Sieving the Seeds: How this Early-Stage VC Screens Startups
From our count, M25 is one of the most active seed investors in the Midwest with 23 new portfolio companies in 2016. That may sound like a lot, but it’s a small percentage of the myriad of companies M25 has reviewed. How do potential companies stand out? Victor Gutwein, M25’s managing partner, outlines the top four components to their proprietary scorecard.
There is a lot of subjectivity involved in a VC’s job, particularly in the earliest stages of venture investing. While it may be tempting to rely solely on pattern-matching and instinct to create investment decisions from the web of uncertainty, we’ve forced ourselves to look to the available objective data points. In doing so, we’ve created an analytics-oriented scorecard that compute hard numbers driving our yes-or-no funding decisions. Each category in the scorecard has several sub-variables previously correlated with the success of startups; we use these to prioritize our investments in higher-probability companies. I’ve summarized our top four categories (by weight) here:
Team: The proverbial jockey.
- Balance — We look for a variety of skills, backgrounds and responsibilities on the core team. Teams of all-MBAs or all-engineers perform worse.
- Experience — Industry experience, startup experience, business experience, technical experience. More is generally better.
- Network — How connected are the founders, advisors and board members? What networks can they call on (schools, corporations, accelerators, etc.)
- Dedication and Passion — Are they full-time, 100% committed, or is this a side-job for an aging executive? Do they have charisma and can get others engaged?
Market Opportunity: How big is it actually? (Or, “Size matters”)
- Size — That’s great that you’re in transportation/housing/healthcare, but what is the actual TAM? We calculate that by multiplying what you’ve demonstrated you can sell your product for by the number of customers in the market(s) you have current customers in. No hypotheticals here.
- Growth — Is the market you are in growing or shrinking? How fast is it growing?
- Competitors — We’re reviewing both the entrenched dinosaurs and the new startups here to eat everyone’s lunch.
Product and Innovation: Must be better than sliced bread.
- Product Quality — How well-built is the current product? How will the product evolve?
- Defensibility — What is your avenue to defensibility (IP/network/stickiness/exclusivity/etc) and how strong is it?
- PMF — What actual value is being provided compared to the primary alternative? What are the customer segments and are they validating your value?
- Innovation — Is this new or another iteration of a trendy, over-used “Uber-for”? We want products that are different and unique.
Traction: Actual customers > projections.
- Tangible revenue — Money in the bank, month-over-month, is what we’re looking at. Money you expect-to-have in a week or month or two isn’t valued very highly when it’s coming from a seed-stage startup.
- Margins and type of revenue — Recurring is gold; non-recurring or “service” revenue counts much less. Margins are important and impact scoring and valuation significantly.
- Other forms of traction (users, contracts, paid pilots, etc.) — We discount these forms of traction very steeply, but they are important nonetheless.
- Growth — How long has it taken for you to get to this point (since you’ve been in the market)?
One thing we stress as a team is that this is a holistic approach, and every variable matters — including categories I haven’t covered yet such as valuation and exit opportunities. We don’t invest in startups with incredibly strong, proven teams that have only built a pitch deck. We don’t invest in half-hearted teams running a relatively successful “side-business”. We don’t invest in ultra-competitive, “me-too” businesses no matter the market size. Our portfolio companies are well-rounded startups that are objectively strong in each category we consider. And while we will undoubtedly miss out on some “winners”, we like our odds in this well-balanced, data-oriented approach.
About the Author
Victor Gutwein, founder and managing partner of M25. A Kauffman Fellow (Class 22) and former leader in Hyde Park Angels, Victor founded M25 in 2015 and quickly grew it to become one of the most active venture firms in the region. Victor lives with his wife and daughter on the South Side of Chicago and loves staying active with running, biking, swimming, backpacking and any team sport you’ll let him join. If he can’t convince you to break a sweat with him though, he’ll usually succeed in getting you to try out a Euro-style board game (like Settlers of Catan) with his friends.
M25 is a Chicago-based Midwest-focused venture capital firm run by Victor Gutwein and Mike Asem. Since the firm’s inception in 2015, M25 has invested in over seventy early-stage tech startups in over 20 cities across 11 states in the Midwest. M25’s objective, analytical model and collaborative, forward-thinking approach creates a large portfolio spanning several industries across the entire region, allowing them to establish M25 as a key node in Midwest startup ecosystem.