Uniqueness – The Bane of Fundraising

I have seen this time and again. Someone uses their brainpower to come up with a cutting-edge idea for real estate investment. It is a niche (a “Power Niche” as I call it), or a way of looking at real estate that no one has done before. It seems pretty cool, but the lament is that “investors won’t go for it”, so, alas it is just not viable.

If the fundraiser doesn’t just throw in the towel at this point, the next question is whether the fundraiser should “tweak” the business model (or maybe in other words ruin the cool and cutting-edge part of it) so it will look like other investments and thereby become appealing to the target investors; or stick to his guns and try to find investors, even though most prospective investors will not be willing to take the plunge. That sounds kind of terrible too – like the sheepherder throwing in the towel and just deciding to follow the sheep.

As an aside, I don’t mean to imply that the investors who reject the new ideas are foolish. They are not dumb at all. Indeed, the prospective investors are smart to avoid the newfangled investment idea for the simple reason that if they all stick together and perform in an “average” manner, they will remain employed and their lives will continue on (probably happily) as they were before. If, however, they take on the risk of the new idea (and all new ideas have enhanced risk as well as enhanced reward), and it goes poorly, they may be out of a job.

I had been noticing and thinking of this irony – or paradox – for years, but then Todd Zenger wrote a really interesting article in The Harvard Business Review called The Uniqueness Challenge, which explains this conundrum in a very readable and understandable manner. He calls it the “Uniqueness Challenge” and that does describe it very well, as it is always a “challenge” to be “unique”.

I note that my law firm took this Uniqueness Challenge by making the determination to be The Pure Play in Real Estate Law®, thereby taking the enormous downside risk of being different (and unique). We “burned the ships” with this strategy and, fortunately, it worked out exceptionally well. At the time we did it, we were very nervous about it, but now looking at where we stand in the marketplace it seems so obvious – what were we worrying about?

So hats off to Mr. Zenger for his article – it is well worth reading.

Now we have this conundrum—this irony—this paradox. The question is how to solve it. Here is my best shot at it:

At the outset, I wouldn’t tweak (i.e. ruin) the business idea to appeal to investors. That is just like the sheepherder throwing in the towel to follow the sheep – and, in this case, even the sheep would (sheepishly) maybe admit privately that they don’t disagree with the strategy – they just don’t want to take a risk where the risk/reward isn’t to their benefit.

I will – very reluctantly – admit that tweaking/ruining the strategy’s novelty might be the optimal short-term economic strategy, and may result in more immediate fund-raising success. But where is the fun in that? What is the point? Where is the break-out upside? It isn’t there. You are just conforming to be like everyone else.

However, I wouldn’t waste a lot of time on a strategy that is doomed to failure either. If you know that the main investor group just can’t invest in your idea, probably for the reasons I outlined above, don’t spend two years with a fruitless private placement memo trying and failing to raise a billion dollar fund that is doomed to failure or, worse yet, that a Blackstone-type party will do itself if they like the idea. Nor would I use a straight-down-the-middle fund-raising advisor either, as such an advisor would advocate you soliciting the mainstream investors who will likely not be able to say “yes” for the reasons outlined above. Overall, the odds are stacked against you and you could waste two or more years of your life being essentially jerked around and come up empty.

What I would do is approach those who are outside the normal channels, i.e. instead of pension funds, insurance companies, endowments, and similar parties, I would look towards high net worth individuals, family offices, and investment funds that make it their bread and butter to seek alternative investments and that are deliberately set up to not follow the herd. There are a lot fewer of these parties, and the way forward will be tortured, like following a narrow bending path up a mountain; however, I think the chances of success are much higher.

As an outgrowth of this strategy, I would also dial down my fund-raising size dramatically. Instead of visions of billion dollar funds dancing in your head, consider a fund of, say, $25,000,000. All you would want is the bare minimum for a “proof of concept” and an amount you can invest quickly to confirm the strategy is doable. Once you have that, it will likely be a very different story when you go back to the mainstream investors. They will likely change from skittish to eager very quickly.

If you follow this strategy, the only thing you can be sure of is that you don’t know what will happen. However, a strategy where you don’t know what will happen is a lot better than a strategy that is likely doomed to failure (as is the straight-down-the-middle strategy), so mathematically, this strategy is optimal. Also, if things go badly, you will spend a lot less time and money failing.

By the way, if “you” mainstream investors are reading this when you are visited with a Uniqueness Challenge, consider giving the guy presenting to you a break. Maybe this is your big chance to stand out from the herd yourself. Maybe this is a time for you to take a chance too…

If you are a reader of The Real Estate Philosopher and have thoughts on this, feel free to email your thoughts to me and maybe I will put them out in the next article as a follow-up piece.

Finally, if you have an outside-the-box idea in the real estate world that perhaps rises to the level of a Uniqueness Challenge, I hope you will give me a call or shoot me an email. There is nothing I like better than trying to figure out how to make unusual, different and unique ideas successful.