Looking for Funding? Try AngelList

I recently attended a talk on Angel investing given by Brad Feld and David Cohen at the Boulder TechStars Bunker.  One of the challenges I’ve been unable to get my head around as a prospective startup investor is how do I get access to the most promising startups?  All of the “high profile” startups that are started by the most accomplished entrepreneurs are almost impossible to get access to.  There’s a small community of well known Angels and entrepreneurs that circle these startups and get first dibs at seed level funding.  Makes sense.  If I’m starting a company, I want “smart” money in my deal.  Not just cash, but cash from accomplished business builders and investors who have a track record of helping companies be successful and generating a return on their investment.

So the question is, as an unknown investor with some success starting and building companies, how do I get access to the better deals?

Enter AngelList, an online marketplace for startup entrepreneurs and prospective investors to connect started by serial entrepreneur Naval Ravikant.  Here’s how it works:  Startups can register and create a listings page that contains their product, screenshots, video, team and advisors.  What really makes it interesting is that you can see which prospective investors are “following” the company and which are “endorsing” the company.  Investors must also register and be “qualified”.  To be qualified, an investor will be evaluated one of two ways, either by how many current community investors are Twitter followers or by having a certain number of current investors “endorse” you as someone they would trust and co-invest with.  This qualification process I believe gives the community credibility and its working based on the list of over 2,000 incredibly accomplished investors and entrepreneurs listed on the site.  The latest, unverified stat I heard was that AngelList was adding 20-40 startups per day.

Now, does AngelList by itself give me access to the most high profile deals?  No, but it sure does begin to provide transparency and level the playing field.  Gone are the days when prominent VC’s had proprietary access to deal flow.  Now everyone – entrepreneurs, Angels and VC’s – has to be scrappy and compete.

This level of market transparency is also great for startup entrepreneurs.  They now have access to a broad range of investors and in this era of AngelList and social media, you can get to almost anyone if you can efficiently articulate your pitch and cut through the volume of social media noise.  But access is no longer the issue.

The final implication to consider from this increasingly transparent and open investment environment is on valuations.  I’ve said before that we are not in a “bubble” similar to high-flying times of 1999, but pre-money valuations right now are pretty darn high I think due to numerous factors but certainly at least two:  1) huge success stories like Facebook, the LinkedIn IPO, Zynga, Groupon, etc. have investors over-exuberant about finding the “next big stock” and 2) an increasingly transparent market (via AngelList, Second Market, Sharespost and social media in general) is allowing anyone to invest in startups, creating more demand and driving prices up.

It will be interesting to see if the market becomes more transparent and open, if valuations will continue to rise, stabilize or fall and what effect a fall in valuations might have on the supply/demand equation for startup financing.

Tech is Alive in Austin

I just spent two packed days in Austin, TX connecting with members of the technology startup community, both entrepreneurs and also the investment community.  I also had a chance to spend some overdue quality time with my two nieces, Zoe (2) and Shelby (9 months).  My brother Chris lives in Austin and is part of a group of entrepreneurs and investors that are really shaping Austin’s present and future role in fostering a comprehensive environment for companies to launch and thrive.

Austin grew up in the early 90’s as a technology community hub, particularly in Enterprise Software and Hardware, as the birthplace of Dell, Tivoli, Vignette and Trilogy among others.  Today, slowly but surely there seems to be a newer crop of companies emerging in Consumer Internet and Mobile – HomeAway and BazaarVoice being two successful examples – and a whole slew of new and exciting startups that are getting funding locally through Austin Ventures, Silverton Partners, NEA and even outside of Austin from firms such as Boulder-based Foundry Group.  Startup programs such as Capital Factory and Startup America Partnership, in addition to the large and local University of Texas, are helping to perpetuate and grow Austin’s track record of starting, scaling and exiting new businesses all while enjoying a great quality of life.

I was really energized by what is happening in Austin and look forward to my next visit.

One thing is clear, people love living in Austin and they rarely leave.  And if they do, they come back.  Exciting times in the heart of Texas.

Don’t Hate Me Cause I’m a Business Guy

I recently read a fantastic post by Jacob Quist entitled “Why Engineers Distrust Business People” that provided a unique perspective on what I never fully understood, but was always aware, to be a common tension between deeply technical folks and those of us who are far more competent in non-technical arenas such as business operations, business development, sales or marketing.  In Jacob’s post, he believes the foundation of this distrust is due to the fact that historically engineers have been directed at the highest levels of the organization by business people and it only takes a few bad experiences to perpetuate a stereotype.  This is certainly a 2-way street, there are plenty of bad engineers and technical leadership out there, but typically its the business side of the house that directs the organization.  At least historically.  Jacob is right, its all about providing mutual value which leads to mutual respect.  Now with so many new startups founded by engineers, there’s a burst of independence from these bad experiences, creating a challenge for even the most effective, accomplished business entrepreneurs to find “co-founder” opportunities unless they bring the idea or concept to the table.

As a “business guy” who’s worked closely with engineers in startups for over 10 years, I’ve consciously made efforts to complement, not contribute to (read: get in the way of), the technical aspects of the business while treating the technical/engineering function equally if not more important than anything that drives the success of the organization.  Most recently I’ve tried to take it one step further, a step that I rarely see other business folks embrace – ensuring technology leadership has an equal seat at the table at the highest levels of strategy and product development and enabling the technical staff, the engineers, to contribute to product development in the form of a “safe challenge” dialogue with the product team.  This view has evolved over time for me as I’ve been exposed to increasing levels of strategic talent in the technical individuals I’ve worked with.  Experienced engineers often have incredible design and product sensibilities because they are the closest to the end product.  While they may not create the original design or spec, they are problem solvers in implementation, constantly iterating to find the best solutions.  And they usually understand a product’s complexity better than anyone, which HAS to be considered in any strategic product discussion.

So to all of you startup engineers out there, especially those who are founders and assuming you need a business partner (and you do, subject of a future post!), what should you look for in your “business partner”?

  • Demonstrable success in starting, building and scaling a startup.  These are 3 distinct phases of a company’s early growth that require different skills and perspective, and you need someone that has success in all three.
  • Philosophically aligned on the role of technology.  Ask the tough questions about the qualities of a great CTO, the role of the engineers and how strategic decisions are made for the organization.
  • The business co-founder does not have to be the CEO.  This is a great ego-check moment.  There should at least be a dialogue and healthy debate, never a default assumption.  And discussing how roles will evolve as the company grows is equally important.
  • Find an overall athlete (COO or Head of Ops)  instead of a functional expert.  This is probably the most controversial point that many will disagree with.  Many founders want to solve their most immediate need (more sales, marketing to acquire customers) and thus seek to find deep experience in a single skill as the first or second key leader.  I would contend that in a startup, there are a dozen areas that need leadership now to properly set the company up for success and that if every other attribute on this list is met, the “right” business partner can fill any immediate functional need sufficiently in the interim.  Another important point – acquiring and building out a talented, cohesive and high performing leadership team is difficult and a skill that should be historically demonstrated by your partner.
  • Ability to immediately contribute.  Leadership recruiting, product strategy, fund raising, sales, business development, marketing – the seasoned business lead can successfully step into most of these roles initially as the other functional leaders are recruited.
  • Test for worst case scenario.  When all hell breaks loose and it looks like the business is going to crater, how will your partner deal with it?   Do you share common philosophies on hiring, spending, tough decision processes?  This is difficult to predict, but you have to talk about worst case, because in a startup, worst case is most likely case!

What other qualities should you look for in your “business” partner?

Crafting Your Startup Pitch

I participated in a session today during Boulder Startup Week hosted by Jason Mendelson, a Partner in Foundry Group.  The audience was a group of entrepreneurs in various stages of fund raising activity.  Jason had some great advice for the group as a long-time Venture Capitalist who sees over 1,000 pitches per year.  Of the 1,000 he sees, 500 of them are immediately discarded to to bad grammar.  Really?  Of the remaining 500, 300 have an ineffective or even no “Elevator Pitch” – which Jason claims is the most important thing an entrepreneur has to get right to get initial investor attention.

So there you have it, you can be in the top 20% of deals he sees just by 1) mastering the English language and 2) having a concise, well-articulated Elevator Pitch.

What comprises an effective Elevator Pitch?

  1. Proof of a massive problem. What problem are you solving and how big is it?  This should be easy to nail quickly.
  2. How your business solves the massive problem.  What unique solution has been developed or conceived?
  3. Why YOU rock! (as an individual and how you are different than everyone else).  VC’s invest in people, first and foremost, so don’t be shy about why you are the best at what you do and what gives you a special advantage to outlast everyone else.

And all of this communicated before the elevator gets to the 4th floor!

So now that you are in the top 20%, here’s the next set of deliverables to win your prospective VC’s heart and cash.

  1. 5-7 page Executive Summary in written form.  The days of 70-page business plans went out with 8-Track tapes and Betamax.
  2. Product demo or prototype.  Showing your product is ALWAYS the most effective way to get attention.  It shows passion, commitment and enables an investor to share your vision for solving big problems.  It does not, however, eliminate the need for the Executive Summary.
  3. Personal connection.  I thought this was a really interesting and refreshing insight.  In order for Jason to invest, he must build a relationship with the entrepreneur and he expects incredible energy from that relationship, energy that first emanates from the entrepreneur and that increases with each visit as trust is built.  Why?  Because when times get tough, the personal relationship is what gets you through it.  The trust is the fallback for difficult conversations and wrenching decisions.  Personally, I want my VC to act this way, I was super-impressed by this investment philosophy.

Where do most entrepreneurs fall short in their pitches?

  1. Inadequately evaluating or addressing the competitive threat.  Even if there is no one on the planet that is doing exactly the same thing you are doing to solve a particular problem, for you to obtain customers there has to be a compelling reason for them to allocate time to you v. whatever else they could be doing.  Literally, the Internet is your competition in this case.  Don’t ever tell a VC you have no competitors, its the Kiss of Death.
  2. Inadequate attention to Business Model – Both Revenue and Expenses.  The one fundamental truth about Revenue projections?  They are always wrong.  100% of the time they never come true, the business will learn, iterate, pivot and generate revenue in ways that weren’t originally contemplated.  But its OK.  They key is to understand the drivers of revenue – # customers, page views, $/customer – those things that if you can scale, even a few of them, it drives revenue.  Expenses, by contrast, better always be right.  They are controllable and need to be well-thought out.

Finally, how does the entrepreneur find investors and get their attention, particularly VC investors?

Jason’s advice, as someone who is regularly spammed by entrepreneurs who blast out wildly to VC “lists” having done little to no research on the VC’s investment criteria –  do your research in a targeted way and wrestle ONE VC to the ground first.  Get personal, find common ground, ensure they invest in your sector, follow the directions above and generate interest and dialogue.  Once you have one that is responsive, cross-reference what other firms your one firm has co-invested with in the past, which are in the same sector or stage of development from an investment standpoint and create some competition for your stock.  Just don’t delay a deal by trying to create an auction!

And my favorite quote of the day.  Asked how long an entrepreneur should expect funding to take, from “first date to wedding”.  Jason’s answer?  “It depends how hot you are”.  Quick on his feet, very quick.

The Founder Conference

I attended The Founder Conference this week in Mountain View, CA.  I don’t really attend many conferences, but every once in a while I’ll go to an event if there are a few speakers I’d like to see.  This one had two and it was a decent event, with about 500 entrepreneurs in attendance to hear some startup luminaries like Guy Kawasaki and Naval Ravikant speak about startup funding and delighting your initial customers.  Additionally, Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, gave a killer talk about the success and growth of his company and how he did it.

I intended on summarizing some of the key points, but there’s someone else who did a stellar job, even shooting video of the event.  See Dan Odio’s Founder Conference Blog Page for a re-cap and great video.

For the highlights, I suggest the following:

  • If you are interested in raising money for your startup or understanding what is happening in the VC/Angel marketplace right now, definitely watch Guy & Naval’s talks.  Guy Kawasaki is a serial entrepreneur, former Chief Evangelist for Apple and author of Enchantment.  And he’s a great, engaging speaker.  Naval Ravikant is also a serial entrepreneur and recent founder of AngelList that brings together founders with Angel investors – about 1900 of them!  He knows a thing or two about what’s happening in the marketplace for startup funding.
  • If you want to hear a great startup success story and be awed by how to really track performance and understand your customer’s needs and behavior, then watch Phil’s talk on Evernote.

These 3 presentations I thought were the best, most useful of the day.  Enjoy!

My Favorite Tech Startup Blogs

There are lots of interesting and insightful tech industry blogs out there, many of which are highly trafficked and very well known.  Such properties like Techcrunch, VentureBeat, OnStartups, ReadWriteWeb, Mashable are all great blog and news feeds, but I’d like to share a few of my personal favorites that are popular, but not as mainstream as some of these news sites.  Here goes:

Both Sides of the Table.  This blog is written by Mark Suster, a leading Los Angeles VC and entrepreneur.  Mark interviews entrepreneurs as well as shares his experience as an investor.  Not news based, rather techniques and insights for helping entrepreneurs succeed.  One of the most active bloggers out there.  Follow Mark on Twitter @msuster.

Feld Thoughts.  Written by Boulder-based VC Brad Feld, also an entrepreneur and now partner in Foundry Group and co-founder of TechStars.  He blogs daily about his experiences, investments and personal use of technology.  I’ve met Brad and really enjoy his daily posts.  Follow Brad on Twitter @bfeld.

A VC.  Written by now legendary VC Fred Wilson, he also posts daily with common sense advice and techniques for entrepreneurs trying to navigate fundraising, selling and operating their businesses.  He also blogs about his personal use of technology and investments being made by his firm Union Square Ventures.  Follow Fred on Twitter @fredwilson.

Tim Ferriss Blog.  Tim is the best-selling author of “The 4-Hour Workweek” and “The 4-Hour Body”, both #1 NYTimes Bestsellers.  This blog is incredibly insightful and full of non-intuitive, practical advice for entrepreneurs.  I saw Tim speak in Los Angeles, pretty amazing guy.  Follow Tim on Twitter @tferriss.

Jason Calacanis Newsletter.  Jason is a serial entrepreneur and is into everything startup.  Currently the Founder of Mahalo and LAUNCH Conference, Jason puts out a periodic newsletter to subscribers.  Go to his website and enter your email in the upper right box under “Jason Nation Newsletter”.  Follow Jason on Twitter @jason.

While there are about 30 more on my list, these are my daily favs.

I’ll follow up this post with my favorite Twitter follows (a much longer list).

What are some other great startup blogs out there?

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