What Investors See When They Look At You

If you’ve gotten far enough in building your mirror business to think about raising investment, then you’ve worked very hard and survived some near-death experiences. It’s been a tough road and you should be proud of the progress you have made. Well done!

However, when you sit down to talk to a venture investor about your business you need to put all of that aside. When a venture investor looks at your company they don’t see it as it is today, they are trying to envision what it might look like in 5-10 years.

Wait, let’s take a step back: How do VCs work?

If you’re not familiar with how venture capital funds work, they are easy to explain. A group of partners (known as the general partners) form an LLC to act as an investment fund. They then raise capital for the fund from large institutions like pension funds, endowments and other funds (known as limited partners).  The size of venture funds varies wildly from $20M to $1B, but almost all venture funds have a 10 year lifespan. For the first 3-4 years of the fund, the general partners are making investments in new companies and the remaining 6-7 years is spent managing those investments and making follow-on investments in the same companies. At the end of 10 years, the fund is closed and, assuming there was a positive return, the limited partners get their rewards. (For a much deeper explanation of venture funds, read Venture Deals).

Keeping that in mind, the primary motivation of a venture investor is to produce returns on their fund in 10 years. Considering the high failure rate of start up companies, out of a portfolio of investments in 10 companies they can expect 7 to go out of business, 2 to be moderately successful and one to be hugely successful. In order to produce a return on the entire fund, they need those successes to be huge (return 20+ times the money invested).

Okay, so how does that affect how they see me?

Venture investors, because of how their funds are set up, are constantly looking for companies who have the potential to produce a 20x return on investment. That is very difficult to achieve and not many companies will have that kind of potential. A neighborhood grocery store will never produce that kind of return, nor will your local bookstore.

Not only do venture investors need a 20x return, they need it within 10 years. There are businesses you can grow slowly over 20 or 30 years to produce those returns, but to do it in less than 10 years means that your business needs to grow extremely quickly. To grow that quickly, you need a quickly growing market, a well thought out plan, some critical strategic advantage and the right team to execute your plan.

So, when you sit down with a venture investor, they are looking for signs that your business can produce 20x returns within 10 years.

Ah, that makes sense. So what does that mean for me?

The most important thing for you to convey to venture investors is the potential of the problem you are solving and how large the market is that has that problem. You cannot produce a 20x return on $10M of investment if your market size is only $50M, but you can if your market size is $1B. If the venture investor can envision your company in 10 years operating at that scale, you will get their attention.

After you convince them that your problem/market is big enough, it is time to convince them that you can make that happen. It is very hard to convince anyone what will happen in 10 years, especially investors that hear similar things everyday, but there are some keys to doing it well:

  • Present a plan. Your plan might change, but you need to have a credible long-term plan for getting to the large outcome. If you can’t build a credible plan at the beginning, it’s unlikely you will be able to come up with a new one as the market changes. The plan you present will also serve to identify the key risk factors that your business will face as it grows.
  • Show you mean it. You have already been following your plan in building your business, so show off how well you have executed. Remember, your progress so far is not why they will invest in you, but your progress so far is proof that your plan is credible and that you can execute against plans you create.
  • Sell the team. 10 years is a long time. If your company is going to be very successful, it will be a long and difficult road. Your team is critical because it is those people who will steer the company through those hard times and the venture investor needs faith that you can do it. In the end they are investing in you.
  • Don’t play fair. If you really have found a big opportunity that can product 20x returns, it is likely that many others have as well. You need to show a distinct competitive advantage that will allow you to win when faced with dozens of competitors going after the same goal.

Hopefully, at this point you are starting to realize why many companies struggle to ever raise venture funding at all. It is great that you have 5 paying customers today, but can you convince an investor that you will get to 5,000? You have 2 brilliant developers writing code, but who is going to sell your product to Fortune 500 companies? You have a great plan and team, but without any customers how can you be sure your product will work in the market?

Time to Focus

The good news is that, assuming you’ve followed at least some of the advice on this blog, you have already built the foundation for a great company that can produce the kinds of returns that venture investors want. In order to successfully raise investment, you just need to make sure to present your company in the way the potential investors need to see it. Focusing on where you can go, and not on where you’ve been, will go a long way towards that goal.

Besides, after all the hard work you’ve put in, it’s fun to think about how successful you can be in 10 years.

Thanks to Leo and Beth for reading a draft of this post. Image copyright Graham Hogg and made available via Creative Commons.

3 thoughts on “What Investors See When They Look At You

  1. Sergio P.

    Another awesome post! Thank you, Sean. This actually applies very well to non-profit funders as well.

    1. Sean Post author

      Thanks! I’m glad you find it useful. As always, let me know if there are topics that you’d like me to cover in the future.

  2. Pingback: What Investors See When They Look At Your Startup - AlleyWatch

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