How To Approach Investors

I was asked a straightforward question by another founder recently.  “How should I approach a potential investor?”

Although it’s a straightforward question, the answer is quite nuanced and depends on the specific situation at hand.  All investors are different and appreciate being approached in varied ways.  So given that, here’s what I responded with through email. (I have removed any details that would suggest a certain person or industry)

A) Connection
You need to find someone who you connect with and have a similar view on things. This is why I suggested talking with people that are already into ____________.  They should at least “get” your idea and thinking behind it. An investor that usually puts money into software companies probably won’t get it.

So I think you need to continue to look deeper in that community. But you can’t just send an email and ask for their money right up front. Everyone’s knee jerk reaction is no. This is the biggest mistake people make, just like the guys that hit on the women at the bar. Instant turn off. You need to do what you are doing with me and get to know them, allow them to get to know you and your idea. Don’t worry about “giving away your idea” as I have learned it’s better to connect with many people and hopefully there’s a possible business relationship than keeping your mouth shut and then nothing happens. Ideas are a dime a dozen… work on extending your relations with people in the industry.

B) Early success
Most all investors need to see early success indicators. That is why if you can show some early traction as well as some profit, they investors are way more willing to put in some money to help it grow. Although ideas are a dime a dozen, that’s all they are. But a product that has shown some early promise is music to an investors ears. They need to be able to see it, feel it and touch the prototype, or in your case see your early small tests as successes. Once you can show them real numbers you then build out your model of future projections – based on your real numbers – and show them how their money will be multiplied.

C) Trust
The last one is you need to find people who you trust, and who trust you. This goes back to a) in the way I say find someone you connect with. Turning the tables and looking at it from their point of view…. some random guy is emailing them and asking them to put money in something they don’t know anything about. Basically, they don’t trust you. So you need to work on finding someone you can work towards trusting, and he can work towards trusting you. This takes time.

That’s why your lead into the relationship is more like “hey, I have some ideas I want to run by you, I would appreciate your perspective on these ideas…” Don’t even mention money for the first few interactions, and when it comes up you can say something more like “to scale to the level we want to we would need some capital investment. I’m starting to look around, do you know anyone who would be interested?”

Finding investors to put money into your company is hard enough, make it easier on yourself by doing some legwork first.

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Founders RAW: Here’s What A Good Founder Looks Like To An Investor

In one of my latest Founders RAW conversations I sat down with Seattle VC and managing partner of Seapoint Ventures Tom Huseby to talk about entrepreneurship, investing, patents, and what he looks for in founders he might potentially invest in.

This clip encompasses what he considers a “good” founder – most important is the fact that it’s all about the relationship and the connection/alignment between entrepreneur and investor.

Watch more Founders RAW clips here >

 

 

Founders RAW: The Definition Of A Fundable Founder

I recently sat down for a Founders RAW conversation with Marc Weiser, a VC who started the investment firm RPM Ventures after a successful run as an entrepreneur.  If anyone knows a thing or two about the desired qualities of a founder, it would be Marc.

During the conversation I asked him what he looks for in founders the consider investing in.  His answer is great, and if you are thinking about raising money from outside investors you need to listen to what Marc is saying.  He’s right on the money (no pun intended).

Go here to watch the entire Founders RAW conversation with Marc.

 

 

Will AngelList Help Or Hurt Startup Fundraising?

Fall 2013 will be looked back on as the turning point in fundraising for early stage startups.   The JOBS Act, along with the acceptance of  “General Solicitation” has indeed changed the game for founders looking for startup capital.

Although changes in government regulation will have an impact on startup funding, I believe the biggest impact will come from innovations in the private sector – more specifically the Seed/Angel community.

AngelList has emerged as a black swan in the investment community and is opening up funding channels founders never dreamed of even just a few short years ago.   It allows well known entrepreneurs, advisors, and angel investors a digital network to follow startup activity and quickly jump into investment deals with new hot companies.  This makes it quite a bit easier for startups to close a round of seed funding.   The days of hitting Sand Hill road in hopes of simply getting your project off the ground are over.

And more recently, AngelList announced a new feature called Syndicates, where Angels can basically become “leads” and pool capital from other Angels (or Syndicates) to quickly create their own mini-fund.  They then use this to deploy into early stage companies on AngelList, with the transaction happening all through the AngelList platform.

I will not dive into details of Syndicates, please go here if you want a full description of how it works.  I simply want to touch on where this is going and why AngelList’s innovations are game changing to the larger startup community, for better or for worse.

The big question is how will this affect founders and the overall startup community?  Is it all good?  Or will there be unforeseen consequences which inevitably come with drastic changes?

Since I am not the expert I looked around to others and researched their take on the changes happening with Syndicates.

The innovations around AngelList are clearly going to benefit founders – namely to speed up the fundraising process.  Mark Suster believes it’s a net positive for the industry.  “The most obvious, syndicates can move faster in early-stage deals than rounding up 40 individual investors.”  Good, we don’t need to heard cattle as much anymore!

But what about for the angel investors?  Although it might be better deal flow, it seems market dynamics and economic factors are going to come into play on the investor side.  Hunter Walk sees interesting changes coming for angels, “My guess is there are also some angels who were popular when they represented a $25k check but won’t be as sought after if they try to push $300k into a round.”  The nuances here are not obvious and only time will tell if this is good for the angel community or not.

 Fred Wilson also believes this is good for founders.  “Angel List Syndicates are turning angels who have traditionally been followers into leads. That’s a good thing in many ways. The more folks who can lead a round, the better, at least for the entrepreneurs.”   But he goes even further to describe how it will force the investment community to grow and work harder.  “It also means that they will have to learn to lead and lead well. They will have to step up before anyone else does. They will have to negotiate price and terms. They will have to sit on boards. They will have to help get the next round done. Essentially they will have to work. That’s why they are getting carry from the syndicate, after all.”

So maybe it’s too early to tell how AngelList will affect the ecosystem but questions loom.

Is this actually going to flatten the playing field for all of us founders looking for seed capital?  Or is it just going to make it even easier for “highly connected” founders to close a deal even quicker than before?  You only get discovered on AngelList if you can float to the top by “trending” on the network.   What does “trending” mean on AngelList?  And how do you achieve that if you are not in in the Bay Area, in 500 Startups or a part of YCombinator?  Is AngelList inevitably the web 2.0 version of the Old Boys Club?  Or is it the fundraising mecca all of us founders have dreamed of when we say to ourselves “if only we had access to more angel investors!”

We shall see!

In the end,  AngelList is a new beast and we don’t know what the effect will be on the industry as a whole but I am fascinated with the direction things are going.  My hope – easier access to angels and seed capital for all qualified startups no matter their location.

In a recent Founders RAW conversation I asked Duxter founder Adam Lieb his thoughts on AngelList.

Startup 101 – Make Something Worth Investing In And Be Honest About It

honest

One of the most common mistakes founders make when starting a new project is creating the wrong product.  Or said a different way, they spend all their time creating something they think is valuable only to get to the end of the road and find out no one else thinks it’s valuable.

This is your classic Founderitis:  you are the only one who thinks your idea is good or valuable enough to purchase/buy/invest in.

Of course, this is where customer discovery and development come into play.  As a founder, before your team lays down one line of code you need to research the market, observe what they are doing, learn their problems and determine what you can build to solve those problems.  Then you need to test the hell out of the idea and the prototype.  Doing this will save you and your team a lot of frustration and grief down the line.

But what about convincing investors to actually give you money in support of your venture?  Is it as easy as walking in and sharing your world changing vision?  How about explaining in excruciating detail how your unique  technology is the latest, greatest and smartest in the market?

Not exactly.  The single best way to raise money is to tell the truth.

Paul Graham just wrote a great essay on this subject.  In it he states investors really only care about a few things:

Formidable Founders.  “The most important ingredient is formidable founders. Most investors decide in the first few minutes whether you seem like a winner or a loser, and once their opinion is set it’s hard to change.”

Tell the Truth “The way to seem most formidable as an inexperienced founder is to stick to the truth.  Investors will know if you are lying or pulling something over on them.  That’s the quickest way to turn them off.”

A Big Market “To prove you’re worth investing in, you don’t have to prove you’re going to succeed, just that you’re a sufficiently good bet. What makes a startup a sufficiently good bet? In addition to formidable founders, you need a plausible path to owning a big piece of a big market.”

So here’s the recipe for impressing investors when you’re not already good at seeming formidable:

  1. Make something worth investing in.
  2. Understand why it’s worth investing in.
  3. Explain that clearly to investors.

If you’re saying something you know is true, you’ll seem confident when you’re saying it. Conversely, never let pitching draw you into bullshitting. As long as you stay on the territory of truth, you’re strong. Make the truth good, then just tell it.

There you go.  It’s not easy to raise money but you should be simple, straightforward and honest.

To All The Doubters Out There: My Past Does Not Determine My Future

Today I was informed by one of my advisors someone I previously spoke with in the investment community thought less of me, or looked down upon me and my business mainly because of my background and my previous career as a personal trainer.

This is after the individual had been very forthright in the meeting about how unique our concept was and how impressive we are currently positioned.

Let me be perfectly clear: my past does not determine my future.

Whatever someone studied or whomever they previously worked for has little effect on what they will do going forward.  Does it influence them, yes.  But does mean they are not capable of achieving other things outside of the specific industry?  No.

It’s what we have determined we will do in the future that has the greatest influence on what happens in the future.

For all the doubters out there, let’s go ahead and get it all on the table.

No, I am not a CS major or a Stanford grad with an MBA.   Yes I studied exercise physiology in college, and became a strength coach working all levels of the industry – from professional sports teams to athletic clubs and on to corporate fitness centers.

No, I didn’t come directly out of college and join a fast growing technology company.  Yes, I bumped along as a trainer only to use any and all spare time (ask any of my past girlfriends) reading and studying the latest developments in technology and the web.

No, I didn’t succeed at my first attempt at a startup.  I didn’t sell my first company to Google or Microsoft and I did not make F-you money in my early 20’s.  Yes, my first startup failed.  We failed miserably.  We had no idea what we were doing and naively thought we could actually launch a company when we were all still working full time.  Boy were we wrong.

No, I was not raised in wealthy family so I would be close to seed capital and afforded the luxury of launching my company with my grandfathers/fathers/uncles/stepfathers/father-in-laws/bothers/cousins money.  Yes, I am now learning the “intangible” game of raising money by networking, connecting with people, illustrating our unique value in the marketplace and proving we are actually a great business opportunity.  And heads are starting to turn.

No, we are not launching a social site that within the first few weeks is amazingly spreading throughout the Harvard campus without any of our help… and magically is a hit with all the college kids.  And one where you have no idea the business value for the first few years of existence.  Yes, we have built a platform so valuable we see small mom and pop shops as well as large corporations wanting to be a part of it.  One in which we figured out how to make enough noise in just 3 short months after launching our product that we already find ourselves sitting across the table from NOT ONE BUT TWO multinational, multibillion dollar corporations – in different industries – wanting to somehow work together.  The one I talked with today is probably in the back pocket of most of my doubters.

For all the doubters out there who are still reading but think I might still be missing something I will put you at ease and let you know that even though I studied exercise physiology in school, all is not lost.  Here is my take away and how I see it in the business world.

Business, like the Human Body, is all about efficiency

Inefficiency will kill any living organism and it’s also true with any business organization.  It’s the bane of any corporations existence and it’s also why you hear about six sigma, downsizing and social collaboration tools.  Finding ways to make internal processes less laborious and easier to navigate will make employees more efficient.  Fixing bugs and reworking the user experience of a website will streamline transactions and generate more revenue.  Anyway you look at it, the human body always seeks to carry out processes with the least amount of energy possible.  So does a business.

You must keep working or you will fade away

We all understand the concept of strengthening muscles – you must break them down to build them up.  Exercise is vital to the human body and you must keep placing stress on the cardiac system to experience health benefits.  Well, that’s true for the business as well.  Name any business where it’s acceptable to coast along with no input and expecting to get something out of it.  Even a piece of Real Estate needs upkeep if it is going to bring a return to the investor.  You must keep working on a business, on yourself and your team if you are to experience continued success.

Sometimes Pain is good

We all know the feeling… the first mile of the run after a long hiatus, the last two reps of the exercise we though would be way to heavy, or the morning after soreness from a kick-butt workout.  Yea, it hurts all right.  But most of the time its damn good pain because your body is replenishing itself and growing stronger.

Well if you think starting a business is all sun and roses you are in for a little treat.  It sucks.  It hurts.  You get tuned down more times than you can remember.  You have people questioning you, your product, positioning, vision, funding status, your team and everything else under the sun.  It takes twice as long as you think it will to achieve certain milestones.  But the pain is good for you.  See, you learn from all that doubt and questioning and through all of the crappy stuff you get stronger and become a better entrepreneur.  Trust me, I am one strong individual.

I may not be the most “polished” “tie wearing” “Stanford MBA” or “Y-combinator grad” CEO you find strutting around Silicon Valley.  And quite frankly I know I have a lot more to learn.  But I am glad I am not the above described.  I am quite happy with my past, because as I have just illustrated it provided me with a unique perspective I can successfully transition into my new life as an tech entrepreneur.

And for the doubters…. keep on.  I dare you.

@jnickhughes