I often ask entrepreneurs I’m meeting for the first time to imagine that our meeting just ended and it was a great success from their point of view. Then I ask, “What made this such a great meeting for you?”
It is a dependable way to guide a conversation to a meaningful outcome and lead entrepreneurs away from the Tyranny of the Pitch Deck. But strangely enough, no entrepreneur has ever asked me that same question back. Were someone to do so, I would tell them that the meeting went great because the entrepreneur had already completed five tasks that made them stand out from the scores of deals we see weekly. Here are those five tasks.
1. Prove to me that you know you are attacking a big pain point that demands immediate buyer action to resolve. Prospective customers can always postpone buying an efficiency improvement, but they will not defer action on a big hairy problem that causes constant pain or, at least, annoyance. Since successful startups depend upon very rapid sales growth, short sales cycles with determined buyers are highly desirable, and eliminating big pain points is a surefire way to achieve short sales cycles. They have many other beneficial side effects as well.
2. Come to the meeting having already interviewed tens of prospective customers in depth about why they feel the pain and what they would like to see in a solution. We love this for three reasons. First of all, it shows discipline and grit, which any VC loves in an entrepreneur. Secondly, it means diligence on the market and product/service is going to go much quicker and will likely throw off more accurate results to help with our investment decision. Lastly, these interviews often yield secondary insights about how to price and position against direct and cross-substitute competitors. We have seen portfolio companies shave months off of securing key market insights by doing this work even before the entrepreneurs asked us to invest. That is good for everyone.
3. Come to the meeting with a bottom-up buildup of why the market you are attacking is so large that even if you get only single-digit market share, you can still be a company hitting $100 million in revenue in your fifth year. Please avoid quoting market researchers, pundits, or using top-down estimation to calculate market size. I do not know a single VC who finds that kind of analysis convincing. What that type of breezy analysis usually convinces me of is that we should pass on the deal because the entrepreneur is not paying sufficient attention to a very critical part of building a business.
4. Have a credible first pass operating plan that consists of a pro forma income statement, cash balances, and headcount by function over time. We prefer to see the first two years broken out quarterly and the last three simply as yearly totals. A credible plan will let us see how quickly revenues grow, how profitable the company can be at scale, and, roughly, how much capital the company will need as it becomes a great success. A credible plan also is the foundation of the discussion about the company’s go-to-market plan, which is essential to building a hyper-growth startup.
5. Have the core nucleus of a great team and a good instinct for the organizational holes that need to be filled over time. The team members may not be on board yet, but they are identified and ready to go as soon as the startup gets funded. The standout entrepreneur already knows that we are far more impressed by commercial or technical accomplishments than by where someone went to school.
When an entrepreneur can demonstrate in a first meeting that they have found a huge pain point in a really large market, that they have interviewed many prospective buyers and discovered valuable insights about how they will buy and what they want, when there is a credible operating plan, and when there is a great team being built, we get really excited. And great things ensue.
Want to stand out from the crowd? Do these five tasks before we meet and we will have a great meeting.
Jeff Thermond is a Venture Partner at XSeed Capital and has been involved in information technology and computer networking for over 30 years. Prior to XSeed, he was CEO of Woven Systems, CEO of Epigram (which he sold to Broadcom for $498 million in 1999), and vice president and general manager at 3Com. He currently sits on the board of directors at Lex Machina.