Saturday, February 4, 2017

Building VC Relationships

A common mistake founders make is to try to meet VCs to "build relationships" a month or two before going out for a series A or series B fundraise[1] . I explain why this is a mistake below. If you do not have strong VCs relationships and plan to fundraise in 2-3 months, wait to talk to VCs until you go out to raise. Do not do a separate "get to know you" tour. If you plan to go fundraise in 12 months, you can start to build select VC relationships early with a handful of firms.

VCs Remember Most Early Interactions As Pitches
Investors at top tier VCs are constantly deluged with a stream of companies wanting to pitch them. If an investor meets *only* 3 to 5 new companies a week, she is meeting with literally 150 to 250 companies a year. As such, it is unlikely she will remember every nuance of why and how you are meeting - and will default to remembering your meeting as a pitch. Additionally, relationship-building meetings a month or two before a real fundraise in reality often turn into a half-cocked fundraise. You are not really fundraising, but you really sorta are, even if you tell yourself otherwise.

For a VC round you need to have a well-rehearsed, pressure-tested pitch ready to go. You not only need to wow the investor in the first 5 minutes, but create momentum around an active fundraise. Going in half-baked will only backfire.

You also want the timing dynamics of a fundraise properly in place - e.g. if the VC is super excited about you, she will press for you to come meet with the partnership and your company will not have a competitive process in place. If she is not super-excited, she will think of your company as a "pass" and will decline to engage 2 months later when you have your materials and pitch honed. Either outcome is a loser from a fundraise perspective.

If You Want To Build Relationships, Do It 6-12 Months Before A Fundraise

If you want to build VC relationships early, choose a small number of select firms you want to get to know. If you talk to them 6-12 months before a fundraise, enough will have changed with the company since you last spoke that they will want to engage for your actual raise. Some general rules of thumb:

  • Choose which partner you would want to work with eventually - and get introduced only to her up front. VC firms have a relationship management system where the first person who meets a company becomes that company's lead (in some cases in perpetuity). This is crucial, as you are largely stuck with that person as point of contact going forward. If she ends up being a bad advocate for you, you will not get funded by that firm. Ask for intros only to the partner you would want to work with at a given firm.
  • Don't meet with too many VCs. Meeting VCs can become a full time job. Between the travel time to Sandhill / SOMA and the meeting prep VC meetings can take a lot of time. Choose the 4-5 people you really want to stay in touch with, and then meet with them every 6-12 months.
  • Learn to say no. Once you make the VC relationship, that investor may want to meet more frequently then you do, to introduce you to their portfolio companies[2], or otherwise engage. It is OK to reply with "I am heads down on product right now but happy to engage later when I come back up for air".

VCs (Usually) Won't Invest Preferentially In Friends
I have seen entrepreneurs build incredibly deep relationships to firms - who then never invest in the founder. A common message from a VC to an entrepreneur who is not fundraising is "my partnership loves you, and loves what you are doing - we want to fund you anytime". Unfortunately, this message often ends in tears when you go out for an actual fundraise if your startup does not have the traction to get funded. VCs make business, not personal, decisions around investing. They also need to convince all their other partners to invest in you and do not have unilateral decision making. It costs them nothing to emphasize how much you should really talk to them when you decide to raise money. Would you give any friend of yours $10 million just for being a friend? If not, why would a VC do that? Don't be deluded by the VC friendship.

[1] I truly mean series A and later venture funds here. Angel fundraises are different and you can talk to them early if you want to suss out the landscape. Even there, I would limit conversations to a handful of folks. You do not spend all your time in meetings instead of building a product and team.
[2] VCs may sometimes do "blind intros" to other companies in their portfolio for you and that company to partner or work together. Most startup to startup intros are a total waste of time from a partnership perspective.

Lead VC Vetos