Start-Ups

Want VC funding? Don't make these mistakes

Raising venture capital funding has become a misunderstood rite of passage for startups. Understanding what you want and why you need it can make all the difference.

 

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 Image: iStockphoto/prodakszyn

Too many founders are raising funding for the wrong reasons. Not only that, some are blindly pitching Venture Capital firms, unprepared to explain why they need the funding and where it will take their company.

"When someone gives you venture capital, it's like someone handing you a grenade with the pin pulled. If you know what to do with it, it can be very useful, if you don't know what to do with it, it can blow up in your face," said Wright Steenrod, a partner at Chrysalis Ventures.

Before seeking funding you should ask yourself why you need venture capital funding. More importantly, you should be asking yourself if you even need venture capital funding. Many entrepreneurs realize it takes longer than they initially thought to make it to market, so they start to raise funding to extend the runway. Steenrod asserts that instead of extending the runway, you should ask why you can't get to market sooner.

If you have determined that you need to raise funding, you must have a reason why. According to Polaris Partners entrepreneur in residence Pat Kinsel, here are the top two reasons:

"The best reason to raise money is to support growth. The second best reason is to fund real R&D. If it’s for R&D, the technology under development needs to be substantial, defensible, and in pursuit of an important market."

Venture capital fundraising is often not regarded as seriously as it should be. Regardless of multibillion dollar IPO trends, this is still a group of people agreeing to lend you millions of dollars based on an idea.

Do your due diligence before you even consider pitching a firm. Bootstrap for as long as you can, but when you reach the point where you absolutely need VC funding, here are some tips to help you raise it.

Do your research

"Be targeted in your fundraising efforts," Kinsel said. "Sit down and think about where you want to be [in] 12-18 months and what strategic expertise you lack to get there. Think about the types of people who can help plug those holes, then find those people. Pitch them. You’ll find that your pitches will be much more personal and will resonate much better… 'Here’s why I want your help' is much more powerful than 'please give me some of your hard earned money.'”

Figuring out who you want to pitch takes an understanding of who you are as a company and who they are as an investor. Common goals and common verticals are great, but it takes a deeper understanding of where you are as a company and what that firm has done to make the relationship work. Start by understanding your market.

Steenrod gives the advice that you must have a big market and you must have a market you can reach soon. No one wants to invest five years ahead of the market, hoping that yours is the marketable solution to a problem that doesn't exist yet. Once you know you aren't overshooting the market, take a look at your contemporaries.

Know the history of the companies you will be compared against, even if you don't consider them direct competitors. Know their story, how much money they raised, and in what iterations they raised it because it will give you a better understanding of where to start. For example, company X raised $2 million to get a working prototype and then raised $8 million in a later round to make it to market. If you believe you will be compared to company X, it's safe to assume you'll need between $1 and $3 million to create a prototype and between $5 and $10 million to make it to market.

Now that you've figured out roughly how much money you'll need, you need to figure out who you're going to ask for it. Too many entrepreneurs look at this like a recent college graduate looks at writing cover letters. Instead of doing their research and making educated, targeted pitches, they copy and paste a bland pitch deck and business plan and mass email it to every firm in the country, hoping that someone will throw a million dollars their way. Bad idea.

Once you raise capital from someone, they have a say in your business. Learn about the firm, and learn about the individual investor at that firm that will handle your investment. Much like firms investing in certain sectors or lifecycles, investors within a firm typically have specific expertise investing under certain parameters.

When you find that special someone, make sure you have your legal house in order. One of the major frustrations venture capitalists face is dealing with a legal team that doesn't have the proper fundraising experience. Laws are tough to navigate and finding a lawyer you trust is difficult, especially when money is involved. Don't make the mistake of hiring your cousin Rusty, the divorce lawyer, simply because you trust him.

Rusty might not understand all of the applicable contract laws involved with raising capital. The last thing you want to do is frustrate your VC because Rusty doesn't quite understand how to write up a term sheet. Hire a lawyer who has worked for companies like yours before, and has raised the amount of money you're looking for before. There are specialized "startup lawyers" in some of the major cities, but you don't necessarily need to seek them out.

Once you have done your research, targeted the investors, and heard a response it is time to formally pitch. No one knows your idea as well and you and, frankly, no one cares about it as much as you do either. Keep that in mind when you present.

Give 'em the business

As entrepreneurs prepare to pitch a firm, the most important element of the business often gets lost in the mix. Prototypes, props, a business plan, and a stellar slide deck are all important elements of your pitch, but they are secondary to the aspect of your company that will set you apart—your story.

Do your best to tell your personal story and really connect. Frame it around the statement of "Here's why I'm dedicating my life to solving this problem." A case study is fine to include, but do not center your presentation on it.

Part of your story is figuring whether or not the problem you set out to solve is worth solving. Kinsel notes that, "For early stage companies, investors care about the problem above all else." He later adds, "If the problem and the opportunity you’re addressing aren’t significant enough, no one will support you."

That is your job as an entrepreneur: to solve a problem. The problem you're hoping to solve can exist without being substantial enough to warrant anyone else's attention. If you are going to drag people into your dream, you better have a reason for doing it. That is where your story comes in, convincing people to join you on your journey.

Convincing investors that you will make good use of their money is a good place to start. The question of, "why do you want this money?" is the point at which the record skips and crickets start chirping for many entrepreneurs. Think about where this money will take you as a business. Answering this question well will help build trust with investors if they know you have a plan for how to use the capital.

As you develop a plan for how to use the money you want to raise, use that as a guide for how much money you are trying to raise.

"People often will take more money than planned just for the sake of it, but it can be catastrophic. Raising money between milestones will increase expectations without giving you the resources you need to get there," Kinsel said.

There is no hard and fast rule for how much money you need to raise. You're probably connected to some other entrepreneurs in your space at this point, so ask them. The most prudent course of action is raising as little capital as possible. The main thing to consider is avoid taking more capital than you need to. It will help you to be more responsible and you will probably end up with investors owning a smaller chunk of your business.

One last consideration is the team behind your product. Many consider the team behind a startup more important than the idea itself. Present your team in a way that convinces investors your skills a complementary and they are the correct set of skills to tackle the problem at hand. Convincing investors that your problem is worth solving has to be followed up with convincing investors that your team will stop at nothing to figure it out.  

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About

Conner Forrest is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. He covers Google and startups and is passionate about the convergence of technology and culture.

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