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When To Turn Down Venture Capital

What you learn from Boostrapping a business.

Michelle Goodman

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Ryan Smith knew he wanted to build a company he could grow over the long haul. So rather than race to find financiers in 2002, the co-founder and CEO of Qualtrics spent four years bootstrapping his enterprise survey provider from his dad’s basement.

That low overhead helped the start-up reach profitability almost immediately. As the company grew year by year, venture capitalists started circling, reaching a critical mass during year five. Smith says he fielded roughly 100 calls from venture capitalists and investment groups before he finally agreed to a deal in 2012.

What drew them to Qualtrics? A sound and profitable business model, according to Bryan Schreier, a partner at Sequoia Capital, who eventually succeeded, along with Accel Partners, in funding Smith to the tune of R280-million.

“[Bootstrapping longer] focuses the company on creating a healthy business model at a very early stage,” Schreier says. “It’s hard to create a viable business model five years down the road. It’s much easier if you’re focused on making money from the start.”

Qualtrics has enjoyed triple-digit growth over the past several years, reaching R200-million in revenue in 2012, with customers using its survey software to process more than 1 billion responses. Among the company’s 5 000 worldwide customers: half are Fortune 100; 1 300 colleges and universities; and 96 of the top 100 business schools.

We spoke with Smith about the many ways Qualtrics benefited from waiting to raise VC and what other ‘treps can learn from his experience.

How did waiting help?

We really wanted to nail it before we scaled it, which we did. There are some companies, like an app, where they need to go full speed on the scaling up as fast as possible.

But for most companies that have a pretty big opportunity like us, I think nailing the product and business model is critical. I think if a company doesn’t have its core figured out, it could be really difficult to find it when there’s R80-million sitting in the bank that has to be spent now.

How did you decide which VCs to partner with?

Our philosophy has been that one and one needs to equal five. Just because someone called us and said that they wanted to invest in us didn’t mean we had to stop everything and say yes. We wanted partners who were as excited about the opportunity as we were, who were excited about us, who were even excited about our location.

We were in a position to pick the firm, and we had time to build the relationship before signing an agreement. I think that many early funding scenarios are akin to getting married after a first date. Not knowing what they’re getting into is where people struggle.

What advice can you offer start-ups thinking about VC?

Ask yourself why. If you’re in a ‘scale it’ phase, I think funding can do a ton of good. If you’re in a ‘nail it’ phase, I think that’s where you see companies thrash around and a lot of them fail. If you’re thinking about taking money, talk to portfolio companies. Talk to companies who have taken funding from [VCs].

I believe that people need to bet on themselves more. What I’ve seen is that if you’re a great company, and you’ve got what it takes to take it the distance, then you’re going to have more and more opportunities the farther you go along. Trust me, they aren’t going to go away.

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Beware of the Zombie VC Firm…

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Under which circumstances would you turn down VC funding? 

Michelle Goodman is a Seattle-based freelance journalist and author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide.

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Venture Capital

5 Key Questions To Answer For Raising Funding

As your business grows, should you be raising capital or focusing on organic growth?

Nicholas Haralambous

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There’s a nagging question that lingers in the back of the mind for many entrepreneurs: Should I raise funding? The answer is never simple and the truth is that there is no single answer to rule them all. It all depends on your business, the industry you’re in, how your business is performing and if there are even investors in your field.

Here are some key points to consider as you weigh up the options within your personal growth journey.

Is investment right for me?

The media in larger markets like the US and Europe have turned raising funding into some kind of sport. Funding events are extremely well covered by the media and often glorified as some kind of victory.

I’ve raised money from all kinds of investors over the past decade and can confirm that not all money raised is equal. Money comes with strings attached and a lot of formality that may not have existed in your business before.

Once you’ve taken external funding of any kind you immediately take on a fiduciary responsibility outside of just ‘If I screw this up, I walk away’. You are tied to your company and investors until the money dries up or you make everyone rich. Neither is a simple process.

Don’t get me wrong, there can be a lot of value in the raising of strategic capital, but it is not to be seen as some form of victory. When you raise money you should have a clear path to profit and a clear strategy on how you are going to use the money and what the potential of recouping it is. Without these things you’re just taking other people’s money to spend and pay your salary. That’s not cool.

Related: 6 Great Tips For A Successful Shark Tank Pitch

The Different Kinds of Investment

If you don’t know what’s out there, it’s easy to think that banks are the only institutions with money. They’re not. Often they are the worst kind of money to raise and come with very formal strings attached that you cannot break free from. However, if you have a relatively straight-forward and stable business, banks can be a useful option to get a loan and then pay back the money relatively quickly.

I always suggest that the first port of call for funding should be sales. So if you think you need funding, what you are really saying is you need money and money comes from making sales. The best place to start for sales? The three Fs: Friends, Family and Fools. Sell to everyone and anyone you can find. A lot of young entrepreneurs will raise small amounts of investment from the three Fs too. This is very risky because you are putting your relationships at risk if the business collapses and all of your friends and family lose money because of you.

You can then graduate up into angel investment. Angels are high net-worth individuals who are looking to find very early stage start-ups with small batches of money. Usually this is a round of less than R500 000 for a pretty decent chunk of equity in your business.

Out of angel investors grow institutional venture capital firms. These companies will give you a lot of money for a lot of equity and help you grow. They’ll sit on your board (or formulate one if you haven’t) and they will drive you to grow your business at near-exponential rates. This level of funding is all about return on investment. If they put in R1 million, they expect to get R10 million in five years. It’s your job to make it happen.

Overall, with investment comes pressure and formality, but also the potential to grow something mammoth and meaningful very quickly.

My favourite kind of funding is the oldest kind out there: Profit. If you want to maintain control of your business and grow it, then you need to be profitable and reinvest the money in your company, not your cool new car.

Related: How To Start A Business With No Money

Is there a right time to raise funding?

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In my experience there are a multitude of situations when your business might require external funding. The ‘right’ time can only be decided by the person running the show. If you are raising money out of desperation, perhaps it’s not the right time to raise. However, finding funding at this point may save your business.

On the flip side, raising growth capital is perhaps the safest time to raise funding. Your business should have profit and traction, it should be showing incredible value in the market and you should have a very clear plan to increase profits and growth exponentially.

If you take this plan to a variety of investors you are able to shop for the best terms and the best partners. That’s the kind of money you want. But bear in mind, if things take a turn for the worst your investors can become your worst nightmare. Just ask Travis Kalanick at Uber who is being sued by one of his major investors.

Raising funding is an extremely personal decision that business owners should think through carefully and plan for the worst as well as the best-case scenarios.

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Venture Capital

The Truth About Venture Capital Funding

Before you plough hundreds of hours into securing your dream investor, consider if VC funding is the best fit for your business.

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Venture capital is often regarded as one of the most attractive and sought-after sources of financing for start-ups, and rightly so, especially due to the range of value-added services that a venture capital firm can provide to help the start-up grow and succeed.

For any founder considering venture capital, it’s important to keep in mind that there are many driving forces behind the scenes for the venture capitalist, which may cause problems for the founder team and the start-up. This could be anything from pressure from the VC’s own investors, or other deals that have gone wrong for the VC in the past.

Not all VCs are created equal

A point that was commonly brought up by founders is how their expectations have not been met. Not all venture capitalists are the same, and they vary in terms of the extent to which they are able to provide value-added services.

There were several cases from the start-ups interviewed who stated that their expectations had not been met. In certain instances, this is a result of the venture capitalist not living up to their word, but it is often because the founders’ expectations are not set at the correct level.

Related: How Giraffe Played The VC Game (And Won Funding)

Your move: The best way to manage this is by doing extensive research on the venture capitalist you are engaging with. As a founder, you should not be afraid to speak to other entrepreneurs who have dealt with the VC to gain an understanding of what to expect if you engage with this particular firm.

Chasing funding is time consuming

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As a founder, it’s important to manage your time carefully, and getting involved with VCs makes this even trickier. Generally, founders will need to go to countless meetings before they are able to get any investment. Over and above meeting with investors, the process of fundraising can be very time-consuming, especially if you enter a due diligence phase with investors.

You should not underestimate the time required for this, which is further elaborated by the founder of a firm that went through several fundraising rounds: “It was really a strain on the business during the fundraising period due to the time and effort involved in engaging with VCs. And actually, a lot more than we thought. It really took a lot of time and work to get the money and I think that’s the most disruptive thing to the business.”

Once you have VCs on board, another time element is introduced. Of course, a lot of time would be spent on productive tasks with the VC, which is beneficial to the company. However, several founders criticised the amount of time that they felt was wasted on non-productive tasks — the type of administrative tasks and reporting that VCs generally require. This requirement varies amongst firms, but it’s understandable. They have their own investors and reporting requirements.

As a founder, you generally will have key roles across the board, and your time is extremely valuable. If you become involved with a venture capitalist, the non-productive time spent with them generally can’t be avoided, but it’s something that should be taken into consideration, and a key part of your planning.

Your move: Approaching multiple investors, conducting due diligence and reporting to your VC if you close a deal are all extremely time-consuming tasks. Does your business need the funding, or would your time be better spent building the business while you bootstrap it?

Who holds the control?

From the perspective of the venture capitalist, one of the most important aspects is control. Although loss of ownership and control for yourself as a founder may be obvious, there are several implications to consider.

First, a VC with less than 50% ownership of a company (which is often the case) does not necessarily mean they have no control in your firm. They usually have a variety of control mechanisms, which, in practice, give them control of many elements of the business.

A VC can, under certain circumstances, replace the CEO or founder team, even if they don’t have majority control. This can happen for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of growth, internal conflicts, or a high employee turnover rate.

Related: 6 Resources For Start-Ups Looking For Alternative Funding

Second, as has been seen in several VC-backed firms, when the venture capitalist has control and is able to influence decisions, this potentially leads to several conflicts. One of the founders interviewed had this to say: “We were at a point where we needed to make a critical decision on the strategy of the business. Our venture capitalists were pushing for a change; one that I was not happy about. This caused a lot of conflict and confrontation. In the end, the venture capitalists were able to enforce the change by convincing some others on the board. Ultimately, this decision didn’t work out and the business suffered substantially.”

Your move: The ability of a venture capitalist to enforce a decision is dependent on numerous factors, and especially the investment contract. The structure of the investment contract is critical, as it can determine the future relationship with your investor. Consider all these factors as you enter into an agreement.

The problem with too much money

A point that may seem counter-intuitive at first is that receiving venture capital can actually put a sin into your business model. Why? Because a big cash injection can distract you from your core business operations. You’d think that suddenly having lots of money (when you’ve been trying to get an investment) is a perfect situation.

Generally speaking it is; but there’s also a very real danger that not managing that money correctly can put you and your business in a situation where you’re even worse off than before receiving it.

Inexperienced founders are the most likely to experience this problem. Many start-ups interviewed talked about how they initially wasted money, overspending and putting it into the wrong areas. The classic problem is that in order to grow your business and improve your results, you hire people, but you don’t necessarily grow a business by hiring people. It’s absolutely essential to manage this money wisely and to avoid the money serving as a false sense of security.

Your move: In almost all cases, it’s advisable for any new entrepreneur to bootstrap for as long as possible. Don’t see funding as the first option. Try to raise as much as you can yourself, get revenues as early as possible, and focus on your fundamental business operations. It’s amazing what you’ll learn about business when you have to be very careful with your cash — and be cash generative as quickly as possible.

The exit question

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Venture capital investments are generally governed by a life-cycle based on when to enter and exit from investments. These are typically around ten years.

When the fund gets close to the end of its life cycle, the fund managers, or investors, will be under pressure to gain liquidity for their investment. An important consideration for a founder is how old the fund is.

The closer the fund is to the end of its life cycle, the more challenging things can become, due to this additional pressure for liquidity.

Related: New Ways SMEs Can Find Funding

As many founders have experienced, the topic of an exit, or liquidity event, can often be a difficult one, especially if the founders are not ready to exit. “The discussion around the exit was a major confrontation because they wanted to sell, and we didn’t want to sell,” says one founder. Who makes the final decision is dependent on a variety of factors, and especially the terms that are written in the investment contract.

Your move: Carefully consider the life cycle of the fund that will be investing into your business. If you’re just at the beginning of your start-up journey, selling too soon could cost you a lot of money. Rather find a different VC firm or funding route, and hold onto your equity for longer.

Bringing it all together

All in all, venture capital is a great source of finance and its value should not be discredited.

There are numerous benefits to venture capital, and receiving professional mentoring, assistance and resources from people who have the knowledge and experience can be an invaluable tool.

Just the fact of having your firm backed by venture capitalists serves as a type of ‘stamp of approval’ for other players in the market. The points mentioned above do not necessarily represent every venture capital investment, but it is important to understand some of the potential impacts of going the venture capital route, and with this knowledge in hand, you can better prepare yourself for the process.

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How Giraffe Played The VC Game (And Won Funding)

Local start-up Giraffe has accomplished what many entrepreneurs would consider impossible: Not only did it win the Seedstars World’s Best Global Startup Award, it has also secured funding from Silicon Valley VC firm Omidyar Network. Here’s how the founders have managed it.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Anish Shivdasani and Shafin Anwarsha
  • Company: Giraffe
  • Established: 2015
  • Background: Giraffe is a fully-automated mobile recruitment agency service that enables businesses to recruit medium-skilled workers quickly and affordably.
  • Visit: giraffe.co.za

Most start-ups would kill for the sort of trajectory Giraffe has enjoyed over the last 18 months. Since launching early in 2015, the company has enjoyed solid growth and traction, received some great PR, walked away with an international award and managed to secure funding from a Silicon Valley VC firm.

This is all incredibly impressive, and there’s no doubt that most start-ups would love to emulate Giraffe’s success. So how have company founders Anish Shivdasani and Shafin Anwarsha managed to get the whole world talking about Giraffe? Here’s their advice on attracting VCs to your start-up.

Related: Giraffe Sticks Its Neck Out For Job Seekers

Solve a real problem

“We looked at the South African landscape and identified unemployment as a real problem. Then we asked ourselves how we could use technology to address and remedy the problem in the short term, if not solve it,” says Anish Shivdasani.

“We did this for two reasons: Firstly, we felt that there was a certain obligation to try and solve a real problem that the country was dealing with. Secondly, we realised that by looking at an emerging-market problem, it was not something that Silicon Valley start-ups would be looking at. We wouldn’t be competing with large and well-funded companies.”

So what does Giraffe do? Essentially, it allows jobseekers to upload a CV to the company’s mobi site for free. When employers need to hire, they simply submit a staff request at www.giraffe.co.za and algorithms sort through the thousands of CVs in the database and automatically identify, contact and schedule interviews with relevant candidates.

“We wanted to make the hiring process as easy and hassle-free as possible, both for employers and jobseekers. This meant coming up with an innovative solution. We created a system that allowed a CV to be completed quickly, but that didn’t require a lot of text. The system navigates a jobseeker through various options, ascertaining his or her skills and experience. So you don’t need to deal with hard-to-understand text,” says Shivdasani.

Lesson: Come up with a truly innovative product or service, and you’ll find that funding isn’t nearly as hard to come by as people often say. Build a solid company that addresses a real problem, and funding will find its way to you. 

Bootstrap as much as possible

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Unless you’re a hot Silicon Valley start-up with unicorn potential, you’re unlikely to attract funding until you’ve shown some traction.

Shivdasani and Anwarsha didn’t even think about funding during the early days of Giraffe. “We were focused on getting the platform and the business going,” says Shivdasani. “We had put our own money into the business and managed to give ourselves 12 months of runway. For that period, we didn’t give any thought to VCs and funding.”

“We also found that VCs will usually be reluctant to invest if you haven’t bootstrapped for a while,” adds Anwarsha. “They want to see that your company has some traction, and they want to see that you’re invested — that you’ve put your own money into the business and that you are committed to making it work.”

Lesson: Bootstrapping your business is a good idea. The best way to build a sustainable company is to spend as little money as possible up-front and get cashflow-positive as quickly as possible. Depending on funding for survival is risky. What if the money falls through? Create a business that can sustain itself. Rely on funding only for scaling.

Related: South African Venture Capital Company Launches To Help Local Start-Ups Take Off, Globally

Let the money come to you

“While we bootstrapped early on, we also met with investors. These were mostly people we had been put in contact with via our own personal networks,” says Shivdasani. “Importantly, we never asked for money. In fact, to this day, we haven’t asked for money. We simply introduced ourselves to investors and placed Giraffe on their radar.”

By introducing potential funders to the company, but not asking for money, the founders of Giraffe let the company’s performance speak for itself.

“We simply stated our intentions when we met with investors. When we saw them again six or twelve months later, we could tell them that we had followed through on our plans. We had attained some real traction, which made us worth investing in,” says Anwarsha.

Lesson: It is a stark reality of the start-up scene that the companies without much of a need for funding are usually the companies that attract it. This is hardly surprising. Investors want to fund companies with growth potential, not start-ups struggling for survival. So, focusing too much on attracting investment can be counter-productive. Instead, get the fundamentals right. Build a sustainable business. If you do that, the money will eventually come to you.

Don’t underestimate the value of PR

“While working together in the boardroom, I received an email from SeedStars to take part in the South African leg of its global start-up competition,” recalls Anwarsha.

“Anish told me to forget about the mail and get back to work. We were very careful not to be distracted from our primary goal of building the company, but I was keen to give it a try. Anish said it was okay, but there was one condition: Make sure you win.” Anwarsha did win, and it had a profound and immediate impact on the company.

“Until that moment, we had underestimated the impact that good PR could have,” says Shivdasani. “I was interviewed by John Robbie on 702 for a few minutes. Suddenly our servers were being overrun with new jobseekers and employers. It made us realise that entering things like start-up competitions is a good idea because of the PR it can generate.”

Lesson: Marketing can be useful, but nothing compares to great PR when trying to introduce your start-up to the world. Winning a start-up competition — of which there are no shortage these days — is a good way to do it. Another is to contact media houses and pitch your story. It’s important, though, to focus on the problem you are solving. Journalists are particularly interested in companies that are either innovative, or working at solving social issues.

Don’t just take the money

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It’s very hard to say no to VC money, but before you grab anyone’s cash, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the long-term implications.

“It’s important to get on with the people who will be investing in your company. You need to be able to work with them. We were approached by another investor as well, but we ended up going with Omidyar Network — who had approached us after we won the local SeedStars event — because the firm was asking the right questions. They grilled us hard, but we realised that as an impact investor, they could bring value to the business,” says Anwarsha.

Giraffe has also been careful in how much investment it has actually accepted.

“After winning the local SeedStars competition, I travelled to Switzerland to represent Giraffe in the global event,” says Anwarsha. “To my complete surprise, I won. It was a surreal experience.”

The prize came with a maximum investment from SeedStars of $500 000, but Giraffe was reluctant to take it.“We had already closed a round of funding and had enough runway for at least 18 months,” says Shivdasani.

Lesson: Equity in a start-up can be cheap, and many founders have kicked themselves for giving away too much too soon. That’s why it’s important to keep operating with that bootstrapping mentality, even if you’ve received some investment. You want money to last as long as possible. The less money you need, after all, the less of your company you need to give away.

Related: Is Your Business Fundable? Venture Capitalist Clive Butkow’s Shares His Priceless Insights

Take note

If no one is willing to invest in your idea, you should take another careful look at it. Focus on solving a real problem and the money will usually follow.

 

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