You hear a lot these days about the Series A Crunch, how the search for VC funding is getting more difficult and entrepreneurs are facing more and more competition when they pitch their companies to investors. While that may be true, there's still plenty of money out there. You just need to be smart about how you go after it.
Michael Krasman and Jeff Ellman are two of the smartest entrepreneurs I know when it comes to strategies for pitching to VCs. Together they've founded four businesses, two of which are still going strong. The most recent is UrbanBound, a company that makes software to streamline the relocation process for employees and connect them with suppliers who offer preferred pricing. UrbanBound closed $5 million in Series A funding in 2013. That was only one of many successful dips into the VC pool for this duo--in 2014, their other company, Hireology, closed $10 million in Series B funds. Why are they so successful at getting funded? Here are some of their secrets:
1. Start early. Very early.
Six to nine months before you need funding you should be actively pursuing funds, the pair advises. But it's best to start way before then, identifying VC firms you want to work with and building relationships with their executives so you'll be a known quantity when you do need funding.
"Once we met to VC firms we want to work with, we would keep them updated through the process," Ellman says. "When they saw the company's rapid growth, they started contacting us and asking us when we would be ready for money."
2. Ask for advice instead of money.
It may seem like a circuitous strategy but it often works. "They say the best way to get money is to ask for advice and we've found that to be very true," Krasman says.
3. Find the person who's looking for you.
Don't go only to the top. Instead, look for the person in the company whose job it is to scan the horizon for worthwhile new ventures. "Most VC firms have individuals who are responsible for amassing a database of possible future investments," Krasman says. "So understand that you may or may not be able to have regular conversations with managing partners at brand-name VCs. But they do have associates or vice presidents who have an incentive to know about you."
4. Get personal referrals.
Personal referrals and introductions are the best ways to get in to see a VC, the two entrepreneurs agreed. But just because you don't have a cousin in the business or don't live anywhere near Silicon Valley, don't despair. There are ways to get a personal introduction even if you don't know anyone.
"One thing that's helped me is reaching out to the CEOs in the portfolio companies [i.e., those that have received funds] from the VC you want to work with," Krasman says. Most venture capital firms post a list of some of their funding successes on their websites, so he recommends perusing that list and finding one or two companies that are roughly in the same industry as you are. "Ask them, 'I saw you worked with XYZ venture firm. I'm wondering if I could have five minutes of your time to tell me about your experience with them." If they agree, and if they like you and your idea, they may be willing to provide a referral or let you use their name when you contact the VC.
5. Practice your presentation on a mentor.
Krasman and Ellman used one of their college professors, but any business advisor, especially one who knows the start-up world, will be helpful. The pair report that they changed their pitch presentation quite a bit as a result of feedback they got from their early advisors. By the time they made the pitch for real money, it was much more effective than when it started out.
6. Learn to anticipate questions.
Before you start pitching, come up with every question you can possibly think of that a VC might ask and prepare your answers. And then every time you do a pitch, write down any question you're asked that wasn't on your original list. "By the sixth pitch, nothing should be a surprise," Ellman says.
7. If a VC firm gets interested, plan on spending a lot of time with them.
"Once a firm is interested in what you're doing, you'll find there are a lot of back and forth conversations as they do their due diligence," Krasman says. "It goes without saying that you need to be responsive."
It may go without saying, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Be ready for a six-month process during which working with the VC may become your full-time occupation. "Make sure you've allocated as much time as it takes," he says.
8. Ask when they last raised funds.
"We ask every VC when the last time was they raised funds," Ellman says. "What we learned was, the closer the firm is to the end of that cycle, the less likely we are to get the deal." Since you probably can't afford to wait around for a VC to raise more money, it makes sense to focus on VC firms that have raised funds more recently, and are likely to be looking for places to invest that money.
9. Don't make it sound too easy.
Don't make the mistake of giving a presentation that sounds as if your company has proceeded from one triumph to another. It may be tempting to show things in the best possible light, but you'll get a lot farther if you're upfront about problems you encountered and what you did to overcome them. Remember that VCs tend to invest more in a team than a specific company or product. So they'll appreciate knowing how your team handles adversity.
"Exposing areas where you realized there was a shortcoming for your business and how you resolved it shows you're open and transparent, and that makes people comfortable about working with you," Krasman explains. "If you're transparent, people will be transparent back."
10. Show your passion.
This is the biggest mistake Ellman says he sees. "You get an entrepreneur talking to a VC, it can be intimidating," he says. "They get nervous and they don't show how passionate they are about their business. Failing to show your passion in the first 30 seconds of that initial phone call can cost you the deal."
11. Be yourself.
It can be tough to be your genuine self when you're an entrepreneur faced with the alien and high-stakes world of venture capital. It's tempting to put on the face you believe investors want to see. But that will likely lead to failure, Krasman says. "Don't put on a disguise and act how you think they want you to be," he says. "Because that's exactly who they're not going to invest in."