I’ve worked with over 1000 business startups, and the ones that really stand out are few and far between. There is always a major flaw in some part of their operation, direction or product. Obviously, some are fixable with a little money or some talent, but others never get out of the gate. From my experience of looking for that next great unicorn startup, I thought I would give the aspiring founder some insight.
1. Do Your Market Research
It seems obvious, but founders come to me with ideas that seem so far fetched it’s hard to believe that they thought the product or service would work in the first place. You must know the issues, the problems being addressed, the players and the customer base. Going into a sector and niche that is oversaturated just makes it harder for your company to stand out. Finding a niche that no one cares about is equally fraught with uncertainty of success.
2. Is Your Company a Game Changer?
If your business doesn’t change the way people do things or see the world, you are not going to make waves and get noticed by customers or the media. You want media attention! Sure, you can make widgets until the cows come home, but having a real impact on the world is what dreams are made of.
One of our clients, Freightera, is a game changer that uses disruptive technology in the freight logistics field in the way Expedia did for travel. Changing the way freight is managed is not their only game changer, either. Realizing that freight carriers consistently travel 30% empty suggested to the CEO Eric Beckwitt that if his company could fill those up, it would save on greenhouse gases and make an environmental difference.
Forbes, Fortune, NBC and others took notice of Freightera. Last year, they were recognized with the prestigious Excellence in Product Innovation 2016 Technology Impact Award (TIA) from the BC Tech Association. Beckwitt wrote the thought leadership piece “A Green Future for Freight” for the 2016 G7 Summit in Japan. He presented on the same topic at COP22, the 2016 UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, Morocco. That kind of influence gets your business noticed.
3. Understanding How to Run Your Business
If you think running a startup with you, a cofounder and a couple of staff is easy, see what happens after your first seed round. If you are not comfortable managing the business, things will begin to fall apart. It won’t hurt to take on a couple of online courses to tune-up your general management skills. As you get more capital, consider replacing parts of your jack-of-all-trades CEO role with professionals. Investors want to know you can take care of their investment and have general business skills.
4. Quality of Character
In some respects, this should be the first consideration when we are looking to invest in a company – the quality of the person behind the company. Reputations are built on trust and easily taken away. Investors want to know that as the company grows the sincerity, commonsense, trustfulness of the founder will come across to both future investors and customers. I worked with a company whose founder had a bit of a ‘shady’ past. Nothing serious, but enough to have people whisper at investor events. Needless to say, his company didn’t remain a client for long.
5. It’s Not Just About the Product!
If you haven’t figured it out yet, the product is just a piece of the puzzle, Of course, it has to be great, but the three most important reasons to invest in your startup and not the other guy is the differentiation of your business through the quality of it’s people, the global market reach or distribution you can attain and the product. Without all three, finding investment is difficult.
6. What Skill Gives You, the Founder, the Edge?
I’ve been in presentations where the founder was so sincere and passionate that she came across like Mother Teresa. The reverse, of course, has been true as well. Investors want to know you have some special skill that they can be reassured that your startup can make it past the first year. It’s a lot to ask for the founder be superhuman but…
7. Stay Focused
Seems like an easy request, but when you’re trying to do press releases, managing programmers and finding capital, it’s not that easy to focus on building a company. How you deal with the distractions and keep yourself focused on getting to the top will be a clear message to any investor. This also goes back to management. If you are working above your skill grade, find someone to help, be it a new employee or a mentor. I ‘shadowed’ a CEO for months because he constantly lost his focus and needed not to show it in front of his cofounders and investors. To keep him on track, two heads were a lot better than one, and he managed to get to the liquidity event successfully.
Investors love to see founders pull resources out of thin air and manage what they have with lean determination. According to Investopedia, “an individual is said to be bootstrapping when he or she attempts to found and build a company from personal resources or from the operating revenues of the new company.” This puts the control of the company firmly in the hands of the founder. Having all the control and running the company smoothly as well as lean shows the investor you have sound judgment and worthy of investment.
9. Be an Adept Communicator
In my previous article on Cofounders, I suggested you or one of your cofounders needs to be an exceptional communicator to get your ‘story’ out there. There’s nothing worse to have two behind the scene nerds try to convince an investor to put money into your venture. You can’t afford to have poor communication cause a stumble on the story to an investor. I heard an exceptional presentation last night, again by Freightera, that had people on their feet clapping. It was forceful to see people in the palm of his hand as he spoke.
10. Plan B
As an investor, I look to see if the founder has all the bases covered and has figured out a long way in advance what might bite him if he’s not careful. Has he thought out all the processes and timelines needed to reach his vision and milestones? Has he thought of how he is going to use the money he raises effectively and appropriately? Does he have the skills to grow as the company grows and does his Plan B and C pivot not too far from the original idea? Plan B also entails what he needs to do when the startup takes longer to reach a point where he can even bring in a seed round and investors.
I’ve been working on an energy company of my own that I thought I could easily bootstrap to an investor round in five months. A year later, it is still bogged down by strategies and planning that I thought would be executable in a much shorter time. You don’t know what will pop up whether it’s delays in the food administration’s approval for your product or IP licensing. They all take longer than anticipated and allowances need to be made.
As a partner of Equifaira, a liquidity event planner, our due diligence in finding the right company to work with encompasses ten pages of questions we need answered before we even take on a company to present to investors. I hope some of these have struck a chord with you as a Founder. As you progress through financing rounds it gets a lot more complex and stressful but you won’t get much past family and friends unless you study and manage the basics.