As a VC that has been in the industry for 15 years, I have watched many trends come and go. For the first few years of my career, my colleagues and I spent most of our time sourcing these trends and then incubating new innovation right here in Silicon Valley in the labs at IBM and AT&T.
Today, however, the most successful venture capitalists all over the world are looking for innovation well beyond what lies between the 280 and 101, a region known for housing the deep pockets and highly valued tech companies that are, for many, household names.
What does this mean for someone with an interesting idea that lives well beyond the confines of Silicon Valley? Borders no longer exist in the world of innovation, and I think it is very safe to say that the next big idea will likely not come from the labs at IBM or AT&T, but from a corner of the world with equal access to online resources and startup networks.
As an entrepreneur’s sphere of influence and potential investors expands almost daily, here are some tips to help you navigate the waters as you search for funding.
Collaborate, Compete And Look Beyond The Traditional To Catapult Your Idea
As we all know, the Internet has opened the world up for everyone. Information on just about anything is now readily available, literally right at your fingertips. Everything needed to percolate and develop a new innovation is available in the cloud and through tools like Amazon Web Services. Open-source software has also made it possible for people to collaborate and enhance technology without even meeting in person.
Although fundraising is important, it gets in the way of your actual business, the true value creation.
Now entrepreneurs and developers can submit these big ideas — from the comfort of their own laptops — through online startup competitions, as Fortune 500 companies seek innovation outside their walled gardens. They also can attend one of the thousands of hackathons that happen every year, or get schooled through programs that teach people how to dream big, scale their ideas and pitch to VCs.
Connect With Potential Investors Before You Meet Them
While the golden rule of fundraising is to receive a warm introduction, gaining access to the world of venture capital used to happen through face-to-face networking and introductions.
But times have really changed. My Twitter followers and LinkedIn connections are entrepreneurs from all over the globe. They watch what I am posting and pay attention to what interests me.
They InMail and direct message me with their thoughts on my musings. This is their way of getting to know me, and it always impresses me when I finally meet with someone with whom I have been connecting on social media and our conversation just flows.
Figure out what kind of VC you are looking for and do your best to intellectually connect with them before that first meeting. It will make you stand out from a crowd of many who are vying for that first meeting.
The Next Meeting Should Always Be Your Goal
Of course you want to nab that money, but in the beginning, don’t only focus on the dollars. Getting yourself another meeting should really be your key goal when you are in fundraising mode.
Why? It’s true that VCs like to invest in great ideas, but early stage investors are really investing in people. For instance, I personally look for two key things in an investment — promising market and persistent founders.
Markets change, ideas become irrelevant, competitors come and go and customers are fickle, but founders and their personal qualities often stand the test of time. It takes time to get to know people. It is much easier for the investor to get to know the real you if there is ample time.
As you navigate the waters with potential investors, always ask for that next meeting. And take it from me, it never hurts to get to know the real gatekeeper who ensures a VC makes it from one appointment to another. Make the effort to know that personal assistant by name, and do everything you can to stay on their good side. They are the ones who hold the key to each and every free moment on that calendar.
Keep Your Pitch Short And Sweet
When you finally get the meeting for the big pitch, be prepared. A 30-minute meeting may be cut short 5-10 minutes in the front end, with other interruptions here and there; you have to best play the hand you’ve been dealt.
The pitch is the biggest challenge for any startup. We watch startups everywhere grapple with condensing their idea into an elevator pitch; hence, at Draper University, we give them only two minutes to tell their story.
It’s a tough exercise. But in the end, if you can clearly communicate a unique business idea in a few sentences, you’ll have a better chance of capturing the attention of a customer, a potential employee or a VC.
Another exercise we do at Draper University is to have the two-minute pitch done in pairs, and the listener has to “pitch back.” Needless to say, sometimes it is pretty humorous to listen to what gets pitched back!
Know Your Marketplace And Get Ready To Change Course
Never say that your innovative and big idea has no competition. Nothing is free from competition or alternative options, so be sure you really do know the marketplace — its size, its key products and players, the successes and failures. In fact, it is ideal to have a few slow-moving incumbents from which to take market shares.
As such, potential investors will expect you to have succinct, clear, knowledgeable answers about what makes you different and better than others out there. So be sure to clearly articulate how you plan to succeed where others have failed.
In the end, you will learn as you fail forward to success.
Also be prepared to be flexible. Realize that very rarely does an initial idea end up exactly the way it was originally pitched. Before you walk into that room, get ready for lots of questions, and be prepared to accept change before funding.
Tie Valuation and Dilution Into Your Next Milestone
Rule No. 1 for fundraising is to raise money when you can, not when you need it. Rule No. 2 is to not get hung up on valuation. Valuation is an abstract concept. Instead, focus on capital requirement and dilution. Properly capitalize your company to get to the next milestone.
As you go into fundraising, make sure you have your goals hammered out and have defined a clear path for how the money you raise will be used.
Let’s say you want to go from having an MVP (minimum viable product) to your first customer shipment, which is a natural milestone that every startup targets. Tie a dollar amount back to this goal and communicate that in your discussions and negotiations with investors.
If the dilution is acceptable to you, then do the deal. If not, see if you can further tranche your capital needs to bridge to market valuation. Don’t over-negotiate, as excessive valuation is painful to correct over time, and often can kill the company and cause the founders to lose everything. On the other hand, under-negotiated deals can be slightly less harmful, because it is easier to be corrected with a founder option re-up.
Finally, the most sobering fact of fundraising: Although fundraising is important, it gets in the way of your actual business, the true value creation. Fundraising requires you to take your eye off the ball. If the dollars and dilution in the offer are acceptable, move quickly to sign the deal and get back to work.
Innovate With The Risk-Adjusted Return In Mind
When I talk to young idea makers, my biggest piece of advice is to think big — no matter where you are. I truly believe and preach the notion of thinking big, and equate this concept with the risk-adjusted return. Generic startup risks often dwarf idea-specific risk.
If you are going to take the plunge in entrepreneurship, you might as well do something significant. The element of randomness (some would call luck) cannot be underestimated. It is quite wasteful to settle on a small idea, because you just might get lucky!
Or, better said: Think small and your return will be small, think big and your return just may be big. You’ll likely fall a few times getting there, but in the end, you will learn as you fail forward to success.