(Editor’s note: Doug Collom is vice dean and an adjunct lecturer on venture capital and entrepreneurship for Wharton | San Francisco. He submitted this story to VentureBeat.)
There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula that can be followed for optimizing the chances of attracting professional investment. Each company is different and faces challenges and issues that can be overcome only through creativity, perseverance and resolve.
There are, however, some elements that are so basic they cannot be ignored. Most institutional venture investors either expressly or intuitively address these requirements whenever they evaluate a business plan for a potential investment. Here are four to be especially aware of.
Is it a company or is it a product? – With the dramatic level of innovation that’s taking place through startups in the social media/Web 2.0/online business arena, this question is increasingly important. Implicitly, investors want to know the product development – something that can go in a variety of directions. For example, can the product be developed to include additional features and functionality that will effectively redefine the offering in the eyes of the customer? Can the product be adapted to address the needs of more than a single vertical market? Is the product so compelling that the emphasis in the business plan shifts to the customer acquisition strategy?
The mobile application market is a good example of a product category that, in general, doesn’t offer a sufficient foundation to support a company. Individual app developers typically don’t require much capital or labor to be successful, and they don’t require professional investors. In contrast, there are online gaming companies—Zynga, Playdom, Social Gaming Network and others—whose product roadmaps concentrate entirely on the rapid development and production of new “hits”. Businesses like this require all the resources and disciplines of a full-fledged company to support their growth objectives.
How big does the market have to be to attract investment? – After the dot-com bust, the anecdotal answer to this question was $1 billion – or at least an annual growth rate that would get you close to $1 billion quickly.
In 2011, there is far more latitude, depending on the business plan of the company. With the advent of open source software, online development tools, cloud computing, and the ability to reach massive customer markets instantly through the Internet, startup companies have become much more efficient in product development and customer acquisition, and can more rapidly get to proof of concept and positive cash flow than ever before.
As a result, companies with online business models, for example, may not require nearly as much capital as they once did. Moreover, angel groups aren’t swinging for the fences the way the mainstream institutional VC firms do. Instead, (to continue the metaphor) they’re frequently only looking to hit singles and doubles, and may be quite content to realize exits in the range of $10-$100 million.
Is prior management-level experience required? – Obviously, it doesn’t hurt. In particularly tough times, prior executive experience in managing a VC-backed startup may be a non-waivable requisite. Management experience of any kind is always a positive factor, since it directly relates to the credibility of the management team in the eyes of the investor.
Obviously, there are many amazing startup companies that have been built by founders with no previous experience, and lacking this experience should not deter an entrepreneur who believes he or she can build a great company. There are effective ways to work around the experience issue if it is an impediment to getting an invitation to present before a VC firm. Teaming up with a co-founder who does bring the necessary experience, finding a mentor who carries personal credibility, or organizing a board of advisors with relevant experience and expertise are all ways of addressing the issue.
Do you need to have customers or even first revenue? – There is a lot of dialogue around the need to “bootstrap” early stage companies to the point where a product has been developed and commercially released. This is particularly true of social media, gaming and other online business companies. In seeking to access professional capital, it comes down to supply and demand. Professional investors will look to tangible indicators of success and validation of the business model in evaluating a company’s prospects.
These might include website traffic, conversion rates, your ability to launch a beta and more. Without anything but an idea to show, very few companies get funded to any meaningful degree.
For more traditional “brick and mortar” companies, the ability to get to “proof of concept” through bootstrapping methods is much more difficult. It is also likely that the amount of all-in professional capital necessary to support a company in this category to an acceptable exit—including the amount of so-called “seed stage” funding—is substantially higher than for a social media or gaming company, for example. As a result, there may be a lower expectation that founders will be able to bootstrap to get to professional funding, but the emphasis will be commensurately higher on the other investment basics, including size of the market, likely market impact of the technology, barriers to entry, credibility of the management team and the like. As a result, the bar to funding for companies in this category is fundamentally as high.