Raising money is a time consuming endeavour. And there’s nothing worse than spending your precious time on activities that are at best ineffective, at worst actively putting investors off the idea of funding your business.
So what common mistakes do entrepreneurs often make when looking to raise money for their business?
- Failing to surround yourself with the right people.
This is the biggest mistake start-up founders make. It comes as part of the territory that entrepreneurs will be experienced beyond their years, overachievers and disruptive to the old guard in their industry. So they tend to overestimate their own abilities, and underestimate how much an investor needs reassurance that the team is reliable. For an investor, the most investable team is both disruptive and has industry experience, while also being able to demonstrate they are amongst the best in the business.
You don’t need to have personally spent half your life working on your trade – it’s actually very easy to get board advisors for your company to tick the industry experience box, who only need to attend an annual AGM and be available for the odd phone call. As a bonus, they will quite likely save you a fortune and stop you making critical mistakes, all for a relatively small retainer or a bit of equity.
I recently watched Feral Horses (https://www.feralhorses.co.uk/) pitch on Dragons Den – a company we once considered supporting during their Seedrs crowdfunding round in early 2018. They’re a platform for art lovers to buy shares in contemporary artworks, democratising art ownership. Three young graduates stood up to pitch, and every Dragon pulled out on the basis of the team being too green, and we declined to support them for similar reasons. If they’d just taken an experienced gallerist with them, they would have probably had offers all around.
- Not knowing your numbers
How did you arrive at your valuation? What’s your run rate? What’s your burn rate? When do you break even? What’s your year 1-3 forecasted EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation)? These are all perfectly valid questions from an investor, and it’s surprising how few entrepreneurs can answer them. If all of this sounds like gobbledygook, then go and research some key phrases on Investopedia before you start to speak with investors. Better yet, look on the forums of crowdfunding platforms such as Crowdcube and Seedrs to see what questions commonly pop up. Generally speaking, they are the same questions that investors regularly ask.
If you’re not naturally numerate, learn the key highlights about your financials from memory. All of the questions listed above should be presented in an executive summary anyway, and even the most financially illiterate entrepreneur can memorise a one-page document.
- Being wildly over ambitious, or under-ambitious, with your forecasts
A close cousin to being forgetful of your numbers, is having wildly unrealistic forecasts. This will also quickly turn an investor off. You’re an early stage startup, or a young company about to see unprecedented growth/change, so no one is expecting you to be accurate. But an investor is expecting you to be realistic.
Your numbers should tell a story, showing spikes in sales when a new salesperson is employed or a new revenue stream initiated. They should show growth in line with market trends, and comparisons to competitors. Your forecasts are designed to reveal your workings, and to show you have a grasp on your industry. They’re not there as a performance record to be checked back on retroactively.
If your forecasts are underwhelming then it can be telling that there might not be as much growth potential as you first thought. An investor in an early stage business wants potential of at least a 3-5x return on investment (ROI), otherwise it’s not worth the risk. On the other hand, if your business model suggests growth akin to the early social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, then you will quickly turn an investor off. It’s doubtful that Facebook’s early forecast ever predicted its meteoric rise.
Of course every investor is searching for that investment opportunity with unicorn potential (a unicorn being a magically rare company that achieves a $1bn+ valuation within its first decade of trading). But let them be the judge of your potential. Suggesting they’ll only start to make serious money when you have captured 10% of the world’s population will stop them reading past the first page of your deck.
- Pitching the wrong valuation
Of course we know that entrepreneurs pitch the wrong valuation, it’s one of the things founders stress about the most when they first start working with us. What most people don’t know is that it’s actually very easy to avoid going in too high, or indeed too low. And it starts with putting together a realistic set of forecasts (see point 3).
From having worked with over 50 startup or growth companies, and from speaking with hundreds of investors, I believe there are three central pillars to a sound valuation:
- It’s in the right band – believe it or not, most investors are looking at the amount of equity on offer in the round. You should ideally be offering between 10-25% per round. If it’s outside of these parameters, then questions will likely be asked. That’s fine if you have good answers, however.
- You can compare it to companies in your sector – search other companies on Crunchbase, Beauhurst or TAB to see what valuation they achieved at a specific stage in their fundraising journey. Try and find some common denominators in your industry. For example, it’s common in tech for companies to be valued based on their number of active users.
Food and beverage companies tend to value based on an EBITDA multiple. For really early stage companies, it’s even easier than this – just find out what a competitor successfully raised in their seed round and at what valuation, then make sure you’re in the same ballpark.
- There is a logical argument to the valuation – once you’ve established a point of comparison, try to use that to build a logical argument for your valuation. For example, if you’re a haircare brand, you can use the example of Unilever buying TIGI for 1.65x the annual revenue they were generating ($411m based on a $250m stable annual revenue). So a logical argument would be to say something like the following –
Our projections suggest a turnover of £8.5m in year five. TIGI sold to Unilever on a 1.65x turnover valuation, therefore we would be valued at £14m using the same methodology. So our current valuation of £1.4m would provide you with around 10x ROI.
This is just one example. You can present any argument you can come up with, as long as it involves numbers that are easy to understand, is linked to a strong comparison, and is clear and logical.
- Not being crystal clear with your message
I run accelerators for Virgin StartUp and crowdfunding bootcamps with Grant Thornton, and on both of these programmes I spend around 70% of my time showing the entrepreneurs how to refine their message using fewer, better words. Importantly, we show them how to produce communications with the utmost clarity.
I’ve seen companies attempt to raise funds using their advert or product video as a tool to engage an investor. Sure, show an investor your product, but more importantly sell them your vision, show the market potential, reveal what they can potentially earn from joining you on your journey. If you have a choice between clarity and creativity, opt for the former every time.
- Being frivolous while raising funds
Sometimes an investor will pull their investment if they think you’re spending your money too frivolously. I’ve seen it happen a number of times on crowdfunding campaigns in particular. It stands to reason – you’re meant to be growth hacking and bootstrapping your way to success, not blowing all your profits before you’ve earnt them.
It’s also logical that entrepreneurs will want to look their best when they’re raising funds, so the temptation to spend a load of money on an expensive video, hold a big event or fork out for flashy rewards is understandable. But nowadays it is easy to spend little on a video but still achieve a high production standard, to hold a webinar rather than an event, and to gift your investors with rewards that are free or low cost for you to produce.
I won’t name any names, but one company, which crowdfunded recently, held a big party to celebrate reaching their target. They were involved in the events industry so leveraged all their personal contacts and made sure the event cost them next to nothing, but they gave the impression that it was a lavish affair. One investor pulled their £30k investment as a result.
- Raising when you really need the money
If you raise when you’re out of cash, you’ll come across as desperate, and will quite likely take a deal that’s stacked in the investor’s favour. Just like getting credit, if you apply when you don’t actually need it, you’ll end up with better deals. It also takes far longer than you think to get money in, so this will make the entire experience far more relaxing!
Bonus tip: keep your existing investors informed
Finally, as a bonus tip, don’t leave it so long before you start thinking about your next raise. I know it’s gruelling and hard work, but if you leave it to the last minute to tell your existing investors that you’re raising again, they probably won’t invest. If you regularly update them, and make them feel part of your journey, they are much more likely to follow-on into the next round.
Most investors enjoy the thrill of investing in early companies, and they like being able to tell stories of their involvement. If you leave them out of the loop, you’re depriving them of one of their main drivers for investing. With investment, communication is paramount.
Of course, I can’t guarantee you will be successful in your raise, but by following these tips, you’ll significantly increase your chances. Good luck with your raise!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Auckland is a crowdfunding specialist and founder of TribeFirst, a global crowdfunding communications agency that has helped raise in excess of £5m for over 30 companies on platforms such as Crowdcube, Seedrs, Indiegogo and Kickstarter – with a greater than 85% success rate. TribeFirst is the world’s first dedicated marketing communications agency to support equity crowdfunding campaigns and the first in the UK to provide PR and Marketing campaigns on a mainly risk/reward basis. John is also Virgin StartUp’s crowdfunding trainer and consultant, helping them to run branded workshops, webinars and programmes on crowdfunding. John is passionate about working with start-ups and sees crowdfunding as more than just raising funds; it’s an opportunity to build a loyal tribe of lifelong customers.