Always be networking, and don't get cocky, a financial start-up learns.
Jon Stein and Eli Broverman are co-founders of Betterment, a personal finance website geared toward the Facebook generation. Landing venture capital was always part of the pair's plan. But like all start-up entrepreneurs, Stein (at left in photo) and Broverman had to learn a lot on the fly. The most important lesson: Take lots of meetings. "You always want to be out there having conversations and explaining the business," Stein says. "You learn from putting pen to paper, from sharing ideas with investors." What happens next is key. "You take the ideas back to the team," Stein says. "They digest it and teach you something new--that you can use in the next pitch." Below, we track Betterment's four-year quest for funding. The blue fever line running across the page--think of it as the Mood-o-Meter--measures the co-founders' emotional state along the way.
August 2008: Bootstrapping begins Stein, an M.B.A. student at Columbia University, teams up with his poker buddy Broverman, a securities lawyer. They raise $320,000, a combination of savings and $125,000 in angel funding from some acquaintances. Working in Stein's apartment, Stein develops the site while Broverman works on obtaining regulatory approvals.
May 2009: A big debut looms Stein graduates from Columbia, and the company moves into a small office. The pair figures the site can go live by September; in fact, Betterment does not launch until May 2010. Stein and Broverman apply to TechCrunch Disrupt New York 2010, a contest for start-ups scheduled for June. After battling 500 others for 20 spots, Betterment is one of five finalists selected to appear before some 2,000 entrepreneurs, tech journalists, and investors. While Stein makes the pitch, a team in the audience monitors the site. Within a day, almost 500 people sign up. Says Stein: "It was the most hectic, nerve-racking day of my life."
June 2010: The phones start ringing After TechCrunch names Betterment "Best New York Disruptor," more than 20 investment firms contact the company, seeking more detailed financial information. "We were high-fiving around the office," Stein says. The problem: The founders are unsure how much money they need or what they want in an investor. Stein seeks advice from other entrepreneurs. All emphasize that not all money is the same, that Betterment should hold out until it finds investors who share the company's goals and vision.
July 2010: The phones stop ringing Just a month after the accolades at TechCrunch, the co-founders' pickiness is replaced by nervousness. By mid-July, they have less than four months of funding left. "It was really bleak," says Stein. "I wasn't sure we would figure it out."
August 2010: A well-placed friend emerges Betterment hires an attorney, Ed Zimmerman, chairman of the tech group at Lowenstein Sandler in Manhattan. Zimmerman introduces the pair over email to Rob Stavis, a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, a $1.6 billion fund with an office in Larchmont, New York. Two days later, Stein, Broverman, and Kiran Keshav, Betterment's technology expert, drive to Bessemer's office to make the pitch.
August 2010: Love at first pitch Sitting around Bessemer's large conference table, the entrepreneurs detail their revenue projections and costs and compare those metrics with those of other players in online financial services. Of particular interest to Stavis is Betterment's cost of customer acquisition, which is about 25 percent of its rivals'. "They nailed it," Stavis says.
September 2010: Meet the partners Stavis schedules a September 13 meeting to formally introduce Betterment to his partners and begins coaching the team on how best to discuss its business plan. On meeting day, partners in India, Israel, and Palo Alto, California, sign on via videoconference. Betterment's funding request is modest. Assuming a valuation of about $3 million, Stein tells the partners his company seeks $1 million.
November 2010: The money rolls in Two days later, Betterment receives a term sheet. To the co-founders' surprise, Bessemer has assigned the company a higher valuation and proposes a $3 million round of funding. Stein asks if some of the company's early investors and advisers can participate. Bessemer invests $2 million, and about a dozen other investors chip in $1 million. The co-founders retain controlling interest. As they wait for the funds to arrive, Stein and Broverman dip into savings to keep the business afloat. Finally, on November 24, the funds are wired into Betterment's account.
January 2012: Another courtship begins In January 2012, a representative from Menlo Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital fund, comes by for a visit. Six months later, Menlo's managing director, John Jarve, gets in touch. Betterment is not looking for a second round, but Stein and his team speak to Jarve over the phone. After another call, they are invited out to visit in Menlo Park. A week or so after that, Jarve flies out to New York. In October 2012, Menlo announces it will lead a group of investors, including Bessemer and other first-round investors, in a $10 million round of Series B financing in Betterment. "We didn't think it would happen so soon," says Stein. "But we learned to be ready when you find the right investor."
October 2012: Final score, $13 million Betterment is using the funds to hire more staff, move to a bigger office, and improve its product offerings, including better financial advice for users. Like all venture capitalists, Menlo and Bessemer expect a big exit, but Jarve is not in a hurry: "I told my partners, 'Give me seven years of patience, and we can build a company with a billion-dollar market cap.' "