Last night in Mountain View, five venture capitalists sat down for a grilling from an audience of hungry entrepreneurs.
The event was run by the Churchill Club, and the five came from pretty different backgrounds — from Ray Rothrock of Venrock, who’s been investing in tech firms since the 1980s, to Aydin Senkut, who founded his angel investment fund Felicis Ventures after retiring from Google in 2006.
Here are 10 points they made:
- Introductions matter. Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital says that the person introducing the entrepreneur is a big deal — if he doesn’t trust the referral, he won’t even take the meeting.
- Keep it short. Rothrock has seen more than 10,000 pitches, and the best ones are short and to the point. Kopelman also told about his successful pitch for Half.com, which gave users an online marketplace to sell used books — he simply asked how many people had read a book by a popular author. Nearly every hand went up. Then he asked how many wanted to read it again. Nobody raised their hand. Done. The rest was details.
- Answer questions quickly without getting defensive. Both Rothrock and Bill Maris of Google Ventures said that entrepreneurs need to answer questions quickly and simply. VCs are trying to assess risk, and if you don’t help them, they can’t help you. Maris is particularly turned off by people who get defensive during Q&As — he ends up concentrating on their attitude instead of the company.
- Be a good storyteller. Kopelman says that most successful entrepreneurs are great storytellers — they have to be able to get investors to believe in their crazy idea, then convince employees to sign on and press to write about it. Senkut agreed — it’s easy for entrepreneurs to inspire their first few employees with stock options or founding titles. But inspiring the 50th or 100th employee requires a great story.
- Avoid buzzwords. Lots of buzzwords are immediate death, says Kopelman. As he put it, he didn’t pitch Half.com by saying it was an online peer-to-peer marketplace for monetization of underutilized printed matter assets (or words to that effect). If he had, it wouldn’t have worked.
- Know the people you’re pitching. Rothrock said that entrepreneurs should know everything about the VCs they’re pitching to — where they live (“as long as you don’t drop by”), their dog’s name, their hot button issues. Senkut agreed — do your research and try to make personal connections.
- Don’t forget the financial info. This may seem obvious, but Rothrock said that he sees a lot of pitches with no financial information about the company. Big mistake.
- Think big or don’t bother. Howard Hartenbaum of August Capital points out that VCs need to be convinced that they’re investing in a company that has the potential to be huge. A business might be perfectly successful if it gets to $80 million in revenue in five years, but it won’t help the typical VC fund return its investors’ money. If you can’t convince yourself that your company has huge potential, seek money elsewhere.
- “Stay in touch” means “no.” So says Maris.
- Forget saving the world. One audience member asked whether the VCs give a little slack to startups that are trying to do good. “I discount them,” said Maris. It’s not that VCs are all individually callous — although some are — but their job is making good investments for their limited partners. For this goal, there’s only one fair way to measure the value of a company, and that’s the discounted value of expected future cash flow. There are other sources of funding, like the Gates Foundation or Google.org, for companies that are more socially oriented.
Apart from giving pitch advice, the VCs also debated whether Groupon is overvalued.
Maris was sceptical because the company was built so quickly — he also noted that VCs don’t bet on any single stock, and neither should individual investors.
But Hartenbaum was more bullish, noting that the press often becomes jealous of tremendously successful companies, and Senkut (who has a small stake in Groupon after it bought one of his companies) noted that the fast growth and fact that the business model has proven repeatable in every country where it’s been tried are reasons for optimism.
Correction: the original version of this story mistakenly named Bill Maris as the VC who led the pitch for Half.com. It was Josh Kopelman. Sorry for the error.
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