Some people think women in Silicon Valley have it tough.
My impression is quite different after talking with one Silicon Valley titan. Audrey MacLean, in fact, has quite a track record including the impressive feat of getting her first company funded back in the early 80s when not only was nobody giving money to females, she was pregnant to boot.
Since then she has founded and invested in more than two dozen companies creating over $5 billion in market. She’s the Chairman (ahem) of the board of Redwood City, Calif.-based Coraid, a data storage technology manufacturing company. She also serves on the board or advisory board of a slew of other start-ups and sits on the board of the Palo Alto-based Center for Venture Education and the University of Hawaii, Maui College.
She has been featured on Forbes’ Midas Touch List, Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, Business Week’s Top 50 Business Women in America, and she’s been dubbed, “The One To See In Silicon Valley.”
So it stands to reason that fledgling entrepreneurs can learn a thing or two from someone who clearly knows what she’s doing. In fact, she teaches a class in Stanford’s Graduate School of Engineering called “Technology Venture Formation,” in which she helps engineers (who may have never taken a business course before) figure out what kinds of ideas make good companies and then, how to get them funded.
Want to know what she tells them?
You need to think like a venture capitalist. When evaluating an opportunity, VCs do quite a bit of math to calculate the degree of risk in the deal. They’re looking for entrepreneurial teams that have some combination of brilliant technical innovation, insightful go-to-market strategy, relevant domain experience, and an obvious leader who could grow into being the CEO.
Ideas don’t matter unless they are opportunities. It’s very easy to get excited about a technology. The question is, what is the real market opportunity? Every technologist needs to become expert at doing an opportunity assessment and evaluating the market potential for it. “You need to understand the market, know how you can differentiate yourself in it, and grasp the price and the functional differentiation competitive points that are going to allow you to be disruptive,” she says.
Disrupt the market or forget about doing business at all. VCs understand that there’s really no point in doing anything if you’re not going to be in the top three market positions in an industry. “Position number 10 ultimately goes away. So you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to come in and significantly impact and redefine a market such that you become a market share leader in it,” MacLean says.
Demonstrate declining risk over time. Venture capitalists are fundamentally risk averse. This sounds like a contrary idea considering that most start-ups fail. Initially there’s a lot of risk even if there’s the potential for a big payout. What they want to see is less risk, period.
By the second round they’re looking for what milestones the team has accomplished that have helped reduce the risk. Have you reduced the technical risk by building something? Have you reduced the market risk by getting traction with customers?
By the third round they’re looking even more closely at what you’ve accomplished. “The valuations are not arbitrary; they’re a function of the reduction in risk. The more evident it is that a certain company is going to become the market leader in a big market space then the higher the valuation goes because the risk has been dramatically reduced,” she says.
Get a direct referral. MacLean says venture capitalists are really good at “pattern matching” between what you’re telling them and what they’ve seen before that works. It’s for that reason it makes sense to come to them by way of someone they’ve worked successfully with before. And this strategy is what helped MacLean get funded that very first unlikely time.
She went to a woman who had recently had success launching a data communications firm. That person then connected MacLean with several of her own VCs. “The direct intro, particularly one in a related field, is really key,” she says.