Robert Ochtel’s Blog

An Experienced Approach to Venture Funding

Leveraging Connections for Business Funding

You’re smart. You know that, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 64% of net new jobs in the past 15 years have come from small businesses. You know that small businesses are booming. You also know that there are plenty of business solutions out there offered by companies so that you can easily get your business off the ground without having to worry about every small detail. What you don’t know, however, is where to get funding for that business idea rolling around in your head. But you know what? You know people. Here are the top three ways to gain business funding by leveraging your connections:

1. Family and friends
Why not try the most obvious place? Go ahead and see if you have any close acquaintances that are either interested in loaning you money or even becoming a partner. You already get along well with them, so you know that they’ll be nicer to talk to about this stuff than an employee at the nearest bank. Just make sure you write up a contract so that, when everything is over, you’re still friends.

2. Networking for angel investors
Angel investing has been booming in the past few years. According to Travis Kalanick, CEO and founder of UBER, this change is caused by the ever growing importance of social networking. He claims that “how you get angel funding has substantially changed because we know who to go after. It’s very clear because they’re all blogging and tweeting out their interests on angel investing and their thoughts on it … Now, it’s much, much quicker to get these deals done.” So start looking around your existing social networks or jump in by looking at the people you know who are already there. There are plenty of people out there who would love to hear about your idea!

3. Connecting to venture capital
The research firm CB Insights notes that “venture capital investments rose 19 percent, to $21.8 billion in 2010 — the first annual increase since the downturn.” There’s more venture capital money out there than ever before, meaning there’s a better chance for you to be able to get a piece of the pie. However, venture capital isn’t as easy to get as angel investment. You’ll have to work through the people that you know to find an “in” to pitch your idea and have the chance at funding.

When it comes to funding your new business idea, don’t think that you have to go on an arduous quest. Instead, look around you at the connections you already have and see if you can rustle up some money that way. It’s not always easy, but it’s easier than having to start from scratch!

James Kim is a writer for Choosewhat.com. ChooseWhat is a company that provides product reviews and test data for business services and products. Their goal is to help small companies make informed buying decisions on business solutions that help their business.

June 5, 2011 Posted by | Venture Capital | , , , , | Leave a comment

Entrepreneurs, a “Concept” or “Idea” Must be Verified with a Sustainable Business Model

Too often entrepreneurs approach venture capitalists or other third party investors (e.g. individual angels or angel groups) with only a business “concept” or “idea”.  For this same business “concept” or “idea” to be of any real value to these same investors it must be verified with a sustainable business model.  Remember, once venture capitalists are interested in a business proposition, the first thing they do is to review the supporting financials to understand if this same business proposition supports a sustainable and scalable investment opportunity.  If so, they will venture further to better understand the product offering, investment opportunity, and management team. If not, they will move on to the next business “concept” or “idea.  So, as an entrepreneur, you need to verify early on that in fact, your business “concept” or “idea” supports a sustainable and scalable business model.  By doing so, you will substantially increase your chances in securing funding.  If you do not, you will most likely be bypassed the venture capitalists and other third party investors alike.  This article focuses on the top line related financial items that you need to focus on early during the business planning process that will help you determine if your business concept is worth pursuing further.    

Identify and Verify Your Revenue Sources

Whether your start-up company is focusing on developing a technology, product or service offering, you need to first identify all of your potential sources of revenue.  It should be remembered that venture capitalists are highly risk adverse.  So, if you have the ability to secure multiple revenue sources from a single technology, product or service offering, this is all the better in the eyes of your investors.  Multiple revenue sources minimize the overall investor risk, and at the same time allow your start-up company to scale its revenue growth much faster than it would be able to do with a single source of revenue.  It also increases the potential returns for your investors.  In addition, often if you dig deeper into potential revenue sources during your planning process you may indentify additional market opportunities in which to sell or apply the same or a slightly modified version your technology, product or service offerings. These revenue generating opportunities, in some cases, may be larger and easier to access than that of your original targeted markets. So, take the time to analyze and understand all of your potential revenue sources and their associated markets.  This will provide you with tremendous benefits you as approach potential investors.  

Determine Your Product Offering’s Gross Margins

During the business planning process, after you identify all of your revenue sources, you need to next focus on the gross margins of your start-up company’s technology, product or service offerings.  This is important, as if you cannot generate a healthy gross margin, from your start-up company’s technology, product or service offering, you will not be able to cover your variable costs (sales, marketing, general and administration and research and development) to support a sustainable and scalable business. In short, if your start-up company’s gross margins are not high enough or sustainable, you will never be able to cover your operational costs and generate an operational or net profit.  So take the time to analyze all the costs associated with generating and bringing your technology, product or service offering to the market.  These costs include materials, manufacturing labor, channel marketing, support, etc.  If you do not understand all of the “costs” associated with getting your technology, product or service offering to market, you will not be able to develop a predictable, long term sustainable business.  Therefore, focus on your start-up company’s gross margins, as developing a product offering with a healthy gross margin will allow you to develop a sustainable business operation for the long run.

Verify Your Top Line Financials Using Your Competitors’ Financial Statements

Once you have identified your revenue sources and determined their associated gross margins, you need to verify your findings. This is best done by looking at the income statements of your top competitors. By doing this, you can determine if your revenue sources and their associated gross margins (revenue – cost of goods sold) are representative of that of typical competitors within your industry.  If you have multiple revenue sources from various technology, product or service offerings, you need to look at the competitor financial statements for each of your product offerings. This will allow you to verify the top line financials for all of your revenue sources, and provide additional support when engaging with potential investors 

One of the easiest and best ways to verify your financial top line numbers is to go to Yahoo Finance (http://finance.yahoo.com) and look at the income statements of your competitors.  Generally, here it is best to look at multiple competitors for each product offering as well as the industry average.  By doing so, you will not only be able to verify your own top line financial numbers, but you will be able to determine where your top competitors fall on the financial performance spectrum and model your start-up company’s financial statement accordingly.  Remember if you do not verify your financial numbers, your potential investors will and it is better to do your own homework up front than to find out about it during an investor presentation.

Business “concepts” and “ideas” can be intriguing, but it is a sustainable and scalable business proposition that gets the attention of potential investors.  To move from a business “concept” or “idea” to a sustainable business proposition, you must identify all of your revenue sources, determine their associated gross margins, and then verify your top line financials with your competitors’ income statements.  This will allow you to determine if you can develop a sustainable operational business model.  This is not the end of the road in developing a complete financial model, only the beginning.  But, what this top line analysis does is to help entrepreneurs identify the appropriate technology, product or service offerings that will move them forward toward a verified sustainable and scalable business model that will secure potential investors’ interest.

This information was taken from Robert’s new book: “Business Planning, Business Plans and Venture Funding – A Definitive Reference Guide for Start-up Companies”.  Available at www.amazon.com.  For more information on the book go to www.carlsbadpublishing.com.

February 17, 2010 Posted by | Venture Capital | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Entrepreneurs, Take Your Time to Choose the Right Directors for Your Start-up Company

Choosing the individuals to serve as members of the board of directors for your start-up company is a very important task and one that should not be taken lightly.  Like, key members of your executive staff, the individuals that will serve on the board of directors of your start-up company must have the appropriate backgrounds, understand your start-up company’s technology, product or service offering, and have a strong reputation for helping to develop and steer successful companies.  Anything less is not acceptable. Therefore, be careful to choose the right individuals to serve on the board of directors for your start-up company, it will help you to attract capital and serve your start-up company well both short and long terms.

Don’t Choose Your Friends as Directors

Entrepreneurs, like any individual, tend to choose friends and other professional associates to serve as members of the board directors for their start-up companies. This is not really a good choice, as friends or even professional associates may not have the appropriate amount of experience or the skill set to help steer your start-up company through the trials and tribulations that will come your way. In addition, in some cases, personal friendships or professional relationship histories may get in the way of objective assessments and prudent business decisions. Therefore, in understanding the importance of board level positions, as well as the legal implications, it is more important to choose the “right” individuals to serve as members of the board of directors of your start-up company, as opposed to “known” friends of other individuals that may not be able to provide the necessary insight and direction that is critical to facilitating the success of your start-up company in the market.  So, take your time, as an entrepreneur, to choose the appropriate board members for your start-up company.  Remember, friends and other professional colleagues do not necessarily make the appropriate board members.  You need to choose individuals, for your board of directors, with the same prudence that you would when choosing the next member of your start-up company’s executive team.  Using this type of insight will serve your start-up company well.

Look for Individuals that Understand Your Space

Individuals that are to serve members of the board of directors for your start-up company need to necessarily understand the “space” or industry you are in.  This is necessary for them to offer any valuable insight to what is going on within the industry and the overall trends of the market. This is a key aspect to choosing members for your board of directors. If any of the individual members of your board of directors do not understand your start-up company’s technology, product or service offering and/or the space you are participating in, they will be much less likely to be able to provide you with the necessary insight and direction necessary to guide your start-up company to success in the market.  In addition, they will not really understand what is being discussed during board meetings, and most likely will end up being a distraction during these same meetings. Consequently, these same individuals will not be able to properly digest the important issues being discussed and triangulate this same information into conclusions that will add value to your start-up company’s direction.  Remember, successful start-up companies often need to change direction or pivot quickly in order to react to what is going on in the market or compensate for past decisions that took this same start-up company in the wrong direction.  Therefore, when choosing team members for your board of directors, choose members that have the appropriate amount of experience in your space, this will allow these same members to provide valuable insight to the necessary decisions that need to be made to steer your start-up company in the right direction.

Stellar Reputations will Attract Money

One of the things that you need to consider when choosing individuals to be members of your board of directors is to find individuals with “stellar” reputations.  This can be individuals that:

  • Have a strong history of choosing and working with successful start-up companies,
  • Have developed an extraordinary reputation as a technology and/or business specialist within the industry that your start-up company is focusing on, or,
  • Have invested in number of successful start-up companies and has a reputation for choosing winners. 

Remember all people want to be associated with individuals that are perceived as successful or winners within their industry.  In addition, choosing board members with “stellar” reputations will allow you to attract money.  As, good deals with great board members, get the attention of investors and as such these same start-up companies have a much easier time attracting investment monies.  So, take the time to identify and approach individuals with stellar reputations to serve as board members of your start-up company. This will necessarily make your start-up company attractive to potential investors.

As an entrepreneur, you need to take the necessary time to choose the right individuals to serve as members or your board of directors.  To do this properly you should stay away from friends, look for individuals have an understanding of your targeted space, and choose individuals that have stellar reputations.  Using these items as criteria when choosing potential directors for your start-up company will provide you with the necessary insight to select individuals that will have the necessary background, experience and insight to help successfully facilitate your start-up company through any trial and tribulations that come your way.

This information was taken from Robert’s new book: “Business Planning, Business Plans and Venture Funding – A Definitive Reference Guide for Start-up Companies”.  Available at www.amazon.com.  For more information on the book go to www.carlsbadpublishing.com.

February 1, 2010 Posted by | Venture Capital | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Entrepreneurs, Rationalizing Your Financial Projections is an Important Step to Completing Your Business Plan

Most entrepreneurs focus on developing their financial projections at the same time they are trying to finalize their business plan.  This is done for many reasons, most likely of which is that they do not know much about financial statements and push off developing their financial projections until the last possible moment before they compete their business plan. Often in a rush to get in front of potential investors, these same entrepreneurs do not spend the necessary time to really understand and logically rationalize their financial projections.  Therefore, when they present to investors they may have a great technology, product or service offering that secures the initial attention of these same investors, but they have not spent the necessary time to properly rationalize their financial projections and as such will often immediately lose this same investor interest.  To keep your investors’ interest, you must rationalize your financial projections so that they are logically defendable in front of these same investors.  If you do not do so, this will eliminate any chance of receiving venture funding from seasoned angels or venture capitalists.

Rationalize Your Revenue Projections from the Bottom Up

Revenue projections need to reflect reality.  Often, entrepreneurs have very unrealistic revenue projections that cannot be rationalized by any logical means.  To develop revenue projections that are rational, it is important to start from the bottom up to build out these same revenue projections. This bottom up approach will allow you to logically estimate the necessary time it takes to engage customers and then secure revenue from these same customers. It will also allow you to build up reasonable product volume projections that are realistic and rational. In addition, as an entrepreneur you need to understand the basic fundamentals of your financial projections including, revenue sources, gross margins, operating costs, and net margins.  If you have not spent the time to understand the fundamentals of your start-up company’s business model and the rationalized your financial projections based on these fundamentals, your financial statements will not hold up to the scrutiny of seasoned investors.  Therefore, take the time to rationalize your revenue projections from the bottom up. By doing so, you have then developed a logical approach to building up your financial statements that will serve you well in front of your potential investors.

Rationalize Your Development Costs

Another step in developing defendable financial statements is to present development costs that also reflect reality.  Investors are always worried that it will take twice as long and cost twice as much money for an entrepreneur to develop and then introduce their technology, product or service offerings to the market.  As such, they are wary of overly optimistic development cost projections. Therefore, again, it is important to start from the bottom up and build out your development cost projections and staffing requirements.  Here, you need to take into consideration when your initial technology, product or service offering is to be introduced into the market and how many individuals will be required for this effort. You also need to take into consideration necessary ramp of staffing requirements. Too steep of a ramp, can delay development, and at the same time may leave many of these same individuals with nothing to do once their initial tasks are completed. Therefore, you need to add development staff at a rational and reasonable pace and level that not only reflects your near term development needs, but also reflects your long term staffing requirements as you introduce follow-on products into the market.   So, you need to be prudent and hire only the necessary development staff that fits your start-up company’s near term development needs and at the same time also reflects your long term product roadmap and its development staffing requirements.  Therefore, take the necessary time to rationalize you and development staff the costs associated with it.  Again, this will serve you well in front of your potential investors.

Identify and Delineate Significant Delivery Milestones

One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is to not identify their significant development and delivery milestones to potential investors.  That is, they do not delineate those significant milestones that will be delivered for the targeted amount of funding they are requesting.  Once you rationalize your revenue projections and development costs, as an entrepreneur, you need to identify and then delineate, in a rational manner, what the significant milestone deliverables are for this investment.  Accordingly, most start-up companies require multiple rounds of funding, so investors need to know what significant milestones will be delivered for each round of funding.  Do you have a beta product at the end of your first round of funding?  When can you begin to secure revenue from your customers?  In essence, you need to delineate to investors what you are delivering in terms of significant milestones to get your start-up company to the next level of funding or into the market.  Anything less is not acceptable.  Finally, by delineating your milestone deliverables, investors have something to measure you by to determine if you are performing according to your original pre-funding plan. So, as an entrepreneur take the time to properly identify and delineate the appropriate significant milestones as this will allow investors understand what they will be receiving for their investment. 

Before you get in front of any investors, you need to properly rationalize your financial projections.  To do this, you need to delineate your revenue projections, determine your development costs, and identify significant milestones.  By doing so, you will be developing a logical representation of your business model and its financial projections.  In addition, you will be determining the necessary staffing requirements that reflect your start-up company’s near term and long term development requirements. Finally, you will be delineating to your investors the necessary delivery milestones that will not only add value to your start-up company, but provide measureable tasks in which investors can determine your performance.  So, take the time to rationalize your financial projections as it will serve you well in front of your potential investors.

This information was taken from Robert’s new book: “Business Planning, Business Plans and Venture Funding – A Definitive Reference Guide for Start-up Companies”.  Available at www.amazon.com.  For more information on the book go to www.carlsbadpublishing.com.

January 18, 2010 Posted by | Venture Capital | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Entrepreneurs, What is Your Start-up Company’s “Value-Added” Proposition?

Simple questions from venture capitalists can be the most difficult to answer for entrepreneurs. Why, because they often require both a strategic vision and specific insights to the long-term nature of all aspects of the market, your competitors, and your customers.  This requirement often eludes entrepreneurs as more often than not they are tactically focused and do not really have a strategic vision for their start-up company and the long term business opportunity their investment represents to their customers and to these same investors.  Therefore, when asked “What is the value-added proposition of your start-up company?” they often stumble and in some instances cannot answer this most simple of probing questions.  Why, because they have not taken the time to really evaluate what they are trying to offer the market and their end customers. That is, “Why are customers going to buy your product?”  As an entrepreneur, there are four tenants that you need to address, which will provide you the necessary insight to address the issue of defining the “value-added” proposition for your start-up company.  This article addresses each of these tenants and their ultimate importance to the potential success of your start-up company’s product offering to the market and its end-customers.

What are the Strategic Opportunistic Needs of the Market?

When developing a product offering you need to start from the markets.  Specifically, you need to address the “strategic opportunistic needs” of the market.  That is, what is the “problem” or “need” you are solving.  If there is no “problem” or “need” to solve, then there is no particular reason for customers to buy your product.  Whether it is lower costs, lower power consumption, higher efficiencies, or better service, etc., there needs to be a strategic opportunistic customer need that you are addressing with your start-up company’s product offering. Therefore, to determine your value-added proposition to the market place and the end customer, you need to definitively identify and solve a market or customer need that is currently not being addressed in the market.  The basis of this strategic opportunistic requirement needs to be based on a real assessment of the customers and the market. Anything less, will not cut it, as customers are very discerning, and if they do not see a definitive need to buy your technology, product or service offer they won’t.  Therefore, take the time to define the needs of the market place. Write these needs down on paper, and verify them by talking to a number of potential customers. You will then be able to appropriately define the “strategic opportunistic needs” of the market and one important tenant of the value-added proposition of your product offering.

 Do You Have a Long-Term Competitive Advantage?

Investors need to know that as a start-up company that you have a long-term competitive advantage in the market. This is usually accomplished through the development and subsequent patenting of certain intellectual property as it relates to your start-up company’s technology, product or service offering. This intellectual property, as defined, needs to differentiate your start-up company’s product offering in the market, and at the same time provides significant value to the long-term competitiveness of your technology, product or service offering.  Remember, investors are looking to create long term value, so that they can ultimately cash-in by either selling your company to a third party or going public (not too often these days).  Therefore, you need to create and protect your value-added proposition with patented intellectual property.  Doing so, will provide your start-up company with a long-term sustainable competitive advantage and allow your investors to earn substantial returns on their investment.

What is the Competitive Positioning of Your Start-up Company?

Do you know the competitive position of your start-up company? More often than not, entrepreneurs do not really understand the value of creating a “unique” competitive position in the market.  By creating this competitive position in the market you are differentiating your start-up company in the market and at the same time creating a value-added proposition to your customer base.  Whether it is a lower cost solution, or a unique service offering, you need position your start-up company and its technology, product or service offering as differentiated from your competitors. Apple does this well with their entire line of product offerings.  By offering unique operating systems and value-added user interfaces, they provide a differentiated end-user experience.  Hence, Apple has developed a “value-added” and unique competitive position in the market.  As such, they are able to charge more for their products, as the customers believe that there is value in the Apple product offerings and the overall end-user experience. Therefore, as a start-up company you need to develop a unique position in the market, such that your customers believe there is significant and unique added value in your product offerings when compared to your competitors.

How Do You Define your Start-up Company’s Product Offering?

How you define your start-up company’s product offering can add significant value to your customers and their needs. As an example, many times there is significant value to your customer base in how you deliver your product to the market.  For example, take Netflix and the movie rental industry. By developing a new delivery channel for a “generic” product offering, the home movie rental market, they have been able to provide substantial “value” to their end-customers, and at the same time differentiate themselves in the market.  Therefore, take the time to properly define your start-up company’s product offering. Make sure you are doing this in the context of developing a differentiated product offering for your target customers and the market.  This will allow you to develop a product offering that is defined by market and the end customer needs.  Solving a customer’s problem by appropriately defining your product offering to the market can be a key to adding significant value to your end customer and at the same time differentiate your product offering in the market.

Creating a “value added” proposition for your target market and its customers requires vision and specific insight to the long-term nature of all aspects of the market, your competitors, and your customers. To do this, as an entrepreneur you need to address four tenants, including: identifying the strategic opportunistic needs of the market, determining your long-term competitive advantages, developing a defendable competitive position, and determining your unique product configuration.  These items together will allow you to develop a “value added” proposition to the markets you are addressing and your end customers.  This will also provide your potential investors with the necessary insight to develop a quick understanding of potential for success of your start-up company and its product offering in the market.

This information was taken from Robert’s new book: “Business Planning, Business Plans and Venture Funding – A Definitive Reference Guide for Start-up Companies”.  Available at www.amazon.com.  For more information on the book go to www.carlsbadpublishing.com.

October 12, 2009 Posted by | Business Planning, Venture Capital, venture finance, Venture Funding | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Three Things Entrepreneurs Absolutely Need to Know Before They Talk To Their First Venture Capitalist Investor

Being an entrepreneur is not a guessing game.  Like any successful endeavors in life, starting a business as an entrepreneur, which depends upon third-party venture investors for its ultimate success, requires time and lots of hard work, as well as considerable planning and preparation.  Much of this planning and preparation process is often overlooked by first time entrepreneurs.  Why, because many of these same first time entrepreneurs believe the following: “Hey, I have a business idea and why shouldn’t I receive funding from a venture capitalists no questions asked.”  This thinking will not get you too far with potential venture capitalist investors.  They expect you to be prepared, and have thought through your proposed business idea from all angles.  In this vain, as a minimum, there are three items you need to answer before you step foot in front of any venture capitalist investor.  This article addresses these three items and outlines why by answering these three questions, you most likely will succeed in getting a follow-up meeting with these same venture capitalist investors.

What Problem am I Solving?

Investors first want to know that you are solving a problem in the market.  They do not want to invest in start-up companies with a technology, product or service offering that is looking for a problem to solve.  Why, because unless there is a “defined need” for you start-up company’s technology product or service offering no one will buy it.  Remember, you are in business to acquire paying customers and not to develop a “cool” technology, product or service offering.  Venture capitalists understand this, and from the beginning they are looking for the underlying reason customers will pay for your product offering.  Is your product offering cheaper?  Does your product get your customers to market faster?  Does your product offering save your customers money?  There many underlying reasons customers will buy your product offering. You need to determine this reason.

All venture capitalists want to know is that there is a reason for customers to buy your technology, product or service offering.  Therefore unless you are filling a “need” in the market you will be hard pressed to convince these same investors that you have a fundable start-up business.  This is very simple and at the same time is more often overlooked by entrepreneurs.  So, before you decided to present your business plan to potential venture investors, take a self assessment and determine what problem you are solving.  Be realistic and practical in your assessment, as you should know your investors will be.

What is My Business Model and Projected Financial Returns?

Most first time entrepreneurs do not really understand the venture funding game.  That is, they really don’t take the time to understand venture capitalist and their objectives and goals. So, let’s be clear, venture capitalists are in business to make money – a lot of money. Therefore, they need to invest in business opportunities that make business sense from the financial point of view.  Therefore, a new start-up company with a proven business model will make sense to venture investors.  On the other hand, a new business venture with an unproven business model will not get any real attention from these same investors.  Why, because venture capitalists are in business to mitigate their financial risk, and having a business model with a proven track record in the market will give these same potential investors the level of comfort that they need to consider the investment opportunity.

In addition, as an entrepreneur it is necessary that you know your projected financial returns of your start-up company for your venture investors. The standard rule of thumb here is 5 times the initial investment in 3 years or 10 times the initial investment in 5 years.  These numbers, do not reflect any reality or are even close to the average returns venture investors receive on their investments, but are merely the standard financial hurdles venture capitalists use to judge different start-up business opportunities.   So, as an entrepreneur you need to know your financial returns and make sure they conform to these industry standard projections.  Anything less will not get you a follow-up meeting with these same potential investors. 

Finally, as an entrepreneur you need to remember that venture capitalists only invest in a limited number of start-up companies over their lifetime of their venture fund, so they need to be careful when vetting start-up company investment opportunities.  Understanding the business model and the projected financial returns is their first step to considering a potential investment opportunity.

Is My Product Offering Unique and Compelling?

As an entrepreneur, you need to have a product offering that is both unique and compelling.  Anything less, will most likely not get venture investors attention.  Why, because these two attributes will differentiate your start-up company’s technology, product or service offering in the market.  If your product offering is unique, it more than likely is patentable or has intellectual property associated with it.  This will differentiate your product offering to your investors.  Why, because it provides the opportunity to create value – something that will potentially bring much higher financial returns when the investors go to sell the company.  Also, being compelling provides a reason for customers to buy your product.  This will provide the ability to create market “buzz” and associated market traction.  Remember, “time-to-money” increases the financial returns for your investors.  So creating a product with compelling value proposition for your customer base will get your investors attention from the beginning. Therefore, as an entrepreneur, if you wish to secure funding from third-party venture investors you need to create a product offering that is both unique in the market and compelling to your customer base.

Venture capitalists see lots of investment opportunities every year. Many review thousands of executive summaries and business plans.  Very few, if any of these same investment opportunities get the attention of the venture capitalists.  Why, because they do not address necessary items that will make their investment opportunity successful from an investor’s point of view.  This article has outlined three necessary things that entrepreneurs need to know before they get in front of venture capitalist. If these three things are not addressed in detail during your first meeting with investors, you will not get a follow-up meeting.  Therefore, be aware these three items as they most likely will provide you with the ability to secure immediate traction with potential third party investors.

This information was taken from Robert’s new book: “Business Planning, Business Plans and Venture Funding – A Definitive Reference Guide for Start-up Companies”.  Available at www.amazon.com.  For more information on the book go to www.carlsbadpublishing.com.

September 14, 2009 Posted by | Business Planning, concept, Idea, Venture Capital, venture finance, Venture Funding | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Knowing Your Customers Can Help Drive Your Start-up Company to Success in the Market

Every year over 500,000 would be entrepreneurs in the United States prepare and present their business propositions in front of angel investors and venture capitalists. Many of these same entrepreneurs often over look one important item, knowing their customer base. This faux pes can be detrimental to their start-up company, as investors need to understand that you know your customers and their needs, intimately.  Also, by not engaging with their potential customers early on, start-up companies can miss the market by developing the “right” product with the “wrong” features, functions, and capabilities.  In addition, these same internally focused start-up companies may miss the best benefit of all, developing a strong strategic relationship with a customer that is a market leader. This article addresses some of the reasons it is always beneficial to engage with your customer base early and often.

Do You Know Your Customers?

As a potential entrepreneur interested in taking your technology, product or service offering to market, you need to “know” your customers. This includes identifying the market leaders, market laggards, and the up and coming rising “stars” in all of your target markets of interest. This type of familiarity with your customer base will allow you to develop an appropriate go-to- market strategy and associated tactics when addressing your targeted market space.  Market leaders of today are not necessarily the market leaders of tomorrow.  Therefore, doing your diligence on the various competitors in your market and understanding their status, product portfolio, market position, etc. is invaluable when presenting your technology, product or service offering to these same customers. What is important to one customer will not necessarily be important to the next. So, by familiarizing yourself with your customer base and you will be much more comfortable when you call on them and ultimately present your product offering to them.  Remember, Apple was not even in the cell phone market a few years ago, now they are a major player in the “smart phone” segment of the market.  Therefore, anticipating this and familiarizing yourself with your potential customers puts you and your start-up company in the driver’s seat when engaging with your potential customers.

 What Segments of the Market Are You Addressing?

Most markets can be broken up into several market segments.  This generally includes the following:

  • High tier segment,
  • Medium tier segment, and
  • Low tier segment.

These segments are often based on price, but also as such, usually have many different sets of features, functions, and capabilities for each product offering to each market segment.  Often, start-up companies entering a new market cannot afford to address all market segments of a given market space.  Therefore, as a new company entering the market you need to familiarize your company with the various sub-segments within a given market and then determine the product features, functions, and capabilities that are necessary to address these market segments and also at the same time have an understanding regarding those same features, functions and capabilities that are “nice to have”.  This market segment familiarity will drive the features, functions and capabilities of your technology, product or service offering.  Not trying to be everything to every market segment is often a key attribute of successful start-up companies.  When entering a market for the first time, it is much better to be focused on a given market segment than trying to do everything for every potential customer.  Therefore, knowing what market segment or segments you are addressing up front will provide you with focus and allow your start-up company to be successful when entering a new market.  Later on, after you are successful in your target market segment, you can expand your product offering.  This strategy worked very well for the Japanese car companies entering the US market in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Originally, they entered the low-end segment of the US car market. Today, these same Japanese car makers are dominant players in all US car market segments.

Develop A Strategic Alliance with a Key Customer

Historically, the most successful start-up companies have often had the good fortune of developing a strategic alliance or “close relationship” with a market leader in their target market space. This relationship can be mutually beneficial to both the start-up company and the market leader. From the start-up company’s point of view developing a strong relationship with a key strategic partner will allow them to focus their product features and develop a first product offering that has a guaranteed market.  This is invaluable to the start-up company, as this key strategic alliance partner knows the end market application better than they do, and at the same time will help them focus their development efforts to a product offering that will be market driven and as a result successful in the market. From the market leader’s perspective, developing a relationship with a start-up company with a unique technology, product or service offering, will often allow them to differentiate their end-product in the market, gain market share, and address new emerging market opportunities, much faster than they would be able to by developing the technology, product or service offering on their own. This mutually beneficial relationship results in a win-win opportunity for the start-up company as well as the market leader.

Allow Customers to Drive Your Strategic Road Map

Many start-up companies do not have a well defined product road map. This is generally seen by investors as a gaping hole within their business plan, as only presenting a single product offering often indicates to investors a lack of familiarity with the market, and the long-term general market trends.  Seldom are start-up companies successful with their first product offering. Often, given market competition and the rapid pace of a changing market, these same start-up companies only become successful, gaining significant market share, after their second or third generation product offering.  So, only presenting a single product offering to your investors is a recipe for disaster.  This is where your customers can have a large impact on the future product offerings of your start-up company.  By engaging early with your customers and listening carefully to their needs and the market requirements, you can allow these same customers drive your product strategic road map. This will provide you with a basis to move forward and although it may change over time, a customer driven product road map is invaluable when presenting to you potential investors.  Nothing is more valuable to an investor presentation than having real customer input, based on actual conversations with your target customers. This provides instant credibility and market expertise not available by any other means.

Develop Valued Customer Relationships for Your Future Success

Developing valued customer relationships is a key to the success of any start-up company. Doing so allows you to gather invaluable input, vet new ideas, and at the same time stay close to the market trends.  Remember a “market driven” company will have much more long term success in their targeted market than that of a “technology driven” company. So, as a start-up company you need to value your customers, listen to their input, and reflect this invaluable information in your product development plans and associated product road map.  Too often, companies tend to believe they know more about the market than that of their customers. This is not the case.  Since your customers are one step closer to the end market application they are the ones to drive the technology, product or service features for your current and next generation product offerings.  Remember to use these same customers as a basis for your decision making and learn to value this relationship, as it will provide you with invaluable insight to both the near term and long term trends in the market.   

Knowing your customers will help drive your start-up company to success in the market.  By knowing your customers, determining your target market segments, developing strong strategic alliances, presenting a customer driven product roadmap and ultimately valuing your customers, you as an entrepreneur will be miles ahead when presenting to potential investors.  This customer familiarity will help you develop successful product offerings, both near term and long term, and at the same time allow your start-up company to secure significant market share, ensuring your long term success in the market.  So get out there and talk to your customers, you can only benefit from such one-on-one interaction ant it will help drive your start-up company to success in the market place.

June 29, 2009 Posted by | Customers, Strategic Alliance, Target Markets, Venture Capital, venture finance, Venture Funding | , , , , | 1 Comment

Entrepreneurs: Your Executive Summary Sets the Tone For Your Potential Venture Investors

Your start-up company’s executive summary is typically the first document potential venture investors review when considering your start-up company as an investment opportunity. The quality of this document therefore sets the tone for these same venture investors (e.g. individual angels, angel groups and venture capitalists). A quality executive summary may be the difference between securing a meeting in front of potential venture investors or not receiving a call back.  Therefore, by considering the executive summary as their “door opener”, entrepreneurs need to focus on developing an “investor quality” document to put their best foot forward when introducing themselves and their start-up company to potential venture investors. This article outlines some of the things that entrepreneurs need to consider before they provide their start-up company’s executive summary to their potential venture investors.

Does Your Executive Summary Have the Appropriate Content?

The executive summary is a key element of the road show process. This document is used as the “entry” vehicle to secure the attention of venture investors. A well-written executive summary is necessary to securing a follow-up phone call and subsequent meetings with the venture investment community. The executive summary provides a two- to three-page overview of the company’s business plan. This document is to include an overview of the company, its technology, product, or service offering, as well as its management team and the financial requirements and expected return on investment. The executive summary must be a well-written, succinct document that describes all the essential points that are of interest to venture investors. Content to be included in an executive summary includes the following:

  • Company Overview
  • Background and Milestone
  • The Problem/Value Proposition
  • The Technology, Product, or Service Offering
  • Target Customers
  • Market Size
  • Market Strategy, Tactics and Execution
  • Competition Summary
  • Financial Projections
  • Management Overview
  • Funds Requirements and Use of Funds
  • Exit Strategy

 It should be noted that an “investor-quality” executive summary is very difficult to write and takes many hours of work by the whole management team of your start-up company.  But, given the importance of this document to securing your first meeting with potential investors, it is well worth the effort.

 Is Your Executive Summary Succinctly Written?

It needs to be emphasized that a considerable amount of time and effort should be spent by the management team of your start-up company to develop an “investor-quality” executive summary. This often requires that the management team to write, and then rewrite and rework the executive summary document many times, in different formats or layouts to get a succinctly written document having the proper flow, content, and message.

As previously mentioned, this document sets the tone by providing the proper introduction of your start-up company and its technology, product, or service offering that will determine whether you receive a call back and are able to arrange a first meeting with venture investors. So, the importance of this document can not be underestimated.  Your executive summary is the document that will make the difference between receiving and not receiving a call back.

To ease the process of developing an “investor-quality” executive summary, there are several items to adhere to during the development of your start-up company’s executive summary, including:

  • Length: 2-3 pages – The ideal length of an executive summary is two pages. Often, executive summaries are three to five pages in length. It should be noted that venture capitalists have a limited amount of time to review your executive summary and, as such, the shorter the better and the more likely it will be read. 
  • Font: 10 point or larger – Typical font size for an executive summary is 10 to 12 font. Anything smaller is not readable and will generally deter your target audience from reading your executive summary.
  • Sub-heading and bullets – The use sub-headings and bullet points to enhance the story is recommended in the development and presentation of your executive summary. This does two things: 1) It provides the reader with a format that is easy to read; and 2) It allows the venture investor to identify the “key” elements of interest in an executive summary at a simple glance.

Therefore, having a succinctly written, executive summary, based on the tenants outlined above, and at the same time providing the appropriate content and message is a big step toward receiving a call back from potential venture investors.

Does Your Executive Summary Contain Financial Pro Forma Statements?

Many times I receive executive summaries from start-up companies that do not contain any financial pro forma information. This is like buying a car without a steering wheel and an engine.  Without providing the appropriate financial pro forma statements in your start-up company’s executive summary, investors will not know where you are going or how fast you will get there.  Since your potential venture investors are financial managers, they are primarily reviewing your start-up company based on the potential return on investment it can provide them in a reasonable time frame.  They are not really concerned on how “cool” your technology is or by how “neat” of a product offering you are developing for your target customers. Potential investors, first and foremost, review your start-up company based upon its projected financial performance.  Therefore, you must spend a considerable amount of time putting together financial projections that are:

  • Defendable,
  • Have the appropriate back up details, and
  • Reflect industry standard financial statements.

 By not providing financial pro forma projections or by providing financial statements (e.g., income statements, balance sheet cash flow statements) that are inaccurate, un-defendable, or do not reflect typical industry financial standards, your executive summary is by definition an incomplete document.  Therefore, it is very important to include financial projections in your executive summary to ensure that you receive a call back from potential venture investors.

Have Your Executive Summary Reviewed By Third Parties.

All start-up companies should have their executive summaries reviewed by independent third parties that have experience securing funding from the venture funding community.  This review process will ensure you do not miss something and will provide the appropriate type of critique that will add value and quality to your executive summary.  You should have several colleagues review your executive summary. This will allow you to consider multiple input sources and at the same time provide you with many difference perspectives on this summary document.  Remember having originally generated your executive summary, you are too “close” to it and need an unemotional third party to review your document from an objective point of view.  This will enhance the quality of your start-up company’s executive summary and often, at the same time, improve the end product.

 Have You Done Your Due Diligence On Your Investors?

Many entrepreneurs do not spend the any time doing due diligence on their potential venture investors.  This is important, as you want to target only those investors that will have an interest in your start-up company and its technology, product or service offering. Therefore, doing the appropriate level of due diligence will ensure that you are targeting the appropriate investors for your start-up company and its technology product or service.  Several items to consider when doing your due diligence on your potential venture investors include the following:

  • Geographic focus,
  • Stage of development focus,
  •  Capital required,
  • Industry specialization, and
  • Deal leadership.

All of these items will affect whether a given venture investor will consider your start-up company as a potential investment opportunity. So, before you approach any venture investor, you should research their background, their past investments, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. This will more likely insure a positive experience with your target venture investors.

 Developing your executive summary is the important first step in securing a meeting with potential venture investors. The quality of your executive summary sets the tone with your potential venture investors and can be the difference between securing your first investor meeting or not receiving a call back.  It is important as an entrepreneur to understand the importance of your executive summary and create an “investor quality” document with the appropriate flow, content, and message to get your potential venture investor’s attention. By spending the appropriate amount of time an effort creating your start-up company’s executive summary you can ensure that you will get the attention of the venture funding community.

June 15, 2009 Posted by | angel investors, Executive Summary, Venture Capital, venture finance | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Some “Truths” About Networking for First Time Entrepreneurs

The term networking itself and networking as an activity can be very intimidating to first time entrepreneurs.  Many of these same individuals have never have had to network or believed that they needed to network to enhance their career, and as such, are unfamiliar with networking and its benefits.  In fact, many first time entrepreneurs, not only need to learn what “networking is and is not”, but they need to learn “how to network” to benefit of both themselves and their start-up companies.   This article outlines some basic “truths” regarding networking and how it can benefit entrepreneurs and their start-up companies.

Networking is Really Focused “Socializing” 

Networking is really no different than any other socializing activity.  In fact, if it were referred to as “socializing”, instead of networking, I believe it would be less intimidating to first time entrepreneurs.  The word “networking” seems to have an underlying performance-based stigma associated with it. That is, to be a success at each networking event they attend, one needs to come away with something that they value for themselves or their start-up company.  This, “what can I walk away with mentality”, with virtually no effort on their part, is not really productive for the first time entrepreneur, as promotes undue pressure that requires this same entrepreneur to actively seek a “quality” connection each and every time they attend a networking event.  This is a non-realistic expectation and definitely not a “good” networking mentality.  A better approach is to attend each networking event with a positive attitude and hope to meet one to two individuals you can possibly create a personal connection with.  This is really what should be the expected “positive” result of a successful networking event.  Therefore, if you look at networking as focused “socializing” you will be more relaxed and ultimately more successful at each networking event you attend.

Not all Networking Organizations offer the Same Level of Benefit to the Entrepreneur

First time entrepreneurs need to be very particular regarding which networking events they decide to attend.  The reason for this is that all networking organizations have a particular focus. In addition, each networking organization also has unique presentations and participation formats. Therefore, out of the gate, first time entrepreneurs should first identify the various networking organizations in your area. After this, one should ask their friends if they have attended any of these networking events and get their overall opinion on the networking organization and its utility, effectiveness and friendliness.  Also, as a new participant, one should take time to attend at least one to two events, for each targeted group, before they decide to join any one networking organization. This will give you a true feeling for the networking organization and how it operates.  Finally, one should make an effort to meet the individuals that run each networking organization.  To do this, just introduce yourself and tell them that this is the first time that you are attending.  This is important, as each group has their own “personality” and that personality always comes from the individuals who run the network organization.  As you will learn through this process, one networking organization will most likely “fit” you and your personality better than the others.  This comfort level will allow you to be more effective and enjoy the events you attend. 

In Business, People Like to “Work” with People They “Know”

Have you ever noticed that entrepreneurs that start companies surround themselves with people they know?  In fact, many start-up company’s founders have worked together, in the past, at one or more companies.  This collegial bond and common experience base allows these same individuals to “know” each other, their personalities and most importantly their skill sets. 

To take this “known entity bond” a bit further, there have been whole industries that have developed based on personnel from a single company. In fact, the wireless industry in San Diego, Ca was founded, developed, and expanded by insiders that originally worked together at a single company, Linkabit. Since the early 1980’s there have been hundreds of wireless start-ups, in San Diego, that come from this lineage, most notably including: Qualcomm, Hughes Network Systems, ViaSat and many others.   This provides you with an understanding of the “basic” desire and “need” for people to “work” with individuals they “know”.  As such, this is what networking is all about — it provides a forum for you, as a first time entrepreneur, to present yourself and your start-up companies, so that others can get to “know” you and your start-up company.

Networking is Not a “One Time” Activity

Many first time entrepreneurs mistakenly believe that they can attend a “single” networking event and will walk out with funding and many “great” contacts. This is far from the case.  In fact, only by attending targeted networking events multiple times, do the individuals at these socializing functions get to “know” you and your company, its technologies, products or services, and your needs. Realistically, it usually takes three to six months or more, of continually attendance, for people begin to “know” you, and recognize you as a quality, reputable individual.  Only after this amount of time, individual effort, and interaction will other fellow networkers be willing to open up their networks and contacts with you.  This may seem like a long time for first time entrepreneurs, but look at it this way — you would not introduce someone you don’t know to your best friend unless you “know” them and can be assured it is a “quality” introduction.

 Getting Involved is the Best Way to Start

The best way to become quickly recognized and known among a networking organization you are interested participating in, is to become involved in their “executive committee”.  As most networking groups are volunteer networks, they are always looking for individuals to: organize events, recruit new members, run committees, etc.  This is done by the executive committee members.  This type of volunteer work generally only takes a few hours a month and you then have access to all of the “key” individuals within the organization and their networks, which are generally extensive. 

The Long Term “Benefits” from Networking are Many

The long term benefits of active networking are many for you and your start-up company.  Remember, no entrepreneur can successfully develop and expand their start-up company in a vacuum.  All start-up companies require “key” individuals with broad and deep skill sets, industry connections, and a continually expanding network to ultimately be successful in the market. As a minimum, some of the long term benefits of successful networking to entrepreneurs include:

  • Meeting new acquaintances,
  •  Acquiring new friends,
  •  Being exposed to new ideas,
  •  Expanding your industry contacts,
  •  Securing long-term business contacts,
  • Developing strategic business partners, and
  • Securing an extensive amount of resources at your immediate disposal.

So, as a first time entrepreneur, get out there and network, both you and your start-up company will benefit substantially from your efforts. 

March 30, 2009 Posted by | Business Development, Nwtworking, Venture Capital | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Venture Capital – It’s Not “Welfare” for Start-up Companies

Most of the time, when I first meet with entrepreneurs and their start-up companies, they are usually focused on the money they think they “need” to make themselves successful. More often than not they say, “If I just had a $1.0M to get my company off the ground that would solve all my problems.” This “money-focused” mentality often makes these same entrepreneurs take their eye off their real objective — making their company an attractive investment opportunity for potential investors. As I always tell them – “money never solves your problems, either in your personal life or in business, but being prepared, focusing on your company and securing customers will.”

Venture Capitalist focus on the “Best in Class” Investment Opportunities

Venture capitalists and other private equity investors, by the nature of their business, are “risk adverse” and not “risk takers”. This line of thinking seems to escape entrepreneurs and their start-up companies. This is especially true for “first-time” entrepreneurs. These individuals do not take the time to look at their start-up company and its associated “investment risk”, from the venture capitalists point of view.

A venture capitalist has a fixed amount of money in their private equity fund. This fixed sum is used to invest in a limited number of companies over a given period, usually 7 to 10 years. With these limited number of investments, the venture capitalists and their funding sources (e.g. pension funds, private individuals, etc.) know that a number of them will fail, a number of them will break even or do a bit better, and a couple will be highly successful. Therefore, from their point of view, venture capitalists are taking a traditional “portfolio management” approach to minimizing the inherent “risk” of their individual investments. As such, venture capitalists only look for the “best-in-class” investment opportunities to ensure that their “portfolio risk” is minimized and their individual investments succeed over the life time of their investment fund.

Not all Companies are Candidates for Venture Funding

All of the entrepreneurs I meet believe that their companies are fundable by third-party equity investors, be it angel investors, venture capitalists or other private equity sources. The truth is that very few of these same companies will be able to secure monies from these same funding sources. The statistics show that only about 3% of start-up companies, which are reviewed annually by venture capitalists, secure funding from these same funding sources. Therefore, it is not hard to believe that the other 97% are either not fundable or have to secure funding from other sources (boot strap, friends and family, etc.).

As an example, recently, I received a request to help secure funding for a start-up company that was looking to develop a service offering addressing a new, bleeding-edge market that had yet to develop. They were looking for $1.0M in investment capital, but were only projecting $5.0M in revenue in their fifth year of operations. This company is clearly not a candidate for venture capital or any other third party equity funding. On the other hand, suffice it to say, that if a company, at some point, succeeds in generating revenue of $5.0M a year, with high gross margins, this will end up being a fine “life-style” company for its founders. This type of start-up company and investment opportunity is not a bad deal for the founding team over the long term, but is definitely not a candidate for third-party equity investors.

Start-up Companies are in Business to Secure Customers

As a start-up company, entrepreneurs need to remember that they are in business to secure customers and not just to develop a technology, or service offering. By focusing on securing customers early on, these same start-up companies will provide substantial benefits to themselves in both the short and the long runs. In the short run, the start-up company will have demonstrated to potential investors that there is a “market need” for its product and that customers are willing to pay for it. This is very attractive to investors as it reduces their investment risk and demonstrates the potential for market traction. Also, by securing customers early, this will provide this same start-up company with a “lead” customer. This is often key to securing long-term success in the market. A lead customer will help drive a start-up company’s technology, product or service features, functions and capabilities. This is very important to a start-up company’s success in the market, as end customers always know more about the market application requirements than the start-up company developing the technology. Finally, by securing customers early, this will allow a start-up company to generate revenue. This will reduce both the start-up company’s short term and long term capital needs, requiring the founders to give up less equity over the long term.

Planning, Preparation and Securing Customers is the Best Plan for Receiving Funding from Venture Capitalists

Entrepreneurs should not expect that angel investors, venture capitalists or other private equity investors will provide them with money, just because they have an idea. This is an unrealistic expectation. Entrepreneurs need to work hard in planning and preparing themselves and their company to be ready to present their investment opportunity to potential investors. Remember, venture capital is not “welfare” money for start-up companies. Investors are looking to secure a significant return on their investments in a predictable time period. If an entrepreneur and their start-up company do not offer, as a minimum, the following, it will most likely not secure funding.

  •  A “best-in-class” team,
  • A disruptive technology, product or service offering,
  • A sustainable long-term competitive advantage in the market,
  • The ability to secure customers and market traction,
  • A proven business model, and
  • The ability to scale and dominate the target market(s) of interest.

So, as an entrepreneur, focus on your start-up company. Take the time to plan and prepare yourself and your start-up company for the rigors of securing funding in this tough environment. This includes securing customers as early as possible. This will substantially increase your odds of securing funding and make your start-up company a much more attractive investment opportunity for venture capitalists or other private equity investors.

The information outlined in this article comes from my new book entitled “Business Planning, Business Plans and Venture Funding – A Definitive Reference Guide for Start-up companies.” Signed copies of this book are available at http://www.carlsbadpublishing.com. Robert also provides business planning, and venture funding consulting services to start-up, small and mid-sized companies.

March 23, 2009 Posted by | Venture Capital | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments