Seed Fundraising - How to get “Reservations” from Angel Investors


At the beginning of your seed fundraising process, you may have to wait several weeks for the first “yeses” from any investor. During this time, if you’re not getting any commitments your round can appear stagnant. Reservations from Angel investors can help solve this problem; as your round’s availability decreases it will put pressure on other investors to say yes.

Here’s how to secure the reservations:

Ask for Money

Most Angel investors turn down 90% of the meetings founders request, so if you get a meeting, you must directly ask if the investor is interested in investing.

Steps:

1. Wait until 10 minutes before the end of the meeting, then ask if they have any questions. For example:

“That’s a quick overview of AcmeCorp - do you have any questions?”

2. When you’ve completed the questions and/or when there’s 5 minutes left, ask if they want to talk more about investing. For example:

“Does AcmeCorp fit within your investment thesis?”

“Is this investment something you might like to be a part of?”

“Would you be interested in investing in our current round?”

Ask Usual Check Size

If the investor expresses interest, the next step is to find out their usual check size. This will be an integral part of the reservation later.

Steps:

1. After the investor expresses interest, ask about their investment process, as this will give you an idea of the time they take to make a decision, as well as their usual check size. For example:

“What’s your usual process for investments like this?”

2. If they don’t reveal their check size, you’ll have to ask directly. For example:

“What’s your usual check size for these investments?”

“What size of investment are you considering here?”

“Do you have a fixed amount you usually invest at this stage?”

Secure the Reservation

Once you know the investor’s potential check size and when they will decide (roughly), it’s time to secure the reservation.

Steps:

1. If the investor’s check size, decision timeline, and other requirements fit with your plan, tell them you’d be open to having them involved. For example: “I’ve enjoyed our conversation and your approach seems to fit with our current raise”

2. Next, acknowledge they will need time (and perhaps further materials) to decide and ask for the reservation. This step is critical. For example:

“Should I hold that space for you while you’re deciding?”

“I will hold your spot, to give you some time to decide.”

“I usually hold space for investors while they’re in diligence, I’ll do the same for you.”

Once you’ve promised to reserve space for an investor, it would be wrong to give that space to another investor without fair warning. Thus, your round’s availability is reduced and all other potential investors start to feel the pinch of FOMO (fear of missing out). When new investors now ask for your fundraising status, you can respond with spoken for availability for example:

“We’re raising $500k and have 50% spoken for”

Practice these phrases before the meeting, and the early part of your seed fundraising will be much easier.

Thanks to Kaego Rust for her help on this article.

About Ash Rust

Ash Rust is a Partner at Alchemist and the Managing Partner of Sterling Road. You can find more of his writing about Seed Fundraising on Medium.

About the Alchemist Accelerator
Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

An Interview with Toni Schneider, Founding Venture Partner, True Ventures

A Swiss native who studied computer science at Santa Barbara City College and Stanford University, Toni Schneider started his career as a software engineer working on NASA virtual reality simulators. He went on to become a startup founder and CEO, and an executive at Yahoo!, before joining the True team as a founding Venture Partner. Toni is well known for his role as CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. He helped WordPress become a globally known brand that powers over 30% of all sites on the internet. For his work, Toni was recognized at the Crunchies as CEO of the year.

When he is not running one company or advising another, you can find Toni in his VW van crossing the US with his family, coaching San Francisco Little League baseball, or tinkering with old cars.

How did you get into the world of venture capital?

I got into it first as an entrepreneur and founder, raising money from VCs. I did that for three startups. Then I switched to VC while also still being CEO of a startup. True Ventures is the only VC firm I’ve ever been with. One of True’s co-founders, Phil Black, was a close friend of mine. He was thinking about starting a new VC firm and asked me if I would be interested in being part of it. So when he started True together with Jon Callaghan, I said yes and dove in to learn from them how to raise money from limited partners and make venture investments as we pulled together True’s first fund in 2006.

That’s so interesting to be on both sides. You began on the entrepreneurial side pitching to VCs and now you are a VC. How do you think that transition helped prepare you? Does it help you identify what you are looking for in a company that you want to fund? What a red flag would be, that sort of thing?

It's probably both good and bad. The good part is that I was able to bring a founder’s perspective to how we structured True. Our goal was to be very founder friendly. I could share honestly what it was like to sit on the other side of the table from a VC. That helped in creating a firm where we really think of founders and entrepreneurs as our customers and where we do everything we can to provide a good service to them.

Another advantage is that when I look at startup teams, I have a good hands on feeling for their abilities because I’ve run several startups and hired and managed many startup teams.

The disadvantage is that it comes with biases. I had a certain experience as an entrepreneur and certain things that worked for me and certain things that failed. That very much shaped my thinking around startups. While it gives me a good point of view, I also have a harder time going outside of my own experience and being open to different approaches to starting businesses.

What for you personally makes a startup look like a good idea? What is something compelling to you as a startup you would fund?

For me it always starts with the team. I look for strong founder qualities, which in my mind are the ability to be very charismatic, and to have a really exciting, big, long term vision combined with flexibility when it comes to everyday execution that's going to be very zig-zaggy for a startup. There will be new challenges every day. So you look for somebody who's comfortable asking for help and being adaptable near term, but has an audacious long term vision that they don't waver from. The charisma and communication skills will help attract a lot of people to their startup.

Finally, someone who has a lot of depth in their area of expertise. This is something I always look for. As I dig into an idea, do I feel, “Wow, this person is three steps ahead of me and has really thought it through and knows everything about the space they’re about to get into”? Any good idea is going to have more than one team chasing after it, and I want to bet on the team that has a lot of depth.

There's a lot of emphasis for future founders on idea generation, but it honestly sounds like the idea comes second to more of the team, from what I just heard you say...

First step is to be in the right place at the right time for your skillset. There are other factors that play into it, but without the right people, none of it is going to work.

The second step is the product and the idea. The product needs to be unique and truly compelling and have a story that can be articulated in a simple way. What does the product do? Who is it for? What makes it unique? It's surprising how often founders can’t answer those three basic questions in a straightforward manner. I want to invest in a product that gets me personally excited, that I believe will have a positive impact on the world, and that will make customers say, “Wow, I want that, that’s different. That’s a totally new approach.”

For the third step, like everybody else in the VC business, I look at the market. Is this something that if it works out - there can be a ton of risk associated with, frankly we want a ton of risk - but if it works out, could it be a very big business? Is it a big market that seems ready for a massive change? That has to be in place as well, otherwise you can have an amazing team with an amazing product, but without big growth and revenue potential it won’t be a VC scale opportunity. That's not what we’re in business for.

What was the number one red flag that would caution you away from investing in a team or a startup?

On the people side, it's teams that don't seem to have the right chemistry or the right understanding of what their roles are going to be, or teams that don't have a track record together. That for me is maybe not a red flag, but definitely a yellow flag.

The biggest red flag usually comes up during initial due diligence. It happens quite a bit that I'll think “Wow, this is a really good idea, I'm going to dig in,” and when I do, I realize that there are already a bunch of teams doing the same thing and the idea quickly doesn't seem so original. It feels like more of a rehash or tweak of another idea. That usually throws cold water on a project for me. That’s the biggest red flag, that an idea isn’t that unique.

It's only one percent of startups go on to become really big. You really do have to filter out ones that you don't think are capable or have a clever idea.

Yes, and even when everything fits, even when you check all the boxes that I just described, it's still hard. Because nothing ever plays out exactly the way we plan and hope. Another filter we use at True is that we focus on one type of deal. We do two to three million dollar seed rounds. That’s it. If it’s something that is a really good idea with a good team, but two to three million dollars is not enough to get it off the ground or it’s already past the seed stage, we won't do it even though it might be a great opportunity. We are really trying to stay focused on one stage of investing, do it well, and have a whole portfolio of companies that go through the same stage so they can all learn from and support each other.

Seems like True has a specific focus on seed round innovative companies, what else do you look for?

We’re not thesis investors. We don’t have certain sector or certain type of business that we look for. We’re not a “SaaS fund” or a “Crypto fund”. We invest behind great founders and then double down when things are working. For example, we were early investors in Fitbit, a couple of years before hardware startups and connected devices became a trend. We weren't looking for that trend, we just liked that team and particular idea, and when we saw it working for them, we followed on with a bunch more hardware investments like Ring and Peloton. We follow wherever our founders take us. Recently, we've invested in robots, satellites, and biotech, which are all new areas for us. We try to be very open-minded about what the subject matter might be.

You really do try to treat founders and startups that work with you very well. Is that how your fund differentiates from others? There are certainly quite a lot of VC funds around here.

One thing that makes us different is that we invest earlier than the majority of VCs. We're really close to an angel stage, but we're a full service VC firm. We are there in the very beginning, often when it’s just two or three people with an idea, and we have our founders’ backs all the way through. Most VC firms want to see revenue traction and product-market fit before they even look at something.

The second thing we do that differentiates us is we are focused on the personal needs of a founding team, not just the business needs. We know what you will need as a founder, as a leader, to get really good at your job, to get through the ups and downs of doing a startup. If something goes wrong, we want to be your first phone call. We don't want to be the kind of investor where you feel like, “Oh God, something went wrong, how do I break this to my investors? I don't want to talk to them.” We hope to have a trusted relationship so that even when things don't go well, we're going to be there and help you through it.

Part of how we do that is to connect all the founders within our portfolio and they help each other improve. That's our founder network and platform. We have events and tools that facilitate direct, open, and honest collaboration. It’s optional, but most of our founders take advantage of this amazing peer network. I think it’s super valuable and quite unique among VC firms.

What made you to want to invest in Laura and her startup, Atipica? What made them stand out from the pack of other investments you were evaluating at the time?

Laura and Atipica really hit a lot of the boxes I mentioned earlier. She’s a very charismatic founder with a big vision, a great communicator with deep knowledge in the area of diversity, inclusion and hiring. She had spent several years working on the idea and product, talking to a lot of companies about their needs, so she had depth of expertise. We started working together a little bit over two years ago. It was still early days in diversity and inclusion tools and she was well ahead of many of the people we talked to. She had a small team, pre-revenue but she already had some pilot customers. So it was the right stage for us and we felt like our seed investment could help her build out her team, get the product launched, and get to the next stage.

The hiring and recruiting sector in particular was interesting to us at the time. We had just had a successful exit to LinkedIn with Connectifier, and I was and still am on the board of another investment we made in this space called Handshake. They’re in the college recruiting space and doing very well. So I was personally excited about hiring tools and got quickly interested in Laura’s vision to make the recruiting and hiring process become more fair and inclusive and help companies understand why they're having such a hard time building diverse workforces.

Is there any piece of advice that you would give founders who are up and coming next generation founders that you don't think get shared enough currently? Something that people are failing to focus on when they're thinking, “I want to become a founder”? Is there some aspect you see time and time again they forget and you would caution them to focus on?

Try and get as much perspective as possible. When I was an entrepreneur raising money, I felt that I knew and loved my team and my business, and I could pitch them all day long. But when I went into VC meetings, I was new at it and had never heard any other pitches. On the flip side, those investors had heard tons of them, yet I had no idea how I stacked up. I've definitely seen founders come through True who think they nailed it but they didn't. And I’ve seen founders completely hit it out of the park with us and were like, “Was that OK? I have no idea!”

My advice is to connect with other founders and see other pitches, or at least get some information on how high the bar is. I think that's how you get better. Don't try just work on your own idea, on your own pitch within your own bubble, but really try and see what else is going on out there, who's doing really well and connecting. How are they doing it? What's the subject matter?

A lot of what you're describing was actually the impetus behind why Alchemist got started. The founder, Ravi, felt the same thing, a lot of startups didn't really know how to compare and weren't really swapping notes and sharing. Alchemist has become like a community where you can share ideas, help each other out and that everyone is trying to get the best out of everyone else.

Exactly. The most worthwhile part of being a part of a program like that is learning from each other and getting perspective.

Then the last thing I'm really curious about is seeing how you get to see all the upcomings startups, tech products and services. What areas do you personally think are going to be the most exciting and you are most excited about in the upcoming near future?

I get that question a lot and actually I don’t know. Literally someone will walk through the door tomorrow with an incredibly exciting idea that we couldn't anticipate. All the super interesting things we have gotten really excited about are little bit out of left field. We're trying to be truly open to new people and ideas because our next great investment can come from anywhere.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

An Interview with Laura Gomez, CEO, Atipica

Her family immigrated to America when she was eight years old and settled in the Silicon Valley area. Shortly afterwards, she got an internship with Hewlett Packard. No one at her internship looked like her, and she hated it; it made her want to stray away from tech. However, her parents — who’d come to the U.S. to make a better life for her children — saw that tech would be an incredible opportunity and pushed her daughter to continue. Determined not to let the industry make her into a victim, she decided she’d work in tech, “whether the industry embraced her or not.” She believes she made the right choice going forward with tech; now, years later, diversity is dominating the conversation in the industry. Since then, she’s worked at huge companies like Twitter and YouTube, helping them translate and localize their applications for a global audience. Her latest endeavor, Atipica, helps tech companies find and hire diverse candidates; says she’d rather fail trying to solve the problem of diversity in tech than to never tackle it. Laura has raised $2M in seed funding led by True Ventures.

In order to get a more in depth look into Atipica and the mind that created it, we conducted an exclusive one-on-one interview with the company’s founder Laura Gomez. We pushed for answers to questions that people often want to ask Silicon Valley’s next-gen entrepreneurs, but seldom have the chance. By the end of this snapshot, we hope you have a sense of this amazing founder’s story and a few lessons to take away for yourself.

What exactly is your startup bringing to the marketplace?

What we bring to clients, investors and or our own team members is thinking of AI in HR in a more thoughtful and inclusive lens, powered by data and machine learning in the workforce. While there are many tools out there for HR, we are the only ones thinking of it as a holistic, inclusive solution and building it with a diverse team.

What was the impetus behind creating your startup?

The conference I just came from was actually MC’d by a former human resources business partner at Twitter. While technically I do not have any direct HR experience, I have worked very closely with HR throughout my career. Regarding the starting idea, it began with me thinking of a thoughtful and inclusive way that we can better understand diversity at the top of the funnel so that we can apply what happens to diverse employees and what doesn’t, and try to move away from anecdotal approaches to diversity and inclusion.

What is the most challenging matter you as a startup are currently facing?

I think the biggest hurdle is people not only picturing Atipica as a solution for social impact and diversity, but seeing it as a business intelligence tool that is adaptive to the dynamics of the workforce, which includes different genders, races, ages, and other kinds of diversity. The challenge is understanding the market outside and how to position ourselves, and getting people to not just thinking it’s a social impact and diversity solution, but rather that it’s a business intelligence technology that’s helping businesses adapt to what the workforce looks like now and what the workforce will look like in 5 or 10 years.

Can you tell us a little about your background before you started your startup?

I’ve been in tech since I was seventeen. I had my first internship at Hewlett-Packard, and since then went and studied in college. I didn’t really focus on computer science because I felt a lot of the imposter syndrome. After college, I joined a lot of early stage tech companies all at various stages of growth. While working at them I saw a need for more diversity.

What previous experience or situation do you feel best equipped you for your current role?

Growing up I always had a hard time assessing myself and my skills, but I also loved languages and loved reading about and interacting with new technologies. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I realized that there was a natural intersection between the two, called localization. As I continued with my interests, I realized that technology could help me assess career paths and even help companies better understand the skillsets of people. That is something I want to incorporate into Atipica as well. How are people assessing themselves, how are they intersecting their skill sets with their own mindset and passion in the long run?

If you could go back to the first day of your startup, what advice would you give yourself?

Be patient with the fundraising process. Patience in understanding the complexity of what it takes to get funding is fundamental to becoming a founder. While people do usually want to be patient and not force it, the process requires a thorough understanding. It’s really not just the waiting that’s difficult, but you need to have patience in understanding the process.

What made you apply to Alchemist? Why not others?

A former coworker from Twitter is an Alchemist alum so I decided to consider it. I started researching, and I found Alchemist was considered the best accelerator. I then reached out to a friend who knew Ravi so that they could introduce me to him. The rest is history. Since joining Alchemist I actually made one of my closest friends by going through the program. She’s also an Alum. I saw the success of Alchemist, the prestige, the thoughtfulness of the program that Ravi had built and it made me think: “This is where I want to be.”

What was the most valuable thing you took from being a part of Alchemist?

Learning how to sell to enterprises. My whole career, I had only ever sold to consumers. I think the enterprise component allowed me to better understand all the components that make up enterprises in general. Obviously there’s an emphasis on revenue, but there’s also an emphasis on positioning and on the value to the client. Being better able to see through the lens of enterprises and how they look at startups was very helpful.

Can you talk about a time in which you thought all hope was lost and how you made it through that?

It happens to founders, if not every day, at least once a week or every month. This month alone it has happened to me twice. The main one had to do with someone that I thought was going to lead my round of funding, but it just got to a point where it just didn’t seem like it was going to work out. They had their own concerns about the business, and I had my own concerns about aligning myself with their values. I think it was one of those things that should have been addressed and discussed earlier on, but those are the types of things that happen, and I learned from it and have moved on.

I personally am a big fan of acknowledging the things that I can’t control and then focusing on the things within my control, plus by doing that it helps me not go into a rabbit hole of “oh my gosh I can’t believe this happened” or “poor me” victimization. Since I’ve started focusing on that, people have noticed how much happier I am. I feel more in control of my life and my startup. Always make sure to be grateful for everything. Even for example if you meet with an investor and they decide not to invest, thank them and walk away with gratitude that they were willing to meet with you and that you were able to learn from that. Being grateful in life opens so many doors and will never hurt you.

What entrepreneurial lesson or skill took you the longest to learn or are you still learning?

All entrepreneurs, whether they know it or not, are going to face some sort of ethical dilemma. It might be who they take money from, what they’re building, who is it going to affect. I have had to learn how to handle those dilemmas and to stay true to who I am. This skill is especially important right now when we have big tech companies being held accountable for various intrusions of the democratic processes or how they’re building their product and their businesses. Practicing ethics and integrity is something that I continue to learn each and every day.

Do you have any advice for female or minority founders?

Yeah, definitely! I actually just met with a female venture capitalist this week to see if she had ever led a preemptive Series A round. I asked because I really wanted to know if it was true or if it was just my own bias, but I had never heard of a woman or a person of color that has been a part of a preemptive Series A round. That being said, I know many male founders that have recently closed preemptive rounds just by talking to an investor. I think we need to acknowledge the systematic discrimination — men can get a $10M term sheet from a coffee, but not female or underrepresented founders. How I stay balanced is knowing that I can only control my own company and my own strategy when it comes to fundraising and not any external factors like who’s getting funded and are they preemptive or not. However, if there is a trend where minority founders aren’t being treated fairly, you have to acknowledge it and hold the industry accountable.

Has there been someone that has helped you along and that you don’t think you’d be here if it wasn’t for them? How did they do it? How did you find them? How did you build that relationship?

Yes, it is a VC friend of mine named Freada. She was one of the first people I ever pitched to. When I pitched to her it was horrible. I wish I had recorded it because it was absolutely terrible. But all of the partners and associates actually gave me really great feedback. I met with her afterwards, and she told me to focus on what I really wanted to make and then to build that well and find people who are willing to buy it and then come back to them. I took her advice and seven months later met my lead investor through her. And her firm, Kapor Capital, became an investor as well. So I definitely wouldn’t be here without Freada.

Did you already know her or how did you meet her?

I didn’t know her. I actually just randomly reached out to one of the principals, who is now one of my closest friends, there at the VC firm that I kind of knew of. I reached out and I said “Hey do you have time for coffee?”, and she said yes, but asked me if I’d rather meet with her coworker Freada because she was really passionate about what I was trying to start. She eventually became my mentor and colleague and investor. As a founder, you need to be willing to just put yourself out there and ask to meet people.

What constitutes success for your startup in the next 12 months?

I want to build a company based on values, integrity, using AI and machine learning to coach people rather than trying to automate and replace people and their skill set. I want the world to know that not all tech companies are trying to replace people and that not all artificial intelligence is biased; and I really want them to know that there’s a company out there thinking of thoughtful and conducive ways to use this technology to help the current workforce.

What constitutes success for you personally?

Success for me is having a proud legacy to leave behind. No matter what happens, I have met amazing people who really believe in me and my mission. At the end of the day I’ve done great work and built something I really believe in and am proud of. I have two nieces and if they ever read about me and what I’ve done, I know they’ll be proud.

Are there any insights you have learned that you want to share with the next generation of entrepreneurs?

I would tell them to stay true to their convictions. Whatever you’re building, make sure to find a support system. Don’t think it’s a weakness or a sign of desperation to ask people for help. Make sure to ask people for support, ask for advice, ask for opportunities. I believe that most people out there are good people and are willing to help, and if they’re too busy and aren’t willing to help, then you shouldn’t take it personally. Don’t be afraid of rejections, but rather be thankful for each and every opportunity that you’ve been given, and that will make a big difference.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley — including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

Checklist for Running Your First Board Meeting


A first board meeting is a big and life changing milestone. As founders, you survived weeks of due diligence, followed by a term sheet and then a wire of a few million dollars. Now it is time to be a CEO and experience and run your first board meeting with the investor or investors who sit on your board and blessed the deal.

It can be overwhelming. Here are a few coaching tips, based on my experience as a board member, to help first time CEOs be prepared and maximize the limited time you have with your board.

Checklist For Your First Board Meeting:

  • Get On Calendars: Executives’ calendars fill up months in advance. Remember that you are asking for 3 hours of a partner’s time, several times a year. In some cases, investors will have to fly in for the meeting. As a best practice, ask one of your board members’ administrative staff to own responsibility for scheduling the meetings.

  • Pick the Best Dates: The board meeting should take place after the quarter ends. This gives your finance and sales team enough time to close the quarter, giving the complete picture of sales data. Your cash runway is a key metric. Missing one deal could have a big impact. Having board meetings after the end of the quarter ensures you have the actual bookings number. (Note: most boards also have standing calls during the quarter.)

  • Share Decks: Email your board decks at least 72 hours in advance. This will help the board be prepared to ask meaningful questions and give feedback. Board members might also request that you pull additional information for the meeting. Emailing decks ahead of time gives you and your leadership team a few extra days to meet any such requests.

  • Use the Preferred Template: Ask the lead investor if they have a template that they would like you to follow. Chances are they sit on multiple boards and have a preference how they like to review the data. Once you have the template, share it with your leadership team. Have them fill out their section. For example, Sales, Finance, Product, Operations will each have their own slide or slides. Each section should start with a high-level overview of the insights and learnings of the quarter.

  • Prioritize Board Discussion: Always have two or three meaningful topics that you want to discuss with the board. Interact with the board as you prepare your slides. They are a sounding board for what you want to cover. Remember they have done this before and can only help when they know what problems you are trying to solve.

  • Leave Time for Governance: At the end of each board meeting, you will do the housekeeping: approve stock grants, minutes and other items that the board needs to vote on. Always have the most current cap table handy. That gives the board perspective on the impact on the employee option pool as they approve grants.

  • Hold a Dress Rehearsal: 24 hours before your board meeting, meet with your leadership team and do a dress rehearsal. It is important that everyone is on the same page. This might be the first board meeting for them as well.

  • Take a Breath: Congratulations on making it this far! Give yourself and your team the credit you deserve for the huge milestones of a Series A raise and first board meeting. There’s a vast amount of work ahead, but this is an achievement to celebrate.

About Darren Kaplan

Darren Kaplan is the co-founder and founding CEO of hiQ Labs (www.hiqlabs.com), a data science company, informed by public data sources, applied to human capital to make work better. Mr. Kaplan is an Alchemist Accelerator mentor, working with Augmented Reality, Cyber Security, and HR enterprise SaaS startups.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

Using Design to Inspire Disruptive Thinking

Image result for design principles

Emotion factors into customer experience, and as a result, into purchasing decisions. A customer’s experience isn’t just about features, it also includes how the product or experience makes them feel. It’s the moments of delight a customer encounters, and also the overall feeling they take away after interacting with your product.

Great customer experience is why travelers opted for Virgin America when United and American Airlines offered more flights per day. The Virgin experience, and the brand’s unique personality was ultimately more appealing than other airlines’ “feature” set

Investing in design to create an experience, rather than just a product and feature set, can be a key element of a company’s success.

Design is empathetic

Design can be seen as abstract concept. Robert Brummer, industrial designer and founder of SF-based design studio Ammunition has said: “Everyone is a designer.” What he means is that all of the people involved in bringing a product to life (the engineer, the manufacturer, the product manager...) need to be bought in to the design vision since they’re executing on different parts of this shared strategy.

Empathy is critical for design success. When you understand the context of a product's use (and how the person using it feels), you make really important discoveries. Understanding your users doesn’t just mean interviewing them––observation can be even more revealing. Observations uncover insights that interviews may not because users will often tell you how a process is supposed to work, rather than show you how it actually works.

To ensure that every decision reflects the best user experience, startups can keep these key principles in mind:

Five Key Principles

  1. Make it simple – Find a way to make someone's life easier, and maintain your focus there. It takes discipline to keep things simple, but focusing on doing one key thing really well could be a differentiator.

  2. Inspire delight – Create efficiency around a pain point. Help users complete something in an engaging and compelling way.  

  3. Exhibit craftsmanship – Pay attention to details. Think about going to a Disney resort:you instantly become part of a crafted, well-orchestrated experience.

  4. Deliver unique value – Avoid getting trapped in incremental improvement. Be sure you're focused on doing something unique and different. The NEST thermostat is a great reminder that there are opportunities for  breakthrough innovation even for everyday household objects.

  5. Focus on human goals – Understand your customer's world. Take time to understand who your users are.Don't trust internal opinions only because your perspective may not reflect the greater population.

A design-focused process

Design-driven companies use collaborative teams to get to disruptive ideas faster. Product management, product marketing, and design  should work together from day one. Here’s an outline of a development process that puts your users first:

  • Discovery – Focus on your customer development work to uncover your users’ needs first.

  • Conceptual design – Use the data you discovered to ideate upon possibilities.

  • Detailed design – Narrow your scope. Sketching, wireframing and prototyping, and then sharing these prototypes can help you get specific and disrupt assumptions.

  • Implementation – Discuss tradeoffs and ensure that with every change you’re not compromising the overall experience.

  • Post ship – Go back and talk to your users again. You may find new opportunities for the next version.

Find the right people

For small companies unaccustomed to hiring designers (and other user experience professionals like researchers, prototypers, or writers), finding the right people can be challenging. Design is an iterative process, so whomever you hire should be willing and able to work with you through a development process, listen to feedback, and make changes.

Communication is key. Your designer should be able to answer questions about why they made certain decisions, communicate to you why the overall design proposal works, and, as noted before, take constructive feedback. There’s lots of talented new grads and contractors who’d be motivated to work with startups and small companies. Working with a company where design is a priority at the earliest stages of growth should be an attractive prospect for designers. The benefits gained from designing an overall customer experience should prove invaluable to your business.

About Catherine Courage

Catherine serves as Vice President of Ads & Commerce User Experience at Google Inc. She was previously SVP of Customer Experience at Citrix Systems, Inc. where she led the company-wide customer experience initiative with responsibilities covering brand, social, web, product design, information experience and business process reinvention all to drive adoption and loyalty among customers, partners, and employees. She also served as SVP of Customer Experience of DocuSign, Inc. and the Founding Member of the experience team at Salesforce.com. She has twice been recognized by Silicon Valley Business Journal as one of 2011's 40 under 40 and 2013's Women of Influence. Ms. Courage holds a Masters of Applied Sciences, specializing in Human Factors, from the University of Toronto and Bachelor of Science from Memorial University of Newfoundland.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures/year. Learn more about applying today.

Emotional Triggers and Investing

Directors like James Cameron, James L. Brooks, and Steven Spielberg are masters when it comes to understanding human emotion. In just a few short scenes, they can leave a whole audience in tears. They aren’t doing anything magical. They’re just appealing to the same human emotions we all have. As an Alchemist Accelerator Partner, I teach founders how to apply the same principles to fundraising. Get an investor emotionally excited and investment comes naturally. Try to beat them to death with numbers and figures, and you’ll just spin your wheels. Investors see thousands of pitches a year and fund a handful. If you want to win, you have to get them excited and snap them out of their default behavior of “no.”

Luckily for founders, investors are human too. So naturally, they have common emotional triggers that spark excitement, and ultimately, investment. In working with hundreds of founders, as well as raising $5.4million in seed funding for my own startup, I’ve identified eight emotional triggers nearly all investors respond to. By focusing on conveying these points to prospective investors, founders stand much better chances of raising capital and ultimately building great businesses.

The eight emotional triggers are:

  • Big Market

  • Rapid Growth

  • Why Now?

  • Unfair Advantages

  • Founder Strength

  • Founder Bond

  • FOMO

  • Confidence

Big Market

Investors live and die by their returns. The only way to get big returns is to invest in companies that have potential for big exits. For most investors, big market is a fairly binary measure: “Is the TAM (total addressable market) large enough to get me outsized returns on my investment?” they’ll be thinking. If the TAM is over $2B, you’ll get a check and if it’s less than $2B, they’ll likely have to pass—even if they really like you. So make sure you help your investors know exactly how big your market is by helping them do the math. If an investor is asking questions about how many customers are in your space or how big you think the market is, don't make them guess at the answers. Give them all the data they need to help them understand the TAM. This is especially important if there's a general perception your market may be too small.

Rapid Growth

The only thing that separates a startup from a small business is rapid growth. It’s literally the definition of a startup. The easiest way to demonstrate a rapidly growing company is to, of course, be growing rapidly, which typically means you’re adding users, customers, or revenue quickly. However, if you’re pre-revenue or pre-launch, growth projections can also help to convince an investor that your business is about to take off. If you've done the work in Excel to know you're adopting the best business model, now is the time to use it to convince someone else.

Why Now?

The why now question is really a two-part question of movement. Why has this business never been possible until now? What has changed now to make this business possible for the first time? After all, fresh ideas are nearly impossible so chances are others have come before you and failed. You need to explain what has changed that will make your vision succeed. Market movement creates opportunity. You see it. They see it, but only you know how your business can best seize the opportunity to create billions more for the benefit of both of your organizations.

Unfair Advantages

Investors recognize there are lots of smart people in the world, so becoming a successful company in a crowded marketplace requires more than just efficient execution. Describe precisely how you're creating a new earnings engine as well as any unfair advantages you may have. For example, if you have extreme domain knowledge around analyzing very large datasets or have worked in the industry you're targeting with your new product (e.g., healthcare), you should highlight that in your pitch.

Founder Strength

Building any successful company is hard. Building a multi-billion dollar company is nearly impossibly hard. When investors invest in your business, they can’t just believe in your idea. They have to believe in YOU. The best way to convince them is to show them a history of exceptional achievements. For example, if you have a new security technology, are you already an inventor holding patents or do you have a CISSP? Name drop. Make connections to your market. Mention achievements and show off logos. Be sure to share all of your founding team strengths.

Founder Bond

Co-founder conflicts are among the top reasons startups fail. It’s not talked about every day on TechCrunch, but investors see it all the time in their portfolios. So when a potential investor asks, “How did you and your co-founder meet?” he or she actually doesn’t really care about your cute story of growing up together and your mutual admiration of Pokemon. What the investor really wants to know is if you and your co-founder are committed to each other enough to stick it out through the ups and the inevitable downs of startup life. Founders who have bonded because they've known each other awhile often have an edge because (presumably) their relationship has already weathered some turbulence.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

In the public markets, investors pay big money for the privilege of investing in stocks at a future date, at a current known price. It’s called option trading and it’s a multi-billion dollar market in the U.S. alone. In the private market, investors get “free options” all day by telling founders simple things like “We’re still discussing things internally” or “We’re still working through diligence items.” As a founder, it’s your job to move these maybes to real answers. The best way to do this is by appealing to what we all fear, which is missing out on something that might be amazing.

Confidence  

Investors are looking for founders with confidence. After all, if you aren’t confident in your own business, why should the investor be confident in your ability to make it successful? One of my fundraising mentors, Michael Carter, used to remind me, “It’s your job to be confident.” That haunted me during my own fundraising process, but it also provided a healthy reminder that confidence isn’t an emotion. It’s something you can project through tone, body language, and deliberate actions—even if deep down inside you feel anything but confident.

Emotion stays with us, making the discovery of the right human connection a significant factor in an evolving investment strategy. Talk. Uncover. Discover. Emotional triggers have the power to accelerate your funding success.


About Michia Rohrssen

Michia Rohrssen

Michia Rohrssen is the CEO of Prodigy, the fastest growing auto startup. He is also a founder/blogger at B2BFounder.com, providing actionable insights from a founder in the trenches. Before Prodigy, he served as Head of Growth at VentureBeat and CEO of Smarter Solutions. Learn more at https://getprodigy.com.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

Crossing the Chasm and Spinning Up the Web

Innovation has been difficult for traditionally successful companies. While leaders such as Intel, Oracle, and Microsoft spent time improving performance, entrepreneurial founders from Facebook, Google, and others moved in, creating new earnings engines by delivering faster and with less friction.

When I speak with Alchemist Accelerator entrepreneurs, I first describe the hierarchy of powers because it's how investors think about the origins of future growth. They want to understand how your company is going to win based on what power it will exert on the market:

  • Category power - Growth from category expansion where secular growth increases spending

  • Company power - Growth from competitive advantage (e.g., the 800-pound gorilla analogy)

  • Market power - Growth born from customer commitment and loyalty (think: Mac owners of the 1990s)

  • Offer power - Growth born from unmatchable offers

  • Execution power - Growth born from reaching tipping points

This last point -- reaching the tipping point -- is what founders delivering consumer technologies have to focus on just as business-to-business (b2b) startups have to put all of their energies into crossing the chasm. Each is a critical step to becoming a successful business or what accountants commonly refer to as a “going concern.”

Crossing the Chasm

When I introduced Crossing the Chasm in 1991, the idea of a technology adoption life cycle with different categories of enterprise technology buyers was novel. Now, most b2b founders recognize the value of aligning their businesses with innovators and early adopters (a.k.a. lighthouse customers).

At the same time, they realize reaching beyond those groups to the early majority is much more demanding, and can sometimes feel like a futile exercise similar to poor Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill. Yet when they find pragmatists, or what I refer to as a "bowling alley" group of users that share similar pain points, the business can successfully cross the chasm to “viable” and enter the tornado phase, when it seems everyone--from techies to Main Street conservatives-- purchase. After all, adoption is social, so the skeptics come along too, and that's when you have total assimilation.

Spinning Up the Web

Interestingly b2c companies don't cross a chasm, but rather spin up a motor with a variety of gears to generate a tornado. Two gears -- acquisition and monetization -- were what early investors questioned most. How were companies running experiments and based on results, tweaking accordingly. However, the other two--engaging traffic and enlistment behavior--have turned out to be longer-term predictors of success. “Spinning up the web” or a mobile app today requires viral engagement. When Net Promoter scores reach 9 and 10, you know you have a winner.

While not impossible, crossing the chasm or spinning up the web within a traditional business is hard because innovation can be distracting and require reassigning top talent. You, as an entrepreneur, can use their continued focus on performance to your advantage, executing on one of the framework powers to grow your business or be acquired by theirs. Getting traditional enterprises to effectively create new earnings engines is outlined in Zone to Win. For now though, startups like yours that can cross the chasm or spin up the web still have the edge.

About Geoffrey Moore

Geoffrey Moore is an author, speaker, and advisor who splits his consulting time between start-up companies in the Mohr Davidow and Wildcat Venture Partners portfolios and established high-tech enterprises, most recently including Salesforce, Microsoft, Intel, Box, Aruba, Cognizant, and Rackspace. Moore’s life’s work has focused on the market dynamics surrounding disruptive innovations. His first book, Crossing the Chasm, focuses on the challenges start-up companies face transitioning from early adopting to mainstream customers. It has sold more than a million copies, and its third edition has been revised such that the majority of its examples and case studies reference companies come to prominence from the past decade. Moore’s most recent work, Zone to Win, addresses the challenge large enterprises face when embracing disruptive innovations, even when it is in their best interests to do so. It’s time to stop explaining why they don’t and start explaining how they can. This has been the basis of much of his recent consulting.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

You Need Paying Customers, Not Free POCs, to Survive Your Fundraise

First-time entrepreneurs that are building an enterprise SaaS company and trying to raise money without having paying customers will typically find it difficult to raise capital. As an Alchemist Accelerator CEO mentor, I help founders understand this point as early as possible. If you want to survive, meaning close your Angel or Series A round to live another day, you must prove that customers will pay for a solution to the problem you are solving. That is table stakes in Silicon Valley.

Early Stage, SaaS, Enterprise Sales is Really, Really Difficult.

You don’t have brand recognition, customer references, case studies, engaging slides, or a fully functional product. And most technical co-founders do not have sales experience and would prefer to spend their time coding versus updating salesforce or talking to people.

Capital comes in two primary forms: paying customers and venture term sheets. Non-paying “proofs of concept” (POCs) are not customers. The Valley VC deal flow is massive so POCs with no path to revenue from small logos (companies with under 400 employees) will get a response that sounds like “come back in six months.” That is a major problem when you have only 90 days of cash and no salespeople.

Founders need to clearly understand their prospects’ buying and decision-making processes. Everyone knows your product is in beta, but you shouldn’t be giving it away for free. Founders need to know their worth and show the value of their products. It’s important to explain to early prospects that free trials equate to no funding to hire engineers to scale the product. Even worse, they lead away from a path to raise money.

Be honest with your first 10 potential customers. Let them know that you need a financial commitment from them and that they need to be a reference for potential investors. Listen carefully to their feedback when you make that ask. Do they have a budget to pilot new technologies? What are the barriers to your deal getting signed in the current quarter? Are they in the midst of a reorganization? Did a new boss just arrive? The signal will be high on your first call as to whether or not this lead has real potential. If a prospect tells you his or her company’s security assessment will take six months and the purchasing process another three months, believe that person and say thank you, don’t forecast them and then move to the next deal.

Your First 10 Logos Matter

Many founders sell into small businesses (20 – 400 employees) because they think the process will be easier. Logos matter and the first customers you attract are important. VCs call these lighthouse customers. They represent early market validation and big budgets. If investors have never heard of the logos on your traction slide, there’s little excitement to listen to your pitch. Similarly, if your first four customers are due to your friends or family network, investors will be

skeptical of your ability to cold call and introduce your new product/service in a compelling way outside of your immediate contacts. Remember VCs backchannel before they cut checks. They call their networks of lighthouse executives to get a sense of market needs.

Have A Path to Scale Early Customers

Investors will be interested in your traction. They know that your first few deals will be priced below market to get the relationship started. But you need to show them a path—how you are going to grow early customers from five-figure deals to six-figure deals. (In effect, showing now that you won your first deal to prove your value with one business line, how you will get the rest of the business.) Great founders set this path to scale at the earliest stage of deal. They do this by value setting at the beginning of the relationship.

So take the time to build a solid pipeline of customers not POCs. It’s easier to raise money when you have paying customers. Founders selling early-stage enterprise SaaS solutions should think in these terms: every $50K SaaS sales order should equal $300K in funding. If what you are selling has value, people will pay for it.

About Darren Kaplan

Darren Kaplan is the co-founder and founding CEO of hiQ Labs (www.hiqlabs.com), a data science company, informed by public data sources, applied to human capital to make work better. Mr. Kaplan is an Alchemist Accelerator mentor, working with Augmented Reality, Cyber Security, and HR enterprise SaaS startups.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

Lighthouse Customers: Four Best Practices


A lighthouse is a great metaphor, symbolizing safe passage ahead. Throughout my career, I've associated it with really important customers because they're the ones that help safely navigate small startups into burgeoning businesses.

Lighthouse customers are similar to anchor tenants in a shopping center. Others follow their lead. Lighthouse customers are your company’s champions (and hopefully become members of your Advisory Council). Lighthouse customers support your vision and have tremendous influence on your product or service roadmap because they've committed to you and you've committed to them. You’ll have other customers, for sure, but these lighthouse accounts are the shining examples of your software and service in action. They’ll be your references to investors. They’ll speak to analysts and press. They are your showcases.

That said, they don’t all have to be from the same industry. However, they do have to share the pain points your business is solving.

When it comes to lighthouse accounts, here are four things I tell the Alchemist Accelerator startups that I mentor to keep in mind:

1.     You're forming a partnership that requires commitment on both sides.

2.     Find big names that can be “company makers.”

3.     A solid ‘how many’ rule of thumb is 1:1.

4.     Companies do change.

Both Sides Commit to the Partnership

In the era of subscription selling, it's more important than ever for you to have happy and satisfied customers. Lighthouse accounts provide an inside view into what prospects and customers really need and what your organization is doing (and can do better) to deliver.

For your part, your company will need to provide direct access to your CEO as well as establish a dedicated support team. Best practices with lighthouse customers include

·      Monthly check-ins between executives

·      Quarterly in-person, on-site meetings at either the customer or company location

·      Bi-monthly meetings with clearly defined action items by team

·      Weekly internal email updates about lighthouse customer progress

Recognizing the importance of these key accounts, some startups showcase lighthouse customer logos on their walls. Others host lunch & learns about the customers' businesses, hearing from champions, investors, influencers, and even media presenters.

But the relationship can’t be one-sided.

Lighthouses have to commit, too, meaning they should allocate executive access and provide significant input to your roadmap, but without too many absolute demands. There’s also financial equitability. Lighthouse accounts should pay for what they use, with the exception of possible discounting in exchange for specific marketing activities, such as quotes in press releases or speaking engagements at industry events. Remember, our companies charge customers for our software and services because nothing should be free when you’re providing a valuable service or product.

Find Big Names that Can Be “Company Makers”

Lighthouse customers should be well-recognized brands. It may not be widely known, but forward-looking companies across industries -- think Starbucks and Target, VISA and Mastercard, JPMorgan Chase and PNC, for example -- want to work with you as much as you want to work with them. Global giants stay ahead of competitors by finding ways and new technologies that improve processes, increase customer engagement, drive revenue, and reduce costs. If you have something that can give them an edge, they’re interested.

Association with a few big brands puts a company on the map. Lighthouse accounts not only open doors, they offer tremendous opportunities for the kind of high-scale growth that can make a company wildly successful. Teaming with the right internal champion can turn an initial 50-seat sale into an enterprise-wide deal.

1:1 is the Ideal Executive Ratio

Too many and there's no way to support them. Too few and you don't have enough feedback to improve your product/service nor investor references to continue building. Lighthouse accounts should be the best example use cases of your software or service, making them the most strategic to your company. That’s why each lighthouse account must have a company executive sponsor, leading the relationship to greater success. The ideal ratio for lighthouse accounts is one executive from your company to each lighthouse customer organization. That basically means if you have five execs in your company including the CEO, you can handle five total lighthouse accounts.

Embrace Change

It doesn't have to be the end of either business if a lighthouse customer relationship dwindles. Change is constant. Some companies advance faster than others and timing is everything. Should the bright light of one customer begin to fade, be sure to replace it with another. This goes for both startups and global Fortune 100 companies. There should never be a time when employees don't know the name of your company's lighthouse customers.

Lighthouse accounts help companies of all sizes, across industries, safely navigate forward. They keep teams innovative and competitive. Who are your company's lighthouse customers? It's important for you and everyone else in your business to know.

About Kris Duggan

Kris Duggan is an entrepreneur, advisor, investor, and educator. He's advised and invested in a variety of Silicon Valley-based companies, including Palantir Technologies, RelateIQ (acquired by Salesforce.com), Addepar, Blend Labs, Turo, and Gusto. He co-founded and was the founding CEO of Badgeville and BetterWorks before co-founding a new technology company, based in Palo Alto, CA, this year. Kris is the Chief Sales Mentor at the Alchemist Accelerator. He previously served as an Adjunct Faculty for Singularity University, and is a frequent speaker on the topics of scaling startups, customer loyalty, gamification, employee engagement, and performance management.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

What’s HQ (Hustle Quotient) And Do You Have Enough Of It?

Hustle isn’t just the difference between good and great: for start-ups, it’s the difference between existence and non-existence, between “good enough” and “gone”. Companies in an industry will experience roughly the same degree of luck. Hustle is what makes the most out of good luck and sidesteps and perseveres through the worst luck. HQ, your Hustle Quotient, is how effectively you leverage your IQ and EQ. Hustle is a resource available to all, and this article explains 6 ways to increase your startup’s HQ. The article also explains the interaction of HQ with social, financial and human capital; and in what way HQ supports anti-fragile companies. Concepts are illustrated via examples from history and industry.

In my experience, one factor — a factor available to anyone — opens the door to success for startups: Hustle — the difference between existence and non-existence. Hustle has to be your guiding compass.

Your organization’s HQ, its Hustle Quotient, measures your perseverance and resourcefulness. HQ is how effectively you leverage your IQ and EQ.

It’s not new. Here’s a life-and-death example of HQ outside the realm of this century’s technology startups.  More than 100 years ago Amundsen and Scott led two separate expeditions in a race to be the first to reach the South Pole. Presumably, their goal was to also return from the expedition.  Amundsen reached the pole first, and he returned with every member of his expedition. Scott and his entire team perished and likely did not reach their goal. The difference in outcome — existence vs. non-existence — boils down to hustle.

Amundsen insisted on 20 miles a day, no matter the conditions, and he never went more that 20 even in great conditions. Scott rested on bad days and covered as much ground as possible on good days. Both teams had roughly the same conditions, but their outcomes were vastly different. Amundsen covered twice as much ground — returning from the expedition. Existence vs. non-existence.

Amundsen had broad contingency plans — literally. He carried three times the supplies that he calculated were needed, and he marked the caches with a 10km band of flags so he wouldn’t miss them. Scott carried the exact amount needed, and planted a single flag for each. Amundsen’s team was fed; Scott’s experienced starvation. Existence vs. non-existence.

Amundsen researched how the Inuit lived in order to understand the problems he would encounter. Scott knew how to use horses, so he used horses—which were not able to survive the conditions.

Three HQ lessons from these expeditions:

  1. Persevere through periods of bad conditions
  2. Contingency plans enable you to persevere
  3. Understand the problems before you choose your solution

A start-up adventure has striking similarities to the Antarctic expeditions, though not that fatal consequences of failure. There are many unknowns, but a bright north star: becoming a billion-dollar company. Startup companies have, on average, similar resources and luck. Hustle is what you make of the good luck, and how you persevere during the bad. Contingency planning gives you the backup you need to survive when the goal takes so much longer to reach than you expected, to endure during the bad luck, and as you navigate the unknowns. In a startup, you can’t dream in a vacuum — you have to address how to solve a real problem. Just as Amundsen created solutions correct for Antarctic conditions, startups must understand the market needs, headwinds, and pinpoints. Outcomes are also similar: existence or non-existence.

Here’s a Hustle example from the technology world: Imagine Larry Page steps on the elevator with you. You could be immediately star-struck and ask for an autograph, while expressing admiration for his accomplishments. Or you could engage him in a conversation that shows off your chops: “BTW I was at the GoogleNext conference last month, and it brought home to me that Google is really giving AWS a run for the money.” Larry is now compelled to say, politely, “Oh, thanks. So, what is it you do (that brought you to the conference)?” You use your HQ to deliver an answer gets his interest, and he agrees to connect with you. Now, although you don’t have an autograph, you do have potential to establish a relationship with Google. This IQ leveraged by hustle.

Anyone and any organization can have hustle. It is a renewable resource with no marginal cost.

So how do you get that hustle, or evaluate your HQ?

  1. Force yourself into uncomfortable situations, outside your comfort zone. Such as promoting your company even when it feels unbearably awkward.
  2. Work on things that truly move the company forward. For example, making 20 prospect calls. You’ll probably have to be uncomfortable — overcoming the feeling of failure that prospecting often brings, which is really overcoming yourself.
  3. Hire people with high HQ. Make HQ central to the interview. What have you done outside your comfort zone, or that’s risky, or leaps into the unknown. You must hire the hustle mindset and behavior, not the job skill set.
  4. Create a culture of tinkering. The route to success is faster if you try over and over, experimenting and learning until you find solutions.
  5. Create options where none exist. If you are prospecting, and get no response, what do you do? High HQ  people brainstorm on how to get a response. Who else could reach my prospect? How can I get near my prospect? How can I create more prospects?
  6. Do not accept binary outcomes. You reached your prospect and delivered your most persuasive arguments, yet you got turned down. Don’t react as if the outcome is Yes or No. You got a No to your offer, so now you ask  “What happened? Why not? What would have led to Yes? Who do you know who might want to use us?” Answers to any of those questions put you far ahead of where you were after No.   

High HQ teams make more of their startup capital. Startup capital is the combination of your social, human, and financial capitals. Financial capital is your buffer for hard times. Human capital is the skills and experience you collectively have. And social capital is your network in the industry you are in. Hustle makes you assess what you can do with your capital. How many people in cloud computing do you know, or how many people in your network know people in cloud computing? What are the gaps in your network? How will you fill those in? Our human world operates within clans or tribes. Hustle is identifying groups that are critical to your success, making sure you invest time and energy in becoming an integral part of them and using them effectively.

As you apply your elevated HQ to your organization, keep your scope broad. Company building is not product building. Product is only one of the variables to manage. The others include finance, advisors, investors, co-founders, talent customers, legal, HR, and partners. Some of these you can select based on their HQ. Some, like co-founders, advisors, and partners, will complement what you do, filling in for your organization’s gaps. It’s all about existence or non-existence.

This manifesto is a result of my constant research into what drives success.  I’ll share my reading list with anyone who reaches out to me.

About Asim Razzaq

Asim Razzaq is the co-founder and CEO of YotaScale. Prior to YotaScale, Asim was Senior Director of Engineering at PayPal and eBay. He built and ran the PayPal cloud infrastructure and his engineering teams made significant innovations in the area of manageability and system administration. He helped build the PayPal Developer Platform from zero to a billion dollars in payments volume. Asim was also responsible for all core infrastructure at PayPal processing 5 million transactions per day. He has lead engineering for multiple early and late stage startups in Silicon Valley and Austin with two of the companies exiting to Netsuite and Navitaire. 

Asim co-founded YotaScale to bring his expertise in large scale, mission-critical, cloud infrastructure management to companies beginning to use cloud services as well as those that are well on their way.

Asim holds a BS (Honors) degree in computer science from the University of Texas at Austin where he conducted research in distributed computing and large scale infrastructure sponsored by IBM Research. He is a published author in the field of computer science in the area of resource management for large scale, distributed systems.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.