In this series I previously outlined what is typically involved in due diligence. But experienced entrepreneurs know that understanding the concept is not the same as getting through it successfully. Today let me share some key survival strategies.
Entrepreneurs typically dread investor due diligence. This is a mistake. Diligence is something you don't need to fear. Success starts with the right attitude. When the right mindset is combined with these tips, you'll be surprised how smoothly it can go.
Figure Out Who Is In Charge
Diligence processes can seem opaque, open-ended and rudderless. Cut through the fog by asking who is in charge of the process and getting to know them. Ask them what their schedule is (so they commit to a timeline), what their process will be like, and how they want to work. Suggest setting regular check-ins (weekly is good) to keep the lines of communication open and avoid feeling like a pest for having to check in to find out how things are going.
Before it even starts you can find out what kinds of questions will be asked and what materials they want to see. Do an honest self-assessment in terms of readiness for key areas. Pull together some materials for each one, and collect your thoughts in advance. Also, don't forget that in addition to the business due diligence, if your deal moves forward, you will be asked for materials relating to legal due diligence, so have your capitalization table up to date and corporate information and agreements organized and ready.
Use a Data Room
The right tools will keep things much more orderly, speed up the process and create a very professional impression. Instead of emailing various files and drafts to many people, set up a virtual data room on a service like Dropbox. Organize it with clearly-labeled folders (including folder revision dates) and invite the relevant people to access it. If key documents like your marketing plan or capitalization table are still being revised, keep previous drafts and label each with a version number and date.
Bring a Positive Mental Attitude
Don't think of diligence as an inquisition. It is a chance to teach investors about your opportunity. Instead of getting impatient or stressed about a particular question (especially when it is repeated), remember, they are asking because they engaged and want to know more. Be patient and think of it as an opportunity to share what is exciting about your company. Don't panic if you don't have an answer to every question--they may not actually expect you to, and may just want to draw out your thinking. Another benefit to thinking like a teacher: they are watching you and want to see how you deal with stress and handle objections--objection handling is a key sales skill they know you will need to draw on later.
Understand What's Really Being Asked
Do not let your eagerness to please get the best of you. Listen carefully and fully before answering questions. Make sure you understand the question behind the question. The more out of left field it seems, the more critical it is to go back and figure out why they are asking and what they are getting at. You may be shocked at how far off base your assumptions might be when you take the time to dig into what an investor is asking.
Don't Make Things Up
If you don't know the answer to a question, it is far better to say so, and share an insight into how you think about the issue than to try and B.S. them. Tell them what you think the answer might be and then explain why you think so. If they sound skeptical or unsatisfied, acknowledge that and ask for some more time to dig in and get back to them. You may also want to see if you can get them to help you fill in the gaps.
Be Incredibly Responsive
Unfortunately, diligence is not one of those "I'll get to it when I get to it" kinds of things. Founding teams need to be incredibly responsive to diligence requests, for two reasons: (1) part of the diligence process is an evaluation of the teams preparation, organization, communication and responsiveness; (2) herky-jerky is a bad way to pull a train--when a diligence team spools up, they have energy, they want to engage, and the project is top of mind. If you delay, they are going to lose focus, fritter energy and have trouble regaining their momentum.
Use Psychology Hacks
Don't let perfect be the enemy of good enough. Show investors what you have, labeled as a work in progress, and as they are pointing out the flaws, engage them in helping you fix it. The psychology is powerful: if you want someone to like you, it has long been recognized that you should get them to do you a favor. The same principle applies here. If an investor helps you revise something, they are going to feel an affinity toward you and feel invested in the effort.
Keep Communication Lines Open
Investors doing diligence can go down rat holes and convince themselves of things that are just not correct. It is really important to set up frequent calls with the diligence lead to get them to talk to you about their current list of top concerns so that you can address them before the diligence team gets way off track. To the extent a concern is specific to a sub-team, ask to speak directly to them, and try to educate them on the issues.
Be Bold and Proactive
As the report is coming together, offer to review their draft to help with factual corrections. In most cases they will refuse to show it to you (because investors generally fear it would chill honesty with authors and ruffle feathers with the founder), but it is worth a shot at trying to fix misimpressions before they are published. Even if they refuse to share, reply with a request to see it, or at least get a section-by-section summary before they share it with other potential syndication partners so you are prepared. Again, they are going to be resistant, but it is worth trying.
With the right attitude, a few tips and a proactive approach, diligence can be more successful, faster and less painful. Take a deep breath and embrace your inner diligence Zen.
Christopher Mirabile (@cmirabile) is the Chair of the Angel Capital Association and an early stage investor in Boston MA, USA. He is the co-Managing Director of Launchpad Venture Group and the co-Founder of angel portfolio management tool www.Seraf-Investor.com.