If you’re even peripherally involved with Hawaii’s growing tech scene, it’s hard not to run into Sultan Ventures these days. The firm, led by Omar and Tarik Sultan, is “a boutique venture firm” that helps early-stage startups and investors navigate the road from business idea to business success.
Earlier this week, Sultan Ventures announced that, based on its application, Hawaii was selected as a “pioneer VilCap community” by Village Capital and its partners the Kaufmann Foundation, Sorenson Impact Center, and Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest.
But let’s back up a bit. Last week, Tarik Sultan, managing director at Sultan Ventures, spoke at the Booz Allen Ideas Festival and Sultan Venture’s venture associate, Luke Tucker, had his own company featured in Modern Luxury Magazine.
Last month, XLR8UH, a startup accelerator jointly run by Sultan Ventures and the University of Hawaii to turn UH-developed technology into viable businesses, was awarded $1 million, half from the federal Economic Development Administration and half from UH.
Earlier this year, Meli James, Sultan Venture’s head of new ventures and also president of Hawaii Venture Capital Association, was named a “woman to watch” by Entrepreneur magazine.
That’s all in addition to Sultan Ventures taking a leading role in getting tech-friendly bills through the Legislature and being front and center for the HVCA’s recently held annual awards gala. And we’re just barely 10 weeks into this year!
It’s hard to keep up with Sultan Ventures, and it doesn’t sound like they’re slowing down.
“Hawaii’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is still at a nascent stage, so each and every one of the entities and individuals involved has to play multiple roles,” said Omar Sultan, managing director of Sultan Ventures. “We’re dedicated to building an ecosystem that has the critical mass of resources that other startup hubs have. We are acutely aware of the time, energy, and the multiple avenues it takes to make things happen.”
“Acutely aware” can be read as “yeah, we’re pretty darn busy and don’t get much rest … but we like it.”
But let’s get back to this VilCap community announcement. In a typical startup accelerator, companies are given a small investment of around $25,000, and then go through a few-months program that combines education, mentors, and resources.
In the VilCap model, startups enter a program and, at the end of the program, they all vote on who gets the investments. It removes some risk and keeps everyone on their toes throughout the program.
“The Village Capital model turns the traditional (accelerator) model on its ear because the investment selection comes after the program,” Omar explained. “And, rather than the investor making the investment decision, peers within the cohort decide who gets financial investment.”
In the application to become a VilCap community, Sultan Ventures spread the aloha and joined its XLR8UH accelerator with Energy Excelerator and UH’s Maui Food Innovation Center, literally creating a hui that they named HUI, which stands for Hawaii United Innovators.
“(With XLR8UH), we have seen first-hand the benefits of collaboration within an accelerator cohort, in particular peer scrutiny about a product’s feasibility,” said Omar. “Village Capital’s networks and mentors expand our access to expert knowledge, key connections, and investment sources. And, the knowledge gained from, and the continued involvement with, other growing entrepreneurial ecosystems can only strengthen our ecosystem and our startups.”
Bringing more national recognition and attention to Hawaii undoubtedly benefits our state’s startups. And more local startups are seeking and finding venture capital investment from Silicon Valley, such as Hobnob and XLR8UH’s own MeetingSift. But when asked about startup success and using venture capital as a yardstick, Omar Sultan says that puts the focus on the wrong things, at least for now.
“This is a question we receive a lot and believe that it’s not the right question to ask, at least not yet,” explained Omar. “Keep in mind that XLR8UH is not even 2 years old. When thinking about the cycle of most venture activities, it takes five to seven years on average for later stage venture funds to start to see returns from their activities. We invest our time and capital in ventures that are even earlier than these, and as a result, are not only higher risk, but also have a longer time until a potential exit.”
“The Hawaii startup ecosystem in general hit a hard reset in its investment approach, really only starting to invest more effectively and efficiently in the last three years or so. It’s much too early to be looking for IPOs or acquisitions as success measurements for our ecosystem.”
Omar went on to say that the ecosystem is heading in the right direction and that startup activity is steadily and quickly increasing — and improving. For now, he says, our metrics of success should consider funding, of course, but also real measurements that typical businesses use, like number of customers and revenue generated.
For that final metric, revenue, Omar likes to point out that many of the companies Sultan Ventures works with are already generating revenue, which is rare in the world of early startups, especially in technology and especially in Hawaii.
“It’s frequently demonstrated that the communities that consistently spur innovation capitalize on and support their university’s research and innovation efforts,” Omar adds, acknowledging the importance of UH in the efforts of Sultan Ventures. “We believe Hawaii is poised for success based on regional strengths, two of which we believe are in the energy and agriculture industries, hence the focus of our VilCap Community efforts with HUI.”
As Hawaii’s startups achieve more success and Hawaii gains more recognition as a region generating viable startups, Sultan Ventures seems to be not only riding the same wave, but generating—or at least coordinating—most of the energy behind that wave.
“Fortunately, as Sultan Ventures continues to grow, we are recruiting people who share the same vision for Hawaii,” Omar said. “We believe in collaborating with other entities such as the Energy Excelerator and the University of Hawaii to turn turn this vision into a reality.”