What’s it like being capital advisors to early-stage start-ups? “It’s one part investment banker, one part strategy consultant, one part coach, and one part shrink,” says Troy Hartzell (BA 2001), managing partner and co-founder at Evolution Capital Advisors. Hartzell and co-founder Kirk Van Alstyne (MBA 1996) run a boutique investment bank providing capital formation and strategic advisory services to entrepreneurial stage emerging-growth technology firms.
The partners have been focused on entrepreneurship since the mid-1990s, when they first met as student leaders in the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Van Alstyne had been a chemical engineer and worked on the sales side of the industry for several years before going to graduate school. “I grew up in a small town in Montana and never really thought about starting a company. But there I was, working with these CEOs who had started some great companies and I thought, I’d like to do that someday. So I went back to the UW and got an MBA to learn about entrepreneurship.”
Hartzell had always been enamored with innovation and idea creation. When he got to the UW, he found entrepreneurship to be infectious. “I was surrounded by successful entrepreneurs, 20-somethings who had high aspirations and were incredibly motivated. I was sitting in on lectures with people like Jeff Bezos taking us through the idea generation process,” says Hartzell. “It felt like the possibilities were only constrained by your personal ambition. While I was in school at UW, I started an internet company, won one of the early UW Business Plan Competitions, and went on to raise venture capital for our start-up. Was it the school of hard knocks? Yes it was. But it was absolutely inspiring.”
Several years after graduating, Hartzell and Van Alstyne ended up working at the same investment bank. It was then that the idea for Evolution Capital took root. “We said, we’re entrepreneurs at heart, we love working with entrepreneurs, and we saw an opportunity to bring investment banking capabilities to earlier stage companies in the Northwest,” said Van Alstyne. “So we struck out and started Evolution five years ago.”
Unlike traditional investment banking firms, Evolution Capital tailors their services to the unique needs of smaller early-stage companies by offering hands-on strategic advising and expertise in the clean-tech, telecom, digital media and information technology sectors. The investment firm helps start-ups position, package and present their business in a way that is going to appeal to institutional investors and strategic buyers. “We’re really helping these companies figure out how to tell their story so they can raise capital,” says Van Alstyne. Profitable since its first year of operation, Evolution has completed deals with an aggregate transaction value in the 100’s of millions of dollars with lead investors and buyers from across the United States, Europe and Asia.
What distinguishes the successful entrepreneurs from the rest? “Focus is number one,” says Hartzell. “Is the individual focused and have they separated the noise from the real market opportunity?” Van Alstyne adds, “Successful entrepreneurs also have to be good communicators. You have to breathe life into your story so other people want to invest.”