Selecting Your Investors
Fred Wilson has been a venture investor and director in Return Path since 2000, first with Flatiron Partners and then with Union Square Ventures. We’ve been through a lot of wars together. In a couple of weeks, he and I are team-teaching a class in Entrepreneurship at Princeton, and the professor gave us the assignment of writing two pairs of blog posts to tee up discussion with the class. This is the first one…and Fred’s post on the other side of the topic is here. Next week, we’ll address the topic of building a successful CEO-VC partnership once it’s established.
If you’re fortunate enough to have built a really strong early stage company, you will find yourself in the position of being able to pick from a number of potential venture investors. The better your business and the more exciting the space you’re trying to tackle…the more investors you’ll find circling around you. Here are a few tips for ending up with the best long-term partner as an investor.
- Look for VC portfolios that have a lot of “like” companies (B2B, B2C, media, tech, etc.). One of the strongest points of value that venture investors bring to the table is pattern matching, and you can maximize that by making sure the investor you end up with has seen a multitude of companies like yours
- Check references carefully. Don’t be shy – prospective VCs are checking up on you, and you have every right to do the same with them. When Fred first invested in Return Path, he gave me a list of every CEO he had ever worked with and said “Call anyone you want on the list. Some of these guys I worked well with, a couple I fired. But they’ll all tell you what I’m like to work with.” First prize is the VC who volunteers this information. Second prize is the VC who gives it to you when you ask. A distant third price is the VC who gives you two names and ask for time to prep them ahead of time
- Focus on the person first, the firm second. Having a good venture firm is important. But at the end of the day, you’re dealing with a person first and foremost. That’s who will be on your board giving you advice and measuring your performance. Better to have an A person at a B firm than a B person at an A firm (of course, even better to have an A person at an A firm). This means two things – selecting a great person to be on your Board, and also making sure you end up with a person who has enough juice within his or her firm to get things done on your behalf with the partnership
- Always have a BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement – a fancy way of saying Plan B). This is probably the most important piece of advice I can offer. And this is true of any negotiation, not just a term sheet. It’s often said that good choices come from good options. Sometimes, you have to walk away from a deal where you’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and emotion. But as an entrepreneur, you can mitigate the number of times you have to walk away by developing good alternative options to a particular deal. That way, if one option doesn’t pan out as you’d hoped, another very good option is waiting in the wings. If you negotiate with two or three VCs, you’ll have a great backstop and won’t let the emotional investment in the deal get the best of you. Yes, you will spend twice to three times the amount of time on the process, but it’s well worth it
- Don’t be swayed by promises of help. I’ve heard VCs say it all. They’ll help you fill out your management team. They’ll get you customers. They’ll help with your back office. They’re loaded up with value-add. If venture investor has staffed his or her firm with support personnel who are available free of charge to portfolio companies (this does happen once in a while), then assume your VC will be as helpful as possible, but no more or less helpful than another investor
- Handle the negotiation yourself, in person as much as possible. The best way to get to know someone’s character is to negotiate a deal with him. This gives you lots of opportunities to look for reasonableness, and to see if he or she is able to focus on the big picture. The biggest warning sign to look for is someone who says things like “you have to agree on this term, because this is how we always do deals.” By the way, how you handle yourself in this negotiation is equally important. The financing is the line of demarcation between you and the VC courting each other, and the VC joining your board and effectively becoming your boss
- “Pay up” for quality and for a clean security. There is a world of difference between good VCs and bad VCs (both the individual partners and the firms) that will ultimately have a lot to do with how successful your company can become. The quality of your VC isn’t more important than the quality of your product or your team, but it’s right up there. But – and this is an important but – you should expect to “pay” for quality in the form of slightly weaker terms (whether valuation or type of security). Similarly, I’d always sacrifice valuation for a clean security. Everyone always thinks that price/valuation is the most important thing to maximize in a deal. However, the structure of the security can be much more important in the long run. Whether the VCs buy 33 percent of your company or 30 percent of your company is much less important than having a capital structure that’s easy for an outsider to understand and want to join
As with all things, there are probably another dozen items that could be added to this list, but it’s a good starting point. However, your more important role as CEO is to put your company in a position where you can select from a number of high quality investors, so start there!