Category Archives: Starting a Business

Finding Dumb Investors is a Dumb Idea

Are you looking for dumb investors?

investor money
investor money

“How can I find investors who don’t take much equity?”

“How can I find investors who don’t interfere with my running the business?

I first posted my objections to this kind of thinking nine years ago in Dumb Investors Dumb Idea, one of the earliest posts on this blog. That was before I joined an angel investment group and became one of those investors. My objections then are a lot stronger now. And I still see a stream of this kind of thinking in blogs and at my favorite question and answer site, Quora.com.

Valuation determines equity

The equity share from investment is simple math. If your investors put in $100,000, that’s 10% of a startup valued at $1 million, and 50% of a startup valued at $200,000. So what’s the underlying valuation? Read up on that with 5 things entrepreneurs need to know about valuation and understand startup valuation. So with normal angel investment, the startup founders want a higher valuation and the angel investors want lower. It’s a lot like negotiating to buy a house or a used car. Ultimately, both sides have to agree, or there is no deal.

Angel investors normally care and add value

Angel investors are overwhelmingly amateur investors, investing their own money, investing in industries they know or local startups. They are successful entrepreneurs giving back. They believe in their ability to select startups well, study them well (it’s called due diligence) before deciding on a deal, and to offer valuable advice and experience. I’ve seen dozens of pitches that ended with investors not interested in startups whose founders knew everything and wanted no advice. People who don’t want interference with their business are not going to do well with angel investors.

Normal angels choose angel investment instead of leaving their money with an investment advisor, bank, or some other institution. They know that investing in startups is risky, but they trust themselves and expect to be able to help.

 

 

 

How to Make Money on Your Brilliant Business Idea

A Pile of CashSo you have a brilliant business idea that will be very successful. My congratulations to you. Now read all ideas are brilliant and nobody is going to pay you for your ideas. Are you still sure? All right then, let’s continue.  And – this is important – do not even think about getting investors yet. Do a lean business plan.

1. Gather a team

Can you execute on the brilliant business idea yourself? That does happen. For example, take your browser to KiddoLogic.com. That’s a venture built by one very smart woman, on her own. She used her own money and paid the providers she needed, to get going. If you can do that yourself, without help, then I applaud you. Go for it. Forget investors; just do it. You don’t need them.

For the rest of us, your next step is to gather a team of people who have the skills and experience you need to get going. Look for people different from you who can do what you can’t and who know what you don’t.  If you don’t know anybody, or don’t know the right people, that’s a damn shame; but it’s your problem to solve. If you can’t solve it, then keep your day job. Other people have solved that problem millions of time.

If you can afford to pay them…

If you can find suitable people, then  you have to convince them to join you. If you can afford to pay for their services with your own money, then maybe you don’t have to convince them of the idea. Just pay them. This puts you in the category of the smart person on your own. Just do it. You’re special, the sole entrepreneur with a great idea and the means to execute. Skip to the next section.

However, if you can’t afford to pay people, then you need to convince them to join you as co-founders and work on this idea for free. Don’t feel bad about that; that’s what most successful entrepreneurs had to do. And if you can’t convince the right people to join you, then get a clue. Your idea was one of the many ideas that seem brilliant but won’t work. Keep your day job. Revise your plan. Focus on a subset you can do yourself. Or give up.

Get your people together and revise that early plan. Bring it up to date with what you’ve learned while gathering the team, and what your team members were able to contribute to the plan. Remember that plans are made to be reviewed and revised and kept live and up to date.

2. Execute. Get traction. Prove it.

You have a team and you have a plan. Execute on it. Follow your plan. Go as far as your team can take you towards early website, product prototype, discussions with potential buyers or distributors, so-called minimum viable product. Maybe you go on Kickstarter or one of the other sites for pre-launch selling. Get traction. Prove to yourself and future investors that you idea will work. You’ll have to know what that means in your specific case. It’s different for every business.

3. Seek investment if and only if…

Don’t go for investment unless you really need it.  Never bring in investors unless you need them to address an huge opportunity that makes sharing your business ownership with outside investors good for you and them. Read the startup sweet spot.

Furthermore, don’t go for investment if you’re not going to get it. Only a few businesses are good investments. Read this self assessment will you get angel investment, 10 things angel investors ask about your plan. And be aware that the advice in those two posts applies to the U.S. market only. The realities of angel investment are vastly different in other markets.

(Note: I have no association with Kiddologic. I saw her pitch for local angel investors and was very impressed.)

Startup Culture is as Leaders Do

The question over on Quora was How should a new startup develop and sustain a strong company culture? I decided not to answer the essential how-to, but rather to share my experience in this area, which is more like a reality check on startup culture than anything else.  The following is straight from my Quora answer.

Culture is not what you say

Culture isn’t what anybody says, it’s what the leaders do. You can write mottos and pin poster on the wall, send memos around, write mission statements and mantras, develop tag lines, and repeat seemingly meaningful phrases at meetings … but what determines the culture is what leadership values – not what it says it values, either, but what it actually values with actions, policies, decisions, priorities, rewards, praise and everything else that happens all day every day.

Leaders, as people, rarely change who they really are. They will nurture new ideas or not, listen or not, treat their people fairly or not, depending on their values, their past, and who they are. Sometimes people can change over time, but that’s rare.

Leaders frequently believe their words and ignore or fail to realize that their actions contradict their words. This is why businesses are so full of hype and spin and meaningless drivel in mission statements and the like. Have you ever seen a company that doesn’t say they believe customer service (for example) is extremely important? But how many flow that thought into actual policies and performance. Similarly, is there any business that doesn’t say it values innovation? But how many businesses actually reward people for questioning authority or trying to do things differently? These are big-company examples everybody knows, but I use them to make a point about startups.

What’s a strong culture?

And your question itself offers an implicit example in itself. You say “strong culture.” What’s that? One leader could say a strong culture is when people compete with each other constantly, spend infinite hours in the office, and value stress. The next could say strong culture is one that develops a mission to make the world a better place, treats everybody fairly, and cares about its customers. Which is strong?

What matters is who you are and what you do, not who you want to be, or what you say you believe.

 

Does an MBA Help in Running a High-Tech Business?

Question (on Quora): Does an MBA help in starting up and running a technology-based business? 

My Answer on MBA for High Tech

I have an MBA degree and I bootstrapped a software company past $10M annual sales and was a co-founder of another software company that went public in less than four years. And the truth is neither yes or no, but somewhere in between. The value of the MBA depends on who you are, what you want, what other options you have, what you give up, and where you are in career and the more important rest of your life, like relationships, having children, etc.

MBA degree for high tech business

My case with my MBA and high tech

My MBA degree made a huge difference to me as entrepreneur. I would never have managed without the general business knowledge I got in business school. Having a good basic idea of finance, marketing, product development, and organizational admin was essential to me. It changed my risk factors from too high to acceptable. I set out to build my business on my own without any savings or any investors and while being the sole income for my family (at that point we had 4 kids). Knowledge, in my case, reduced risk. So that’s a direct link to this question of whether having an MBA helps. I’m just one data point, but still … my experience is real.

For the record, my MBA wasn’t easy. It was a lot of sacrifice and a lot of risk. I did it at Stanford while married with 3 kids and paying my own way by consulting, supporting my family, without scholarship help. I quit a good job to do it, turned down a transfer from Mexico City to Hong Kong, which I had wanted for years. And I’m very grateful to my wife, who encouraged me to do it, and promised me she’d stick with me even if I failed.

Two important qualifiers

One important factor for me, which might be relevant for others, is that my MBA experience was rooted in the objective of changing careers. I wanted to change directions, not continue in the direction I’d been going. I’d been a business journalist and I wanted to move out of Journalism to business. I didn’t want to write about it; I wanted to do it.

Another factor for me that might help others is I didn’t expect magic. I was already 31 years old, married 9 years, father of 3. I didn’t expect to learn leadership, when and how to take risks, or how to deal with people (i.e. empathy) in a classroom. What I did expect to learn was the intricacies of finance and cash management, accounting, marketing, some sales (ugh – I’ve always hated sales), some product development, decision sciences, and basic analysis.

However, please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that the MBA is good for every entrepreneur or any specific entrepreneur or you, specifically, as you read this answer. I am saying that it was extremely good for me, in my case, and might be as well for somebody else in similar circumstances. Can you afford to do it? Do you have the time? Are you in a position to take advantage of it? Are you already full speed in a career you love or looking to pivot? All of these factors are important.

Three additional thoughts

  1. There’s no doubt that times have changed, and that the relative value of an MBA degree in 1981 is less than it is now. MBAs are much more common these days than they were then and it doesn’t take an MBA degree to understand supply and demand.
  2. MBAs need ripening before they get their full value. Some would say that it would be a good investment to buy fresh new recent MBAs for what they’re worth and sell them for what they think they’re worth. I’ve been an employer for 30+ years now and I like my MBAs much better when it’s their second or third job out of school, or a few years after school.
  3. I believe the MBA degree these days is a lot more valuable from one of the top schools – Stanford, Harvard, Wharton, Northwestern, Babson (for entrepreneurs) and the like – than from second or third tier. The supply and demand factor has heightened the perceived difference.

Business Pitch: Don’t Confuse Optimism with Business Potential

Chart_shutterstock_42227020_by_ArchMan (2)I listen to a lot of business pitches and way too many of them try to make something out of the entrepreneur’s attitude. Commitment is great, but who isn’t committed? Passion is great but who isn’t passionate about their business. Saying that adds nothing. It’s assumed. So too, with optimism. Business pitch optimism is vastly overrated.

Business pitch optimism

This comes up because I heard this the other day:

I love your optimism. What I don’t like is the complete lack of experience that’s causing it.

Ideally, a business pitch is exciting because the business potential is exciting. Optimism ought to be a combination of potential market, product-market fit, scalability, defensibility, and management experience. Better yet, early sales, initial growth rates, proof of concept in buyers or users or subscribers or signups or something equally concrete.

Don’t talk about it. It’s assumed.

Frankly, in a business pitch, I mistrust shows of undue optimism, passion, commitment and resolve. I worry that early-stage entrepreneurs are working towards some mythological promise that they have the will to succeed, as if will alone can make a business successful. I don’t want to invest in passion unless it’s tempered by experience and based on a solid business plan.

You’ll find people talking about showmanship in business pitches. Absolutely. Tell your story well. Tell the story of the market, the need, the solution, the steps along the way, and the team that’s driving it. But it’s about your business, and you fit in as the manager who will drive it. Angel investors will frequently talk about betting on the jockey, not the horse. In that case, it’s betting on the jockey’s skill and experience, not just optimism or passion.

It’s a fine line. Sell your angel investors your business, not your optimism. Not your passion. Not your commitment.

 

Don’t Just Dream Your Startup. Do the Work.

Dream Your StartupI’ve seen this in surveys several times: Americans dream of owning their own business. We’re a culture of startups. But don’t just dream your startup. Do it. Make it happen.

Just because you love it doesn’t make it easy

I really like this from Pam Slim, author of Body of Work, in Who says following your dreams shouldn’t be hard? She says:

I have come to the realization that we cause ourselves a lot of stress by believing that if we just choose the right business, or quit our loathsome job, or find the perfect Internet marketing system, or get that book deal that things will become easy.

She goes on to point out that most of what we get in life, most of the good things, are also hard. There are lots of clichés on that point. Pam suggests that there is good hard — such as “Meeting unexpected life challenges with both pragmatism and optimism” — and bad hard — like “Spending twelve hours on an administrative task that is complex, boring and not your strength when someone smart could do it in 30 minutes for fifty bucks.”

There was a scene in one of those old black-and-white movies in which the fabulously rich guy is asked the secret of success and he answers: “Choose rich parents.”

For the rest of us, it has to do with work. As in another old saying I like: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Success takes a lot of work

Which brings me to one of the basic fundamentals of building a new business, or running an existing business: it’s a lot of work. You have to build it around a need that other people have, or something that other people want. It has to be not just what you want to do, but what somebody else will pay money for. You develop strategy, tactics, and of course the business offering. You gather a team and necessary resources. You make decisions. You take risks. You spend a lot of time. You do a lot of work. You make a lot of mistakes along the way

Be your own boss? Well, maybe, but the toughest bosses are their own bosses. The buck stops with you. You make the decisions. Even the work you don’t do is still your responsibility, so you have to develop tasks and measurements and accountability. You plan constantly, because you do a simple plan and revise it frequently.

Somewhere embedded in all this is that you work on what you love, because to be successful you’re going to work on it a whole lot, so you’d better love it.

And, also, that the opposite of hard is boring.

Which brings me to my title above. Following dreams isn’t enough. You have to build dreams.

True Story: Startup Addict, Chronic Failure

I believe that developing your own business is ultimately a matter of doing the work, getting the store open, returning the phone calls. And I fear that too often people fall into the myth and mystique of the startup and end up doing just the opposite. They are always waiting, never working. This is the story of a startup addict.

Ralph as startup addict

I haven’t seen Ralph (not his real name) for several years now. Rumor has it that he finally did get a company going. He built it to sales of a few million dollars a year. Then he fought with the programmer whose work got them started, and fell from grace.Gambling_business_planistock_000000

Ralph was a serial non-entrepreneur. We worked together off and on for about six years. During that time he was never not working on a business plan for a new startup. He was going to get financed. “Business Plan” to him wasn’t just planning a business, it was a lottery ticket to a carpeted office and big BMW and somebody else answering the phone and making the coffee. He spent years working on one business plan after another, none of which ever got financed. He was a business plan addict, living on the dream of hitting it big, always looking for the big win, but never actually taking small steps in the right direction. Nothing could happen until he “got financed.”

Like the gambler that never leaves Las Vegas, Ralph was always hoping that the next one would be the big one.

That phenomenon is the main reason for this post. There are people who constantly look ahead to when they get financed. They are always working on the next plan and the next pitch, but never actually do anything.

Ralph as mentor

On the other hand, Ralph was 10 years older and had more industry experience, so he did some mentoring. For example, at one point we worked up a  business plan for assembling generic business computers in Mexico City (that may sound random, but I had lived there for 10 years and was returning to live there again). He was to be my partner in the Silicon Valley, and I was going to build the business in Mexico. As part of that plan, he taught me, step by step, how to build my own computer. Do you remember the S-100 bus and the CP/M operating system? I built my own.

His best advice for me was extremely valuable: “Sell boxes, not hours.” Ralph liked pithy entrepreneur-folk wisdom like that.

Unfortunately, that one, like so many others, never launched. From what I heard later, Ralph finally did get something going after I had moved to Oregon. His business had several million dollars of annual sales back when that was a lot of money. We drifted apart so I don’t know for sure, but mutual friends tell me that the propensity for luxury offices and big-company perks hurt a lot. He turned his business into one of those Nova-star affairs that crashed and burned in three years. There was also a rumor that the crashing had something to do with questionable legal moves that were unfair to a partner who had done the programming to get them started.

Three business points

This true story is in this blog mainly for several actual business points:

  1. If you’re in the startup mode and working on developing your opportunity, don’t suspend business life until the plan is done (because it never is) or until you’re financed. If it’s a good idea, get going. Keep working the plan. If you need to get financed, keep at it, but take small steps in the meantime.
  2. If you’re working on a startup, take my advice (not Ralph’s) and think about cinder block offices and such in the more economical locations. If your business isn’t about receiving clients or customers, wait for the luxuries until after you have more revenue than costs and expenses.
  3. Sorry, this one is so obvious, but as your business rises in the world, make sure you bring along the people who got you there.

Beware of the Myth of Persistence

I worry a lot about the myth of persistence. Persistence won’t necessarily make your business successful unless a lot of other things are also right. And persistence alone can turn failure into disaster. But still, people who should know better—people who succeeded—still talk about it all the time.

brick wall

There’s a logical trick to it. Almost everybody who made it through hard times while building a business can credit persistence because they stuck through it, and, eventually, made it. But what we forget or ignore is all those people who didn’t make it, persisted, and still went under, losing more money, and sometimes even important relationships, and people they care about, because they persisted.

Persistence is only relevant if the rest of it is right. There’s no virtue to persistence when it means running your head into walls forever. Before you worry about persistence, that startup has to have some real value to offer, something that people want to buy, something they want or need. And it has to get the offer to enough people. It has to survive competition. It has to know when to stick to consistency, and when to pivot.

So persistence is simply what’s left over when all the other reasons for failure have been ruled out. Those successful entrepreneurs who talk about their experience? They’re not lying. They look back on it, and it was persistence that saw them through. Because every startup is a lot of work, a lot of mistakes, a lot of failures. So a lot of startups that might have made it otherwise fail because it’s just too damn hard to stay with it.

This is one of several phenomena related to the problem of survivor bias. We hear way more from people who made it, and not nearly enough from the people who didn’t.

And then, if everything else is right, persistence matters.

10 Myths vs. Reality on Business Plans and Startup Investment

I gather from a stream of emails I’ve received that there are a lot of misconceptions on the relationship between a business plan and getting seed money and/or angel investment. So here’s a list of reality checks to apply to all those lists.

  1. business managementBusiness plans are necessary but not sufficient. Even a great business plan won’t get any investment for any startup. Investors invest in the team, the market, the product-market fit, the differentiators, and so forth. And they evaluate the risk-return relationship based on progress made, traction achieved, and market validations. The plan gets information the investors need; it doesn’t sell anything. One of the most serious misconceptions is the idea that the quality of the writing and presentation of a business plan is going to influence its ability to land investment. Sure, if you consider the extremes, a poorly written plan is evidence of sloppy work. If it’s hard to find the important information, that’s a problem. But barring extremely bad plans, what ends up being good or bad is the content – the market, product, team, differentiators, technology, progress made, milestones met, and so forth – not the document.
  2. All businesses should be using business planning regularly. They should have a plan to set strategy and tactics, milestones, metrics, and responsibilities, and to project and manage essential numbers including sales, spending, and cash; and they should keep that plan alive with regular (at least monthly) review and revisions. Business plans are for business planning, and management; not just for investors.
  3. Nobody has ever invested in a business plan, unless you count what they pay business plan writers and consultants. People invest in the business, not the plan. Just like people buy the airplane or car, not the specifications sheet. The plan is a collection of messages about past, present, and future of the business. It’s past facts and future commitments. People invest in milestones met.
  4. The normal process goes from idea, to gathering a team, doing a plan, and executing on the early steps to develop prototype, wireframes, designs, and ideally traction and market validation. And the plan is constantly rewritten as progress is made.
  5. Investors come in only after a lot of initial work is already done. 
  6. The startup process does not – repeat, NOT – go from idea to plan to funding and only then, execution. You don’t go for funding with just a plan. That’s way too early.
  7. Investors do read business plans. Regarding the myth that investors don’t read business plans, I’m in a regional group of angel investors, we’ve had maybe 80 people as members during the eight years since it started, and the vast majority of us would never even consider investing in a company without seeing the business plan.
  8. But investors don’t read all the business plans they get; and they often reject deals without reading the plan. To reconcile this point with the previous, note that investors read the plans during due diligence, as a way to dive into the details of a startup they are interested in. They don’t read them as a screening mechanism. So a lot of startup founders who don’t get investment are telling the truth when they say investors didn’t read their plan. Investors rejected them based on summary information or pitch.
  9. On that same point, the process with angel investment today starts with an introduction or submission through proper channels (gust.com, angellist.co, incubators, 500 startups, and so forth). Investors screen deals based on summary information in the profile or a summary memo. The deals that get through that filter will be invited to do a pitch in person. Those that still look interesting, after the pitch, will go into due diligence, with is a lot of further study of the business, customers, market, legal documentation, and the business plan.
  10. Business plans are never good for more than a few weeks. They need constant revision. Things are always changing. People don’t expect the big full formal plan document anymore, not even investors. Keep a plan lean, review it often, revise it as necessary, and use it to run your business. Use it to steer the business and keep making course corrections. That’s what a plan is supposed to be these days.

10 Good Reasons Not to Seek Investors For Your Startup

Sure, maybe you need the money. Maybe that’s what your business plan says. But seriously: Do you really want to have investors involved in your dream startup?

I’ve said it before: bootstrapping is underrated. I get frequent emails from people asking how they can get investment for their new startup, and I’ve admitted to being a member of an angel investor group. But let’s not forget, while we’re thinking about it, these 10 good reasons not to seek investors for your startup.

  1. It’s almost impossible to get investment for your very first startup. If you don’t have startup experience, get somebody on your team who does. Chris Dixon said it best: either you’ve started a company or you haven’t. And if you haven’t, and nobody in your team has either, that makes it very hard.
  2. You are selling ownership. Investors write checks to own a serious portion of your business. I admit that’s patently obvious, but you should see the emails I get in which people think of investors as if they were some sort of public agency. Once you get investment, you don’t own your entire company.
  3. Investors are bosses. You are not your own person when you have investors; you’re part of a team. You can’t decide everything by yourself. Politics matter. Investor relations matter. If you screw up, you do it in front of other people, and it hurts those people.
  4. Valuation is critical to them and you. Simply put, valuation means the price. If you want to give only 10 percent of your company to investors who pay $100,000, you’re saying your company is worth $1 million. And so on. Simple math, but wow, not so simple negotiation.
  5. Investors don’t make money until there’s a liquidity event. That’s why we always talk about exit strategies. You can be the world’s happiest, healthiest, most cash-independent company, but your investors won’t be happy until you get them cash back. The win is getting money back out of the company. Some big company stock buyers like dividends. Startup investors don’t.
  6. If it’s not scalable, forget it. The real growth opportunities are scalable. It used to be products only, but now there are some scalable services, like web services, for example. But if doubling your sales means doubling your headcount (that’s called a body shop), then investors aren’t going to be interested.
  7. If it’s not defensible, it’s tough going at best. Not that I trust patents as a defense, but trade secrets, momentum, a combination of trade secrets and patents, plus a good intellectual property defense budget … if anybody can do it, then investors aren’t interested. (Of course, what would I know, I thought Starbucks was a bad idea because I thought that was too easy to copy … there are always exceptions.)
  8. Investors aren’t generic. Some become collaborative partners and even mentors, some are nagging insensitive critics. Some are trojan horses. Some help, some don’t. (Hint: choose carefully which investors you approach.)
  9. Just getting financed doesn’t mean diddly. For an example of what I mean read this piece from the New York Times. You haven’t won the race when you get that check.
  10. Investors sometimes take your company from you. Well-known strategy consultant Sramana Mitra has a couple of eloquent minutes on that them in this two-minute video. She seems to be talking about India, but she’s well known in the Silicon Valley, and what she says applies perfectly well here.