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April 05, 2007

How to Get the Attention of a Venture Capitalist

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At the Elite Retreat I gave an off-the-cuff answer to a question concerning getting the attention of venture capitalists. My buddy Wendy Piersall blogged about my answer, and it was a very popular. However, to truly help entrepreneurs, I’d like to provide a cogent list of the tips to get the attention of a venture capitalist.

  1. Get an introduction by a partner-level lawyer. He should work at a firm that does a lot of venture capital financings like my buddies at Montgomery & Hansen. Best case email/voicemail: “This is the most interesting company I’ve seen in my twenty years of legal work for startups.” Venture capitalists dream about calls like this—it’s the equivalent of a scoring shot that knocks the goalie’s water bottle off the top shelf.

    Incidentally, this part of the reason of why you should pay top dollar and use a well-known corporate finance attorney instead of Uncle Joe the divorce lawyer (even if he handles venture capitalists’ divorces). You’re paying for connections not only expertise.

  2. Get an introduction by a professor of engineering. Best case email/voicemail: “These students are the smartest ones I’ve ever had in twenty years of teaching computer science. Larry and Sergei would have carried their backpacks for them.” Arguably this is even better than the lawyer’s call if the school has a history of receiving multi-million dollar donations from its alumni—if you know what I mean.

  3. Get an introduction by the founder of a company in the venture capitalist’s portfolio. Best case email/voicemail: “My buddies are starting a new company, and I think it’s really cool.” For this to work, it would help if the person making the call is a successful company in the venture capitalist’s portfolio. Also, this would be a good time to tap your network in LinkedIn to find acquaintances in the portfolio.

    Here’s a power tip regarding getting to venture capitalists using LinkedIn. Maybe it’s only me, but I hate when a connection of a connection of a connection wants me to take a look at deal. LinkedIn enables you to just go direct, and that’s my advice if you can show success (see below). If you can’t show success, the connection of a connection of a connection is useless anyway.

  4. Show success. Suppose you can’t get any of the introductions mentioned above. Then the most compelling email/voicemail that you provide is this: “My buddy and I have been working in our garage, taking no pay, and with MySQL we built a site that is doubling in traffic every month. Right now, we’re at 250,000 page views a day after thirty days.” With this one sentence you’ve proven you can (a) make a little bit of money (“none”) go far, your architecture looks scalable so far (once in my career I’d like scalability to be a problem), and most importantly, the dogs are already eating the food.

    Another way to show success is to hit it out of the park at Demo or the poor man’s Demo we call Launch: Silicon Valley, but this is a game that only a few dozen companies can play in every year. Finally, you can provide links to articles singing your praises, but this only means that you fooled the press, not that the dogs like what you’re serving.

  5. Make sure your company is in the right space. No matter how you get to the venture capitalist, make sure that she is the right one for you. For example, if you have the cure for cancer, contacting a firm’s enterprise software guru isn’t the brightest idea, so get on the web and do your homework.

  6. Use a short email. The ideal length of your email is three or fourth paragraphs:

    • What does your company do?

    • What problem are you solving?

    • What’s special about your technology/marketing/expertise/connections?

    • Who are you?

    Here are some things not to do:

    • Attach a PowerPoint presentation. I don’t care if it even adheres to the 10/20/30 rule. Save it for the face-to-face meeting.

    • Use the word “patented” more than once. All it takes to file a patent is $1,000. No good venture capitalist believes patents makes your company defensible. They just want to learn (once) that there might be something worth patenting.

    • Claim that you’re in a multi-billion dollar market. Isn’t every company in a multi-billion market according to some study? At least every company that’s ever pitched a venture capitalist.

    • Provide a lofty financial projection. Most projections that I see show how you’ll grow faster than Google. Frankly, I wouldn’t provide any projection at all. It will be either too low and make your deal uninteresting or too high and make you look delusional.

    • Brag about an MBA degree. Most venture capitalists want to invest in hardcore engineers at the start. The MBAs can come later, so focus on engineering or avoid the subject completely.

    • Try to create the illusion of scarcity. Many entrepreneurs claim that “Sequoia is interested.” If Sequoia is interested, you should take its money. If it isn’t, then the venture capitalist won’t be either. Either way, don’t even think of blowing this smoke.

This posting is merely about the process of getting across the moat. To learn more about what to do once you’re there, read how to fix your pitch by Bill Reichert of Garage.


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Comments

Hi Guy, I found this article great read and help in the planning that we are doing on raising funds. It is amazing in a way how a blog post a few months old still has great relevance after a lot of time.

Strong leadership is not seen in your ability to be right but rather in your willingness to ask right questions. My question is do you know today what business will give you a name "Producer of $1B EBITDA".

Great Posting..and awesome ideas, especially with the Network! But I think we should not forget the revenue issue and that this is also a main issue for VC`s....

I couldn't tell, were you using hyperbole when you mentioned the 250,000 pageviews a day after 30 days?

Any small team of guys that couldn't monetize that, and say "buzz off" to VCs, is pretty sad in my book.

If anything, the VCs would be beating down THEIR door with that kind of launch!

(and if you were just kidding and 25,000 pageviews a day is impressive after 30 days, well, then i've done that before no sweat... ;))

Hey,Guy:
Just let u know I'm translating this article into Chinese for non-commercial usage.
U can find it here http://www.yeeyan.com/articles/view/huahua/752
If there is anything I should know plz contact me by email
Thx :)

Entrepreneurs, rejoice! This is your chance to rate VCs. www.thefunded.com.

Hi Guy
Very interesting post, lots of good advice there.

One comment: I read and re-read point #4 (show success) and I can't find how or why getting N million pageviews defines success. It does not show any sales potential or business model.
Many sites get stacks of pageviews and grow rapidly in that sense. But we also know that most of them do not have a business model and hence will go nowhere.

The current alternative to a business model appears to be advertising, but that does not tie in the users/customers in a partnership that drives more sales. Such a site would instead rely on other factors for its stickyness, and when it loses its critical mass (new fad comes along and users go elsewhere) it loses its revenue stream. It's not a viable long-term strategy.

One of the key things I would look for in a startup is at least an inkling of an idea about a possible revenue model. Sure, revenue models develop and change over time, that's ok and normal. But to me, that inkling defines the viability of the idea as well as the real-world sense of the innovators. It shows me they've thought about this important aspect.

Guy,
This is a very useful post. I would be interested in knowing your views on how to sell something like a mechanical engg. services idea to VCs? I guess it is a slightly different ball game than selling a IT related idea to the VCs. There are a lot of opportunities in India for mechanical engg. today!

Guy,good stuff. Though I am not a VC, one other one is likely getting a favorable review on TechCrunch or the front page of Digg.

Also, my guess is a Christmas gift of an iphone with the VC's choice of colors from their favorite Hockey team may help too!

Or follow Youtube and marry the daughter of a well-known VC.

Remember, not every entrepreneur needs venture capital. Sometimes independence is worth more.

Some excellent comments on a well presented topic.

Carmelo Lisciotto

Cool post - even though I'm not looking for outside funding this inspired me to do something that I've neglected for a while, which is to address #6 (the e-mail).

Here's my late-night attempt:

http://jasonalba.com/2007/04/07/guy-kawasaki-on-pitching-to-a-vc/
(or http://tinyurl.com/2pv84e)

Jason Alba
CEO - JibberJobber.com

Hi Guy,
Fantastic post, and awesome idea about LinkedIn. I'm not sure software companies really need gobs of VC to make it big, though.

I'd come across a blog post by David Van Couvering http://weblogs.java.net/blog/davidvc/archive/2006/11/venture_capital.html
where he discusses how hardware is basically a commodity now and so much software is now open source, that VC can actually be a bad thing sometimes.

To validate his point (at least to some extent), take a look at Terracotta.org, who has recently open-sourced their product. I've just recently started working with their team as an open source contributor, I've found that they rely completely on an open-source stack and have done an amazing job growing without a tremendous amount of VC (if I understand their financial situation correctly). They do, however, have incredibly bright people on their team -- I've both read and seen time and again that an excellent developer is worth the talent of 20, if not 50 mediocre developers.

Cheers,
Jim

hey that venture hacks sites pretty sick...

but personally im so tired of hearing about VC... me and a partner had a multi-million dollar guaranteed concept, with proof we could return 180% within 1.5 years, with government contracts proving it, we just needed to finance the equipment and it was a lost cause we tried EVERYWHERE but nada :(

I would add one more rule/advice...

Don't try to move investors in two dimensions of risk. (If you are in a new market, you better have a solid team/differentiator/track record, and vice-versa. investors won't be inclined to take risks in any more than one of these, preferably none.

I can tell you this firsthand from 20 VC pitches seeking funding for Wind-Sail, (wind-sail.blogspot.com)

You forgot, "Marry the daughter of a venture capitalist" and "Be the college roommate of a venture capitalist". Oh, don't forget "Produce $1B EBITDA" and "Get featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show as the Greatest Business in History".

I like #4. A lot.

Sales is a success anyone can capitalize on. If you show that your idea can make money by going out and making money with it, people will invest in it.

And it doesn't matter if it's the next Google or a ladder to the moon made out of cheese.

If it makes money, it makes money.

Great post and tips. Found your blog through a link on Frank Schilling's Seven Mile blog. Cheers.

Man legal is the key. If you truly have a breakthrough technology or concept (and not a "me to" idea) then lock down the IP. My experience is that if you truly believe it you won't have a problem paying to do it right.

Hi Guy,

Great post.. how about Tech Due diligence, I havent seen you talk much about the 2nd hurdle in getting VC funding, can you shed some light on that...

Thanks..

I've always funded companies mainly through revenue so the article is a bit away from my experience. Your last point though should be given special emphasis for people doing business or people looking for jobs. The minute someone throws the BS scarcity ploy my way, I walk away completely no matter what is on the table as the downside risk immediately outweighs the upside no matter what it is. The funny thing is people do it sometimes even after I warn them up front not to do it.

The link was very kind. :) Thank you! I know the answer you gave was off the cuff - I'll update my post to steer people to the *real* answer to the question!

very good read.. i don't think i can get any money though :(

Everyday Weekender

All of this advice involves spending time or money that would be better spent on your business. If you're doing a startup, build a business. Building a business is building a product or service that adds value to your customers.

There is a perverse idea that you have to get funding, and then you build your business. This is exactly backwards. The extra money you would spend on a high priced lawyer for his "connections" is wasted money-- Uncle Joe is more loyal to you, and "connections" do not help your business.

The reality is, this *is* the day and age when three guys in a garage with Rails and MySQL can build a service that grows to millions of hits a month, and they can do it in a few months with no investment. If you can't monetize that ,then you won't be able to do it with additional investment either.

Further, business growth is all about leverage. When costs are low, all income goes into the business. This lowers your breakeven point and means you get to profitability much sooner. Pofitability means you can pour the profits back into the business and grow it, and it gives you an easy way to calculate the vlauation of the company in an acquisition.

The costs of Venture Capital are not widely appreciated, in my opinion. Not just the loss of ownership in the company, and the loss of control of the company, and the increased liklihood that the VC company will force you out and put in a lackey CEO, but much more importantly is the advice these people give.

I have worked for VC backed startups for two decades and I have yet to see a situation where the VC benefited the company in any way other than funding... and much of the positive impact of the funding I have seen was undermined by poor advice. I've seen a good founder pushed out and replaced by a clueless CEO who chased the "mem of the week". I've seen funding be contingent on %50 of it being spent on expensive hardware and software from other portfolio compnaies-- that ended up not only being wasted money, but not working setting the company back a year, and reducing its eventual valuation by about %50.

And don't get me started on liquidation preferences-- VC terms are so biased, VCs want all the upside and the downside as well. And disrepsectful-- VCs think that employees who give up $50k a year in salary for 5 years do not deserve to have their $250k paid back at the same rate as $250k put in by the VC firm who contributed nothing other than money (and probably) bad advice.

If you need money, take small amounts from angels, and make everyone a common shareholder. Focus on profitability and growth and your business. Only talk to VCs if they contact you first. Don't chase them.

And if you're in a business where you eventually will have to take it, the longer you delay the better the terms will be.

Unless you're building medical devices or otherwise need manufacturing capability, you don't need Venture Capital.

The age of Venture Capital has passed... the VCs just don't realize it yet.

#7: Join us at the weekly SVASE VC Breakfast Club events:-)
Better yet: check out the VC (both the firm and the individual Partner) and come to the relevant ones.

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