Managing the Noise: Universal Signals

Standard

(This is Part Two of a Three Part Series: “The Two Most Important Words in Venture Capital: Pattern Recognition”. You can catch Part One here.)

Before I begin, I think it’s helpful to define what I mean by ‘universal signals’. I am not referring to the patterns associated with a given industry, business model, or entrepreneur. I’m acutely aware of the negative impact that having a signal-heavy approach may have when it comes to assessing deals (read: the incongruous lack of VC-backed women and minorities), which can often lead to groupthink, cookie-cutter investing, or an unconscious bias towards or against certain types of founders.

Instead, I’m referring to the Other signals, the signals that almost always denote a lack of seriousness, forethought, or even-temperament. These are the signals that are often difficult to explain, let alone justify, because they sound insultingly shallow. But they’ve consistently borne fruit in time, resources, and attention saved.

That’s why these signals are important. They give investors the opportunity to cut through the noise fast enough so they can focus on the deals that require deeper analysis and insight. We want to go through your deck if you’re building a great business, we want to speak with you if you’re a serious entrepreneur.

What we don’t want is to waste that precious energy on ideas and entrepreneurs that we know won’t deliver.

The point is not to get an investment commitment from an email. That will never happen. The point is to get a face-to-face meeting, which can lead to a commitment, and that first meeting will happen if you follow the right signals.

With that out of the way, let’s first start breaking down those universal signals that investors rely on, whether they’re based in Silicon Valley or Singapore.

(Also bear in mind that these signals primarily apply to companies raising from early-stage tech funds. If you’re raising growth equity, e.g. Series B/C onwards, very different — even contradicting — rules apply.)

Universal Signals

The Shitty “To Whom It May Concern” Opener …

If you greet me or the fund with “Dear accredited investor,” “To whom it may concern,” or the most egregious of sins, “Hello sir/ma’am,” I’m ignoring your email.

You heard our name, you Googled us, you found a general email address, and you sent your pitch in the expectation that someone would take the time to thoughtfully read your email, assess your deck, and then craft a cogent, well-written response detailing why they can or cannot invest.

Sorry, no.

Let’s be honest: you’re raising outrageous sums of money from essentially strangers. Finding out their first name should not be the hard part, and if it is, then you’re not taking your fundraising seriously.

Rule of Thumb: if you don’t take your fundraise seriously, you don’t take your business seriously.

… and it’s cousin, “@gmail.com”

This one is somewhat trickier to admit, because even I think it can sound a bit ridiculous, but again, it’s never done me wrong.

Simply put: don’t email me from a personal email address.

Unless you are being warmly referred by an investor or colleague, do not email investors from your personal email account. Just like the weaksauce opening I mentioned above, this just gives the impression that either you’re so early in your development that you haven’t even set up a separate business address for your company (bad) or you don’t take your business seriously enough to think it actually warrants a separate business address (worse).

The Lazy Man’s Email Address

Some funds have a general email address. For example, Golden Gate Ventures is hello@goldengate.vc. While we definitely don’t ignore emails that get sent to that address (in fact, I’m the one that reads through all those emails, and yes, I do respond to most of them), I cannot say the same for other funds. But remember, this address is a catch-all. Your emails are being lumped in with everything else: sales emails, media requests, spam, et. cetera. The volume of these types of emails can be voluminous, even downright insurmountable.

Email a partner directly. Sometimes I wonder if entrepreneurs are afraid they’re being impolite doing so. Don’t worry. If there’s genuine interest, you’ll get a response.

This goes back to my previous point: do your research. Sure, it’s harder to find email addresses than names, but compare that to starting and running your own business? Yeah, really not that hard. Best case scenario is it’ll take you 5 minutes or less to find a partner’s direct email; worst case, 30 minutes. Google “how do I find a person’s email address.” Look at the number of results. I’m not exaggerating.

Again, you are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Figure it out.

Some investors even use this as a way to vet pitches. I literally put my direct email address everywhere, including my Linkedin. I even go so far to say, “don’t send me your pitch on Linkedin. Just email me at Justin@goldengate.vc”. When they don’t, and send their pitch to my personal email address or worse, via Linkedin, I know they put zero effort into contacting me, and I’m that much less inclined to respond.

Getting the Ask Right …

Golden Gate Ventures is a Series A fund, as is Venturra in Indonesia. Sequoia Capital invests in the Series A and B, just like Rakuten Ventures and NSI. 500 Startups, KK Fund, and East Ventures are Seed. There are some exceptions at the fringes, but those don’t really define the fund.

Why does this matter?

Your stage determines who you should be speaking to. If you are pre-seed, i.e. pre-launch, you will probably only raise from pre-seed investors. If seed, seed investors. If Series A, Series A funds, and so on. Again, this ties into obtaining a cursory understanding of the funds you’re trying to raise money from. We make it abundantly clear on our website what stage we invest in, and so does every other fund in South-East Asia and beyond.

Investment mandate is another clear indicator of interest. We invest in internet- and mobile-technology companies. Granted, this is extremely broad. But other funds are not so generalised: KK Fund invests in marketplaces and fintech. Frontier.ru has a strong marketplace focus, and Life.sreda is a dedicated fintech fund. These mandates are public. Don’t expect to raise money from funds that focus on verticals totally different to your own.

We’ve also talked about the industries in which we won’t invest. For example, we’ve said we do not invest in gaming. We don’t do much in the enterprise space. We can’t do bio- or green tech. We’ve publicly said these things.

… and the Geography.

Remember, the same also applies to geography. We invest in South-East Asia. We do not invest in companies based, operating in, or targeting consumers in China or India. Many other funds in the region adhere to a similar mandate. We make this abundantly clear.

If you pitch us startups in these spaces, again, it shows you haven’t done even the slightest bit of research on what we can invest in, and hence will believe that you aren’t taking your fundraising seriously.

Skip the Non-Disclosure Agreements

Most investors already know of Brad Feld’s well-known post on NDAs. Some investors I know actually reply with the link to that post when asked to sign an NDA. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend you do so.

My opinion on the matter is pretty straight-forward: execution is 99% more important than the idea. Your idea is not unique; in fact, there are probably a dozen other people with the same idea. You shouldn’t require investors to sign an NDA simply to reveal what you’re doing. This subjects them to unwanted and unwarranted liability around an idea that is probably not all that unique in the first place, which makes enforcement almost impossible.

Sometimes I see entrepreneurs request an NDA before revealing proprietary financial data or business strategy. I can empathise with that idea a little bit more, but again, liability and enforcement are thorny issues. What if an investor signs an NDA to assess your pitch, ultimately passes, then speaks to a similar company, and for whatever reasons, approves that investment?

Investors live, breathe, and die off of their deal flow. Their reputation directly affects their success. Believe me, if there was so much as a whisper that an investor has stolen ideas from pitches — and word would get around fast — that investor is dead in the water. No more deals. If they go down that route, then they’re essentially no longer an investor, as they’re never going to get a decent deal again. Stealing an idea, successfully executing it, growing into a company, and then exiting in five to seven years is incalculably risky with absolutely guarantee of success, so reputable investors are not going to put their careers in jeopardy. Period.

For companies with a great deal of intellectual property, such as biotech, green tech, or any other vertical that requires an incredible amount of capital for R&D, NDAs are far more common and dare I say appropriate. But unless you’re in those spaces, don’t ask for them.

Referrals are Golden

Referred deals account for an outsized proportion of initial meetings for investors. Anecdotally, I’d comfortably say that the vast majority of investable deals come from an investor’s personal and professional network. That isn’t an exaggeration.

Getting introduced to an investor by a warm first degree connection is an extremely effective way to open contact. Emphasis on warm. Just because your point-of-contact is friends with an investor on Facebook doesn’t mean that person is capable of initiating a meeting. Worse case scenario, it might be someone the investor only knows cursorily; hell, they may not even like the person. Do your homework. Go through your network, figure out who might constitute a warm contact, and go from there.

In the end, the best possible introduction is through an entrepreneur or founder in the investor’s existing portfolio. Barring that, go through a well-respected local founder or investor.

And for the love of God, don’t go through Linkedin. It’s spammy trash and I hate the sight of it.

Don’t Waste Momentum

You know that awkward silence that sometimes occurs between people during a lull in a conversation, and both sides never really recover? Yeah, that sucks. Don’t let that happen when speaking to investors.

Investors, like many people, are perpetually pressed for time, are always putting out at least two to three different fires simultaneously, and probably have a real psychological disorder when it comes to turning off their phone.

If and when you start a conversation rolling with an investor, never let it drop. At the very least, you should have an up-to-date investment deck the moment you begin actively fundraising. Be prepared with follow-on data from RJ Metrics or Google Analytics; be prepared with team CVs or a sales pipeline overview; be prepared with investment terms for your fundraise. Be prepared, period.

If an investor asks about these things, and you delay in providing that information, whether they mean to or not, whether consciously or not, the investor will move onto the next thing.

You know your business better than we do. You should know what’s important and what isn’t, so be ready to show us if and when it comes up.

Make Investors Act, not Read

Investment decisions are made in-person, not email. Most entrepreneurs make the mistake of pouring every single data point about their business into an email, assuming that this is what investor’s want. This results in a veritable wall of text, without any clear call-to-action or high-level data.

This is precisely what you don’t want to do. You want investors to schedule a call or a meeting. You want to get them to become intellectually and emotionally engaged with the potential of your startup, the value, the vision. Rarely is that possible through a cold email.

Emails should be brief, one to two short paragraphs max. They should briefly detail the business, who the team is, the market, and the value of its product or service. Most importantly, if you have traction, show it. Follow the mantra of ‘short, sweet, and informative.’

With that in mind, always include a deck, never a business plan. Same mantra applies: short, sweet, and informative. No one is going to read twenty pages of fluff.

End the email with a precise call-to-action:

  • “if interested, I’d love to meet you for coffee. I’m available Wednesday through Friday from 12pm to 3pm”;
  • “if you’re keen, I would love to jump on a call. I can speak Monday to Wednesday from 3-6pm.”
  • “I know you’re office is at 73B Duxton Road. I can meet you at your office Thursday to Friday anytime between 10am-12pm.”

Make investors check their calendars for their availability; don’t have them follow up asking you for a specific time they can chat.