Unicorn versus reality: A Q&A with Brice Dondelinger

Entrepreneur, Brice Dondelinger, on the hidden costs behind investment tactics, and reminding business owners that success isn’t always measures in £billions

So many entrepreneurs dream of being the next unicorn, but at what cost? And why do we place so much emphasis on ‘unicorn status’ as a measure of success? Particularly when the allure of this mythical startup status can lead business owners down a path that doesn't align with their original vision, overshadow other important aspects of a business – like its purpose beyond money, its impact, legacy, and the social and economic problems it might be solving.

What makes you consider yourself a successful entrepreneur? Tell us about your experience.

BD: To be honest, I find being asked to define the measure of my success a little triggering, because success looks different to everyone. In the world of entrepreneurship, a common narrative is to measure success purely in financial terms – like securing substantial investments. But there are so many other ways to value yourself, the work that you do and the path you choose.

I believe we need to redefine our understanding of what it means to be successful because true entrepreneur spirit should revolve around being a problem solver. You should be asking yourself, are you addressing and solving issues, not just competently but uniquely and innovatively? Are you disrupting industries and ushering in transformation with novel technologies and ideas? How many people are benefiting from your innovations, products, or services? It's about contributing to the greater good and leaving a legacy of change. If you can get that right, the money should follow.

After graduating with my master’s in management, I lead intellectual property consulting projects for two of the world’s biggest corporations in Switzerland, Latin America, and France. I went on to join a pioneering new media startup in Luxembourg and I’ve worked on several process optimisation projects before pursuing the inevitable path of entrepreneurial creation and freedom.

When I first started working with my co-founders, Marc Donis, Bob Krier and Dylan Thompson, it was to build a trusted travel guides app for the tourism industry called Spoticle. A few years later, we began to brainstorm our next project, and started creating a tool that helped people test their business ideas before launching. In one place, users could set up a landing page, create a call to action for visitors to sign up and express interest, and then analyse the level of interest from the traffic they’d driven from online test adverts.

It was here that we had our 'Aha!' moment. We realised that there was a real need to simplify and democratise digital advertising, making it not only more - accessible but also effective at driving new customers to websites – particularly for small business owners. This revelation led to the refinement of our offering, and Balloonary was born.

What fundraising tactic(s) have you used for your business(es)?

BD: While securing funding is undoubtedly beneficial for startups, the most crucial aspects to get right go beyond capital infusion. It starts with a clear idea of the problem your venture aims to solve and how your solution addresses it. Next, define your business goals and a roadmap to achieve them. Understand precisely how much funding you need to meet those goals and develop a clear business strategy. With these elements in place, you'll be better positioned to find the right funding sources that align with your objectives and vision.

Every business will have unique capital needs, so your approach must be adaptable. It’s worth researching each option thoroughly because there are varying merits and considerations for each.

Crowdfunding involves raising capital from many individuals online, typically through platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Bootstrapping means using your own resources to grow your business without external investment. Self-funding involves reinvesting profits back into the company if there are enough or any at all. Loans are available from traditional banks, online lenders, or government programs. Business angels and Venture capital (VC) involves raising funds from private or professional investors, often in exchange for equity. Each option has its advantages and trade-offs, and the right choice depends on your business's specific needs and growth trajectory.

Throughout my entrepreneurial journey, I've employed various fundraising tactics to secure capital for different ventures, like leveraging personal savings and bootstrapping to get the business off the ground, transitioning over time to business angels. In the case of Balloonary.com, we utilised a mix of bootstrapping, accelerator program grants and angel investment to ensure that our innovative concept could take flight.

What were the benefits of these methods?

BD: There are several benefits to each fundraising method. Personal savings and contributions from co-founders provided autonomy and control, allowing us to test our ideas without external influence.

The grants from accelerator programs allowed us to validate our concept while engaging a community of early adopters and supporters who were genuinely excited about what we were building. As for angel investors, they provided the capital necessary for growth, access to valuable networks, and mentorship opportunities.

For us, the most interesting learning has been the difference between bootstrapping and angel investment.

Bootstrapping, the art of building your business with minimal external funding, is a path characterised by financial independence and control – which can be attractive to entrepreneurs who have likely chosen that path because they value freedom and autonomy. Bootstrapping means you're in the driver's seat. You retain full control of your company without diluting your ownership through equity deals. This control empowers you to make decisions aligned with your vision.

Angel investment - where you secure financing from professional/private individual investors - provides substantial capital injections, enabling expansion, hiring, and marketing efforts. This can help your business.

These investors seek high-growth, disruptive startups with the potential for substantial returns and this access to capital often also brings valuable industry expertise, connections, and mentorship. This support can help you navigate challenges and make strategic decisions.

What were the unexpected challenges associated with that/those method(s) of fundraising and why?

BD: While each method had its benefits, they also brought their own set of challenges. The unexpected challenges often revolve around managing expectations, aligning goals with stakeholders, and ensuring that the infusion of capital won’t compromise the core values of the business.

By bootstrapping, you avoid the demands and expectations of external investors. This affords you greater flexibility in decision-making and strategic pivots. However, it may limit your ability to scale quickly, hire top talent, or invest in marketing and infrastructure. Growth might be slower compared to well-funded peers. You’ll also need to be prepared to forgo other professional opportunities or personal income to invest your time and resources in your venture.

Nearly all other external investments come, naturally so, with conditions attached and can create immense pressure to achieve growth and profitability. External investors can often have a say in key business decisions, meaning you lose a sense of control, potentially leading to conflicts with your founding team on matters of strategy and direction.

At Balloonary we have been extremely lucky with our angels, and I can only stress the importance of selecting your external investors wisely. As a founder raising money, you tend to focus on the amount, but relationships matter, because usually you are in it for longer than the money invested lasts.

It's crucial to remember that seeking external funding isn't for everyone, and that's perfectly fine.  You should just be aware that the pursuit of external funding can sometimes come at the cost of building the business on your terms.

Would you raise capital using that method in the future?

BD: I believe in the importance of adaptability in fundraising. The choice of method should align with the unique needs and goals of the business at any given stage.

While I would certainly consider methods like angel investment or venture capital for certain ventures, should they require rapid scalability, I wouldn't rule out other options like self-funding or seeking strategic partnerships.

The key is to remain flexible, keep an open mind, and select the method that best complements the specific circumstances of the business. The entrepreneur journey is never linear, challenges come and go, there are ups and downs, so if you onboard external investors, make sure they are wise people that you would happily also grab a drink with.

What do you think the allure is to chase 'unicorn' status as a startup?

BD: The allure of chasing 'unicorn' status lies in the pursuit of creating something truly exceptional and impactful. For many entrepreneurs, it's about pushing the boundaries of innovation, achieving remarkable growth, and leaving a lasting legacy.

Becoming a unicorn signifies financial success eventually but more so the ability to solve significant problems, disrupt industries, or influence the world positively at scale. It's the pursuit of this audacious dream that drives many entrepreneurs to embrace the challenges and uncertainties of the startup journey.

What advice would you give a new entrepreneur looking to raise funds for their business?

BD: My advice to new entrepreneurs would be not to fixate on financial milestones, and to evaluate themselves through a richer lens. Success lies in the art of problem-solving, in innovating solutions that outshine the competition. It's about crafting a business that tackles challenges in a unique, superior way - transforming industries, pioneering technology, and contributing to reshaping our world for the better. But still aim to make money with your product or service the fastest you can, it just puts you in a better position, whichever way you choose to fund your business.

You’ll need to be adaptable, exploring various funding options, and understand that the process is challenging, uncertain and takes way more time than you think. If you do decide to seek investment, don't let the allure of external funding blind you to the merits of bootstrapping or customer-driven growth. Whatever approach you choose, make the decision that best serves your vision and values, stay adaptable, and never stop learning.