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Investment – Are You in Danger of Raising a Toxic Investment Round?

money

Fundraising for an early stage technology startup is always a challenge. You have to navigate many meetings with potential investors and hopefully reach agreements that make everyone happy so you can continue to work in good faith after the negotiations are over. However, in some cases, after the dust has settled in a negotiation, it isn’t always a win-win for everyone.

For example, what do all the following company circumstances have in common? (note: all these companies are real early stage companies.)

  • A founder who gave away > 60% of his company for 100K in funding in tranches.
  • A founder that gave away > 75% of his company to his ‘investors’ in a pre-series A round.
  • A company that gave away > 70% of their company for < 100K to investors, but still wanted to go through an accelerator.
  • Another company with 51% ownership to existing investors.
  • Another company where the investor offered the founders a sub €30K investment but it came over tranches across the year (as in no cash right now).

As you read the above examples, you might find these offers as ’normal’ (then this post will hopefully help you think twice in the future about these kinds of deals), or you might reel in shock as you read each one of the above anecdotes. Either way, in this post I want to highlight the concept of a ‘Toxic round’ or a ‘Toxic cap table’ in an early stage startup to help founders navigate potential investment offers and avoid getting themselves into a difficult situation in the future.

What is a ‘toxic’ round?

‘Toxic’ rounds (not a technical term) can be defined as fundraising rounds that can pre-dispose a company to  struggle to find subsequent financing because newer investors shy away from a potential investment once they find out what the state of the company’s current cap table and or governance.

Whilst it is very hard to make any judgments about the quality of investors because each company’s financing history is unique, a common view is that investors that ask for terms such as those highlighted above are usually not of the sort that one wants to take investment from. However, the focus of this post isn’t to highlight the qualities of ideal investors (if you want to read more about the ideal qualities of a new investor check out this text), but rather why subsequent new investors might shy away from investing in your company if you have taken on this kind of round in the past. Additionally, in this post I’m only focusing on founder dilution and not on other potential aspects of a company’s shareholdership that could make it difficult for new investors to invest.

Therefore, the reasons why a new investor might shy away from a company that has experienced a ‘toxic’ round in the past can include:

  1. Because the company will likely require more capital in the future should it prove successful, and potential new investors feel that the founders will be less motivated to stick with the company as the value of their equity declines over time through premature excessive dilution.
  2. New potential investors feel that current investors own too much of the company and perhaps the company has a governance issues as a consequence.
  3. Because the investors have a large stake, it brings up a lot of questions about how the company got itself into this situation. Did it happen through a down-round? Was it due to other negative circumstances which could affect the future of a new investment? The circumstances raise a lot of questions and doubt in a new investor, and considering how many investment options an investor receives per year, frankly, as a founder raising capital you just don’t need any more reasons for a new investor to reject you.
  4. In the specific case of ‘debt’ or an ‘early exit of existing investors as part of a new financing’; potential new investors can sometimes object to having the money they are putting in as part of a new round be used for anything other than to expand the growth of a company. This means, potential new investors may shy away from companies that have investors that are eager to dump their shares as part of the financing transaction or companies that have too much debt outstanding that is repayable as part of an upcoming round.

Having said the above, how do you more precisely define a toxic round? Well, a toxic round could be where either “too much money” comes in too early at a too low a valuation, or where a company is too under-valued, or both. All of these cases lead to founders being greatly diluted too early in their company’s life.

To help you visualise these potential scenarios, let’s look at the following equations:

  1. Money Raised / Post Money = % dilution to founders
  2. Money Raised / (Pre Money + Money Raised ) = % owned by the new investors

These two equations represent the same thing, the only thing that changes is the definitions, but the numbers are all the same. If you don’t know what Pre or Post money mean, check out myrecent blog post which defines some of the components of a round.

What is the solution for toxic rounds?

Knowing the above, it would seem that the solution for toxic rounds would include both raising the right amount of money AND setting the right valuation for the company early on so that as the company grows, it doesn’t find itself in a ‘toxic’ situation. If you want to read more about how much money to raise and setting the right milestones check out my following posts below:

So if that solves the ‘Money Raised’ part of the equation, how about the valuation parts of the equation (pre-money)? Valuing an early stage company is always a source of much debate and causes many people lots of stress. As I’ve described on my previous blog posts on the subject:

There are many methods one can take to arguably ‘price’ a company. However, the larger point is that no matter what method you use, it will always be subject to current market dynamics… meaning that no matter what “quantitative” method you think you are using, it is subject to the variability of how the overall market is trending… if we are in a boom, the pricing will likely be higher, if we are in a bust, it will likely be lower. It’s a simple as that.

Taking these market dynamics in consideration, take a look at a recent Fortune blog post on what the average dilution hits are in the USA for Series Seed, A, B, and C rounds. In the Fortune post, you can see the average dilution per round for the typical rounds and you can see the market dynamics over the years (check out what the 2007 recession did to % dilution per round). What you realise is that none of these rounds, no matter how big, take as much equity as the real life examples I noted above at the start of this post. Even if you consider that different countries have different country risks, the range of numbers is a multiple of 3x what is recorded over the last 6 years in the USA.

What if your investment round was toxic?

So what if you’re already in a tricky situation similar to the examples I noted above? If you find that you are in the situations described in this post, unfortunately the available solutions aren’t always easy and straightforward. The single best solution is to have a tough talk with existing investors on how to rectify the situation before new investors either walk away or make it conditional as part of their new investment. There can be many ‘creative’ solutions to solving the problem with your investors, such as investors giving back equity if founders hit milestones, but they will all seem ‘creative’ to a new investor rather than ‘clean’ if not completed before they invest; hence why the ideal solution is to work through this topic with existing investorsand help them understand that by not helping you overcome the situation, they very well may be jeopardising the long term value of their own investment. Perhaps counter-intuitive, but true. In the end, any progress you make with existing investors on fixing these situations if you are already in them, is better than no progress, no matter how tough the discussions.

I leave with you with the following thought of prevention for you to discuss with your potential new investors if they offer you a hard deal… yes, they are taking a huge risk by investing in your early stage startup, but by taking too much equity or debt too early, are they really just pre-disposing your company to failure? Something to discuss.

Originally Posted at Netocratic.com: http://netocratic.com/toxic-investment-round-2451

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calculator

Model Equity Calculator for Founders with Option Pool Expansion

English: Historical valuation on the secondary...

SeedCamp’s hackathon, Seedhack, took place at Google Campus, London, on the 8th to 10th of November. It brought together some of the brightest talent in the startup community from 15 countries with one of the best accelerator programs in the world and mashed it up with awesome content providers like Twitter, Facebook, BSkyB, BBC, Getty, HarperCollins, EyeEm, Nokia Music and Imagga. There were a total of 12 teams working on interesting and exciting projects.

As part of this hackathon, Ali and Will helped me aggregate resources to help founders better understand the process of raising equity and the impact it can have to their founder stakes. We aggregated resources to help entrepreneurs to understand  the numbers and implications of raising money and giving out equity. Valuing a company and calculation its impact on your equity is a very complex and confusing for entrepreneurs as well as being far from an exact science, this is the pain point that we wanted to address.

In the words of Seedhack attendee Will Martin (@willpmartin)

“Fundraising is one of the most difficult parts of the startup world, as first time founders this is an even more daunting process. Experience of raising a round and understanding the numbers and implications of that round and the related equity issued to an investor as well as employees in the form of an option pool is vital, but sadly is only fully understood by going through the process for real. Our intention was to give founders the knowledge required by being able to go through the process in a simple and easy way, thus giving the founder the confidence when it happens for real.

Ali and I are first time founders currently actively looking for investment. We know the total value we need in terms of money we want to raise as well the percentage of equity we are comfortable willing to give up to the investor. What we didn’t know and learned through the process is the implications in future rounds as a result of that initial funding round. Having an option pool for employees, advisors, board members etc. is something that complicates the issue and is often a requirement in the terms an investor is offering. This complicates the issue for the founder, so being aware of the impact of their shareholding as a result is vital for a founder as it is them that gets diluted in the first round but also any subsequent round, but it is often overlooked.

The changes to equity positions of the founders, investors, employees etc. is very important to understand as it dictates control and value of a company. Having this knowledge now gives us as founders a huge advantage over other founders we are competing with for funding and bridges the knowledge gap that exists for first time founders.”

In order to read some of the terms on this cap table model, below are some definitions which you might find useful:

Pre & Post Money Valuation -

“The pre-money valuation is the valuation that a company goes into raising a round of financing with. By establishing this valuation, it helps investors understand what amount of equity they will receive in the company in exchange for their capital. Once the financing round has been completed, the post-money valuation is the sum total of the pre-money valuation plus the additional capital raised. So, if the pre-money valuation of a company is $10 million and they raise $2.5 million from investors, their post-money valuation would be $12.5 million. Investors would own 20% of the resulting company.” - Dave Morin, Source Quora

“A PRE-MONEY VALUATION is the valuation of a company or asset BEFORE investment or financing. If an investment adds cash to a company, the company will have different valuations before and after the investment. The pre-money valuation refers to the company’s valuation before the investment.

External investors, such as venture capitalists and angel investors will use a pre-money valuation to determine how much equity to demand in return for their cash injection to an entrepreneur and his or her startup company. This is calculated on a fully diluted basis.

If a company is raising $250,000 in its seed round and willing to give up 20% of their company the pre-money valuation is $1,000,000. (250,000 * 5 -250,000 = 1,000,000)

Formula: Post money valuation – new investment

Source - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-money_valuation

A POST-MONEY VALUATION is the value of a company AFTER an investment has been made. This value is equal to the sum of the pre-money valuation and the amount of new equity.

The Post-money valuation is the sum of the pre-money valuation and the money raised in a given round. At the close of a round of financing, this is what your company is worth (well, at least on paper).

If a company is worth $1 million (pre-money) and an investor makes an investment of $250,000, the new, post-money valuation of the company will be $1.25 million. The investor will now own 20% of the company.

The only reason it’s worth spending time on this term at all is that it “sets the bar” for your future activities. If your post-money after your first round of financing is $4 million, you know that to achieve success, in the eyes of your investors, any future valuations will have to be well-in-excess of that amount.     

Formula: New Investment * total post investment shares outstanding/shares issued for new investment. “

Source - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-money_valuation

Option Pools -

“An option pool is an amount of a startup’s common stock reserved for future issuances to employees, directors, advisors, and consultants.” - from startuplawyer.com

Option pools can also be formed by Restricted Stock Units, but whichever one you use, they are generally still called ‘Option Pools’.

The OPTION POOL is the percentage of your company that you are setting aside for future employees, advisors, consultants, and the like. Employees who get into the startup early will usually receive a greater percentage of the option pool than employees who arrive later.

“The size of the Option Pool as a percentage of the POST-MONEY Valuation and where ALL of it comes from the founder’s equity. This is the least founder-friendly way to present this, but it is also the point at which most early stage investors will start the negotiations. The expectation from traditional venture firms is that this will equal 15%-25% of the company AFTER they make their investment. The Option Pool is one of the most complex and, from the entrepreneur’s perspective, confusing terms in an equity financing scenario.” – source http://www.ownyourventure.com/content/tips/op.html

Round Size - 

The investment, or money is how much money is raised in a given round of financing. However, the decisions (and their implications) surrounding this number are among the most important that a founding team makes. It is not just about how much money is raised, it is about the terms that the money is raised on and, maybe most importantly, whose money it is and what they bring to the table in addition to money.  - Source http://www.ownyourventure.com/content/tips/inv.html

Link to the Model Cap Table: http://bit.ly/1ayKk8p


NOTE FOR MODEL TO WORK – It needs to run on Excel (Google docs coming soon) and with circular calculations turned on. This can be done by going to (Mac Excel) Preferences -> Calculation -> Iteration -> Click on Limit Iteration

If you are considering using Convertible Notes as part of your round, check out this variant of the cap table with notes on how to convert as well: http://bit.ly/17kHlSA

Additional Equity Calculation Tools (Thanks to Ali Tehrani for finding these - @tehranix) -

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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vcic2011

What the VCIC can teach us about Finding Good Investors.

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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Setting Appropriate Milestones in an Early-Stage Startup

Madagascar milestone

Updated Post on Nov 11, 2013 – See bottom of post for updated notes.

When looking to plan for your company’s growth strategy or to go fundraising, it’ll serve you and your company well to break down what you need to do in terms of projected milestones. Technically speaking, I believe a milestone is a future ‘marker’ within your company’s stated growth trajectory.

Therefore, milestones, in the context of startups, are effectively points in time along the company’s timeline prior to a future event or goal. These points in time are usually defining points in a company’s history…  such as a key hire, a product launch, a certain number of users, a retention rate, first revenues, first profit, etc.

Rather than the goal itself (an example goal could be to create a successful, cash-self-sufficient company, that provides tangible value to its customers and is floated on the public market), milestones are a subset of ‘the goal’. As such, milestones of any size can be created throughout the lifetime of your company as it progresses to your company’s ultimate goal.

Milestones are important from a fundraising point of view because they can define whether a company is caught with little to show to potential investors at the point of fundraising or with a strong showing of what the company’s been able to accomplish to date.

Lets, for example, look at the following points in a company’s history (I’m making the timing up for example only, don’t assume these are ideal timings):

  • Month 3: Minimum Viable Product
  • Month 5: Private Beta Launch
  • Month 8: Key Hire
  • Month 11: Public Beta Launch
  • Month 12: x% daily growth rate in subscribers

If a company knows how much money they need at all points in the timeline (see the article on how much money should I raise), then the question is which is the best milestone to fundraise on?

From an investor’s psychology point of view, risk is what is being managed. Minimization of risk while not losing an opportunity to invest in a hot company is the balance game that all investors play. Investors are constantly trying to find the least risky point to invest in a company relative to what they afford to invest (valuation) and the ability for them to invest (there is space in the investment round for new investors).

As such, the best time for a company to fund raise is either right before the completion of a key milestone or right after the completion of key milestone but before too much time lapses right after its completion such that there isn’t a sustainability of the reached milestone.

Let me explain. First, let’s look at the psychology of investing right before a key milestone is completed:

If an investor feels confident that the company is on track to hit its milestone, the investor knows that once the company succeeds, the company will inherently be more valuable to the outside market because it has been meaningfully de-risked by some amount. As such, the investor wants to ‘get in’ on the deal right before ‘launch’ for example, so that they can get a specific valuation while the company is still a little bit riskier, but not overly so.

This makes sense and is therefore quite simple to understand, but only companies that can instil confidence in potential investors of managing growth post milestone completion, generally get investors rushing to get this done. However, it’s a great for a start-up to be in, because generally, for things like a product-launch milestone, it is easier to control than say, a specific user growth rate.

Now let’s look at the psychology of investing post a key milestone being completed:

If an investor feels like he wants to ‘stall’ to see if the company is completed, or the number of users hit, etc.… then he is trying to effectively fully de-risk the investment before committing cash. However, he knows that being playing the cards this way, other players will also be on the table quite quickly because the company is not only attractive to him, but also to many others that were standing by the sidelines waiting to see what the company would do (relative to their risk profiles as in, this doesn’t mean that late stage investors, for example, will change their mind to invest in your company). Therefore, the investor in question wants to get in before the company is too valuable for them to invest in.

Therefore, the art of picking milestones is trying to determine which ones are the key ones to focus on.

As a rule of thumb, these are the biggest ones:

Human Resources  - Hiring key people that will make a huge impact on your organization (not just employees for workload purposes, but like a shit-hot marketing person, for example).

“In terms of team growth, I believe there are other significant milestones, where organization changes happen roughly every doubling in size:  founding team (usually 3 -5) expands to 7 -12, expands to 25-30, expands to 50-70, then above 100 and beyond. More often I see companies do quick jumps rather than continuous growth, and the jumps are always followed by significant growth management challenges.”*

Product – Product launches vs. version releases

Market – Market validation. As in, first customers, or first paying customers, etc.

Funding – Maybe some money being committed to a round that the investor in question can lead or participate in.

You can break these down into smaller and smaller ones if you’d like, but that’s where you start having to make judgement calls as to what is meaningful and what is not.

Other examples of milestones include*:

  •  Proof that you can work together as a team, usually historical evidence
  •  Proof that you can build something, i.e. working prototype
  •  Proof that it’s useful to someone – first users and clients
  •  Proof that you can talk to investors – every financing round, even small ones
  •  Proof that you can talk to audiences – 100k users or 1M users or 10M users…
  •  Proof that the initial team is able to attract talent – key hires are C- ad VP- level professionals, which will drive your growth further. Every startup will eventually need a functioning management team consisting of CEO, CTO, COO, VP Sales, VP Marketing, and possibly some others depending on what you’re building.
  •  Proof that ecosystem agrees with your ideas – bringing respected industry advisors or partnerships on board
  •  Proof that there is market – $1M annually
  •  Proof that you can manage your finances – cash-flow positive operation
  •  Proof that you can scale – $10M annually
  •  Proof that the market is big! – $25M annually and beyond

Just keep in mind, milestones are all about moving from one stage of risk to the next. As you start planning your fundraising strategy, you want to make sure you time it so that you have ample time to fundraise so that you are in control of which milestone your company hits when. You just want to make sure your fundraising strategy uses these milestones to your benefit and not get caught between them and stranded for cash.

* Additional Comments from Bostjan Spetic of Zemanta.com

Update Note from Nov. 11, 2013

You should raise as much money as you can, but at least enough money for you to accomplish your next most meaningful ‘validated’ milestone + some buffer funds to help you spend time fundraising afterwards. This means you should look at a variety of points across your company’s timeline to see which can be made into meaningful milestones.

Whichever country you are in, you will have different fundraising challenges depending on the mix of individual and institutional investors. In a country where the funding comes mostly from individuals, you will likely not be able to raise substantially large rounds, in countries where you have access to organised groups of individuals, you’ll have access to larger rounds, and in countries where you have access to many institutional investors, you will likely be able to raise the largest rounds.

If you want to go for really really big, you should go to the geography where you can get that meaningful amount. Otherwise you will be underfunded, regardless. Keep in mind that in those markets, costs of running startups are going to be higher, so you need to include that in your plan…hiring star coders, for example, in the USA is very very hard these days.

In markets where you are not going to be able to raise the appropriate amount you need up front, try and articulate your requested amount this way: “This is what I need [big number], but this is what I can accomplish [milestones] with this [smaller number]”

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How does an early-stage investor review your financial plan?

Finances

You are about to go meet an investor… you’ve read on the web and heard differing views from people on whether you need a financial plan… some say you don’t, it’s a waste of time as its all made up numbers anyway… others say, you absolutely need a financial plan… so you walk into an investor meeting full of anxiety as to whether not having something is going to reflect poorly on you or if what you’ve created (if you did create something) will be crap in the investors eyes… so what to do?

The financial plan, for most tech-focused early-stage founders, is probably one of the most dreaded bits of the investment pack to send your prospective early-stage investors. The variety of opinions online don’t help either as they just confuse the matter…

  • Do I need one or do I not need one?
  • If I build one, how do I know it is ‘right’?
  • If I build one, surely the investor will know that my numbers are all “fake” and just slash them all in half?

Let’s face it, as much as we’d like to think we can predict the future with all sorts of fancy extrapolations on growth rates… but we can’t… Considering that most people create financial projections based on assumptions of what needs to happen for an upcoming month’s worth of operating events to happen and then project from there for x number of months or years, you effectively create a series of increasingly improbable chronological events with the last event (month) in the series being effectively a function of the compounded set of decreasing probabilities, all of which are asymptotically approaching zero percent in their likelihood of happening “according to the plan”.

What’s my point? Well, that your financial plan isn’t worth much from an accuracy perspective.
So what then? If my numbers are crap, why bother with whole financials nonsense?

It is in its forensic analysis of your thinking behind the model, however, where an early-stage investor really gets a feel for how you think and how you want to direct your company in the near future. Next, it is in how your cash will be used efficiently to accomplish the mutually agreed goals.

Before we continue further, I want to clarify that I’m not going to discuss how it is that you should format your financials, or explain basic accounting principles, or how financial statements work. There are plenty of resources online that can help you with that. Rather I want to explore how an early-stage investor (well, at least myself) forensically reviews the financial plan of an early stage startup (vs. a later-stage startups where there is a historical performance record already there and with multiple years of budgets and actual figures).

So what do I mean by conducting a forensic analysis of company’s financials?

Well, I certainly don’t mean it in the sense of reviewing the financials of the startup from a post-mortem basis, but rather reviewing them with the same level of scrutiny on ‘reasons’ why things may have occurred or may occur as one sees on TV shows like CSI. Effectively, I’m looking for what are the cause & effects of each of the numbers and what are the key assumptions behind them, with emphasis on the word “assumptions”. The verbal discussion with the entrepreneur’s financials will focus entirely on their assumptions and the reasoning behind them.

When an investor is discussing numbers (which may be entirely wrong from a future-perspective) with an entrepreneur, if the entrepreneur shows a solid understanding on why the numbers are there, having a clear view of the market dynamics in which their company operates, with realistic customer acquisition assumptions, realistic hiring plans, effective use of marketing budgets, appropriate expenses for a growing company, it can have a HUGE impact on establishing the necessary credibility of competence an entrepreneur needs to inspire confidence in the investor. The opposite, seeing a financial plan with current month revenues/expenses projected five years into the future assuming linear or exponential growth in all aspects of the organization and then stated with a confidence of ‘this is what we realistically expect to happen’ can be both demoralizing for an investor if not outright humorous.

Let me share with you a little secret: With a few exceptions, you will always know your industry and its numbers better than any investor will. However, an experienced investor will ask you the right questions to ascertain whether or not you know your industry well enough to increase the probability of your own company’s success. As such, really do your homework… by homework I mean, don’t just go out and build a product and hope there will be customers. If you take the Lean Methodology approach, for example, as soon as you have customer validation, make an effort to understand the market dynamics of that customer… how many of them are there? What is their concentration? How do you reach them? Are they locked in with a competitor with some sort of monthly or annual contract? Do they buy in a cyclical pattern? Do they prefer to buy online or only from salespeople? Do they need help with setting up your product or can they use it as is? What are they generally willing to pay for other similar services? How is the market growing? Mind you that in some circumstances the ability to ‘charge’ money of your customers may not be deemed the real potential for revenues at first (think Twitter 3 years ago), but again it is how you articulate the future value that matters.

If you take all those questions and research them, what you will find are key components of what will make up the assumptions on your future revenues (or value creation objective). Perhaps your customers are only willing to buy your product during the holiday season, so you will have a hard time with cash coming into your company during the off-season. Financials that didn’t take that into consideration would look to an investor as somewhat unrealistic, not in the numbers, but in the market dynamics of your product. Take other assumptions for example, if you can only reach your customers via another party (perhaps a distributor?)… As in you aren’t directly selling to your end customer, how does that affect the time until you get cash, and the amount of customers you get all at once (or lose all at once)? How long are your customers likely to stay within your service (churn)?

Again, all of these examples are about doing your homework on how your company will operate within its industry and how it will acquire customers. The better you can explain the reasons why a number in your financial model is based on a realistic set of assumptions, the better off you will be. But look at it another way… while you are doing this exercise, you will realize whether there is actually a business that can make money (or other method of value creation) or not. For example, if you do the analysis and find that in the sector you are exploring people aren’t willing to pay and that many other competitors are giving the product away for free, and that there aren’t many opportunities to inject ‘advertising’ as a supplementary source of revenue, you may have just saved yourself a serious amount of wasted energy!

Which brings us to the next part of the homework: the understanding of your company’s expenses. If you have found a market where your product is actually capable of generating some sort of value (note again that I’m not necessarily focusing on “revenues” because there are many ways investors define what “value creation” is, whether it be a growing user base or actual sales) the next part is how do you spend your money to match that customer growth. When do you hire new sales people (and how many sales people do you need relative to a customer sale?),  when do you bring new servers online, spend on marketing, spend on new offices, laptops, etc..  Obviously the types and amounts of expenses vary from company to company, but what matters here is how they map to what you are trying to do and whether that mapping is realistic (what is your customer acquisition cost?). For example, if you have a marketing charge of $500 one month, is it realistic to expect that next month your customer sign ups will increase by 500%? Well, as I said before about the “little dirty secret”… I have no flippin’ idea, but I will expect you to tell me how the $500 will equal 500% in customer growth and I will basically evaluate the credibility of your answer. If you answer, I will buy $500 worth of flyers and pass them out, you can rest assured that I will not believe your 500% figure, but if your team’s background has a track record of low-cost viral marketing campaigns, and your answer is basically a version of that… well guess what, I might just find it plausible. I may be exaggerating the bit about having ‘no flippin idea’ as most investors will have seen enough of what works and doesn’t work to call BS, but again, if you can walk an investor credibly through your assumptions, it will do wonders for the confidence you create.

Lastly and most importantly, is the review of how the expenses map to the revenues as far as cash flow is concerned. The lifeline of a company is how much cash it has before it either dies or needs to go fund-raising again. As such, investors not only want to know how much a company needs in terms of cash to execute its vision (perhaps the subject for an upcoming post), but also on how that cash is being used. If there is a huge mismatch here or there isn’t enough time for you to reach your company’s next point of tangible progress (a validation point), this may be a point worth discussing. Much is joked about how an investor will take your revenues and cut them in half, actually an investor may outright eliminate your revenues from the overall sensitivity analysis he is doing to get a feel for how much cash your company would burn on a monthly basis at time x in your plan (you should know your current monthly burn number by heart, by the way). This is because if your company has to do a pivot or something else goes wrong, this will not only accelerate the cash drain relative to your plan, but also have an effect on when the company needs to go fund-raising again and an investor needs to take all of that into consideration as part of the investment analysis.

In summary, do your homework before you build your financial model, but definitively go through the exercise of building one. It will be hugely helpful in helping you identify how your business may need to grow in order to adapt to the sector in which it operates and how you may need to spend money in order to achieve your goals. Most importantly however, by being prepared with a thorough understanding of why everything is there within your model, the less anxious you will be when meeting potential investors… and remember, you may not know all the answers, such as how much money will it cost you to acquire a new customer, but even if you at least start with a reasonable assumption, confess that you aren’t sure about it, and then play around with a range to see if things work, that is also helpful to the investor for them to get a feel for how you can evaluate uncertain circumstances and adapt accordingly.

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