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The Investor as Visual Learner

For maximum impact and interest, give potential investors something to play with.

As a venture capitalist, I get pitched daily by entrepreneurs looking for financing for their companies. The pitches come in many forms, ranging from random e-mails to introductions from other people I know to formal presentations from entrepreneurs I've worked with in the past. I take them all seriously and try to respond quickly regardless of their quality or whatever else I'm working on.

I'm often asked what the best way to present to me is. I have a simple answer, which is the same as the common advice to writers: "Show, don't tell." I want to understand your product and your vision, but rather than have you explain this to me, I want to experience it myself. If it's something I can play with, I want to use it. If it's not built yet, I want to try to visualize it. I don't want you to explain it to me or guide me through it--I want to get down and dirty with it. I know it'll be rough, won't work properly, will have bugs and will have a long way to go. That's fine--I'll apply the appropriate lens to it. But if you are brave enough to let me have at it, I'll understand it better and be able to tell if it's something I'm interested in much faster.

Since I only invest in software and Internet companies, the "show, don't tell" mantra is easier to apply, but I think it works for any situation. Are you an entrepreneur working on a new restaurant concept? Show me the menu, the layout of the restaurant and photos of some of your signature dishes. Are you creating a new retail store concept? Show me examples of the products and how you will promote them. Are you building a company to produce a new electric engine for heavy farm equipment? Show me the design specs along with real data about the difference in performance between your machine and things that currently exist in the world.

Over the years, both academic and non-academic entrepreneurship programs, books and magazines have extolled the value of a business plan and an executive summary. You can buy software to help you write a business plan, take a course, or even hire a consultant. I'm the regular recipient of many different forms of these, and I rarely look at any of them in the first pass. Instead, I reply with, "Do you have something I can play around with?" If the answer is no, then occasionally I'll ask you for four or fewer paragraphs showing me the plan. If I'm interested, I'll have a lot more questions for you. These questions will fall in the "tell me" category, where thoughtful analysis and explanations are important and all that work and time spent on the business plan will come in handy.

But at the beginning, when you are trying to get my attention, showing--not telling--is the key. Remember, I'm a teenage boy masquerading around as a grown man. Give me stuff to play with.

Brad Feld has been an early-stage investor and entrepreneur for more than 20 years. He is a co-founder of Foundry Group, an early-stage VC firm. Feld blogs at feld.com and askthevc.com, run marathons and lives with his wife and two golden retrievers in Boulder, Colo., and Homer, Alaska.

Brad Feld is co-founder of Foundry Group, a Boulder, Colo., venture-capital firm specializing in early-stage information-technology companies, and TechStars, a startup accelerator.

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This article was originally published in the March 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Investor as Visual Learner.

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