Category Archives: Venture Capital

What does a series A funding strategy and plan look like?

This post is the first in a series that I am planning to do on fund raising. I have successfully raised money 3 times (to a total of $29 Million – series A, B and C) and failed twice (once trying to raise $2 Million series A and second time $3-$5 Million series B).

As a background please read Elizabeth’s great post on “Behind the scenes of a seed round”.

Fund raising is one of the most difficult parts of a founder’s job. Getting money from investors of any type is hard. Dont be fooled by stories of entrepreneurs talking to investors and getting checks in 10 minutes. Those are truly black swan events.

The first thing you have to realize is that you need to develop an comprehensive plan and strategy to raise your series A. Think of it as an effort that’s similar to the launch your product. For purposes of this discussion lets call series A, as your first institutional round. I am also making the assumption that you have a working product, paying customers and are targeting a very large market (>$1 B for US, >$250M in India). If any of those criteria are not met, dont bother trying to raise money in this environment.

What are the 3 most important elements of your funding plan?

1. The pitch deck – a 15 slide PowerPoint presentation which summarizes the market, problem, traction and investment requirements. This is needed only for the face-to-face meetings.

2. The target list of potential investors – a Excel spreadsheet which has investor’s firm, name of partner, list of 2-3 recent investments (in the same general space as yours), email addresses, phone numbers, admin assistant’s name & email address, investor connection (people who can give you warm introductions to the investors), status and notes fields. You could use a CRM tool like Zoho if you like, but its overkill for this purpose is what my experience tells me.

3. An email introduction (40 – 100 words) and a one page summary. A simple text file with no images or graphs (something that the investor can read on their mobile phone (most have blackberry, although that’s changing). This can be sent to your connections to introduce you to investors or directly to known investors.

What should your strategy be?

1. Who should you target by role?: Investment firms have partners (decision makers) and associate / principals (decision enablers). Partners make decisions so if you can, get a introduction to a partner. If you cant, its not all doom and gloom, since many partners rely on their associates and principals to source deals for them.

2. Who should you target by investment thesis: Every investment firm has an investment thesis (how they will deploy funds to get best returns for their investors). This should guide you as to whether you’d be a good fit for the firm. Example: An investment firm might say we believe India’s broadband access and huge number of consumers with high disposable incomes is a great target for Indian eCommerce companies. So, they will deploy a certain % of their funds in eCommerce companies. Similar theses exists for big data, SaaS, etc.

Example: if you are an education startup focusing on India, Lightspeed (thanks to their success with TutorVista) should be on the top of your list. If you are a SaaS firm targeting US, Accel (thanks to Freshdesk) should be on your list. If you are a travel technology startup, Helion & Saif (thanks to Make My Trip) should be obvious targets.

A word of caution: If a firm has invested in a company in your sector, they will very likely ask you to speak to the CEO of their portfolio company to perform cursory due diligence. You may decide that company might be competitive and likely to execute your idea better since they have more resources. So proceed with caution and dont reveal any thing during your due diligence that might hurt you later.

Many investors invest in a sector because they “need one of those in their portfolio”. Example: Every firm has a baby products eCommerce company. So, I also recommend the “herd rule”. Which means, you should talk to other investors if your competitor has been funded by your first choice investor.

3. Who should you target by investment stage: Although every Indian investor claims to be sector agnostic and stage agnostic, there are a few early adopter VC’s. If you are the “first” in a new space, then consider an early adopter investor, else any investor who has not made an investment in the sector will suffice.

In a next post I will outline what the series A funding process should look like. This post will include information about whether you should follow a “back-to-back” process, or do a “listen and tweak” process.

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Comment from Rohit, converted into a post

Rohit Sharma, angel investor and technology maven, left a very relevant comment that gives more color to the post on Should I pay my lawyer or advisor in stock?

I thought it was relevant enough to post it as a complete post by itself. The comment.

Here you go.

Despite equity being seen as the ‘right’ reward, my experience has been that the startups i know in india had a very hard time (compared to silicon valley) attracting people to the mission+equity at 25% or more cut from market salary. In the valley, it is common to see early core employees work at 50% of market even. If you can get the *right* employee in india for mostly equity – great but be prepared to fish with cash. This is not inherently an attribute of us Indians – I dont think India has seen many (any?) virtuous venture cycles where an independent founder raises seed or bootstraps, then raises A/B/C/.. grows + returns money to common + preferred in a profitable and large exit. Once several of these cycles complete, there would be ‘existence proof’ of common equity == much higher value than cash.

Also, “quality” advisors are rare in India at this point – there are several that promise “intros” to VCs or customers. Carefully evaluate their resume + past successes + references *before* you sign up any advisors. If they claim they connected XYZ company to potential customers, call them and confirm – not just the top level details but some working level truth to the claim.

If you find the right person for your startup – sign them up and just like signing up early stage core employees, do not optimize for lower-dilution – offer what you have to. A thinner slice of a bigger pie goes the thinking vs. hoarding a whole lotta equity for nothing.

Carefully consider the ‘term’ of the relationship. Does the advisor want the equity to vest immediately? Or over 1 year? or over 2/3 years? In the valley, common to have 1 year terms and equity vests monthly. Remember it would be hard (impossible?) for you to gracefully fire your advisor in the event things are not what they were promised to be. So 1 year terms may be best.

And just like hiring a key employee, try before you buy – spend as much time as possible *prior* to committing to figure out if this is someone who will be genuinely helpful. Establish some bounds – # of hours per week/month + get in to detail of the promised “intro”. i.e. will it be an email ? a phone number? an in-person meeting with advisor present? if things dont move forward (to a POC/trial/contract) with the customer in question, would the advisor try and open alternative channels for you? How well do they know their contacts – do they just know them (socially – weak for business) or did they work together (strong / trusted axis) or did business together (separate companies – may or may not be strong). The more specifics you can get out of them, the more ‘data’ you will have to back up your instincts.

No lawyer I know in India (From Amarchand to local firms) has taken equity as compensation. Vague claims of “not being allowed” by firm etc abound. Not sure where the truth lies. If you succeed in getting good legal work for equity – let me know ! In the valley, good lawyers will often defer fees till financing (very common), or give you an implicit discount (vs. hourly billing) and would often offer to invest to get some preferred as well as take some common. All equity goes in to an arms length Partners Fund for most law firms. Individuals are known to work for common just like advisors.

Who are the “early adopter” Venture Capitalists in India

Like you, I assumed that all VC’s are risk takers. I mean as an asset class if you have to provide the highest returns over the long term, I would suspect you have to take big risks to get big returns. The average Indian bank has been giving around 8% annual returns on FD (source), real estate returns about 13%, and gold loan providers will give you close to 15% I am told. So, VC as an investment class should offer higher returns given how ill-liquid they are and how risky they tend to be.

So, how do you really measure if a VC is an early adopter versus a late adopter? (lets keep it simple and only put them into 2 categories).

My thinking is the only way you can do that is to look at their investments (portfolio companies) and find out the categories of companies they invested in. Then find out if any other VC’s invested in another company in that category after the “first” VC did. There are other ways to do that, like ask entrepreneurs who responded the fastest when they were looking for funds, but those dont evaluate who puts their money where their mouth is.

Why is this question useful to answer?

For entrepreneurs who are innovating in a new area, this list of early adopters will help you determine who you should go to first versus who should you expect will fund a possible competitor.

Lets define our methodology and assumptions:

1. We will look at all their websites and make a list of the Indian VC portfolio. Fortunately we have that list of over 50 VC’s in India.

Flaw: Many dont update their website as frequently so there may be a 20% (or higher) error, but I have tried to be comprehensive.

2. We will then categorize their investment into 5 buckets – Media and content, eCommerce, Business to Business, Mobile and other (Education, Healthcare, etc). This is important so we know not only which VC’s are early adopters but we can also try to find that out by sector.

3. Then we will look at the announcement dates of their funded companies from press releases, Unpluggd, YourStory, ET and VCCircle. We will give them 2 points for every investment done in a sector before any other VC did.

Flaw: Most (I suspect over 50%) of companies report their funding 3-6 months after they have raised the money, so this will be a large flaw, but lets do the analysis anyway.

4. Finally look at stage of investment. If a VC puts money in the series A, I would give them two points in the early adopter bucket. If, however they participated in series B or later, they get one point in the late adopter bucket.

First let me give you the results (not in any order other than early adopters vs. late adopters).

Early adopters VC’s.

  • Accel (eCommerce, B2B) – 78 points
  • Indo US Venture Partners (B2B) – 56 points
  • Saif partners (Mobile, eCommerce), but they are late adopters in B2B – 49 points
  • Venture East (B2B) – 45 points
  • Sequoia (Media) – 46 points
  • Seedfund (Scored enough, but dont have a clear winning category) 42 points

In the middle

  • Blume ventures – 40 points
  • Nexus Venture partners – 36 points
  • Helion – 36 points
  • Ojas ventures – 34 points

Later adopter VC’s – all scored less than 30

  • Bessemer Venture Partners
  • DFJ
  • Cannan partners
  • India Innovation fund
  • Inventus Capital
  • Footprint ventures
  • IDG ventures
  • India Internet Fund
  • Lightspeed partners (but have done well in Education)
  • Norwest
  • Sherpalo

What I hope this list will do?

1. Make Indian VC’s think about being innovation catalysts rather than ambulance chasers. I understand you have a responsibility to provide returns, but you also have a responsibility to grow the Indian startup ecosystem. Might I suggest a 5-10% of your portfolio towards risky, “first time this is going to happen” investments?

2. Make Indian company founders announce their funding. Unlike the US, here entrepreneurs are loathe to do so. I can understand the competitive pressures, but not doing any announcement is just lame.

3. Educate Indian entrepreneurs on their target VC list. Depending on the opportunity you are trying to pursue, please target the right VC firm. The only thing you have (and dont have) on your side is time. Use it judiciously.

P.S. I have confidence in the methodology but I would be the first to admit its neither comprehensive nor scientific. If you are an eager MBA / Engineer / analyst and would like to help make this methodology and analysis more robust, I’d love your help. You can take all the credit. In fact, I can convince many publications to give you credit for the work if you desire and if you keep it updated every 3-6 months.

P.P.S. If you are a VC and not in the early adopter list, or you are not happy with the analysis I’d also welcome your associate’s help in making this analysis robust.

How to get a job as a Venture capitalist

I get an email or two a week from folks wanting to be a Venture Capitalist. Usually its to ask for introductions to a VC firm or to forward their resume. Most of these folks have a technical background and some have an MBA. Since most people sending the email dont ask me how they could really get a job at a VC firm, I thought I’d outline that for them.

There are broadly 3 operating roles in a VC firm – General Partner (GP), Associate / Principal (AP) and Operating partner (OP). There are other roles such as Venture partner, but those are fairly rare. Limited Partners LP’s) are not part of a VC’s fund’s operating roles, they are investors in a VC fund.

Most VC firms have between 2-5 GP’s, and 2-5 AP’s and 1-2 OP’s. (source: PDF)

GP’s take the most risk, since they raise the fund from institutional investors so they tend to get the highest salaries and profits the firm makes from the investments. To be a GP you should have enough capability to raise funds (the most important aspect) and deploy those funds to provide a better return (which is: invest in startups and ensure they have great exit). Most GP’s (over 60%) I know have a degree from a top notch school (think Harvard MBA, Stanford MBA or in India IIT and IIM). Please see list of VC firms (below) in India. My analysis of GP’s in those firms indicates unless you have been an entrepreneur before with a successful exit OR from a IIT / IIM, with over 10+ years of experience OR you can raise money from other investors, your chances of being a GP are very low (less than 10%). Unless you can raise money to be a fund on your own, you will have to spend 10+ years being an AP and then graduate to being a GP.

AP’s are usually junior folks, and of the ~120+ AP’s in the list of firms below, more than 69, (> 50%) are from IIT, IIM, McKinsey backgrounds. So if you are a fresh grad or someone with 2-5 years of experience, and not from a top school, your chances of getting into a VC firm as an AP are not high. Its not impossible, but there are only 400+ firms in India and so a max of about 1500 AP positions, which means a best case of about 700 (<50%) positions. The good news is over the last 5-10 years the % of IIT, IIM grads as AP’s has dropped from over 80% to less than 60%.

Operating partners are usually CFO’s or Legal advisors, so your technology background wont qualify you for a role there. More likely a legal degree or a CPA / CA certification is required.

So how do you get a job as a VC if you are not from a top school or you dont have ability to raise money?

1. Be an entrepreneur first: Most VC’s who are not from top schools end up being one because they made money for the VC firm that invested in them. If you are an entrepreneur and you raise money from a VC firm, and then have a successful exit, the chances of you becoming a VC improve dramatically. Surprisingly, even if you dont have a successful exit, your chances of getting into a VC firm improve many fold. If you had a successful exit however, you can possibly raise your own fund, and write your own ticket.

2. Help rich investors make money: As I point out before a key part of being a VC is the ability to raise money. Most folks who I get emails from are like me (15 years ago). I did not have the network to raise funds at that time and neither did I have a lot of money myself to start a VC fund. Raising money from other rich people involves them trusting and knowing you (they are friends, family, etc.) OR you having made money for them before. I suspect like me, most of the folks emailing me dont have very rich uncles and aunts, so the best strategy is to help rich folks get richer. This might include introducing them to startups which need investment and then exit to make your investors a profit, or making money for them via the stock market and generating enough returns to both satisfy them and to make a tidy sum for yourself.

3. Work yourself into that role: VC’s dont recruit by going to campus interviews or by posting on job boards. If they do, be vary, and run away. Most good VC’s I know only hire from their network or trust a executive search firm to help them get the right AP candidates. Get to know and help executive search (Kornferry or Stanton Chase) recruiters get other candidates (for other roles) and keep your name on their radar. They might come to you when a VC job comes up.

The other approach is to network with VC’s so they will let you know when their firm has an opening for an AP. To be on their radar, help them source and talk to great entrepreneurs and send them good quality companies to invest in. Alternately if you have an uncle or aunt at a VC firm, you can get that AP role fairly easily.

Of course the easiest way to be a VC is to bankroll the fund with your own money, if you have that much money, then this post is largely useless for you.

List of VC firms (sorted by no particular order), where I have a connection, so if you want an intro, I can help you.

Bessemer Venture Partners
Saif Partners
Cannan Partners
Venture East
India Innovation Fund
Nexus Venture Partners
Inventus Capital
Footprint Ventures
IDG ventures
Ojas Ventures
Naukri InfoEdge
Nirvana Ventures
Everstone Capital
Epiphany Ventures
Seed Fund
Silicon Valley Bank
India Internet Fund
New Silk Route
Lightspeed Partners
General Atlantic
Ascent Capital
Reliance Venture Asset Management
Intel Capital
Matrix Partners India
Rajasthan Venture Fund
Norwest Venture Partners
Clearstone Venture Partners
ePlanet Capital
Artiman Ventures
Catamaran Ventures
Battery Ventures
Blume Ventures
Mayfield Fund
Andreessen Horowitz
First Round Capital
Union Square ventures
Khosla Ventures