Questions to Ask

Sometimes it is GREAT to have a playbook.  A coach loves a playbook.  A teacher loves a playbook.  A general contractor loves a playbook.

Well, for investors, a playbook is tricky because every investment is different.  No exceptions.  Never will all the key factors be the same:  founders, market, product, scalability, regulatory environment, IP protection, global market forces, etc.

Yet having some “standard” questions to ask when starting to learn about a team and a company is comforting.  So, yes, I am talking about “first meeting” questions.

Likewise, as a founder it is comforting to anticipate what those first meeting questions will be and good to have a general plan on how to answer them.

I read this morning a GREAT playbook on first meeting questions.  It is written from the angel investor perspective, but it is a wonderful resource for founders as well.

Here is it (thanks to Tim Ferriss and Jason Calacanis).

I do have one piece of advice for founders as they answer questions in an investor meeting:  be very open and honest and do not sound like a politician.  Answer the questions directly and thoughtfully.  If you have not quite figured something out, then say that.  No beating around the bush and no BS – that will only have the opposite reaction you are hoping to get.  My number one subjective factor when making an investment decision is trust.

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Upstate NY’s Strongest Economy

A Buffalo-based business publication just published an article called “Which parts of Upstate New York have the strongest economies? (And which are trailing the pack?)”.  Here is a PDF of the article:  Upstate NY Strongest Economies.

I am obviously delighted with Ithaca’s ranking and proud to be part of this great and growing ecosystem.  Things are hustling and bustling here and startups are leading the way!

Woohoo!

How to Start a Startup at Cornell

Cornell MBA student Mike Annunziata recently published a great article on starting a company at Cornell from the perspective of a student.  Mike has in fact started a company called Natural Cuts https://www.natural-cuts.com/, and no, it is not a hair cutting salon!

Mike hits the steps (getting started, course work, getting involved with entrepreneurship, taking ideas to market, and getting funded) and identifies which Cornell resources might be useful.

Here is Mike’s full article.

Hope you have a great weekend.

The Importance of Boards

I have written quite a few posts on the topic of Boards of Directors.  Just put in “board of directors” into the search bar.  As a quick review, it is the Board of Directors or “Board” that literally by law makes all critical decisions for the company.  The Board has to vote on issuing stock, approving the annual budget, setting the company’s strategy, changing the company’s by-laws and certificate of incorporation, selling the company, merging with another company, hiring officers like the CEO, shutting the company down, etc.  The list goes on and on.  Good corporate governance is critical at startups and other companies alike!

The importance of the Board is why institutional investors (like VCs) often get a seat on the Board after an investment.  The Board discusses and agrees on strategy.  Discussion is critical.  But don’t be fooled, there is an element of control as investors want a say in critical decisions.  This is pretty natural if you think about.  VCs typically do not want to control the board vote, they just want a seat at the decision table.

When CVF invests we often take a board seat (probably 95% of the time) and when we don’t we take an observer seat (5% of the time).  If the board is already large and we are coming into the company later in its stage of growth, then an observer seat might be fine.

One situation is really scary though.  Sometimes at the seed stage, the company founder insists that he/she be the only board member and that once more financing is raised that the board composition will be normalized (code word for “adding more members”).  From my perspective, this is typically a sign of paranoia.  

I have now done 2 deals where there has been a lead investor (not CVF) who did not mind the “founder as sole board member” trap.  We followed in line with the lead investor and went along with the structure.  This was a HUGE mistake that I will never make again.  Both companies have since failed for different reasons:  one had no product market fit after 3 years of trying.  And one gave up prematurely.  Regardless, had there been an actual board of directors with 2 or 3 members I am pretty confident that the end result would have been better.

Never again.

Answering the question “What do I need to know about investing in a startup?”

Once in a while I get the question “What do I need to know about investing in a startup?”   The context is typically where Friend A has asked Friend B to invest in Friend A’s startup business.  Then Friend B asks me the question.  This happens multiple times a year.

It is a fair question.  And one that is hard to answer definitively.  But, here are some basic things that I would recommend to Friend B to start with:

  1.  How much is Friend A looking to raise in total?  Let’s pretend the target raise is $750,000.
  2.  Is there a minimum amount needed to “close” the round of financing.  This is a critical question.  If Friend B wants to invest $25,000, then there better be some larger minimum amount going into to the company at the first closing.  If Friend A took $25,000 from Friend B and nothing else, then Friend B has most likely just flushed $$ down the toilet.  The company will be out of business as soon as the $25,000 is spent.  So, in this made up scenario, Friend B should insist on a minimum closing amount that gives Friend A’s company at least 6 months (and ideally longer) of runway.
  3. Can Friend A produce a projection model?  Does the projection model make sense?  Does the projection model actually show how the funds being raised will be spent (in other words an understandable “use of proceeds”)?   We all know that startup projections are essentially best guesses, but the model needs to tell a realistic narrative.
  4. Why type of legal entity does Friend A have set up?  Typically will be either a corporation or LLC.  BTW, I have a strong bias towards corporations when it comes to startups raising $$.
  5.  What type of security is being sold?  Typically will either be convertible debt or preferred stock (Series Seed or Series A).  And does Friend B understand the terms of the security and the deal?
  6. Does Friend B know much about Friend A’s business and does Friend B truly trust Friend A?
  7.  Finally, is Friend B ready to lose $25,000?  Key question!

This is literally the tip of the iceberg.  Please add your thoughts in the comments.   Thanks.