Venture capital

Seeking Seed Funding: 12 tips for early stage startups

I was recently put on the spot at a Technology event and asked how much I would charge for assisting a tech startup in preparing a business plan to secure investment funding.

I answered “it depends”.

A cop-out? Not in my opinion. Why?

Because it depends on where you are in the investment cycle.

If you are seeking early stage seed capital then spending hours (and lots of cash on professional fees) on a detailed business plan will probably turn out to be a waste of time because most investment managers or angel investors will be interested solely in:

  1. the scale of the market opportunity and
  2. the commitment/enthusiasm/experience of you and your team.

The rest is all pie-in-the-sky – you know it and they definitely know it!

But as an early stage start up, how do you make the right first impression to be able to enter into meaningful conversations with potential investors and ultimately pave the way to attract venture or angel funding?

You need an introductory prospectus flyer or one-page teaser that hits the key points of interest to an investor. Getting the content and tone right is key.

Here are some of the key questions I think early stage start-ups should be addressing:

  1. What’s the open goal in the world that your product or service will  fill? Killer question demanding a killer answer.
  2. What is it that your competitors are not delivering or are incapable of delivering? (Don’t over flatter yourself. They are already up and running. You are not. Be courageous enough to acknowledge their strengths but pick out the areas where you plan to differentiate and thrive.)
  3. How would your customers describe the pain they are suffering and how does your product or service solve this? What would they do without you? (perish the thought!)
  4. How much more will it cost to get your product or service out to customers? Is it finished and ready to roll or do you need more investment in product development and research?
  5. Where has the technical know how come from? Are you entitled to commercialise the rights? e.g. Is it coding that you as founders developed yourself or have you used third party software or coding (other than open source)?
  6. How will you reach out to your customers? What is your planned mode of attack? Distribution channels? What will it cost? Is there anyone out there who you can partner with? If so, who? Be specific. Don’t say that you’ll rely on word of mouth or viral marketing or solely on some mode of social media. It could happen. That’ll be a bonus. But don’t hang your hat on it.
  7. How will you continue to grow sales or revenue without incurring a corresponding increase in costs? The posh phrase is “is it scalable?”. Investors like scaleable businesses. Why? The clue’s in the question.
  8. How easy will it be for others (especially your competitors) to copy you? Again, posh phrase is “do you have any barriers to entry?”. Barriers to entry might include technical know-how that could take competitors months or even years to crack – even better if you have patent protection. How much might it cost for your competitors to get up to speed? Would it be possible for you to set up quietly and hoover up a discreet market? You could them move onto another market niche or segment and another before the big players have cottoned onto this new challenger in their midst. This buys you time and the chance to build a fighting fund of cash and expertise before you go head-to-head…
  9. What’s the 3 – 5 year vision? Sure, things will change. You don’t have a crystal ball but you need a road plan with target dates and milestones. When will you break-even? When will you hit £X’000 revenue and profits etc?
  10. What are the big unknowns? What could go wrong and what steps are you taking now to mitigate these risks?
  11. Are there any other success stories in your sector? What values did they exit for and how quickly did they do it? Where did they make mistakes and what will you do differently?
  12. What’s your story? Where have you and your fellow founders emerged from? Do you have stories of previous success in similar sectors? Have you built and sold other businesses? Are you from a corporate role which is aligned with your new venture thereby giving you valuable inside track experience? Are any of the founders still in fulltime employment and what are the plans for taking this business to the next level? Investors will want to see enthusiasm, passion and ideally a proven track record of success and relevant experience. (Avoid flossing up your previous experience with overly grandiose claims. Stick to the KISS mantra – Keep It Simple Stupid!).

Concentrate your mind on these sorts of issues and it should save you a lot of time, effort (and cash!) in securing investor funding.

This list will no doubt keep on expanding but please suggest any other key criteria that you think is key for startups seeking funding.

Making BrITain Great Again – Intellect launch Technology Manifesto

Intellect launch their Making BrITain Great Again Technology Manifesto with a call for investment in supporting intellectual property rich (IP) technology companies in order, not only balance the books, but to rebuild a stronger UK business base for the future.

This technology manifesto identifies 4 types of technology business needing support and encouragement:

  1. Early stage tech start-up – great idea but need support, encouragement and investment
  2. Established technology companies – proven track record and growing
  3. Leading IT companies – becoming world players
  4. Global IT companies – already world players that we would like to see make the UK their home.

Key proposals that caught my eye in the 16 page report include:

  • simplifying the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), including allowing entrepreneurs who participate directly in the running of the business to qualify for income tax relief – currently the legislation is designed to incentivise angel investors who are not the founders of the business to invest.
  • extending the Corporate Venturing Scheme from 20% to 30% tax relief in order to encourage investment by larger businesses into smaller tech companies. The manifesto points to the success of Silicon Valley investment by corporates into smaller businesses.
  • further simplifying the R&D tax credit regime to encourage further successful claims
  • careful monitoring of the UK corporation tax rate to encourage inward investment of overseas technology companies
  • ‘tax holidays’ for cluster areas of technology companies within designated areas or business parks.

I welcome this report as further progress on a growing body of recommendations and manifestos (e.g. Ingenious Britain and the Conservatives Technology Manifesto all released within recent weeks) that seek to put technology and other advanced emerging sectors at the forefront of growth for Britain – even better, they seek to achieve this by rethinking tax incentives and support mechanisms for these high growth sectors.

Download the report here.

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UK Innovation Investment Fund – Too little, too late?

Launch of the £200m UK Innovation Investment Fund could not come at a better time as funding for early stage technology, digital and life science companies continues to dry-up – worrying given that these are the innovative fast growth companies that our UK economy is relying on to dig us out of our UK budget deficit. Dow Jones VentureSource estimates that venture fund-raising for investment in early stage tech companies is down from 210 in 2005 to just 86 in 2010.

Although news of this additional funding is good for entrepreneurs and start-up ventures, there is a risk that it could be a long while before the cash trickles down to the fledgling businesses that need it most – like now! In the meantime, it is predominantly more adventurous private investors who are picking up the slack. A welcome form of microfinancing by microangels, perhaps?

Rather than relying simply on showering (further) State Aid, I do believe that we need to think more adventurously about introducing further tax incentives for our exciting and innovative new start-ups. This could also provide further stimulus for smaller (but welcomed) financing from private investors who can match the risk against tax incentives even with smaller (micro)investments.

Consider that there is currently no difference in UK capital gains tax payable between selling a property or shares in a start-up company as an external investor (CGT rate of 10-18%).  Does this accurately match the risk / reward? I think not.

Consider also that there are murmurs of a Conservative government removing the highly valuable R&D tax credit incentives in order to simplify the corporation tax main and small company rates – where is the incentive to break the mould and create game-changing businesses under this policy?

At least announcements were made in the Pre-Budget Report that we should see a lower rate of corporation tax for patent income but this is delayed until 2013 at the earliest – this is assuming it doesn’t get derailed prior to implementation in the same way that the Broadband Tax might (see further below)!

We need more support for UK innovative businesses. We need it now.

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