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Q: Any tips on how and when to start getting to know potential investors? By the time I start to raise funding, I want them to know me.
-Ali R. Tariq
A: The first issue here is considering what kind of investment you’d like to pursue: angel investment or venture capital.
If you’re looking for angel investment, it’s wise to have your connections with angels established before seeking funding. Nurture these relationships, so when you’re ready to seek funding an investor not only knows your name but has had contact with you several times.
Angels may invest individually, but many also belong to an angel group. You can scout out these groups by looking at the Angel Capital Association directory for your region. Initiate contact and learn what criteria they apply to applicants for funding and the submittal process. From there, make sure to maintain casual contact with them until you are ready to seek funding.
Individual angels are harder to come by but not impossible. The best way to get in front of these investors is to attend pitch events where the presenting ventures are similar to yours and angels will be in attendance.
Networking with other entrepreneurs in your space who have secured angel financing is another way to gain introductions.
You can also check out AngelList, a website that allows angels to follow startup activity. You can either use the site to see which angels are following ventures in your space or place your venture on the site to allow interested angels to track your progress.
Finally, if your local university has an entrepreneurship program, check in with the director. He or she may be able to point you in the direction of angel investors in your area.
If you choose to go down the venture-capital route, attracting these investors at an early-stage can be challenging.
VCs tend to invest near their headquarters, especially seed-stage VCs, as they anticipate spending time with each of the companies they invest in. If you are looking for a VC firm in your area or industry, there are several online sites, like vFinance, that can help target your search. Once you find an ideal fit for your startup, visit the firm's website to learn more about them, the criteria they apply to candidates and what other sites they have invested in.
It’s rare that a blind submittal of a business plan will gain VC interest, so networking is key. Once you have selected VCs to approach, reach out to the companies they have funded for a reference on the firm. By doing so, you are establishing a relationship with people who have direct access to the investors. Advance the relationship to a point where one or more contacts have gained some familiarity with your venture and are impressed to the extent that they will provide you with an introduction.
Also look to attend conferences where you know your targeted investors will be. Seek them out, introduce yourself, be prepared to give your elevator pitch and then ask for a follow-up meeting. If they don’t show interest, ask them to suggest other VCs who are investing in your space.
One note about VCs -- they don’t like to look at opportunities that are being distributed to a large number of venture capital groups. To start out, pick no more than three venture-capital groups and see what kind of interest they express before expanding your search.
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Alan Lobock is an angel investor and one of the co-founders of SkyMall, the producers of the quarterly airline publication by the same name. Beyond his experience launching SkyMall in 1990, Lobock is also a serial entrepreneur with his most recent endeavor being the co-founder of Worthworm, a web-based application to help entrepreneurs calculate pre-money valuation.