The topic of why relocate to the Bay Area if you’re doing a tech startup has been beaten to death by people like Michael Arrington and Paul Graham. In some situations it’s simply not possible. The answer we found to compensate for all the things we lack in terms of networking and visibility for our startup was simple:
Parachute into the scene in Silicon Valley and hit every possible local event to make connections that are deep enough that they will persist once you leave.
Below is a video (bigger version) from the talk I gave yesterday at the Gangplank Headquarters discussing the lessons learned from a 31 day road trip to San Francisco I did this past holiday season for our company. It discusses everything from tactical details like how to pack to strategic concepts of different ways you can network as a complete alien.
BTW, the Gangplank guys are doing some great things in Arizona to help jumpstart our tech community. Their podcast site just went live yesterday, if you like startup podcasts check it out.
Slide deck from the talk available here as PDF (1.5MB). All images other than the ones I took are Creative Commons share & share alike license.
I had the opportunity to appear as a guest on Robert Scoble’s show when I was up in Half Moon Bay last month. He just posted the interview this evening (~20min). In it we talk about virtual appliances, open source server applications and how our technology is eliminating days/hours of setup time and bringing an entire class of server software within reach of the average, non-technical user. Big thanks to Robert for having me on his show and to Francine Hardaway for the introduction!
So we’ve pitched to ten different VC’s in the past week. There’s no substitute to learning through doing and we’ve learned a good deal in the last few days. Here’s a distilled version of the relevant lessons for anyone else who is in the process of raising venture capital:
Logic is expected but emotion is what gets the callback: Your primary mission in the initial pitch is to excite & engage- not to educate (beyond the baseline level of clarifying any obscure aspects of the opportunity). The secondary mission is to instill confidence in the idea / team / market, but that comes after catching their interest- in that case all you’re doing is free consulting for them so they know more about the space. Educating them about the technology is worthless if you didn’t grab their interest. Nobody is going to pick up the phone next week and call you back because the numbers worked and the model made sense, they’ll call because they want to be involved and are excited about what you have.
Feedback across VC’s is highly inconsistent: this is not a science by any means, it appears to be more of an art. For us there was very little overlap in consistency of feedback across VC’s. Going into it I thought this was a fairly standardized science in the way that insurance companies have templated ways of analyzing risk but feedback and types of questions asked to assess the opportunity were all over the map.
Nobody cares about speculative TAM and projections slides: only one out of the ten VC’s we pitched asked us for a slide on the total addressable market and nobody asked to see our financial projections. We had a deck of 12 slides and included 3 appendix slides at the end as optional ones we could bring up to show projected financials, list of applications in our library and quotes that corroborated our claim of a promising TAM. They recognize these type of slides are highly speculative – they just want to see that you’ve been through the thought process and understand the space and where you fit in.
Quality of the referral is everything: I’m stunned with how easy it was to secure meetings when we had a referral. Rapport by proxy via a trusted mutual connection is invaluable and gives you a great ice breaker to start the conversation. I’m not saying you couldn’t land meetings via cold calls but having an email intro produced a near 100% success rate for landing a meeting. It probably helps that we have a very disruptive technology that sits squarely at the intersection of two important trends right now, open source and virtualization. But still the intros were invaluable.
A few minutes spent researching the people and firm is priceless: it’s not about you, it’s about them. What does your product mean to them and how does it fit within their portfolio? It’s completely acceptable to ask the VC what types of investments excite them right now. Knowing their background and about the companies in their existing portfolio helps you couch your opportunity in terms that they’ll be receptive to.
It’s a conversation, not a pitch: if it turns into a one-way presentation, you’ve lost. Just pack up your stuff at the end, exchange pleasantries and don’t expect to hear back from them. The phrase that springs to mind is “people don’t like to be sold to, they like to have the ability to buy things.” When you approach it from this mindset it becomes a simple show & tell of your company given what you know that excites them.
Nothing beats having customers: our confidence in talking about our business was hugely boosted by having four month’s-worth of customers under our belt. I would have been way more stressed and defensive if we had pitched without customer validation. If you’re planning to pitch a VC, do what you need to do to get at least a handful of customers first. Heck charge people even just $5 for whatever you have. The simple confirmation that people are willing to pay for what you have strengthens your position immensely.
Remember they need you as much as you need them: Roger Dawson says that it’s a natural human tendency to always under-value your hand in a negotiation. It’s important to recognize the VC’s (while they may be contacted all the time) need good companies to fund as much as the companies that approach them need funding. Deal flow is their blood supply.
The timing of taking money: so we hadn’t planned to be talking with VC’s this early but conversations led to other conversations and somehow we ended up in front of them. So long as it’s not detracting from your ability to execute on the business and you have a good story, I’d say the earlier you begin talking with them the more options you keep open. Having cash in the bank and flexibility on the growth trajectory you’re able to take puts you in a stronger position and gives you that “walk away power” that’s so key in a negotiation.
A concrete demo goes a long way: if your product demo’s well and a demo of the actual technology can be appropriately worked into the preso, do it. It brings everything down to a very tangible level and can answer questions immediately that would otherwise manifest from talking in abstractions. A picture is worth 1000 words and a demo is worth 1000 pictures.
Getting derailed and not getting through all the slides is a good thing: don’t be bummed if you don’t make it through your slides, in fact rejoice in this situation. We found ourselves in one meeting that ran 30min over- the VC was deferring calls from his wife who was waiting for him in the parking lot and we still never made it through the entire deck. This means you’ve engaged them and there’s more to talk about (which is the whole point of the pitch).
Take sources like The Funded with a grain of salt: consider that the population of people posting to those sites will have a bias of being mostly people that got turned down. There’s still value to reading feedback there but take it as one data point and not the gospel of VC quality.
These lessons come at face value from an amateur who is new to this game and the bottomline is that until we actually close the funding, we’ve realistically achieved nothing. We had a good experience with everyone we spoke with and even the ones that flat-out passed on the opportunity gave us helpful feedback about why they weren’t interested. If you’ve pitched and have any advice or perspective to add, please add them via comments.
UPDATE 12/13: one more bonus nugget to add:
#13 Don’t hoard your best contacts until the end: doing so means you miss out on the strongest feedback early on that can sculpt your pitch. Going into it we had thought the strategy would be to cut our teeth on the smaller fish first saving the big guys for the end, but we ended up pitching the most reputable firm on #2 and that actually gave us great confidence with which to approach everyone else. The more you pitch the tighter the story becomes – I would say don’t worry about blowing contacts while you’re still figuring it out. Dive in, listen to their advice, ask them what was weak and strong about the story and iterate on the story to incorporate those changes for next time. They may even refer you to somebody else they know if they like it but find it inappropriate for their portfolio for some reason.
#14 Don’t script your pitch: Make a slide deck that serves as a framework for the talk but speak impromptu about the slides and use questions that engage the participants. Have a few key phrases that are like a comfortable home base you can return to and work from if you get jarred but don’t rehearse the pitch verbatim. Doing so will make it forced and contrived plus it’s more brittle to questions that inevitably arise and lead it off course. This is a “show & tell” session for what you’ve built and where you’re headed as a company. If you’re a true believer in what you’re doing, let this candidness shine through and talk openly about your business as you would with a friend or family member. The slide deck gives a predictable skeleton structure to the talk and ensures a logical progression and coverage of the major points.
Exactly one month to the day from arriving in the Bay Area, I pulled in an hour ago to my driveway back home in Tempe. What a month! The pictures from the trip say more than I possibly could in a single blog post. I met a ton of wonderful people in the Bay and made some great connections for our company. Here’s some stats from the trip that are interesting:
value of the advice, visibility, contacts & goodwill generated for JumpBox = incalculable
All told the trip cost a hair over $2k (which was way under budget). I want to personally thank all the people that went out of their way to give me a meal, a pillow, a piece of advice or an introduction to a valuable contact – the trip would obviously not have worked without the generosity and hospitality offered by these people. In chronological order here are some people that get a shout-out:
To these people my couch and home are yours anytime. More on some of the many things I learned on this trip in a later post. For now, I’m really looking forward to my own bed. Here’s a cool video I shot yesterday while driving back down the coast on Highway 1:
And here’s what a month’s worth of receipts and business cards looks like ;-) G’night.
So my friend Scott who I’m staying with in SF earned a few speeding tickets recently. You might expect a formal warning from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Or you might expect a letter like this one to come from a disappointed parent (if you were still in high school). But this letter originating from a government agency with the tone, the language of “we,” the feigned concern for personal betterment, the use of ALL CAPS… it’s just plain weird.
I got $90 in parking tickets this morning for apparently parking on the wrong curb – if they had left me something like this on my windshield, it would have at least had some entertainment value.