One question that comes up often when people find out that I work at a venture capital firm is “how do venture capital firms decide what they invest in?” How is it that the same firms that pick wildly successful companies like Google and Facebook can also pick the “what were they thinking” duds?
People are oftentimes surprised to hear my answer. The truth is that while there is a general perception that there is some kind of a secret formula with objective criteria and analysis, the idea that the VC decision process is a purely objective and analytical affair is plain wrong.
The analogy I like to give is that getting an investment from a venture capital firm is a lot like marriage. Yes, there are obviously objective criteria which inform the decision – is the potential spouse/founding team trustworthy? Do we share the same goals in life (i.e. kids vs no-kids or size of outcome/industry)? Are we at the right stage (i.e. ready for commitment or point in lifecycle of the startup)? What do friends/industry experts/customers say? Can both parties add meaningful value to both sides?
But, like with marriage, there is a significant emotional component to the decision as well which can’t be ignored. Things like personal chemistry or whether or not the investors involved are enchanted/charmed by the founding team and the business idea play an enormous role. An investor who doesn’t have a specific qualm about a startup but who just isn’t feeling “the love” will not push a deal forward, no matter how great of a business case is being made. Why? The business model of most venture capital firms forces individual investors to only commit to a handful of companies that they truly can commit to and stick with through thick and through thin (and, rest assured, all companies have bad times they have to survive through).
Of course, let it be clear: any decent investor who “falls in love” with a startup and later uncovers objective reasons to not go forward will fall rapidly out of love with a company – lest someone reading this gets the idea that its all about the emotions. But the lesson to take away here for entrepreneurs is that while its absolutely critical to nail the objective criteria (things like business model, team composition, market size, go-to-market strategy, product/service quality, technology, etc) – that is, after all, the bread and butter of any good startup – don’t forget that, just as with most sales/business deals, the VC process has a huge emotional piece. So:
- Have high EQ when you approach a conversation with a VC you are interested in: fit the message to the person and if you see the interest/reaction start to go the wrong way, shift gears and adapt the message (although I should remind people to not lie – that never ends well for either party)
- Know the VCs you are presenting to: its impossible to precisely predict what combination of things will really click with a person, but you can get hints of that by doing your research. At the minimum, it means reading the backgrounds/profiles of the individuals you will be meeting with to understand what they are interested in and what sorts of themes they tend to look for. But, keep in mind to also pay attention to what things might turn them off (i.e. if they were involved with a bad eCommerce deal and you are trying to pitch a eCommerce company, make sure your story/pitch is *very* different).
- Talk with a lot of VCs and expect to do this for every round of financing: as with romance, you can’t expect to click with everyone, not to mention, as with romance, things can always change the second or third time around. There are definitely cases where entrepreneurs have had very successful relationships with investors they never expected in their first set of pitches as well as VCs who have passed on earlier rounds of investment (no chemistry the first time) only to eagerly participate in follow-on investments.