What's this about?
Pollen is about helping Makers to become better entrepreneurs by providing training, coaching, expertise, a support network and access to pre-seed funding.
Who’s behind Pollen?
We are a group of Makers from around the world. Our core team of three comprises Ian Collingwood, Andrea Gini and Nathan Parker. Ian and Andrea live in Barcelona and Nathan lives in California.
But we are just the ones who are running Pollen day to day and who have been here since the early days.
The people who really make Pollen what it is are those within our amazing network of support which stretches right across the world. Without them, Pollen would be just a dream.
What kind of projects do you support?
We like projects that involve some physical product. This could mean things like connected devices and IoT, but it could also mean products that have no electronic components at all.
We love ideas that come from founders' own experiences and the subcultures they live in - what you might call “user innovations”.
Examples could be an anaesthetist who develops a better way of monitoring gasses in the operating theatre, or a cyclist who develops a better way of locking their bike, or a guitarist who develops a better guitar stand.
We believe founders with these ideas have greater passion and greater understanding of the problem they are solving and are therefore more likely to succeed. They also have a ready made network for validation of need, rapid customer feedback on prototypes and a clear path to early traction.
This is the closest thing we have to an investment hypothesis.
What stage of development are the projects you support?
We like to help people working on projects in the early stages - our job is to spot potential early and double down on the projects and people we believe in. (In some ways what we do is a bit like an old fashioned record label - we spot early stage talent and help them develop their work. Its our job therefore to spot good people and good ideas before anyone else.
Makers who bring us their ideas may still be working their day jobs. One way we help is to bring them to a point where they can make an informed decision about whether they should quit their job and focus full time on their idea. Usually this means they've seen some kind of good traction for their prototype or MVP.
We don't always invest money in our projects and when we do invest we usually only put invery small amounts, to pay for things like materials when building an MVP.
In practical terms this means you're unlikely to be able to pay yourself a salary - yet.
If your MVP shows there is demand for your product, we can help you raise the money you'll need to quit your job and focus full time.
What if my project is later stage?
We know that some Makers want our help even when they are already up and running with their business. That's fine - we can help selected projects of this kind, so if this is where you are, please get in touch.
How is Pollen different?
Pollen is different in a couple of ways.
Firstly, we usually don't take significant equity in the companies we support at the early stages. (Rarely will we take more than 2%). Instead, our business model is based on a revenue share - usually 15% of gross revenues for a defined period.
We choose this model because we feel it ensures we remain committed to the philosophy that underpins Pollen: helping the worlds makers to build products that customers love and are willing to pay for. So we only get paid when the customers that our companies serve are happy.
This also removes any incentive to push our founders for “growth at all costs”. It removes the incentive to start boosting metrics that are not necessarily aligned with customer happiness but which might be attractive to external investors. And it removes the incentive to create shareholder value at the expense of customer value - or corporate ethics.
We want to know that our goals and yours are aligned - if we both want to build a sustainable company, then neither of us wants to growth-hack our way to a million registered users. We both want to ship our first 100,000 products to happy customers.
If you make money, so do we. But if you don’t, well, then we both failed - but hopefully we learned something along the way.
Can you help me raise money?
We only invest small amounts in the early stages at Pollen, but we recognise that there comes a time when more cash is needed - for example when you are building your first batch.
When that time comes, we can support you - either by helping with crowdfunding campaigns or by connecting you with angel investors who share our values. These investors, like us are interested in sustainable growth based on creating happy customers: Patient Capital.
If this sounds like something you want to be a part of - whether as a company, partner or as an investor - get in touch.
Are you an accelerator?
Not exactly, but we do help founders move faster. We are different from an accelerator in a couple of ways:
- We don’t work with a cohort or batch model. We bring companies into Pollen when we find ones that we like, rather than at specific times of year
- We don’t have a “Demo Day” at which we present all the companies to the world in order to attract external investment. When Pollen companies need to raise money we prefer to connect them privately with investors who share the goals and values of both Pollen and the companies we support - patient, sustainable growth, and returns based on revenues and profits not exits.
- We don’t require our companies to come to live and work in a specific location unless they want to. We deliver a lot of our support remotely or through focused visits rather than extended stays.
- We support people and companies at a very early stage in their development. Often our founders are still working a day job and are building their product and business in their spare time. We see our goal as helping founders to get to the point where they can make an informed decision about whether they should quit and focus full time on pursuing their dream, based on feedback from the market and early customers.
- We don't take equity in return for our support. Enough said.
- We usually don’t invest much money at the earliest stages. We instead rely on our Patient Capital partners to provide funds needed to scale, once we have a believable business model and some happy customers.
Are you an incubator?
Not exactly, but it’s close. We'd prefer to think of ourselves as a school and centre of excellence for hardware innovators and entrepreneurs.
A school that you only pay for if it brings results.
Can I have some money?
Maybe. Get in touch and we can talk.
But bear this in mind: Companies in Pollen in the initial stages only receive very small amounts of cash - for things like materials and expenses. The main support we provide at this stage is expertise and network.
Our aim is to get you to the point where you can show product-market fit, not build to scale. Often our makers are still working a day job - what we try to help with is getting them to the point where they can decide if it’s worth taking the plunge and quitting their job to focus on their dream.
I want to send you information about my project - what should I do?
Do I have to move to BCN or SF?
No. If you are close by you will of course have easier access to what we offer, but we are committed to making it easy to access Pollen support and resources through remote learning and mentoring and occasional visits.
What’s the long term vision?
We believe passionately that the new tools available for making today can change the way we think about work, play, art, learning, trade and money. It’s not about 3D printing, or Raspberry Pi or entrepreneurs or startups - it’s about democratising creativity and rethinking how people make things and how people make a living.
Why are you doing this?
We think that the prevailing model for building startups as currently designed is suboptimal. Or at the very least, that other options are possible.
The past 15 years have seen the arrival of large amounts of capital seeking to invest in technology startups. In many ways this is a good thing and has allowed for immensely fast innovation, but it does have a downside.
It has created a situation where entrepreneurs often see their primary goal as “raising money” or "building an exit" rather than building a great company around a great product for customers.
This is not surprising - much of the media coverage of startups is about celebrating how much money they’ve raised in their latest round. There is less focus how they are investing and innovating to better serve their customers. And we get it - big numbers are sexy, especially when they come with a dollar sign in front.
But this sets up a whole world of perverse incentives for founders, investors and journalists alike.
> How entrepreneurship worked before Venture Capital became a thing
In the past, if you wanted to run your own business doing something that you believed in, this is how it worked: You would scrape together a little money, you’d start to make a product, or open a shop, or provide a service, and you would try, as quickly as possible, to get to the point where the money you made from sales was greater than the cost of running the business. There wasa lot of talk about breakeven charts back then.
If you wanted to grow, you would borrow money or seek some outside investment and the profits of the business went towards paying back the loans or providing a return to investors.
Over time, if you were lucky and worked hard, the profits you received would be enough to keep you comfortable, pay for a nice life through to retirement and then, when it came time to retire, the business would often pass on to your family. This is how many of the great brands that we know today started.
> When Venture Capital became a thing
When the Web exploded onto the scene in the 1990s, a new model emerged. Now, instead of building a product to sell, you are building a company to sell. And those are two very different things. They drive decisions in very different directions.
Imagine: If you and your investors know you’re planning to exit in 2 years, will you really invest in that 18 month big ticket project to improve the user experience - or will you use the money to build up the metrics that will boost the company’s value to potential buyers?
> So is Pollen against exits?
Not at all. To be clear - there’s nothing wrong with selling your company. Some people get bored, they stop doing the parts they enjoy, they want to move on, or they just need the cash. That’s fine. But that’s a very different thing to building a company from the start just in order to sell it.
We believe that, while the current model works well for some people, other models are possible - and indeed essential. Because the current model for starting a new business is not necessarily right for everyone, and other models might have have useful outcomes in realigning the incentives for why people are building businesses today.
The rise of technology startups and VC funding has created perception that the exit is the goal. But not everyone wants this, and it's often not great for customers and staff.
If you build a company you love, working with great people to produce something of quality that your customers appreciate then the appropriate exit strategy may be to be carried out in a box.
> A Lifestyle? Or a Life?
Sometimes these non-exit focused businesses are derisively called “Lifestyle businesses”. But we don’t see anything derisive in that phrase at all.
It seems like exactly what many people may want. Because the other option - where you throw yourself into creating massive equity growth, doing whatever it takes to drive the numbers that will help you to sell the business is not a “lifestyle business” it’s a “no-life businesses”.
Those kinds of places aren’t fun to work at, so it’s no wonder founders want to exit them as quickly as possible.
> Pollen is different
Pollen is an experiment with a different model. We're trying to approach things differently in many ways but one major way iskind of projects we support.
We are looking for businesses that are built around creating great products for clearly defined markets that are densely connected - “communities” or “tribes” are perhaps the best words here. We've seen dentists making better headlamps for dentists. Cyclists developing better bikes and accessories for other cyclists. Beekeepers creating better ways to extract honey without disturbing the bees.
We believe that products, especially beautiful products which come from within communities are more likely to become sustainable and profitable. They survive and grow by making products that real people buy and use - so their growth is authentic and deep rooted.
> But who will save the Unicorns?
If we’re building physical products just for the needs of small, well-defined tribes of customers, aren’t we losing out on the options for scaling and creating unicorns?
But we believe that unicorn hunting is a risky business. We're not in the business of hunting unicorns. We're breeding racehorses.
So why are we doing this again? Because we believe that there are opportunities to create sustainable, life-enhancing businesses making beautiful high-quality products that provide well-paid jobs for a new generation of techno-artisans.
We think that helping turn these opportunities into reality for as many people as possible is a worthwhile aim.
If you'd like to join us, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image courtesy of Earica Brown