How Investors Make Better Decisions: The Investment Readiness Level

Investors sitting through Incubator or Accelerator demo days have three metrics to judge fledgling startups – 1) great looking product demos, 2) compelling PowerPoint slides, and 3) a world-class team.  Other than “I’ll know it when I see it”, there’s no formal way for an investor to assess project maturity or quantify risks. Other than measuring engineering progress, there’s no standard language to communicate progress.

What’s been missing for everyone is:

  1. a common language for investors to communicate objectives to startups
  2. a language corporate innovation groups can use to communicate to business units and finance
  3. data that investors, accelerators and incubators can use to inform selection

Teams can prove their competence and validate their ideas by showing investors evidence that there’s a repeatable and scalable business model. While it doesn’t eliminate great investor judgment, pattern recognition skills and mentoring, we’ve developed an Investment Readiness Level tool that fills in these missing pieces. Background about the Investment Readiness Level  here and here.

While the posts were theory I was a bit surprised when John Selep, an early-stage investor, approached me and said he was actually using the Investment Readiness Level (IRL) in practice.

Here’s John’s story.

As Selections Committee chair for our Sacramento Angels investor group, I review applications from dozens of startup entrepreneurs looking for investment.  I also mentor at our local university, and guest-lecture at a number of Entrepreneurship courses on how to pitch to investors, so the task of helping students and entrepreneurs visualize the process of investor decision-making has often been a challenge.

When I first read about the Investment Readiness Level (IRL) on Steve’s blog, I was excited by Steve’s attempt to bridge the capital-efficient Lean Startup process for founders with the capital-raising process for funders. But the ‘ah-hah!’ moment for me was the realization that I could apply the IRL framework to dramatically improve the guidance and mentorship I was providing to startup company founders .

Prior to having the Investment Readiness Level framework, this “how to get ready for an investor” discussion had been a “soft” conceptual discussion. The Investment Readiness Level makes the stages of development for the business very tangible. Achieving company milestones associated with the next level on the Investment Readiness Level framework is directly relevant to the capital-raising process.

I use the Investment Readiness Level as part of my sessions to help the students understand that being ready for investment means that besides having a pretty PowerPoint, they need to do real work and show Customer Development progress.

Since I began incorporating the Investment Readiness Level framework I’ve made three observations. The Investment Readiness Level (IRL):

  1. Ties the Lean methodology (and capital efficiency) directly to the capital-raising process – closing the loop and tying these two processes together.
  2. Is Prescriptive – offers founders a “what-you-need-to-do-next” framework to reach a higher level of readiness.
  3. Enables better mentoring. The IRL provides a vocabulary and framework for shifting the conversation between investors and entrepreneurs from simply “No”, to the much-more-helpful “Not yet – but here’s what you can do…”.

Selep IRLTying Fundraising to the Lean Startup
The premise of the Lean Startup is that a startup’s initial vision is really just a series of untested hypotheses, and that the Customer Development process is a systematic approach to ‘getting out of the building’ and testing and validating each of those hypotheses to discover a repeatable, scalable business model. The Investment Readiness Level adds to this methodology by tying each phase of this discovery process or ‘hypothesis-validation’ to milestones representing a startup’s increasing readiness for investor support and capital investment.  For investors this is a big idea.

I remind entrepreneurs that investors are implicitly seeking evidence of progress and milestones (but until the Investment Readiness Level never knew how to ask for it).  Entrepreneurs should always communicate their business’ very latest stage of customer development as part of their investor presentation. Given that a startup is continually learning weekly, the entrepreneur’s investor presentation will evolve on a weekly basis as well, reflecting their latest progress.

In our Angel investor group, our Applicant Selections process ranks applicant companies relative to the other applicants.  In the past, the ranking process relied on our Selection Committee members having an intuitive “feel” for whether a startup was worth considering for investment.

As part of our screening process, I’ve embraced the Investment Readiness Level (IRL) framework as a more-precise way to think through where applicant companies would rank. (BTW, this does not mean that the IRL framework has been embraced by rest of our Selections committee – organizational adoption is a lot more complicated than an individual adopting a framework.) I believe the IRL framework offers a more-precise method to discuss and describe ‘maturity’, and will likely become a more explicit part of our selections discussion in the year ahead.

Investment Readiness Level is Prescriptive
At first blush the Investment Readiness Level framework is a diagnostic tool – it can be used to gauge how far a business has progressed in its Customer Development process. A supposition is that startups that have validated hypotheses about key elements of their business have reduced the risks in launching their new business and are more ready for investment.

But the IRL is more than a diagnostic. It enables a much richer investor -> founder dialog about exactly what milestones a startup has actually achieved, and ties that discussion to the stages of the business’ Customer Development and business development progress.  In the same way that Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas provides a common vocabulary and enables a rich discussion and understanding of exactly what comprises the business’ design and business model, the IRL provides a common set of metrics and enables a rich discussion and understanding of just where the startup is in the maturity of its processes.

This means the IRL is also a Prescriptive tool.  No matter where a startup is in its stage of development, the immediate next stage milestone – where the entrepreneurs should focus their attention next – is immediately clear.  Although every business is unique, and every business model emerges and evolves in its own unique way, the logical sequencing of incremental discovery and validation implicit in the IRL framework is very clear. No ambiguity. Clarity is good.

Investment Readiness Level Enables Better Mentoring
As you might imagine, our Angel group receives applications for funding from a wide, wide variety of businesses, with highly variable quality of the businesses and their applications, and highly variable levels of maturity of those businesses.  Some of our applicants are not scalable, high-growth businesses, and we tell them quickly if they don’t fit our profile. Others have the potential to be scalable, high-growth businesses, but simply aren’t as compelling or as mature as better candidates in our funnel. During every Selections cycle, as we refine our applicant funnel to select the entrepreneurs to present to our membership, I obviously have to say “No” to far more entrepreneurs than those to whom I can say “Yes”.

The Investment Readiness Level adds a new dimension to those conversations, providing a vocabulary and framework for shifting the conversation from simply ‘No’, to the much-more-helpful “Not yet – but here’s what you can do…”.  It has completely changed the nature of the conversations I have with applicants. The prescriptive nature of the IRL means that wherever a business is in its current state of development, the next step on the ladder is nearly always pretty obvious. Of course, there should always be a little latitude for the unique nature of each business, but the IRL framework is a good guidepost. So the “here’s what you can do…” recommendations are clear, logical, and situationally-relevant to the entrepreneur’s business.

I would estimate that perhaps half of the applicants we see have heard of and use some form of Lean Startup or Customer Development methodology. The idea of a “Minimum Viable Product” is something that has entered the general vernacular, but I’m sure that not all of the businesses tossing the term around truly understand the Lean Startup teachings.

So when I’m providing feedback to an entrepreneur applying to our group for funding, I leverage the IRL framework to guide the feedback that I give. I don’t refer to the framework explicitly, but I provide feedback based on where I assess the company to be in their development, and what steps they’d need to pursue to get another rung or two up the ladder.

For example, I might say “The Sacramento Angels have decided that your firm isn’t quite ready for us to consider for potential investment at this point, but if you were able to discuss your prototype with 50-to-100 potential customers and get their feedback, this might help you identify the specific segments that care most-deeply about the advantages you’re offering over the existing alternative. We’d like to stay in touch with you and hear more from you once you’ve identified your initial target segment and how you are going to reach and service them …”

I’ve almost universally found that the entrepreneurs I’m discussing these recommendations with are pleased to have the feedback, even if they’re disappointed that we may not be funding them. For an entrepreneur, receiving guidance of “Not now, but here’s what you can do…” is better than getting a flat, directionless “No”.  For me, the ability to articulate the concept of maturity, and investment readiness as a continuum, is extremely helpful. Being able to articulate that an applicant’s current stage of development, along that continuum, is not aligned with our group’s investment goals but that with further progress on their part, there may be alignment – this is a fundamentally superior message.

The Investment Readiness Level has given me the tools to engage in a consultative, coaching and mentoring conversation that provides much more value to entrepreneurs, resulting in a much more-enjoyable conversation for all involved.

Lessons Learned:

  • Investment Readiness ties capital-raising to the capital-efficient Lean Startup methodology
  • The Investment Readiness Level is Prescriptive
  • The Investment Readiness Level enables better mentoring

4 Responses

  1. […] know I’m not posting much nor doing a lot of (non-syndicated) angel investing now, but I read a great post on Steve Blank‘s blog yesterday inspired by John Selep. The post shows one investor’s […]

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  2. As as founder, I find the IRL approach keeps me honest about what I’m offering the investor community. But, for a consumer-facing company, it’s difficult to test customer demand/market fit without actually building the system and pushing it out to the market. That’s the leap of faith that founders make and, as founders, we can’t expect investors to leap with us.

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    • Andrew, I think you’ve described a key flaw in the IRL concept. While VCs and angel investors who use IRL want startups to have met a certain set of criteria to be eligible for funding, the entrepreneur or startup must execute a set of steps to meet those criteria – steps that usually require the funding that the entrepreneur is seeking and that the VCs/angels are saying no to. The old funding catch-22 is still in play.

      The IRL concept is derived from the NASA/DOD TRL model of technology development. A key factor that enables a project to move up the TRL scale is FUNDING. At every stage. Of course best practices, hard work and great content development are also important success factors, but none of those things can even come into play without adequate funding.

      I’m not suggesting that lean startup methodologies, market validation or the IRL method are bad ideas; I and many companies I’ve worked for have been practicing a form of all those things – including deployment of MVPs – for many years. I do agree that the IRL model provides, in some cases, better investment decision information than “yeah, I really liked their pitch.” And I’m certainly glad to see institutional investors develop a better investment criteria language for communicating with entrepreneurs.

      What I am saying is that IRL, though it may become a quasi-useful tool, has flaws and limits. It isn’t going to completely resolve entrepreneurial risk or the capital-raising dilemma (you need funding to reduce risk so you can get funding). I also don’t believe customer interviews are always a great predictor of buying behavior. (I’ve seen these things translate poorly too many times.) I’m not even confident that IRL is going to improve investment returns significantly. We shall see.

      IRL does seem to be a tool that: 1) provides a market validation methodology for startups (market development being an area where startups have frequently stumbled), 2) provides investors with more information (but is it better?) and 3) enables VCs and angel investors to say “no” to entrepreneurs in a more friendly and mentoring way.

      Startups and entrepreneurs shouldn’t think that just because they’ve somehow gotten themselves up the IRL scale they’re now going to get funding – or sales. Investors are always going to apply some intangible criteria to investment decisions. So are buyers.

      I hope investors won’t use IRL gaps as a cover for rejecting an entrepreneur for intangible reasons. I do hope IRL will be a tool that investors will use – along with FUNDING – to actually help more entrepreneurs develop successful businesses.

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  3. Reblogged this on Alvaro's blog and commented:
    Here’s the 3rd post related to the Investment Readiness Level by Steve Blank.
    2nd post here: Is This Startup Ready For Investment?.
    1st post here: It’s Time to Play Moneyball: The Investment Readiness Level.

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