Does a VC’s brand matter?

Suppose you are in the enviable position of choosing between offers from multiple VC firms.  How much should you weigh the brand of the VCs when making your decision?  I think the answer is:  a little, but a lot less than most people assume.

First, let me say the quality of the individual partner making the offer matters a lot.  However, in my experience, there is a only rough correlation between a VC’s brand and the quality of the individual partners there.  There are toxic partners at brand name firms, and great partners at lesser known firms.

There are only two situations I can think of where the firm’s brand really matters.   First, if you manage to raise money from a particular set of the top 5 or so firms, you are almost guaranteed to be able to raise money later at a higher valuation from other firms. In fact, there are VC firms whose explicit business model is simply to follow those top firms.

The other way a VC firm’s brand can help is by giving you credibility when recruiting employees.  This matters especially if you are a first-time entrepreneur whose company is at an early stage.  It matters a lot less if you’re a proven entrepreneur or your company already has traction.

In my opinion that’s about it in terms of the importance of the VC’s brand.  Too many entrepreneurs get seduced into thinking they’ve accomplished something significant by raising money from a name brand VC.  Also, remember that if you are raising a seed round, the better the firm is, the worse it can actually be for you if that firm decides not to participate in follow on rounds.

Pitch yourself, not your idea

There is a widespread myth that the most important part of building a great company is coming up with a great idea.  This myth is reflected in popular movies and books: someone invents the Post-it note or cocktail umbrellas and becomes an overnight millionaire.  It is also perpetuated by experienced business people who, for the most part, don’t believe it. Venture capitalists often talk about “the best way to pitch your idea” and “honing your elevator pitch.”  Most business schools have business plan contests which are essentially beauty pageants for startup ideas.  All of this reinforces the myth that the idea is primary.

The reality is ideas don’t matter that much.  First of all, in almost all startups, the idea changes – often dramatically – over time. Secondly, ideas are relatively abundant. For every decent idea there are very likely other people who’ve also thought of it, and, surprisingly often, are also actively pitching investors. At an early stage, ideas matter less for their own sake and more insofar as they reflect the creativity and thoughtfulness of the team.

What you should really be focused on when pitching your early stage startup is pitching yourself and your team.  When you do this, remember that a startup is primarily about building something.  Hence the most important aspect of your backgrounds is not the names of the schools you attended or companies you worked at – it’s what you’ve built.  This could mean coding a video game, creating a non-profit organization, designing a website, writing a book, bootstrapping a company – whatever.  The story you should tell is the story of someone who has been building stuff her whole life and now just needs some capital to take it to the next level.

Of course a great way to show you can build stuff is to build a prototype of the product you are raising money for.  This is why so many VCs tell entrepreneurs to “come back when you have a demo.”  They aren’t wondering whether your product can be built – they are wondering whether you can build it.

How to select your angel investors

I’ve seen a number of situations recently that are something like the following.  A VC firm signs a term sheet with an early stage company. Let’s say it’s a $2M round.  The VC and entrepreneurs decide to set aside $500K for small investors (individual investors or micro-VCs). Because it’s a “hot” deal, there is way more small investor interest than there is capacity (the round is “oversubscribed”), and the entrepreneur needs to decide which investors are in and which are out.

The most common mistake entrepreneurs make is to base their choice solely on the investors’ “celebrity” value (by “celebrity” I generally mean in the TechCrunch sense, not the People magazine sense).  Picking celebrity angels might help you get a little more buzz when you announce the financing and a few SUL tweets, but that’s about it.  A startup is a long trip — what you should care about is whether, through the ups and downs and after the buzz dies down, the investors will actually roll up their sleeves and help you.

That isn’t to say that being a celebrity and being helpful are mutually exclusive.  Ron Conway is a celebrity (in the startup world) and is one of the hardest working investors I know. But there are other celebrity investors who I’m a co-investor with in a few companies who literally don’t respond to the founder’s emails.  And these are successful companies where the founder sends them only occasional emails about really important issues.

The second biggest mistake is picking angels that benefit the lead VC.  A lot of times when VCs guide entrepreneurs to certain investors what they are really doing is “horse trading” – they want you to let in so and so, because so and so got them into another deal, or will help them get into future deals.

It’s also smart to pick a varied group of people.  If you want a few celebrities to create some buzz, fine.  You should also pick some people who are connectors – who can introduce you to key people when you need it (varying connectors by geography and industry can also be helpful).  Also very important are active entrepreneurs who can (and will) give you practical advice about hiring, product development, financing etc.

Finally, don’t spend too much time agonizing over this.  One particularly silly situation I was involved with was where the CTO had invited me to invest but then the CEO decided he wanted to put me through multiple interviews before he’d let me in.  He probably spent a day of his time deciding whether to give me some tiny fraction of the round. Eventually he dinged me because I wasn’t famous, but at that point I was frankly kind of relieved since the CEO seemed to have such a bad sense of how to prioritize his time.

Disclosure: This post is entirely self serving, as I consider myself a non-celebrity but hard working small investor.

The most important question to ask before taking seed money

There is a certain well respected venture capital firm (VC) that has a program for fledgling entrepreneurs.   The teams that are selected get a desk, a small stipend, and advice for a few months from experienced VCs.  I could imagine back when I was starting my first company thinking this was a great opportunity – especially the advice part.

Here’s the problem.  A few years into the program, approximately 25 teams have gone through it.  The sponsoring VC funded one team and passed on the other 24.  None of those other 24 have gotten financing from anyone else.  Why?  Because once you go through the program and don’t get funded by the sponsoring VC, you are perceived by the rest of the investor community as damaged goods.

Most early stage investors are bombarded with new deals.  There is no way they could meet with all of them, or even spend time seriously reading their investor materials.  In order to filter through it all, they rely heavily on signals.  The person referring you to them is a very big signal.  Your team’s bios is a very big signal. And if you were in the seed program of a VC who has a multi-hundred million dollar fund and who decided to pass, that is a huge signal.

Meanwhile, the unsuspecting entrepreneurs think: “I was at a prestigious VC this summer – this will look great on our bios and company deck.”  The truth is exactly the opposite:  the better the VC, the stronger the negative signal when they pass.

Thus, the most important question to ask before taking seed money is: How many companies that the sponsor passed on went on to raise money from other sources?

The best programs don’t have sponsors who are even capable of further funding the company.  Y Combinator simply doesn’t do follow ons, so there is no way they can positively or negatively signal by their follow on actions. (Although now that they have taken money from Sequoia people are worried that Sequoia passing could be seen as a negative signal.  I just invested in a Y Combinator company and was reassured to see Sequoia co-investing).  Other seed programs lie somewhere in between — they aren’t officially run by big VCs but they do have big VCs associated with them so there is some signaling effect.   (I would call this the “hidden sponsor” problem.  I didn’t realize the extent of it until I got emails responding to my earlier seed program posts from entrepreneurs who had been burned by it).

The most dangerous programs are the ones run by large VCs.  I would love for someone to prove me wrong, but from my (admittedly anecdotal) knowledge, no companies that have been in large VC seed programs where the VC then stopped supporting the company went on to raise more money from other sources.

As has been widely noted, startups – especially internet-related ones – require far less capital today than they did a decade ago.  The VC industry has responded by keeping their funds huge but trying to get options on startups via seed programs.  Ultimately the VC industry will be forced to adapt by shrinking their funds, so they can invest in seed deals with the intention of actually making money on those investments, instead of just looking for options on companies in which they can invest “real money.”  In the meantime, however, a lot of young entrepreneurs are getting an unpleasant introduction to the rough-and-tumble world of venture capital.

Disclosure:  I am biased because as an early stage investor I sometimes compete with these programs.

Which VC firm should I pitch?

A friend asked me the other day “Which VC firms should I pitch?” and I started to respond to him, but then realized that most of my knowledge of VC firms is already available online in the Which VC firm should I pitch? Hunch decision topic. That is the idea behind Hunch: to crowdsource the creation of decision trees, so that a group of knowledgeable people can get together and create a “virtual expert” that can be accessed by anyone.

Here is the VC chooser topic in embedded widget form (anything you create on Hunch can be embedded anywhere):

Which VC firm should I pitch? – make thousands more decisions on Hunch.com

Like everything on Hunch, this topic is completely user generated (“topic” is our word for what some people would call a “decision tree”). Users have full control over the questions it asks, the results (in this case VC firms), the descriptions, and a lot of more advanced functionality for “sculpting” the decision tree. If you go to the VC topic’s About page you can see that so far 7 people have contributed 86 firms and 5 questions to this topic (other topics have a much wider range of contributers, this one for example). The VC topic has been played (used by non contributors) 506 times, many of those users coming in via Google organic results for phrases related to pitching VC firms.

In addition, the results are all “trained” to be associated with responses to questions – meaning users have taught Hunch what to “believe” about each of the firms. For example, in red is what Hunch believes about Union Square Ventures:

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Users who find mistakes can just click and fix them, similar to how you fix things on Wikipedia.

So if you see anything missing or that you’d like to change, feel free to do so. I was one main people who worked on this particular topic so it is biased toward my tastes (e.g. Hunch’s own VCs – Bessemer and General Catalyst – rank extremely high).

If you don’t like Hunch’s Q&A process you can jump directly to the See All page, and then using the filters on the left to drill down.

If you are not logged into Hunch, the VC firms you see will be ranked by their popularity amongst all Hunch users. Hunch personalizes the rankings specifically for you if you create an account and answer what we call “Teach Hunch About You” questions. For example, when I am logged in and go to the Hunch page for Bessemer I see this on the right sidebar:
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Meaning that Hunch has learned to statistically correlate the questions I’ve answered about myself with liking Bessemer. At this point Hunch has statistically significant data (over 40M user feedbacks total) in most of our ~5000 topics so it usually works really well.