Money is great. When you're running a startup, money is spectacular. A sizable runway is downright euphoric.
To be profitable and self-sustaining is the pinnacle of achievement in the business world. Who wouldn't want that? I've certainly heard some people (i.e. Silicon Valley types) talk as though money grows on trees. One particular choice quote: "I ask myself, 'How much money would I need to not worry at all?' That's how much I raise."
Sounds like a pretty solid strategy. However, for those of us mere mortals who didn't invent PayPal, SnapChat or Twitter, unlimited venture funds aren't exactly easy to attain.
Suppose you're pre-revenue. You're starting to feel the burn of your burn rate. You know that, without a sizable runway, your valuable team may be on the lookout for more security.
This can make the idea of raising money become all-consuming. However, before you drop everything and run out to raise money, it's sensible to consider how this could actually derail your business.
Raising money takes time, significant effort, and substantial mindshare from your company's leadership. Beyond that, raising money at the wrong time can have dire consequences. You may give away too much equity and end up losing control, not to mention the fact that taking your focus off your business itself can impact momentum at a time when it's most important.
My partners and I have bootstrapped our last four businesses, including Ultra Mobile, where I currently serve as CEO. We did raise a small "family and friends" round, which we've kept as a backup but, even without using that, we've been able to grow to $118 million in revenue in our first three years.
I always advise startup founders to first consider if they can tighten up their operations, find ways to monetize sooner and get on the path to break even, and allow their bootstrapping to carry them further -- or possibly all the way.
But if you do decide to go out and fundraise, here are some important rules to keep in mind:
1. Only raise if you have two or more leaders.
This allows duties to be split up and thus they become significantly more manageable. One person can focus on the business, and the other(s) can focus on the raising, or any combination thereof. Once the Deal Stage is reached, all leaders should become involved, but never sooner.
2. Don't wait until you're desperate to raise money.
If you put off fundraising until you're critically in the red, you'll have lost all power at the negotiating table. You don't want to feel forced to take an unfavorable deal just to keep your dream alive.
3. Don't raise money too soon.
You want to have a proof of concept to ensure the money is going towards growth, rather than validation. When experimenting with money, it's hard to know what you need but, once you have a proven concept, it becomes about fueling growth.
4. The better you're doing, the more you should focus on raising money.
The best time for raising funds is when you don't need the money but know you can grow a lot faster with it.
For instance, you've proven your customer unit economics and know that the amount you pay to acquire a customer will be returned with interest. If you're in a market where hitting a critical scale is important to your unit economics, where you have a lot of competition or where you have a product that adheres to the Network Effect (i.e., it becomes more valuable as more people use it), this becomes especially true.
Last year, my partners and I incubated a new product that adheres to the Network Effect: a messaging app called Primo Connect. It's in a competitive market, and it requires scale in order for a number of our planned business models to work.
We built the product, we launched it to a public beta, and we've proven our model. Now, we are looking to raise money since we're at a position where accelerating growth is crucial. In the meantime, we've delegated responsibilities, with certain people focused on the business and others on the funding to ensure we don't lose the traction that we're building so carefully.
Even though I'm a longtime bootstrapper, I do believe there is a time and place for raising funds. But that time and place has to make sense because you shouldn't jeopardize your business by spending all your time looking for money.
After all, shouldn't your business be the one making the money?