additional capital. I’m not much of a passive investor. I like to take an active role. For example, there was a company doing about $5 million a year, and their stock was under a dollar a share. Small public company. Small market cap. I came in, made an investment, brought in the ability to help them raise some capital, helped them with marketing, and helped them get into more distribution. The company has grown now north of $35 million. Stock has quadrupled. I come in with capital, with expertise, with some other investors to help out, and some other distribution. There’s a 4x result. These are the things that I like to see.
A buddy of mine, he just retired. He was the CEO of a big public company that was doing about $17 billion a year. He cashed out for tens of millions of dollars with his stock package and retired. He’s now out investing. I asked, “What kind of investments are you looking for?” He said, “I want to invest in a small company that needs somebody with my expertise, my track record, and my credibility. I’ll come on the board. I’ll bring in other board members. I’ll bring in other capital. We’re going to grow this business.” That is smart investing, and that’s what I like to do.
How long have you been investing?
I started in this industry about 30 years ago. It took me a while to get a little bit of capital, but probably about 25 years, I’d say.
Is all your investment done personally, or do you invest through a fund structure of any sort?
I’ve done fund structures in the past. Generally, some have done okay, some haven’t. Never have they been as lucrative as my own personal deals. I pretty much rely on my own deals. I do go in on projects with other partners.
I don’t like doing big funds, where there’s a whole bunch of people. I know a lot of people have made a lot of money managing funds. You look, and some of these hedge funds do very well, some of them don’t. The one thing that you’re certain of is that those hedge fund managers are taking their percentages off the top every single month. They’re taking their percentages of the fees, their management fees, their this, their that. They definitely make their money.
I’ve seen some massaging of funds. I’m not here to talk bad about any particular niche of the marketplace, but I actually had some equity in a public company that was owned by a hedge fund. The hedge fund kept the stock at a particular price. It seemed like every quarter, if the stock was down a little bit, they would come in and buy stock, and it would go up. Somebody said, “It probably has something to do with the fact that that they get bonuses on a quarterly basis, and if a stock is down, it might affect their own bonus structure.
In this one particular situation, I got out of that deal, because I thought, “This company doesn’t really have the value that it seems to have in the market, because these guys are artificially keeping it up.” I sold out and moved on. That stock ended up not holding up, because eventually they just couldn’t keep it going.
I’ve actually benefited from that. I once had a bunch of equity-free change stock in a small public company and realized that the hedge fund guys didn’t want to see it go down. When I went to sell some of my stock, I knew who the buyer was, and they wanted to buy. Eventually, I decided, “You know what? I don’t want to be involved with this company anymore,” so I sold all my stock. I got out probably at least 85% higher than the rest of the guys that decided to stay in.
I have one philosophy: know when to hold them and when to fold them.
Is there any wisdom or advice that has helped mold your investment philosophy?
I would say this. First of all, I also raise money. I get so many deals pitched to me, and I’m involved in dozens of companies, so I’m not funding all the deals that I do myself. I fund some deals. I fund some deals partially. I bring other investors in. I raise capital.
People say, “What motivated the Sharks to buy, and what are some of the things you look for, and why did you invest?” People would always ask me that kind of question. I say, “First of all, I’m a Shark, and I invest. But I’m also the guy sitting there pitching to the Sharks, because I’m an entrepreneur, and I raise money.” I don’t get nasty with people, because I realize I’m them in other heels. If I sit there and start beating up on somebody, I think “do I want someone to treat me that way?” No.
When people come on “Shark Tank,” is it’s all about me, me, me, me. They’re all focused on what they want, what they need, as opposed to, “How do you get the Shark to write the check?” When I raise money, I focus on finding the sweet spot of the entrepreneur. Does he want long-term assets with payment dividends along the way? Does he want a 10x return? A 100x return? Is he risky?
What I also try to do is define the timeline – I try to give an investor an accelerated payback scenario. If somebody comes on “Shark Tank” and they say, “Look, I need 100 grand. I’m going to give you 100% of the profits until you get your 100 grand back, plus a 10% return on your money. You get all the profits until you get $110,000. Then, for the rest of your life, I’ll give you 10 or 20 percent equity in the company.”
When somebody says that kind of an accelerated payback structure to me, I realize, they’re interested in making sure me, the investor, is happy, and I’m taken care of. That is what a lot of people forget about when they’re either investing or raising money, is making sure that the investor can see his return on his investment. This is the kind of thing I like, an accelerated payback. As I said, if I can’t see my money back within a couple of years, I’m not in. If somebody knows that’s my sweet spot, and they play to that, that’s what I like. I play to that as a money raiser, myself, when I’m raising capital. That’s the wisdom for the day from a Shark who’s also a guy that raises capital.
Before you invest, what are the few main things that you look for in a company before you’ll consider seriously investing?
Obviously, I want to see that there’s some proof of concept. If it’s a total start-up, pre-rev, I want to see that there’s some testing before I invest. I like to see a good management team, a board of advisers, people behind the company that are vouching for it. A lot of times, people say, “You bet on the jockey.” I’ve bet on jockeys before in business that have disappointed me. They may have had a great idea, but they didn’t have the execution.
I bet on more than the jockey. I bet on the team that surrounds the jockey, the horse. What are they feeding that horse? What is the history and the track record of the trainers? I look at the whole picture. I want to see the whole team. I want to see that they’ve got an operations person. I want to see they’ve got a finance person. I want to see that they can execute the play. I want to see people that have had exit strategies before. If you’re dealing with somebody that’s green and has never raised capital, they’ve never had an exit before, then are they going to be able to handle this? Are they going to know how to raise the money if things gets big? Or will they get knocked off, and have somebody else come in and capitalize on it?
I started a company in the 80s that went public in the early 90’s. I built it up to $500 million, 500 employees. I took the stock from $1 to $20 and I exited. I’ve been there and done that before, so I know what it takes to raise capital. I raised tens of millions of dollars, I brought on an executive team. I knew when to give the reins away to smarter people than me. I look for the team. I look for the board. I look for the money. I look for the exits. I look for all the different things around the horn to make sure that there’s going to be the right package for the whole deal.
What would you consider a diversified portfolio to be for the average investor?
I think you want to have your money in a percentage of safer investments. There’s different ways to look at safer investments. You need a certain amount of liquidity. You want to have no more than 20% of your money in high risk. I think the average person should play it a little more conservatively and be 80% in safe, blue chip type investments. A lot of these ballplayers end up making a bunch of money, and they invest in these big deals, these big opportunities. What ends up happening, is some of them get 50% to 80% of their money into high-risk situations. Then, boom, they lose it all. You need safety. You need conservative approach on a big portion of your money. Have some fun with it if you want. Keep it at no more than 20% at a high-risk situation.
What would you say are some red flags that you might notice when evaluating investments that would steer you away?
A red flag, for me, is somebody that needs the money right away. It can’t be a month from now; it’s got to be right away. Then, big returns guaranteed. When somebody is willing to guarantee way too much in a short period of time, and they need the money too quickly, those are things that concern me. I avoid deals that don’t allow time for proper vetting, that don’t have the right documentation.
When making an investment, what typical advice do you seek to provide, as an investment adviser? You obviously take a lot of active roles in the companies. What’s your go-to?
The biggest thing that I would say, if I had to give you just one answer to that question, is when I make an investment, I bring in some other advisers as well. This gives me a sounding board from a couple different levels. I mentioned earlier that I like to follow my money. If I put money into a company and I bring in three other smart guys, if they start seeing warning signs or issues with management or technology or patents or distribution – between us, we can try to make sure that we’re all on the right track.
The other folks don’t necessarily have to be investors. If I’m investing in a company and they need some support in some other areas, I can help bring the right support staff in. My ear’s not always right to the ground. If my support staff starts hearing and smelling and seeing things that they don’t like, I can start getting wind of it and have the ability to either address the issues and correct them or decide that I maybe need to get my investment out of there sooner rather than later. Like I said, I’m in a lot of deals that go to zero. Knowing when to get out of the deal before it goes to zero can be a very good thing. I like to bring not only my own money and my own expertise, but surround it with some extra expertise, at least, and possibly money, so that you’ve got some other people that can be there to help you also decide how long to stay in the deal.
How do you get out early, though, if it’s an illiquid investment? How would you do that?
If it’s not a public situation and it’s private, if they’re doing something you disagree with, it all depends on how you structure the investment up front. Sometimes, the answer is you can’t. If you put money into a deal and you find out that the guy’s running the company the wrong way, you can either exert influence to get your money back or exert more influence on how the company’s run.
I’ve had people come to me that said, “Look, I invested in a deal. I don’t like the way the company’s being run. Buy me out, or it’s going to get nasty.” Sometimes, those situations can become confrontational, but sometimes, you need to be the confrontational person to protect your assets. I’m generally not a highly confrontational person. I gave somebody on Shark Tank $500,000, and I saw some things happening. I confronted it, but unfortunately, it was too late.
Eventually, they closed the doors down, and I walked from 500 grand. You need to have your input in the situation, especially in smaller deals. This was a small business. This woman was doing stupid things. Making big decisions that she shouldn’t have been making. She was buying inventories that she shouldn’t have been buying. She had half a million dollars and just ran through it like Grant took Richmond, and it was gone. In hindsight, had somebody been overseeing that more closely, it could have been prevented. Shame on me for not having a tighter role in that relationship. That’s why I say, I’ve learned from those mistakes.
This post was written by andresdiana on April 9, 2015
Kevin Harrington Talks to SeedInvest