Equity fundraising can be tricky for first time founders, especially in the early stages and building in a non-hyped market. The VC industry is notoriously secretive and until about a decade ago it was largely contained within the Bay Area. Then the macroeconomic trends helped shift the concentration of VC money to less explored places like Europe, the Midwest, Latin America, South and East Africa and South-East Asia.
Founders have access to more global capital than ever. However, the industry is still quite small and unless you have dabbled in your local startup ecosystem, you are not too familiar with the main funders. Thankfully, the fundamentals of the fundraising process are not too different and you can implement the skeleton into your campaign and personalize.
I am a huge fan of simplicity as overcomplicating systems usually leads to nothing but lost time and anxiety. So I like to think of the fundraising campaign as yet another sales process. You are essentially trying to sell a stake in your company in lieu of capital rather than sell access to a product. 20 portfolio companies and one accelerator cohort later, we decided to shed some light on the process. Sticking to the fundamentals, it takes 7 steps to complete a fundraise.
- First meeting done
- Considers investment
- Received terms
- Signed terms
- Received money
The first step in your process, or like we like to call it ‘Step Zero’ is to set up your tools. A lot can be automated with the right toolkit. A customer relationship management software (CRM) like Hubspot comes in very handy. When you try to sell a product you always start off by dividing into stages so you can track every prospect. It is the same with investors. Make sure you track all of your interactions appropriately.
Keep the fundraising process simple. Set up your CRM and track every interaction for clarity. Don’t underestimate timing. Signing deals on Christmas day will not really happen. Use your best milestones to your advantage.
Timing is another big part of ‘Step Zero’. The more money a firm manages, the likelihood is they’ll be less available. Be aware of regular and ‘VC’ holidays including Christmas, the week before Thanksgiving, the Skiing Week in February (apparently a thing), peak summer months, time around huge conferences (unless attending) and any big local holidays. If you are trying to schedule meetings during conferences, start doing this a few weeks earlier as most people will book themselves back-to-back. End of quarters are also not ideal as most investors will want to wait and see how you finish the quarter. Same goes if your business is strictly seasonal, focus on the tail end of strong seasons. Fundraising right before or right after big milestones is great timing.
To sell something, we always need people who are or may be interested. This is the step where we generate leads. Rule of thumb for pre-seed and seed stages is to have a big list of non-qualified investors, 100 to 200 feels optimal as anything bigger than that will take a fair amount of research to qualify and the odds are your qualified leads will be on par despite the higher churn. If your industry has less than usual investors, keep it up to 100.
We recommend using:
- Angel list for angel and early stage VC discovery. You can also connect with your target people there.
- Crunchbase again for discovery. Get the pro version for a month as it will make your life easier. Bear in mind all information in there is self reported.
- Founders Institute ecosystem lists to see who’s who in your local ecosystem.
- Ready-made VC lists – in case you don’t feel like building your own list from scratch, there are a bunch of lists on the internet curated by various people. Just type <X industry/X stage VC list google docs> on google/duckduckgo and see if somebody did their homework before you, you may even hit a goldmine with emails. Here a few examples:
Next step is to qualify our leads. You don’t really want to waste your time on cold emailing a bunch of investors. The chances they won’t be investing in your industry or stage are significant. Qualification goes into two quick steps:
- “Primary” qualification- qualify leads based on your prior knowledge or your friends’ knowledge. It is more relaxed and less objective than “primary” qualification and can skip altogether if you have no ‘intel’.
- “Secondary” qualification – qualify leads based on your own criteria.
Most of the time you will end up with 25 to 50 suitable VCs. It can be more if your industry is uber-popular for investments like early stage enterprise SaaS.
In general the primary qualification criteria goes as:
- recently invested in a competing company – probably won’t bet again so soon
- the fund is fully deployed/not raised yet – they have no money to dedicate so will stall your process. That being said some people can close fundraising for their funds quickly so be wary of that.
- wrong sector,
- wrong stage,
- doesn’t invest in your location,
- reputation – tricky, check services like ratemyinvestor.com but don’t fully rely on it, there is always two sides to a story.
After you have your leads nicely set up, it is time to map your way into the investors’ inboxes. There are two ways to do this:
- Warm intro – look at your LinkedIn contacts and your friends’ networks, maybe your friendly neighbour plays golf with a big shot investor? Don’t lose out on a strong secondary network. We know LinkedIn is constraining search capabilities, you may have to pay for a higher tier or do some API magic.
- Cold outreach – try to find some mutual interests or community. In case you can’t email is always better than LinkedIn. You can guess their email or take a look at the end of their articles. Also services like RocketReach can help. LinkedIn cold messaging is considered spam by a lot of people, so expect lower conversion there.
Once you have figured out who is your best contact to each of your targets, start requesting intros or emailing directly multiple people in parallel. In the best case scenario you can do 2-part requests where the second email is ready to be forwarded.
Let’s take this example:
1st email to your friend, if it is a more distant connection warm them up in the ‘body’ of the email and find a more relevant subject line. Try to identify your contact’s connection strength:
Subject: Fran, can you make a couple investor intros? / [any other relevant but catchy line] Body: Fran, I’m starting to raise money for my startup. I see you’re connected to <X,Y,Z> on LinkedIn. Do you know them well enough to make a lightweight connection?
2nd email for each investor intro- this is ready to be forwarded to the respective contacts. The easier you make it on your friend, the higher the chance they’ll introduce you:
Subject line: Fran, can you introduce me to <James Harris> at <XYZ Ventures>? <re: [your startup’s name] seed round; growing X% per month>
Body: Jeff, I’m raising a <$1M> seed round for [your startup’s name]. We make <whatever you do for whoever your customers are>. We have <X paid commercial accounts/other relevant KPI> and our revenue is growing <X%> month-over-month. I’d like to chat with <James>: his approach and portfolio is really relevant <e.g. [add portfolio company you can accelerate]>.
Well done so far. Here we put the people who replied with anything other than “thanks but no thanks.” Once you are connected send a deck or a one-pager and arrange a 30 minute meeting. Please don’t share your Calendly unless asked. While it may seem convenient for you, it is not a great thing to do when you request to be introduced. Allow for 2 weeks buffer for the meeting especially if partner level.
Once you are at the meeting, condense your pitch to 20 minutes to allow for a few questions. One of the tricky questions that come up during meetings is whether you are actively fundraise now. So here you have two options depending on how confident you feel:
- Say you’re fundraising now
- Say you’ll be opening the round soonSay you’re fundraising now
It is tricky because if you spend too much time fundraising it is seen as a bad sign. But if you don’t give a little sense of urgency to your VC then they may drag out their decision here. Thread carefully depending on your confidence in closing within the next 3 to 6 months.
At the end of the meeting almost everybody will ask you how they can be helpful (it is kind of a meme now). Put them to work by asking if they can intro you to X,Y,Z because you noticed they <co-invested together> or <share each other’s articles> or <anything else connecting them>. Do your homework before the meeting! This increases the probability of an introduction happening. To keep everybody accountable, follow up after the meeting with the regular <thanks for your time> and any agreed actionable items within a few days.
Note: all contacts who did not reply can be marked as ‘Lost’ – if somebody does not reply to your nudges within 2 to 4 weeks, I suggest you consider them as a lost lead.
Note #2: It is fine if you get rejected. Nothing is ever lost so consider updating them with meaningful progress – for some it is outright spam, for others it can act as a FOMO (fear of missing out) factor.
Take home points
The fundraising campaign is pretty much a selling process. So approach it as such to avoid it dragging for too long. Start off by generating your leads by looking at lists of investors. Then qualify your leads according to a pre-set criteria including things like recent investments in competitors or not a thesis/stage fit. After you get your leads in place, it is time to start requesting warm intros. Two part emails work wonders as they are making it super easy to just forward the email to the respective investment contact. Once you get your meeting in place, make sure to keep it to 30 minutes give or take. At the end you can always ask to be introduced to appropriate people either as customers or other investors. Always follow up with actionable items, it helps to keep both sides accountable.