There are a lot of reasons a startup has trouble raising money. But most of those problems are self-inflicted when it seeks funding too early.
I've done almost every combination of funding path you can imagine, including pure self-funding all the way to an acquisition and pure investment from the very first stages of the idea. There is no single path to fit every startup, but if you want to retain more control and a greater return at exit, you should put off raising money as long as you can. The more milestones you pass, the better terms you'll negotiate. Every time.
What's more, when I say "raise money," I don't just mean putting together the ubiquitous pitch deck and knocking on the digital doors of venture capital firms. I also mean angel investment, friends and family investment, even trading shares of the company in the form of equity options for co-founders and early employees.
Here are four early stages in which raising money seems like a good idea, and why you shouldn't.
1. Idea Stage
If you raise money before your idea becomes reality as a fully formed product, you're setting yourself up to be diluted into owning almost nothing at the end. But there's another sneaky reason to hold off raising at this point that most entrepreneurs miss.
It's always preferable to hang onto 100 percent control of the idea until it's fully formed and in an executable state on the market.
Everyone, from the general partner at the VC firm to your grandmother, is going to have ideas for how to make your product and your startup better. And no matter where the money comes from or how soft the pressure is, it will influence you.
Sure, maybe they know better. But wait to let them give you their opinions--and they are all just opinions--until your product is generating results that you can compare those opinions against. Otherwise you're just arguing your experience against theirs, and guess who has more? Probably they do. Especially Grandma. She's seen things.
2. Pre-Revenue Stage
There are business cycles during which the pre-revenue stage is by far the most popular stage for entrepreneurs to successfully raise money. These cycles are called "bubbles."
Raising money pre-revenue sets outsized expectations for the scope and the breadth of the startup's offering. It will often force the startup to spend dumb money on dumb things that don't directly impact the bottom line.
Raising money pre-revenue runs along the same line of bad advice as "dress for the job you want, not the job you have." I mean, I get it, but doing that doesn't actually increase your chances of getting the job you want.
Your results do, so keep your powder dry.
By that I mean your startup should spend money only when you absolutely need to until revenue becomes a source of funding. This will not only force you to create a lean and scalable solution instead of a pricey and bloated one, but will also allow for better terms when you do raise money, because you'll have a track record and proof of potential product market fit.
3. Pre-Profit Stage
This stage happens before you refine your offering and optimize your company, when you're operating either at a loss or with margins that won't allow your startup to scale until you can trim the fat and automate the repetitive. It usually takes money to get this done.
However, once your startup has outside funding, the pressure to increase the top line gets ratcheted up by those outside investors. The most common trap I see at this stage is when founders accept investment to scale and then end up just using that money to expand market share with all that fat still on board and none of that automation built.
Instead, hold off on stepping on the growth accelerator until you have a clear plan to cut costs and increase margins. When you do go to raise, show investors that plan, and make sure they're on board with your plan, not just a scorched-earth market land grab.
4. Scale-Up Stage
A startup should raise money for only one purpose: To sell more and better product to an ever-growing customer base. Too many startups look at raising money as a means to hire engineers to figure out the "better" part of the equation and hire marketers and salespeople to figure out the "more."
Instead, go into fundraising with at least a one-year and a three-year product roadmap and sales strategy. Your roadmap should draw a clear path to a product that produces more results for more use cases at lower costs. Your sales strategy should identify multiple paths to multiple markets and the resources and effort needed to fill those sales pipelines.
And if you really want to impress investors, have a chief technology officer and a chief revenue officer already hired or at least identified.
You don't have to have your entire billion-dollar end game mapped out before you make your first investor pitch. In fact, you should be networking and connecting to investors long before you've made any progress.
When you build those investor relationships over time, and you show them progress and traction along the way, raising money becomes almost a foregone conclusion, not a random shot in the dark.