50 Questions

Conveying that you have a great team

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As I’ve written before and you will have probably have seen on many other blogs the key elements of a good investment and therefore a good pitch are great market, great product and great team. For the last couple of years I have been adding a fourth item to the list, and that is momentum. Most obviously that can be momentum in sales and/or user activity, but momentum in other areas really helps too – e.g. the market opportunity, PR, or development of the team.

It is the team part that I want to focus on today. Entrepreneurs often ask me where in their decks they shoud put the team slide and I’m always slightly at a loss to answer because even though team is a critcial part of the investment, and I do want to hear if the team has relevant experience the team slide always bores me a little. I’ve been helping people with their pitch decks a lot over the last few weeks and as I’ve thought it through I’ve come to believe that the key to convincing investors you have a great team is to show them that you are executing well, and you do that in the way you present the other elements of the company.

Two examples:

  • Good pitches for consumer internet companies often achieve this when they talk about their metrics – at one level they are showing the progress and momentum of the company, but at another level they are showing that they are really on top of the metrics in their business. This goes beyond simply measuring and reporting to deep thought about what should be measured and what it means. Many of the best consumer internet entrepreneurs are geekily passionate about the data they collect and how they use it to improve their product.
  • Good SaaS companies often demonstrate their execution ability by talking about sales and marketing. At one level they show how reveneus and marketing buzz are increasing, but at another level they are showing that they have a deep understanding of what their customers want, how to sell it to them, and how to manage a sales team.

Your fundraising strategy depends on whether you’re startup is hot

By | 50 Questions, Startup general interest, Venture Capital | 7 Comments

I spoke at a workshop this morning where most of the participants were CEOs and founders of early stage startups. We talked about the state of the market, what makes a good investor, and how to go about raising money and afterwards I was struck by how much of the fundraising advice given to startups is really only good advice for hot startups. The clearest example of this came from one CEO who had raised large rounds on multiple occasions who advised only talking to five investors and making them feel like they were privileged to be able to take a look at his company. That’s great if at least one and hopefully two of those five are going to bite, but it is only hot startups which get success rates like that.

This turns out to be an important question, because if your startup is hot then going to a small circle of potential investors is a good way to minimise the time spent fundraising and can be good for valuation, but if your startup isn’t hot then the chances are your process will fail if you only target five investors. In other words you need to know whether your startup is hot before you determine your fundraising strategy.

So how can you know if your startup is hot?

You get out and talk with potential investors a long time before you need the money. This is good practice anyway (remember VCs invest in lines not dots) but determining your fundraising strategy is another good reason to invest time in networking with VCs. The trick is to figure out their level of interest before you are actually asking for money but without pitching too hard and ruining your emerging relationship. It’s a delicate balance, and in my experience many entrepreneurs don’t get it quite right – some almost never talk about their companies and therefore don’t have any idea whether I might be interested or not, whilst others overdo it by pitching for too much of the time that we are speaking. If you’re not sure I would err on the side of pitching too much but keep your senses tuned for signs that you should tone it down a little.

If you get out and meet lots of investors and make sure they know what your company does then you should pretty quickly get an idea of whether a short and tight process will work for you. The only way to go wrong now is to read the signs badly. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself. Everybody will say they want to consider your round when it happens, so you should look beyond that for signs that there is real appetite, like investors requesting to meet before you ask them or starting to help with introductions.

Then, if you have five or more investors who are very keen before the formal fundraising process starts you can manage everyone to a tight timetable and hope that one of them will move very quickly to pre-empt the others. But if you don’t have those five then you should talk to many more potential investors (say 20-30) and figure that a successful the process will take 6-9 months.

Top five typical frustrations and confusions in the fundraising process

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If you’ve been paying attention you will know that Nicholas Lovell and I are writing a book for entrepreneurs who want to raise venture capital. It’s tentatively titled Get Funded. We are now preparing to shoot a promotional video which opens with five frustrations that entrepreneurs frequently encounter when they embark on the fundraising process, expressed as questions. Then it will cut to the second section where Nicholas and I give answers. The idea is that these two opening sections will illustrate the fundraising problems we are seeking to alleviate and show that we have some good content to offer.

These are my best guess at those to five frustrations and our one to two sentence response.

1. What does she want to see in my pitch?

She wants to see you present a confident and convincing story about how you are going to build a big business. Get the story right and you will get the chance to fill in the details later.

2. How much money should I ask for?

The amount that is right for your company, generally an amount that allows you to significantly increase the value of your business with a decent cushion on top. Pitching the amount that you think fits the investment size of the VC you’re talking to is putting the cart before the horse and will either make you look bad or your company will end up with the wrong plan and the wrong amount of money.

3. We were getting on great, but I haven’t heard from him for ages, what does it mean?

It means you should chase him for an update. If after a couple of chases you still haven’t heard anything it probably means they aren’t interested, much like that girl/boy you were sweet on who didn’t return your calls when you were 13. Console yourself with the fact that you probably didn’t want to partner with the sort of person who doesn’t return calls anyway.

4. What on earth does this termsheet mean with it’s liquidation preferences, anti-dilution and protective provisions?

Like many industries venture capital has developed its own language which is confusing when you first come across it. Most of the concepts are actually pretty simple when you get into it. For example, liquidation preferences are financial structures whereby rather than just getting a share of the company investors get their money back first and then get a share of the company on top.

5. Is this VC going to take control if I let her on my board?

Probably not, but you should ask her, and ask to speak with people at other companies she’s invested in to find out. Good VCs know that the best way to make money is to back great entrepreneurs and help from the sidelines whilst they do their thing.

Any and all thoughts on the above appreciated.

50 Questions: How soon should I start raising my next round?

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As you may recall Nicholas Lovell of Gamesbrief and I have been writing a series of 50 blog posts which we will then publish as a book designed to help entrepreneurs navigate the sometimes tortuous process of raising money. Our hope is that readers of our book will find a straighter and quicker path to getting cash in the bank.

You can find the original rationale behind the series here, and the list of questions here. We welcome your comments on any and every aspect of what we are doing.


Much as a good blogger should always be posting, a good entrepreneur should always be fundraising. The best deals on both sides come when a good relationship has been built between investor and entrepreneur, and calling a total halt to engaging with investors only to surface again when you want money is no way to build a relationship. Remember that VCs invest in lines not dots.

So the question then, is not when to start and stop fundraising, but when to dial up and dial down the effort, and what to do at each stage.

I like to think of fundraising as having three different phases, a keeping the relationship ticking over phase, a warming up phase, and a full on fundraising phase.

Keeping the relationship ticking over is about maintaining occasional contact with 10-15 of your favourite investors. Good ways to do this include turning up to events where they might be present (particularly if you have organised the event or can get a speaking slot), helping them evaluate deals and people, engaging on social media, getting written about in press that they read (e.g. Techcrunch), and sending occasional emails announcing your good news. None of this should take too much time, and try to include some of the more personal methods (the first three on the list).

In the warming up phase you meet VCs to remind them why you are important, update them on your progress, tell them a round will be coming, and gauge their interest. You are in listening and learning mode. In this phase you will build a shortlist and get feedback on how you tell your story. If you are a hot company enterprising investors may try to beat the competition and seek to invest before you enter the full on fundraising phase. Happy days.

In the full on fundraising phase you prepare a formal fundraising presentation, go see investors and pitch your heart out. In the first meeting you should look to qualify out those that are unlikely to invest and understand and progress the process to get a termsheet from the others (more detail on this here). Each subsequent meeting should have a similar objective.

I wrote before that the average European company should allow 6-9 months to raise capital, and I still think that’s about right. In the US it’s 3-6 months, but processes take longer here, largely because there is less capital in the market. Some deals close more quickly of course, but unless you have lots of investors telling you they are keen to invest it would be a mistake to rely on that. That means moving into the warming up phase 6-9 months before you run out of cash. Hot companies with good investor networks can figure on the lower end of the range.

Get Funded/50 Questions you should ask before raising venture capital – the journey from a series of blog posts to a book

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Regular readers will be well aware that through 2011 and into early 2012 Nicholas Lovell and I were writing a series of 50 blog posts designed to help entrepreneurs with the fundraising process, and that we intended to publish them in book format once we were finished.

This is how we described our aims for the series at the outset

Our hope is that the posts (and eventually the book) will be a good resource for anyone who is thinking about how to finance their company and who wants to understand more about the options, including venture capital.  The posts will assume very little, if any, prior knowledge and should be useful to everyone from newbies to the industry to those who have been around venture capital a fair bit and have a decent understanding, but are a bit hazy around the edges on some of the more detailed points e.g. ‘weighted average anti-dilution’ or ‘1x participating preference share’.

I think the posts deliver pretty well on this objective, but our challenge now is to make them into a book. Nicholas and I want it to be a book we can be proud of and that means doing more than putting the blog posts back to back with an introduction and some nice cover art. A good non-fiction should be interesting and take the reader on a journey, just like a novel.

The first thing we wanted to do was decide on a name, and so far we are liking “Get funded”, with a subtitle TBD.

The second (and much larger) challenge is finding a narrative structure for the book to hang the posts off. We are thinking that following the journey of a founding team from company formation through raising venture capital and then back to getting on with building his or her business could work well. We could split that journey into the following stages:

  1. Three friends sitting round a table in a pub thinking of business ideas, and then agreeing to start a company
  2. Having got started with £50k from their parents they set down to figuring out how to finance growth going forward – considering the pros and cons of VC
  3. Learning a little about raising venture capital it first sounds like the answer to everything, then begins to look like a daunting task
  4. They get to know a few people, maybe a VC or two, decide they understand what it means to raise venture capital and elect to go for it
  5. The process starts well, then stalls
  6. They change tack and then get offered terms following a piece of commercial success
  7. The deal almost dies during due diligence
  8. The round closes, champagne is drunk
  9. 8am the next morning they are back in the office delighted to be done with the fundraising, but daunted by the challenge of delivering the plan they have agreed with their new investors
  10. Fast forward twelve months and the founders are back in the same pub deciding to raise a Series B, but feeling older and wiser this time round

Our hope is that entrepreneurs at any stage in their fundraising process will be able to quickly find the section that corresponds to where they are and helps them figure out the best way forward. Raising venture capital can seem like a hard and complicated process and the journey from start to finish is often marked by quick shifts from elation do despair. VC is a very opaque industry and it is difficult for most entrepreneurs to know why VCs do and don’t take meetings and then decide to invest or not invest, and each little bit of progress or each little setback often assumes more significance than it deserves. Our aim is to make the whole process simple to understand and help reduce the emotional volatility entrepreneurs experience through the journey.

The next step is to match the posts we’ve written to this narrative structure and confirm that it works. So far I think it does, but this is new territory for me, so all thoughts welcome.

Building a financing plan around value creation milestones

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Twice in the last week I found myself coaching founders on how to build a financing plan around value creation milestones so I thought I would share what I said here.

The idea of thinking about value creation milestones comes from the observation that the value that investors put on a startup is generally moves in a step function, even when the company itself is making steady progress. There are certain types of events that investors look to as evidence that a company has overcome certain challenges and has therefore reduced risk in the business and become deserving of a higher valuation. For new investors in a business it is often hard to assess the progress being made towards the milestone and hence little credit can be given until the milestone has been achieved. An easy to understand example of this is in the run up to a product launch – whilst the team has been working hard, can see the product coming on in leaps and bounds and becomes increasingly confident that they will launch on time and customers will come rushing to the door, for investors it is very hard know whether the product will work and be well received until it is in the hands of customers. Hence the value of a company is often relatively flat in the run up to product launch and then leaps up once it is out of the door and starts to get traction.

Typical value creation milestones for technology startups include:

  • launching a product
  • achieving first revenues
  • breaking through revenue thresholds – e.g. run-rates of £1m, £5m, £20m and so on
  • demonstrating a repeatable sales model (typically telephone sales, direct sales, or channel sales)
  • for consumer internet companies, breaking through user based thresholds – e.g. successful public beta with thousands or tens of thousands of users, 1m monthly uniques and so on
  • identifying a scalable customer acquisition channel
  • demonstrating profitable customer acquisition (usually by analysis of unit economics)
  • signing distribution deals
  • demonstrating that signed distribution deals are working
  • achieving first international sales

Given that the valuation of a startup increases when milestones like these are hit it makes sense to build a financing plan based on when they are likely to come in. Because it takes time to raise money and investors generally want to wait until the milestone has been hit before they will engage seriously in discussions about investing at the higher price point I generally advise raising enough money to last six or nine months after the milestones is expected to drop. That builds in time for delay and time for a leisurely fundraising. In his book The Second Bounce of the Ball, Ronald Cohen, one of the founders of the UK venture capital industry, is even more conservative – he advises raising enough money to get past two milestones.

However, raising lots of money to buy lots of time is great if you can do it, but for a lot of startups it won’t be possible, at least not without excessive dilution. In that situation I still think you need to stick with the discipline of thinking through when the value creation milestones will occur and timing your fundraising accordingly, but look for ways to compress the timescales. If possible bring forward the trigger events for the milestones, and in any case take your plan, including the milestones to investors before you have hit the milestones. Explain to them that you want to raise money quickly once the milestone has been achieved and ask whether you can keep them updated with progress and at what point they would like to enter into serious discussions. Hopefully you will find an investor or two who likes you and your story who will work to get themselves into a position to make an offer as quickly as they can after the milestone has been achieved.

In one of the conversations I had last week we ended up thinking that they should raise twice as much money as they had originally thought now in order to give themselves twice as long to raise the next round (twelve months rather than six). Our thinking was that with twelve months money the following combination of milestones and investor communications will be possible:


  • July – pilot deal with a major retail partner goes live
  • September – marketing support comes online
  • November – retail partner decision to roll-out product to rest of stores
  • January-March – anticipated strong sales months

Planned investor communication schedule

  • October – first conversations on the back of marketing launch and early data from pilot
  • December – tee up serious conversations for new year following positive decision to roll-out beyond initial pilot
  • Jan-March – work aggressively to close another round in the momentum months

This is an early stage business and hence any number of things could change and/or go wrong but to my mind this is a pretty solid plan. The timelines are tight, but realistic, with two months contingency and the milestones will all be meaningful to investors and if the business performs I think the planned conversations will all be of interest.

50 Questions: If I raise venture capital what differences will it make to how I have to run my business?

By | 50 Questions, Startup general interest, Venture Capital | 3 Comments

Forty-ninth in a series of weekly posts by myself and Nicholas Lovell of Gamesbrief which answer the fifty questions you should ask before raising venture capital. We expect the series to run for a year after which we will collate the posts into a book. You can find the rationale behind the series here, and the list of questions here. We welcome your comments on any and every aspect of what we are doing.


The heart of a venture capital deal is an exchange of cash today for an obligation to grow the value of your company and eventually find an exit. Hopefully the reason that you raised venture is that value growth and exit were in your plans anyway, in which case the major difference is that once the money is in the bank it becomes much harder to change course, e.g. to run a lifestyle business. In other words, raising venture capital commits you to a path.

If you hit your plan then most likely you won’t want to change tack and raising venture will simply have been an enabler. It will have got you access to cash and other resources that will have helped you build your business. The bigger difference comes if you miss your plan, in which case raising venture will most likely have limited your options you have going forward. When an investment misses plan most VCs will either want to double down and have another go at hitting the original plan or sell early, and they will exert whatever pressure they can to make their preferred option happen. That is their duty to their investors.

If your VC does want to double down and go again they will want to understand what lessons were learnt from the failure the last time round and be happy that the plan has changed in the right ways to maximise the chances of success going forward. Often that is as simple as agreeing with the revised plan that you come up with, but sometimes they will want more changes or different changes to the ones that you propose. Often those changes will concern the speed of investment. Sometimes they will involve changes in personnel.

Hopefully you will have kept an active dialogue with your investors through the re-planning process and the new plan that emerges will appropriately reflect everyone’s opinions and influence and there won’t be any difficult discussions.

So far I’ve described what investors will want, begging the question ‘to what extent will they be able to get it?’. The first and simplest answer to this is the legal one. The more money a company has raised, the more the founders will be diluted and the investors will have proportionately greater formal and legal rights to control the company and influence operations. After Seed and Series A rounds the investors typically have a minority stake, but sometime around the Series B or Series C the investors will typically rise above 50% at which point they will have formal control of the company. The founders may have negotiated extra rights for themselves which mean that formal control is not absolute, but this doesn’t alter the fact that as more money is raised there is a steady transfer of power and control to investors.

In practice the situation is always more complex than the legals suggest and depends on the individuals involved. Some VCs have big personalities and will have a bigger impact than their equity stake alone would command. If the VC concerned has good judgement and relevant experience then this should be a good thing for your company, but it is something you should consider before taking his or her money. Similarly some founders and CEOs have big personalities and use that to bend investors to their will. Finally, some founders and CEOs are particularly critical to their businesses, particularly at the early stages and they can leverage that fact to increase their influence. In the end it comes down to legal control though and strong individuals can ultimately be over-ridden if their positions lack legal support.

In conclusion, if you hit your plan then raising VC won’t make too much difference to how you run your company, but if you miss your plan things might be different. The extent of that difference will depend on your relationship with your investors and the extent to which your revised plan fits with their ideas about what should be done differently.

UPDATE: Your VC will also punch above his or her weight if you will need to raise more money from them in the future.

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50 Questions: What should an entrepreneur be looking to get out of a first pitch meeting with a VC?

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Forty second in a series of weekly posts by myself and Nicholas Lovell of Gamesbrief which answer the fifty questions you should ask before raising venture capital. We expect the series to run for a year after which we will collate the posts into a book. You can find the rationale behind the series here, and the list of questions here. We welcome your comments on any and every aspect of what we are doing.


A common answer to the question “what should I be looking to get out a first meeting with a VC?” is “the next meeting”. I think that is all wrong. The point of pitch meeting with VCs is to try and get money, not to spin wheels discussing your business. A much better answer to the question is “a quick no, or a tentative yes”. Note the use of the adjective ‘pitch’ to describe the meeting. It is advisable to get to know VCs before you pitch them, so hopefully your first meeting won’t be a pitch meeting. This post is about the objectives for the first pitch meeting, i.e. the first meeting when you are explicitly asking for money.

This will be counter-intuitive to many, but a quick no is helpful because it allows you to focus your time on more productive things, either talking with investors who will eventually say yes, or maybe even on building the business rather than raising money. Good sales people know the value of an early ‘no’, and many of the very best aggressively qualify out opportunities that don’t have a high chance of closure. Entrepreneurs who try and find out quickly if prospective investors are likely to invest are bringing this best practice to raising money, which can also be thought of as selling equity in their business.

Beyond the obvious, a tentative yes is helpful because the conversation can then move onto “and what do we need to do to get to a firm decision?” which will surface any objections and help move the process forward to a quick close.

Pushing VCs to either a tentative yes or a quick no is analogous to another behaviour that comes naturally to good sales people, and that is asking for the order. It takes a lot of courage at first, not least because it might result in a ‘no’, and whilst that is helpful in the long term it is painful when it happens.

A word of caution is appropriate at this point. Pushing investors to a tentative yes or a quick no needs to be done sensitively. It won’t always be possible in a first meeting, but by having it as an objective then you will be in a good position to get there in the second meeting. I would avoid pushing too hard if you feel you might not have conveyed enough understanding of your business for the person to be able to make an informed decision, if the investor wriggles when you put them on the spot (although this raises concerns of its own), or if you are pitching to a junior VC they might not have the authority to make decisions (in which case your objective should be to get a meeting with someone who has). If a VC defers to his partners then feel free to ask them what they will be recommending.

Finally, a word on what constitutes a ‘tentative yes’. A ‘firm yes’ has two parts, a ‘yes I want to invest in your business’ and a set of terms to go with it. You aren’t going to get to terms in a first meeting, but a tentative ‘I want to invest in your business assuming the terms are reasonable’ is achievable. A yes at this point will always be subject to further meetings, standard due diligence, and agreement from the partnership and might also have explicit concerns or qualifications attached to it – e.g. subject to verification of the market size. These qualifications are fine. In essence you are seeking confirmation that your company has enough positives that they would like to invest, and that at this point they can’t see any insurmountable obstacles.

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50 Questions: What financial information does a VC want to see?

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Forty first in a series of weekly posts by myself and Nicholas Lovell of Gamesbrief which answer the fifty questions you should ask before raising venture capital.  We expect the series to run for a year after which we will collate the posts into a book.  You can find the rationale behind the series here, and the list of questions here.  We welcome your comments on any and every aspect of what we are doing.


We get a lot of emails from companies who send us business plans or executive summaries which don’t include any financial information. That’s a big mistake. If we can see that the basic financial shape of the business is consistent with our usual investment profile we feel more confident that a deal is possible and are more likely to take a meeting. If there is no financial information then there is usually a nagging feeling that it has been omitted precisely because the entrepreneur knows that it isn’t a good fit with what we would like to see, and it is tempting to assume the worst (remember that we look at a lot of plans and can’t spend too much time on each one). I think some entrepreneurs hope that if they can just get a meeting they will be able to sell their way past the fact that their financials don’t fit and secure an investment. I would say that is the wrong way to approach building a relationship with an investor, is unlikely to work, and will most likely result in a series of frustrating meetings.

We like to feel that the companies which approach us are looking for a trusted partner. The best way to give us that feeling is to show that you understand us and our processes by giving us the information that will help us the most, including summary financials.

Financial information helps us evaluate whether a business fits with our strategy in two ways. Firstly, historical financial information shows the shape of the business much more clearly than any other metric. The most important figures there are revenues, gross profits (unless gross margins are over 90%), total expenses and the revenue growth rate. Secondly, financial projections help us understand how much the business might be worth in the future and whether it will need a further round of funding.

It isn’t necessary to provide much detail though. Initial communications with potential investors should concisely convey the essence of why a business is exciting and likely to be worth a lot of money. The most important aspect of that is the truly addressable market and the company’s position within it and the financials should be limited to what the numbers required to convey the information above and anything else which is important to the company’s story.

So different companies will want to include different line items in their financials, but the example below is a good model to work from.


From this the investor can see that the business has generated some early revenues, is growing fast and expects to need around about £1m to get to profitability. That helps analyse the fit with his or her fund requirements with regard to stage of investment and investment size.

Note that there is no information about how much cash is in the business. Whilst most VCs would like to know that information for negotiation purposes it isn’t necessary for their deliberations at this stage.

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50 Questions: How does a VC evaluate a company’s product?

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Fortieth in a series of weekly posts by myself and Nicholas Lovell of Gamesbrief which answer the fifty questions you should ask before raising venture capital.  We expect the series to run for a year after which we will collate the posts into a book.  You can find the rationale behind the series here, and the list of questions here.  We welcome your comments on any and every aspect of what we are doing.


VCs evaluate products by looking at demos and having a play themselves, by soliciting third party opinion and by looking at whether and how customers are using and paying for the product. The balance between these three methods of evaluation, lets call them ‘direct’, ‘third party’ and ‘customer’, depends on the stage of the company, the nature of the product and the experience of the VC.

Starting with ‘customer’, unsurprisingly, the more customers and revenues a company has the more a VC will look to what they are doing to tell him or her whether the product is good. If the product is great customer numbers will be increasing, per customer usage (often termed engagement) will generally be increasing, customers will be expressing their love for the company on blogs and in reference calls, analysts will be saying good things, and the price point will often by higher than for competing products. Two caveats are appropriate here. Firstly, some products are great precisely because they are cheap, often because they have simpler than the competition (e.g. Skype). And secondly, it is possible to build a profitable company with a product that people hate but buy because it is cheap (e.g. RyanAir), although in that case I would say you have a good business, and probably a strong capability elsewhere in your organisation (e.g. supply chain management, marketing), but not a good product.

With earlier stage companies investors generally don’t have the luxury of being able to rely on hard metrics and instead have to rely on gut feel – i.e. ‘direct’ evaluation. If they have relevant experience and the product is consumer focused, or a business product that can be demonstrated, then a large part of the opinion on the product will be formed based on what they see and feel when viewing or using the product. VCs without experience (which can come from either investing or operating) often struggle to differentiate between a good product and a bad one.

Finally, investors often ask ‘third party’ experts for an opinion. This is most common when the product is deeply technical and there isn’t much to be learnt from direct observation. In this situation the expert will generally be giving a view on the technology risk as well as the product. VCs often use executives in relevant portfolio companies to do this expert review. Sometimes they use third party consultants. The expert’s opinion will most likely have a big impact on whether the VC decides to invest, and it is advisable to work with the VC to ensure the person conducting the review has the right background to understand your company and give a good opinion.

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