Emani Jerome

You need one of four things to make your startup a candidate for VC investment

By: Alan Jones

Originally published on medium.com 

I spend most of my consulting days with founders and teams ranging from idea stage to minimum viable product (MVP) to early commercialization, so I get asked one question a lot, “What will angel or venture capital investors want to see from us before we’re good candidates for investment?”

The long answer is: every investor is different

Every investor is motivated by a different risk/reward ratio, interested in different markets, business models and technologies, likes to lead other investors or likes to follow other investors, can only write a cheque smaller than X or no bigger than Y.

The short answer is: every investor is the same

If they know what they’re doing, they’re looking for startups that bring one or more of the following assets to the deal table:

1. World class team

Everybody’s definition of “world class” is different.

Some investors may be prepared to back raw talent and no prior experience, as long as they can get some evidence that your raw talent can produce results. But those results may have to be a really impressive/rapidly iterative MVP because most investors consider ‘team proof’ to be found in ‘product proof’. That kind of investor will be in the minority – most will look for relevant experience and skills.

Have you and your team successfully solved a similar problem for a similar kind of customer in the past? Have you had career success (read: been promoted) at another similar kind of startup, or at one of the big tech companies?

Are you a team rather than a solo founder? Founders who can prove they can recruit and lead a strong team are more likely to succeed at scaling. In the near-term, solo founder startups are a high risk of the founder being hit by a bus (hopefully metaphorically, not literally).

2. Unique intellectual property

Your startup can be valuable to investors if you’ve invented a unique business model, product feature or manufacturing process that gives your business a measurably unfair advantage over current or future competitors, if it’s difficult to reverse-engineer.

If it’s not difficult to reverse engineer it, it may still be valuable if you can show that you have a defensible lead in the race to take a dominant share of the kind of markets that tend towards a monopoly – most common in two-sided marketplaces and listings business models.

3. Customer growth

Can you show that your team is capable of acquiring unusually large numbers of users or customers? Can you show that the kind of users/customers you’re acquiring will be valuable when you have a large number of them? Can you sustain that unusually large growth?

You don’t always need to have big revenue growth – or even any revenue at all – if the users/customers you’re acquiring will be valuable to someone else in the future. For a great example of this, read up on why Facebook acquired Instagram. 

4. Revenue growth

Can you show not just that your revenue is growing, but that the rate of your revenue growth is itself increasing?

A startup showing steady, predictable 2% revenue growth each month will become a valuable businesses given sufficient time, assuming there’s a high enough ceiling to that growth.

But what really interests venture capital investors is evidence that the rate at which your revenue increases is itself increasing – that 2% this month becomes 3%, 4%, 5% in the months to come.

Extra bonus points for startups able to show that revenue growth and operating expenditure are not correlated – that due to the scaling effects of technology, you’re able to grow the revenue line of the business without growing the cost line of the business.

How much of these things do I need to show?

If you can show concrete evidence of all four of these assets, maybe you don’t actually need an external source of investment and you should instead fund growth through revenue, since all investment is a loan that eventually needs to be repaid, at a multiple. Maybe in some instances you should consider raising capital in order to acquire a competitor, add a new line of product or service, or fund your entry into a new geographic or economic market.

If you can only show you own one of these four assets, the higher reward/higher risk assets are the world class team and unique intellectual property (because teams can always fall apart, and IP can usually be copied and out-competed). The lower risk (and possibly lower reward) assets are the customer growth and revenue growth assets (they’re easier for spreadsheet jockeys to value, but most markets and most business models have a limit to scale, and history teaches us that the limit is usually invisible until you hit it).

When you’re considering what kind of investor to approach, keep that in mind: some investors are comfortable with taking big risks but want to believe there’s a massive opportunity waiting – that’s who you go to when you have a world-class team and/or some truly unique intellectual property. If you’re better at growing your customer or revenue metrics, consider approaching the kind of investors who have a track record of backing businesses that are already showing evidence of customer and revenue traction.

If you can’t yet show you own any of these four investible assets, you may still be a candidate for investment, but you may be limited in your choices to accelerator programs or a ‘friends, family and fools’ round – both important and valuable forms of investment that you shouldn’t discount, especially if their support might sustain you while you try to acquire one of these four investible assets.

Good luck!