I visited the entrepreneurs week at Stanford this week where many MBAs were walking around with new business ideas. Since we raised a fair amount of money ourselves in the last 10 years we’ve been focused on startups, I wanted to give some advice that may be helpful to any first time entrepreneur:
1) Define the end goal of the company in a newly defined market
The determination of pre-money valuation, even for the first round, should be based on the disruption of the company when it grows up. The goal is to find the investor that understands the path to that goal, not an assessment of the current value of the company. The starting valuation then becomes a reverse calculation from that goal.
2) Don’t set a valuation, but have one in mind
The valuation is usually suggested by the investor, but of course, you don’t have to take it. Ask your potential investor to value the company after you give them the pitch, the outcome of that tells you whether the investor really understands your unique proposition. If it is too low, it may be because the clarity of your pitch. If not: walk away.
3) Have an operating plan ready
An operating plan defines how you turn technology into a business, without it there is simply too much room for debate and depreciation. Show investors you know how to run the business. The more you do the easier it is to cement your use-of-proceeds.
4) Find an investor you truly like
Every entrepreneur deserves to be treated with respect. Waste no time talking to deep pockets with awful personalities, but don’t be afraid to get some straight talk. Check TheFunded.com for war stories and ask around. Later, when business gets tough bad guys usually get a lot worse.
5) Define business disruption
Building technology is one thing, but yielding a disruptive business value is even more relevant. The latter is defined by macro-economics, not just a more clever way to improve existing technology.
6) Take passion over domain expertise any-day
Find a lead investor that has passion for the business problem you are about to solve. An investor that claims to have domain expertise is usually the one that doesn’t understand disruption within or across that domain.
7) Don’t get squeezed
Investors like to put investments into past investment categories and make an assessment of how much it costs to build your business. Don’t let them stray too much from what is in your operating plan, if you do you will get punished for it later, both on the execution side as well as in excessive dilution.
8) Know the investment allocation
Usually a little harder to do with angels but VCs should have a total investment amount allocated to the business. Ask them for the total allocation upfront, so you know when you need to go shopping somewhere else. Also, don’t be afraid to ask who else needs to sign off on this deal within the VC firm, in most cases it is a very democratic process internally with a primary sponsor. After your first meeting you should get in front of a General Partner, talking terms.
9) Control your own eco-system
Investors like to wiggle around and determine how much money should go into R&D, Sales, Marketing, Business development, Support and G&A. Too much money in marketing is usually an indication the product or service lacks real viral adoption and that should be avoided. If the balance of this eco-system is not guarded heavily by the entrepreneurs the result is an excessive bleeding and further dilution in subsequent rounds.
10) Balance your board
A board without a balance of technical and business expertise can really bring a company down when the going gets tough. The technical board members will spend too much time validating deep technology progress without real affinity for the bottom-line. On the flip side a demand for too early revenues can have disastrous effects on product or service readiness and customer experience. Keep them both in check.
Be honest and transparent, too much talk without real interaction with a prospective investor is a bad sign. Paint a realistic risk-management picture, in which you describe both the pluses and minuses, not unlike the way a VC sells their risks in a Private Placement Memorandum (PPM) to its limited partners.