3 Ways to Play the VC Game if You're Not a White Guy
The current VC model is skewed to favor the style of male-run companies. Here's how women and minorities can get a seat at the table.
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The #MeToo movement is shining a light on stories of sexual harassment and discrimination that have remained in the dark for far too long, but women founders are still facing an uphill battle when it comes to securing venture capital funding for their startups. According to PitchBook, women founders won only 2 percent of venture capital dollars invested in 2017, while all-male teams walked away with 79 percent of the pot.
There are many reasons for this disparity, not the least of which is a lack of female VCs. Only about 8 percent of VC partners at the top firms polled are women, according to Crunchbase.
Masha Drokova, who founded Day One Ventures earlier this year, is one of those women. When I talked with Drokova to hear more about women in VC investing, she pointed out that women can offer market insights that men might miss. "Especially in large industries in which women are the key demographic, it makes sense for them to be highly involved as investors," she said.
A lack of gender and ethnic diversity in venture portfolios holds back innovation. It's no accident that some of the most disruptive companies were founded by women and minorities. Parachute, for instance, is selling high-quality bedding from its Italy-based factory through its website and its store in California.
When a customer makes a purchase from the Venice line of products, the company donates a mosquito net to protect kids in Africa from mosquito-borne diseases. Revel is another company with a female founder, and it has grown to a valuation level of $500 million and 750 people employees, Business Insider reported.
Men and women can create billion-dollar companies, but the current VC model, because it is largely run by men, is skewed to favor the style of male-run companies. The flaws in this model aren't going to disappear overnight: Women and minorities will need to intentionally adapt their styles to beat the system and change it from within. Here's how they can win a seat at the table:
1. Prioritize data and facts over vision and purpose.
When I spoke to Drokova, she pointed out that, based on her experience in investment, men rely more on rationale while women rely more on intuition. That might be because, according to a study from the University of Pennsylvania, women tend to have more connections between the hemispheres of their brain, encouraging intuitive and analytical thought, whereas men tend to develop one-sided brain connections, encouraging quick perception and corresponding action.
Both cognitive processes have their individual advantages, but that's not great news for a woman who's pitching a room full of male VCs. If you're that woman, get their attention by translating your pitch into their language -- objectivity.
Be sure to call out revenue, facts, numbers, metrics, and other hard data in your deck and pitch. Illustrate your traction, and be sure you're asking for enough. If your ask is too small, you'll unintentionally disqualify yourself. Make sure VCs know what you're worth.
VCs need big upside potential to offset the high risk of a startup, so translate your big vision into big numbers. Most investors I've worked with are looking for $100 million in value in five to seven years. Many female founders I've met have a big vision but overly conservative financial forecasts, which can be a problem when the VCs they're speaking to have much loftier expectations.
Interestingly, I often see bigger visions from female founders than from male founders -- the problem is, those visions just don't translate into the required numbers.
2. Become a VC yourself.
Whether you can get hired at a firm or the best you can hope for is an internship, find a way to get a foot in the door. If you can't take a job with a VC firm, start with the book Venture Deals, read VC blogs and interview as many VCs as you can. You have to learn the game to play the game.
With Coplex, I've had the good fortune to be a part of numerous venture deals on both the buy side and the sell side. These have helped me support dozens of our Coplex ventures in their fund-raising and even in starting our own venture funds. Participating on both sides of the table has allowed me to figure out how these individuals work and what their motivators are.
If you can't get into a VC, consider starting your angel investor career to learn the game. The quantity of angel investments increased 1.6 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to Crunchbase, and many angel investors have gone on to become household names in the tech world.
For example, Ron Conway, one of Silicon Valley's most well-known investors, was an early investor in both Google and PayPal and now runs SV Angel. More and more startups are seeking angel investments to get started, and this provides a nice learning platform for you.
Through the angel process, you don't need $20 million in capital to start venture investing. You can get started with as little as $5,000. Angel, a great read by Jason Calacanis, will give you an overview of syndicate investing, which, Drokova says, is how she learned the ropes.
3. Deconstruct the "standard" deal-selection process.
After some slowdown, venture deal-making has come roaring back with a 107 percent increase in year-over-year dollar volume from venture investing, according to Crunchbase.
Institutional investors develop a specific investment thesis that drives their deal-selection process and gives them the competitive edge against the plethora of VCs. No matter how good your pitch is, you're not going to get funding from an investor if you don't check off all the required boxes. Taking a spray-and-pray approach and sending your deck to anyone with a checkbook is a monumental waste of time.
Instead, take the time to understand the different types of investments a VC is making and get to know the deal-selection process. Once you know what boxes need to be checked, you can reverse-engineer your pitch to ensure you line yourself up for fund-raising success.
For example, I've seen companies try to raise a series A round with no revenue, when most series A investors like to see at least $100,000 per month. Other investment groups might invest only in B2C deals. Some might only do follow rounds and not lead rounds. Some might look for high-risk billion-dollar opportunities, and others might be open to smaller outcomes if the risk is lower. Before wasting the time of the investors you're reaching out to, do your homework and ask what their checkboxes are before you pitch them.
I was inspired to write on this subject after watching the inspiring film Hidden Figures about the African American mathematics geniuses working at NASA in its early days. It's still amazing to see the potential of empowered humans, regardless of ethnicity or gender. We in the startup world need to continue to work on the inherent bias in current VC models, and make sure many more women and minority founders break into the game.
These strategies can ensure that you, as a woman or minority entrepreneur, get the attention you deserve. There are big problems we need to solve in this world, and we would all be crazy to think it's going to be just a bunch of white dudes who find the solutions.