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What South African Venture Capitalists Are Looking For Are investors interested in ideas? Traction? The team? The founders? They're interested in all that and more, say Venture Capitalists Keet van Zyl and Clive Butkow.

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Put two venture capitalists and an entrepreneur (who pitched her business to almost every VC in South Africa before securing corporate funding) in a room, and you'll hear the truth about funding: What investors look for, the realities for business owners looking for funding, and what you can do to increase your chances of securing funding — or better yet, build a great business without it.

In June, the Matt Brown Show hosted a series of events, called Secrets of Scale at the MESH Club, focusing on what it takes to scale a business. Matt's panellists included Clive Butkow, ex-COO at Accenture and CEO of Kalon Ventures, a tech-focused VC firm; Keet van Zyl, a venture capitalist and co-founder of Knife Capital, and Benji Coetzee, founder and CEO of tech start-up EmptyTrips.

To add a twist to events, both Keet and Clive chose not to invest in Benji's business when she was on the funding trail, even though they believe strongly in both her and her idea.

Here's what we learnt from their experiences, insights and advice for local business owners.

1. FUNDERS BACK THE JOCKEY, NOT THE HORSE

This is a truth that Benji has experienced first-hand. "After months of trying to find an investor, I decided that VCs don't know what they want," she says. "The ladder of proof just keeps getting longer — big white space, addressable market, an MVP (minimum viable product), traction, first users — there's a long checklist and you just need to keep ticking those boxes. Great concept, great team, we love it, keep going. I can't tell you how many times I heard that."

What Benji learnt was that the corporate funders who would eventually choose to back her were interested in two core things. First, did she have skin in the game?

By that stage, she had invested R3 million of her own funds into the business, and so the answer was decidedly yes. She was already backing herself. The second was that they wanted to back her — not necessarily the business. They were interested in her passion, dedication, experience and networks.

"You still need everything I mentioned before," she says. "But ultimately an investor backs the entrepreneur, not the business." Clive agrees.

"There are a lot more million-rand ideas than million-rand entrepreneurs," he says. "At Kalon, we've seen 600 companies and we've made four investments. That's one to 100 odds, which is pretty standard in this industry.

"That doesn't mean the 596 businesses we saw weren't good businesses. Some of them were fantastic. They just weren't investable businesses because we knew they wouldn't give us a 10x return. They also weren't 600 unique businesses — they were 100 unique businesses six times.

There are very few unique ideas or even businesses out there — and so it's the entrepreneur who makes the difference, and who you ultimately want to back.

"We look at three things in an investment. Is the deal investable? Is the person investable? Is the risk investable? If all three answers are yes, we can take it further. You need to have a great jockey; you need to have execution capability; and you need to have traction in a large target addressable market."

2. FUNDERS ARE INTERESTED IN TRACTION

For Clive, traction trumps everything. "I look for the 4Ts: Team, Technology, Traction and Target Addressable Market. Without traction though, the other three aren't worth much." "Every single business we've invested in had customers, and wasn't just an idea," agrees Keet.

The best way to prove traction and to get funders invested is to start introducing yourself before you need money, and then keep them up-to-date on what you're doing and achieving. "We receive five business plans via email a day for funding, and we ignore them all if they haven't come through our network," says Keet.

"This isn't unusual. 93% of deal flow in South Africa comes from within the VC's network." Don't think of a VC's network as an exclusive "invite only' club though. "Building a network is all about attending ecosystem evenings and embracing targeted networking," says Keet.

"We're all on Twitter. Get to know us. I'm passionate about the journey of an entrepreneur — send me a newsletter telling me who you are, and three months later where you are now. That's my passion. I love that stuff." More importantly, it's not just a business plan — instead, you're letting potential investors into your story, and giving them the opportunity to share in your journey.

"It's not that difficult to get into networks and bump into people at events," says Keet. "And then it's much easier to send a follow-up email saying, "Hi Keet, we met last week at the MESH Club at the Matt Brown event, can we have a coffee?' It's tough to say no to requests like that."

Clive agrees. His advice is to always meet your investors before you need money. "We don't have the bandwidth for cold emails, but we do enjoy sharing stories and business journeys.

"Think about it like this: We don't invest in dots, we invest in lines. Tell me where you are now and where you're planning to be, and then keep updating me. You're then able to prove that you can stick to your goals, execute on them, and hopefully even exceed expectations. Get that right, and funders will come to you."

Clive also says that smart VCs play the long game, often supporting businesses even if they don't believe the time is right to invest in them. Both VCs used Benji as an example of this strategy in action.

While neither fund was able to back EmptyTrips, both Clive and Keet have kept in touch, followed Benji's growth trajectory, and supporting her where possible, either with advice or connections. "Keet opened me to the angel network," says Benji, "and his partner, Andrea, introduced me to Lionesses of Africa. It was that involvement that allowed us to build a relationship with Siemens and Deutsche Autobahn. VCs aren't just about funding — they enable ecosystems too."

3. BEFORE YOU LOOK FOR FUNDING, MAKE SURE YOU ACTUALLY WANT (OR NEED) IT

The most common question people ask Clive is, "How do I raise VC funding and from who?' According to Clive, this is the wrong question to be asking. "Equity funding should always be a last resort," he says.

"The question business owners should be asking is, "do I need funding?' The best way to build a business is through customer funding. Some businesses are capital intense, but I've built many tech companies with no external capital. Customer funding is gold."

Even though Benji has needed additional capital to build her business, she has also learnt the value of starting with what your clients want.

"Businesses change and evolve. We started out wanting to fill trucks on the empty legs of their trips. I now manage more trucks than Imperial's CEO, but we don't own a single vehicle, because we're a platform that connects transport operators with companies that need transport solutions. We've since built an open spot market and we offer insurance solutions.

"We spend so much time asking what VCs want — and I was guilty of this too — when we should be asking what our clients want and need, and then building those solutions for them. That's how you get clients to fund your business."

Creating traction, knowing what clients want, building a use case: These are all essential steps in the overall process, and they will either lead you to funding, or help you build a business that doesn't need external capital.

4. FOCUS ON WHAT MOVES THE NEEDLE

"The real trick to growth is focus," says Clive. "Don't try to do too many things. Go deep and drill for oil and gold. Once you've scaled a business and you've become the best at something you can start to expand. Too many entrepreneurs are easily distracted. Most start-ups don't even know what they're building until they start getting real customer feedback. If you're doing too much it's difficult to take that feedback in and adjust what you're doing."

Keet agrees. "Find your strategy, determine the key metrics you need to grow in, and then focus on growing those metrics — and only those metrics — aggressively.

"From a scalability perspective, the entrepreneur's ability to execute their strategy is paramount. You need a good product, a large market, and to know where you're going. You also need to be able to grow five key areas simultaneously: Customers, product, team, business model and funding. These need to grow in proportion if you want to succeed — which is where the ability to execute becomes so vital."

"Scaling a business is always about the practical stuff," says Benji. "Consultants and VCs always have acronyms — the 4Ps, 5Cs — I have the 5Es.

"First, you need an explicit purpose. Be clear on what you're doing and why you're doing it. Next, you need an effective model that makes financial sense. You need to achieve sustainability sooner rather than later, because the sooner you can fund yourself the better.

"Next is execution support, and this is all about having the right team behind you. You need to be able to execute fast — and that takes a team. It doesn't have to be perfect; just get it done — done is better than perfect. That way you're first and will hopefully stay ahead. I often call our customers to apologise for something we're fixing on the platform and they're always okay with it, because we're the only one doing this, and we're still building it up.

"This is followed by what I call "enveloped co-opetition', which basically means working within your ecosystem. Work together with neighbouring industries. Grow together and support each other, even if you are also competitors. This actually opens doors.

"Finally, you need emotional resilience, because this is tough, and you need to keep at it if you want to succeed."

5. OPEN ADDITIONAL REVENUE STREAMS

As Benji mentions, the sooner you can fund yourself the better, so building a sustainable business is key. In addition to this, opening additional revenue channels can help pay the bills while your business gains traction.

"Scalable businesses are based on products or platforms, not services," says Clive. "However, you can fund the product business with cash flow received through services. Ideally though, as the business grows, you want to increase your product revenue and decrease your services-derived revenue. Think of your services revenue as short-term, augmenting the business model while you're building it."

Benji, who is still consulting, agrees. "My consulting work ensures I have revenue coming in to support the business if we need it," she says.

"Look for anything your company does — or can do — that can be monetised," advises Clive. "But most importantly, critically analyse your business offerings. If you're solving a real problem, your business can be customer-funded, particularly if your customers love you.

"I've seen cases where customers will pay upfront because they need your solution that badly. That's the business you want to build. It's also something VCs look for, because it shows you have real product-market fit."

TOP TIPS

"Focus on learning, not earning. Take the long-term view and build the skills to become an employer. Learn as much as you can about business. There are unlimited opportunities to learn available to us today. Become a generalist to succeed and focus on being a leader, and then hire the specialists." — Clive Butkow

"We tend to fund older entrepreneurs who are more mature, understanding and generalists. You need resilience and the tools to succeed, and that often comes from having spent time in corporates, building up experience and a skills set."

— Keet van Zyl

Nadine von Moltke-Todd

Entrepreneur Staff

Editor-in-Chief: Entrepreneur.com South Africa

Nadine von Moltke-Todd is the Editor-in-Chief of Entrepreneur Media South Africa. She has interviewed over 400 entrepreneurs, senior executives, investors and subject matter experts over the course of a decade. She was the managing editor of the award-winning Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa from June 2010 until January 2019, its final print issue. Nadine’s expertise lies in curating insightful and unique business content and distilling it into actionable insights that business readers can implement in their own organisations.
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