What do VCs look for in startups?

desktopThere is a lot of advice on how to develop an investor presentation, I have plenty myself on this blog. But looking at an investment not from your perspective as a founder but rather from the perspective of a VC can yield some useful insights. Dr. Jitendra K. Das, Director of the FORE school of management makes a couple of useful observations about venture capital funds before launches into his list of what VCs are looking for in startups;

  1. The age of the specific fund that the investment is coming from. Once a founder has found a partner in a fund who wants to invest in his venture their due diligence needs to ascertain the age of the fund. Dr. Das provides a helpful example of a fund raised in 2010 with a tenure of 7 years, looking at an investment in 2014 would have looked at a time horizon of only 2 – 3 years.
  2. Pareto’s law applies to VC funds. It projects that only 20% of a fund’s investments will return 80% or more of its returns. The other 80% are either outright failures or what VCs call zombies, companies that trundle along with no exit nor returns in sight

I’m going to go through all of Dr. Das’s elements from his article What Venture Capitalists Look for in Start-ups, but with my own take on each of them, referring to relevant posts on this blog. I will also provide definitions for common investor terms, like step up.

Team Strength

I was taught by VCs that their first and most important criteria in making an investment is the team. And looking at the team, the CEO represented about 70% of the decision. This is where a team of all-stars will lose to a team of hard workers who are well-aligned and extremely hard workers. A team must be aligned across values and goals and relentless or it can’t win.

Pain Points Addressed

Otherwise known as the customer problem, the cliche question, Are you a pain pill or a vitamin? Here I disagree with Dr. Das. Focus on the most important pain point of your customer; trying to address multiple pain points is a formula for losing focus. And what is the customer currently doing to reduce this pain?

Business Model

Here again I disagree with Dr. Das. Many startups don’t have a business model at zero stage, but have brilliant founders, great technology, and a huge market. Google is the canonical example; they had no business model as a raw startup. Their ad auction model only developed after several years. However, it cannot hurt and will help, if you can pose multiple business models which you plan to test.

Market sizing

Dr. Das states This is usually looked at top-down, i.e., from total population, to addressable market, to planned reach, to market share. I advise my mentees against this model. Founders should project their addressable market from the bottom up. For example, if your business model is direct sales, you need to build a model that includes what size territory your sales people will cover, how much revenue that can drive, how many sales people will be needed to cover your addressable market, the average revenue per sale, etc.  Top  down projections done as a percentage of total market are scorned by VCs. They usually take the form of, There are over a billion people in China and they all need toilet paper, so if we just get 1% of the population buying into our subscription model to our very unique and truly revolutionary toilet paper, we will be making $15 million in year one and by year five we’ll be a unicorn, a billion dollar company! Not.

Progress Achieved

This is generally known as traction. Traction is customer focused; how many paying customers, what is your customer growth rate, ARPU (Average Revenue Per User), etc. Unlike market projections, this has to be hard evidence, not visionary projections. It’s what you have done, not what you hope to do.

Competitive Landscape

As the barrier to entry for new companies get progressively lower, thanks to cloud platforms like Amazon’s AWS, VCs get more interested in who your customers are and what your sustainable customer advantage is. When I was starting companies the number one question from all VCs was What will you do when Microsoft decides to enter your market? Today it might be one of the FANG – Facebook, Amazon or Apple, Netflix and Google. Fill in your favorite incumbent company. Focus on how you will sustain your competitive advantage both against the big, slow giants and the fast, nimble newcomers.

Financial Highlights

What’s most important is not your Excel spreadsheets, which VCs will either ignore totally or give all your projections a 50% to 75% haircut, but what are your financial assumptions for both operating costs and revenues?

Fund Asks

Also known as your raise and your use of proceeds. Your raise should last you 12 to 18 months, depending on your burn rate – how much cash are you spending per month? What milestones will this investment help you to reach? Will you need further rounds to reach cash flow breakeven – in other words when will your venture be self-sustaining and not need any more investment?

Valuation Ask and Equity Structure

This combines one of the most difficult tasks, valuing a company and one that should be straightforward, who owns what percentage of the company – otherwise known as the cap table? If you have already sold equity you will have to demonstrate why your valuation has risen, known as the step up.  Present a range, based on similar ventures and the same stage as your venture, known as comps. VCs will push very hard – downwards! – on your valuation. So you need to do a lot of homework on this one. Tie in your traction and all available evidence to back up your valuation.

Exit Options

Here’s another place where what I was taught by VCs differs completely from Dr. Das’ recommendation. While times may have changed I still think the best answer to this is “We plan to build a great company!”

As Doctor Das notes, this list is only a high level overview of what investors are looking for. There are several posts on Mentorphile on this topic including Questions to address before raising capital, Investors questions to address and A VC’s questions mirror those of a good mentor.

Finally review the post Some less than usual VC questions you may need to answer.

And once you are in an investor meeting and you are asked a question you don’t know answer to, there is only one correct response: I’m sorry but I can’t answer that question right now, but I’ll get back to you on it in the next 24 hours. There’s nothing worse than trying to bullshit a VC, they are extraordinary bullshit detectors!

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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