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.

Customer Advisor Board: Early-Stage Hack to Getting Your First Customers

As a founder and former CEO, I'm delighted to see so many Alchemist Accelerator portfolio startups executing highly engaged Advisor Councils (AdCos) when acquiring their first 10 paying customers. Yet most startups fall short of scaling their AdCos beyond a few influencers and MVPs. This is a critical mistake.  

Active AdCos drive you to deliver more customer-focused products while creating momentum in the form of champions, stakeholders, thought leaders, communities, and loyal customers. Think of your AdCo as part of your startup's secret sauce, helping you scale quickly from Council (10-50 people) to Community (50-100 people) to User Conference (100+ people).

As you embark on your customer development journey, an AdCo can serve as an enticing carrot to attract smart and talented individuals with the pain points you've outlined. Joining an AdCo comes with personal and professional perks—from new skills development to high-quality peer networking. Those joining AdCos recognize these benefits, but they'll become your first customers for two additional reasons: first, they really want the product you're working hard to deliver, and second, they want to help you succeed (and have funding to budget to do it).

Qualifying early AdCo members is important. You want individuals that are

  • Thought leaders with deep experience and knowledge about the problem you are working to solve

  • Open and willing to co-build a solution with you

  • Able to access budget and have decision-making authority to buy

Prioritize Your AdCo

There are benefits across the business to establishing and scaling your AdCo:

  1. Product: Ongoing customer-focused product feedback

  2. Sales: Demand Gen (SQLs) of qualified leads and referrals

  3. Fundraising: Venture capital (VC) due diligence during your current or next round

Product: Build WITH Customers Not FOR Customers

AdCos instill a customer-first mindset while providing a critical product feedback loop. Product decisions and team scrum/sprints shift from sharing “I think” to “they said, they want, and they need” inputs.

Data and insights from your AdCo need to be meticulously recorded and then shared “in their words.” At hiQ, we always found the devil was in the details. You should plan for your AdCo members to spend a full day alongside your engineers, data scientists, and product team members in structured round tables, breakout sessions, and panels.  

Power tip: Host your AdCo meeting at a Council member’s location. Enterprise companies have conference rooms that can seat more than 20 people, and often, the organization will provide the drinks and snacks.

Sales: Advisors Become Champions, Then Customers

Your AdCo is one of the tools in your demand-gen and pre-product sales arsenals, and a measurable outcome of establishing one. AdCo members need to be in your sales pipeline as they move from Advisor to Champion to Customer to Reference and Referral. You'll be able to quickly qualify which Advisors will become champions and customers. They're the ones that will write the internal business use case for budget approval because they can’t live without the product(s) you are building. They'll be the ones standing on stage next to you when you officially launch.

Power tip: Use a pending AdCo meeting to close a late-stage deal. Prospects enjoy talking with customers before they sign, so have them sit next to each other.

Fundraising: The Best 2 Hours VCs Spend on Due Diligence

AdCos will scale with your customer growth, and VCs will notice. VCs think in terms of product market fit. This is validated when they walk into a packed ballroom full of clients, prospects, analysts, and job applicants—all wanting to be part of what you're building. There's no better and bigger moment for you and your employees then having customers on a main-stage talking about your product and how it saves them millions of dollars.

Power tip: Invite VCs to Council meetings as soon as possible. Their calendars book up a few weeks out.   

About Darren Grant 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.

The Key to More Sales: Focus on Your State

It's not the product. It's not the timing. It's your body language and tonality. Both have more to do with sales success than other factors because at the core, sales is result-driven communication.

I've been leading sales organizations for more than a decade. However, when I speak with entrepreneurs as an Alchemist Accelerator mentor, I’m reminded that although not everyone is employed in sales, at different times, we all sell—to potential investors, co-founders, employees, partners, and perhaps, even family members.

Your State Matters

Take a minute. Consider how you feel right now. You should care about your state of mind because it’s influencing the work that you're doing and the effectiveness of your communication (i.e., your body language and your tonality). You need to ensure your mood is making a positive impact, helping you achieve what technical professionals call flow or being in the zone. This is your peak state, and it affects the results that you want. It heightens your performance. The opposite is also true. If you are in a bad state, your performance dips, you communicate poorly, and you make mistakes.

A few months ago, I went to a demo-day event where a number of founders were pitching their products to a large audience. After noticing a disturbing trend in a few sessions, I did a little experiment. What I observed was this: at the start of every presentation, attendees sat up, ready to listen. But by the two-minute mark, most attendees lost interest and were looking at their laptops or phone screens. The presenters were dull. Some lacked energy, others lacked enthusiasm, as they pitched their products.

One presenter was different. He started with high energy. He sounded passionate and engaging. Attendees looked up from their screens and listened. He asked questions, and they paid attention. Yet within a few minutes, his energy dipped and he lost them. The attendees went back to their devices because he couldn't maintain his state.

I spoke next, determined to engage the audience’s attention through the entire session. My product wasn't any better than the others being presented, so I knew my communication needed to be different. I took a moment to get myself into a peak state. Then I made my pitch with a powerful and palpable energy. I was loud and enthusiastic. I moved around the stage, and asked a ton of questions. Above all, I maintained intensity during my entire talk, and I paid careful attention to the results.

Throughout my session, the vast majority of the audience was attentive and engaged. I had five times the number of questions about my product than any presentation before me, and at the end, a number of attendees came by to meet me in person. My pitch was successful, and it had very little to do with the product I was introducing.

The secret to a successful sales pitch is more than the initial spark—it's sustained energy and enthusiasm. If you can achieve peak state, getting into the zone, you communicate better. Your body language and tonality automatically attracts people and significantly enhances your influence over them. If you can consistently attain this state, you can consistently elevate your performance above the norm.

Two Simple Ways to Master Your State

There are two simple steps you can take to very quickly make a meaningful difference in the result of any communication:

1.     Hack your brain

2.     Hack your body

What is hacking your brain? In effect, it's an exercise to change your state. You hack your brain before a big pitch by taking five minutes and focusing your thoughts on these things: (Hint: It helps to write them down.)

  • Think of one thing you are truly excited about today. If it's a thing, imagine receiving it right now or if it's an event, imagine it taking place right now. Focus on how you feel.

  • Think of one thing you are truly thankful for in your life? Take a moment to appreciate that feeling.

  • Think of one person you are thankful to have in your life? Take a moment to consider why.

When you hack your brain, you put it in a different mood. You replace negative emotions with positive ones—excitement, thankfulness, and appreciation—and those excrete the chemicals that get you closer to your powerful peak state.

Hacking your brain isn’t enough. You need to hack your body in a similar way because emotions and your body are connected in a profound way. If you change the state of your body, you change the state of your mind and vice versa. As Tony Robbins often says, “motion creates emotion!” Doing any form of exercise (e.g., fast-paced walking, running, dancing, or even some jumping jacks) can influence your mental state and put you in the zone. With the right mental state, you'll start to notice that your communication and body language improves. You do better things and you do things better. Sales is one of those things.

After hacking your brain and your body, you feel better. Your body language automatically improves, and your tonality matches your positive, confident, and empowered emotions. At this moment, you have the best chance to influence others through your communication.

Achieve Results

Your body language and tonality are what people use to interpret what you are saying. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that matters. Frame of mind and tonality are the reasons two sales people using the exact same script, answering the same questions, can have very different results.

The next time you're ready to make a cold call, close a deal, pitch to investors, or present in front of an audience, pay attention to your state. If you’re not in a peak state, take a minute to hack your brain, then hack your body. You'll be glad you did.

About Kevin Ramani

Kevin is the Head of Sales at Cobalt Robotics, and was one of the founding team members of Close.io, helping to build the company from the ground up. Kevin is also a startup advisor and a mentor to several Silicon Valley startups. Connect with him online.

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.