Venture Diaries: Part Two

According the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA), there are 798 venture capital firms managing more than $235B in the United States. These are long-term, professional investors who specialize in funding and building new, innovative companies.

So how do you figure out who to approach for funding? This is the area where I find entrepreneurs make the biggest mistakes. Most of us approach investors we know. Perhaps you have a friend who knows a VC or you have a friend who is a VC. How do you know if your friend or the person you get introduced to is the right investor for you? Most likely they’re not. Not all VCs are alike. Some are geared for early stage and some are not. Some are suited for late stage investments while others just say they are.

You can’t always trust what an investor says their appetite is either. I’ve pitched to investors who say, “yeah we do Series A” only to be barraged by questions like, “how many paying customers do you have that we can talk to.” On the other hand, I’ve presented to wanna be later stage investors that were only prepared to pay an early stage price.

You need to do your own research. Venture capitalists are for the most part, creatures of habit. They don’t change investment philosophies much. Often within a firm it will take a generation before new blood arrives and can affect major change. In addition to the succession challenges, VCs are bound by the structure and economics of their business. Venture funds are seven to ten year financial vehicles. VCs raise the money for their funds based on an investment strategy which takes several years to play out.

I suggest doing your own primary research. Identify eight to ten prospects with a track record of backing entrepreneurs like you. Look for a history of focusing on your market and the stage your company is at and the type of involvement you want. Suspend your judgment during the your data gathering. Just get the data and avoid acting surprised or judgmental. Get specific data on the number of projects and stages of investment each firm has completed recently.

When we raised a Series C round earlier this year, I identified eight firms to approach based on their past investment history. Specifically, I was looking for firms and partners that had done a majority of their investments in late stage, infrastructure software companies over the past eighteen months. I wanted to focus on VCs who demonstrated a track record of paying a fair price to invest in revenue generating companies that need capital to accelerate growth. I gathered data on how many investments each VC made, how many of the investments were later stage and how many later stage investments they actually led versus just participated in. My goal was to focus on investors with the highest percentage of later stage deals led as a function of total investments made.

Of the VCs I researched the percentage of Series C or later deals led ranged from 15% to 95% of the total deals invested in during the prior 18 month period. Surprisingly the firm with the 15% invested in far more deals and far more later stage deals than anyone else. But the participation in later stage deals was mostly follow on investments in their existing portfolio. This was not the type of later stage investor I was looking for to lead our financing.

There were two VCs that approached us and pitched themselves as later stage investors. But the data just didn’t support their claims. The one had a 19% rating and the other a 17% rating. Despite showing great interest both of these investors dropped out of the financing process when we had several term sheets and commented, “the price is too high for us, we can’t dedicate our time to the project unless we can own more of the company.” At which point the leopard really showed his stripes.

The core set of later stage VCs I focused on had ratings ranging from 50% to 95% indicating they had led a significant number of later stage investments in the past 18 months. Every one of these investors delivered us a term sheet at a competitive price.

How do you find this information? The brute force way is to visit a number of firm’s websites and go through their portfolios. This takes a while but can yield the information you’re looking for if you put in the time. It is certainly a lot less time consuming (and less humiliating) than pitching investors that will never invest in your profile situation. There are a variety of venture capital databases that can make your research much faster and easier. If you have a friend that’s a VC they likely have access to one or more of these sources. If the answers about a particular firm are vague drill down and get the real story. If you can’t figure it out, move on. You’ve got 798 firms to choose from.

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