Fun Raising

wholi founder Raz in whotopia...
Wholi co-founder Raz – one of our secret weapons when fundraising to build ‘whotopia’

Forget what you know about fundraising. It’s changing. There’s more money available from more sources, and more people chasing that money. So unless your numbers are so captivating you can walk into Sequoia and blow their socks off, it’s you that’s going to have to be working yours off…

We’ve spoken to hundreds of startups looking for investors. In this article, I want to share a few of the best tips we’ve discovered or heard, as well as revealing our learnings from wholi’s most recent round. Plus there’s a very special offer at the end of this post for anyone currently fundraising. 

First up be warned, there’s no magic bullet. Fundraising is hard. I’m purposefully not writing a fundraising article entitled ‘10 easy ways to…’ because I’ve yet to come across a way that’s easy. Perhaps many founders wouldn’t start the climb if they realised what’s involved and seek alternatives. There’s nothing sadder than a company running out of money and desperately seeking investment if they could have spent or even saved the time earning revenue instead. Don’t do it unless you truly need to and understand what it takes and what it takes out of you. 

Somehow, tech has become sexy. The place to be. Most startups that I speak to are targeting higher numbers of investors, meaning more noise in the market. Fundraising is increasingly a ‘numbers game’. Successful companies aren’t necessarily the ones with the best products or metrics, but instead the one who work hardest at their process of finding investors. If you’re prepared to commit to do the work, here’s how you can improve your chances: 

Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Before I start with the people search component of the fundraise, please read this: http://paulgraham.com/fr.html – It’s oh so wise, and I won’t repeat much of this advice. Read it 5x (it’s long) and then follow his advice to the letter. When you get stuck, read it again.

A shoulder to cry on

I would add one additional idea – and I cannot recommend it highly enough – which is to find someone who’s done a fundraise before and pay them to keep an eye on you, make introductions and be a shoulder to cry on. See the end of this article for a special offer from us to help one of you, for free. 

We spent $50k over 6 months. It was worth every penny. I’m not suggesting a fundraising ‘consultant’, god no, I’m talking about a founder who’s done this before who’ll double your chances of success and is hired specifically for that task and probably hasn’t done it often before i.e. they’re not making a career out of fundraising.

Process – your safety belt in turbulent times

In two previous blog posts here and here I explain my somewhat exhaustive process for recruiting an amazing team. Seems like a lot of work, right? That’s why Graham says that fundraising is a full time job, because it’s a similarly gruelling process. You need to ‘commit’ to the process. 

Abraham Lincoln said “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. That is also true of a good fundraise. Many of the tips I describe for people search there apply in a good fundraising process. If you don’t know your boolean modifiers, where to start when X-raying a site, or what the features of the investors you’re looking for are, get sharpening. 

Your process is your safety belt on the fundraising rollercoaster ride. Invest time and if necessary money researching and building this process of finding people and keeping track of who’s who, how to reach them, where to get intro, how to mine contact information, find email addresses and get introductions. 

Introductions are, by far, the best method of getting hold of people but don’t be afraid of cold-emailing people too. Most people don’t bother because it’s not recommended, but you can get a lot more cold emails out than you can intros so as long as you’re not burning bridges, try. If you know how to write a great email and personalise it, you’ll get responses. I met perhaps the #1 investor in the world because of a cold email. It still works. Gratuitous name-dropping often helps – “I’m meeting X and Y, so thought that it might be worth coming to see you too”. Investors will tell you absolutely not to use this technique (because it makes them seem like lemmings), but I’m afraid it works (because they often are).

How it Goes

This is how over 200+ startups we’ve spoken to run their process. I’m sharing this for two reasons, firstly there’s probably a lot of tried and tested wisdom in this simple process… AND if this is how everyone else does it maybe there’s something you can do differently?

  1. Build a target list (almost everyone builds them in spreadsheets – but as the number of people you need to store is in the hundreds we think wholi is a lot easier)
  2. Filter and prioritise the list
  3. Getting in touch and starting the conversation
  4. Building on the conversations, working through your pipeline and getting second, third and subsequent meetings

Also, remember that if you can shave 20% off any of these steps, you’ll save yourself days of time. Optimise. Treat it like you would a marketing test.

Lists and Number Games

Behind almost every great fundraise is a list of investors. Not a measly 20 people you might want to contact but literally hundreds upon hundreds of names carefully curated and crafted.

On arrival at 500 Startups and, I’m told most every accelerator, one of the first things they’ll tell you is compulsory is to build a detailed list of every investor that might be applicable. There are ~30k investors in our ‘who list’ – your aim is to build a list of 200-400 people who *might* invest. Over the course of your fundraise you’ll probably contact every one of them 3x via different methods. One of the reasons why wholi is focused around a list is that it forms the backbone of every good search and is many times more powerful than a spreadsheet.

As well as us, there’s CrunchBase, LinkedIn, AngelList, Owler, Conspire and many more sites that should be able to help you identify the right people and work out how to get introductions. I’ve mentioned it’s a numbers game. It’s true on the other side of the fence too – here’s a picture (below) sent to me by one of my investors. In 60 working days days, they had 157 first meetings, close to 3 a day and probably another 60 meetings for follow on. If they’re playing the numbers game SO SHOULD YOU.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 18.12.48

The opening number is red is companies MET. Think how many people were identified and then contacted before that. There would be two numbers to the left which are probably in the region of 1000 and 400, and that’s on the investor side, where most people will take a call. Told you it was a lot of work. One more thing to add and this is very important – your aim is to pique enough interest to move to the next stage of the process. You are NOT trying to get them to invest at that meeting, or with the first pitch deck. Remember the two rules of business:

  1. Don’t tell people everything you know

Filters and Priority

There’s a reason why the wholi investor list has certain filters. For example, if someone hasn’t made an investment recently, you probably aren’t going to get anything out of them either. Prioritise your time. Make sure your location, round size and category is applicable to the person you’re contacting. Get intros from or find investors through similar companies that have already fundraised. The reason why we include as many social profiles as we can is that blog topics, tweets, Facebook photos all give you indication of who you’re after and how to grab their attention.

Don’t be British

When finding and reaching out to people, the best piece of advice I can give is don’t be British about it. I had my Britishness beaten out of me when apologetically pitching wholi (or 3Sourcing as it was then) to the Californian startup crowd.

Hustle. Be bold. Our lead investor blew me off 2 or 3 times because he’d just had dental braces put on and couldn’t really talk on the phone. I simply saw that as a challenge. We got onto 500 Startups because I randomly tweeted Dave McClure and said we were interviewing at YC. I’d tried reaching out to him and other partners a dozen times before to no effect. As far as I’m concerned no reply means they haven’t seen your message. A vague no means try again!

I called one of the most famous angel investors in the UK on her private mobile in the evening and caught her cleaning her fish-tank with her daughter and that resulted in a meeting. You’ll have to try different methodologies and tweaks. There are hundreds of times I’ve mailed, tweeted, called people to try to get a foot in the door. Sorry investors, if you’re going to have one of the most desirable jobs in tech and take less risk, there’s got to be some downsides 🙂

Try messaging people where they don’t normally get messaged. Send snail mail. Message them on Facebook. One tip a Chairman of a FTSE100 company gave me was that if you want to get someone on the phone call the most senior person at that company (not the person you’re trying to reach). You’ll get through to their secretary/gatekeeper, then apologise and say you want to be put through to the person you originally wanted. Often, because your call has come from the secretary of the more senior person, the next secretary will presume you’re important and put you through. Try stuff and see what works for you.

Our Fundraise

At wholi, we completed a significant funding round early this year (2016). Whoop say the headlines, #whatthehellwasthat say my wrinkles, sleep patterns and hairline. Behind the scenes, a fundraise is an intensely tough, stressful, uncertain and (I think for most founders) unenjoyable experience. It’s somewhat fetishised by the press – a stamp of approval – but most scarred and battle-weary entrepreneurs will tell you they’d be happy never to do it again.

In our case, I don’t think the stress levels were helped by the fact I also slept in a tent, in the woods in Somerset, UK in rainy October throughout the process (https://simpletom.co.uk/2015/11/05/wood-you/), whilst also trying to write, prepare and give a TEDx (https://simpletom.co.uk/2015/12/15/tom-and-tedxs-excellent-adventure/). Although if there’s one thing that will give you perspective, it’s sitting in a boardroom somewhere in moneyland (one investor had pictures depicting a firing squad on their walls, I kid you not) during the day and then cooking pasta pesto over a hob in the rain in the dark, whilst listening to owls the same evening.

Good luck.  

****

A Special Offer: If you’re about to start, or are currently fundraising, then I (Tom, wholi’s founder – raised over $7m) will be giving one startup two days of my time to help you raise. I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to increase your chances by making introductions, helping with your pitch, your list of potential investors and so on. If you’re interested, please contact andreea at you know the rest dot com and let us know when you’re starting the raise along with your pitch, AngelList or other materials. We’ll be selecting startups on the basis of my ability to help them, coupled with their willingness to do the work 🙂 – looking forward to helping.

Bonus: If there a number of good enquiries, I’ll do my best to try to help pair you up with other entrepreneurs that have raised money before who might also be able to help you. Apologies if we can’t help you all.

The (Somewhat Mental) Recipe for Recruiting An Amazing Team – Part 2

The Wholi Team – Day 1 in the office

See part 1 of this post here – http://blog.wholi.com/the-somewhat-mental-recipe-for-recruiting-an-amazing-team-part-1/

In the previous post, I talked about ‘the search’ process when it comes to finding new people here at wholi. In this, I’ll look at the next steps – initiating discussions with candidates and using your networks.

Stage Two – Discussions

1) Once you’re at ~process 3) in the previous post, you should also start trying to reach out to the best candidates and begin talking to them. Go slowly at first, you want to learn as you go.

2) We wrote a template email, in Romanian, from my co-founder Raz (who’d won 2x medals in international olympics, got a PhD in AI etc) and then personalised the email in specific places for everyone we wrote to. We were careful to include things that were attractive, and also said that we know ‘you’re probably not looking but it’s always good to make a great connection’. The email is worth spending some time on and, given the investment in time it has taken to find those candidates.

3) We sent small batches of emails, monitoring the response rate and tried to learn what would increase the likelihood of getting a response. We followed on with people who hadn’t responded after a week or so, sometimes finding alternative emails for people if possible. In our case, we received a ~30-50% response rate, perhaps higher later on in the process once word got round. Be careful at this stage – if you’re emailing lots of people who might know one another then you want to make sure they understand that this is part of a process to find the right people. There’s a fine line between spamming and sending emails that are of value to people – in our enthusiasm, we’ve got this wrong before. 

4) When my co-founder got a response, he passed it on to me and I set up a call with the person for 30 minutes.  I also suggested they see our presentation at 500 Startups (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GPIiMrSTB4) to show them what we were about (and to try to further pique their interest). I suggested a quick call even if the person wasn’t willing to look for a new role or said they’re happy where they are. Most great people aren’t looking for something – this is the beginning of the relationship and often conversations that start at this stage can take years to turn into a successful hire. As I write this, I’m sitting opposite a colleague who initially wasn’t interested. I suggested a call and slowly but surely, when we talked more and more he became more excited about wholi and eventually joined us. 

5) During the conversation, I tried to: a) give a good pitch, tell them about the culture we were trying to create and that we’re only hiring the most amazing people, b) take notes on every conversation so I knew what they’d said and c) make sure to ask them who they think the best developers they’d worked with. c) is vital as the more conversations I had, the more often I heard the same names, which enabled me to know exactly who to target. This list of people regularly mentioned became our ‘dream team’ list. If they were friends with other people I was talking to, I’d also ask if they knew that person – no more than that, and monitor reactions (LinkedIn connections are useful for this). These names, if new, were fed back into the spreadsheet and also recorded and sometimes the ranking adapted if people were regularly recommended. As I mentioned at the beginning of the last article, if you already have or know of amazing people ask them who they would work with if they could hire anyone, this can save you a lot of time.

6) If the person was good and interested, I passed them over to Raz for another, more technical conversation and also tried to follow on with some more juicy pieces about the company, to keep them keen. Even if they weren’t interested, I’d recommend they drop into the office sometime for a chat, just so we can at least put a face to the name (this often sparked interest) and sent them materials/reading etc and tried to keep up with them. By the time you’ve got to this stage, you’ve invested a lot to find these gems, so treat them carefully. We keep emailing people until they’ve dropped by to visit us – once they see/get a feel for the office/team, it often changes people’s minds.

7) If after review with Raz there was mutual interest, I would have another longer talk and we’d also schedule in some time to work together, preferably for a half-day or more. There’s nothing quite like spending time working on actual problems with someone to know what they’re really like. Even after following the process above, about 50% of all people who have come for a working day are not hired. On the day itself we’d once again we’d ask for recommendations. Deciding what tests to do (and should be set by your expert in that field) is up to you, but point to the key features you want. Its worth investing time in this process. We also give detailed feedback for every candidate who comes to a working day – if they’ve made the effort to spend a half day with us, we want to be clear what didn’t work constructively so that the candidate gets something out of the process. That’s very important to us – we want the people not selected to leave feeling sad they didn’t get the role, but that the opportunity and team at wholi made the process the best it could be. Make sure you continue to take notes, so that someone else can understand where you are in the process, and what to look for in a candidate. Especially if there are a number of people hiring, but also be careful not to bias decision-making with opinions. I often ask very different questions from Raz (I’m a gut feeling, emotional, EQ person, whereas Raz is a logical, IQ, quantitative brain). Often the two of us will spot different patterns, which can be valuable. 

8) If you decide you do want to hire someone, one of the most important parts of the process is checking references. Use your notes to ask difficult questions of the referees about specific things that are of concern. Also check references with anyone you know who the candidate has not volunteered, to see if there’s a bias (although be careful, given candidates might not want people to know they’re leaving). Get as many references as you can (I went for 5/6 for most people). In addition to checking references, referees can shortcut your ability to learn how best to work with someone. It can take months to ‘discover’ what motivates someone and how to work with them. By asking referees how they would manage that person, or what to look out for, you learn a lot about speeding your process of building an effective working relationship.

9) If people are not interested for whatever reason but are on your ‘dream team’ list, keep in touch with them rolling forward and update them as to the progress of the business, as you would investors. We have a list of 25 or so people we stay in touch with every few months. I add them on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter etc. I post cheeky messages on our Facebook pages with them tagged in ‘future employees’ section (see below). Basically I stalk them and send a continual stream of abuse until they join us 😉

Tagging people who we want to join us...

After a while, if you’ve built the right team, these folks start to let you know when they’re free/interested and what’s happening in the market.

10) I ask my team to keep in touch with these folks (all the best people know each other) We’ve built a Facebook page in which we record some of our company history (and some photos in Wholistory – forgive me) and some of the team trips we’ve been on. We’ve been lucky enough as a company to go on trips to Malta, Sicily, Skiing and to Kenya – these have been amazing fun, excellent bonding experiences and helped us to take time out of the office to set values, assess what’s working and what’s not, etc. This year we’re off to the Romanian countryside, Montenegro and are planning our return to Kenya next Spring. 

Stage Three – Networks 

1) In addition to the above techniques you want to find people who can spot great talent for you. Email and try to develop relationships with key players like university professors, other entrepreneurs and people who will see the kind of candidates you’re after. Try to keep in touch with them every so often.

2) Now that we have an amazing team, our focus has shifted to using the team members to help us with referrals. Again, this is something we’ve built into the wholi product so that we can make finding the right people much easier for us, and we hope you too. We experimented with this and managed to build a list of 100+ people we wanted to hire in the space of about an hour, by asking each of our team to add people from their contacts. 

The process is hard and takes a lot of time… but it’s worth it. I hope this helps.

Good luck, happy hunting. Let me know in the comments if you’ve any further thoughts… 

 

The (Somewhat Mental) Recipe for Recruiting an Amazing Team – Part 1

The Wholi team in Kenya
The Wholi team in Kenya

I believe there are two rules to building a successful business:
  i) Hire amazing people
  ii) See i)

Well, there might be a tiny touch more to it than that, but I can’t emphasise enough how much it improves one’s chances. By many multiples. More, I think, than any other thing you can do with your business. A successful business is as much about who you do it with, as about what you do. Think about the extraordinary teams that formed Google, Apple, Tesla and so on.

Which is why it is so peculiar that entrepreneurs and managers tend to spend so little time and resource figuring out who they need to succeed.

In this article, I will share my recipe for recruiting an amazing team (a ‘dream team’), from scratch – building on my experience running an executive search business in two countries, as well as here at Wholi, where I believe we’ve recruited a pretty awesome team from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Adobe and beyond.

Read more …

A Wholi lot of What Next…

I’m tempted to put a megaphone to our lips and holler about one of the quiver of exciting things that have happened to us recently. That’s what we’re meant to do on a company blog, right?

“We’re awesome because of X or Y”. “This is why you should listen to us.” “The mysteries of cold fusion are history due to the inspirational discoveries we’ve made through breathtaking innovation and slavish work…” etc.

I’m not so sure. I rarely learn from people for whom their blog is the icing on the cake. I want to know what people felt and did when making their first pudding. The one that exploded, or when someone accidentally set the oven to C rather than F. That’s where businesses and entrepreneurs truly are forged – and where blogs are most interesting, rather than just decoration.

Read more …