At the most basic level, you cannot grow a startup without capital. And yet, getting too fixated on the capital-raising process risks losing focus on creating value, which is what potential investors are actually buying. Early-stage investing is a very risky business, which means investors are always looking for some early proof points of value before they invest. The more they are asked to invest, the more proof points they will likely want to see.
In the beginning, value can be something as small as an inspiring idea targeting a known market need, or a team with documented success in the startup world. Over time, the bar raises and customer validation of your value proposition becomes the primary hurdle. And eventually, it takes major market traction and serious long-term, predictable revenue growth to create the kind of value that drives acquisitions and IPOs.
Once you’ve embraced the idea that value attracts funding, it’s only natural to organize your activities around value-driving priorities. In this construct, capital investment is not a priority in and of itself. Instead, it’s a natural outcome of a company demonstrating compelling value creation.
And here’s the irony; focusing all your attention on fundraising can actually make it harder to close your next funding round if it distracts you from creating the value investors want.
We explored this idea in July at JumpStart’s Startup Scaleup event where I sat down with two very successful Northeast Ohio entrepreneurs — EmployStream CEO Gerald Hetrick and vitalxchange CEO Charu Ramanathan — for a session titled “Funding + Rapid Value = More Funding.”
Here are a few of the big takeaways from that session:
You are selling a business not a product
Of course your product or service matters, especially to your customers. But it’s important to remember investors aren’t buying your product, they are buying the business value you are creating, which drives return on investment.
Pick no more than three-value driving priorities
Entrepreneurs are used to getting pulled in a million different directions, but there is a realistic limit to what any startup can achieve. Value-driving priorities can help bring order to the chaos, but it only if you keep them high-level.
For example, a good value-driving priority for a young startup might be to secure your first five paying customers. There are probably dozens of tactics involved, but all are part of the larger priority — getting customers. And realistically, there is rarely enough time or resources to work on more than three of these high-level priorities at once.
Don’t panic when you fail to hit one of your priorities
Very few startups hit every goal they set. The key is to measure and assess progress, learn from failures and adjust plans going forward. When things go awry, it’s always best to let your investors know sooner rather than later. The key is to show them you understand what went wrong, why it went wrong and how it has informed your “Plan B.”
Raising money is harder when you’re in between inflection points
Few things are harder than raising more venture capital before you’ve proven your ability to use the last round to create value. Fundraising rounds are much more successful when they are timed and balanced against the achievement of major value-driving priorities.
The best way to get this timing right is to be crystal clear about the value-driving outcomes you intend to hit before each round, then nail them. But remember, getting there can often take more time (and money) than you expect. So it often pays to raise more than you think you’ll need, rather than having to come back for more before you’re ready.
There’s an old cliché that successful companies are not sold, they are bought; and in this case, it holds true. The best way to successfully raise capital is to be sure your performance outcomes give your investor something compelling to buy.
Jerry Frantz is senior managing partner, entrepreneurial services and investing, at JumpStart Inc. He manages the team that provides JumpStart’s portfolio companies with guidance and resources to help them grow rapidly. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.jumpstartinc.org
Related story: Jerry Frantz knows he’s in a risky business.