You're starting a business. You need capital. All the headlines say that venture capital firms (VCs) are looking for the next great thing, and you've got it.
But at the initial seed financing stage of your start-up, VCs are not always the better option In fact, angel investors often have more to offer. VCs serve a great purpose, but are often better suited for later stage growth funding.
Here are three benefits you'll enjoy from angel investors as you build a foundation for your start-up:
Having investors and board members with operational experience (especially within your industry) can provide invaluable contacts and advice, and angel investors are almost always current or former industry executives themselves. My current company, CarGurus, is an online automotive shopping site, and we benefit from having investors like the former founder of eBay motors, the current CEO of TripAdvisor and one of the first 10 employees from Yahoo! To date these folks have provided connections and guidance that comes from their own operational backgrounds.
While there certainly are venture capitalists with operations experience, the majority of VCs come from finance backgrounds, with experience in areas like investment banking. Let's be clear: VCs play a vital role in helping with growth equity (your second or third round of financing). They can help you build your board, hire great executives and strategize on your business model. However, for your very first seed stage funding, a few angel investors from your specific industry will most likely provide greater input on how to master those first months of operations.
Angels invest less money individually than a VC firm, so the amount of capital you can raise from a group of angels will certainly be far less than that of a VC financing. The flip side of that coin is that angels are by definition not professional money managers. Angels don't expect to get their money out within three to five years at some pre-determined rate of return. As long as your company is doing well, most angels are happy to let their investment "ride" for the long haul. For the most part, angels are patient, long-term investors.
At CarGurus, we reached profitability with no VC funding. Our investors are friends and family, and they have never once voiced the topic of "exit strategy" or asked me when they will get their money back. All of them are happy to keep their money invested, growing pre-tax at a nice rate of return. If they were to get the money back, they would have to go find another investment that does as well, and that takes tremendous time and energy. Remember, angels usually have other day jobs and are not professional investors.
Venture capitalists have limited partners (the VC's own investors) and by definition have to return capital to their investors within a fund's lifecycle, usually five years. For venture firms to raise their next fund, they have to show not only that they can invest money but that they can get liquid and exit their investments in a timely manner. During your first year of operation, that's not an ideal mindset, but in your later stages of financing, having such a VC focus on growth and liquidity may be just the boost you need.
Again, angels are not professional money managers and as such will usually give you a better valuation and financing terms, allowing you to retain more of the equity and board control of your company. Angels certainly want to make money, but they are not "in the market" every month and therefore are not as experienced--nor do they care to be--when it comes to valuations or governance issues.
After you have established traction on your product and business model (i.e., shipped a product and generated some revenue), you can and most likely should raise venture capital. But at that point you can do so at much more favorable terms.
I've been involved as a co-founder in two profitable, successful start-ups. One was done with venture capital and one was done without venture capital. Truth be told, I was once a venture partner at a venture capital firm (www.flagshipventures.com) myself. Flagship Ventures provided the seed money when I co-founded TripAdvisor. Flagship did a great job and was a valuable partner in growing TripAdvisor into what it is today.
When I started CarGurus, I decided to forego venture financing and go the angel financing route. I do concede that raising money from angels is not necessarily the easier path. Chasing down ten angel investors to get them to agree on a financing document and actually give you money is a bit like herding cats. However, for CarGurus, the benefits have far outweighed those challenges.
There is no right or wrong answer about taking VC money in your seed round or taking VC money at all. As I mention above it can be done successfully both ways. However, if you can raise money from angel investors in your first seed round, it will allow you to conserve more equity, retain more board control and get more operational input in those first few months. When you do raise venture money it will also allow you to raise that second or third round at more favorable terms.
In those early days of your start-up, look up to the angels and you may receive the blessings that set you on the right path...