What’s Your Real Customer Acquisition Cost?

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A big thank you to Christoph Janz of Point Nine Capital and Juan Cartagena of Traity for feedback and editorial review.

Just as driving with your eyes closed is dangerous to your health, so is acquiring customers without knowing what it costs you to acquire them. Both can lead to disastrous outcomes.

Whilst acquiring new customers is always something to be happy about, it doesn’t mean, however, that you should throw out common sense in how you account for your time and human resource efforts in acquiring them, typically referred to as your CAC (customer acquisition cost). Most startups understand that if they pay Google for advertising, that should be included in my CAC costs, but many other items add up as part of the CAC that are less obvious.

In tldr format: Companies typically under-account for time costs in acquiring a customer; don’t forget to include your staff’s time in your CAC.

Before going any further, I should caveat that this does not mean you need to go nuts on excel getting this perfect to the nth degree. In a pre-product market fit company, you will likely be experimenting on how to sell quite a bit. The point here is to approach things with a rational sense for what can scale and what cannot and doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation on how this might affect your CAC down the road.

Ideally, everything you did in order to get that shiny new customer would be accounted for if you want to get a true snapshot of what that new customer cost you, how much need to charge to cover your costs, and what it might cost to get, say 100 more or 1000+ more similar customers. One tool that we can borrow from the accounting world to help you visualise this, is what is called Activity Based Costing. In the words of Wikipedia: Activity-based costing (ABC) is a costing methodology that identifies activities in an organization and assigns the cost of each activity with resources to all products and services according to the actual consumption by each. This model assigns more indirect costs (overhead) into direct costs compared to conventional costing methods. For more reading on ABC click here.

You might feel you have ‘acquired’ your new customer for ‘free’ but when you account the time that it took and some of the additional efforts, you might find that your new user is costing you more to acquire than you are charging them and thus, you are accidentally creating an imbalance in your company’s cashflow and experimenting with a non-scaleable method for customer acquisition.

To help illustrate, let’s walk through a few examples:

A customer that wants to buy your product says they only will pay if you help to integrate your product into their current systems and help them migrate their data from their old systems onto your new one. Because you are a hot-shot coder, you oblige and bang out the necessary code changes quite quickly and import their data into your system’s formatting. Within 6 weeks, you have finalised onboarding this new customer and you are happy as your first pay check comes in… was this truly a ‘free’ customer acquisition process if this is something you plan on implementing as an ongoing way of acquiring customers? How should you account for that time you spent integrating systems and migrating data?

You have a team of 5 people who are in charge of communicating with the outside world via social media and provide them with lots of ideas and communications about your company and its products, because of this, your product gets lots of mentions on the inter webs for a great customer experience. Is this truly a ‘free’ customer acquisition process or do these people act like a quasi-PR / sales team?

If we take an activity based costing mindset when assigning costs to your customer acquisition model, what you will find is that it takes more than just a website and some Google Ads to convert customers into paying customers. It requires the time of people, initially you, but later perhaps sales people or sales engineers to get the deal over the line.

The time you spent helping someone use your software or installing it or deploying it within their network or employees is part of that cost because you will not be the one doing this for the rest of your company’s life. You will likely have to hire someone to do this later.

As a starting point to kickstart your thinking, the following list includes time and/or other items that you may be ignoring as part of your acquisition costs:

  • The time you spend on getting people onto your sales pipeline – typically may become the job of a sales person down the road
  • The time you spend on Social Media outreach
  • The time you spend Networking at Events
  • The time you spend converting a customer from warm to paying – typically may become the job of a sales person down the road
  • The time you spend on support or install calls to help a customer roll out the product within their network – might become the job of a sales engineer down the road
  • Integration work to include your product into their system or data flow – might become the job of a consultant, or sales engineer down the road
  • Supplier calls or deals (with minimums to help provide you with the necessary inventory to sell onto your new customers.
  • Sales Channel calls or deals – do you need to spend time setting these up or actually even splitting revenues?

As I mentioned before, these time based costs need to be considered for inclusion onto the more ‘traditional ones’ such as paid Ads & PR which startups usually associate with CAC calculations. Once you have determined what your rough aggregate CAC is, then you can figure out if it works for you vis-a-vis how you plan on monetizing your proposition.

In conclusion, the concept of accounting for your actual customer acquisition costs isn’t a difficult one to grasp, however, avoid getting caught not thinking through the impact of your time and other efforts in getting that customer! Driving while not looking is dangerous!

If you want a good starting point to start getting a better feel for how to model and visualise a SAAS KPI funnel and its related costs, refer to Christoph Janz SAAS KPI Dashboard on Google Docs (http://christophjanz.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/a-kpi-dashboard-for-early-stage-saas.html ) Keep in mind, however, that his model is meant to be just that, a starting point; you will likely need to adapt it for the particular circumstances of your business.

Also, for more on customer acquisition costs vis-a-vis the lifetime value of your customers, David Skok’s blog post on the subject: http://www.forentrepreneurs.com/startup-killer/

Article originally published here: http://netocratic.com/real-customer-acquisition-cost-1546

 

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10 Tips for Succeeding in a Startup Accelerator Program

Seedcamp

Article originally published on the SiliconRoundabout on July 4th, 2013

Accelerators come in all different shapes and sizes. With many new Accelerators coming into existence within the last few years, the job of selecting one to join and getting the most out of your chosen accelerator program isn’t always obvious. Some programs, like Seedcamp, cater to high ambition & high growth companies spread across various industries, whereas others focus on specific verticals such as clean energy or healthcare to name a few.

We all have different approaches, but with over 90 companies forming the Seedcamp family we’ve had a chance to see many different industries and what it takes to get those companies to the next level.

Below are Seedcamp’s top tips for succeeding before you enter a accelerator programme:

1) Asses Program Fit – Research what an accelerator’s deal is regarding investment and terms before applying. perhaps your company isn’t ready yet or is too mature for the program you are considering.

2) Do your Due Diligence – Get in touch with founders or mentors that are part of the program, read blog posts from the Accelerator’s team to see what is important for them. This will help you get a better feel for the program but also how the program leaders think.

3) Rehearse your Pitch and prepare to answer questions – Be transparent, confident, and open. If your pitch isn’t ready or you are defensive in your approach, it’ll be a huge red flag.

 Once you enter the program:

4) Be Proactive – Don’t wait for the Accelerator’s team to chase after you, you should chase after them and if you can, be as physically close to the team as possible..

5) Understand your startup is more than just techFinding Product-Market-Fit is crucial at this stage of the game. Don’t focus entirely on tech, embark on a mission to learn and master all the commercial aspects of your startup as well.

6) Attend as many of the curriculum events as possible – They are there to help you. Don’t skip valuable content.

7) Network as much as possible – email all the people you meet and get to know as many of the Accelerator’s mentor base as possible.

8) Build a board of advisors from your networking efforts early. They will be of incredible value

9) Start developing your fundraising strategy after the first week of being in the program

10) Lastly, don’t be afraid to experiment and ask questions – You will have lots of people supporting you. Your mantra should be ‘test test test’ – and that applies to all aspects of your company.

 

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The Basics, Pros & Cons, Points to Consider, and The Modelling of Convertible Notes

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Special thanks to Dale Huxford from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP for edits and additional legal review.

UPDATED (Nov 11, 2013) – Notes added on: Conversion Triggers section & attached Cap Table in folder updated to v2 to fix some bugs.

The “Convertible Note” gets lots of attention in the blog-o-sphere as an alternative to traditional equity financings; some of this attention is good and some of it bad. Some investors refuse to use them, while others love them as a quick way of getting a company the capital it needs.

Convertible notes are sometimes viewed as a “best of both worlds” compromise from both a company perspective as well as from an investor’s perspective: on the one hand, a note is a loan, so the investor enjoys more downside protection than would an equity holder in the event the company is forced to wind up or dissolve for whatever reason; on the other hand, if the company eventually raises money by selling shares to later investors in a typical early stage financing round, then rather than pay back the outstanding amount in cash, the principal and interest are “converted” into shares of stock in the company (usually at some sort of discount off the price offered to new investors – I’ll discuss that below). In other words, the investor enjoys the downside protection typically associated with debt lenders, but is also positioned to enjoy the upside opportunity typically enjoyed by equity holders.

As with any tool, before you use it effectively, its best to understand the pros and cons of each of its features and how they can be used for your individual circumstances. Fortunately, convertible notes typically have fewer moving pieces than do equity instruments (which explains, in part, why they’re sometimes favoured by early stage companies and investors – the negotiation and documentation for a convertible note round is likely to be far less time-consuming and costly than for an equity round), but before we proceed any further in dissecting this tool, let’s look at the headline basics of a convertible note:

1) Total Amount Raised by the Note – This amount does have a natural limit. Think about it this way… you have an amount ‘outstanding on your cap table’, that will be part of an upcoming round. If a new round in the future isn’t particularly big, having too much money outstanding can create a problem with your convertible note holders taking up too large a portion of that round. Example: a 300K convertible which converts as part of a total 600K seed round would loosely mean that the convertible note holders would have 50% of the round. If the round was supposed to be for 20% of your equity, that means your new investor will only get 10%, an amount that may not excite him that much… and also you only get 50% new money in the door. To limit the extreme cases of this being done, investors usually create a ‘qualified round’ definition within the Note’s terms for conversion (see bullet #5 below) which reduces the likelihood of this amount being disproportionally larger than a new investors amount as part of a new round.

2) Discount Percentage – Simply put, if shares are worth $1 a 20% discount percentage would mean that an investor would get the shares for 80 cents. For cases where the next round’s valuation is below your convertible note holder’s cap as set in point #3 below, a discount factor will yield the convertible note holder a marginally cheaper price for having taken a risk on you. Typically this discount percentage is likely to be between around 15-25%. Another Example: a round closes at 3M. Your cap is at 5m. Your convertible note holders have a 20% discount, so they get to convert into the next round at a valuation of 2.4M.

3) Limit On Company Valuation At Conversion (the so-called “Valuation Cap”) – In order to calculate the number of shares into which the outstanding balance on a convertible note will convert, you must know the price at which the next round’s equity securities are being sold. Price per share, as you may or may not know, is calculated by taking the company’s pre-money valuation (negotiated at the time of the equity financing between the company and the investors) and dividing that number by the total number of outstanding shares in the company (the company’s “fully diluted capital”). Recall, however, that convertible notes are typically entered into in anticipation of an equity financing round – thus, at the time a convertible note is issued, no one knows what the negotiated pre-money valuation will be if/when the company undertakes an equity financing. Consequently, no one knows exactly what the price per share will be at the time the notes are issued. This creates uncertainty and is a cause for some investor anxiety, particularly for those investors concerned that that the number of shares into which their note may convert may be insignificant relative to the other shareholders, particularly in the event the pre-money valuation at the time of conversion is especially high.

The valuation ‘cap’ is intended to ease investor concerns by placing a maximum pre-money valuation on the company at the time of conversion. with the use of a cap, an investor can effectively set the minimum amount of equity an investor is willing to own as part of having participated in your convertible note round. For example, if you have a 200K note on a valuation 5m cap, then the worst case scenario for that convertible note holder, would be 4% equity after the new round is over. A typical valuation cap for very early-stage companies will be around $4m – $6m, with most companies at the Series A level settling on $10m valuation caps or more. For more statistics on caps and other components of a convertible note, I have included a link at the bottom of this post to an article with additional stats.

One thing to note, is that in the USA, there is a rising prevalence of uncapped notes. Clearly this is a founder friendly outcome, and if possible, always nice to get. The flip-side, is that for the investor, the may feel a bit ‘unprotected’ in the case of where the company does exceedingly well and thus their amount converts to a much smaller percentage than originally hoped.

4) The Interest Rate on a Note – A convertible note is a form of debt, or loan. As such, it usually accumulates interest, usually between 4-8% between the point when you sign it and when it converts. This amount is usually converted as part of overall amount at the next round. For example, if you have an annual interest rate of 8% and you have a Loan Note of 100, then you’d convert 108 after a year.

Note: In the US, it’s highly advisable to include an interest rate, even if it’s simply a nominal amount equal to the applicable federal rate (most recently at less than 1%), b/c if not, then any amount that could have been earned via interest is taxed to the company as gain. So it’s not really an option to exclude it in the USA. In the UK, you don’t necessarily need to include it should you wish to omit it.

5) Conversion Triggers – The point of a convertible note is for it to convert at some point in the future, not for it to stay outstanding indefinitely. As such, it will likely have a series of triggers for conversion. One I mentioned earlier is the next ‘qualified round’. Basically this means that the round is big enough to accommodate the amount in the note (without washing out new investors) and also is the type of round that is typical for the next step in the company’s growth and will give the note holders the types of rights they’d expect for their shares once converted from loan to equity. Another conversion trigger is an expiration maturity date, whereby the note holder typically can either ask for their money back (although this rarely happens) or basically seek to convert the outstanding amount at that point. There are more types of conversion triggers that note-makers can add to a note, but these are the basic ones. Update: upon a change of control event in the future and before the convertible is converted, investors can sometimes ask for a multiple of their loan back as payment in lieu of converting to ordinary shares prior to the completion of the change of control event. You can see some examples of this in the wording of the attached examples later in this post.

Again, these are the headline terms of a convertible note, and not representative of all the terms. However, for early discussions with potential investors, you’ll rarely have to talk about anything more than 1-4. Beyond that, you usually start having to involve lawyers (or experienced deal drafters) to help you finalise the document.

Now that we’ve reviewed the basics of a Convertible Note, take a look at a recent report that has statistics of what common terms have been given to Valley based companies. If you are not in the Valley, you will likely have a different set of averages, so be mindful of that.

http://www.siliconlegal.com/reports/seed-financing-report-2010-2012

Now, let’s look at the headline pros and cons of using a convertible note.

Pros –

  • Typically less involved and less paperwork than equity rounds; can cut down on time and legal fees
  • Investors enjoy downside protection as debtholders during the earliest stages of the company when company is at critical growth stages
  • Company can defer the negotiations surrounding valuation until later in the company’s lifecycle (i.e. for very early stage companies at the earliest stages of planning and preparation, valuations can be more difficult to define)
  • At conversion, note holders typically receive discounts or valuation caps on converting balance, thereby rewarding the earliest investors appropriately for their early investment in the company but without causing valuation issues for the company

Cons –

  • If a convertible note is made to be too large, it can negatively impact your next round because it’ll convert to a disproportionally large portion of your next round, effectively crowding-out your next round’s potential investors from having the equity stake they may desire.
  • If a convertible note’s cap is made too low, in order to accommodate a larger round later, the Founders may need to take the additional dilution that would happen if they exceeded the convertible’s cap.
  • Because a convertible note can be made to be quite versatile, sometimes investors can add clauses in there that have greater implications down the road, such as being able to take up more of a future round than the actual amount they’ve put in, for example.
  • If not careful, you can accumulate various too much convertible debt which may burden you at a conversion point
  • Doesn’t give your investors (in the UK) SEIS tax relief, thus making it less attractive than an equity round. There may be some workarounds, but generally SEIS and Convertible notes are not seen as compatible.
  • Notes give convertible note holders the investor rights of future investors (say in a future Series A Preferred Shares), which may include more rights than those they would take for the amount of money they put in had they simply done an equity deal on Ordinary Shares with you today.
  • If the convertible note automatically converts at the next equity raise (i.e. the investor has no choice), investors may wind up being forced to convert into securities shares despite not being happy with the terms of the equity financing. The note holders may unfortunately have less influence in negotiating the terms of the equity financing, which partially explains why some investors are reluctant to invest with convertible notes.
  • Finally, while convertible notes allow the company to defer the valuation conversation until a later time (see discussion under “Pros” above), any inclusion of a conversion cap will raise a similar conversation, which defeats some of the purpose for why companies and investors alike originally favoured the convertible note as a quick-and-easy financing solution to begin with.

Now let’s explore a few more core concepts in detail.

Seniority – A convertible note is a form of debt or loan. Although its not too common to hear about investors asking for their money back, they in fact, do have that right… additionally, one of the privileges that having the Note act like debt is that it acts senior to equity in the case of a liquidation. What this means in practice, is that Loan holders will get their money back first.

Subscription Rights – Some investors like to have more equity than their invested amount would likely yield them upon conversion. So one thing to look out for is how much they want to take up of the next round as part of having been in the convertible note. Example: An investor gives you 50K, which converts at your next round of 1m on 2m Pre at 1.6% -> next to nothing for the convertible investor. However, that investor had a Subscription Right for up to 30% of the new round, so that allows him to participate on the 1m round with up to 300K thus affording him a larger ‘seat at the table’ in excess of the 1.6% he would just have without this right.

To conclude and to provide you with some practical examples, in the following Google Drive Folder I have added an excel sheet with an example cap table as well as UK & USA termsheet templates from Orrick* that are uberly simple, for review purposes only (they may not be fit for what you need, but give you an idea). A comment on the example cap table – it isn’t designed to be ‘fully realistic’ per se, as in, your cap table will likely not look like this in terms of founders and shareholders and number of rounds before a convertible comes in, but it serves well for you to play with the variables that make up a convertible note so you can see how they affect your fully-diluted stake after a round.

I hope this helps you decide what the best options may be for you. As usual, please give me feedback on all these materials as with software, there are likely bugs somewhere!!  Thanks in advance!

*Regarding the Convertible Note Documents, a disclaimer from Orrick: The linked documents have been prepared for informational purposes, and are not intended to (a) constitute legal advice (b) create an attorney-client relationship, or (c) be advertising or a solicitation of any type.  Each situation is highly fact specific and requires a knowledge of both state and federal laws, and anyone electing to use some or all of the forms should, prior to doing so, seek legal advice from a licensed attorney in the relevant jurisdictions with respect to their specific circumstances.  Orrick expressly disclaims any and all liability with respect to actions or omissions based on the forms linked to or referenced in this post, and assumes no responsibility for any consequences of use or misuse of the documents.

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7 reasons for entrepreneurs to avoid tranched investments

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wavesOriginally published on Venturebeat on April 3, 2013 3:44 PM 

Investments, like the ocean, can come in waves, but that doesn’t mean they should.

A “tranched investment” is an investment that is split into one or more parts. In order for the company to receive the latter parts of a tranched investment, it usually has to achieve goals or objectives set as part of the conditions of investment. A typical example of a tranche is: the investors give you half the investment amount right now, and half the investment when your revenues reach ‘x’.

Generally speaking, the current thinking around tranches by most investors is that they are a good tool to motivate founders to reach a milestone or alternatively to reduce their exposure to risk. However, tranches are more damaging to the long term success of a company than investors may typically consider, particularly if milestones are not met or the company comes dangerously close to just meeting them.

Specifically, I think tranches can:

  • de-motivate founders and potentially reduce a founder’s drive (according to Daniel H. Pink’s view of extrinsic motivation, see below for more on this)
  • reduce a founding team’s creativity on how to grow the business in a way that might be long-term better, but short-term fails to achieve the next pre-determined milestone. Think of a company sticking to a product rather than pivoting in hopes to hit a deadline, but then ultimately sticking with a product that long term will not yield the maximum returns.
  • potentially reduce good-behavior (read: cheating to hit numbers). If someone is really really needing the cash, temptation to do something to cut corners is there.
  • promotes “sandbagging” by the investor rather than full commitment
  • creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the words of the CEO of Zemanta, Bostjan Spetic, “the cash you are raising is usually what you need to get to a significant milestone, like break-even. Tying that budget to sub-milestones implicitly reduces the chances to actually hitting the big milestone, because it increases the risk of running out of cash prematurely. I firmly believe that.”
  • create an accelerated cash burn to achieve the goal, and then if missed by a little, leaves the company in a vulnerable position for subsequent fundraising.
  • makes the company toxic for an external investor that would be interested in investing, if the company doesn’t receive the tranche from its existing investors.

So, if you’re a founder, what do you say to an investor who’s hell-bent on implementing tranches in your term sheet? And, if you’re an investor, how do you reduce the risk of your investment so that you aren’t over allocated prior to the key inflection milestone being achieved?

My recommendation for both these questions is to get a dialog going to agree on one of the following three potential alternatives:

1. Reduce the amount of money and target a closer-term milestone for the startup to achieve. Yes, this implies that if the startups hits its milestone, it may command a higher valuation and the investor will not have been able to secure the economics of a tranched investment, but in exchange, the investor is getting a higher probability of overall success for their investment. Note: This should not constitute an opportunity for predatory investors to under-fund a company by picking too-early a milestone for founders to accomplish, as this not only hurts the company’s likelihood of achieving it, but also the likelihood of the company being able to secure follow-on capital.

2. If an investor really needs to have tranches, implement “binary” milestones that are simple and clear. What you want to avoid are tranches that have partial or subjective achievement, such as when a company comes pretty close to hitting its revenue figure or number of users. An example of an ideal binary milestone would be: You will get a sum of money unlocked equaling the salary of a new CFO when you hire that CFO. The target is clear (hire CFO), it is not ambiguous or ‘close enough’; you either hired the CFO or you didn’t, and then the amount of money is tied to that achievement.

3. If you can’t agree on either of the above, that implies either the company is overvalued for where it is, or the investor may be overly cautious; if the latter, then the founder might want to reconsider taking them on as investor (assuming he/she has a choice).

One more thought on why the carrot/stick theory behind tranches doesn’t work: In his book Drive, author Daniel H. Pink walks through classical motivation models and compares them to his observations on actual motivation. He makes a very compelling case for companies, managers, parents, and just about anyone to rethink their preconceived notions on motivation, particularly around old carrot vs. stick methods.

He says the old form of motivation fails because for three reasons. One, It doesn’t mesh with the way many new business models are organizing what we do — because we’re intrinsically motivated purpose maximizers. Secondly, It doesn’t comport with the way that 21st century economics thinks about what we do — because economists are finally realizing that we’re full-fledged human beings, not single-minded economic robots. Finally, it’s hard to reconcile with much of what we actually do at work — because for growing numbers of people, work is often creative, interesting, and self-directed rather than unrelentingly routine, boring, and other-directed.

This topic may yield contrasting views on the efficacy of tranches by investors, but I sit squarely on the side that tranches, as they are generally used, are more value dilutive than value accretive for all parties involved.

Read more & Comment at:
http://venturebeat.com/2013/04/03/7-reasons-for-entrepreneurs-to-avoid-tranched-investments/

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What the VCIC can teach us about Finding Good Investors.

vcic2011

Finding an investor for your startup is hard, and as I partly covered in my last post: What Tier is your Investor (or what to look for in an investor)It involves taking a lot of meetings and dealing with a lot of rejections while at the same time ascertaining how much value-add the investor you are speaking with will provide, above and beyond their investment.

vcic2011

Last month, I had the pleasure of judging my local VCIC event at the London Business School and it reminded me of the importance of the symbiotic relationship between investors and founders. The Venture Capital Investment Competition (VCIC) is a competition for MBA students aspiring to become VC’s after graduation or trying to better understand the investment process for when they start their own companies. The competition is about how well they analyse a business opportunity and then recommend and close an investment with the founder of that opportunity. It’s a great experience. Probably one of the best experiences to get a business student a feeling for how the entire academic body of knowledge comes together into evaluating and investing in a company. If you are currently doing your MBA, you HAVE to do this if you really want to exercise what you’re learning across all of your classes.

More than 8 years have passed since my personal VCIC experience as a participant, but I still remember it vividly to this day. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of judging it every year thereafter and seeing many MBA teams go through the process and trying any number of things, ranging from the silly, to the creative in their attempts to out-do their competing ‘VC Firms’ to secure an investment-agreement with one of the presenting founders (which, btw, are always real-live companies). Every time I judge this event, I’m reminded of how important it is for founders to not only find the right investors, but also for investors courting a founder to demonstrate their value (their ‘tier’ so to speak).

During my judging of these events over the years, I’ve noticed there are six key areas that differentiate the best VCIC  teams (read: VC firms) from the worst (both from the point of view of the founder and the judging VCs). These are:

* The best VCIC teams build rapport with the founders & ask the key questions – Sometimes as an investor you have to ask difficult and probing questions. Some are questions that signal your doubt on a current company strategy or perhaps on how the company’s thinking revolves around any operational area. As the VCIC teams ask questions to get these answers and better understand the founding team’s thinking, they need to do so while at the same time respecting the founders and not making them feel like they, just because they have money, know it all, for no one does, no matter what their experience. I consistently saw VCIC teams failing in this area, but a few that really stood out made an effort in asking questions not from a position of patronising the founders, but from trying to understand them and dig into the right issues.

* The best VCIC teams understand the opportunity & dig only into the right issues with their time– Doing your homework is an important part of any mutual discussion. Some VCIC competitors haven’t even looked at the product that the company makes. The VCIC teams that fared better were the ones that, logically, didn’t get hung up on semantic arguments, but rather dug deep into any number of issues that are important. As a founder, you know what are your biggest challenges. If an investor identifies those as well, particularly without you spoonfeeding them on it, that’s a good thing and bodes well for having them on your board. As an investor, don’t show up unprepared and pretend like you can make up for it by picking up a trivial argument. In the competition itself, sometimes you have to dedicate your time to researching a specific company at the risk of showing up unprepared to interview the companies that you are not interested in for investment. This counts against you, so keep that in mind. In real life, as a VC, its as if  you took a coffee meeting with a founder, and then were rude to them.

* The best VCIC teams demonstrate value to the founder – One of the things that VCIC teams have to do when they are asking questions of the startups, is explain who they are. In the context of the VCIC they can fictionalise their ‘fund expertise’ since none of them are running real funds, but part of this exercise is also marketing the right attributes vis-a-vis what the startup team needs. For VCIC teams where a resident expert exists it can be useful, but also consider that you can showcase value by bringing in the right people external to your fund to help the company along.

* The best VCIC teams demonstrate an understanding of the financial requirements of the company – Some VCIC  teams fall short of true analysis and research here, they just take whats given to them. Sometimes they underfund companies and sometimes they over-fund the companies as part of getting their numbers to work. There is probably more to say on this point than can fit into this post, but what I’d recommend is that the VCIC teams explore proxy companies in the market and truly understand the impact of offering too little (or too much) to the company. One point on VCIC valuations: Teams, DCFs don’t work well on companies that don’t have historic data!

* The best VCIC teams don’t overcomplicate their termsheets – First of all, if you are a VCIC competitor, you should familiarize yourself with actual termsheets, and word of advice: keep it simple. Check out the Series Seed docs for the USA and the Seedsummit Docs for the EU as a starting point. Secondly, as a VCIC participant (and real investor) keep in mind that term sheets can actually signal quite a bit to the founder of what you think of them and that this does have an emotional impact on the founders. Do they have too many control provisions, for example, or are the economics of the deal indicating some concern? While supervision isn’t necessarily bad, as a founder, the smart thing to do is ask what the investor’s expectation is engaging with founders post investment. Are they meddlesome, for example? Are those control provisions there to protect you or are they draconian in how they operate? Ask to speak to the CEOs of other portfolio companies of theirs. Regarding the economics of a deal, perhaps the economics imply that they think you are overpriced. Ask them to walk you through how they came to that value and why. As a VCIC team, be mindful that overly complicated termsheets can come back and haunt you by providing perhaps too many mixed messages to the founders. As a founder, push back on items that don’t make sense.

If you are a team about to participate in the upcoming finals, I wish you the best of luck. If you are a founder, keep the above points in mind when you are doing a review of your investors-to-be. As for me, I look forward to continuing to be part of the VCIC experience in the future, I always learn a ton and am continuously impressed what teams achieve in such a short amount of time. I find that every time that I judge it, I’m reminded of the delicate interplay between investors and founders and how trust needs to be built over time.

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