Venture funding works like gears. A typical startup goes through several rounds of funding, and at each round you want to take just enough money to reach the speed where you can shift into the next gear.

Few startups get it quite right. Many are underfunded. A few are overfunded, which is like trying to start driving in third gear.

I think it would help founders to understand funding better—not just the mechanics of it, but what investors are thinking. I was surprised recently when I realized that all the worst problems we faced in our startup were due not to competitors, but investors. Dealing with competitors was easy by comparison.

I don’t mean to suggest that our investors were nothing but a drag on us. They were helpful in negotiating deals, for example. I mean more that conflicts with investors are particularly nasty. Competitors punch you in the jaw, but investors have you by the balls.

Apparently our situation was not unusual. And if trouble with investors is one of the biggest threats to a startup, managing them is one of the most important skills founders need to learn.



Angels are individual rich people. The word was first used for backers of Broadway plays, but now applies to individual investors generally. Angels who’ve made money in technology are preferable, for two reasons: they understand your situation, and they’re a source of contacts and advice.

The contacts and advice can be more important than the money. When del.icio.us took money from investors, they took money from, among others, Tim O’Reilly. The amount he put in was small compared to the VCs who led the round, but Tim is a smart and influential guy and it’s good to have him on your side.

You can do whatever you want with money from consulting or friends and family. With angels we’re now talking about venture funding proper, so it’s time to introduce the concept of exit strategy. Younger would-be founders are often surprised that investors expect them either to sell the company or go public. The reason is that investors need to get their capital back. They’ll only consider companies that have an exit strategy—meaning companies that could get bought or go public.

 

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