Category Archives: Business Financing

Top 10 Pitch Fails

I was asked recently for a list of things that annoy me in angel investment pitches from startups. I’ve done this before, so there will be some duplication here. But here is my top 10 pitch fails list. 

  1. Profits. Talk of profits, overestimated profits, the failure to understand that investors make money on growth, not profits; startups with high growth rates are rarely profitable; profits in high-growth startups stunt growth and reduce the odds of successful exit. That’s why you need to spend other people’s money, right?
  2. “I don’t need no stinking projections.” Surprises me how often I’ve seen it. “We all know,” the pitcher says in a cynical tone, “that all those projections are useless.” And dismisses the idea, often with a wave of the hand. Or sometimes it’s a holier-than-thou tone. But no. I need you to think though unit costs, realistic volume, the conceptual links between marketing spend and volume, what it takes to fund growth. I want to know that you know, roughly, that you’re growth will take a ton of marketing spend, and that when you get to $20 million annual sales you are going to have a big payroll and overhead.
  3. Expecting me to believe your numbers. You’re damn right I want to see them, but don’t expect me to believe them. I use them to guess how well you know the nuts and bolts of your business. But at the moment of truth, I’m going to trust my instinct for what I think you can sell, and how much I think you can grow, given the stories you’ve told me and the markets you’ve carved out.
  4. Discounted cash flow. IRR and NPV. Amazing how people can believe numbers that project the future based on a compounded absurdity of assumed sales, less assumed spending, multiplied by an assumed discount rate, five years from now. And yet, I see young people crushed because I wanted something that had a lower IRR than their thing. Y’see, I didn’t believe the IRR either way. I went with the people and the market. This is actually a particularly annoying subset of the point above it.
  5. The annoying myth that nobody reads business plans. Big mistake: confusing the obsolescence of the big pompous formal use-once-and-throw-away business plan of the past with not wanting or needing planning. Ask the two faces of lean startups, Eric Ries and Steve Blank, whether startups need to set strategy, tactics, milestones, metrics, and essential projections for revenue, spending, and cash, and they’ll say the equivalent of “yes of course.” But they are (mis)quoted often as saying don’t do a business plan. What they mean – ask them – is don’t do an old fashioned business plan. Keep it lean, revise it often, and manage with it.
  6. Knowing everything. Sometimes people think investors want founders who know everything, answer each question no matter what, and are the world’s leading expert on any possible subject to come up. No. I want people who know what they don’t know, and aren’t afraid to be not certain.
  7. I don’t want people who get all defensive when challenged. The win is in the relationship, long term. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen private discussions between investors, after a pitch, go negative for somebody who investors feel “isn’t teachable.” It’s easier to work with people who listen, digest, than with people who think every doubt is a challenge to their leadership and authority.
  8. The small piece of a huge market. No, please, don’t ever tell me that your $10 million sales figure is realistic because it’s only one percent of a $10 billion-dollar market. Or 1/10th percent of a $10 billion market. That logic never works. Build your forecast from the units up, not from the top down.
  9. Oversharing the science or technology. I want to hear about the business, not the physics, not the biology, not the chemistry. Pitches and plans are not the right place to show off all of your knowledge.
  10. Not needing the money. If you don’t need the money then don’t seek investment. Own it yourself. Never seek outsider money you don’t really need. People who can live off of their generated cash flow are never going to exit
  11. (bonus point) Stock words and phrases like “game changer” and “disruptive.” Don’t tell us that you are either that. Cross your fingers, and hope we tell you that you could be.

This is another of my Quora answers. The original is at: What are the things that annoy you when entrepreneurs pitch to you Angels and VC? And someday I’m going to answer the question what annoys me about my fellow investors. Because writing these items generates a thought about that side of the table too.

What Are the Normal Steps for Angel Investment?

Question: What are the normal steps for angel investment? What’s involved in submitting a business plan?

I decided to answer this question here because I see it so often in email and in question and answer sites on the web, especially Quora, which is where I first saw it and answered it.

Yes you do need a business plan

In the U.S. market the business plan generally stays in the background while investors look at summaries first, then pitches, and only eventually, after a lot of screening, if they are interested enough to do the detailed study called due diligence, then the business plan.

You want a bare-bones lean business plan to guide your summary and pitch deck. You need to know strategy, tactics, milestones, and essential projections. But investors screen startups based on summaries and pitches before they look at full business plans.

But that’s not what you show investors first

So here are the normal steps:

  1. Summary. That’s either summary memo, or profile on Startup Funding & Investing and AngelList, or similar.
  2. If and only if the summary is interesting, then the pitch. There is a lot more information on the business pitch here on bplans. And for more of my posts, on this blog, choose the business pitch category.
  3. If and only if the pitch is interesting, investors will want to see a full business plan for due diligence.

However, this applies as general norm only, and in the U.S. market only. Generalizations are never always true. There are always exceptions.

(note: this first appeared as my Quora answer to What are the steps involved in submitting a business plan?

Did You Get Screwed in Business

This is a true story. I was there. The details are possibly not exact, and the quotes are paraphrased, but the essentials are true.  A startup founder was pitching to 22 local investors. The group had asked him to pitch because we liked his summary materials. He was local to us and had an interesting product. But he got screwed. I got screwed

This is what happened

  • Two minutes into the pitch, he said he had been screwed by a partner in a previous venture.
  • Ten minutes into the pitch, he said that he had been screwed by attorneys in a previous business deal.
  • Fifteen minutes into the pitch, he said he’d been screwed by an employee he had to fire.

Normally, after every pitch, after the founder has left and we’re alone, the group takes time to discuss what we saw and heard. In this case, the room was quiet for a few seconds. Then one of us said:

“One thing we know for sure … if we invest in that guy, he’ll be blaming us for it later.”

Everybody laughed.

He didn’t get the investment from us. Do you know why not?

This is what reminded me

This morning I saw this question in Quora, the world’s best question and answer site.

Every time I’ve gone into business, I’ve gotten screwed badly, either by partners or by customers. How do I avoid this the next time around?”

I’m answering here first.

How to Raise Money and Succeed Long Term (Video)

Jess Lee (Partner at Sequoia Capital) and Aaron Harris (Partner at YC) discuss raising money as an early stage company, and how to think about the fundraising process. Ali Rowghani (CEO of YC Continuity, previously CFO, COO @ Twitter, CFO @ Pixar) shares his thoughts on how to be a great leader and succeed long-term. Thanks to Stanford Online.

The direct link for the YouTube source is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZXU84_sGXo&feature=em-subs_digest

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.

 

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.

5 Things Entrepreneurs Need to Know About Valuation

Valuation is one of those four-syllable business buzzwords you’re going to have to deal with, eventually, if you either want to start a business or own a business. If it doesn’t come up when you start, it will come up later. Here is what I think you need to know, in five short points.

  1. The word has vastly Different meanings: don’t you hate it when the same words mean different things? Valuation means at least three different things:
    1. What a business is worth to accountants for legal purposes, such as divorce settlements, inheritance taxes, and gift taxes. A certified valuation professional, usually a CPA, makes a guess. Most of them use financial statements and analyze financial details.
    2. What a business is worth to a buyer. Small businesses go up for sale with  business  brokers. Hardware stores, for example,  get about 40-50% of annual sales plus inventory, as a starting point. Plus a bonus for growth and special strengths, or a discount for lack of growth and special problems.
    3. The pivot point in an investment proposal: it’s simple math, but tough negotiations. If you say you want to get $1 million for 50% of your company, you just proposed a valuation of $2 million.
  2. What’s anything worth? Like your car, your house, and a share of IBM stock, something’s worth what somebody will pay for it. The valuation in A is theoretical, hypothetical, but legal. With B and C, though, valuation is as real as agreeing to buy a house. It’s not what the seller says it is; it’s what the buyer is willing to pay. And this cold hard fact drives many entrepreneurs crazy.
  3. For Small businesses, there are guidelines and rules of thumb. If you do a good search, or work with a business broker, you can find general rules of thumb for what your long-standing small business is worth. For example, a hardware story is worth roughly half a year’s sales plus inventory, with bonuses for positive factors like  recent growth,  and discounts for negatives like lack of growth. You could read up on it in bizbuysell.com, bizequity.com, or business brokerage press. Or do a web search and check the ads for valuation experts.
  4. For Startups, it’s what founders and investors negotiate. Startups and investors and culture clash over valuation.  Investors care about valuation. Founders often misunderstand valuation. And never the twain shall meet. I’ve seen these kinds of problems many times:  Founders walk into the valuation discussion full of folklore and fantasy like stories of Facebook and Twitter. They want lots of money for very little ownership. Investors see two or three people with no sales history thinking their dream startup is already worth $2 or $3 million.
  5. Irony: sometimes traction, and revenues, make things worse. It’s easier to buy the dream than the reality. The same investors who’ll seriously consider a $2 million valuation for a good idea, business plan, and a credible 3-person management team – but with no sales ever — might just as easily balk at a valuation of $600,000 for a company with three years history, 20% growth, and annual sales of $300,000.  Despite the irony, it makes sense: few existing businesses are worth more than a multiple of revenues, but, still, before the battle, it’s easier to dream big. Or so it seems. I’ve been on both sides of this table, and I don’t have any easy solutions to offer.

If it hasn’t come up yet, it will. Every business deals with valuation eventually. The place any business sees it is during the early investment phases; but most businesses don’t get investment, so they can ignore it at that point. But then if it survives, or grows, valuation comes up again, because even if the business is immortal, the people aren’t: so eventually you either sell it or pass it on to a new team, an acquiring company, or your own family. And there’s the divorce and estate planning elements that require valuation. So every entrepreneur and business owner should have some idea what it is.

(Image: courtesy of wordle.net)

Elevator Speech Part 4: Delivery

So in my last three posts, I’ve written about a simple one-minute business description that every business owner should know, which I’m calling “the elevator speech” because that’s what they call it in a formal way for grad-level business plan competitions. I say every business owner should be able to do a simple elevator speech. Can you describe your business in 60 seconds? I suggested in previous posts that you start with your essential market story, then add why you are right for doing what you do, and then, what the customers get as benefits. Marketing

In the real world, you know your so-called elevator speech and you use it when appropriate. Every time you do it, you and it get better. I’d recommend taking time out and working on it, but you probably won’t; you’re too busy. Think about it in the shower. Think about it when you’re stuck in traffic, or waiting in line. Rehearse it in your head.

After you’ve gotten through those first three parts, then you close. If it’s as simple as describing your business to somebody sitting next to you in an airplane, or somebody in line at a conference, you’re done. If there is a specific business purpose, like generating a lead to follow up, then you close by asking for the sale. The sale might be a business card, a phone number, or maybe just “so please, drop by when you can.” Maybe it’s you offering your business card. If it’s an investment situation, like the classic elevator speech idea from the business plan contests, then what you want is a follow-up meeting. Ask for it.

That said, I’d like to focus in this post on elevator speeches as delivered by MBA students in venture competitions. I’ve seen a bunch of these, probably more than 100, but who’s counting. They’re fun to watch, and I’d think fun to compete in. But some students take them as torture.

The last one I watched had 20 competitors and a large clock, about six feet high, ticking off 60 seconds. Each 60 second speech ended with a very loud buzzer. No going overtime with that buzzer there.

Of the 20 competitors, three failed to get all the way through. They choked up, got caught on some phrase, panicked, and crashed. They stepped off the small podium with half the clock’s minute, and most of their memorized speech, left.

The moral: please don’t memorize your elevator speech. Not ever. It just doesn’t work. It’s at least 10 and maybe 100 times harder than knowing it thoroughly and rehearsing it well without ever trying to get the exact same words twice. You need to make points, not memorize a speech. Know your points, and their order.

You’re supposed to know your business and enjoy a minute to talk about it. Real businesses do.

Interesting moment: after the embarrassing failures in that last contest I watched, the moderator got up and asked if anybody else would like to try. His point was empathy, wow, it’s hard to make an elevator speech. But he didn’t make his point very well: there wasn’t a non-contestant entrepreneur in the room who wouldn’t have loved to have 60 seconds at the microphone with that audience. If you don’t like to talk about your business, find another business.

But you’re in a contest, you know this is coming, so practice. Use your computer and record, over and over, and listen.

Don’t rush.  Believe it or not, 60 seconds is plenty of time to describe that person with a situation, your unique abilities to come to the rescue, what your solution is, and what you want from your listener. Pause in between each of the four main points, breathe, and emphasize. Look at your listener.

You do have to make eye contact, but you don’t necessarily smile. Describing somebody with a problem isn’t always the right time to smile. If you start with some humor, then smile with that. Sincerity and conviction is a lot more important in an elevator speech than good looks and a smile and a twinkle in the eye. Trust your judgment.

If you dread it, relax, you’re young, it’s not just you; but take a deep breath, slow down, and enjoy it.

Elevator Speech Part 3: What You Offer

So you’re rounding the corner now on the elevator speech, which I say is something all business owners should be able to do. You’ve done the market story, which was part 1, and the why you, part 2. You’re about 30 seconds or so into your one minute talk. And I hope you agree that this isn’t just a formal one-minute talk as part of a grad-level business plan competition. This is something you want to do as part of your business ownership. This is about what you say whenever somebody asks you about your business.

What do you offer

Elevator Speech What You Offer

So now, as the third of four parts, explain what that person you’re selling to gets. Or the organization. You’ve personalized the need or want, identified your unique qualities to solve the problem, and now you have to put the need or want in concrete terms that anybody can see. This is where you highlight the benefits to your customer. For example:

  • So our clients have the peace of mind of knowing that their social media persona are well management, strategic, and professional, without having to hire a full-time employee. They know they will look good when somebody searches for them.
  • Our customers get help with the part of the task that can be automated, without having to pretend that it doesn’t take human thought, and some effort to think it through an organize. They get a unique plan without having to do all the drudge work.
  • The customers get the benefit of a professional email system that allows sharing the email task among several people, managing common responses, assigning responsibilities, and tracking responses and response time.
  • So people love the whole dining experience. It’s great food, in a great environment, served well, and at the same time healthy, organic, and local.

Focus on benefits

In each example here, following on the ones in my previous two posts, we should be able to see clearly how this meets the need or solves the problem. Forget features as much as possible, and illustrate benefits. You’ve already described the person with the situation, and built up your being able to solve it, so now it’s just about the solution. Stay focused and concentrated. People will get one or at the most two unique attributes of your business offering. Don’t confuse them with more.