Help us help you get that business partnership you want!

During my door to door salesman days, I could go through a wall if that meant I would get a referral to a potential sale. My team and I created, and memorized closes to secure referrals. My managers and I tracked how many transactions took place from referrals, and we pulled up salespeople that had low referral closes. It is clear to any salesperson that a referral is worth its weight in gold – it is a job half done.

Continuing in the same vein, now more than ever, founders are on the lookout for business partnerships to increase business avenues, and you must know that your investor has access to a vast network of people. Your investors’ immediate network has access to an even more extensive network, i.e., your investors know some people that know some people who are very important people.

So why is it that most founders fail at utilizing our reach?

A majority of the investors have every intention of helping you, but here is another critical question.

Have you made it easy for us to help you?

Despite best intentions (and regardless of the size of the fund or team), we have a limited amount of time and resources to address the needs of founders. A little bit of help from you would make it easy for us to help you. Your help would help us get more done in a shorter time and make you and us happy.

Therefore I came up with a list of steps, distilled from my efforts in securing referrals, whether it be for investors into our fund or for business development. Besides, I analyzed the efforts of founders who got the best out of their investors and those that failed at leveraging them, and the result was more straightforward than I would have envisioned when I began writing this list.

  1. Self-research on your target connect.

Venture capitalists have thousands, if not tens of thousands of contacts, and we are very adept at networking and finding people. However, you need to do your research on the people you want us to connect you with.

Usually, your reason to connect with the target is very different from why (or how) we connected with them. Our personal experiences could bias our opinion with your target, i.e., we could have approached them to invest in our fund, and they refused?

Therefore you should do your research on the target, utilize our knowledge about them to sharpen your understanding and find out whether an association with your target would be fruitful.

  1. Be as specific as you can in what you seek

It is a known fact that the most sought after people have the least amount of time. It is likelier that those people have an even shorter attention span. Therefore you must grab their attention, deliver your request before a notification takes your target onto another window.

Therefore avoid long-winded emails and big paragraphs, write in point format, be specific and get to the point quickly. When you show respect for your target’s time (and attention), it speaks volumes about how well you understand their position.

PS: Do not forget to be courteous & spell check!

  1. Know ‘why’ would your target want to work with you

If you or your company is the ultimate beneficiary of your proposal, expect a long period of silences to your requests. You must find a win-win situation and communicate how your association with the target would benefit the benefits them directly or their company.

If you cannot find or demonstrate the benefits of the association for the target – why would they get out of their chair to help you?

PS: If your strategy is to appeal to your target’s charitable side – please find a better reason.

  1. Create a short presentation (or note) on your proposal

After analyzing 40 million emails, Hubspot reported that emails with less than 200 words had the highest response rates. It is sage advice.

It is an excellent chance that your target receives hundreds if not thousands of emails in a week. Your warm introduction through us would encourage the target to etch out time to respond. However, long emails get flagged for reading when we have more time. Which (in most cases) I don’t.

There is a hack, though:

  • Create a short presentation (5-8 slides max) that outlines your research on your target, defines what you do, what you can do for your target, and how your proposal creates a win for the target.
  • Your presentation should excite them to get in touch with you (or get the relevant person from their team to get in touch with you)
  • Write an interesting note that generates enough excitement for the target to open your presentation.

  1. Get your investors’ buy-in.

Once you have found a win-win, written an action invoking short note to go with a presentation that will get you a callback, next, get your investor’s buy-in.

Some founders treat their investors as gofers who should do the founder’s bidding regardless of the investor buying into the proposed plan. You must understand that it takes much effort to create and cultivate relationships. Just one poorly-thought-out request could ruin that relationship for the foreseeable future.

If we get bought into your well thought out plan, and you can convey how we could enrich our relationship (with the target) through your proposal. You would’ve created a win-win-win that will get us to go those extra miles for you.

  1. Write a short, courteous but direct introduction email to your investor asking for your specific help from the target

With your investor bought in, write a quick introductory email asking for a specific connection to your target utilizing the steps outlined above. Your email must convey that you were specifically looking for an introduction to the target (and why).

Emails that convey a spray & pray approach get treated as spam.

  1. Draft the email for your investor

For extra credit (and to ensure that your message isn’t lost), go ahead and write the email that your investor could copy, paste, as their own words, and forward the email you sent in step 6.

It is unlikely that your words will get copy-pasted in the form that you’ve sent it in. However, your words will load our words when we write our email, thereby ensuring a near-total control to you on the messaging.

PS: It won’t take but an extra few minutes, but knowing how busy and dynamic an investor’s day could be, you leaving anything to chance is foolhardy.

  1. Give them a way out

Your target must have a courteous way of saying ‘no’ to your investor. I have explained before that each relationship takes much effort; therefore, the target’s failure to help you through your investor should not lead to a loss of the connection itself.

We want to help you, but if that means it puts our relationships on the line – it isn’t the sort of song that you wish to play in the back of our head.

PS: Give your investor a way out too. You can utilize this forgiven favor soon! 🙂

The art of how much to raise

In the past several weeks, I have been astonished at the size of seed rounds that founders expect to raise in their first round. My jaw hits the table when a founder blindsides me with requests to raise seed rounds of $1 million to as high as $3-4 million!*

These are the start-ups that have

  • Opened their doors for business within the previous 12-18 months.
  • Have an ARR of less than two crore rupees ($300k).

Surprised at the massive requirement of capital, we go through their financial model. Within a few minutes of looking through the model, the spreadsheet would give out a chilling fact:

The founders first decided the amount they were raising; then, they decided how to utilise the amount that is raised!

It may seem like smart scheme when pitched to novice investors, but it is a foolhardy attempt to do that to an investor with experience.

For instance, to show full utilization of the amount the founders pad certain numbers. So, a close inspection of the fund utilization plan exposes the founder’s true intentions, i.e. that they wanted a reverse calculated an ego-boosting valuation for themselves. To achieve that goal they were willing to misrepresent facts. How does a founder come back from that image?

The good news is that – there is a better way.

My advice for founders that are creating their fundraising plans is to start with a well thought out answer to a famous Peter Thiel question

What is the one thing you know to be correct but very few agree with you?

In simple words, what do you need to prove to your team, your advisors, investors, etc. to elevate their belief in your idea? Whatever you need to do to gain their confidence that is the goal of your fundraising efforts.

For example, if everyone in your inner circle does not think that your company cannot sell x number of your whacky widgets in a specified period – then that is precisely the thing you must prove! Your goal must be specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic, and time-bound so that you aren’t on a wild goose chase.

Second, estimate the time and the resources (servers, people, space, travel, etc) required to achieve your goal. Pay close attention that your estimations do not have un-utilized or under-utilized resources. In fact, I advocate allocating 20% fewer resources than your start-up needs. It forces your team to innovate, after all – scarcity is the mother of innovation!

Third, figure out the exact cost of your resources over the period of their requirements. This exercise is a crucial step. Because if you had correctly estimated the resources and the time they’re required, you will (now) have the EXACT amount you must raise to achieve your goal.  

Fourth, add 25% top of the number you had in the previous step. The extra amount is your buffer, i.e. it is the extra cushion you’ve kept to account for any mistakes you may have made in your calculations. The extra cushion gives you the breathing room to commit errors – an essential fail-safe for an early-stage startup.

Now you have the exact amount your start-up needs, not a paisa more and not a paisa less. Next, go out there and raise this amount!

This proper prior preparation will give you the confidence to answer questions about the “why” behind your fundraising efforts. Your confidence will impress your prospective investors as you come off as a professional founder instead of a novice founder who thought they could pull the wool over the eyes of a seasoned investor.

As an investor that has sat on the other side of the table for almost eight years, this level of preparation and maturity from a founder is rare. But, when I meet a prepared founder it invokes confidence that the founders will utilize my precious and expensive capital judiciously. In fact, I may be swayed to give a premium valuation to such well-prepared founders – exactly what the founder wanted but now he/she earns it with respect!

* – Oddly enough, the high expectations were from founders who spoke in millions of dollars instead of crores of rupees. It ignites the patriotic fervor residing in Vinod – a sight to watch!

How to deliver bad news to investors

Hey founders, today I’m going to address a crucial topic: When to update your investors with bad news. If you’re an entrepreneur and running a business, you will have to give bad news at some point.

There are many ways to give bad news. One of them is not to give any news at all, let everything go down, and then explain why you have only ruins and not a building on fire. This method isn’t recommended, but some people choose it – I don’t.

There are minor issues or bad news that can be managed in your monthly and quarterly updates. Like missing your quarterly numbers by 3-4%, or if you’re having a tough time recruiting people, or if a particular distributor who was contributing a large part of the business dropped you for reasons unknown or customer complaints. These are the kinds of things you can manage in your monthly and quarterly updates.

However, certain kinds of news shouldn’t be neglected. These should be communicated to the investors immediately. If a co-founder has left, or one of the co-founders has been diagnosed with severe disease and will not be available for the next 6-8 months, or your fundraising efforts are falling through, or a significant client that contributes a substantial chunk of the profit has left. These are the kinds of situations that need to be communicated to the investors immediately, preferably not on e-mail.

What I recommend is organizing a conference call or an in-person meeting. Explain what is going on to the investors face to face, in a way that is direct with no sugar coating. Be humble about the fact that things have gone wrong. Don’t try to play up things to avoid the investors being angry at you. If the situation is terrible, investors have a right to be irritated and will point out things that could have gone better. You should take criticism in your stride as you’re expected to execute successfully. Take responsibility, be direct, and you’ll find that investors will probably come back with solutions for you to manage the mess.

In adverse situations, you should have a turnaround plan. I would recommend having one if you’re going to have a face to face meeting. If you don’t have one, let the investors know and get back to them in a few days or a few weeks. There may be some questions the investors have, for which you may not have the answers. I would recommend not making up turnaround plans on the spot. If you don’t have the answers, tell them. Mention that you’re going to get back to them in 5, 7 or 10 days (or whatever number of days you believe you need) but ensure that you keep those promises.

Delivering bad news should not be difficult. It’s only tricky when you don’t want to give bad news, and you feel hiding is the best way forward. But it doesn’t solve anything. In fact, it only leads to the problem of getting bigger. If hypothetically, the company shuts down, and investors find out that you knew in advance, you could find yourself in a hot legal soup.

I’ll leave you with that, and I would love to know how some of you guys have shared bad news in the past. Also, if you have tips for other entrepreneurs, do share them in the comments.

After venture capital, startups taking ‘vendor capital’ for granted

The bloodletting in the Indian startup ecosystem continues with hotel-booking app RoomsTonite shutting shop on the heels of the Stayzilla fiasco, which is still playing out in the media. I have previously said that the startup space in India is safe because of its self-correcting nature. However, I did not expect that startups that failed to raise venture capital will start raising “vendor capital”

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The Olive Tree

As an angel investor and an individual who possesses a serious entrepreneurial streak I sit through atleast 150-200 business pitches in a month. As a fellow entrepreneur I am in awe of all entrepreneurs as they should be complimented and encouraged for having the guts to plunge into what is – the scariest and the most thrilling roller coaster ride of one’s life.
Their energy and belief don’t make it easy for us “angels” investors (who came up with that adjective?) but an entrepreneur should know that it is quite difficult to point out the flaws your business plan and to balance the criticism with an equal amount of positivity and encouragement so as to ensure that the entrepreneur is motivated to go back to the drawing board instead of jumping off a cliff (metaphorically!)
What I find particularly unnerving and confusing is how to deal with an entrepreneur once you have entrusted him/her with your hard earned money? You have placed your trust in the team and the idea but are you planting the seed in a greenhouse, where it requires your care and attention (and a pep talk)? Or in the forest where it has to fend for itself?
On the one you have a school of thought that suggests that angel investors take an activist role in the running of the company, revamping all procedures and plans and replacing them with the experience that they have collectively gained through running businesses of their own. The other school of thought suggests playing the role of mentor or even a helpline operator, giving the entrepreneur their own space and focussing on problem solving by focussing on the results instead of the methods employed to get there.
But which one is right? Whilst grappling with this conundrum I came across the following poem from Sabine Baring-Gould. The message conveyed in the poem is self-explanatory and it definitely inspires me to be a more open minded investor.
In my honest opinion, what got me to invest into the idea was the energy, zeal and the uniqueness of the entrepreneur and his/her idea – so why kill all of that by bringing my (or the lead investor’s) own company running methodology? I am not promoting giving the entrepreneur free reign and let the cattle run wild – but it does make me conclude that an angel investor(s) should decide with the entrepreneur on the KPIs/metrics that they want to track and then actively and periodically track those metrics and any statutory compliances. The investor should get involved in two scenarios – one when a metric starts to move away from the desirable range that was previously agreed to and second if the entrepreneur specifically reaches out for help.
But meanwhile if the entrepreneur is performing and meeting all his/her metrics and he/she wants to have a lasertag game at the office and start an incentive program that offers a cold beer to the staff on Monday evenings – I say go right ahead!

The Olive Tree
Said an ancient hermit bending
Half in prayer upon his knee,
‘Oil I need for midnight watching,
I desire an olive tree.’
Then he took a tender sapling,
Planted it before his cave,
Spread his trembling hands above it,
As his benison he gave.
But he thought, the rain it needeth,
That the root may drink and swell;
‘God! I pray Thee send Thy showers!’
So a gentle shower fell.
‘Lord! I ask for beams of summer
Cherishing this little child.”
Then the dripping clouds divided,
And the sun looked down and smiled.
‘Send it frost to brace its tissues,
O my God!’ the hermit cried.
Then the plant was bright and hoary,
But at evensong it died.
Went the hermit to a brother
Sitting in his rocky cell:
‘Thou an olive tree possessest;
How is this, my brother tell?’
‘I have planted one and prayed,
Now for sunshine, now for rain;
God hath granted each petition,
Yet my olive tree hath slain!’
Said the other, ‘I entrusted
To its God my little tree;
He who made knew what it needed
Better than a man like me
.
Laid I on Him no conditions,
Fixed no ways and means; so I
Wonder not my olive thriveth,
Whilst thy olive tree did die.’
– Sabine Baring-Gould-