Friday, June 29, 2007

Startup 101: Getting Funded

Raising venture capital for a new business is not easy, but fortunately the process is very predictable. First time entrepreneurs often do not understand the process, or think that they are above it, which leads to a lot of frustration, and in the end, no venture financing. If your business doesn't meet these criteria, it doesn't mean it is a bad business, just that it probably isn't going to be venture backed. If you want to raise venture capital, get out of your own way and navigate the following process.



  • Domain Expert - The most important thing for a startup to have is a domain expert. When people start a company in a business that they know nothing about, you end up with disasters like Pets.com. So it is critical that a startup has an expert in the market it is trying to penetrate. There is no such thing as a "visionary," just people who know a market very well and can therefore make a much more educated guess as to where it is going to go next than a layperson. If you don't have a domain expert on board, you are going to get decimated during due diligence. So either get a domain expert or don't raise venture capital.

  • Big Market - There has to be a there there. VC's want to fund new entrants in emerging markets, ideally markets that have had several large exits. If your product is more of a feature of an existing product, it is going to be tough to get it funded. Focus on a product that is something that customers will actually need to buy in order to grow their business, not a feature they will expect to get in a year from their existing vendors. If VC's are starting to see more deals in your market segment, that is actually a good thing, since other domain experts are sensing that there is something that is going to change, and you are now part of a market wave.

  • CEO - Most startups fall apart on execution. Having someone on board who has raised capital, built a team, shipped product to market, and created a liquidity event massively diminishes risk for investors. If you don't have someone like this on board, do your absolute best to recruit one. If you can't recruit a CEO, be very upfront that a big part of what you expect from the VC is to help you recruit an excellent CEO.

  • Product - If you are not shipping product yet, raise a seed round instead of an A round. If you have a CEO and a domain expert targeting a big market with a good product idea, chances are that you can raise your seed round from a venture firm. If you are missing one of these things either fill the gaps or raise a round from angels.

  • Market Pull - Is the market responding to your product? Do customers want it? When they get a trial version are they actually using it and requesting features? Are most customers like the ones trying out your product? If the answer is no, fix the product until the answer is yes. If the answer is yes, then you will have an A round!

    Venture capital is actually a ruthlessly competitive business, so sometimes you can skip the seed part if you have a hot deal or a VC has a good gut for the market. In my opinion, this is a bad move. You can get excellent terms on a seed deal if you are in a position to be able to skip it, and everyone is happier and better off that you prove out the product before scaling up the business. The point of all of this is to build a viable business, not to raise venture capital.

    There are always exceptions to the rule, but you are much better off just following the standard VC process. It is much more predictable, a lot less stressful, and you don't waste a bunch of time in meetings that are not going to go anywhere.
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