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Tag Archive : founder lessons

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!

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How to sell anything to anybody

I did several part-time jobs while in college but the only part-time job that I held for all the four years of my degree was as a salesman in a jewelry store. The managing partner of the store and still like an elder brother to me, Haresh, gave me this book, How to sell anything to anybody by Joe Girard. Haresh considered this book to be his bible on sales, and once I read it, it was my sales bible too. However, this book is not about sales.

This book is about creating a systematic approach to

  • Recruiting new customers without burning a hole in your pocket
  • Getting your customers to like you
  • Getting your customers emotionally attached to the product
  • Attaining (and maintaining) a high closing percentage
  • Engaging with your customers even if they don’t buy right away
  • Engaging with your customers after you have made the sale 
  • Getting referrals from customers, friends, family and service providers (including your barber!) to grow your business
  • Creating a team around you to ensure you get the highest return for your own time

Joe Girard sold 13,001 cars in his sales career. That is a staggering number because his sales career ended in 1978 i.e. way before the internet; WhatsApp or Facebook made it easy to reach out to a customer.

Joe was profiling his customers, listening to their needs, adjusting his approach to sell his customer. He also made several sales by reaching out to his customer just at the time that their car was ready to be replaced!

How did he know when to call? He kept all this valuable information on his customer in a physical CRM i.e., way before Salesforce, Dynamics, PipeDrive, etc. made record-keeping infinitesimally easier. 

It is for these reasons that this book is a must-read for all founders whether they handle the sales function or not because as I had mentioned before this is a book about creating systems. Therefore I recommend that every founder know how to support the sales function whether they sit in tech, operations, HR, or fundraising.

I have re-read this book several times in my career. Most recently, I re-read this book to create a system to approach, engage, and recruit LPs for my fund. The system ensured that only 13% of the 115 crores we have in commitments came from distribution relationships. Therefore, in the remaining 87% of the cases, I utilized Joe’s system to recruit, involve, and close LPs. My team used a CRM to manage follow-ups and we created new content to reach out to our LPs.

This approach saved us almost one crore a year in paying out fees to distributors, which is a massive cost saving for a MicroVC fund like ours. What is the investment?

Rs. 280 and 8 hours of reading time.

You don’t require a finance degree to explain that these are fantastic returns on your investment and time.

Now it’s up to you…

The passionate vs the obstinate founder

Recently, I had a long conversation with someone about the challenges I faced working with an obstinate founder that they referred to me. The person countered that the founder was passionate about their business idea, and I misunderstood their passion. I disagreed with their assessment.

During the week, I have contemplated the difference between obstinate and passionate. I realize that it was difficult to separate the two. Obstinate is often misunderstood to be obsessive; a term often used to describe Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Brian Chesky, Elon Musk or Jack Ma.

I love obsessive founders. I considered myself an obsessive founder. I am probably even more obsessive as an investor. Why VCs love obsessive founders is well explained by Mark Suster in this Medium post titled Why I Look for Obsessive and Competitive Founders. If you are a VC investor, then you should read this post.

Moral: Obsessive is good, but obsessive is not obstinate.

Obstinate is what Oxford defines as stubbornly refusing to change one’s opinion or chosen course of action, despite attempts to persuade one to do so.

Obstinate founders can take a fantastic thing and reduce it to rubble because their need to be right is more important than their need to win. It is the classic winning the battle but losing the war syndrome.

Gordon Tredgold wrote a wonderful article explaining the difference between stubbornness and determination, aptly titled Don’t Confuse Stubbornness with Determination.

In it, he provided a list of signs that can warn a founder whether their stubbornness is becoming an issue.

  • If you never win and you never quit, you’re an idiot
  • Will power vs. Won’t power
  • Remember that your goals must be measurable
  • Think about results
  • Consider adaptability
  • Your goal will remain the same, but your plan for achieving it will be different

His suggestions are absolutely banging on. I encourage you to read the article if you constantly find yourself butting heads with prospective and/or current investors.

The failure vortex and how to get out of it

It is easy to figure out when founders have been pitching for investments without any success and for a while. The pitches become nonstop monologues that will end at the allotted time or when abrupted by questions from us.

Naturally, the founders overcompensate to avoid failing on another pitch. They try different tactics to avoid disappointment, but a series of rejections can take its toll on a founder’s psyche, and slowly the tactics become bad habits. Many founders are not aware that these bad habits are creating a vortex that is attracting further rejections. What seems intuitively correct is practically fatal.

So here are a few tips for founders that will help them in their next pitch.

  • Eliminate the problem areas in your pitch deck

If you’re getting stuck at the same point in your presentation, then it may be an excellent time to eliminate that slide. If that is a slide that you cannot eliminate then use an example to get your point across.

Doing the same thing again and again but expecting a different result is the definition of insanity- for a good reason!

  • Speak at a measured space and

The two significant signs of low confidence are speaking in a high pitch and speaking at a fast pace. The good news is that there is an easy fix for this.

  1. Record yourself pitching so that you hear the difference between your regular and confident voice and that you use during pitching.
  2. Do test pitches where you speak in a tone much lower than your standard baritone and speak at slower than your average space.  
  3. Write down, “breathe” at a spot where you can see it during your pitch and breathe.

These exercises may seem stupid to you, but you have to ensure that your message is getting into our heads. When you talk fast at a high pitch and without taking a breath,  the only thing I’m thinking is – something is wrong with this business!

  • Act as if

Yes you may have just enough money left to take the Uber ride home

Yes your core team may be on the verge of quitting

Yes your parents are hounding you to take that job you hate so you can make ends meet and;

Yes all this stress is tearing you apart inside

However, those are your problems that we are not aware of right now. During your pitch, we should not be feeling the weight of the issues we’re inheriting. Instead, we want to dream about the promise your opportunity holds, and we want to know you are the guy that will get us to that promised land.

Therefore, clear your head before you start a presentation. I watch specific videos or listen to particular music that gets me in the right frame a mind before I make my pitch for investment. I force myself into a mental state where all the issues in my personal or professional life don’t get reflected in my pitch for investment. For my investors, I am ‘the guy’ wearing the confidence of the success, and a bank account overflowing with money.

Confidence is infectious and FOMO is not a myth!

  • Do not brag or lie

Asking you to act as if may seem like I am encouraging you to lie or brag but let me be clear that that is far from the truth.

A successful person does not need to stamp their success everwhere, and neither do they have to remind people of their success. Most of the successful people I know underplay their success, displaying palpable confidence that is felt but not witnessed.  

Therefore when founders start bragging about meetings with Saif, Sequoia, Lightspeed or well-known super angels in a feeble effort to create FOMO they are pulling the rug from under them. We can safely estimate at what stage of the start-up’s development these top funds will take an interest in investing in them.

Therefore, bragging about meeting x, y or z, when you don’t have a POC, is a sign of your immaturity in understanding how the venture capital ecosystem works. To misunderstand their interest in taking a meeting is a sign that desperation is getting to you – not something you wish to convey to a potential investor!

Act as if is an attitude, a demeanor, and a mental state. There isn’t any space for lies and show off when you are acting as if.

Be prepared for due diligence BEFORE your fundraising!

There are very few things that I do not love about venture capital but taking a founder through due diligence is one of them. I have written about the importance of due diligence in the past and a best-case scenario, due diligence should not take more than 30 days to complete. But realistically it takes anywhere between 90 to 180+ days. The delay is due to minor oversights made by the founder that pile up over a 12-18-month period but majorly it is their overall lack of preparedness for due diligence that delays due diligence.  

The unpreparedness of founders for due diligence is baffling to me. It should be advertised that successfully completing due diligence is more important than the fundraising itself! Because if a start-up loses an investment offer even after advance negotiations, they can recover from that but if they lose an investment offer during due diligence – it is the death knell for them!

This about it – who would want to invest in a company that has failed due diligence with another investor?

Therefore, I stress the importance of “preparing” one’s start-up for due diligence even before beginning the fundraise. Over the last 12 months, I have specifically told each of the founders that raised or attempted to raise money from Artha Venture Fund – to be prepared for due diligence if they want to see our money in the bank account as soon as possible.

For the uninitiated there will be several levels of due diligence like

  • Financial DD – that is carried out by an accounting or audit firm to verify that: –
    • All transactions and its bookkeeping have been done as per standard accounting norms
    • The traction numbers provided by the company are accurate
    • The financial model can be compared to the numbers in the books of accounts.
  • Legal & Compliance DD – that is carried out by a legal firm working in conjunction with a company secretary to verify that: –
    • The company has made all their necessary filings (monthly, quarterly and annually)
    • The commercial relationships that the company has entered have been captured in a proper legal contract that protects the company’s interests
    • All employees and independent contractors have signed contracts for the employment or services with the company – including the founders
    • All registrations, licenses, and permits that are required to operate the business have been procured and are current
  • Valuation – this is something unique to the Indian ecosystem and this usually carried out by a merchant banker to:-
    • Review the financial model for the company and its future projections
    • Deduce a valuation based on the above information
  • Internal DD – this differs from investor to investor but in our case we: –
    • Speak to former employers, associates, references and even your school to get a background on the founder
    • Speak to current or former employees, contractors, advisors, industry experts, suppliers and customers of the company to get their perspective on the company, the founder and the internal working
    • Conduct mystery shopping campaigns to verify/validate that the product/service is of the quality or efficiency that is being promised
    • Conduct on the spot checks on the company and its operations

Unfortunately, due diligence isn’t something that can be wished away by an investor in a sound frame of mind therefore founders would be better prepared if they would just prepare themselves for due diligence. So, if you are someone that is looking at raising money from us here is our standard due diligence checklist – be prepared for this before you send your pitch deck!

40/2019

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Video Of The Week: Fyre- The Greatest Party that Never Happened

This week’s video was recommended by Karishma so a big thank you to her!

Fyre is the ultimate tool for entrepreneurs to learn that scaling before having a miniaturized working model is akin to gambling with the business. It should open the eyes of investors, entrepreneurs, managers and employees that scaling is the easiest part of building a venture. The billion-dollar question that needs to be answered is – can your business deliver consistently and profitability at scale?

Fyre also answers the question of how doing too many things can eventually lead to doing nothing or (in this case) land you and your business in legal hot water. I believe that Fyre’s founder, William “Billy” McFarland may not have intended to defraud his customers (unlike his investors, who he definitely did). It seemed as though he wanted to do everything that his marketing campaigns had promised but just could not control the monster that he built. Eventually, he went against the advice of his key team members and kept up a charade that transformed him from a boy genius to Mr. Evil.

This brilliant, moving and shocking documentary is available on Netflix.

21/2019

The Journey from 500k to 5 Billion Demolishes 5 long-held Startup Myths

It has been over a week now since the news of OYO’s $1 billion round and ascent to unicorn status became official. This is a huge accomplishment for Ritesh and the entire Indian start-up ecosystem as the new round’s purpose is primarily to expand OYO’s reach outside India, something very few Indian start-ups can boast of. I expressed the enormity of this moment in a quote to Ananya Bhattacharya of QZ.com.

OYO’s journey smashed many myths that founders, investors and journalists hold strongly about start-ups. I took the last week to decide the 5 most common myths that can be done away with, for good.

1. The first-round valuation is important to set the floor for later rounds

OYO’s starting valuation of less than 3 crores was not an obstacle in its journey to become the 2nd most valuable Indian startup. The important thing is that Ritesh was able to EXECUTE the plans and ideas that he pitched in his fundraising presentations.

P.S. OYO did well even though we invested in their seed round in tranches… it did not affect any of their growth rounds of equity, obviously!

2. Founders should save equity for later rounds

It is important to note that: 75% of zero, is zero. Unless there are multiple term-sheets being shoved into a founder’s inbox giving him/her stronger negotiation leverage, founders should just focus on raising enough capital to execute the objectives set for the round and investors should provide value-adds besides the capital. Founders that under-raise or hold long drawn-out negotiations for better valuations are doing themselves and their startups a disservice.

3. IITs/IIMs degrees is a pre-requisite for startup success

It is well known that Ritesh did not go to college and got a $100k Thiel Fellowship for choosing entrepreneurship over a college degree.  His journey is a testament that even the best education is useless if it cannot be applied in the real world that we live in. I enjoy working with humble founders like Ritesh who; work hard, study hard and are teachable over conceited founders that expect royal treatment for the degree(s) that they hold.

4. Only deep-tech and hi-tech startups get the big bucks or those with a truly unique idea

The real beauty of OYO’s success is the simplicity of its business. Since none of the incumbents were paying attention to the gap in the budget accommodation space, it allowed OYO to swoop in and leave them in the dust. OYO’s initial premise was to provide a clean room, free breakfast and free wifi at an affordable price – that’s all. The execution required hard-core sales and marketing prowess and strong leadership aided by technology, not the other way around.

5. Founders should not pivot or that will destroy their startup

It is important for founders to have a flexible business plan so that they can address the changing needs of their target market. Ritesh pivoted Oravel to OYO rooms, Harsh Shopsense to Fynd and there are many such success stories that started out very differently from where they ended up and they all teach the same lesson – be prepared to change the action if the outcome is not what was expected.

91/2018

Keep the Fundraising PPT, Simple

I sat through a pitch call today that went on for 35 mins (but it seemed much longer). The founder kept going through slide after slide of information which harped on the same point (the business model). To move things along I valiantly attempted to summarize the business model for the founder and indicate that I understood what he was saying. However, that energized the founder to ramble on aimlessly until I had to finally close the conversation as there was another founding team waiting to pitch to us on another line.

Unfortunately, at the time I shut the call the founder hadn’t gone beyond explaining his business model and even though they had approached us from a very important referral source we decided to pass on the deal. Does it seem like we acted too fast? I do not think so.

Ultimately it is the founder’s responsibility to simplify their business model in a manner that investors can understand not the other way around. Therefore, founders should be vigilant that an investor’s time is limited, their attention fickle and once the investor has lost interest it is nearly impossible to get it back.

I found a good solution to avoid getting stuck in tangents and it was provided by the folks at Sequoia. Founders utilising this outline will eliminate the unnecessary slides that are elongating their pitches and will also find the outline helpful in providing a simple yet concrete structure for the pitch to move along on so that the founder can get to the more important part of the pitch viz. the Q&A.

86/2018

PS: Here is the SlideShare version

When is the Best Time to Reveal that Your Cofounder is Related to You?

It is important that founding teams declare if two of the co-founders are married to each other, blood relatives or cousins. The team can choose to reveal that after the pitch, but I prefer if the team takes the bull by the horns and reveals the full extent of the relationship before they start the pitch. Investors that have apprehensions about investing in founding teams where the members are related, should decide if they will be willing to look over those issues before the pitch, not after.

Unfortunately, many founding teams are advised to withhold such information or to mislead investors by playing around with the last names to avoid detection, but such sneaky tactics only reinforce the fear that the founding team with familial ties drown out the ethical voice that should discourage actions that shake investor confidence.

To allay the fear of those investors that have the first-hand experience of watching their investment value destroyed due to factors like, family feuds, withholding important information or the family member opening a competing venture, founding teams should be as communicative as possible so that these fears aren’t allowed to fester.

The investor may still decide not to invest in the company but at least the founding team does not lose face when investors find out that the founding team used diversionary tactics to slip one by them!

85/2018

The Investment Banker Pandemic

Time and again, I have warned early-stage founders to steer clear of using the services of a banker to help raise money but unfortunately, that pandemic has overrun our ecosystem. Many bankers have made a comfortable lifestyle out of fleecing unsuspecting founders. The false dream that these 1-star bankers promise founders make my skin crawl, as many of the business models that they push to me aren’t even eligible for venture capital, and the bankers are aware of it.

I would also like to acknowledge that there are many bankers that are doing some excellent work and every penny paid to them is worth their weight in gold. Some of these bankers have worked with our portfolio companies and I have interacted with a few for fundraisers, but NONE aka ZERO were for raising amounts below $5 million (Rs. 35 crores).

Then there are angel networks that reach out to us about their portfolio companies and while I am disillusioned with the concept of angel networks, the angel networks do not (or should not) charge their portfolio companies for connecting them to funds; it is a part of their duties.

Raising outside money is the toughest and most gruelling of exercises (I had to endure this myself while raising $6 million for my fund) and no banker is going to make it easy for you. I too have had investors drop out or reduce commitments at the last moment and while I understand that it can be frustrating, the cold-calling, the rejections, the ‘getting close’, are all part of the process. FYI, I reached out to over 5,000 people for the first close and will be reaching out to 5,000 more for the next one. Every founder must do this; persistence is key.

If you still feel that you need the services of a banker, I have compiled a few articles that could help with the selection process. Eventually, it is up to the founders to decide to ‘banker’ or not but choosing an advisor to delegate the fundraising process without doing the required due diligence to select them is truly just “abdicating” the responsibility, which is simply unrewarding in every sense of the word.

How to Choose the Right Investment Banker

By David Mahmood, Founder, Allegiance Capital

The Art of Selecting an Investment Banker

By Katie May, CEO of ShippingEasy

7 things to consider when choosing an investment banker

By Martin A. Traber, Chairman of Capital Markets Group of Skyway Capital Markets

10 Questions to Ask When Choosing an Investment Banker

By Dan Lee

80/2018