Dissecting an Entrepreneurial Success
The past few weeks have been an exciting thrill ride for me as I've seen one of my protégés experience one of the most successful entrepreneurial starts in years. For any of you who've been down the entrepreneurial trail, check out these stats for this young startup:
- They just completed a $2.75 million round of funding that included simultaneous contributions from a major venture capital firm and a leading angel investor group.
- When negotiating with the venture capital firm, the company managed to get the VC to increase their valuation offer by 25 percent.
- When negotiating with the angel group, the company actually had to decrease the amount they'd be allowed to invest by 50 percent--and they agreed!
- The company initially only wanted to raise $1.5 million but conceded to the higher amount just to keep their investors happy and allow most of them a chance to invest. The key concession was in upping the valuation to minimize the early dilution of the founders.
In 25 years of funding companies, I've never seen a company generate so much pre-funding hype--not even during the "dotcom" craziness. And, with the exception of that same period, I've never seen a company attract investments from both VCs and angels at the same time.
So what makes this company so special? What characteristics did they have that made it easier for them to find funding? Here's a closer look at the elements that seemed to make this company stand out among the thousands of startups seeking funding:
The Entrepreneur. The founder of this company is unique. First, he's as smart as a whip, and not just when it comes to "book" smarts--he's also got street smarts. He knows how the world works, and he has an interesting way of seeing how the pieces fit. He's able to look at an idea and determine if it will fit into a viable market niche.
When I first met him, he was practically obsessed with coming up with new ideas and then getting them patented. Forget about building a company-he firmly believed you could just go out and get a patent and then someone with a company would come to you. He then persuaded me to "adopt" him in exchange for him helping out around the office. He was clearly a consummate networker with a certain charisma that made you want to help him. Later, that gift proved to be so powerful that, when we found him the perfect CEO for his company, the CEO took a back seat to the founder so he could be the one to pitch the company. Why? Because our guy had the gift of making people believe he could pull off his vision. His combination of charisma and an unbelievable understanding of the market inspired his audience to believe that his vision was doable.
A Good "Right Hand" Man. Let's face it: Smarts and charisma may be a great combination, but in the absence of experience, serious investors just aren't going to take a chance on a new business. One of the first things I did to help my young friend was to get him linked up with a seasoned CEO who'd "been there, done that" before. What made this CEO a good fit was that he was truly a humble guy who, despite his prior successes, would assume any role to achieve the desired outcome. This attitude enabled him to see the potential in our entrepreneur; together, they developed an amazing relationship that allowed each to get the very best out of each other. (In fact, their relationship gelled so well that they quickly decided the new man's best role to play in this company would be COO, and that the founder, some 15 years his junior, should be the head honcho (CEO).
Consummate Networking and Schmoozing Abilities. Once the core team had been established, both men began looking for the absolutely best people they could talk into joining their venture. Our founder did it by reading about who was tops in their industry and then finding a way to meet them. He was fearless about approaching anyone to discuss his vision.
The COO, on the other hand, knew this industry cold and had many contacts. Interestingly, he often chose to introduce them to his partner and let him work his magic. One significant turning point was when he teed up a contact who was considered the person they most needed for the team. The problem was, this executive had worked for all the major icons in their industry and was, himself, an icon. If they could get him to even assume an advisory role, it would be a major victory. But they were both pretty skeptical they'd be able to get him on board.
As you might guess, one evening with our charismatic visionary and the gentleman was hooked. Not only did he agree to join the team, he agreed to work for free until the company got funded. (Let me clarify "free." Among entrepreneurs, "free" means no cash. But it doesn't usually mean no stock. And that's what the new guy got--stock in the new venture.)
Exceptional Technology. This company has a technology that took years to develop and perfect. The work was done by credible individuals and, most important, could be easily demonstrated to work. When they began seeking funding, the technology wasn't perfect nor was it entirely ready to be commercialized, but it was at the point where it could be clearly seen to have overcome some major obstacles that would give it a comfortable lead in the market. It also had strong patent protection.
Market-Changing Potential. If you're seeking outside funding for your startup, it really helps if your market potential can be seen to be worth the effort--that's usually something north of $500 million in three to five years. What's even better is if your product or service looks like it can address more than one market space with the same or greater potential. The technology for my young friend's startup not only had all that, it had the further benefit of being what some call a "transitional" technology. The automobile, for instance, was a transitional technology. So was the telephone and the computer. On more than one occasion, after making a presentation to a potential customer, the customer would comment, "This is going to revolutionize our industry!" Very few ideas actually fit this rare space but when you find one, well, that's how you'll become the next Bill Gates.
Credible Investors. Too many entrepreneurs care only about getting the money and couldn't care less about where it came from. Not our team. From the start, they were asking, "Who are the most impressive people we can get to invest in our company?" Then they went about doing everything they could to get an audience with them. In the end, they got their first-choice VC and their first choice angel group to fund them. As a result, they'll not only reap the economic rewards, they'll also gain the respect of other investors and, more important, they'll have the help and expertise of the groups that funded them.
For those of you who've ever tried to get a company funded or are currently in the process, understanding what attracts investors can help you land your own funding. Having an outstanding leader, a strong management team, exceptional networking skills, a well-developed product that will generate strong market interest and being able to attract your first-choice investors are all critical factors that will help smooth the process and make landing that capital feel more like a cake walk than a marathon.
Jim Casparie is the founder and CEO ofThe Venture Alliance, a national firm based in Irvine, California, that's dedicated to getting companies funded.