In any given month, my venture capital firm receives more than 100 pitches from hopeful entrepreneurs looking for our funding. This is a pretty typical volume for a VC firm.
What might surprise you: The percentage of start-ups that actually land a venture firm's check is in the low single digits. It's obviously not for lack of trying, but the vast majority of entrepreneurs miss the boat.
When you're in the fundraising process, keep these five pitfalls in mind: if you're exemplifying any of them, there's a strong chance I will not be signing on the dotted line.
1. Your idea is too small.
I have nothing against lifestyle businesses: Restaurants are great, I love a good cup of coffee, and a personal touch at a clothing store is always appreciated. However, these businesses aren't venture-backable, due to their small size and general lack of scale-ability.
In order to earn every dollar, these companies must exert manpower (time and cost). Venture funds are looking for business that can scale, ramping up their earnings without more manual effort, through technology and systemization. You haven't innovated. Nobody needs a "me-too player" as a customer, so why would I be excited to invest in one? Show me something that truly challenges assumptions, dares to be different, and looks to the future-- exemplifying how we will live and how your solution makes our lives better.
2. You don't have a concrete execution plan. I'm so glad you're going to take over Groupon's market share, but how exactly do you plan to get there? If you don't know--or it won't work--you won't get me to open my wallet.
A detailed plan of attack, from all fronts, will be the proof to me that you're thinking about your business in the right way. Who needs to be on board? What customers will you target first, and why? What key technology are you focused upon over the next six months? If you can't demonstrate the proof points for statements you're making, I'm simply going to assume that you're flying by the seat of your pants.
3. You don't understand your own financial model. This should be obvious, and yet when faced with our analysts, entrepreneurs flounder as if they'd been tossed from a life raft into the ocean. Metrics are the lifeblood of your business once it's operational, so if you're not tracking your potential business the same way, it's a red flag.
What are your unit economics? How do you make money in various channels? How much will it cost year over year, month by month? For every download, what's your margin? How does that change two years from now? Know and memorize all of these metrics. Spreadsheets aren't just there for show--they're designed to guide you as a leader and function in flux with your journey through the ups and downs.
4. You don't seem like a good person.
I don't mean to be crass, but if you're pompous, showy, vague, and self-absorbed, I wouldn't want to marry you, hire you, or give you hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As a VC (and in general as a human being), I'm looking for someone coachable, humble, ambitious, and filled with vision. If you come off as someone who's "all hat and no cattle," or someone who's glued to your way of doing things, it's difficult for anyone to add value…or put up with you. When there are so many fish in the sea, it's easy to just avoid the ones that stink.
5. You're not thorough in your follow-up.
In any VC diligence process, there's a tremendous amount of back-and-forth between the entrepreneur and the firm's team members. I view this process as a conversation--it's not just what you say but how you say it that guides our perspective on you.
If we ask for four things, provide all four answers. If we ask for something by Friday make it show up on Thursday, not Monday. Make your answers thoughtful and direct, not vague and wishy-washy? In similar fashion, it's a problem if you didn't do your homework in the beginning; for example, Detroit Venture Partners (the firm I manage) doesn't invest in biotech, as it's against our charter. If you come to us with a whiz-bang medical device, we'll be saying "no" up front and you're setting yourself up for disappointment. We'll also be unlikely to make a recommendation to our healthcare investor friends since you weren't thorough in your initial research in seeking us out.
Basically, when you're pitching to a venture capitalist, make sure you're prepared. If not, you'll join the ranks of countless other would-have-beens in the vast sea of unfunded, dead-end start-up entities.
With that in mind, please step into my office.