As a venture capitalist I receive requests for capital every day. This is a tremendous privilege because I get to see the passion of others expressed as a business. The founders are all different and while the ideas may have been done before there is always a unique flavor to them. All too often I find myself having to let the founder know that they just are not ready to receive capital. I then need to walk them through the steps of “Getting to Investable”. Over the next few weeks I will highlight some of the trends that I have seen with first time founders.
“Needing Money versus Raising Money”
On the surface it may seem like the two situations are the same. If you need money then you raise it, RIGHT? WRONG! Every business requires some sort of capital contribution to get off the ground. This need for capital never goes away- no matter what stage your business is in. When you are just starting out your best source of money is yourself, friends, and family. Not a venture capital firm. So how do you know when you are ready to raise money? Here are a few tips to know whether you need more or if you are raising money.
Do you have a revenue model? Have you figured out how you are going to make this a business? If the answer is kind of— you are not ready to raise money. Your revenue model has to support the business and be sustainable. If you are unsure if people will pay for your product or service a good place to start is market research. Do not assume that because you have identified a problem people will be willing to pay for your solution. Remember there is a difference between a product and business.
Traction- Traction can be measured in a few ways. The easiest way is how many people are signed up or currently using your service. While this is the easiest way of showing traction do not mistake your free users for paying customers, EVEN IF THEY SAY THEY WOULD PAY. There is always attrition when converting free users to a paid structure. The next way to show traction is to have a small PAID pilot of your product or service. Pilot projects help to show your product or service in the field. The trick to having a paid pilot project is to ensure that those that are in the pilot phase know that you’ve already tested it and they are early adopter not the first guinea pigs.
MRR- Monthly Recurring Revenue- Don’t be afraid to say that you are only making a few hundred dollars. If the revenue is recurring on a monthly basis and growing, then investors will be willing to listen. Pre-sales count too so if you can show a purchase order investor will be very interested, as this shows the beginning of demand.
Burn Rate- Do you know what it takes to run the business monthly? No not if you had a fully staffed matrixed organization but what it takes today to keep the lights on and for you to maintain your current momentum. If you have no idea what your burn rate is you are not ready to raise money.
I NEED A SALARY- If your sole purpose for beginning to pitch is to just pay yourself—well then you just need money. I have told people to get a job or make the venture begin to pay them! Yes, it is completely reasonable to pay yourself. As a part of a reasonable growth strategy salaries are there, but it cannot be the only reason you are requesting money,
Whether you are speaking to an Angel or a Venture Capital firm always remember THEY WANT THEIR MONEY BACK AND THEN SOME! If you cannot answer how they will make a return, then you are not ready to raise money!
We have made it to the end of another year! First and foremost if you are still in business-- Celebrate!
I am thankful for another year in business. I have been surveying all the land that we have covered in 2018 and this year was a great one. I will leave the metrics and lessons learned for another post.
As RW and this Reluctant Entrepreneur look ahead to 2019 the only words I can think of are LEVEL UP!
We will be taking all that we do to a higher level. We will also venture into some new areas that I will announce in January.
My Challenge to You!
As you make your vision boards, goals, resolutions, and plans challenge yourself to LEVEL UP!
I had the tremendous opportunity to chat with Product and Marketing Mercenary, Sterling J. Scott. Check out the blog post!
“One person's embarrassment is another person's accountability.” Tom Price
A leadership skill that is undervalued is the ACCOUNTABILITY. We as entrepreneurs and leaders love to tell our team to be accountable for their actions. While, we like to hold other’s feet to the fire we often miss the mark when it comes to ourselves. Accountability is the willingness or the obligation to accept responsibility. Accountability starts with minor actions. Accepting responsibility for the mistakes we make. We teach our children to “be honest” but we do not hold our adult selves to the same standard. How many times have we really not wanted to participate in an activity, so we procrastinated until we were late and then blamed the traffic. The real answer is that we were late because we were not willing to do what it took to be on time. There are two tips that I have used to hold MYSELF accountable:
Ronald Reagan famously said Trust BUT Verify, when speaking about nuclear disarmament. No statement rings as true when you are an entrepreneur. It is your job to make sure that you are making the best decision for your business and your bottom line. Overtime I have crafted and honed my trust but verify skills and have become adept at conducting due diligence.
What is Due Diligence?
Due Diligence is defined as:
a comprehensive appraisal of a business undertaken by a prospective buyer, especially to establish its assets and liabilities and evaluate its commercial potential.
Often new entrepreneurs, business owners, or investors believe that they can just wing this part of decision making and rely solely on their intuition or few meetings before deciding, but this is not sufficient.
Due diligence should be under taken for any decision that you are considering—new partnerships, accepting funding, selecting vendors and yes even taking on large customers that may have a large impact to your bottom line. Each of these reasons carry a different set of questions and level of scrutiny.
Here are few tips to get started and potential red flags:
1. ALWAYS ASK FOR DOCUMENTATION
Due diligence generally starts after several meetings regarding the collaboration. It is imperative that these meeting be followed up with getting the terms in writing. Once this happens then begin to ask for the pertinent documents. For example: if you are deciding whether to make an investment into a business that business should be able to give you their plan for growth in writing.
RED FLAG: If the target is unable or unwilling to put things in writing or if they have not taken time to commit their plans to paper they may not be a good partner. If you get a tremendous amount of push back RUN!
2. ASK FOR PREVIOUS PROJECTS COMPLETED AND RESULTS
If you are selecting a vendor always ask for references and examples of other projects. Be sure to ask the about key metrics including outcomes, time to completion, challenges, and any delays or deviation from the original project or schedule.
RED FLAG: While no two projects are ever the same be careful if the firm cannot directly speak to their experience. They may be learning on your dime and that can be costly or lead to less than optimal results. If you are interested in working with a less experienced firm be sure to provide lots of oversight and feedback or pair them a more senior adviser to ensure you stay on course.
3. REVIEW THE FINANCIALS
Even a quick review of a company’s finances can be very beneficial. This is especially true when you are selecting vendors, deciding on merger, or making a charitable contribution. Be sure to look for things like month to month cash flow, cost of goods, and operations costs. A bloated budget or insufficient funding into key areas can be very informative from a company health perspective.
RED FLAG: If a company cannot produce basic bookkeeping head for the hills. If there is no financial records or if they are poorly constructed that gives you critical insight into the priorities and potential risk associated with working with the organization.
4. CALL CUSTOMERS OR REFERENCES
Getting a third-party opinion can be more informative than speaking to the owners. References can offer insight into the company’s character while customers can show you what their commitment to service and quality are like. I would speak to the reference and customers yourself rather than accepting written accounts.
RED FLAG: If the company insists on being present for any conversations they may be attempting to control the conversation or the narrative. A company confident in its work product will have no issue providing you with a names and numbers.
5. READ THE CONTRACT
Yes, read the contract! I see many disputes arise because one or both parties did not actually read what the contract says. This is critical. I always advise any contract review and interpretation occur with a BUSINESS attorney. Not your cousin who does divorces not your smart niece that wants to be an attorney. Use a licensed attorney. Be sure you understand what the contract says and what your obligations are.
RED FLAG: If you are not given a chance to make edits to a contract you should proceed with caution. Generally, contracts favor the person who wrote it. That means if they unwilling to allow for consideration of your comments that may be indicative of how the relationship will go. This is not to say that there may be portions that are non-negotiable but that generally is not the entire project.
Arm yourself with information before deciding.
For expert help on conducting due diligence give RW Capital Partners a Call!
Over the past few years I have begun to notice that many people working in the entrepreneurship space get stuck in the brainstorming mode. They tend to move from idea to idea, dreaming up all the ways that they could hit the jack pot. Ideation is barely the first step in business. As an investor, I see hundreds (if not thousands) of ideas. It is an unfortunate fact that many of them will stay ideas. What many people forget is that they need a plan and more importantly they have to EXECUTE.
If you find yourself in the perpetual idea cycle and need to push something forward here are a few tips on improving your execution skills.
In order to become better at execution, be clear on what you are driving towards. Take the time create a map. Ask yourself: What are the steps between you and your destination? Write them down and then begin to break each step out. To borrow a cliché a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
Now that you have your roadmap and have listed out and organized the steps that need to be taken, give yourself deadlines. These deadlines should be hard. If you make excuses to yourself or find yourself repeating how busy you are, enlist an accountability partner. That partner should know the map and know the deadlines. With the help of an accountability partner you can stay on course.
Sideline Your Creativity
This one is likely the most controversial tip on the list. If you are oriented more towards brainstorming or ideation, then do not allow yourself to move to the next concept until you have put the current one to bed. Even though I am a person who is very very very good at executing (I say humbly), I still need to keep myself on one idea. Here is what I have done in the past. I give myself 30 minutes to 1 hour to brainstorm or ideate, generally at the beginning of each day. I write all the concepts or thoughts down in a notebook. The notebook serves two purposes it allows me to get my idea fix in and I have a record that I can come back to. I am on my 10th notebook. While, at first it will feel like you may be missing out on the next big idea you had, I promise you are not.
Ideas are no good without execution. In the investment world when we evaluate the investment potential of a business we are looking at the team members and deciding how likely it is that they can execute on the concept. Make sure that you assemble a team that is ready to EXECUTE otherwise you will be another good idea that dies on the vine. Be honest with yourself—understand your personality and which parts of the business you enjoy. Remember most investors would rather have a second-rate idea with a first-rate execution team than vice versa. So, EXCUTE, EXECUTE, EXECUTE!
I’ll answer the question upfront--WE WANT THEIR MONEY BACK PLUS SOME! This may seem like an obvious answer but many entrepreneurs forget the basic exchange between a business owner and an Investor. There are many types of Investors and they all have different return requirements. However, an Investor is NOT a Philanthropist. Philanthropists give money to causes to promote the welfare of others. Let’s start with the basics; the who, what, when, where, and how.
Friends, Family, (and sometimes Fools)
This is typically your easiest group of investors. They are mainly investing in you rather than your idea. You may be able to get a few thousand dollars towards your idea. These investors also require a return but likely will not require much (if any) equity or return. Advice do not give 50% equity for this investment. While this is critical capital, the equity in your venture is important. Small sums of investment for large stakes will do much more harm than good.
Who: An Angel Investor is generally individuals that invest their own capital into an entrepreneurial company. Angel investors are not necessarily millionaires. To be an accredited angel investor you must:
What: What Angels invest from an industry perspective is highly variable. Angels are generally seeking a greater return than they can get in the stock market.
When (company stage): Angel Investors generally are a source of seed capital. Seed capital is the first level of capital after you have tapped out your own means and the FFF pool described above. Companies in the seed phase generally are not revenue generating and are still in the product development, testing, or R&D stage.
How (much): Angels invest anywhere from $100,000- $1.5 million. Some Angels may invest micro-amounts from $10,000 to $50,000.
Where (is the exit): This is highly variable. Lots of Angels will issue convertible notes. Convertible notes are loans that may convert to equity. This means that the investor may exit early if you have the capital to pay the note (or in some cases the instrument will convert to equity mandatorily).
Venture Capitalists (VC)
Who: A Venture Capitalist is a person who invests in a business venture at either the start-up or the expansion phase. Lots of Venture Capitalists do not use their own money for investment but rather the funds are raised and pooled. The funds may come from wealthy individuals or institutions.
What: Venture Capitalists tend to have specific industries that they will make investments in. It is critical to first understand what the fund is interested in. Venture Capitalists are generally seeking HIGH GROWTH companies. These companies give the VC the greatest chance of hitting that 10x return or home run they are seeking. This may mean your main street business may not generate these types of return therefore are not of interest.
When (company stage): This can become murky. A VC can invest in companies that are early stage, growth stage, and later stage. Some portfolios will have a mix of all three. Early stage are those companies that are beyond the start-up phase and may be ready for a commercial release. A growth stage company is a company that is expanding or scaling up. A later stage company has grown through the commercial manufacturing and is likely preparing for an exit, possibly going public.
How (much): How much a fund is willing to invest generally depends on the size of the fund. For example, it would be unlikely that a small 20 million-dollar fund would invest $10 million into a single project. Conversely, a 200 million-dollar fund would like not invest only $1 or $2 million into a company. Get to know what the funds thresholds are and know whether the investment you seek is too large or too small for your target.
Where (is the exit): VC’s typically are going to hold an investment for 5-7 years, possibly longer.
There are several other types of investors. Understanding these basic groups will take you a long way on you search for capital. When seeking funding from an Angel or a Venture Source understand that the basics principles apply.
1. There has to be a clear method of generating a return. If it is not clear where the money will be made YOU ARE NOT READY FOR INVESTMENT.
2. There has to be an exit. Investors are not Founders, they do not want to be involved in the company for generations. If you are looking to build a legacy VC FUNDING IS NOT FOR YOU!
Always do your homework on your targets and be ready to speak to how you fit their profile.
As a former Scientist I LOVE QUESTIONS! I like big meaty existential questions about the meaning of Life and quantitative questions that have a mathematical basis. But, by far my favorite question is WHY. Asking why can lead to all types of revelations and insights. By asking Why 5 times in a row you can easily decipher whether a person truly knows what they are speaking about or whether just read the title of an article on the way into the meeting.
I have lately seen a common trend among entrepreneurs and new business owners, the inability to ask questions. Everyone wants to pretend they have it all figured out. Not asking questions and seeking understanding costs you lots of time and money. When you seek consultation or services it never serves you well to “fake it until you make it”. This is a dangerous way of thinking that sends entrepreneurs in droves to google and “figure it out later”. While I agree that one should know how and where to find information. The inability to understand and APPLY the information you have found often does more harm than good. We all have to do our part to encourage true understanding and critical thinking. Here are a few of my favorite strategies to encourage questions:
1. Always start at the beginning. Unless I am told otherwise, I always start at a basic level of understanding. When you know your craft, it can be easy to fall into the lingo or use lots of abbreviations. Avoid this. Explain terms. Do not assume because a person has a title they have the same experience and education on a given topic.
2. Stop frequently for questions. Try not to leave questions for the end. While questions can interrupt your rehearsed flow, stopping to make sure your audience is with you is much more important. Engage your audience. Ask if they understand, especially if you see quizzical looks.
3. Be the first. I have no problems say “I don’t get it”. I have said it class and as a judge in pitch competitions. Often, others feel exactly the same and find it difficult to speak first. I have gone as far as to ask a question even if I did understand the concept to get the tension out of the air. If you had difficulty with a subject in the past, asking a question for the benefit of the group can be helpful. When taking this approach make sure to own your past confusion.
4. Don’t pretend to be an expert. This is likely the most important tip of all as it applies to both sides of the dynamic. If you are the presenter be sure to be honest and say when you don’t know the answer. Write down the question and take time to answer thoughtfully later. If you are the audience don’t nod along all the while walking blindly. Just because you know a subject there is always more to learn so there is no need to pretend. Interact with the speaker from your knowledge base and gain understanding.
Let’s all dig a little deeper and fall in love with questions!
For the past several nights I have had the same dream. I would get into a car and I would begin to drive. While the car seemed normal I could not see out of the windows and it had no mirrors. Nonetheless, I was always able to drive to car. I never got into an accident and no one was killed. Finally, in the last dream of the series I got into the car, still no windows or mirrors, and I was driving down the road. However, this time I was sitting on the floor in the back. I was not panicked. The car moved into a parking lot and outside the car I could hear on-lookers asking why would she drive a car if she couldn't see where she was going? I woke up in a cold sweat!
I reached out to a trusted source to help explain the dream. His explanation was simply:
When you are walking by faith and not by sight you are moving towards a destination and while you cannot see it with your eyes your faith sees it clearly. Outside observers will question your journey, but it isn't their job to see. You can't listen to their criticism because in the end they will have you stop before you arrive to the destination. When you got tired; you got in the back and faith steered for you.
That cold sweat came back along with chills and a few tears.
That dream and the explanation were both very powerful for me. They spoke directly to the Entrepreneur's experience and, more generally, my life's journey. If you have left a corporate job or started your own company then you have likely made this faith leap. You have made a decision to move forward regardless of the peanut gallery. You have begun a journey with no clear destination. You are pushing forward, navigating hurdles and pitfalls, often times by instinct.
When you speak to those who have made it to their destination there is a common thread to their narrative. They had to keep moving forward. They were not sure it would work but they for sure were going to try. I believe that their secret ingredient was faith. Faith in themselves. Faith in their destiny. Faith in divine providence or a higher power.
So on this Monday, I implore you to keep the faith and to keep pushing forward.
Growth does not happen by chance. Moving your business to the next level is every entrepreneurs’ dream. That could mean expanding into a new territory, or adding a service line, hiring employees, or increasing your profit margin, whatever the intended outcome most people do not want to be in the same place they were last year. This is laudable. However, a common mistake that many new entrepreneurs make is not preparing for greatness. But how do I prepare? Easy plan, plan, plan, and more planning. In case that is not descriptive enough here a few strategies for you to consider:
Dr. Shante Williams is a serial entrepreneur who started slow and in the shallow end of the business pool. She has worked in Biotech, Big Pharma, Green Energy, and Academia