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Posts Tagged ‘Start-up’

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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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 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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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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We are testing new kind of production for high quality video pitches in February, 2010 (in Helsinki).

The thing is as follows: many startups (and actually other companies as well) have a need to produce video clips for investors, customers and other stakeholders. Typically there are two main options here:

  1. Produce it yourself, typically ending up with pretty low quality production due to lack of time and experience
  2. Outsource the production to professionals, ending up with probably high quality video but it easily costs more than 10,000 €

We have drafted new way of doing this process.

  1. We are using professional television producer and editing facilities
  2. We have created “standardized” templates and scripts what’s on the video and what needs to be filmed
  3. Participating startup gets instructions how to prepare, we have on-stage coach helping and filming is done “as industrial process”
  4. Editing is done by the professionals and the results are going to be fabulous!

The scripts will take care of asking the right questions, focusing on the right things and getting the message clear. And unlike traditional “elevator pitch” done in one shot, editing will help to make the video deliver the message properly even if you would not be so experienced in doing this.

In this pilot we will create two videos: 100 seconds “teaser video” which the startup can distribute publicly and another, 5 minutes version with more details (for a financing round) and that is to be given to selected investor candidates only.

The cost per company is going to be less than 1,500 €, the potential value for these being much, much higher. As it is commonly known that investors only have few minutes per startup to make up their mind (Go or No-Go), this will greatly help to make the great first impression. The second video sent for those gives more details and then you’d be already arranging a meeting.

There are six places available for the first session, half of them are gone already. If you are a Finnish startup  (or know somebody who is), and are interested in this then hurry up. Deadline is around beginning of January.

You can see some production examples (for television, not startup pitches yet) here.

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Yesterday I tweeted about a simple question.

So far I’ve received 15+ excellent comments.

Initially and based on discussions with some fellow (active) entrepreneurs I was of an opinion that we are mainly missing the people (entrepreneurs) to make the idea into action.

This line of thought was justified as we all know there are more ideas than what we can implement. Many of the ideas should, honestly, never be implemented. And many of them are just copycats, yet another facebook-youtube-socialmedia clone which is a pity. Even after these taken away there are many more great ideas than people to implement them. In this light it seems almost funny how desperately (still) some people value just the idea (or an idea in PowerPoint slides).

On the other hand many people, again initially, were of an opinion that you can actually find money if you have a really good idea. The money just may not come from your home country, in this case Finland. There is no real Venture Capitalists left in Finland, and the angel investor community is not very large nor truly active, yet. Luckily at least Veraventure is doing good work to get this changed.

I made earlier a little poll which says many (academic) people skip entrepreneurship as they either don’t have a business idea nor a team.

This week a Finnish business magazine Kauppalehti Optio published a cover story of 80 young people born in the 80’s, the people who are our future and who are going to take over. Guess how many of those persons were entrepreneurs? One. There is hope that some of those classified as “students” still could become entrepreneurs…

The responses to my tweet mainly said, however, that we are missing money and financing. There were also good comments about timing and luck, no matter how good the idea is. For example our idea of mobile carpool service (year 2002) was given no serious attention in the Finnish VC community (luckily the angel investors in Finland, Italy and The Netherlands trusted us) but this year two young students won Venture Cup with the idea of mobile carpool. So it’s also about timing, seven years later. See also a briefing to the subject here. As a side note I would say that if Nokia really would like to “think different”, they should use this Ecolane technology to enter mobile carpool business before Google or Apple do. Disclaimer: I’m a shareholder in both of the companies mentioned.

One thing what I’ve been wondering – if having not enough entrepreneurs is NOT the problem – why as there so little active serial entrepreneurs? I mean those who have tried at least once, possibly succeeded and become a driving force of another start-up with all that experience? Many of those people seem to be now in a more convenient “advisor” role. As one of the active entrepreneurs I respect, Marko Parkkinen, said this week: “After failing in the recent start-up, I was at one point almost desperate enough to become an employee, but luckily I run out of battery in my mobile phone before I said ‘Yes'”.

As one active entrepreneur friend of mine said, “At the first stage of ‘making it big’ the lack of true entrepreneurs makes the start-up market very small. Money matters only after a start-up has started its journey – if there was all the money available, but no real motivation to make ‘my/our company big’, I doubt there would be much success.”

However, I do belive that funding is a key element in building new success stories. Early this year  we start building a new initiative code named “GrowthOS“.

“GrowthOS is an ecosystem for entrepreneurs to build online presence enabling them to receive funding from one or more private investors as well as facilitate all the activities before and after the investment has taken place. Extensive use of web-enabled communication, reputation building and other tools offer a unique platform for private investors to follow, communicate with, invest in as well as follow or participate the development of those startups they mostly believe in.”

If you are interested in the GrowthOS ecosystem (it’s going to be Europe-wide), feel free to contact me.

But coming back to the main question: “Which one of the following is the most critical and the least supplied resource: ideas, entrepreneurs or money?”

What do YOU think?

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Crowdfunding puts people and money together

You’re an entrepreneur, raising money for your start-up but you’ve hit the wall? Looking for angel round funding in the range of 50,000€ to 200,000€ is not easy if you don’t already have a working product along with some cash-flow and growing number of other requirements. And Venture Capitalist aren’t interested anymore. Some people even say the Venture Capital (VC) model is broken. That may not be exactly true. They just aren’t investing in your start-up. Or maybe in no start-ups at all.

The financial crisis has had a severe impact on the venture capital industry and the funds have largely stopped funding higher risk areas of innovation. Many venture capital companies have woken up into a reality where the VC model is just not working anymore (and some of them focus on other things, like maximizing the management fee).

According to research by Deloitte, funds are reducing their overall investment, supporting existing portfolio businesses and shifting investment focus to later-stage businesses that are either profitable or close to profitability.

“We’re seeing reduced investment levels as firms either invest smaller sums in very early-stage companies, or invest traditional sums in fewer and much later-stage companies. The middle ground has been largely vacated.”

On the other hand, there are new kids in the block who can potentially redefine the game. People like Paul Graham (Y Combinator) as well as Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz (Andreessen Horowitz Fund) are introducing new funding vehicles for certain kind of start-ups. The problem is, that is not enough, and they are quite local. What if your start-up is in Europe or in Asia?

Recognise yourself from the above? Don’t worry, raising money for a good start-up is still possible. It just may come in smaller amounts from more sources. It’s now called Crowdfunding. And it’s not only for start-ups, actually.

Crowdfunding in a Nutshell

Crowdfunding is an alternate approach to get investments for a start-up. It’s not actually a new idea as it has been developed over the last decade, mainly in the film and music industries. Unlike traditional models which rely on large contributions from one or two institutions, crowdfunding is based on raising small sums from many people. Instead of raising 300,000€ from three angels (100,000€ each), you collect 10,000€ from 30 private investors.

Crowdfunding isn’t going to replace venture capital, private equity, debt finance or stock-markets. In many ways it’s an evolution of “friends and family” and “angel” models, just operating with greater transparency and on a larger scale. It may even turn out to be an essential and complementary part of the financing tools needed to cultivate and grow new businesses.

But What’s the Actual Problem?

Number of traditional investors interested in start-ups who are looking for money in the range of 50,000€ to 500,000€, has decreased rapidly. It is also true that in today’s world more can be done with less money (“the old 5 Million euros is nowadays 500,000€). Investments in this category are high risk investments with potentially high return. But most of the companies will fail. That is only one reason why traditional investors are moving (and have already moved) away from this category. When alternate investment vehicles are invented to fill the gap, also the traditinal investors will benefit as they can this way have more companies in the funnel for additional investments.

Is Crowfunding The Solution for this?

A successfull crowdfunding solution has to solve many problems in order to be a feasible alternative for the start-ups and investors alike. There is an obvoius need for process simplification (de-mystification) and standardization concerning documents such as Term Sheet and Shareholders’ Agreement. An initiative in this field already introduces a Standardized Term Sheet acceptable by both entrepreneurs and investors. Trust and transparency are also probably some of the biggest issues. How do you create trust in the online world? How do you manage the communication with so many stakeholders? There will most likely be new innovative solutions for all of these challenges in the near future. The change is inevitable. Additionally, private investors can invest 5,000 € euros in ten start-ups, instead of putting 50,000€ to one single company, effectively decreasing their risk as well.

Case Trampoline Systems

Trampoline Systems, a London-based social analytics business, is already using crowdsourcing approach to finance its growth. Trampoline is raising £1 million from up to 100 investors with a minimum stake of £10,000. This is most likely the first time a technology business of Trampoline’s scale has used the crowdfunding approach. The effort has been quite successful as in the first two weeks they raised £330,000.

Not everyone can become a Trampoline investor. The Financial Services Authority (UK) puts some limits on what you can cannot do. For example, one has to be certified as high net worth individual or as a sophisticated investor (details are here).

What’s Next

I’m expecting to see things happening in this space within a year or two. There is no reason why this could not happen (despite possible obstacles set by authorities, for example). There are a few interesting additional aspects into this. For example, having so many people as investors may enable you to use them as advisors or contact makers.

So what do YOU think about this?

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