How to Take Control of your Fundraising Process
It’s a tale as old as time.
After a good meeting and a great pitch, the VC across the table (or on your screen in this day and age) offers a forced smile and utters: “Thanks again for making the time. Let me circle back internally and we'll get back to you if we’re interested.”
If you have ever fundraised as a founder—hell, if you’ve ever fundraised, period—you have heard those fatal few words many more times than you care to remember. Though frequently said, the pangs of disappointment and frustration that they impart seldom fade away.
Fear not fellow founders!
To ensure you never hear those dreaded words again, we turned to the one and only David Zhou. A "tenaciously and idiosyncratically curious” writer and investor per LinkedIn, David pens the inimitable, brilliantly-named Cup of Zhou, scouts for a number of VCs, and helps run the On Deck Angel Fellowship.
Over to David!
Your ability to raise capital is directly proportional to your ability to inspire confidence in potential investors.
I’ll get into that, however, first a brief aside.
One of my favorite lines in literature comes from the seventh book of the Harry Potter franchise: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Inscribed on the golden snitch is a simple, but profound phrase: "I open at the close."
In many ways, that line alone echoes much of the world of entrepreneurship. Whether backcasting from the future as Mike Maples Jr. puts it (i.e. great founders are simply visitors from the future) or breaking down your TAM to your SAM then SOM, the greatest founders—no, storytellers—start from the end. They share the future that they wish to see and distort today’s reality to fit into that predestined mold. Without further ado, my five tips on willing the future you want to see via successful fundraising.
Measure Founder-Investor Fit
Before you dive into talking with every investor under the sun, you must first understand there are more investors out there than you possibly have time for. You will never pitch every single one, nor should you. You need to be judicious with your time.
As you raise your first institutional round, you’re seeking out early believers. Julian Weisser—an investor with whom I’m lucky enough to work—calls this belief capital. You’re selling a promise, a vision.
And let’s be honest, at pre-seed there is no amount of traction that will convince any investor with numbers alone.
You see, it’s all about narrative building.
More on that below, but for early investors, it’s about whether they not only believe, but are also willing to fight for the future you collectively desire.
2. Close the First Meeting
I recommend that many founders with whom I work ask a two-part question heavily inspired by my conversation with Hustle Fund’s Eric Bahn for my emerging LP playbook: “Critical feedback is important to me in my journey to grow as a founder and a leader. So I hope you don’t mind if I ask, given what you know about my startup and myself: On a scale of one to ten, how fundable am I?"
To be honest, the number they give is inconsequential. That said, if they give you a ten, get a term sheet on the spot.
The more important question is the following one: “Whether I didn’t share it yet or don’t have it, what would get me to a ten? What would make this startup a no-brainer investment?”
Collect that feedback.
Put it in your FAQs.
Incorporate it into your next pitch.
Test and iterate.
I was listening to Felicis Ventures’ Aydin Senkut on Venture Unlocked recently and he mentioned that he iterated on his fund pitch deck every single time he got a no. And by the time he received his first yes from an investor, he was on the 107th version of the pitch deck.
As such, the answer to the second question should help you preempt and address concerns—explicit or implicit—in future pitches.
- Observing reality
- Collecting facts
- Forming opinions based on the facts collected
- Then, making a rational decision.
But the reality is, people do not. People aren’t rational and investors are no exception.
Like everyone else, investors:
- Are presented with facts.
- Fit facts into existing opinions.
- Make a decision that feels good.
Most of these opinions are not explicit. It’s neither on the website nor laid out in the firm's thesis.
The good news is that most investors will share the same reservations. If one investor hesitates about something, another will likely do so. The best thing a founder can do is to address it before it comes up.
For example, if an investor tells you that if you have a better pulse on the competitive landscape, you would then be a ten. In the next version of the pitch, you might say “You might be thinking that this space is highly competitive, and you’re right. At a cursory glance, we all look like we tackle the same problem and fight over the same users. But that’s when this space deserves a double take. Company A is best in class for X. Company B is second to none in Y. But we are world-class in Z. And no one is offering a better solution for Z. Not only that, customers are begging for solutions for Z. 1 in every 5 posts on Z’s subreddit asks for a solution like ours. But if you look at the responses, no one has a perfect solution for it. In fact, people are duct taping their way across this problem. Not only that, in the past 3 months, since we shared our product on the subreddit, we’ve had 10k signups to the waitlist with 500 of them paying a deposit to get early access to our product.”
On that note, I don't think it’s worth trying to change the original investor’s opinion after they share such feedback. Most of the time, you’ve unfortunately lost your window of opportunity. If it takes X amount of information for an investor to form an opinion about you, it takes 2-3X the amount of effort and time—if not more—for him/her to change said opinion and form a new one.
Lastly, per Homebrew’s Hunter Walk: “Never follow your investor’s advice and you might fail. Always follow your investor’s advice and you’ll definitely fail.”
3. Schedule the Second Meeting during the First
Say the vibes are right and you get the impression that the investor really loves your product and/or your problem space and/or you as a person. When you’re raising your first institutional round, it’s either a “Hell yes” or a “No."
Open up your calendar at the end of the first meeting and schedule your next meeting there and then, but be sure to give the VC enough time to talk with his/her team and also suggest where their firm might want to dive deeper. Give three options for topics to dive into the next meeting. For instance:
- The team and future hiring plans
- The vision and financial projections
- The product, demo, and team’s current focus
From there, have the investor pick one of the above before your next meeting. If they don’t, say something along the lines of: “During this conversation, you seemed to love to hear about the product, so we’d love to dive deeper into the product the next time around unless you prefer one of the other two options.”
Also, start tracking which paths seem to convert investors faster. For example, if 30% of the investors you talk to jump into diligence after hearing the vision, but only 15% convert after the product path, lead with the vision one first next time. “Most of our investors fall in love with us after hearing about the vision, and would love to share more on that at the next meeting.”
The moral of the story is simple: make it easy for your investor to say yes to the next meeting.
4. Realize that ‘No’ is merely a ‘Yes’ in Disguise
If you get the feeling that it may be a no, ask the investor, “What firm/investor do you think I should talk to who might be a better fit for what I’m working on?”
Do not ask for introductions. An introduction will come naturally if an investor is really excited about you. Additionally, even if the investor who passed does introduce you, a natural question will be: “Why didn’t you invest?”
This sets you up for failure because the other investor’s first impression of you will be negative. The only exceptions are if the reason is outside of your control. For instance, they’re raising their next fund since they don’t have any more to deploy out of the current fund, or they’ve recently changed their investment thesis away from what you’re building.
But I digress. What you should do instead is collect a Rolodex of names.
Never ever run out of leads. You never want to be in the position to beg someone who turned you down for money.
When a certain investor gets mentioned more than once—ideally at least 3-4 times—that’s your cue to reach out to them. “Hey Tom, we haven’t met before, but I’m currently fundraising for David’s Lemonade Stand. And 4 investors highly recommended I chat with you on the product, given your experience in foodtech and how you helped Sally’s Lemonade Bar grow from 10 to 500 customers.”
5. Use Investor Updates
Send interested investors weekly investor updates during your fundraise and monthly ones after its conclusion. Share important learnings, key metrics, and your fundraise’s progress.
Be sure to induce FOMO in your updates. Not in the sense that your round is closing soon, rather, that you’re at an inflection point right now in both your product and the market. Two example prompts:
- Why are you within the next 12-18 months “guaranteed” (I also use this word hesitantly) to 10x against your KPIs?
- Is the blocker right now a market risk (which leaves a lot for debate, and most investors will choose to wait for a future round) or an execution risk?
- How have you de-risked your biggest risks?
Taking this a step further, you need the courage to “fire” an investor. If an investor doesn’t get back to you after two emails, it could just be that they’re busy. If they don’t get back to you after 8-9 emails, they’re just not interested. My rule of thumb is always three emails each a week apart for each investor. I have seen founders who have done more, but I would not recommend any fewer.
Regardless, whatever number you decide on, the last email ought to try to convert them. For examples:
“Since you haven’t gotten back to me yet about your interest, I assume you’re not interested in investing. As such, this will be our last investor update to you. If we are wrong, please do let us know.”
Interestingly enough I’ve seen more investors start conversations by this last email than by the very first. Remember to treat your fundraise like a sales pipeline; A/B test different copy and see which lands the best.
Remember, fundraising is a lot like life: it’s simple, but far from easy. It requires grit, determination, and a healthy dose of elbow grease. Despite current market conditions, forge ahead! Follow Jim Valvano’s lead and “Don't give up. Don't ever give up!”