Put two venture capitalists and an entrepreneur (who pitched her business to almost every VC in South Africa before securing corporate funding) in a room, and you’ll hear the truth about funding: What investors look for, the realities for business owners looking for funding, and what you can do to increase your chances of securing funding — or better yet, build a great business without it.
In June, the Matt Brown Show hosted a series of events, called Secrets of Scale at the MESH Club, focusing on what it takes to scale a business. Matt’s panellists included Clive Butkow, ex-COO at Accenture and CEO of Kalon Ventures, a tech-focused VC firm; Keet van Zyl, a venture capitalist and co-founder of Knife Capital, and Benji Coetzee, founder and CEO of tech start-up EmptyTrips. To add a twist to events, both Keet and Clive chose not to invest in Benji’s business when she was on the funding trail, even though they believe strongly in both her and her idea.
Here’s what we learnt from their experiences, insights and advice for local business owners.
Funders back the jockey, not the horse
This is a truth that Benji has experienced first-hand. “After months of trying to find an investor, I decided that VCs don’t know what they want,” she says. “The ladder of proof just keeps getting longer — big white space, addressable market, an MVP (minimum viable product), traction, first users — there’s a long checklist and you just need to keep ticking those boxes. Great concept, great team, we love it, keep going. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that.”
What Benji learnt was that the corporate funders who would eventually choose to back her were interested in two core things. First, did she have skin in the game? By that stage, she had invested R3 million of her own funds into the business, and so the answer was decidedly yes. She was already backing herself.
The second was that they wanted to back her — not necessarily the business. They were interested in her passion, dedication, experience and networks. “You still need everything I mentioned before,” she says. “But ultimately an investor backs the entrepreneur, not the business.”
Clive agrees. “There are a lot more million-rand ideas than million-rand entrepreneurs,” he says. “At Kalon, we’ve seen 600 companies and we’ve made four investments. That’s one to 100 odds, which is pretty standard in this industry.
“That doesn’t mean the 596 businesses we saw weren’t good businesses. Some of them were fantastic. They just weren’t investable businesses because we knew they wouldn’t give us a 10x return. They also weren’t 600 unique businesses — they were 100 unique businesses six times. There are very few unique ideas or even businesses out there — and so it’s the entrepreneur who makes the difference, and who you ultimately want to back.
“We look at three things in an investment. Is the deal investable? Is the person investable? Is the risk investable? If all three answers are yes, we can take it further. You need to have a great jockey; you need to have execution capability; and you need to have traction in a large target addressable market.”
Funders are interested in traction
For Clive, traction trumps everything. “I look for the 4 Ts: Team, Technology, Traction and Target Addressable Market. Without traction though, the other three aren’t worth much.”
“Every single business we’ve invested in had customers, and wasn’t just an idea,” agrees Keet.
The best way to prove traction and to get funders invested is to start introducing yourself before you need money, and then keep them up-to-date on what you’re doing and achieving.
“We receive five business plans via email a day for funding, and we ignore them all if they haven’t come through our network,” says Keet. “This isn’t unusual. 93% of deal flow in South Africa comes from within the VC’s network.”
Don’t think of a VC’s network as an exclusive ‘invite only’ club though. “Building a network is all about attending ecosystem evenings and embracing targeted networking,” says Keet. “We’re all on Twitter. Get to know us. I’m passionate about the journey of an entrepreneur — send me a newsletter telling me who you are, and three months later where you are now. That’s my passion. I love that stuff.”
More importantly, it’s not just a business plan — instead, you’re letting potential investors into your story, and giving them the opportunity to share in your journey.
“It’s not that difficult to get into networks and bump into people at events,” says Keet. “And then it’s much easier to send a follow-up email saying, ‘Hi Keet, we met last week at the MESH Club at the Matt Brown event, can we have a coffee?’ It’s tough to say no to requests like that.”
Clive agrees. His advice is to always meet your investors before you need money. “We don’t have the bandwidth for cold emails, but we do enjoy sharing stories and business journeys.
“Think about it like this: We don’t invest in dots, we invest in lines. Tell me where you are now and where you’re planning to be, and then keep updating me. You’re then able to prove that you can stick to your goals, execute on them, and hopefully even exceed expectations. Get that right, and funders will come to you.”
Clive also says that smart VCs play the long game, often supporting businesses even if they don’t believe the time is right to invest in them.
Both VCs used Benji as an example of this strategy in action. While neither fund was able to back EmptyTrips, both Clive and Keet have kept in touch, followed Benji’s growth trajectory, and supporting her where possible, either with advice or connections.
“Keet opened me to the angel network,” says Benji, “and his partner, Andrea, introduced me to Lionesses of Africa. It was that involvement that allowed us to build a relationship with Siemens and Deutsche Autobahn. VCs aren’t just about funding — they enable ecosystems too.”
Before you look for funding, make sure you actually want (or need) it
The most common question people ask Clive is, ‘How do I raise VC funding and from who?’ According to Clive, this is the wrong question to be asking. “Equity funding should always be a last resort,” he says. “The question business owners should be asking is, ‘do I need funding?’ The best way to build a business is through customer funding. Some businesses are capital intense, but I’ve built many tech companies with no external capital. Customer funding is gold.”
Even though Benji has needed additional capital to build her business, she has also learnt the value of starting with what your clients want.
“Businesses change and evolve. We started out wanting to fill trucks on the empty legs of their trips. I now manage more trucks than Imperial’s CEO, but we don’t own a single vehicle, because we’re a platform that connects transport operators with companies that need transport solutions. We’ve since built an open spot market and we offer insurance solutions.
“We spend so much time asking what VCs want — and I was guilty of this too — when we should be asking what our clients want and need, and then building those solutions for them. That’s how you get clients to fund your business.”
Creating traction, knowing what clients want, building a use case: These are all essential steps in the overall process, and they will either lead you to funding, or help you build a business that doesn’t need external capital.
Focus on what moves the needle
“The real trick to growth is focus,” says Clive. “Don’t try to do too many things. Go deep and drill for oil and gold. Once you’ve scaled a business and you’ve become the best at something you can start to expand. Too many entrepreneurs are easily distracted. Most start-ups don’t even know what they’re building until they start getting real customer feedback. If you’re doing too much it’s difficult to take that feedback in and adjust what you’re doing.”
Keet agrees. “Find your strategy, determine the key metrics you need to grow in, and then focus on growing those metrics — and only those metrics — aggressively.
“From a scalability perspective, the entrepreneur’s ability to execute their strategy is paramount. You need a good product, a large market, and to know where you’re going. You also need to be able to grow five key areas simultaneously: Customers, product, team, business model and funding. These need to grow in proportion if you want to succeed — which is where the ability to execute becomes so vital.”
“Scaling a business is always about the practical stuff,” says Benji. “Consultants and VCs always have acronyms — the 4Ps, 5Cs — I have the 5Es.
“First, you need an explicit purpose. Be clear on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Next, you need an effective model that makes financial sense. You need to achieve sustainability sooner rather than later, because the sooner you can fund yourself the better.
“Next is execution support, and this is all about having the right team behind you. You need to be able to execute fast — and that takes a team. It doesn’t have to be perfect; just get it done — done is better than perfect. That way you’re first and will hopefully stay ahead. I often call our customers to apologise for something we’re fixing on the platform and they’re always okay with it, because we’re the only one doing this, and we’re still building it up.
“This is followed by what I call ‘enveloped co-opetition’, which basically means working within your ecosystem. Work together with neighbouring industries. Grow together and support each other, even if you are also competitors. This actually opens doors.
“Finally, you need emotional resilience, because this is tough, and you need to keep at it if you want to succeed.”
“We tend to fund older entrepreneurs who are more mature, understanding and generalists. You need resilience and the tools to succeed, and that often comes from having spent time in corporates, building up experience and a skills set.” — Keet van Zyl
Open additional revenue streams
As Benji mentions, the sooner you can fund yourself the better, so building a sustainable business is key. In addition to this, opening additional revenue channels can help pay the bills while your business gains traction.
“Scalable businesses are based on products or platforms, not services,” says Clive. “However, you can fund the product business with cash flow received through services. Ideally though, as the business grows, you want to increase your product revenue and decrease your services-derived revenue.
“Think of your services revenue as short-term, augmenting the business model while you’re building it.”
Benji, who is still consulting, agrees. “My consulting work ensures I have revenue coming in to support the business if we need it,” she says.
“Look for anything your company does — or can do — that can be monetised,” advises Clive. “But most importantly, critically analyse your business offerings. If you’re solving a real problem, your business can be customer-funded, particularly if your customers love you. I’ve seen cases where customers will pay upfront because they need your solution that badly. That’s the business you want to build. It’s also something VCs look for, because it shows you have real product-market fit.”
“Focus on learning, not earning. Take the long-term view and build the skills to become an employer. Learn as much as you can about business. There are unlimited opportunities to learn available to us today. Become a generalist to succeed and focus on being a leader, and then hire the specialists.” — Clive Butkow
Looking For Funding? Try Manufacturing
There are over 200 national incentives for the industrialisation of South Africa. Can you tap into grant funding to grow your business?
Many people ask me why the focus of public investment in SMEs and business is so heavily weighted on the manufacturing sector?
The reality is that investment in industrialisation results in a multiplier effect in jobs, foreign earnings through exports and increased tax revenues. Countries that focus on industrialisation have proven its potential to stimulate economic growth and address social challenges.
If you’re looking for opportunities and the support needed to realise these opportunities, manufacturing is a good place to start. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) offers several manufacturing-based incentives and grants.
Below are the ten key general principles associated with the DTI incentives:
1. Matching concept
DTI grants are based on a ‘matching’ or ‘co-funding’ principle, which requires an applicant to invest a portion of the funds required for the project for which funding is being requested. The DTI will fund a portion of the project qualifying costs (anywhere from 10% to 90% depending on the specific fund) on condition that the applicant can prove a source of the remaining portion. The source of the difference can be debt, equity or any other form of funding.
2. Qualifying/allowable investments or activities
The DTI sets rules for what can be funded by way of a grant (qualifying costs). These may differ based on the incentive, but the general rule is that the main application of grant funding is for plant, machinery, tools and equipment. Land and working capital will not qualify and would form part of the co-funding.
3. Project size
This refers to the full project size and includes all costs involved in implementing the project. All costs include capital expenditure (e.g. plant, machinery, tools and equipment), working capital (e.g. salaries, wages, stock etc.) and other costs including, but not limited to, land, vehicles, business development and certifications.Not all costs will qualify for funding from an incentive.
Projects are evaluated to determine their bankability. The DTI aims to ensure that the principles applied in an application and business plan are realistic and will result in a sustainable business and/or project. In evaluating bankability, the DTI will look at the ability and know-how of the team and will require the applicant to show proof of market.
Proof of market is demonstrated by off-take agreements, purchase orders, contracts or letters of intent.
Incentives are strategic funding and, as such, are not an appropriate source of funding for distressed businesses or businesses with short timeframes. This funding should be viewed as strategic funding. The DTI may provide timelines for processing applications, however, applicants must be prepared for timelines longer than those indicated. Applications may take anywhere from three to 12 months to be processed and approved.
6. Approval prior to investing
Investments made prior to the approval of an application will be non-qualifying investments. This means that an investment made before receipt of an approval from the DTI cannot be recuperated. This will be enforceable even if the investment made formed part of an application that was approved.
7. Milestone based claims
The DTI will make payments based on project milestones as indicated in an application. Each fund may define its own milestone parameters.
8. Rebated claims
Claims are rebated to applicants. This means that an applicant must first invest, in line with its application, and then submit a claim for the approved investment. This principle demonstrates the importance of securing co-funding, which will be used to initiate the project.
9. Tax free grants
Grants awarded and paid are tax-free.
10. Equity substitution in nature
As grants are not repayable, they can be considered equity for purposes of securing debt. Most debt funders require a portion of equity from an applicant to lower the risk of debt. Debt financiers will consider a grant as an equity contribution, allowing applicants to unlock debt that would otherwise not have been available.
6 Steps To Ensuring You Meet Your Funder’s Mandate
Find your funder, approach the right people, and tick all the boxes.
1. Determine why you need funding
According to Quinton Zunga, founder and CEO of RH Bophelo, a special purpose acquisition company with interests in the healthcare sector, many business owners do not understand cash flow and its impact on the operations of a business. “A good idea without enough cash flow is not sustainable,” he says. “You have to prepare the business for the worst-case scenario and ask yourself ‘what if things don’t work out my way? Do I have a plan B?’ Don’t assume you’ll be able to access finance to save the business if your cash flow is poor.”
The reality is that too many business owners apply for funding because their working capital is under strain, customers owe them money or their margins are too low.
“There’s a big difference between funding that will help you grow your business, and trying to plug a self-inflicted cash flow problem,” agrees Kumaran Padayachee, CEO of Spartan SME Finance, an alternative funder.
The key to growth funding can be summarised in one sentence: Will this help me make money? If the answer is yes, you’ve ticked the growth-funding box. If you’re not sure, relook your financials and forecasting. If the answer is no, you’re trying to solve a cash flow problem that will not be fixed by taking on more debt funding.
“As a funder, we care about what entrepreneurs want the money for,” says Kumaran. “We look at business models and strategy. We take a view of the entire picture, which gives us insight into whether the funding will be used in a growth context, or to plug a gap created by a strategy, cash flow, sales, marketing, management or an access-to-market problem.”
The real insight is that it shouldn’t only be up to funders to determine the answers to these questions, but business owners themselves. If you understand why you need funding, one of two things will happen: You’ll realise there’s a problem in the business that funding won’t solve, and you can begin working on it; or you’ll be prepared when you apply for funding, increasing your chances of securing the finance you need.
The reality is that too many business owners apply for funding because their working capital is under strain, customers owe them money or their margins are too low.
2. Understand the funding landscape
Different sectors, industries and funders have their own rules and mandates. To understand the funding you’re trying to access, you need to first understand the sector you’re in, and the funding rules that apply.
For example, property is a long-term investment and funders in this space require a commitment of at least five to 15 years. TUHF, which is a specialised residential property finance company, also requires an equity contribution, as it does not offer 100% financing.
“Funding is usually made up of two components: Financing (loans) and equity (owner’s contribution),” says TUHF’s CEO, Paul Jackson. “The purchase price of the property, the costs of refurbishment and the amount of money the client can contribute of his own money are the three main contributing factors that determine how much financing the client will need to apply for.”
More importantly, entrepreneurs approaching TUHF are dealing with industry experts operating within a niche space. This is true of most funders, and should be carefully considered by business owners.
When you’re considering your growth options, focus on what you absolutely need to push the needle, and make do with what you can as you build up your pipeline.
“In every case ask the question: Do the costs involved in accessing the finance make sense? Will this help drive growth? How? Once you’ve ticked those boxes, consider all your funding options. There are a lot of solutions available to you, from bank funding, which is the cheapest to access but requires a lot of collateral, to private equity funding, which involves giving away equity in the business,” says Kumaran.
“Alternative funders like us play in the middle of these two traditional options. Alternative funders tend to be niche and specific, focusing on specific sectors or industries. They carry more risk and don’t require collateral, which is why they’re more expensive than banks, but they bring industry and sector-specific insights as well — and it’s debt funding, which means you aren’t giving away equity in your business. Their processes tend to be efficient as well, largely due to the niche nature of the funder. When you’re ready to grow, find a funder that matches your needs and understands your business.”
3. Start early
“Raising capital patiently is key, because acquiring funding quickly but unwisely could lead to repayment issues,” says Quinton. “Some funding can only be accessed later and you need to be patient, or you may find yourself struggling to pay it off before your business has grown big enough to do so. You need to focus on preparing a business plan and understanding the cash flow impact of the decision you make. Look for an advisor or banker to work with you on the business plan.”
4. Know what funders look for
All funders are looking for specific business and personal traits in the business owners they back. Quinton values integrity and honesty, a good understanding of the business they are in, and personal commitment. “Funding a new business is always tough because the entrepreneur may not have experienced all the sides of the economy and may not be accustomed, mature and ready enough to go to the next level. This is where a steady track record is advantageous,” he adds.
Paul agrees. For TUHF, the entrepreneurial character and competence of the borrower is of paramount importance. “We follow a character-based lending approach,” he says.
“A client that displays certain characteristics is considered a better investment option. These include entrepreneurial qualities; an open-minded attitude that is willing to take advice; someone who is self-disciplined and manages the cash flows of the property to the benefit of the property, and not for personal use. Other sought-after characteristics include someone who keeps their tenants happy by keeping the property clean and well maintained, providing all-round good customer service; is committed to doing everything in their power to ensure the success of the deal; is up-to-date on utilities; and directly involved in the property management, even if there is an external service provider.”
5. Avoid red flags
Every funder has red flags they watch out for and they will walk away from a deal if they find them. “A bad past business track record indicates the business owner’s legal, financial, and HR values,” says Quinton. “These are important to us. Without some ethos and standards, you end up not being on the same page as your investor. I usually ask about the entrepreneur’s previous partnership — how they handled it and why it ended. Desperation is also a deterrent, as is a poor business case.”
Paul agrees. The driving factor in TUHF’s business is the borrower’s aptitude in property. “Real estate competency is therefore a key characteristic of TUHF borrowers. It’s important that the building is properly matched to the skill and entrepreneurial competence of the borrower. Some of the conditions we evaluate include a credit record, ensuring the borrower is not under debt review, or blacklisted; returned debit orders on a client’s bank statement; track record and state of repair of the client’s other properties; having the right risk attitude, which in our case is considered, cautious and patient; taking the time to do due diligence; and property fit — does the size and nature of the project match the client’s talents and experience. It’s a red flag for us if one of these is mismatched.”
6. Don’t give up
The most important step in funding is perseverance. Many business owners knock on multiple doors and make numerous applications before finding a funder that fits. This could be because red flags need to be addressed and financial management accounts followed, but each time you approach a funder you learn something new that you can implement in your business.
“Don’t view failure as a disaster,” says Quinton. “Figure out which stage of the lifecycle your business is in and align that to your commitments.”
Pay Your Dues Before Raising Capital
Do your preparation. Research your market, build a cash reserve and win over your customer. Then ask for investment.
Did you know there are 10 billion mobile phones in the world? I have an idea for an app. If we only get 1% of the 10 billion users out there, I’ll have 100 million users and my company will be worth R1 billion. Will you give me R10 million for 5% equity? — Dave
Is this you? If so, pay attention: Market size does matter. But competition matters more.
Yes, there are billions of mobile phones in the world. Yes, there are great opportunities to be grasped. Yes, if you grasp them you will be rich.
The question is: How will you avoid competition? How will you ensure you’re not fighting hundreds of other well-funded, hard-working entrepreneurs? How are you different from the hundreds of others that chased the same idea and failed without trace?
Assuming that by some miracle you find a niche in which you’re the only player, the next question is: How are you going to let people know about your product? How will you raise awareness? How will you market?
These are the questions to ask yourself before you ask someone else for investment. Otherwise you’ll look like a fool and fail. Or worse, you’ll find a fool investor and you’ll waste two years of your life, at the minimum, chasing an impossible dream and losing other people’s money.
I currently work on a mine in the Northern Cape. I want to make a device that allows mining machinery and people to interact/communicate, thereby increasing safety and efficiency. — Brendan
Good idea, nice niche (niches are good!) You’re talking about entering the IoT category (Internet of Things). A healthy place to be in coming years.
In my opinion, you don’t want to get into the hardware game. Rather plug into the APIs (Google it) of smart device vendors like Apple and Fitbit. When it comes to sensors/devices for cars, buildings etc, you can find some pretty affordable stuff out there. Good battery, low maintenance. You’ll need to research it yourself. The key is the software. Tying together all the watches and cars and buildings in order to improve efficiency and safety.
Making software is not wildly easy. If you’re not a software developer, you have three choices:
- Pay for a developer to do it.
- Give equity to a developer to do it.
- Learn how to develop.
Option one is the cleanest and best. Your minimum viable product will probably cost about R200 000. If you don’t have the cash, postpone your dream. Don’t panic, the opportunity is not going away. Before you embark on your entrepreneurial journey, make sure you have enough cash.
I have compiled a marketing template. Kindly advise if the wording, language and clarity is on point. I had a second opinion saying it was not engaging, professional and has no actionable call. — Mam
Documents are useful for forcing you to distil your thinking, but they won’t get you a deal. Only face-to-face meetings get the deal. Only relationships get the deal.
Spending your life fine-tuning decks and docs is a form of procrastination and delaying the real thing: Sales.
If you win over the customer, the rest is just ‘ticking the boxes’. If you don’t win over the customer, the rest is just finding excuses to not give you a deal. Of course, you need your summary document. And it needs to be professional. And it needs a call to action.
But success will come from your ability to win over the customer (or investor). Don’t look to your documents. Look to your customer.
Alan Knott-Craig’s latest book, 13 Rules for being an Entrepreneur is now available.
What it’s about
It’s easy to be an entrepreneur. It’s also easy to fail. What’s hard is being a successful entrepreneur. For an entrepreneur, there is only one important metric of success: Money. But life is not only about making money. It’s about being happy. This book is a collection of tips and wisdom that will help you make money without forgoing happiness.
Get it now
To download the free eBook or purchase a hard copy, go to www.13rules.co.za. To browse Alan’s other books, visit bigalmanack.com/books/
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