“We are Going to Pass” The Ten Reasons that VCs Turn Down Startups

Every few years, Silicon Valley grows strong, flies high, makes beautiful music and then, like the Phoenix of ancient myth, burns to ashes and starts the cycle again. At the moment, the Valley is a frenzy of startups. The rest of the country may be in the economic doldrums, but dozens of technology companies are being formed here every day. Many seek to raise capital and at the moment anyway, money is flowing. Angel and venture investing will surely set new records this year.

During the past two months, I have helped three technology startups raise early stage growth capital and casually advised several others. Each business is in a completely different market: mobile, pharma, cloud computing, crowdsourcing, global communications, etc. Each has unique strengths and weaknesses. The entrepreneurs have wildly different backgrounds and personal qualities.

Not all have completed their funding, but in the process each team has learned similar lessons in how best to approach outside investors (investments from friends, family, and fools doesn’t count. They apply different criteria.) Although I have managed to raise tens of millions of dollars for early stage businesses, mainly Alibris, I have personally made most of the mistakes listed here and I have made some of them more than once. Nor is this list particularly unique: investors and experienced entrepreneurs write about them all the time.

So here is my list of the top ten mistakes that entrepreneurs make when they try to raise money from outside investors:

1. No story. Entrepreneurs try to convince investors that they have a winning business – but investors have no idea which businesses will really work. It’s just too complicated. So investors do what human brains are wired to do when confronted with bewildering complexity: they listen for a coherent story. They listen for a particular kind of story that nearly always has three parts: a strong team that has achieved measurable traction on a big problem. These may be called Team has Traction on Trouble or Management has Momentum in a big Market, but to sell your company, you need to tell your version of this story.

2. No pain. Gill Cogan is a savvy financier, a friend, and a former investor of ours. I once pitched a business to him and after ten minutes, he smiled and said, “that’s what we call a vitamin business.” He explained that people often skip their vitamins – but they never skip their painkillers. Investors prefer a painkiller business. Or as another VC put it “what I really like is a tourniquet business”. A solution to a problem that is acutely felt can grow rapidly. A solution to a minor problem may not be a market at all, even if the problem is widespread. VCs do not fund vitamin businesses.

The flip side of no pain is, of course, no gain. More than anything else, investors want to back companies in huge or potentially huge markets. This leads to herd investing: everyone piles into mobile, cloud computing, or gaming. This is why venture investing has always been a fashion business. This looks irrational, but it makes perfect sense even if it kills the Phoenix. To start with, the cost and risk of investing in any startup is high and approximately constant, so why not focus on companies with huge upside? Moreover, fast growing markets put a lot of wind at a startup’s back, which makes errors much less costly. Investors understand what Google’s Eric Schmidt means when he says “a rising revenue line solves virtually all known business problems” — so they back companies where explosive revenue growth is most likely. These are markets that solve big problems or capture huge opportunities.

3. No hub. You live in the wrong place. Capital is highly mobile, but capitalists and startup infrastructure are not. They live in Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York and more importantly, so do the entrepreneurs, technologists, researchers, startup attorneys, talented marketing types, engineers, specialized commercial banks, vendors, mentors, and much else. You can raise venture money in Austin, Charlotte, Seattle, LA, Portland, Chicago and a few other places – although investor quality drops precipitously outside of the major hubs. (If you care why and how this occurs and where is it all going, Google AnnaLee Saxenian – a leading scholar on this topic and a fantastic wife to boot). You may be able to raise money if you are not in a place with active venture or angel investors (lots of companies have, of course) but it’s tougher. If you live outside a funding hub and are serious about building a technology company, it often helps to relocate.

4. No traction. Your company has an idea but no product or service. Or it has a product but no customers. As Babak Nivi and Naval Ravikant, two well known investors behind the indispensable site VentureHacks, like to say, “traction speaks louder than words”.

You believe that you have invented a revolutionary new dog food that will quickly disrupt the market. Investors cannot possibly figure out if it is really better, so they look for a metric that is rising rapidly up and to the right – often by 20%/month. Any metric that shows rapidly growing engagement will do. Profit is ideal (if profits are growing fast, you can always raise money — although you may not need to). Revenue growth is next best, even if it is from a tiny base. Next best after that is growth in accounts, beta customers, users, or page views. Worst case, show videos of dogs wagging their tails and survey data from dog owners excited about your products. If you don’t have any signs of traction, you don’t have something that people appear to want. You don’t yet have a business.

As important as traction, is an understanding of why you achieved it and why it will continue. Are users engaging other users? What are your viral metrics? Are large companies buying? Why are they trusting a startup? Are customers buying? What are you offering that others cannot and how do you know? Real data about traffic, conversion, average transaction size, repeat rates, defections, costs, margins, etc. begin to paint a clear picture to investors. Ideas about what you hope will happen are simply no substitute.

5. No team. You love your team, but it may not be financeable. Most investors back teams with a combination of proven business and technical experience. Why? A VC who was ex Air Force used to say, “backing entrepreneurs is like picking a pilot for an F-15. I favor the guy who has already crashed one, because he or she really doesn’t want to see that happen again”. Or more commonly: “we know that good judgment comes from experience – and that experience comes from bad judgment”.

This may seem like a Catch-22, but it is rational. Recent research concluded that a venture-capital-backed entrepreneur who succeeds in a venture has a 30% chance of succeeding in his next venture. By contrast, first-time entrepreneurs have only an 18% chance of succeeding and entrepreneurs who previously failed have a 20% chance of succeeding.” The solution? Recruit a co-founder with the skills your team lacks. It does not substitute for product/market traction – but many investors will recognize that your ability to attract talented people is a form of traction.

By the way, there is one glaring sign of a weak team and I see it a lot: relatives in the company, especially on the founding team. Husbands and wives, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, and couples of all sorts. It is rare that the weaker of these individuals would have been hired in a dispassionate search. Having your relatives in the company, especially a spouse, is a great way to signal investors that you are not determined to hire the very best.

6. Lousy communications. A lot has been written about this. Usually what gets called a communication problem is really a business problem. Bad communication is frequently a sign of bad thinking. But there is one communication problem that is chronic to entrepreneurs: over-communicating. You know too much about your business and in early stage conversations, your knowledge is a liability.

The solution is to prepare three sharply focused business summaries: a 15 word “big idea”, a 15 second elevator pitch, and a 15 slide funding pitch. The big idea is the subject line of the email that your trusted intermediary sends the VC. If they were helping you pitch YouTube in 2005, it might have said “Flickr for videos”. If you were pitching Alibris in 1997, it might have said “find millions of out of print books in one online store”. It is not a consumer-facing tag line, it is the cocktail party handle that people will use to describe your business.

The elevator pitch is the most important and most overlooked. Intermediaries who introduce you to investors will use this in the body of their email. You will use it to describe in a few sentences what problem you solve and what traction you are achieving. Bonus points if you can also fluff the team. Marc Andreesen, were he someone who needed money, might have pitched Ning in 2007 by asserting, “Social networks are an amazing, powerful medium. Ning lets any group build it’s own private social network. We recruited a first rate team, we are hosting more than 100,000 user-created networks, and we are growing at 10% per week.” Boom. Hold the elevator – I want to hear more.
Attached to the introductory email is either the 15 page pitch or a one page summary. Either can work. Do not prepare the pitch from scratch — follow a proven recipe like the excellent ones outlined here, here, here, or here. 15 pages, 15 minutes, 30-point type. It is hard to over communicate in 30-point type.

There are three things that you should not communicate to an investor. Do not show them secrets. Investors share ideas — that’s often how good ideas germinate. They will share yours. Don’t show them an NDA — they won’t sign it. And don’t show them a business plan. You may want a business plan to force yourself to think through your operations and to have something to use to build a founding team, to brief a board member, or to attract talented leaders. But a business plan will not help you raise money because investors won’t read it and they shouldn’t.

7. High burn. You have ten employees working for cash, nice offices, no product, and no customers. There are PR and law firms on retainer. You are burning faster than you are learning. Remember this: investors are not looking for companies that need money. They look for companies that will succeed whether the investor commits or not. Raising equity is like borrowing: quite often, the more desperately you need money, the less likely you are to get it. If this is you, take heart: you are unlikely, no matter how hard you try, to violate this rule more than I have.

To state the obvious: any business without revenue has to run very lean, even if they start with a million dollars of 3F seed money. You are still trying to fit your product to the market. You are testing, tweaking, selling, and learning. For most web-based businesses, you don’t need titles; you need one or two people who can sell and small team that can build. Pay is low – everyone works long hours for a bunch of stock. As one investor memorably put it, “an early stage business runs like a one story whorehouse: no fucking overhead”.

8. No cred. Experienced investors listen for a team that shares the details about what it has built. They listen for specific milestones that reflect customer needs met. Weak teams spend more time talking about future plans – their unproven ideas about where to go next. Talk about traction, engagement, measurable progress both in your current business and in past ones. If you worked at a brand name company or went to a brand name school, mention it – but focus on what members of your team have built. You are trying to build a business, so your record of what you have built gives your team credibility.

9. No insight into sales or distribution. Early stage companies often don’t know what they don’t know about sales or distribution. This is understandable because early stage companies are obsessed with building a product or a service to fit a market. Achieving product/market fit, or traction, or engagement is hard, critically important work. When it finally happens, it is like a deep sea fish striking your baited line – customers start pulling the product from your hands. You know it instantly (recall the crazy moment in the Social Network where Facebook suddenly goes viral at Harvard). Getting to this point is the obsession of every startup team. As a result, most are not yet obsessing about sales and distribution.

But they will. Sales and distribution challenges vary all over the map, but most in most companies there are large learning curves and scale effects. Your customer acquisition costs drop as you get bigger and smarter. But in the beginning, you don’t really know how much it costs to acquire customers. The number is likely to be much bigger than you imagined. Which means you can burn through a lot more cash in year one than you expected to.

Put another way, traction can be a trap because it leads entrepreneurs to try to get as much capital as possible out of their growth. This is completely backwards. The point of starting a company is to get as much growth as possible out of your capital.

10. No lawyers. Entrepreneurs, with rare exception, did not go to law school or if they did, they did not pass the bar and become lawyers. New entrepreneurs often dislike lawyers – but they quickly learn that good lawyers matter. A lot.

Once investors are shareholders, their interests are substantially aligned with yours. Until they are shareholders however, the economic interest of an entrepreneur and an investor are opposed. Investors want to buy low; entrepreneurs want to sell high. And the terms, which can be bewildering to a new entrepreneur, matter a lot (as many a VC has said, “you can set the price, if I can set the terms”. They mean it.) In this situation, an entrepreneur needs legal counsel at least as competent as that enjoyed by investors. Day to day, a low cost lawyer is fine. For a major financing however, get a good lawyer who does startup financings for a living.

That’s my list of ten common errors. It is not comprehensive: you could no doubt put together a list of ten others. Nor is it universally right: every generalization has exceptions, including this one. And avoiding these mistakes is no guarantee that you will attract an investor. In raising money, most entrepreneurs kiss a lot of frogs before they find a prince.

Then again, so do investors.