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?
- 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)
- Filter and prioritise the list
- Getting in touch and starting the conversation
- 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.
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:
- 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.
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.
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.