Startup Funding Masterclass: Part Six
In this article we will focus on how to find investors and how to decide which investors you should spend your time on.
In this series we started out with figuring out how much funding your startup would need by calculating your startup runway.
Later we looked into the pros and cons of the available sources of funding.
If you have decided to raise VC money, it is now time to get practical and figure out how to find the right investors on the right terms.
This post is Part Six in a new Masterclass series on Startup Funding. Funding is the fuel that every business runs on. Knowing the ins and outs of funding is therefore essential if you want your startup to be successful. We searched for a compact-yet-comprehensive guide on startup funding and found it nowhere, so we decided to build one ourselves. This is that essential guide.
We bring it to you in partnership with Belgium’s largest startup and scale-up accelerator Start it @KBC, supporting and promoting more than 1.000 entrepreneurs with innovative ideas and scalable business models.
– Jeroen Corthout, Co-Founder Salesflare, an easy-to-use sales CRM for small B2B companies
Before we explore how to find the right investors, let’s first take a moment to decide: is it time to go into fundraising mode now?
Fundraising: ON or OFF?
There are two key reasons to go out and raise startup equity. Either you really need it to get to the next step (or in general to survive), or the money is currently available at good terms and you want to capitalise in order to gain a strategic advantage.
Make sure that you do not lose sight of why you are doing this. Fundraising is not a measure of success for your startup. It is a tool that you use to build out a company that customers love. It should result in growth, profitability, return on capital and eventually shareholders value. Funding is just a means, not a goal.
The problem with fundraising is that it tends to become the top priority in your mind. This is very distracting to your company and it restricts you from building great products.
For us, fundraising has two distinct stages. A networking mode and a fundraising mode.
When you are not in fundraising mode, you should only build your network and consider opportunistic money. This is money that requires no convincing, from investors willing to invest at terms that take no negotiation.
Be strict here, this means virtually no meetings and extremely fast execution. It should not take away any focus of your business. This is for investors with which you have an established relationship, who have completed due diligence, and who are ready to sign a term sheet immediately as they are eager to come in.
If this is not the case, politely decline any meeting. Tell the investors that you are currently very focused on building the company. And keep them warm with regular status updates, which can include items like the following:
- Traction figures
- Team changes
- Feature milestones
- Heads up on future financing rounds
Be careful with investors that try to lure you into fundraising mode. For an investor, this can prove to be a great way to find an investment as they will get a shot at you before anyone else (so called “proprietary deals”).
Before you realise it, you are meeting on a bi-weekly basis and losing the focus on your business. Keep them warm instead with regular updates and by sharing successes.
When you are in fundraising mode, go all in. Get this done as well and as quickly as possible.
Realistically, you should expect to be in fundraising mode for 4 - 6 months.
This the ideal moment to leverage having multiple co founders. Divide and conquer: keep one founder focused on the business leading the team and the other founder focused on finding investors, hustling from meeting to meeting.
Of course, there will be moments when investors would like to meet both founders, but try to limit those to only high probability situations. Investors tend to take their time and like to wait. If during this waiting period your business can prove to execute during those waiting periods, it dramatically increases your chances of receiving funding.
Finally, before diving in, ask yourself some critical questions:
- Why are you raising money now? Are there good market conditions, or do you need the capital as you are nearing the end of your runway? (calculate it here)
- How will your company be perceived by investors in its current stage? (find out more about companies in different funding stages here)
- Do you have a compelling story to tell investors?
- Can your business continue to thrive throughout the fundraising period (4 - 6 months) and while there’s diminished focus from your side?
- Do you have the right fundraising materials? (more on that later on)
Find investors: first, build a list
Fundraising mode ON? Time to go research.
Just like in sales it is crucial that you have a good list of potential targets.
How do you find these investors?
Start out by collecting a list from the following resources:
- Network: Ask fellow entrepreneurs and people in the scene (they might have a list).
- Incubators and Accelerators: If you are part of one, don’t forget to leverage your participation. If not, asking never hurts.
- Government agencies: In a lot of countries, the government has set up agencies specifically to help out starting entrepreneurs. They typically have this kind of information.
- Universities: Contact alumni networks, entrepreneurship support groups and university staff for leads.
- Directories: Big directories like CrunchBase and AngelList can be a great resource.
- LinkedIn: Identify and connect with high net worth individuals and investors. Don’t forget to search for keywords like “investor”, “venture capital” or “angel”.
Try to be complete here, but also make your life easier. If you immediately know that a name does not make any sense, leave it out directly.
Do not underestimate the material that you can leverage from your network. So get over the social awkwardness before diving into google and scraping all kinds of websites.
Find investors: Filter your list to a target list
Now that we have created a huge list of potential investors, we need to find a way to prioritise those with the highest probability of success. 🤔
Just like in sales, let’s turn our larger lists into one shorter target list.
Judging the potential of an investor is like judging the buyer's appetite for your product. There are three key questions:
- Is the investor interested in my company?
- Can the investor invest in my company?
- Is my company interested in this investor?
Is the investor interested in my company?
How can you judge if all the individual names in this huge list are interested in my company?
Well, you can’t. But if you do some well targeted research, you will soon find out that a lot of investors are looking for very specific things. If you do not fit those criteria, their likelihood of investing is very small.
So let’s place ourselves in their shoes and make a first judgement on whether we would be no fit, a possible fit or a great fit.
Stage of your company
The first step is to figure out if an investor has interest in companies in your stage. Take another look at our article on startup funding rounds to get up to speed.
Typically this information is readily available on the investor’s website.
Once you have established that they could be interested in companies in your stage, look for recent deals and specifically for relevant deals (e.g. same stage) in the recent past (12 - 24 months).
A good source for recent deals are the investor’s website and databases like Crunchbase.
The more investments you can find similar to yours, the higher the chance that they will be interested.
Location of your company
Investors are often geographically focused.
This could be because then they can attend board meetings, because they have certain tax incentives to do so, or another similar reason.
It can be either the entire firm, or they might work with local teams who have a specific focus.
Look on their website for information on their investment strategy, team locations and specific funds that might have a geographical focus.
If your region is included, dive into their recent deal activity.
For specific industries, the regional focus might be less important. Make sure to differentiate between those investors that do not invest in a region due to their strategy, and those that just haven’t done a deal yet in a specific region.
Interest in your industry
Besides geographies, a lot of funds also tend to focus on specific industries.
Normally, this should be quite available on the investor’s website.
For example, for Point Nine Capital, it is available under their section “what do we look for”.
If you fit their criteria, try to gauge their appetite for deals in your sector. Take a look at recent deals (12 - 24 months) and see if they have made any relevant investments.
If you find out that there is less activity from the fund compared to the past, make sure to look for recent team changes or press information.
It could be that the fund recently lost a partner with expertise in a specific field, recently constructed a team for a new sector (could be very interesting), or no longer has any appetite for your space.
Tip: If a partner within a sector leaves, make sure to follow their movement as their next step might be of interest to you.
Criteria for an additional selection round
The following items are harder to research and therefore should be considered once you have a solid short list.
Investors tend to have a specific view on the world and how it will change in the near future.
For example, they might be looking at the shift from ownership to services, which is relevant if you are trying to sell them on a Car as a Service versus a Second-Hand Car Marketplace.
Understanding this is key when pitching to them and also when deciding priorities. It might take more research and investors can contradict each other within a firm, so make sure to focus on your highly rated list when investigating this.
This should already have come up when doing your industry research, but it can be good to dig a little deeper into your top candidates.
Find out if the investor is invested in conflicting investments (e.g. direct competitors, substitutes) or has adjacent companies in your sector.
If they are involved in your sector, try to understand how these deals are working out for them. Be a bit careful if these investments have been a huge failure, as their appetite in the space could have lowered considerably. If they are invested in a competitor, be careful as well, as they might pass on your documentation to their portfolio company after you pitch.
Can the investor invest in my company?
Even if investors love your company, it does not mean they can invest.
Their ability to invest also depends on the type of deal and the available capital.
We recommend reading our piece about VCs to have a better understanding of why the below points are so relevant.
Type of deal
A deal can be classified in many ways but we aim to show you the most obvious decision criteria.
Certainly one of the more important criteria for an investor is the size of the investment that you are looking for.
Size can limit the appetite for a deal, both with a minimum and maximum amount to be invested.
Huge funds will probably not be writing $100,000 checks, as it is nearly impossible to source enough deals of this size within the required timeframe. On the other hand, smaller funds will likely not be able to put 10% of their capital in your startup.
Take a look at the investor’s website for a better understanding of their criteria. Previous deals are also a good indicator to understand the size of investment that the fund is trying to look for.
The equivalent from the startup’s point of view is the funding source that is being used.
Are you looking to raise regular equity, asking for a convertible, or for some form of a loan?
Depending on the source of funding that you are looking for, an investor might not be able to invest.
Investors often also have a strategy in terms of the amount of ownership that they are willing to take in an investment.
Typically this is a minimum requirement, where an investor will only invest if a certain amount of ownership is possible.
Even if you are a great fit for the investor, they still need to have the right amount of capital available.
There are two key criteria that you can look at to make a judgement on their available capital.
Some investors will have a clear press release indicating the size of their fund. Comparing this to the amount that has been invested in recent deals, it can give you an idea of the amount of capital that is left for future investments.
We have to warn you that this is not always easy to determine from the outside.
Additionally, you should also be aware that a lot of investors keep some money on the side to continue investing in portfolio companies that do well.
As a general rule, you can assume that a newly raised fund has more appetite for new deals than a fund that already has some major investments.
Timing of the fund
VC funds and other professional investors tend to invest in similar cycles or periods.
For a VC fund, the lifetime of a fund will probably look like this:
- 2-4 investment period during which investments are made
- 6-8 year period before closing, during which investments are supposed to grow
Understanding where the fund currently is can be a major insight.
Funds that recently raised capital and have money to invest can be aggressive, but perhaps also looking in all directions.
Funds that are close to the end of their investment period might be more conservative as they are close to fully invested, or might on the contrary hand be aggressive as they are not fully invested and are still looking for that win.
Understand these dynamics as a way to improve your chances of picking the right investor to focus your attention on.
Is my company interested in this investor?
Throughout the process of raising your funds, you will naturally figure out which investor matches best with your company.
But some criteria can be really important right from the start.
Be careful here. When looking at this long list of investors, it might seem that you have an enormous amount of choice. By the end of this process, this can look totally different.
Additionally, if you want to convince your dream investor, it will definitely be easier with another offer in your back pocket.
So our tip: if the investor is a match with most criteria, but you are not sure if they match with your expectations, at least get in touch before excluding them.
Some investors are all about putting money to work and being hands-off, but there’s also a lot of startup investors who like to add value.
Depending on what you are looking for in an investor it is important to include this as a criteria for your list. Make sure to understand their expertise. A good way to do this is by looking at their senior team, their practical experiences and previous deals.
Tip: Experience with your key clientele can also be of great value.
Finally, go out there and try to talk to people who have either worked with or pitched to this particular investor. Not only will it help you to adjust your pitch to their style, but it might also raise any red flags before doing any additional work.
Try to separate gossip from reality by speaking to decision makers instead of regular employees. Good sources would be founders of startups previously or currently in their portfolio.
Before you go ahead and start downloading a massive list of investors we would like to give you some additional tips.
The goal is to spend your time efficiently, not to find the perfect investor
There are a lot of possible investors and you need a structured approach to decide with which investors you should spend the most time.
The goal, however, is not to spend three months in research and then boil it down to a quantitative decision based on Google research.
Be realistic in your expectations of the quality of your sources and don’t underestimate the value of information that you can get from your network.
Make sure that there are no obvious misses when screening investors (see above), so that you don’t receive tons of emails like the one below, and that you remain with a manageable short list of potential investors.
Thank you for sending through your information but we are not focused on tech startups in Berlin.
Our focus is predominantly on non-profits in West Africa.
Take a structured approach so you can continue updating the information and keep track
This list will be a valuable source of information throughout the life of your startup. As you get more and more included in the ecosystem, you will also start hearing more about the parties involved.
Having a structured and clear approach will allow you to dive back in whenever is needed to update information, or to double check the source for a previous assumption.
Our approach is to create a spreadsheet with the list of investors and add the several criteria as columns (or even better if you like to keep your communication, email tracking, etc. in the same place: get a good CRM).
While doing your research you add either a “no interest”, “possible interest” or “good interest” in the columns (or fields) and make sure to clearly add a source in a comment (or separate field) to explain why it is good or not.
Aim to be efficient. Start out by looking at many investors, but as soon as you hit a no interest, continue with the rest. The goal is not to fill in all criteria, but to end up with a great short list.
Finally, once you have selected a list of, say, 50 possible investors, take a look at the amount of “good interest” v.s. “possible interest” to create an A and B list.
Once you have tried all the A list investors and haven’t found a deal, continue with the B list or start reviving investors that you previously marked as no interest.
Making that list already or ready to go for it? 🤓
It's quite some work, but you won't regret! You'll be able to go straight to the right targets and raise money with the right investors. 🎯
Let us know if you have any questions left; we’ll be happy to elaborate! Also, don’t forget to tune in next week for Part Seven in our Startup Funding Masterclass: How to make the perfect startup pitch deck!
We hope you liked this post. If you did, spread the word!