Is Your VC a Chicken or a Pig? Part I: What a “Lead” Investor is, Why You Need One, and How to Find One

One of my favorite clichés involves chickens and pigs. More specifically, it observes that as interested as chickens may be in breakfast, it’s the pigs that are really committed.

That’s a good way for startup entrepreneurs to think about courting venture capital investors. Collecting a flock of very interested venture investors – chickens – is fine and dandy, but you won’t make much progress towards getting a deal done until you’ve got a pig at the table. So don’t waste a lot of time chasing chickens around until you have a pig corralled. You know you have got a pig in hand when you have a solid term sheet with a “lead” investor inked.

Truth be told, most VCs think of themselves, or at least present themselves, as lead investors. I suppose most probably do lead a deal now and again. That said, though, in any given deal, there is generally only one lead investor. (Co-leads are fairly common, but even in those cases one of the co-leads in fact plays the role of the lead.) That is, one investor who not only wants “in” the deal but wants to “own” the deal.

The first big role of the lead in a deal is to let the relevant chickens know that someone has pig-like interest in the deal. That someone likes the deal enough to put up a big bunch of capital (usually the biggest chunk) and to do most of the heavy-lifting of getting the deal done (which, as we’ll see, is no small thing). That resource commitment, coupled with the signal to the market that a credible (well, hopefully) investor is that serious about the deal, is typically the inflection point when the chickens start getting serious about actually committing some eggs to getting the deal done.

If getting a lead investor lined up is the sine quo non of getting a venture financing done, how do you go about it? Simple. Qualify potential investors as leads before you spend too much time with them. Limit your initial investor solicitations to folks you think are possible leads and folks you think might be sources of referrals to possible leads. When you get a meeting with an investor, if there is any potential interest at the end of the meeting be certain to ask if yours is a deal the investor would consider leading (and if not, can they refer you to any investors who might be).

Step two is to avoid wasting time with investors who are not qualified leads until you have a signature (or handshake) on a term sheet with a lead investor; a term sheet that outlines all of the material terms of the investment. Depending on who the lead is (their reputation in the market), and how big a piece of the deal that the lead is taking (how many other investors with how much more money will it take to fill out the syndicate), agreement on a solid term sheet is the point where most interesting investment opportunities become likely deals.

Next time, we’ll talk about what roles lead investors play after the term sheet is signed.

 

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Ways Entrepreneurs Spook Investors

The perceived quality of the entrepreneur is, for most venture investors, the single most important factor in evaluating a startup investment opportunity. As they say, an “A” team with a “B” opportunity usually wins out over a “B” team with an “A” opportunity.

One way to approach the “what makes for an “A” entrepreneur” question is to look at what makes a good entrepreneur. Today, though, I am going to take the opposite approach. What traits can make even an otherwise compelling entrepreneur come up short in a venture capitalist’s eye. Here are some too-common entrepreneurial qualities that spook investors.

  1. The “No Competition” Entrepreneur. Few things turn off more venture investors faster than an entrepreneur who insists she has no competitors. If you are convinced you don’t have any competitors, you are wrong. Every dollar that a customer spends on your product is a dollar they didn’t spend on something else. Maybe that something else is very well defined (say, an alternative dog walking app for smart phones) or maybe it is very amorphous (say, personal entertainment). More likely closer to the former than the later, but you get the idea. If you are one of those entrepreneurs who just can’t find any competition, don’t expect to find any investors, either.
  2. The Defensive Entrepreneur. My personal (least) favorite. Ask any question and these folks perceive a personal attack on their integrity, competence or both. Most investors just don’t want to give their capital to entrepreneurs who can’t put their ego and insecurity aside to answer questions directly. Even – probably particularly – when the answer is “I don’t know.” Defensive entrepreneurs send an all-too-clear message that when the going really does get tough, they will look for excuses, not answers.
  3. The Big Business Entrepreneur. This one bit me big time fairly early in my career. Going into the second round of a deal where I was the “suit” for the seed and A rounds, we needed an industry pro to take the CEO role at the B round. We figured someone who could run a billion dollar division of a Fortune 500 competitor could surely run our little startup. Huge mistake. While there are examples of folks who have transitioned from managing big businesses to the startup world, they are outnumbered by folks who took the leap and cratered. If you are a “Big Business” manager transitioning to the entrepreneurial world, you need to make it crystal clear that you understand how managing a startup is different than managing a big established business, and that you are the kind of person who can do both. (If you don’t know the difference, you are not that person.)
  4. The “God Complex” Entrepreneur. Typically, but not always, an academic. Most often, someone in the life sciences, who has figuratively (if not literally) held life in her hands. Alas, the skills associated with saving lives, whether via brilliant surgical technique or cutting edge research, just don’t have much in common with running a high impact startup business. The few folks who have made the transition prove the rule. Pretty much the way Michael Jordan proved that exceptional basketball players don’t make even adequate minor league baseball players.
  5. The “I Can Do It All” Entrepreneur. These entrepreneurs – and they are a dime a dozen, I’m afraid – missed out on Econ 101, or at least the day they explained the law of comparative advantage. I’ve yet to find a good entrepreneur who was not better at some things than others, and who did not also know that focusing their personal efforts on the tasks where they add the most value is the best thing they can do to make their startup prosper. On the off chance that you in fact can do it all – don’t.
  6. The “It’s All About Me” Entrepreneur. I’ve followed this one down one too many rat holes. They can be hard to spot, but as soon as you conclude that an entrepreneur’s worst nightmare is not failure, but success with someone else at the helm, run, do not walk, to the nearest exit.
  7. The Uneducable Entrepreneur. Look, I get it. Entrepreneurs are often wrong, but never in doubt. But the good ones, even when reluctant to acknowledge their mistakes, are very good at learning from them. Good investors don’t generally rub their entrepreneurs’ noses in their mistakes, but they don’t write many checks for entrepreneurs who don’t learn from those mistakes.

I am sure there are other spooky entrepreneur traits, but this list covers a big piece of the territory. If you see yourself here, you might want to think about making some changes in your entrepreneurial profile. It will likely make raising capital easier. Even more to the point, it will likely improve the outlook for making something good happen with any capital you raise.