There is a common belief in the angel and venture capital community that you put your money on the best team, rather than the best idea. Thus the top priority of every entrepreneur who wants funding should be to build and highlight their “dream team” of cofounders, executives and advisers, to attract the biggest and best investors. Solo entrepreneurs rarely find an investor.
In my angel investor mode, I often find myself flipping to the “management” section of a business plan, even before I read the solution description and opportunity. Imagine my lack of excitement if that section is missing, or it’s basically a list of names and titles that I don’t recognize. To win, you need to tell your best story and highlight how the startup team hits any and all of the following points:
- Prior entrepreneurial wins and losses. Building a startup business is not the same as corporate executive experience, so prior titles in a big business may actually be seen as a negative. On the other hand, having failed in an earlier startup may be an advantage, if positioned properly, and some learning is evident. Focus on prior results, not titles.
- Business credentials and functional coverage. If your team has a depth of expertise in software, that won’t help you get funding for a new hardware solution. Even if your product is a technological marvel, I look for balanced strength on the startup team in finance, marketing, and operations. Fill in gaps with expert advisors to make it whole.
- Team members have investor relationships. Investors talk to each other and they love warm introductions to up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Investors are usually smart business people who love to be asked for guidance and direction, before they are asked for money. Do your networking with investors well before the funding pitch.
- Executives exude confidence and energy. Investors all know that the startup road is long and hard, so they look for people who have put and will continue to put “skin in the game”—time, sweat equity, and money. They look for passion and optimism and more importantly, the willingness to listen, learn and get things done.
- Able to communicate on every level. It starts with having a vision and an ability to get the message across in your elevator pitch, in a written business plan and one-on-one with potential investors. Fundable entrepreneurs have to feel comfortable talking and listening to engineers, financial people, marketing and especially customers.
- Relish the challenges of problem-solving. Startup leaders have to be relentlessly resourceful to overcome obstacles and competition. Investors look for “street smarts,” or examples that didn’t come from a schoolbook or a corporate process. When pitching to investors, weave in real-life stories of your best past creative solutions.
- Not afraid to make a decision. Investors are wary of “equal partners,” who may jeopardize a timely decision. They want to see decisions based on logic and backed up by emotion, rather than the other way around. They want to hear what you learned from the last economic downturn and the last funding shortfall.
Ironically, investors see funding opportunities correlated to past successes, rather than future success dependent on funding. Thus, it’s more important to highlight what you have done that demonstrates your team’s potential, rather than talking about how great it will be in the future. Investor focus is on scaling a startup, after you have proven the business model.
If you are new to the entrepreneur funding game, like Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were back in 2001, it pays to bring in a CEO such as Eric Schmidt—w ho was well-known to the investment community for his accomplishments at Sun Microsystems and Novell—to find investors. Now, of course, Page and Brin have that same credibility with their successes at Google.
Dream team startups rarely just happen—they are the work of a diligent entrepreneur, who understands personal strengths and weaknesses and is not too proud to ask for help and offer a chunk of his or her startup equity in return. Even if you are not looking for external funding, the same team principles apply, since you are your own biggest investor. Build your dream team early.
Image credit: CC by Gangplank HQ