Background: I gave these remarks at Digital Undivided’s FOCUS100 2014 Conference which was held between October 3rd and October 4th in New York City. A number of investors were invited to explain to the audience how they ought to pitch venture capitalists in order to win funding. Digital Undivided is a social enterprise that develops programs that increase the active participation of urban communities in technology. It has a particular focus on women. ((I have edited it by adding comments based on questions people at the conference asked me after I had spoken, mainly adding a little more context.))
I am not very good at listening to what other people tell me to do, so rather than outline what I think you should do in order to get funded by a venture capitalist, I thought I should instead share with you some of my beliefs about founders, and startups, and how I think about my responsibilities as an early stage investor. I hope in doing so you will question some of the assumptions you hold about how you should go about raising capital.
- The kind of founder that really excites me does not need a venture capitalist. She simply needs some capital to enable her build her vision and transform the world. My job is to give that founder sufficient reason to decide that she wants to undertake that journey with KEC Ventures as a companion.
- To get past the first meeting, a founder has to inspire confidence. She has to make me want to follow her over the edge of a cliff, or into a burning building. She has to make me feel I could trust her with my life because come hell or high water, she’s going to figure things out. She’s smart, hard working, can process an enormous amount of unfamiliar information and take action based on what she’s learned, she knows or can learn how to build and lead a team that’s going to do something ambitious. She might be an introvert, or an extrovert. She gets me to buy into her vision of how things should be, and how she will use technology to accomplish that. She wants to win, and she knows how to win. I do not believe in “pattern matching” in the way some well known investors have described it. I don’t pattern match people. That’s an intellectually lazy approach to picking investments. Instead I pay attention to ideas, problems, and the characteristics of successful businesses. Meeting and investing in startups led by founders with a vision to make the world a better place is what makes me eager to wake up each morning and endure the cognitive dissonance that is a daily and ever present aspect of my job as an early stage investor.
- I do not believe in founders who lack the intellectual and emotional fortitude to debate and argue honestly about what is best for the startup with their investors and with others who might have opinions about what they should do. I believe that the best decisions are made when one can debate issues with one’s self, and when founders and investors can engage in healthy, critical and honest debates with one another and subsequently reflect and contemplate on everything they have learned through that process. I get frightened by founders who cheerily agree with everything investors say. If the founder is indeed creating something new, or solving a widely-overlooked problem, there’s no way the average investor has considerable experience and expertise in that area – by definition the founder is “the expert”. I expect the entrepreneur to know far more than the average investor about what will work, what will not work, and why. Cheery agreement with everything an “ignorant” investor suggests acts as a red flag to me that perhaps this founder does not understand the problem she is solving, or her market, as well as is required to do what she says she wants to accomplish.
- My primary responsibility to investors in KEC Ventures is to be skeptical; Skeptical about myself, and what I think I know, and skeptical about the founders I meet and the claims they make. This is the only way I can minimize the chance that I pass on an idea that seems inconsequential at the outset, but goes on to form the basis for a transformative business. I hope another consequence of my skepticism is that I also minimize the probability that I am too eager to invest in startups that fail because they are built on ideas that are obvious. (Note: I also need to be optimistic.)
- Most startups fail. Let me rephrase that, the overwhelming majority of startups fail. My only task is to find those that will succeed before they become well known by other people. Further, we should not invest in a startup unless we believe that our investment in that startup can return our entire fund. One founder at the conference suggested he could “guarantee” a 10x return if KEC Ventures would invest $250,000 in his seed round. That would be great, if we were investing from a $2,500,000 fund.
- The type of startup I want to invest in is a very specific thing; it is a temporary organization that has been created to search for a profitable, repeatable, and scalable business model while it solves a problem that has been overlooked in a certain market. It is designed for fast growth once that solution is developed and the business model has been found, and if it succeeds it completely transforms and overwhelmingly dominates the market in which it operates before it moves into adjacent markets. ((This definition is a composite that combines elements from definitions other investors have used. It is primarily derived from a definition that Steve Blank and Bob Dorf use in The Startup Owner’s Manual.))
- Accepting the definition of a startup that I use as my guide, there are certain things that I listen for when I am speaking with a founder. Collectively, they are described as “Economic Moats” . . . Intellectual Property, Network Effects, Efficient Scale, Switching Costs and Branding. Even if these do not exist at the very outset, it has to be clear that they can be designed into the startup’s business model as it matures and that the founder has already been thinking about them. Also, I am not interested in situations where only 1 of those sources of an economic moat is present. I prefer 3 at a minimum, all 5 ideally. The durability of a moat is a something I worry about. Also, how wide or narrow that moat can be made is something I think about constantly. Essentially, I want to avoid the detrimental effects of competition.
- A venture capitalist does not provide capital to people who need it. A venture capitalist has a fiduciary responsibility to make the best effort possible to generate a positive return for investors in the fund.