What do investors want?

I’m an anomaly. I’m an entrepreneur, an angel investor and an institutional investor (venture capitalist) all at the same time. I’ve been an entrepreneur for 30 years, and angel investor for 7 years and a venture fund manager for 3 years. As an entrepreneur, I’ve raised about $45 million from top venture capitalists. As an angel, I’ve invested in 31 startups and as a venture capital fund manager, I’ve screened thousands of companies and invested in 19 deals. Perhaps that puts me in an advantaged position to write a blog about what investors want.

Reading about the frustrations of some entrepreneurs, one might think that “what do investors want?” is a question for the ages. I beg to differ. In my experience, the answer can be summed up in five points. If investors aren’t pursuing you, it’s probably because you’re failing to do your best on one or more of these.

Point one: Investors are individuals of great diversity. Any generic answer to “what investors want” is going to be of very little value. Get to know the individual investor and their fund. They are very open about what they’re looking for. Are you in an industry in which they invest? Are you at the right stage of development for them? Do you have the potential they’re looking for? If the answer to any of these questions is, “No” then you’re wasting each other’s time.

Point two: Are you the kind of entrepreneur investors want to bet on? The investor puts their trust in you. They place their reputation, not just money, into your hands. Do you have real integrity? Are your values in alignment with the investors’? Are you really really smart? Have you done it before (taken a startup through to completion)? How’s your work-ethic? Have you demonstrated passion for your current company by persevering through adversity? Are you fully committed? Do you recruit teammates that have these traits?

Point three: Relationship. Investors want to get to know you before entrusting you with their reputation and their money. This is even more true for angel investors, but also pertains to VC’s, who know that it might be a decade before they exit the investment. So expect them to want to get to know you well before embarking upon a decade-long journey with you.

Point four: Are you easy to do business with? Don’t negotiate things that don’t matter. Be accessible and return communications promptly. Be on time to meetings and arrive well-prepared. It’s surprising how many entrepreneurs think it’s OK to reschedule a meeting at the last minute. It’s not. That’s just disrespectful. Don’t make excuses; clean up your act.

Point five: We’re all human and therefore limited and flawed, investors and entrepreneurs alike. Do you learn from your mistakes? The alternative is to be destined to repeat them. Can you accept coaching thoughtfully, easily? Or do you demand that you make every mistake yourself? Investors want to help you succeed. They’ll do everything they can to help the business.

The next time you visit Las Vegas and wonder where the money comes from to build all those fancy hotels, remember that casinos are filled mostly with optimists and very few mathematicians. An optimist will read this blog and say, “Yes, that’s me. I have everything going for me that an investor wants.” A mathematician will only say that if investors are beating down his door with offers. If that’s not happening for you, then you owe it to yourself to take a harder look at yourself and start improving.

 

5 Tips for Accelerating Your Startup

Life in a startup moves pretty fast, but sometimes progress seems to take forever.  How can you make more progress in less time? Here are five proven tips for enhancing productivity.

  1. Understand the Stage You’re In – There are distinct stages that tech startups go through. Each stage carries with it a dominant task. It is correct to devote most of your time to the dominant task appropriate for your stage. Other activities may be a waste of time, or even counterproductive. For example, during the Formation Stage, the dominant task is forming the founding team and deciding what kind of company you want to build. During the Product Development Stage, you’re primarily building and testing your Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The next stage is Customer Development where you’re rapidly iterating the product based on detailed interviews and interaction with engaged users. Once you’ve reached a degree of Product/Market Fit, you’re ready to Scale. It’s important to focus on the right tasks at each stage.
  2. Narrow Your Focus – Many early-stage companies dream of building a platform to solve a big problem. Before you can solve a big problem for the world, you have to solve a real problem for a real customer. That means getting specific. Without focus, you’ll spin your wheels. Getting specific with one real customer at a time helps you focus on solving a real problem. One tip here – a customer is someone who pays you. Many startups waste time with people who use their product without paying.
  3. Time Management – Some entrepreneurs get trapped feeling overwhelmed. Like a gerbil on a wheel, they feel like there’s not enough time in the day to get everything done. Here are some ways to avoid this counterproductive but all too common fate. Focus on real, paying customers. What else? First Things First - know the difference between the simply urgent and the important. Focus on the important.  Once you’ve identified your important tasks, delegate everything you can. You’ll be more productive if you’re not trying to juggle twenty different things. Learn to delegate so you have fewer things on your plate. Give your team tasks that are focused and important. Keep only what you can’t delegate.
  4. Engage the Community – Invest in relationships inside and outside your company. These relationships will support you in ways that are impossible to predict. Before you run out of direct resources to delegate to, ask for help from interns, mentors, and others in your community. It’s one way to build a relationship, as most people like to be asked for help. It’s also surprising what you’ll learn by expanding the number of people with whom you regularly work.
  5. Take Care of Yourself – It’s amazing how often we undermine our productivity by undermining our well-being. Exercise, get enough rest, eat real food, avoid alcohol, caffeine and other drugs. Sound trite? It’s not. When you’re under time-pressure and stress, you need to double-down on these basics. The fact that most people do the opposite could be to your competitive advantage…if you’re more disciplined than most. Here are some uncommon tips which can supercharge your productivity when used in addition to the basics. Breathe more deeply than “normal” whenever you can. Get up and stretch, take a walk, or do a few minutes of yoga several times during your day. Whenever you take a break, think of something that you appreciate and remember to cultivate a feeling of gratitude. These simple practices will not just enhance your happiness, they’ll actually make you more effective.

 

The One Metric That Matters

 

At StartFast we say that a startup can’t outspend its competitors, but it can out-focus them. It’s crucial for a startup to focus on improving one thing at a time, using analytics tools to objectively measure the impact of each improvement.

Early on, it’s easy to choose a focus.

  • Find a customer;
  • Make sure you’re solving a problem the customer cares about;
  • Build a minimum viable product and demonstrate that it solves the problem.

Later, figuring out how to get accurate metrics for your business’s performance is more nuanced and finding reliable ways to improve these metrics is more difficult.

To make the problem tractable, we divide and conquer by focusing on one metric at a time – “The One Metric That Matters.” This reductionist, analytical approach has power in business as it does in science. But it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture. What numbers really matter?

An eloquent answer to this from Josh Elman is that the only metric that matters is a measure of how many people are really using your product. Another good answer is to focus on the one thing that is most broken. Here’s a tight 90-minute course on the topic from Lean Analytics co-author Alistair Croll.

There is also a dark side to the analytics movement to be guarded against. In this video interview Ben Yoskovitz, the other co-author Lean Analytics says,

“You’re going to lie to yourself. You’re going to lie to other people, but temper that with some data so that you can figure out how to get to proving that the lie was true.”

In my humble opinion, this is just plain wrong. Submitted for your approval, I offer a radical alternative I like to call integrity.

Integrity:

1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles;
2. the state of being whole and undivided.

Integrity means doing what you say you’re going to do. Customers buy from companies with integrity; teams follow leaders with integrity; and investors invest in CEOs with integrity. No matter the company’s stage, no matter what problem we’re trying to solve, integrity is truly the one metric that matters most.

- Chuck Stormon

 

Peace in a New Tech Tribe – Rob Jameson (CEO – MassMosaic)

massmosaic


I’m a sociologist at heart. People in communities fascinate me. After years of observation, I can quickly see trends that enable the individuals to live and co-create effectively in the communities I visit. StartFast is no different.

I grew up in a working-class home. I never had the opportunity to study entrepreneurs or even self-employed people. Growing up (and even now), I have been told that success is working a 9-5 job for 30+ years that will one day provide a pension. Much of what drives me is the rejection of this model of happiness.

When arriving at StartFast one month ago, for the first time in my life I was surrounded by entrepreneurs who were excited to find uncharted solutions to large problems. There was no single methodology or goal they followed. This has brought me overwhelming joy and kinship that is only surpassed by my curiosity about this strange new tribe that has formed.

What have I witnessed since StartFast began? Well, the demands on our time from external forces have increased drastically – which often results on the need to re-attune and balance. We, in particular the CEOs, are challenged numerous times a day – intellectually, emotionally, collaboratively, and spiritually. The natural result is we’ve begun to form support clusters where we meet in groups and connect. My peer group of CEO’s share empathy, knowledge and resources freely during weekly “venting” sessions and pitch critiques.

This clustering is not unique to the CEOs. The CTO’s have their group, and the interns have theirs. We also cluster based on interest (like film-making), tactics (like growth hacking), and culture (like soccer fans). We mutually understand we are all leaders in our generation, and this commonality in our community bonds us tightly together during this short summer.

I have spoken with numerous people this last week about their feelings about the end of the program in August. It’s on everyone’s mind – even though we are not yet halfway into the program. The comradery that we experience together is more powerful than we had expected.

Some days mentors and customers jolt us. Other days our teams are in disarray. Each week we come together and share grievances in confidentiality, both to hear each other and be held communally in the complex set of emotions and thoughts we experience. We mirror each other’s pain and wisdom; we listen and are listened to.

Cheers to you all, my friends. It’s a magical path we’re on – one that could never fully be explained to someone outside our program. I look forward to us growing closer before we part ways at the end of this summer.


 

Rob Jameson – CEO, Mass Mosaic

 

Week 4 Recap at StartFast

From meeting with mentors and Skyping with Growth Hacker Conrad Wadowski to improving marketing strategies, teams are busier than ever at StartFast. Here is your weekly recap. Be sure to subscribe to StartFastTV on YouTube!

Sooligan Founders a Little Older and a lot Wyzerr.

wyzerr_photo

After 2 years focusing on college students, StartFast 2014 company Sooligan has pivoted. Their new name is Wyzerr (pronounced “wiser”) and their focus is now squarely on business.

The Sooligan team brainstormed each day on the feedback they were getting from StartFast mentors. Monday night before last, on a Google hangout from Syracuse to Berkeley and New Orleans, inspiration hit. Marketing Director, Ajae Dandridge, pointed out the survey links on the bottom of every retail receipt. The team immediately saw the potential opportunity.

CEO Natasia Malaihollo says, “As an entrepreneur, I am extremely frugal about spending. I like coupons and deals. I’ve taken many surveys for discounts and free food. In my experience, these surveys are ugly and give me little or no incentive to give honest input.” In that moment, they knew that Sooligan must pivot to improve the customer feedback process. With the mobile technology Sooligan had developed for students to rant or rave about their retail experiences, they could transform and disrupt this space!

The next day, the team met with the CEO of a chain of fast food restaurants and got their first customer! Shortly thereafter, they came up with a new name and website Wyzerr.com. Wyzerr is now looking for a few good brands that want the real-time voice of their customers. Whether they use this data to quickly adapt their offerings, prices, and service quality or simply to benchmark their performance against competition, Wyzerr has tapped into a big opportunity.

 

The Student-Intern Experience at StartFast

By NIKITA DUBNOV, 2014 StartFast Associate

A selfie of the 2014 StartFast Associates

A selfie of the 2014 StartFast Associates

This is a tale of my journey from being an unskilled student to an experienced Associate at the StartFast Venture Accelerator.

After one semester at Cornell in the Information Science program, I became interested in entrepreneurial opportunities in Upstate New York. I took the Introduction to Entrepreneurship class offered through the College of Engineering. Professor John Callister, an icon in the entrepreneurial community at Cornell, taught about how ideas become businesses and how companies are funded.

The class was a fun overview of entrepreneurship. I never got a full sense of how to expand my interests towards real-world opportunities.

This summer, interning at StartFast, I found the ideal place to explore the incomplete understanding of what was taught in class. So far I’ve learned:

  • Web development skills by building company websites.
  • Business development challenges by working with the teams.
  • The nature of support and criticism from the StartFast mentors.

No longer relying on shows and movies like Silicon Valley and The Social Network, I have been able to personally see the challenges that everyday entrepreneurs face. I have also been witness to the magic that happens when a driven group of individuals come together and make an idea become reality.

I value my education and I certainly do not plan to drop out of university to make a startup… unless I think of a billion-dollar idea! I have learned unique and influential lessons in my first month as an Associate at StartFast. I encourage anyone interested in startups and technology to urgently seek an opportunity like the one I was lucky enough to engage in.

Week One of the StartFast Accelerator 2014 Program was a Success

This week, roughly 20 entrepreneurs gathered from around the world to enter the StartFast Accelerator program in Syracuse, New York. The three-month program is intended to be intense, challenging, and productive. The goal is to gain in three months what would normally take one year.
When you first walk into the office space, engulfed by windows and sunshine, you look up to see very tall ceilings which gives you plenty of room and space to breathe and think.  The six lucky companies who have been given the privilege to be here are just a few feet away from each other and are constantly surrounded and given crucial assistance by local university interns and mentors with a variety of skill sets.  StartFast Venture Accelerator Design Star Tristan Toye thinks this year’s group of startups are some of the most interesting he has worked with. “These companies have their MVPs nailed and will be working hard this summer to scale fast.  From what I’ve seen so far in such a short time, I have no doubts in my mind that they will surpass everyone’s expectations.”
Every morning, managing director Chuck Stormon, gives the companies a daily speech as well as any feedback, assignments, and guidance. He also gives the companies 30- to 60-minute private sessions to discuss lean startup methods, business models, user acquisition strategies, monetization techniques, and any other vital pieces of startup gold.  After having a LeanCanvas meeting with Stormon on the first day of the program, Founder & CEO of Sooligan, Natasia Malaihollo, quickly realized that the problem her team is solving is too broad and that they need to narrow down their initial target market.  ”We started to conduct experiments in the community to help us identify our initial market. Overall, I would say the first week is an indication that we are most likely going to modify the app significantly this summer through various iterations.”
From my perspective, the first week was very fast-paced, full of immediate immersion into the typical startup culture you would find at a co-working space or other top-tier accelerator. I was welcomed by staff, other startups, and interns who jumped right in to help us with our goals for the summer, whether it be building a prototype for our new web version, organizing the delegation of tasks and priorities, helping with our marketing strategy and implementing it, or by simply taking detailed notes during private sessions to diminish the pressure and allow us to be more attentive. Cornell University student and intern Jenna Quindica thinks this is going to be an amazing summer. “I see a lot of potential in these startups, and the mentors have really insightful things to say about the concepts we’re working on.”

Influential mentors will be coming in to talk to each company weekly and providing invaluable advice and feedback.  So far, the feedback our startup has received from everyone has been invaluable, it has only been the first week, but it feels as though a lot more than a week’s worth of progress has been made. With the way things are looking, we will not only reach our goals but surpass them, and I’m sure the other startups feel the same way. Looking forward to more acceleration in the coming months!