As your business grows and becomes more well-known, odds are that venture capitalists (VCs) will start approaching you to kick the tires and take the temperature for a potential deal. With millions of dollars in potential investment on the line, most founders unintentionally put on horse-blinders that can significantly weaken their negotiating position or even blow a deal with an otherwise great suitor.
But when carefully navigated, those conversations with interested inbound VCs can be enormously valuable. Here's your playbook:
1. Take every call (or schedule one).
Always schedule a time to speak with an interested VC, no matter if you're looking to raise or not right now. This is especially important if they invest in your space. This might sound counterintuitive if you're not planning a raise soon, but it is the single most important thing you can do with inbound interest.
Regardless of your capital needs at the time, what you're really getting is a free review of your business from someone that is writing checks, and you're building a relationship early on. That's why you schedule a call -- each and every time. Plus, it's far more difficult to build a relationship using email because prompt responses aren't guaranteed, things get lost in translation, and you don't get to dictate the flow of the conversation.
2. Use this phrase with every single inbound VC.
When you're speaking with a VC keep it semi-casual. Remain professional in your approach, but being open, honest, and yourself establishes trust early on. It's important to set expectations, so both of you know what the other is thinking.
But remember that the VCs reaching out to you want the best deal they can get. Getting the first look at your company gives them leverage because it's less likely that you've had time to approach other potential investors, so your ability to parry their advance is critical.
Luckily, there is a sort of "secret line" you can use to gain a more advantageous position when they ask you about raising capital:
"We're actually gearing up to run an active process."
Translation: "We're on the cusp of actively pursuing discussions with multiple VCs." Basically, you're telling an investor that you're going to run a proper, professional raise, and you're going to market soon -- but the investor might just have an edge if they move quickly and sell you on why you should work together.
This single line can completely shift the power dynamic of a call. Remember: They contacted you, so they probably wanted to get a proprietary deal with you, but now they're realizing you're the most desirable person at the dance and there is going to be competition if they want a chance to dance with you.
But also remember to leave the door open. Maybe dip your toe into due diligence (within reason), see what they think of the business as it stands right now, and get a data point on what their valuation approach might look like.
3. Seek ideal outcomes by correctly managing inbound VC interest.
First and foremost, you should be seeking a great relationship. It doesn't matter whether you're moving forward with them now, later, or ever -- a perfect-fit potential investor can be an incredible asset, even if your company won't be ready to go forward with them for another nine months.
Second, you're getting a free review of your business. Take criticism and suggestions in stride. All information is useful information, especially if it's from someone who would be an excellent fit to lead your round.
Most importantly, inbound VC interest lets you get practice talking with VCs. You get a sneak peek at the Q&A that might come your way in the near future -- and a chance to hone your approach. Who knows? You might even do a deal. But know that if one VC reaches out to you and shows serious interest, then you should probably be speaking with at least nine more.