Every year I teach classrooms full of students who leave class understanding the basics of how to search for product/market fit — and thinking their next goal is to “get funded.”
That’s a mistake.
There are two reasons to raise money:
- You have a killer idea that is only partially validated. You think can get to $50 million+ of revenue in 5 years with 80%+ gross margins (if margins are lower, you need a lot more revenue) and you need money to get to product-market fit, or
- You (think) you have product-market fit with real customers and real revenue and need money to grow and expand.
Not all startups need outside investment to grow.
What most founders don’t realize is:
- Every stage of a startup requires a different set of metrics and milestones and founder skills. Knowing these will help a founder position her pitch to get investors’ attention.
- Founders need to keep their eye on the prize — not just the next funding round
Luckily, I teach with two great VCs, Mar Hershenson of Pear Ventures and Jeff Epstein of Bessemer Venture Partners, who both put together presentations unraveling the mysteries of how and why startups raise money. Jeff’s presentation is from the point of a view of “What Investors Want” (see resources here), while Mar’s takes the point of view of a founder trying to figure out the funding landscape. And thanks to Ann Miura-Ko of Floodgate (my first Lean LaunchPad co-instructor) for her suggestions.
Keep in mind there is no “one way” to raise money. Different investors will almost certainly have different models, and different regions may have different math. Still, there are some benchmarks to keep in mind.
Here’s the first 2.5 years of a startup journey.
The startup investment landscape
For startups the early stage funding landscape looks like this:
- Step 1: The Pre-seed round – you raise $100-$750K
- Step 2: The Seed round — you raise $1-$3M
- Step 3: The Series A — you raise $5-$10M
- Step 4: Series B — you raise $10-$50M
- Step 5: Series, C, D….
(Btw, the definition of each startup financing stage has changed in the last decade. What was a Series A round in 2005 is now a pre-seed or seed round. And what used to be a seed round a decade ago is now a pre-seed round. Lots of reasons for this shift, but it basically boils down to the fact that there’s a lot more money that wants to invest in startups, and all of it is racing to get in early.)
This is a journey that can be planned and measured. In a pre-seed round you are focused on building minimal viable products, testing your insights, and searching for product/market fit. In the seed round you have an early product and by the end you’ve found product/market fit and understand the scale of what you’re building and the levers that you can pull to accelerate growth. For a Series A round you want to prove you have built a repeatable and scalable sales/revenue model and understand all parts of the business model. Series B is about proving your net revenue model (can you be profitable?). Series C onwards funds growing your company to $100 million in gross profit.
(At the end of this post, we’ll discuss the valuation at each step (how much the investors value your company and therefore how much of it you need to give up to get this money) and how much revenue you should generate at each step.)
If your pitch is not going to knock investors’ socks off, if you cannot communicate a big vision and a unique insight about the 10x advantages that customers and users will care deeply about, then even if you build out the smartest, most thoughtful process of chasing fundraising, you will fail.
Team, product, traction, business model, and market
In each step of funding there are five questions you (and potential investors) will be asking: Tell me about your team, your product, your traction, your business model, and the market.
Team is just what it sounds like. Tell me why you’re the right person to lead this company (bad answer “Because it’s my idea.” Better answer, “Because I’m the customer.”) Tell me about the group of people you’ve surrounded yourself with – your cofounders and then your key executives. Each stage of funding and company growth requires additional expertise and new skills, and you’ll want to demonstrate that you have these with potential investors.
Product (sometimes called the “value proposition”) is the product or service you’re building. One of the tough things for a startup is to figure out how much of the “product” has to be real and working at each stage of funding.
Traction is a fancy investor word for “Show me you’re making progress.” It’s sometimes called “product/market fit.” In a startup’s early days — pre-seed and seed — this is not about how much revenue you’ve made but more about how much customer passion your product is creating and how many more are loving it each week/month. (Product/market fit means that you’ve found the match between your potential customers’ pains, gains and jobs to be done and the features of your minimal viable product. I.e. your product fits the needs of your target customers. Read Ann Miura-Ko’s article on product/market fit here.)
Founders tend to fixate on the product. Now that product/market fit is part of the lexicon, most understand that the product also needs passionate customers. But great product and eager customers are just part of what makes a great business. The rest of what makes up a company is called its business model. Critical elements of a business model that must be in place include revenue (pricing, strategy), distribution channel, get/keep/grow customers, key activities, resources, and costs.
Market is a euphemism for “How big can your company grow?” Investors want to put their money to work in a startup that can be worth billions or tens of billions of dollars. What are your unique insights about technology, economics, change in market, etc.? What evidence do you have that you can grow this big? How will you do it?
The big idea about all of this is that at each step of funding, the order and priority of team, product, traction and market changes.
In the pre-seed stage, a startup is searching for product/market fit. There are no customers and no product, just a series of minimal viable products.
Funding: Startups typically raise anywhere from $100K to $750,000 in pre-seed. At the low-end, this might come from friends, family, or angel investors. At the high-end, pre-seed angel funds might invest. (Yes, there are venture funds that look for and invest in startups this early.)
1. Team: As you’re raising money from friends, family, or angels, investors in this round are betting mostly about you and your team. Have you or your team members achieved anything important in the past? Any wins to date in your startup? Do you have co-founders who complement your skills? (Warning signs are “We were in the dorm together” or “It’s my team from the class I took.”)
2. Traction: Tell investors about your search for product/market fit and what you’ve learned from potential customers to date. Show them the evolution of your minimal viable product and its current state. You need to begin to “instrument” your customer acquisition process with analytics.
3. Product: At this stage you are building a series of low-fidelity products (sometimes called a minimal viable product or MVP.) It might be a wire-frame, PowerPoint demo, or prototype. The goal of the product at this stage is not to sell but to test hypotheses about customer product/market fit. (Along with the MVP you share your three-year product vision to see if your product vision engages a passionate customer response.)
4. Market: Tell us why this is going to be a huge market. Even better, start with a unique insight – what have people missed, what’s changed, what’s now possible? (Warning signs are, “No one has thought of this/is doing this/we have the exclusive patents.”)
5. Business model: List all the parts of your business model. What are your assumptions about each part? What are some of the critical metrics that matter? Number of customers? Revenue per customer? Number of employees? Revenue, Gross Margin? Expenses? How do you plan to test them?
Goal/Time: By the end of the pre-seed stage the company ought to have evidence that it has found product/market fit. You should be thinking about an end-to-end pipeline of how to get/keep/grow customers. This pre-seed stage typically takes 6-12 months.
Pre-seed round paperwork: Smart investors will typically give you minimal paperwork – either a convertible note or a SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity) or a KISS (Keep It Simple Securities).
By the end of the pre-seed stage (about a year into your startup), your startup has evidence that it’s found product/market fit. (One sign is that you are no longer changing your website/sales PowerPoint/product/app every time you need to acquire a customer.) Now it’s time to raise money to acquire paying customers.
Funding: Startups typically raise anywhere from $1 million to $3 million in a seed round. At the low-end, this might come from angel investors and pre-seed funds. At the high-end, funds specializing in Seed rounds and Series A funds might invest.
1. Traction: For a seed round investors want to focus on traction. You need to provide proof that customers love and can’t live without your product. This means you have evidence that you’ve found product/market fit and have fanatic customers who are reference accounts.
You’ve built detailed analytics tracking into your product and should be seeing organic and viral growth; and you can provide daily/weekly/monthly active users, 30d/90d/120d retention. Retention and low attrition are good signs of customer validation. Note that each market (web/SAAS/physical products) and channel (online/direct sales) has different metrics and a different funnel steps.
For example, this should translate to about $0-200K of annual recurring revenue with a clear plan to reach $1.5-2 million in 18 months. The goal is to iterate on building a repeatable engine for growth that makes the economics work. This is different than focusing solely on the gross revenue number.
(Your ARR and revenue milestones will depend on what business you’re in. For example, not all revenue is recurring, and even in a subscription model for a consumer goods company, your recurring revenue will not be valued the same as if you’re selling enterprise software as operating costs are so vastly different. As an example, $1 of revenue for a direct to consumer company is worth about $1 in valuation at scale. Zappos was sold for $1 billion when it had $1 billion in sales. On the other hand, in a SaaS business $1 in recurring annual revenue equals about 10x in valuation.)
2. Product: At this stage you have a high-fidelity product, one that earlyvangelists (early passionate customers) can use and pay for. Enough of the product is demonstrable enough that you can gauge customers’ price sensitivity, depth of engagement, etc. The three-year product roadmap gets earlyvangelists engaged.
3. Team: Do you have a core team that can build the first product and get early sales? The culture needs to be hypothesis > experiment > data > insight > validate/invalidate/modify hypotheses.
4. Business model: In seed you often discover your business has more moving parts than you originally thought. You may be in a multi-sided market with other customer segments/partners that are critical to your business. You should be testing all parts of your business model; revenue models/pricing, resources, activities and partners.
5. Market: Tell us why the data validates that this is going to be a huge market. At first the founders do the first sale, then they prove your first salespeople can repeat that sale.
Goal/Time: By the end of the seed stage, the company ought to have evidence that repeatable sales can be made by the founding team. This typically takes 12-18 months.
Seed round paperwork: While founders will still want minimal paperwork – either a convertible note or a SAFE or a KISS — professional investors at this round often want an equity round with a more formal set of documents for their investments. You’ll see a term sheet, stock purchase agreement, amended and restated certificate of incorporation, investors’ rights agreement, right of first refusal and co-sale agreement, and a voting agreement.
Series A round
By the end of the seed stage — about 2.5 years into your startup — your startup has a repeatable and scalable sales model and a provable case that there can be a multibillion-dollar valuation.
Funding: Startups typically raise anywhere from $8 to $20 million in a Series A round. This size round typically comes from a venture fund or a corporate VC.
1. Market: You need to convince investors that this is at least a $1 billion+ company.
2. Product: At this stage you have a fully-featured first version of the product needed to scale sales. And you are working to the three-year product vision, iterating and course correcting based on customer feedback.
3. Traction: For a Series A round investors want to focus on a repeatable and scalable sales model with efficient growth. That means you need metrics that prove you have it. Repeatable sales means if you hire an account exec, you know they will close $1 million annual recurring revenue. Or if you spend $100K in ad spend, you can get 100,000 new users.
Startups raising an A round typically have $0.5-$4 million annual recurring revenue. Note that the focus should not just be on growth month-to-month but also on efficient growth. For example, other metrics include achieving net retention of 80-150%, getting a lifetime value/customer acquisition cost ratio greater than 3, getting to two times customer acquisition cost payback period in less than 18 months. You should have a realistic plan to grow revenue 3-5x in 12 to 18 months. These numbers differ dramatically for e-commerce versus consumer, versus SAAS, etc. You should know what the right success metrics are for your industry. (The best VCs will actually tell you what metrics they are looking for.)
4. Team: The core product team is working efficiently, and the sales team for scale is in place with 75% meeting quota.
5. Business model: By the end of Series A, all parts of the business model have been tested and they add up to a scalable, repeatable, and profitable business.
Goal: By the end of the Series A, your company ought to have proved that you’re a business not a hobby. You need to show > $5 million in gross profit. Just to put your journey in perspective, if you want to achieve unicorn status or go public, you ultimately need to deliver $100 million annual gross profit in years 6-8.
Series A paperwork: You’ll be seeing a term sheet, stock purchase agreement, amended and restated certificate of incorporation, investors’ rights agreement, right of first refusal and co-sale agreement, and a voting agreement.
Some investors think of the ideal startup revenue growth with a shorthand of “triple, triple, double, double, double.”
- Years 1-3: $0-$2M in revenue
- Year 4: Triple the revenue to $2-$6M
- Year 5: Triple the revenue again to $6-$18M
- Year 6: Double the revenue to $12-$36M
- Year 7: Double the revenue again to: $24-$72M
- Year 8: Double the revenue again to: $48-$144M
Fair or not, not all startups are equal in the eye of their potential investors. Some startups may be considered “hotter” than others and get much higher valuations. A hot startup may be even able to skip the pre-seed round and go directly to a seed round – meaning more money raised at a higher valuation. The criteria for a “hot” startup include:
- The background of the founders
- attended a top university i.e. Stanford, MIT, Harvard
- had previous experience at a high-growth company, ie Facebook, Google, etc.
- serial entrepreneur
- A “hot” market
- It depends on the month or year – is it AI? Big data? AR/VR, cyber, robotics?
- Do you have a big investor leading the round?
- Have you gone through Y-Combinator?
- Are you famous?
- Silicon Valley
- Other innovation clusters
- A startup with a huge vision and story can create FOMO (fear of missing out) in investors — one of the strongest forces for accelerating your fundraising process.
- At the same time VCs worry about FOLS: Fear of looking stupid
- FOMO > FOLS
- Every stage of a startup requires a different set of metrics and milestones and founder skills.
- Knowing what investors want at each stage provides founders with guideposts.
- Founders need to keep their eye on the prize not just the next funding round.
Steve Blank is a retired serial entrepreneur-turned-educator who created the Customer Development methodology that launched the lean startup movement, which he wrote about in his book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Blank teaches Lean LaunchPad classes at Stanford University and Columbia University where he is a senior fellow for entrepreneurship.