Getting “funded” is the holy grail for most entrepreneurs. Unfortunately in early stage startups the drive for financing hijacks the corporate DNA and becomes the raison d’etre of the company. Chasing funding versus chasing customers and a repeatable and scalable business model, is one reason startups fail.
This post describes how companies using the Customer Development model can increase their credibility, valuation and probability of getting a first round of funding by presenting their results in a “Lesson Learned” venture pitch.
It should go without saying that this post is not advice, nor is it recommendation of what you should do, it’s simply my observation of how companies using Customer Development positioned themselves to successfully raise money from venture investors.
Product Development – Getting Funded as The Goal
In a traditional product development model, entrepreneurs come up with an idea or concept, write a business plan and try to get funding to bring that idea to fruition. The goal of their startup in this stage becomes “getting funded.” Entrepreneurs put together their funding presentation by extracting the key ideas from their business plan, putting them on PowerPoint/Keynote and pitching the company – until they get funded or exhausted.
What are Early Stage VC’s Really Asking?
When you are presenting to a VC there are two conversations going on – the one you are presenting and the one that investors are thinking as they are listening to your presentation. (If they’re not busy looking at their Blackberry’s/iPhone’s.)
A VC listening to your presentation is thinking, “Are you going to blow my initial investment, or are you going to make me a ton of money? Are there customers for what you are building? How many are there? Now? Later?” Is there a profitable business model? Can it scale?” And finally, “Is this a team that can build this company?”
The Traditional VC Pitch
Entrepreneurs who pursue the traditional product development model don’t have customer data to answer these questions. Knowing this venture firms have come up with a canonical checklist of what they would like to see. A typical pitch to a venture firm might cover:
- Customer Problem
- Business Model
- Go to Market Strategy
Given that the traditional pitch has no hard customer metrics, (and VC’s don’t demand them,) you get funded on the basis of intangibles that vary from firm to firm: Do you fit the theme or thesis of the venture firm? Did the VC’s like your team? Do they believe you have a big enough vision and market. Did the partner have a good or bad day, etc. Tons of advice is available on how to pitch, present and market your company.
I believe all this advice is wrong. It’s akin to putting lipstick on a pig. The problem isn’t your pitch, it’s your fundamental assumption that you can/should get funded without having real customer and product feedback. No amount of learning how to get a VC meeting or improving your VC demo skills will fix the lack of concrete customer data. You might as well bring your lucky rabbits foot to the VC meeting.
Customer Development – Getting Funded After You Find a Repeatable Model
In contrast, if you are following a Customer Development process you have a greater chance of getting listened to, believed and funded.
Just as a refresher. The first step in Customer Development was Customer Discovery; extracting hypotheses from the business plan and getting the founders out of the building to test the hypotheses in front of customers. Your goal was to preserve your cash while you turned these guesses into facts and searched for a repeatable and scalable sales model. Your proof that you have a business rather than a hobby comes from customer orders or users for your buggy, unfinished product with a minimum feature set.
If you’re following Customer Development you are now raising money because even with this first rev of the product you think you’ve found product/market fit and you want to scale.
- On the bottom, and least convincing are statements about your “idea.”
- Next are hypothesis – “I think customers will care about x or y “
- Better are facts from customers – “We interviewed 30 customers with 20 questions”
- Even better is “Customer Validation”– “We just got $50K from a customer” or “we got 100,000 users spending x minutes on our site”
- Finally if you’re ever so lucky – “Everyone’s buying in droves and we’re here because we need money to scale and execute”
If you’ve actually been doing Customer Development at a minimum you’re at step 3 or 4. If not, you don’t have enough data for a VC presentation. Get out of the building, get some more customer feedback, spin your product and go back and read the book.
“Lessons Learned” – A New Type of VC Pitch
A Customer Development fundraising presentation tells the story of your journey in Customer Discovery and Validation. While your presentation will cover some of the same ground as the traditional VC pitch, the heart of the presentation is the “Lessons Learned from our Customers” section. The overall presentation looks something like this:
- Lessons Learned Slide 1
- Lessons Learned Slide 2
- Lessons Learned Slide 3
- Why We’re Here
Here’s What We Thought, What We Did, What We Learned
Notice that each of the “Lessons Learned” slide has three major subheads and a graph:
- “Here’s What We Thought.”
- “Here’s What We Did.”
- “Here’s What Happened.”
- A Progress Graph
Here’s What We Thought is you describing your initial set of hypotheses. Here’s What We Did allows you to talk about building the first-pass of the products minimum feature set. Here’s What Happened is the not so surprising story of why customers didn’t react the way you thought they would. A Progress Graph on the right visually shows how far you’ve come (in whatever units of goodness you’re tracking – revenue, units, users, etc.)
Telling the Customer Discovery and Customer Validation story this way allows you to take VC’s on your journey through all the learning and discovery you’ve done. After three of these slides, smart VC’s will recognize that by iterating on your assumptions you have dramatically reduced risk– on your nickel, not theirs. They will realize that you have built a startup that’s agile, resilient and customer-centric.
Your presentation doesn’t have a single word about Lean Startups or Customer Development. There is no proselytizing about any particular methodology, yet the results are compelling.
This is a radical departure from a traditional VC pitch. It will blow the minds of 70-80% of investors. The others will throw you out of their office.
Guaranteed Funding – Not
Will this type of presentation guarantee you funding? Of course not. Even if you have the worlds best Lessons Learned slides you might find out that your particular market (i.e. consumer Internet) might have a really, really high bar of achievement for funding.
In fact, just trying to put three Lessons Learned slides together showing tangible progress will make most startups realize how hard really doing Customer Development is.