East Coast native Mark Crawford is often asked why he moved to Omaha last June. He has some answers down pat.
“Besides Dan’s sell job on the beautiful beaches and 70-degree days, I can go up to the mountains and ski,” joked the CEO of Invest Nebraska, referring to the organization’s COO, Dan Hoffman, who recruited him.
And, he said, he had no wife, no kids, no mortgage, so “I could.”
At Invest Nebraska, “there’s an opportunity to make a true impact” as an investor in early-stage companies, he said. Instead of competing with other investment firms over deals and shopping-term sheets, “I can focus on building something.”
Crawford sees Invest Nebraska, a state-funded venture capital organization, as complementing the state’s conservative investors who want traditional investments and angel investors who focus on only large returns.
“I hope Invest Nebraska is somewhere in the middle,” he said. “I want to take a look at those high-tech deals, and I want to get out to those rural areas.”
Companies he invests in might be past the seed funding stage and have established revenue but need financing to add a new machine and increase capacity. Where angels see a too-small return, he said, he sees less risk.
Plus, he added, “the most unpleasant part of this asset class is raising capital. I stepped into a situation where the capital is already raised.”
The May 2011 passage of the Talent and Innovation Initiative put Invest Nebraska in charge of part of the Nebraska Innovation Fund, a new, state-financed fund aimed at helping entrepreneurs. The state’s Department of Economic Development also tapped the organization to manage an Angel Sidecar Fund, with funding from the State Small Business Credit Initiative, a program of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Invest Nebraska is expected to oversee the distribution of $3.7 million by the end of 2013.
In a startup’s financing round, Invest Nebraska will participate by matching as much as $500,000 from an outside capital source.
After growing up in Washington, D.C., and earning a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University in Boston, Crawford started his career as a consultant.
“I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do,” he said.
He returned to Washington to earn his master’s in business administration from American University.
“I didn’t really know what business school was about, but I knew I was a numbers person,” he said.
After graduation, he found another consultant job, “because that’s the only business experience I had.”
He hopped off the consultant track when he teamed up with several partners to start World Development Group, which at the time had an innovative business plan for facilitating privatization transactions for cross-border mergers and acquisitions transactions.
The company was eventually bought out by an investment bank, and Crawford “felt a calling to sit on the other side of the table.” He returned to D.C., took a job as an analyst, and settled into a cubicle.
“I started from the very, very bottom of this industry, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he said, explaining that he got a full education on his climb up the ladder from associate to principal, director, managing director and finally owning his own firm.
So what does a 40-year-old with this kind of experience think of his new home on the Silicon Prairie?
The foodie in him misses the diversity of food available in big cities, and he still feels the urge to walk everywhere.
“I’m a guy who never lived outside of the city,’’ he said. “I grew up in the city.”
But, he’s getting used to his three-days-per-week commute to Invest Nebraska’s Lincoln headquarters, getting involved and serving as a role model in the “underserved community” in north Omaha, and supporting local sports teams like the Omaha Nighthawks.
“The people here are nicer,” he said. “I know that’s a cliche, but they legitimately are.”