When I had the idea for Credit Karma eight years ago, a service that would provide consumers with free access to their credit scores, I knew it wasn't something that could be bootstrapped with $50. I needed a team to bring the idea to life. There were three of us, originally, and we knew we wouldn't have the revenue model in place to support the business for a while. Like so many other new startups, our survival was going to depend on our ability to raise venture capital.
Fundraising is intimidating. There's so much attention given to successful, early-stage companies raising huge amounts of money--companies that are essentially outliers--that it's easy to feel like you're falling behind. It's not a skill that comes naturally to many people. I still remember my first pitch. It was to a tier-one VC firm, well before I was ready.
I improved in time though and have learned the following five lessons over the years.
1) Find people who'll give you honest feedback
Before going all in on an idea, you need to make sure you get proper feedback. Your best friends in this situation are the people who are going to play devil's advocate. Surround yourself with people who won't be afraid to poke holes in your stories. Historically, I've nurtured a group of close friends and colleagues that were always frank about my ideas. The strength of these relationships meant that when I told them about my idea for Credit Karma and they were actually intrigued, it gave me the conviction that this was an idea I should go for.
2) Your network is your secret weapon
Whether you're in the process of fundraising or just thinking about it, you should be networking relentlessly. Every happy hour, conference and post-conference dinner is a new opportunity. Following on from this, your first investors need to be well connected in your space, with some knowledge of who your customers, partners and other investors are. Bluntly speaking, dollars are all green, and so the key becomes finding the people to invest in your company who are going to strengthen your network and help your business.
3) Salesmanship is key
Your first institutional funding rounds call on you to develop a sense of salesmanship that doesn't come naturally to many people. You have to be a storyteller and demonstrate vision and passion for what you're doing. You have to educate the VCs you are talking to about why your company matters. I made the mistake early on in our fundraising of assuming VCs knew the space Credit Karma was in as well as I did. VCs are high-level pattern matchers, watching out for trends and trying to understand what goes into making successful companies. They don't know your industry as well as you. The sense of salesmanship you need comes from treating every pitch like an opportunity to prove to someone why yours is the truly successful business idea. It won't come naturally at first and can seem daunting, but it gets easier.
4) Develop a thick skin
When I first started fundraising for Credit Karma, I was too sensitive. I cared about every little comment and criticism I received about the company and my pitch. There's a part of that impulse as an entrepreneur you should never lose. I still take negative feedback to heart. It can be educational. The lesson becomes not crashing and burning with every criticism. You need to have more confidence in the idea and yourself, because not everyone is going to see it as you do. When you're fundraising, you're going to hear the word "no" a lot. You have to turn those no's into motivation. You can't let them crush you.
5) Having the right investors is more important than a high valuation
To borrow an old cliche, building a successful business is a marathon, not a sprint. Within this, every fundraising round and valuation serves as a check-in point. Too many companies burn up all their gas in sprints trying to get the highest valuation possible. What they're forgetting though, is that the only thing that matters is where they are at the end of the race. You need to look for the investors that understand the issues you're facing as a company and who have the right insight to help you navigate the next area of growth. If you push for one high valuation but aren't executing organizationally, you can put yourself at risk of collapse. If you don't reach the traction you need, you could face a down round or a side-round, which can spell bad things.