How To Create Real Value From Startup Equity with Leah Bowes

Hosted by Jason Atkins
President & Co-founder, Cake Equity
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Our special guest is Leah Bowes from CrowdSolve, an organization that's pioneering the way in early-stage climate acceleration. CrowdSolve is on a mission to support climate and impact founders by providing them with the necessary tools, curriculum, and community to bring their ventures to life.

Leah shared her journey from managing a boutique hotel to joining an early-stage tech company, Pay Simple, which saw significant growth and eventually went public. Her experience with equity at Pay Simple was a learning curve, and she emphasized the importance of understanding the different types of equity and their tax implications.

At CrowdSolve, equity is used as a tool to compensate and motivate the team, especially when cash is tight. Leah believes that sharing the value of the company with those who help build it is crucial for long-term success.

Leah also touched on the importance of mental, physical, and spiritual health for founders. She shared her morning ritual and the significance of physical movement in her daily routine, highlighting how personal well-being is directly correlated with professional success.

To get involved with CrowdSolve's vibrant community, Leah suggests engaging with their online programming, joining their Slack community, or connecting on LinkedIn. They also host virtual pitch events and in-person gatherings, providing numerous opportunities for founders to learn and network.

This episode discussed the transformative power of equity when used for good and the positive impact it can have on communities and the environment. It's clear that Leah and CrowdSolve are not only shaping the future of climate innovation but also setting an example of how startups can create real value through equity.

Stay tuned for more episodes where we explore the intersection of startup equity and making a difference in the world.


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Transcription to follow!

Jason Atkins: Hi everyone, welcome to Startup Equity Matters. This is our first episode for 2024, so I'm excited about that one. I'll probably be a bit rusty, but who cares? You know, we're nice and relaxed here while we're learning about equity. So for the new listeners, we're here to talk about Startup Equity: How To Create Real Value From It. We can't have everybody spending tons of hours with their lawyer learning about every legal document. It's a bit of a disaster, and we need startups to be able to handle their equity well so that they can create value from it for themselves, for their teams, and for their investors. Today, we have Leah Bowes from CrowdSolve. We're really excited to have Leah on today. We're going to cover a topic that's very important to us at Cake, which is innovation for good. How do we use our capital, use our energy, build companies that have a real impact in the world and create a better future? Welcome, Leah!

Leah Bowes Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.

Jason Atkins: Yeah, I'm excited as well. We've known each other for a few months now. I spent a lot of time in the Colorado ecosystem, so I've met you and your co-founder Tim there, and I was immediately excited about what you were doing in Australia. We have a group called Climate Salad, and they're leading the charge here, bringing just tons of great businesses together that are solving problems in a similar space. So when we met, I was like, "Oh, fantastic. A new community that's doing good in the world--in the startup space. Why don't we start off and help everybody understand a bit more about CrowdSolve.

Leah Bowes: Sure. Yeah, that sounds good. We love Climate Salad as well, but CrowdSolve is what we say is the world's largest and earliest stage climate accelerator for climate and impact founders from around the world. We help early-stage founders bring their ventures to life by connecting them to the curriculum. We have an online software platform that is free today for early-stage founders to use and get access to about 80 modules of online curriculum that take them through the venture development cycle--ideate, build, test, and launch. Then we also offer virtual programming, but live, where we're taking folks, a cohort of folks, through the various kinds of business-specific topics that they need in order to launch their venture. We also create a community around early-stage venture development and then help people get connected to early-stage capital. Our goal is to help hundreds of thousands of climate innovators bring their innovations to the world in the next 10 or so years, and we really love to be able to help support the folks that otherwise may not have connection to curriculum and how to really bring their venture to life, community, or capital. We are doing it all in a way that brings more founders to the table and more innovation to the world.

Jason Atkins: Amazing. I'm a huge advocate for this type of thing. When I was starting out in startups, almost everything I knew from my previous career was irrelevant. There's a bunch of those generic soft skills like problem-solving, leadership, and energy. There's all you know and you can bring all of that, but your corporate life and your startup life are so, so different. There's so much to learn in those first couple of years. The program side of things I'm sure is incredibly valuable, so everybody should check that out if you're in that space. Then the community element as well-being around other people that are going on this huge transition from employee to wild entrepreneur, and founder, and building a team and all that stuff is super important. So congrats on doing that. Digging into the program a tad, who's it open to? You know, what's the geographics? Is it America? North American? U.S. only? Global? 

Leah Bowes: We welcome all founders from around the world working on climate and impact innovation. You kind of can choose your own adventure, and the software part of it, like I said, is free. It's a really great way to go through in a self-paced way--the curriculum. Then when you're ready to kind of accelerate your journey as a founder, joining the paid programming is really great for folks who are like, “Okay, I don't want to do this alone.” I want to learn in a group with other founders, mentors, and experts in the space. Then, have the greatest chance of getting into an accelerator, getting their first round of funding lined up. We're really kind of serving early-stage founders who are maybe not yet ready for an accelerator or who have applied to an accelerator, haven't gotten in, and they need to continue to work on their venture. We are partnered with about 45 accelerators from around the world and growing, and we really serve as a resource for their applicants, they get hundreds of applications and can only accept about 2% or so is generally kind of the average. So CrowdSolve is a resource for those partners through that application process, and then those founders have a home base and a place to go to continue to make progress on their innovation. We are really definitely also all about bringing  more diverse voices and founders to the world as well. And oftentimes, the 2% that get in have more access to a deeper network and more community that have kind of helped them get there. We're building that for the folks who don't get in, or taking them before they're even applying and helping them get prepared. So we have global founders from all around the world. We have had folks join us from Africa, Australia, India, Pakistan, of course, North America, and would love to be in lots of other regions. So all are welcome.

Jason Atkins: Very cool. Our personal experience with that, one of the best moments and most positive things we ever did at Cake was getting into a really high quality accelerator, but we didn't get in the first time. You know, we weren't really ready. We had some major issues with our business model and a bunch of other things that we weren't even really aware of. And the first time we applied, we got that feedback and we thought, “Wow, how are we going to cross this gap?” We then worked with people that had experience with that particular accelerator. We did it in a really specific way, but I can see what you're doing. You're sort of  productizing and turning that into resources that can allow people to cross that gap. So they can be that 2%  much more quickly or at all. I mean, I suppose if you don't get help, it's probably pretty hard to ever be in that 2%, so that's really cool.

Leah Bowes: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it's important to be able to. I think you don't know what you don't know. Especially as a first time founder, maybe even as a second time founder, there's just a lot of gaps in the journey, so if we can help demystify the journey a bit and do it in community with other founders. I didn't mention our mentor network, but our mentors are incredible. We have hundreds of mentors who have signed up and said, hey, I want to help support these early stage founders that are working on impactful climate innovation. So you get mentorship both on the platform level as well as through paid programming as well. The connection to mentors and the people who've gone down that road before is really incredible and super. You can see the iterations that our founders make on their pitch or on their business model as they're getting feedback from mentors and other experts in the space. So it's nice to relieve the isolation of being a founder because it can be isolating sometimes.

Jason Atkins: Right, right. Love it. Well, this is far from an ad for CrowdSolve, but I'm a huge, huge fan. That's all organic and authentic. But let's chat a bit about Leah. Our listeners love to get to know our guests personally as well. I think it's a super interesting part of what we do. So tell us a bit about your career today and how you ended up working in early-stage climate tech.

Leah Bowes: Sure. Yeah. I think it was a bit of a journey. I started my career in hospitality. I managed a boutique hotel in Boulder, Colorado, and while I loved taking care of people and connecting with guests, I knew that I wanted to be more focused in technology and doing something a little bit more scalable. So I took that experience and pivoted into joining an early-stage technology company in Denver called PaySimple. I was there for 12 years, so I saw that hockey stick growth joint. I don't know. I think it was the 55th employee or something like that. And PaySimple, as part of a broader new ecosystem called Ever Commerce, ended up going public in 2021. I was there for 12 years, really had the opportunity to build out the reactive customer care organization, the proactive customer success organization, fit as kind of the executive of the voice of customer across the holistic customer experience, and led a team of about 45 folks. So it was really incredible. We just  started with just a few team members and was able to grow out the customer facing organization  in a really great and meaningful way. So I loved what I was doing.

Jason Atkins: What's the key? What would you tell people about that? What was the one insight on that? On that project?

Leah Bowes: Well, when I joined, I had a few other options. It was kind of early 2009, and I liked the product a lot. I thought the product had a lot of potential. It was pretty early days of  helping customers take payments  from their customers. That's what that software did. Specifically around service-based SMB, so the market was really big. We were kind of helping folks in an area that was taking up a lot of their time as they were running their business. The reason why I stayed with the company for so long is we got to co-create just an amazing set of values, I think, and we really lived by those values. So passion, authenticity, teamwork, happiness, and service. And everybody brought that to the table each day. Then we translated that to relationships with our customers and partners and stuff like that. So I think that's what kept me there. Being super tied to the values and building something with a bunch of other people who were aligned in that way.

Jason Atkins: Oh, stop it. That's amazing. That's exactly how I see things. You build a great team, and you be great people, and then the great company comes afterwards. Amazing to hear that. I didn't plan that either, but that's one of my key messages about building a company as well. So really cool.

Leah Bowes: Yeah, I mean, it's where we started with CrowdSolve, too, sorry. It is like figuring out the core values and then building from there because I think if you can get everybody aligned, that's a great place to start.

Jason Atkins: What are the values of the CrowdSolve community?

Leah Bowes: Sure. So the CrowdSolve community is founder fanatic. We are founders helping founders all about founder success and happiness and you know, making founders have the greatest chance at success. Then a collaborative DNA. So the thing that I love the most about working in climate is that there is so much collaboration. There's so much opportunity to pull more people in and to  join hands together to combat this crisis. We are very much focused on creating collaboration over competition and connecting people in that way. Then finally a conscious urgency. I think that's applied both to being a founder. As a founder, you're like, I gotta work on this, I gotta work on this. There's so many things to go after. It's being really focused on the things that will have the biggest impact both from a climate as a whole perspective, as well as building your business perspective.

Jason Atkins: Amazing. So obviously, we're an equity focused podcast and the thread that we're pulling here is equity for good, right? So what we're doing--what Leah and Tim and the community are doing is they're bringing capital into a space where it's needed, and they're helping create  success stories within that space by educating and growing the company, the founders and their teams, but also the community. So this is really creating value from equity, I guess, at a high level--at a community level, which is amazing. I love this stuff. And taking a step back, I think, Leah, when we were catching up previously, you said you've also got an equity story from your prior role, which I think is always nice to unpack because quite often what we see people who are the real leaders in the community have had experience with equity earlier in their career and quite often some sort of small, medium, or even large success with their equity along the way, which creates a bit of freedom for them mentally and emotionally to go and take on bigger challenges. So if there's anything, I think there's a little bit you could share there around your prior equity story.

Leah Bowes: Sure. Yeah. It's such a good question and such a good point, right. About being able to then use that equity to potentially build something else. Yes, I joined, like I said, as an early employee at Pay Simple, and was able to, as part of my compensation package, earn equity over time. And that obviously grew until  the company IPO. That was a really fantastic way to just kind of stick with it as well. And see, I was excited to have the opportunity to be able to kind of see it from one beginning to another, really beginning or ending, I guess you can say. So one thing that I really learned, though, on my own, like a personal equity journey was that there's an opportunity to buy over time, which, at least in the US, is very helpful from a tax perspective. So that was something that I didn't understand, not giving tax advice or legal advice in any way. But as I did my own research, I was like, oh, okay, this, this would be good to have had a better understanding of because it also makes at a time of  a funding event, and you don't have to necessarily do the math to figure it all out if you should purchase or not. So that was a learning that I've took with me, and I think every situation is different, but it was a good thing to understand and go through.

Jason Atkins: Unfortunately, in the US, it's a bit tricky because there's sort of three or four different types of equity you can get. There's ISOs and NSOs with options and RSAs. So you do need to kind of look and say, oh, which type have I got? And sometimes, companies even have multiple kinds. You could even ask, hey, like, maybe I want this better kind. I normally recommend that you get NSOs because they're really flexible, tax perspective. But again, that's not tax advice. That's just my learnings. I think NSOs are kind of the most flexible and give the team member the most opportunity to sort of own them in the best way. But each company is different. You do need to sort of look at the rules, and as Leah's pointed out, with most types of equity, converting to a share impacts the amount of tax that you pay, so it is something to check out. Cool. Well, thanks for sharing that. There's a little lesson there. I might save people some tax, which people are pretty cool. So nice. All right. So we're already Crowd Solved now. We're pumping along. What's the big goals for 2024? What are we going to achieve? Love to sort of dig into what's coming up and how people can get involved as well.

Leah Bowes: Big goals for 2024 are to continue to help more climate innovators, so we're always looking for partnerships with more accelerators, universities, prizes. Again, folks and organizations that have access to a lot of founders that they're not necessarily able to support. That's a great place to engage with Crowd Solve from a partnership standpoint. We're also super keen on exploring partnerships with corporations and really getting hooked into innovation offices and helping to provide both insights to those corporations around some micro trends that are happening in the climate space, but also potentially connecting innovations to corporations that could do pilots or become a first customer or do some R&D. So there's lots of opportunity there to connect innovation to corporations. And yeah, just continuing to build out our programming and our platform offerings. So we launched a membership offering just a few days ago, so founders can join for an annual membership to access all the programming. We have 25 plus minicamps, we're doing one with Cake on equity, and we can't wait for that. That'll be really awesome. Because again, this can kind of be a mysterious topic for so many early-stage founders, and also so critical and helping to attract talent, and make the success of the business part of the employees success as well. So it's super exciting for  many camps and programs like the one we're doing with Cake coming up in the next few months. So yeah, lots of programming going on and just are super focused on helping support more early -stage innovators and getting them connected into the right places.

Jason Atkins: I'm really looking forward to our session. Catching up with Amanda, I think, in the next couple of days from your team. She seems great. I think we're going to do two two-hour sessions, right? It's a deep dive. I'm excited for that. I think we're going to have a real hands-on workshop so we can get people to use their equity. You know, I regularly do one-hour workshops and it's really Equity 101 quite often because it's quite broad. How to do my founder set up, how to do my founder vesting, how to do founder splits. You've got hiring your first team, you've got advisor equity, you've got preparing for your first round, executing the first round, the different types of equity. So there's quite a bit to talk about. So I'm glad we've got a couple of sessions because we can do a better, bigger overview, and then we can do a couple of sessions where we dig into the detail and get the founders' hands dirty a bit. We also have a nice equity toolkit, some free resources that I regularly share that we can go through as well. So pump for that. I wanted to dig into the community element a little bit as well for 2024. I'm a big believer in community, particularly being important in startups, where people are coming into a new space and can feel a bit like fish out of water. How can people get involved with the community? You know, 2024, I guess that it's online and in person as well, or what's the best way for and what's coming up to, I guess, you know, bring people in?

Leah Bowes: Sure, yeah. A lot of our programming is online. We also have a Slack community and then our software platform kind of ties it all together. I'm pretty active on LinkedIn though and love to connect with folks that are looking to engage in the climate community as a whole. There are so many great resources on LinkedIn and so many thought leaders and content creators that it's just a really great way to start to expand into the broader parts of climate. So that's a great place to connect as well. Then, we do some in-person events here and there. We have a pretty dispersed team, but last week, we ran a pitch competition at a local climate conference in Denver, and that was really fun. That was our first live pitch event in person. We do them virtually as well, pretty much on a monthly basis, so that's another way for folks to get involved. You can come and view as a viewer, the pitch events and see what is happening in climate innovation. We were at Verge last year in the Bay Area with Green Biz and we'll certainly be back there again, did a few like founder happy hour events and are expecting to do things like that as well. Thinking about some other kind of events as it makes sense in person. I think that answers your question, but there's lots of ways to get involved. 

Jason Atkins: That's great. We'll have to partner up on some events. I'd love to.

Leah Bowes: I know. Yeah.

Jason Atkins: Help out, pitch events or run up our alley in community events in Denver, for sure. So, yeah, let's keep the ball rolling there. I'll get Garrison across all this as well. A couple of questions just to finish up. I think I'd love to know how you're doing equity at CrowdSolve. I don't know if equity for  an accelerator and community group like yours make sense? I think it does. How are you seeing equity now from your perspective, from an employee equity perspective and or raising and stuff like that? Anything you want to share about how you're seeing it now?

Leah Bowes: Sure. I think we at CrowdSolve probably did something similar to how I think probably a lot of founders in early stage companies think about equity in that it's a great way to share in the value of the company as you're building it with the folks that are on kind of the early stages and kind of the founding team. That's how we've leveraged equity at CrowdSolve. While we've been fundraising and while we continue to be really cash-conscious and capital-conscious, we've been able to use equity as a way to compensate the folks that are working so hard on helping us build CrowdSolve. And so I think it is an amazing tool for getting people really bought into your mission, getting your team members bought into the success of the company. Then, getting a stake in the company as well, so it's a good lever point, too, I think, for early stage companies that don't necessarily have the cash. If you can use some of that equity for future benefit down the road to some of your most key and integral team members, then it's a great way to be creative in compensating your team members.

Jason Atkins: 100%. I don't think I warned you about this one, but I always finish, I think you said you listened to a couple of other apps. We always finish with a health-related question. At Cake, we believe that you've got to have your health done first. You can't do anything well without it, and that includes mental health, of course. You know, at Cake, we call it a creative, healthy lifestyle. If you're healthy, you can be more creative, you know, and just generally be better in the world. How do you see that and at CrowdSolve? How do you feel about that as a general sort of vibe?

Leah Bowes: I love this vibe. I could talk about this vibe for a long time. Yeah, I think that mental and physical health are so and spiritual health, actually, are so incredible. In terms of  however you define that, for me, that's more universal. But yeah, I mean, I definitely have found, as a founder, how incredibly important it is to take care of all three of those things. Also, as a mom of two young kiddos and a human living on this Earth where things can be challenging, I think  making sure that you fill up your cup first in order to be able to pour out to other folks each day and ongoing is incredibly important. So I have a kind of a pretty long morning ritual, as long as it can be with little kids, where I  slow down and spend some time either writing or drawing, and enjoying my coffee slowly before  getting started with the day. Then I always do my best to prioritize some sort of physical movement, whether it's yoga or bootcamp or a walk, getting outside and connecting with nature and moving my body is super important. Then the rest of the things follow, I think. So I love that. I think, you know, they're not disconnected, right? Our physical health and happiness and our mental health and happiness is directly correlated with how we show up in the world. So if we can take care of that, and I know sometimes it's hard and it's a privilege, but super important. So I love that question. Thanks for asking.

Jason Atkins: Oh, I love that answer. Oh my goodness, Leah. We're like this. This is great. One of the best parts about what I do is I get to cruise around the world, meeting amazing people that are having a huge impact. And then even now I get to interview them and bring their stories to the world. And I think we have the risk of feeling like we're all like this and we're in an echo chamber, but we're not. We need to help people understand how important this health thing is and this mental health thing is. And you can show up in the world happy and relaxed and powerful with great energy and still achieve a lot. You don't have to grind yourself down and put yourself last. If you flip that upside down, you can do so much more and show up well and be a positive influence. Amazing to hear where you are on that journey. It sounds like you're in an advanced state. So exciting for you, and thanks for sharing that. So, all right, we're going to wrap it up there. I think that was a fantastic episode. You know, we got to share about Leah and CrowdSolve, you know, making a huge impact in the world, and this is exactly where we want to see  capital getting involved, people and their energy getting involved, and really building a better future. Thanks, Leah. It's just the beginning of our ongoing partnership and collaboration, I'm sure. I'm excited to see you in person again soon. Cake is a big fan of what you're doing. So onwards and upwards, eh?

Leah Bowes: Awesome. Thank you so much. We're a big fan of Cake, too, and appreciate you for inviting me on to be on this episode. I really appreciate it. It was a great conversation. Thanks so much.

Jason Atkins: Amazing. Cool.

Leah Bowes: See ya. All right. Bye. Take care.

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