Funding Basics: Fundraising 101

If you’re unfamiliar with how venture capital funding works, it can seem akin to playing the lottery. Anyone can try, but only a few lucky entrepreneurs actually win. Fortunately, fundraising isn’t as random as a Powerball drawing and founders can improve their odds of success by engaging with right-size partners, recognizing what investors find intriguing, and understanding the technical aspects of term sheets.

How do I know?

I was a VC.

Establish a Strategy

As an Associate at Draper Fisher Jurvetson and now as Founder of the Alchemist Accelerator, I’ve met hundreds of people with good ideas and great demos, but far fewer with a strategic plan for fundraising. Founding teams can save time (and alleviate stress) by researching fund sizes and prioritizing meetings based on the outcome they expect. Founders and the venture capitalists they choose will need to make the economics work. Investors will need to pay back their funds. A rule of thumb is that one out of every 10 investments in a VC portfolio will drive outsized returns. And a typical fund has 30 investments. So 3 companies in a given VC fund portfolio will likely be responsible for the fund’s performance. Given this, most investors want to see a path to paying back at least ⅓ of their fund size with an individual investment.

Investors are also constrained by the number of investments they can make. Because they have to limit the number of board seats they take on, they often can only make 2 or 3 new investments per year. And each investment has to deploy enough capital for them to deploy the cash in the fund. For these reasons, investors at large funds (e.g. funds that are $300m or larger in size) will care much more about whether they have enough ownership in your company to create an exit to pay back their fund than the check size of your investment. In fact, if you are asking for too little money (e.g. less than $3m) it can be more difficult for that investor to justify the investment given the size of their fund and the limited number of new investments they can make each year.

Ideally, founders approach a mix of VCs during the fundraising process, recognizing that there will be more traction with those that are a good fit. Don’t get too excited about meetings because every firm will want to meet for fear of missing the next big thing—think Google! That’s why it’s important for startup teams to have a plan.

Choose to make scarcity of supply an asset. Optimize for a short, yet intense fundraising process. Establish a list of three dozen firms, then agree to pursue 12 active discussions at a time—segmenting top-tier / second-tier VC firms, angels / high-value investors, and corporates / strategic investors into separate thirds. This will enable the rapid replacement of non-responsive firms, and help ensure the arrival of term sheets at the same time.  

Share Your Story

VCs meet (and subsequently) invest in startups for a variety of reasons. The startup meets all of the criteria of previously proven successful companies in their portfolio; the startup is somehow connected to the VCs personal network that she trusts; or the firm likes to make contrarian bets. Whatever the reason, the dance between startup and VC always begins with a presentation.

During a seed or series A round, fundraising meetings focus on the idea and its potential. In series C and later rounds, VCs spend time evaluating the idea, the market, and results. How has the company executed to date?

Early round fundraising presentations are expected to be lean, including a brief overview of the team and the market potential. A dozen or fewer core slides is ideal, coupled with a large appendix of slides that goes deeper into specifics. An overview of capabilities and a product demo will also be expected. Sequoia Capital has a good template for creating solid fundraising presentations.

But wait... Before presenting, stop, summarize how and why you are there (don’t forget to mention explicit connections). The goal of this is to try to address from the top the two fundamental questions wrestles with: “Are you any good?” and “If you are so good, why are you talking to me?”. At the beginning -- from the top -- you want to signal strength (that you are in fact a company the investor should want to chase), and that you are talking to them because of some privileged access that investor has. For example, “Before I begin, let me just set some context. As you may know, we have been heads down with customers and will be beginning our official raise next quarter. Our attorney XXX spoke very highly of you and recommended we get your guidance in advance of that”.

You then want to unearth any biases upfront the investor may have before you go into your pitch. VCs often provide the best feedback before you speak. This time is also the best chance you have of understanding any bias or concerns VCs may have about differentiation, distribution, market factors, or some other issue you’re going to cover.

You can simply ask “Did you have a chance to review the information I sent over?” They may not have, but if they have, you can invite them to share what’s important to them upfront so you can cater your talk better to them.

At the end of the day, VCs want founders to like them and VCs want to like the founding team’s energy and passion. After all, funding is a long-term commitment (typically 3—7 years). Additionally, potential investors want to be sure the market opportunity is large enough and that a startup’s entry point is specific enough to ensure a big return.

About Ravi Belani

Ravi Belani is Fenwick & West Lecturer of Entrepreneurship at Stanford University, and Managing Director of the Alchemist Accelerator. Ravi formerly spent six years as part of the investment team at Draper Fisher Jurvetson's Menlo Park global headquarters, where he led investments and served on the boards as the first institutional investor in companies such as Justin.TV & Twitch (acquired by Amazon for $970m), Pubmatic, Vizu (acq’d by Nielsen), and Yield Software (acq'd by Autonomy). Ravi formerly worked in product management at two Kleiner Perkins enterprise startups, and as a consultant in McKinsey and Company's San Francisco office. Ravi is a Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi graduate of Stanford University, holding a BS with Distinction and MS in Industrial Engineering. Ravi also holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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.

This blog is the third in a financing series with topics designed to help entrepreneurs be better prepared for venture capital conversations.