He started with hardware: Joel H. Ginsparg moved here from Boston in 1995 to work in tech operations for Primestar, the satellite-TV pioneer. He moved on to software and serial entrepreneurship — first with ad developer Bullseye Interactive, sold at a fat profit in the dot.com-telecom boom; then Playday, a video-games tech platform, sold in the recession year of 2009.
Since then, Ginsparg and the team at his Radnor firm, Firelight Partners, have been making their livings advising other start-up founders on how to make their ideas pay.
When Conshohocken trucking-app maker DrayNow announced a $5 million Comcast-led investment last month, cofounder Mike Albert told me it was Ginsparg who sat his group down — "three trucking-industry guys" — to write a business plan, strategize, brand their software start-up, and help sell it to angel investor groups, venture capitalists, and Comcast's own tech-investment gatekeepers.
Ginsparg says Philly founders know they need veteran advice: There's a "cultural" gap, a "conservatism," lacking in bigger venture capital centers like Northern California or eastern Massachusetts. That means opportunity for guys "with experience building companies, on financial issues, marketing issues, supply chain issues, helping entrepreneurs grow their companies."
The local scene has improved, Ginsparg acknowledged, as outfits like Osage Partners, which joined Comcast in backing DrayNow; Bruce Luehrs' Rittenhouse Partners, whose drug-software company Tabula Rasa Healthcare of Marlton has risen fast since its 2016 IPO; and angel groups like Robin Hood Ventures "have formed a much more developed infrastructure to assist start-ups" in recent years. The late Steve Goodman, partner at Morgan Lewis, started out as a lonely figure offering Philly start-ups legal advice; "now a lot of the law firms have venture practices. And more CPAs. And there's groups at Villanova and Fox and at Penn who are supporting start-ups as well."
And yet, Philadelphia still lacks a certain "drive," Ginsparg says. "If you compare the Philadelphia area to Boston, where I worked before I located here, to Silicon Valley, where I was in a previous life, to New York or to Seattle, we don't have the kind of regular company exits" — sales of grown-up start-ups at full-market prices — "that return capital to the community and allow entrepreneurs to experience going through all of the cycles of a start-up. There is a life cycle in the start-up world, where we are still behind. That's something that impedes returns."
Is it a problem of scale, or attitude, or lack of assets? "It is a cultural issue," Ginsparg says. "There's a more conservative nature in this area. People inside the companies are more focused on the endgame and getting to that ultimate goal" of making the business work, no matter how long that takes.
And, sure, a founder can dream, says Ginsparg. Everyone knows stories about billionaire founders "whose companies have gone public after 20 years. They are the 1 percent, the well-known stories. From them you get the PayPal Mafia or the Google Mafia, who go in and invest in lots more companies."
But the daily reality of successful venture capital communities aren't the few companies that score game-winning grand slams or Hail Mary touchdowns; it's the many who operate in an environment where you win in a few years or get out with full confidence you can put together another team and find backers to try again. Mature tech investors "grow their start-ups in three to five years, and then they are bought out; teams move in and move on; people who have equity take the money and start new companies."
We haven't had those as much.
A "really great" example, Ginsparg says, is Richard Vague, the marketing mogul who sold his Delaware fintech start-up and then his University City energy company, cofounded Gabriel Investments, gave time and money to Penn's gene therapy programs, and mobilized fellow start-up veterans to investigate and back new ventures.
But mostly, Philadelphia investors "are focused on being a little more risk-averse." Tech investors in busier markets "are looking for 20 percent every year. So you have to grow 20 percent a year, or your return is down. I don't think enough investors here are focused on exit opportunities when a company gets to a certain size and value. They need to exit, as opposed to sticking around." Hang on too long, "and that does a disservice to the limited partners," who end up waiting for stringy returns.
It sounds like the familiar problem facing mid-career Americans who fear losing a job they might not be able to replace: "'I have to do this, because I can't do the next one.' In Silicon Valley, people are very conscious about what success means. They are more impatient about achieving that. If you are not hitting those returns, people look to the exits — because they can do another" without greatly disrupting their lives. "That's a culture difference."