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Today I had an opportunity to participate a pitching event arranged by FundingPost.com, in Palo Alto, California. The event consisted of group of entrepreneurs pitching for the audience and then the panel of Venture Capitalists giving comments on the state of the industry and the presentations as well.

It was stated that Friends&Family investment rounds can typically be up to half a million dollars (unless you have really rich friends and family) and VC investments typically start at 2 million. So there is a great gap in between, and that has increased the deal flow for angel investors. At the same time “time to liquidity” ie. time from investment to exit has doubled. Today, investors may have to be prepared to stick with the company even more than 10 years.

As always, some companies are more “hot” than others. That influences the interest to invest. In the best position is a company whose product or service is creating traction, revenue and is growing. Those companies may enjoy, even today, receiving several competing term sheets. On the other hand, rest of the companies have much more difficult situation.

Comparing the pitches to those seen back at home, there were few differences and many similarities:

  • wider range of industry segments
  • generally older and more experienced entrepreneurs
  • looking for funding in the range of 300,000 to 8 million
  • quality of pitches varied but in general, again, more or less same range than in Europe
  • in some cases more “forward-looking” pitches, with probably less substance but true interest

There were number of investors in the panel, moderated by Adrian Shulman, Partner at Bingham McCutchen.

I’m sharing some of the most interesting comments, in my opinion, what they said.

Ho Nam (General Partner & Co-Founder of Altos Ventures) said that they are looking for interesting phenomenon.

Obviously the best time to raise money is when you don’t need it. Venture Capitalists are like sheep, they move in herds. It’s entrepreneurs who think out of the box and are the smart ones in this room.

John Hall (Managing Director of Horizon Ventures) said that typically an entrepreneur should get investor’s attention within one minute. The problem and the solution must be so simple that your mother could understand it. Only after that message has gone through, it makes sense to go to the details. He also advices entrepreneurs to do background research on the investors, like have they done similar investments before. That way you also know to contact the right partner at the investor company. A good resource to check VC background, by the way, is The Funded.

Steve Goldberg (Partner at Venrock) said that they are looking for evidence of big market, early customers, great execution plan and team of people who can do it.

We fund entrepreneurs and we fund CEO’s.

Eric Chen (Venture Partner at WI Harper Group) was comparing the US entrepreneurial scene to that in China. He said in China even those start-ups who have million dollar revenue may not get funding as the competition is tough.

So what’s the biggest difference, say between Silicon Valley and Finland?

I’d say it’s the atmosphere, at least. And as it is all about motivation, acceptance of entrepreneurs but also competitiveness. It’s more likely here for entrepreneurs to keep trying, even after failing.

And how does our upcoming Venture Bonsai relate to this? As it’s a tool for entrepreneurs, it makes running a (crowd)funding round (with many investors) easier. It’s primary not meant for getting VC’s onboard, as it’s more for the seed stage. The standardized documents such as Shareholders’ Agreement, however do take into account VC investment being possibly the next step.

In summary, it was quite interesting to see the event, and gave a lot of things to think about, again.

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There is also a summary mindmap available (in English) and you can find the book itself here.

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As part of the Venture Bonsai concept, we shot the first five elevator pitches today in Helsinki.

The idea is to make two videos for start-ups looking for funding: one public 100 seconds video and another 5 minutes non-public video which can be shown to potential investors.

To our knowledge, this is the first time elevator pitches are really made professionally.

Same questions were asked from each entrepreneur and if the answer filmed did not go well enough it was shot again. All the aspects of each answer were fine-tuned towards high quality of the message.

The filming itself was done by a professional as will be done the editing.

Looking forward seeing really cool videos next week!

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Last Friday we released some information on our crowdfunding project, now officially named as Venture Bonsai.

Venture Bonsai is a tool for companies (start-ups and others alike) enabling them run a crowdfunding-style financing round successfully.

I’ve covered some of the challenges of the crowdfunding model in my recent blog articles (Part 1 and Part 2). Venture Bonsai is about to solve some of those, if not all, challenges.

The key benefits of using Venture Bonsai are

  • Demystification of the crowdfunding process, and a funding process in general
  • Offers tools and processes to follow the financial regulations
  • Offers tools for acquiring or creating the key documents such as Business Plan, Shareholders’ Agreement and Term Sheet
  • Offers a platform for Vendor Due Diligence (DD), including DD done by certified partners
  • Includes tools for company valuation
  • Includes a “Show Room” for your marketing material
  • Includes “Elevator Pitch on the Video”
  • Includes communication tools required during and after the financing round
  • Tools for escrow account and signature mechanisms

We already have the first companies lined up to use this tool in the piloting phase. Venture Bonsai is also utilizing this model for its own funding process. Please contact us if you’d like to use the upcoming pilot as well.

We’ll be on a roadshow for Venture Bonsai as follows: London March 1st & 2nd, Silicon Valley March 4th to 8th. Please contact us if you’d like to learn more (as an entrepreneur, as an private/angel investor or as a partner).

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Last week week we discussed the first five items of the following list, this week we cover rest of them.

  1. How do I find the potential investors?
  2. Which regulation applies and what can I actually do?
  3. How do I get the investors’ attention?
  4. How to deal with all the required documents?
  5. How can I negotiate all the terms with so many investors?
  6. What about company valuation?
  7. What is Due Diligence and why do I need it?
  8. How on earth do I get all the papers signed by a large number (say, 90) of investors all over Europe?
  9. How can I securely communicate with all those potential investors without answering the same questions over and over again?
  10. How to take advantage of a large number of investors, after I got them?

6. What About Company Valuation?

Company valuation is always a tough call. There is no real truth available for this, but typically (we entrepreneurs) over-estimate the value and the potential investors under-value the company as they want to “get a good deal”. So what would be fair price for a share issue?

The easiest way to set the price is just decide a value that you think would be acceptable for the investors. It makes sense to ask around your friends and other entrepreneurs as well as to compare the valuation to other similar companies. The challenge is, however, that typically the values of financing rounds are confidential and there is no good way to do good market research. A good way to know if you are in the right range is also just asking some potential investors. Even though their opinion may be biased, they are after all “your customers” and you get the feeling if you’d be able to sell your product ie. the shares to them.

You could also use the Dutch Auction model which Google used in its IPO offering. The Dutch Auction is a type of auction where the auctioneer begins with a high asking price which is lowered until some participant is willing to accept the auctioneer’s price, or a predetermined reserve price (the seller’s minimum acceptable price) is reached. The winning participant pays the last announced price.

If you want to use even more exotic and different model you can also use the Vickrey Auction model. This is a type of sealed-bid auction, where bidders submit written bids without knowing the bid of the other people in the auction. The highest bidder wins, but the price paid is the second-highest bid.

The Dutch Auction and Vickrey Auction models may turn out to be interesting due to the relative fairness of the valuation but they do require software tools in order to manage the process properly.

7. What Is Due Diligence (DD) And Why Do I Need It?

Wikipedia defines Due Diligence as “a term used for a number of concepts involving either the performance of an investigation of a business or person prior to signing of a contract, or the performance of an act with a certain standard of care.”

Concerning fund raising with crowdfunding model there is a need for “vendor due diligence” meaning basically a Due Diligence carried out at the expense of the company. This is necessary (among other things) in order (1) to find and correct any matter potentially decreasing investors’ interest in company, (2) systematically documenting anything that positively increases investors’ interest such as Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and (3) having a third party opinion on issues such as “is this technology working or could it work” and “are all financial and legal matters as they should”.

Those objectives can be achieved by

  1. Company itself documenting and listing certain issues
  2. Having a third party doing the Technical Due Diligence (sometimes this is not relevant)
  3. Having a third party doing the Legal Due Diligence (this is often the most important one) and includes for example checking the balance sheet, accounting reports and the IPR
  4. Having a third party doing the Financial Due Diligence (as this concerning the issues such as market and future development, may be the most difficult one)

There are no really standardized ways of doing the DD and this typically means that there are quite many different ways of performing this. It also means that it is good business for lawyers and other parties. However, there are efforts already (among others our GrowthOS project) solving this problem. Standardized Due Diligence, when successful, means an easier way to analyze company as an investment target (good for the investors) and more affordable way of performing one or more Due Diligences (good for the entrepreneurs).

8. How On Earth Do I Get All The Papers Signed By A Large Number (Say, 90) Of Investors All Over Europe?

Let’s imagine that your company has successfully completed all the above mentioned steps. You have 90 investors agreeing to invest certain amount of money in your company, with the specific terms agreed. The remaining challenge would be printing 90 copies of each document and having all signing those papers. Sounds like a lot of work…

This is luckily not necessary.

You can either structure the documents so that each party can just “join” the agreement (consult your lawyer on this) or use some other method. This “other method” means processes currently being developed several parties, enabling signing documents with legal binding with electronic means.

9. How Can I Securely Communicate With All Those Potential Investors Without Answering The Same Questions Over And Over Again?

Email is not really good means of communication for secure discussion. You have a need (and in a way, an obligation) to answer to the questions asked by the potential investors as part of a funding round. You also have to share same information with all parties, keeping them equal as required by the law. At the minimum, you may want to set up a secure discussion board for all the participants and keep all discussions there.

10. How To Take Advantage Of A Large Number Of Investors, After I Got Them?

This may be the coolest advantage you’ll get, potentially benefiting you more than just the money. You know  how the investors always emphasize how they have connections to help your startup. In some cases that may be true, yes. However, the likelihood that you get quite a lift for your business from the large number of investors, is higher. What this means is that as the number of crowdfunding investors (in your company) grows, the likelyhood that they can help you to get more lead, customers and revenue, grows equally. Each of the investors has a motivation (ownership) to help you.

What would be the best way of managing this communication? As an entrepreneur you don’t want to spend all your time with those questions that have no value. Here you may not want to treat all the shareholders equally (meaning: communicate with all of them equally much concerning business). Similar discussion forum as was used during the investment round may be useful, but may also not be adequate.

If you are facing these challenges, and would like to use a leading edge service to solve them, please get in touch. We are currently working on a solution that would help you on this.

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Crowdfunding is gaining some momentum as a potential investment vehicle for startups. As the traditional Angel Investors and Venture Capitalists have become more careful on the early stage investments and number of investments has dropped dramatically, there is a need for new methods.

But how do you actually run a crowdfunding investment round? There are no tools currently available for this so it may seem like a lot of work. And it is. This means it’s just another challenge to be solved.

The issues you have to consider and solve when running a crowdfunding round (or any investment round):

  1. How do I find the potential investors?
  2. Which regulation applies and what can I actually do?
  3. How do I get the investors’ attention?
  4. How to deal with all the required documents?
  5. How can I negotiate all the terms with so many investors?
  6. What about company valuation?
  7. What is Due Diligence and why do I need it?
  8. How on earth do I get all the papers signed by a large number (say, 90) of investors all over Europe?
  9. How can I securely communicate with all those potential investors without answering the same questions over and over again?
  10. How to take advantage of a large number of investors, after I got them?

1. How Do I Find Potential Investors?

In most cases you need to find all the interested investors yourself! You can also use some of the crowdfunding initiatives, such as GrowthOS and Vestify, to find those people, but it can take some time before these are the quickest way. You can also consider making a deal with a large bank and make a underwriting deal with them. In any case you have to keep in mind the regulative limits set by the financial authorities of your country, such as SEC, European Union and national laws.

2. Which Regulation Applies And What Can I Actually Do?

This depends where your company is based and where your investor candidates are. Regulation is largely unified with the European Union (excluding UK), USA has its own regulation as is the case with for example Japan and Australia. Due to the legal reasons and as I am not a lawyer, you should consult your lawyer if you are unsure about this.

3. How Do I Get the Investors’ Attention?

If your service or product is on the market and if you’re lucky, they’ll contact you. It’s always the best if you can get yourself and your offering visible so that the potential investors call you (and you don’t call them).

However, if you are really early stage company, or there is nothing in public yet, or if you just are not famous (yet) then you need other tools. One thing we are piloting next month is producing professional-grade “elevator pitches on video”. One of the videos is 100 seconds long and is meant to be public, including publishing it in Youtube. The other video is 5 minutes long and can contain “more confidential information”. The purpose of the videos is simply to get more attention of potential investors and get them in touch with you. We have developed a special “format” with pre-determined questions  related to startups and funding to speed up the process. Both shooting the ideo and editing it is done by the professionals, ensuring high quality and nice feeling.

You should, one way or another, have your own “Show Room” with all the videos, screencasts and other material you want to use for showing what you do.

4. How To Deal With All The Required Documents?

In order to raise money you need in minimum

  • Business Plan (with an excellent Executive Summary)
  • Share Issue Offer, including the Term Sheet
  • Shareholders’ Agreement

There are many guides on how to write a business plan so we don’t cover it here. Concerning the Offer and Term Sheet, you may want to take advantage of services such as The Funded (only for entrepreneurs) or consult your lawyer (again:-). Shareholders’ Agreement is discussed in the next chapter.

5. How Can I Negotiate All The Terms With So Many Investors?

The thing is, you don’t (negotiate with all of them). You must have such versions of the key documents such as the Shareholders’ Agreement that it is acceptable for all the parties without further negotiation. It’s “take it or leave it” kind of thing. An if it is not acceptable by the investors, they may “leave it”.

Luckily there are number of initiatives taking place in this field. There are for example already few “Standardized Shareholder’s Agreement” templated downloadable for free. You can always customize these with your own lawyer, but the key thing to keep in mind is that it has to be acceptable by both the investors and yourself.

Next week: Challenges 6 through 10!

PS. I’ll be in London and the Bay Area early March, please contact me if you’d like to discuss crowdfunding (as an entrepreneur or as an investor)

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Three days to go. As the year is about to end, it’s time to look back and learn from this year.

Jobita – Market Place for Jobs

Year 2009 was the launch year of Jobita, formerly known as Tikitagi. Late March we launched the prototype of the service. Jobita is an Internet tool for local service professionals (and those who want to become those) as well any individual to market their skills and manage the assignments. For consumers Jobita is the easiest way to find qualified doer for any task at hand, either at home, at the office or for example on the boat.

It was a great learning experience, later also leading to concept called “gasellizer” – more efficient way of producing software with outsourced resources.

Already in January I wrote about using True Identity instead of pseudonyms. We are proud to announce that Jobita.fi is the first of its kind to truly support True Identities. Jobita is working together with NorthId on this. It’s called “Nettihenkkarit” in Finnish, loosely translated as “Online Identity Card”.

End of October we launched the totally rewritten version of Jobita, initially only in Finnish language. During the first two months of existence, the number of members and posts increased rapidly.

Creating Software as it always Should Have Been Done

Software Industry is relatively new as industry. Therefore it is no surprise that it is still facing many fundamental challenges, such as understanding the customer problem and turning that into a successful business. Together with few other people from the industry we worked on a concept called “Gasellizer”. One of the observations was that managing the specification process is still a major headache for most of the developers, and no, Agile methodology as such is not an answer for this. It’s more question of “User Defined Features” or uDef’s as we call them. Simply put, there is a need for recording, and managing as the needs evolve throughout the process, the users’ need with their own words.

One way of approaching the problem is learning from the movie industry’s way of operation.

And it is always great to learn from those who have already done it in real life (lessons learned from Mårten Mickos, ex-CEO of MySQL).

Entrepreneur is the Most Critical Resource

This discussion is going on all the time: “there is not enough money for the start-ups”. That is absolutely true. In order learn a bit more about the actual problem, I tweeted and blogged about a simple question “Which one of the following is the most critical and the least supplied resource: ideas, entrepreneurs or money?”.

As was to be expected, there was a lot of support for the answer of “money is the missing link”. However, the poll made revealed that the majority of the people thought actually that we do not have (good/experience/etc) entrepreneurs to implement those ideas. Nobody claimed that we would not have enough ideas. I am 100% of the same opinion, we don’t have enough entrepreneurs. As many of the supporting organizations and tools fail to understand this most fundamental question, also many of the solutions (no matter how well-meaning) do not touch and help the actual problem.

Simply put: as long as we do not have enough those entrepreneurs who will use the money available to build succesful and brave enough success stories, we will not have successful software companies. Period.

Crowdfunding is the Modern Way of Raising Funding

Okay, in the previous chapter I claimed that the most critical missing resource is the “entrepreneur”. It does not mean that getting funding would be easy, not at all.

Raising money for an idea or early stage start-up never has been, nor will be, very easy.

There is, however, always the possibility of looking for new solutions for the problem. One of the hottest ideas right now is “crowdfunding“. I wrote a small article about that in August. According to the polls made, this kind of funding is well received by both entrepreneurs and investors.

There is a new exciting company working on the concept of crowdfunding, GrowthOS. If you are member of LinkedIn, you can apply for GrowthOS group. Check out also an interesting opportunity to get a really high quality video pitches for your company.

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