Category Archives: Business Pitch

10 Things Angel Investors Ask About Startups

Today the angel investment group I’m a member of (Willamette Angel Conference) finished our eighth year of choosing a startup to invest in. Our investment runs $100K to $500K, roughly. It’s announced every year on the second Thursday in May. The announcement comes later in the day, not here.

Our annual angel investors process

Every year we review 40 or so submissions from startups. We look at summaries, videos, financial projections, and pitches posted online at gust.com. We invite our favorites to pitch to us live in a series of meetings. We assign due diligence teams to read their business plans thoroughly, check documents, talk to customers, test products, look at their legal situations, and so on. And eventually we choose a winner (or two or three).

My personal list of 10 things I want to know

Push PinDuring the process, we’ve had to review again what we want to know from startups as we review them. What information is essential? With that in mind, I wrote up my own list of what I look for in startups, from the outset. This is what I want a startup to tell me from the beginning.

  1. The startup team’s background, experience, and credibility. Specifically, what experience do you have with startups. Have you run a startup? Have you been an employee or team member of a startup? And of course your education, degrees, schools, etc. And your work experience. That goes for founder or founders, and main team members. If you don’t have a complete team, have you identified the key skills you need and candidates to hire? Are they likely to come on board? What are their backgrounds, skills, and experience? Who will do the administration, production, marketing, and sales?
  2. What problem do you solve, and how? I want to understand the needs and wants so I can decide for myself on product-market fit. What kinds of people or organizations have that problem, and how badly do they need or want what you are going to sell? For that you have to give me the whys and the background, the stories, not just the numbers; but numbers are good.
  3. And why you? Why are you more qualified than anybody else. How can you keep others from jumping in on your business if it’s successful?
  4. And who else? Who else is doing what you are, or solving what you solve? How do they do it?
  5. Key Metrics. What traction do you have so far? How long have you been up and running, and how many customers or subscribers or sales or visits or downloads or conversions or leads and inquiries? What are your metrics so far? Where do you see them going.
  6. Milestones met and milestones to come. I want to see both what you’ve done and what you plan to do. Your valuation today is about what you’ve accomplished already. What you plan to accomplish gives me an idea of possible future valuations.
  7. How much money are you raising and what are you spending it on. Investment should be used to finance deficit spending that’s going to generate a lot of growth and increased valuations. If you can relate your financial ask to milestones you plan to meet, then that’s great.
  8. Strategy. Strategy is focus. What markets, what products, what specific attributes of your business make this focus realistic? What markets and solutions are you ruling out, or leaving for later?
  9. Tactics. Tactics are essentials like pricing, channels, online, social, marketing, sales, financial plans.
  10. Essential projections. Sales forecast built from bottoms-up assumptions, spending budget, projected P&L, balance, and cash flow. I’m annoyed if you don’t provide these, but I should add that I’m also not going to eliminate a startup for bad financials. Bad financials are the easiest problem to fix.

I should note that I do care a lot about exit strategies, and even more so about the intention to exit. But I assume the intention is there when you seek angel investment. And I want to go from your product and solution to your market, your competition, and my guess about future exits. Exits happen 3-5 years from now. I want you to focus on your business, and I’ll decide whether I believe you’ll eventually become an attractive acquisition so we can get an exit.

Also, on financials, I look for understanding the relationship between spending and growth, how much you need spend in the main spending categories, in broad brush, to be able to grow. I expect growth to cost a lot of money and almost always rule out profits. If you were going to be profitable, you wouldn’t need investment, and you wouldn’t offer a great ROI. I don’t hold you accountable for accurately projecting your essential  numbers, but I do expect you to understand the assumptions and the drivers that you use to develop the forecasts.

And, a third point: We usually get this information several ways, starting with the summaries our startups post on gust.com. There are summaries, slides, videos, and financials. I do always want to see a business plan, but I don’t care about all the text summaries and descriptions. I do want the business plan to include strategy, tactics, metrics, milestones, and essential business numbers.

Video: Startup Funding. Bootstrap. Then “Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”

I stumbled on this brilliant video of an after-hours startup funding event at the Stanford business school, a panel discussion putting two of the best-known, most influential, and most successful investors (Marc Andreessen and Ron Conway) together with another successful entrepreneur (Parker Conrad, founder of Zenefits), a moderator, and a group of interested entrepreneurs. The video format is perhaps less than optimal, unless you like the rapid-access panel on the left (I do, actually) … but the content is outstanding.

Make sure, please, that you hear Ron Conway suggesting “bootstrap as long as you can.” You can find that with the navigation on the left.

And also, what both investors say about how they choose investments, what makes them successful, and valuation. And Marc Andreeson quoting Steve Martin on “be so good they can’t ignore you, and then, adding:

“Focus on making your business better, not making your pitch better.”

The original for this is on Sam Altman’s online course. Click here for that.

Some excellent quotes:

Marc Andreessen on startup funding as hit or miss:

The venture capital business is one hundred percent a game of outliers, it is extreme outliers. So the conventional statistics are in the order of four thousand venture fundable companies a year that want to raise venture capital. About two hundred of those will get funded by what is considered a top tier VC. About fifteen of those will, someday, get to a hundred million dollars in revenue. And those fifteen, for that year, will generate something on the order of 97% of the returns for the entire category of venture capital in that year. So venture capital is such an extreme feast or famine business. You are either in one of the fifteen or you’re not. Or you are in one of the two hundred, or you are not. And so the big thing that we’re looking for, no matter which sort of particular criteria we talked about, they all have the characteristics that you are looking for the extreme outlier.

Ron Conway on bootstrapping before startup funding:

Bootstrap for as long as you can. I met with one of the best founders in tech who’s starting a new company and I said to her “Well, when are you going to raise money?” “I might not,” and I go, “That is awesome.” Never forget the bootstrap.

Contrarian Advice on Investment Pitches from a Pitch Veteran

“We coach entrepreneurs ‘think big.’ ‘Think change the world.’ That doesn’t mean use adjectives that are not credible. Everybody’s revolutionary and everybody’s disruptive now.” 

That’s Bill Reichert, managing director Garage Technology Ventures, veteran investor, a board member on multiple startups, and someone who has heard and reacted to hundreds of investment pitches. In this talk he offers really good advice to people doing pitches now and in the future. 

“The point of the first 20 seconds is to earn the right of continued engagement. If you aren’t compelling and clear in the first 20 seconds this [pointing to a picture of a turtle trapped on its back] is where you end up.”

Bill (a former classmate, by the way) surprised me several times in this excellent talk. He’s not afraid to question standard advice, particularly what pitch coaches tell too many people too often.  For example: 

  • He advises that you don’t spend so much time on the problem. If you start with it, make the point and move on. Investors will recognize it quickly. 
  • Don’t overemphasize the story. Here too, if it’s valid, investors get it quickly. 
  • Don’t believe the common pitch-coach advice about the first 2-3 minutes. “You have 20 seconds.” (That’s around 19 minutes into this video) 

There’s 60 minutes here. Make sure you watch the first 20-25 minutes. From there, having set up some surprises, he goes into techniques. If you’re pitching, this should be really interesting to you. 

7 Steps to Practical Business Stories

Remember, stories aren’t just stories. They’re truth and promise and relationships established. They’re vital to business. There’s more truth in stories than in all the statistics ever published. 

Geoffrey James posted How to Tell a Great Story on Inc.com last month, quoting Mike Bosworth of Solution Selling, and Ben Zoldan, one of his top trainers. So this is how to tell a memorable business anecdote:

1. “Decide on the takeaway first.” There’s a business goal. Yes you want to make conversation, but also make a business point. If you’re selling shoes, tell a story about a shoe disaster, or a shoe rescue. 

2. “Pick the ending ahead of time.” Get the ending that supports the takeaway. 

3. “Begin with who, where, when, and a hint of direction.” He adds:

Every great story–and indeed, every great movie, novel, or TV show–starts with a person (who is going to do something), a place (where things are going to happen), a time (so people can relate “then” to “now”), and just a hint of direction, indicating where the anecdote is headed.

4. “Intensify human interest by adding context.” Details, done right, make it a story. Try to put your people there, caring about the people and the situation. 

5. “Describe the goals and the obstacles.” They call that plot. What was the problem, and how was it solved. 

6. “Describe the decision that made achievement possible.” 

It’s important not to confuse the decision (or turning point) with the ending of the story.  The turning point is not “what happened”–it’s the decision that caused what happened to happen.

7. “Provide the ending and highlight the takeaway.” Don’t assume your listener figured it out. Make sure to say it, out loud. Tell everybody what happened and why it’s important. 

Nice post, good recommendations; thanks Geoff, Mike, and Ben. 

A 2-Second Business Pitch that Worked

Last Thursday I’d just spoken as a guest to a class in entrepreneurship. As the class ended I was anxious to go because I was late for my grandson. The professor was thanking me and three students waited to talk to me individually. I didn’t want to be rude and I like talking to students, so I didn’t run off immediately.

The first in line was the one student I didn’t want to talk to — the one who had asked if I would listen to a quick business pitch after class. There’s no such thing as a quick business pitch when you’re not in an elevator.

However, instead of a pitch, it was iPhone in hand, showing me, and:

I know you don’t have time for a pitch but can I show you my app? It’s done and it works.

So, at least for me, an old software guy, that pitch worked. I couldn’t resist. Of course I wanted to see the app.

And it looked pretty good too. I’m asking him to show it to somebody I work with.

So there’s an elevator speech replacement that worked. In two seconds.

(Image: bigstockphoto.com

Watch This Excellent 1 Minute Elevator Pitch

Although it doesn’t take an MBA to do it, one of the things business schools teach more often these days, as part of the entrepreneurship curriculum, is the elevator speech, also called elevator pitch.

The one embedded here, from the Rice Business Plan Competition last week, won first prize in a contest that included 42 elevator pitches. It’s a great example. Notice how Gaylene Anderson, CEO of Solanux, hits all the high points, and all in just 60 seconds.

In case you don’t see the video here, you can also click here to go to the source video on YouTube.

And in addition, if you’d like to see more, click this link to see the whole collection.

I’ve posted some how-to advice on the elevator speech on this blog, in a four-part series. What I’m recommending in that series fits very well with what’s working in this contest.

 

Tell Your Story Well: Resonate

This last Sunday I bought three copies of Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate and sent one each to three adult children. That’s the best review I ever give a book. I’m sad to admit that it happens rarely. But I love this book.

If you ever – ever – get up to speak to a group of people, and if you give a damn about what that means, to you and them, then you want to read this book.

It’s all about the story and telling it well. The ups and downs, the communication, the results, and the caring about the people listening, plus the caring about effectiveness, entertainment, and change.

Then this morning, thanks to Petra Pollum, I discovered Nancy’s presentation about resonating at a recent TEDx East. What better summary than the author herself?

In case you can’t see the video embedded here, you can click here for the original source on Youtube.

And the book, again: Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences

Don’t Confuse Optimism with Business Potential

Overheard:

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.

Frankly, in a business pitch, I mistrust shows of undue optimism, passion, 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.

(Note: I posted this first at gust.com earlier this week. I’m posting it here for convenience of my readers here.)

1 Great Tip for Better Story Power for Business

Here’s a great tip for anybody presenting anything to an audience:

Skip the boring preamble. Many times we feel like we have to do a lot of prefacing, but four minutes goes by quickly. If you spend two minutes on background, you’ve lost an opportunity to grab attention. Far better to leave the identifying bits until the second paragraph, or to the overhead PowerPoint image, or to the person charged with giving the introductions.

Start in the middle. Start at the most interesting point. Choose powerful first words, with immediate interest. Grab your audience quickly. The worst ways to start a presentation (or any story) is “My name is ___ and I’d like to talk to you about…”

That’s from JD Schramm, Stanford business school communications lecturer, in How to Tell Your Story for Impact. The session is also posted on YouTube, Make sure you get to about 27 minutes in, where he starts talking about 7 habits of concise storytelling. That portion, the 7 habits, takes less than 20 minutes.

Yes, there are seven. I put one into this post but I recommend you go through all seven.

True Stories: One Good and One Bad Answer to Investor Q&A

We talk about the slides, and what they cover, but some of the more important moments in business pitches I’ve seen are not about slides, or plans, but rather about the people themselves, and how they respond. pitching

For example, I posted last week on gust.com about two radically different ways to handle questions about financials. In both cases investors had interrupted a business pitch with complaints about financial slides. One response worked perfectly, and the other was disastrous.

A really good answer

A smart woman had a financial summary slide showing when one of the investors complained:

Those numbers are different from what you show in your plan.

She answered immediately, no pauses, no reflection, as quick as a heart beat:

Of course not. That version of the plan was submitted to your deadline, three weeks ago. We’re not static ever. Things change. This chart is from our latest projections.

That was a total win. Everybody in the room understood.

A really bad answer

It was another financial summary slide. Otherwise the pitch was pretty good, and the founders impressive, but the numbers were annoyingly unrealistic, particularly the huge profitability, something like 50 percent or more profits to sales.  Several of us objected. The answer was:

We don’t like those numbers either. They were done for us by an outside financial consultant. We’re looking for somebody to come in and revise them.

Ouch. Throwing some anonymous third person under a bus doesn’t impress your investors. You can’t disown your own slides.

On the other hand, just for a note of paradox, bad financial projections are easier to fix than a bad product/market mix. That disastrously bad answer was not absolutely fatal.

(Image: istockphoto.com)