“We are heads down building product” is a line I hear often, particularly from seed-stage companies. “We are not fundraising right now, can I reach out to you when we are ready?”
We get it — talking to investors is time-consuming, and it may feel like a distraction from your core mission. You would rather be heads-down building product. But to have a chance to deliver even an MVP you will have to spend significant time doing many other time-consuming things — such as recruiting, finding office space (OK that may be no longer relevant), talking to customers and, yes, fundraising.
There are a few reasons to consider starting conversations with potential venture partners well in advance of formal fundraising:
- Successful fundraising is a matter of having relationships with investors
- It’s the best way to get feedback on your story and to get to know your audience for when you do pitch
- A good venture partner will want to be helpful even in advance of investing
As much as it may feel like a time sink, you should be talking to investors early and often — even before you have built any product. A lot of the market leaders in our portfolio are companies that we partnered with before the founders had written a line of code. Just like your best hires sometimes take months of continuous engagement, your relationships with the VCs who will eventually back your company will take time to mature. The keyword here is relationship. The analogy to a marriage may be trite but it is still applicable — you and your investor will be on this journey together for a decade or longer, so it’s in your best interest to get to know them in advance.
The misconception is that you get one shot to pitch a VC. Founders invest a ton of time in a pixel-perfect deck, rehearse it many times and then go on a roadshow. Preparation is always a good thing, and you do want to put your best foot forward, but a formal pitch with the perfect deck should be the end stage of a fundraising process, not its start.
Jumping straight to the fundraising roadshow is risky because most investors you will meet that way will not be prepared for your message — i.e. they will not have enough context about your industry or your company, and they can’t reach an informed opinion about your company in a short pitch meeting. As a result, they will likely take the conservative route, which for an investor means not investing. Alternatively, you may come across investors who are uninformed but willing to just invest but they are unlikely to be helpful in building your company.
Another factor to bear in mind is that investors at top-tier firms make 1–2 new investments a year. Some of my colleagues have literally created a piece of paper with the 20–40 slots they have for investments over their entire careers. That piece of paper serves as a visceral reminder to ask yourself every time if this company is special enough to fill one of the precious spots. In order not to bring back the marriage analogy let me try another one: meeting an investor for the first time during your fundraising roadshow is like expecting to close a deal with a customer in the very first meeting.
You would be much better off engaging with investors months before you actually need to raise money. That way you have a chance to gradually build investors’ understanding of your company and your industry. You can answer their questions; you can tease out their potential objections, and think about how to counter them. These engagements can be casual — no presentation necessary. You should expect that some of these casual engagements deepen while others will taper off — but that’s the nature of any marketing and sales process. And when the time is right, you’ll be able to quickly identify who would make for a valuable long-term partner.
It’s not a coincidence that the “we are heads down” stance is mostly a seed-stage phenomenon: by the time entrepreneurs have been through the fundraising process at least once, they internalize the reality that fundraising is a relationship game.
So, if you are heads-down, consider lifting your head up occasionally to survey the landscape — it might actually save you time in the long run.