People make tons of assumptions every day, often without even knowing it.
We might get away with it for years too – when behaving in a certain way has always worked for us, we assume it’ll carry on working in all circumstances. But then one day something happens that makes us revisit what we know: A cultural custom that differs from your own frowns upon rushing into business discussions without a polite preamble. A major software revision leaves you clueless.
Big idea bomb
Of course we don’t question every assumption; business requires decisiveness. But when we test our assumptions from time to time, our decisions tend to be more rational. Here are some of the more common mistaken assumptions that have sunk entrepreneurs’ attempts to court investors, no matter how big their ideas.
- Investors and tech entrepreneurs come from hugely different worlds
Many technical people harbour ideas of themselves as ‘super-smart creative doers’ and of investors as ‘exploitative and money-centred’.
There are a number of wrong assumptions here – among others that, because you have complex technical knowledge, you’re the smartest in the room. At the same time, financial people sometimes dismiss tech people as geeks without savvy. Neither of these assumptions are very useful, nor are they generally true.
When starting their engagements, start-ups and VCs should leave these assumptions at the door.
- Once we have the money, everything else is irrelevant
One thing that a first-time (or second- or third-time) entrepreneur always needs help with is business support. Even more than a cash injection, you need:
- Input into strategy, financial controls and business planning
- A support network of peers
- Partners that can help build a successful business.
Without these, the entrepreneur will go from cash-flush to cash-starved in no time.
- Nobody needs to know
Instead of secrecy we need more success stories. People need to be shown that it’s worth taking the risk of investing in a start-up. Every successful entrepreneur builds another round of angel investors.
Along with the successes, we need to share the failures. It’s often been pointed out that Silicon Valley almost expects failures, and people share those failures, so that others may learn. To fail is not a disgrace – it’s a learning experience.
And when we succeed? As South Africans we’re less likely than our American peers to be self-congratulatory. But just as much benefit can come from making a noise, celebrating successes and talking about near-misses.
- Investors are looking for the next Big Idea
It’s very seldom that an entrepreneur pitches such an amazing idea that investors will reach for their chequebooks after seeing a couple of PowerPoint slides. Just as importantly, they’re interested in something real.
Entrepreneurs need to articulate their ideas very clearly and take potential investors on a journey that clearly demonstrates how it can be commercialised – as the bare minimum. Most often, investors will want to see a viable prototype – something that may not be fully developed, but works.
- Great technology will bring great investment
Wrong. A great company will bring great investment. A brilliant developer with great software but no taste for business and finance is best served by joining an open source project and contributing selflessly to something great.
If you’re courting investment, you must show that you can build a business. That means taking the time, trouble and possibly even spending money to get those business skills.
Amazing creativity is in over-supply in South Africa, and we have profoundly impressive technical skills. We also have an active investment community and the business and financial systems to bring them together.
By thinking more and assuming less, we can build the start-up entrepreneurial culture we all know is possible. But then we need to revisit certain of our prize misapprehensions.
Assume too much, lose too much
Right or wrong, assumptions lead to problems. When you base an important business decision on a bad assumption, the consequences can obviously be very serious. But even if it isn’t important, or your assumption turns out to be right, a habit of assuming too much can lead you to repeat your mistakes forever. And you won’t have the tools to correct them.
Looking For Funding? First, Understand What Funders Look For
Are investors interested in ideas? Traction? The team? The founders? They’re interested in all that and more, say VCs Keet van Zyl and Clive Butkow.
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
The 3 Most Essential Points To Keep In Mind For Your Next Accelerator Pitch
No surprise that a great source for inspiration and lessons on speaking technique are TED talks.
Startup accelerators have been around since about 2005, when Y Combinator was founded in Cambridge, Mass. Since then, they’ve exploded in popularity – expanding from start-up hotbeds like Boston and Silicon Valley to assorted locations around the globe.
Milwaukee, though not traditionally known as a tech hub, is home to Gener8tor, an accelerator that recently launched an artist fellowship program. Sydney is an international city in its own right, but it’s also attracting tech entrepreneurs with its Future Transport Digital Accelerator.
And, while Cairo certainly has a rich history, it’s also preparing for the future of innovation with the Flat6labs accelerator, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2018.
As the number of accelerators has grown, so has the number of applicants. For example, for the Ameren Accelerator, our own 12-week program for energy-tech startups here in St. Louis, we went from about 200 applications in 2017 to in excess of 330 this year. Such explosive growth, however, can be a double-edged sword for those hoping to earn a spot in an accelerator:
More opportunity may abound, but the competition is also stiffer than ever.
Standing out in a sea of applicants
Responding to the increase in applicants, accelerators these days are asking tougher questions: “How close are you to revenue?” “What’s the business model?” “How do we [investors] ultimately make money?” Therefore, if you’re one of the applicants, you need to not only know the answers to all these questions, but to deliver them clearly, succinctly and in a way that sets you apart. That’s a tall order, to be sure, but if you follow these three key steps, you’ll be on your way to nailing your pitch.
1. Cut out the “maybes” – focus on the facts
Most startups fail because they don’t solve a problem. Just look at Juicero, the now-famous startup that raised about $120 million before it shut down last September. That $400 juicer simply wasn’t filling a need, and as a result, couldn’t find a solid customer base. Juicero is not the first or the last company to make this mistake. According to an analysis by CB Insights, 42 percent of start-ups go under due to “no market need.”
Accelerators always want to know that there’s an actual customer need. In fact, this is critical. Don’t recite a laundry list of problems your solution might solve; instead, focus on the most important one – and detail step by step how you came to that conclusion. The best way to prove your problem exists is through market research. Engage directly with potential customers by conducting surveys on pain points, wants and needs. When you come with hard research in hand, accelerators will take you much more seriously.
2. Lay your cards on the table
Once they’re convinced of the problem, accelerators want to understand your solution. That sounds simple enough. Yet according to research from Marketing Experiments, companies often struggle to identify and articulate their value proposition.
A good value proposition is easy to understand, concrete and unique; it doesn’t rely on fluff, superlatives and jargon. So state your solution, and more importantly, state how it’s different from all the other ones already out there. Ideally, people will be able to understand your value proposition in fewer than five seconds.
Take Uber’s value proposition, for example: “The best way to get wherever you’re going.” This simplistic copy accurately captures its offering. And its homepage copy expertly sums up what makes the service more appealing than a traditional taxi: “Tap a button, get a ride; always on, always available; you rate, we listen.”
Additionally, accelerators want to know what you, as the founder, bring to the table. Show up, add to the chemistry and culture and be an active participant. At the Ameren Accelerator, we specifically look for leaders who come in ready to roll up their sleeves and drive growth.
3. Stay on track and weave a story
There’s nothing worse than an applicant who drones on and on. Try to keep your pitch clear and simple. For inspiration, look at TED Talks. Though those speakers pitch ideas rather than businesses, they are coached to become master storytellers. Most talks are fairly brief – they can’t be longer than 18 minutes – but more importantly, they’re succinct. An analysis of the top 20 TED Talks showed that all speakers stated their “big idea” within the first two minutes. Follow this format in your accelerator pitch.
Additionally, rather than spouting off statistics to make your point, try telling a dynamic story, lacing supporting facts throughout. Stanford University professor Jennifer Aaker tested the power of stories through an informal study. She asked her students to give one-minute pitches and then had the others write down what they remembered from each pitch. Sixty-three percent of participants could remember the pitches that were stories, compared to the mere 5 percent who could remember statistics.
Since I started working in this field, I’ve seen enormous growth in the number of accelerators across the country and around the world. However, those who wish to participate in these programs are up against fierce competition, and gaining one of these accelerators’ coveted spots will take more than passion and a potential patent. By following these three tips, you’ll set yourself up for success on your next pitch.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
3 Components Of The Perfect Elevator Pitch
Can you clearly demonstrate value when faced with a time crunch?
After filming two seasons of Entrepreneur Elevator Pitch, I’ve come to realise that there are three key elements to delivering the perfect pitch.
Our show is unique when it comes to pitching: Potential entrepreneurs have just one minute to pitch their idea, service or product. Those 60 seconds have added pressure because the contestants are being filmed, and they are talking to a camera (instead of people) while riding up to the penthouse suite in an elevator.
In real life, with a different set of distractions, it’s essential to know how to deliver a convincing elevator pitch. Whether you are pitching a product, a service or yourself, here are the three essential components in a pitch:
- Stimulate interest
- Transition that interest
- Share a vision.
Can you stimulate interest?
The first step, stimulating interest, is the most important. In fact, an “elevator pitch” is usually determined by the limited amount of time you have, and circumstances may only give you the opportunity to stimulate interest. If you do a good job of stimulating interest, this can yield a second opportunity, where you transition that interest and share a vision with those you are pitching to.
Keep in mind that people generally buy based on emotion, using logical reasons as their impetus for action. So, make a point to connect with them emotionally in order to stimulate their interest. Don’t be afraid to show your feelings; demonstrate high energy and excitement for your idea, business or service. Your passion and belief need to come through in your pitch!
Use the 100/20 Rule to your advantage: Have the energy that you are providing R100 worth of value and only asking for R20 in return. This attitude will generate enough attention, giving you the opportunity to transition the interest that you’ve garnered.
Make the transition
But people don’t buy exclusively on emotion. There needs to be some logic in the decision to make a purchase. Therefore, you must address some sort of pain, fear or guilt in your pitch, that those without your product or service may experience. And if you can illustrate how you (efficiently) solve a big problem, you’ll have more statistical success in your elevator pitch.
Making a genuine connection can help you transition interest. Learn to make yourself equal, then make yourself different.
Simply having connections to the same people or a point of similarity in your backgrounds will help bridge the gap with those you are pitching. Then you can emotionally connect, following that up with the logic portion of your pitch.
Transition the interest you’ve generated with a clear explanation of what differentiates you. Build credibility by discussing your sales, distribution, revenue, awards and/or successes. All of these different ways to “attract” allow you to segue from emotion to the logical reasons to buy.
Of course, it is of the utmost importance to be honest when you are pitching. The truth always comes out, so ensure that you aren’t over-promising with your pitch. Don’t create a void that you are unable to fill.
What’s your vision?
Finally, in order to excel when sharing a vision, you need to have a value proposition that backs the 100/20 Rule. Make the value that you bring to the table as clear as possible. The value you’re asking for in return also needs to be clear. If you don’t display confidence in what you’re asking for, you won’t instill confidence in those you ask.
Tell others exactly what you want, why you want it and what you’re willing to give in return. You should have already proved your valuation when transitioning interest, then reiterated that valuation as you progressed in the pitch.
Take the people you are pitching through the reasons why you can be of value to them, the impact that you can have on their life or organisation and the capabilities you (or your product/service) possess that makes working together beneficial for all involved.
Practice your pitch, then get rich
After following each of these three steps, close with one simple question to gauge whether you are aligned or not: “Can you see any reason you wouldn’t want to move forward?”
If you utilise your pitch to stimulate interest in your product/service/self, transition that interest, then share a vision with those you are pitching to, the answer is almost always a resounding “no.”
And if you get objections or rejections, so what? Address whatever objections there are and if you still can’t get aligned, that’s OK. Take the perspective that the universe has a set number of rejections you need to get to before you find the right partner.
Related: How To Pitch
Be grateful for an opportunity to prove others wrong, and believe that if you keep working on your pitch, product, service or self, everything will come to you in the right way at the perfect time.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
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