What Should A Startup Founder Do When The Stock Market Plummets?

There’s been a lot of speculation lately about what the recent downturn in the public markets will mean to the unicorns (the name used to describe private companies with over $1 billion valuations) and how they might alter their operations based on the possibility of future venture capital being more difficult to raise.

No one should lose sleep at night over whether Uber is able to raise another billion dollars. But lots of entrepreneurs are wondering on a more personal basis what the stock market turbulence could mean for them. Should a startup founder do anything differently in September because of the Dow’s performance in August?

First, nobody knows whether the stock market will go up or down over the short term. It’s true that a significant correction in the stock market will affect the private equity markets, and not in a good way. If the stock market goes down appreciably and for a sustained period of time, there might be less public offerings. Even if there aren’t less public offerings, public companies may find it more difficult to use their stock to buy large private companies.

M&A activity ultimately drives the entire venture capital business. If large private companies are less likely to be acquired, then they might slow down on their acquisitions of mid-tier private companies. All down the funnel, acquisition activity could slow until it gets to the earliest-stage startups. Venture investors who were expecting a liquidity event may have to wait longer to get their capital back. If this happens, venture capitalists may use the capital they have to support their portfolio companies that are furthest along instead of investing in new companies.

I remember when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, venture financing was hard to come by for a long time.

So what does all this mean for someone building a startup? Probably nothing! It’s far from clear that we’re in a bubble, and even if we are, there’s nothing any of us can do about it continuing or popping. People with entrepreneurial spirits choose to embark on startups because they each have a dream — whether it is to execute against a specific vision or simply to be their own boss. Startups are a risky proposition. For founders in the earliest stages of building a business, getting profitable probably isn’t an option.

Startup founders are collectively in the business of building product, releasing, interpreting results, and then iterating. Sometimes the appropriate course is to pivot. Startups work at laser speed, so even if they knew that the stock market was going to crash, there probably isn’t a speed correction called “faster.” I rarely meet a startup founder who is waiting to raise cash. I find that most founders who haven’t raised cash yet or haven’t raised as much as they want to haven’t yet achieved metrics or validation or momentum necessary to raise cash. In other words, lack of financing is rarely a choice.

This means that for most founders, the right course is to simply tune out what’s happening in the public markets. These founders should continue to operate at laser speed and always be looking for capital.

The volatility in the public markets might persist through September (or longer), but early-stage founders should continue with business as normal regardless.

6 Steps to Raising Venture Capital in 6 Months

Originally published on CourseHorse.

A woman you don’t know tells you that she’s going to run a marathon of 7-minute miles. She’s never run a long distance race before. Would you bet on her completing it in record time? Probably not, right?

“Watch me,” she tells you. And so you do. You’re impressed when she clocks her first mile at 7 minutes. A single mile does not a marathon make, but still, it’s a major milestone. Then she runs a second mile at the same 7-minute pace. And a third mile in another 7 minutes. Your confidence in her is rising. She’s still 23 miles away from accomplishing what she predicted, but she’s already at a place where you might just bet on her being successful.

Most VCs will not bet on your company after a first meeting. But when you use the right plan and the right approach, you can convert a “no” into a “yes.” Here’s the right way to get VCs to watch you long enough to bet on your success.

1. Describe A Grand Vision

Financeable businesses require investors to believe that: 1) you will win at what you’re doing; and 2) the market in which you’re operating is worth winning. The latter requires that you articulate an amazing opportunity, largely defined by the projected size of the market you are pursuing. A founder with a startup focused on selling groceries online should begin their pitch by describing the total money projected to be spent on groceries online over the coming years.

2. Predict The Trajectory

Success takes years, not months. To raise capital as a very early-stage business, you have to convince investors that your current size isn’t indicative of where you will be in the future. The best way to do this is to define a trajectory towards success and then set milestones that demonstrate you’re moving in the right direction.

Recently, I met with an entrepreneur to discuss her financing strategy. She designed a software solution that she was planning on selling to enterprises for $100,000 a year. We agreed that there were two significant proof points that she needed to achieve in order to demonstrate a high likelihood of success: price point and sales traction. We came up with a 6-month plan that would illustrate her successfully navigating towards these proof points:

  • In the first three-month period, she would sign on a single beta client at a $20,000 annualized fee; and
  • In the second three-month period, she would sign on two additional beta clients each at a $30,000 annualized fee.

3. Build the Plans; Share the Plans.

To achieve your milestones (and inspire others to believe that you will achieve your milestones), you’ll first need written plans that your team can execute against. In the case of the woman building the SAAS business, this would include:

  • A product plan demonstrating which features would be necessary for enterprise clients to pay higher fees;
  • A marketing plan illustrating how the company would develop awareness for its product;
  • A sales plan showing the output of the sales funnel;
  • A hiring plan mapping new hires required to execute on the product, marketing, and sales plans;
  • Cash flow projections detailing what the money raised would be used for.

4. Execute

Once you’ve completed all the planning, you’ll need to execute on the 3-to-6-month plan, albeit with limited resources. Your goal is not to demonstrate that you have all the answers or that your success is a certainty, but rather that your business is indisputably moving forward.

5. Stay In Touch

When I set about to raise money for my first startup, sixdegrees, I spoke with over 200 high-net-worth individuals– all of whom rejected me. But I was clear with them about what I intended to accomplish, and most of them agreed to receive updates from me on my progress.

6. Have Patience

Because I left each investor meeting with a plan for my company’s growth, investors were able to measure my actual metrics developed over time against my initial projections. I predicted that we would build an MVP. And we did. I predicted that we would get 1,000 members within the first month after launch and then 10,000 members a few months later. And then we did. Some of the original people who rejected me ended up financing me later on.

The ability to create momentum is what separates the people who start businesses from the people who don’t. It’s also the trait that outside investors will find the most impressive and confidence-inspiring. Make sure to have the right perspective when you start meeting with potential investors. Don’t expect them to give you a check before you leave the meeting. Your goal is to get your audience excited to track your progress, not to hand you a check after a presentation.

First-time entrepreneurs frequently ask my advice about when they should start meeting with prospective financiers. My answer is almost always the same. You are ready to start when you can: 1) identify a grand and worthy vision; 2) predict a trajectory for your growth; and 3) share marketing/sales, product, and financing plans that will enable you to get there.

When you embark on the financing process, you should expect it to take at least 6 months. If you can build an audience to watch you rack up those 7-minute miles, you’ve got a good chance that somewhere along your run, some of them will be willing to bet on an amazing finish time for your marathon.

– Andrew

Are You Too Old to Launch a Startup? Part 2

An Alternative to Starting from Scratch

The other day, I wrote about mitigating risk as an older entrepreneur launching a startup. My suggestion was to focus on an opportunity where you develop skills and relationships that will be helpful in garnering future employment opportunities in case your startup fails. But even in the best circumstances, the cash flow that you can personally generate is likely limited to 10% of the total capital you raise. And the likely scenario for most startups fortunate enough to raise capital is an initial “friends and family” round of less than $1 million. If the CEO’s salary is 10% of the total capital raised, then you’re likely to be making $100,000 or less per year.

How else can you undertake an entrepreneurial venture while still generating a significant amount of capital? You might consider buying a business.

If you’re apprehensive about starting a business because you don’t have much in savings, the prospect of buying a business may seem scarier still. But buying a business doesn’t necessarily require putting up your own capital. There are plenty of institutions and high-net worth individuals who would finance the right acquisition. Just as importantly, there are many businesses that make sense to acquire and grow.

Types of Businesses to Consider

Of the millions of apps and websites in existence today, the overwhelming majority will run out of cash and eventually close their doors. Most of their founders will be receptive to opportunities to sell, but that doesn’t mean that these companies are right for you to acquire. An app with no revenue and a small user base usually has no value. The business may also cost a significant sum of money just to maintain.

There are also instances of sites or apps with significant traffic where the owners haven’t figured out how to monetize the traffic, usually because it’s too small to command sponsorship deals. Others have found success aggregating media properties to achieve the scale necessary to generate advertising dollars, but that type of strategy– usually referred to as a “rollup”– is a more complicated proposition than what I’m focusing on here.

There are two types of businesses that I would suggest looking into: offline businesses with huge online potential and online service-based businesses.

1. Offline Businesses with Online Potential

There are plenty of offline businesses that successfully sell local products, whether it’s a company selling crafts, local foods, or even specialized machinery. The owner might be making a comfortable living and is unfamiliar with the opportunities afforded by digital marketing and national or international distribution. Either that or they may be unaware of effective strategies that they could use to transition their companies to sell online.

If you can identify a business like this and then construct a business plan that contemplates massive expansion through Internet marketing, you might be onto a great opportunity. The risk proposition associated with introducing a new product into market will be largely reduced, as the owner should have already validated consumer interest in their product. Therefore, you can focus on profitably acquiring new customers through paid digital marketing channels.

2. Online Service-based Businesses

In the offline business example, you’re looking for an opportunity where you can apply new marketing channels to a successful business.

The online service-based business opportunity is often about applying new sales muscle to an existing digital business. There are many talented design firms, app development shops, and even SEO and SEM companies that never scale beyond a relatively small size. Why? Because while their owners are talented at their crafts, they have virtually no management experience and no knowledge of how to build a sales funnel. The result: while the gross billings may be high, virtually nothing drops to the bottom line and the business is constantly treading water in terms of its financial position.

What’s the Upside of Acquisition?

Acquiring a business requires you to create a business plan, similar to how you’d create a business plan for a new startup. If anything, you need to substantially sharpen your pencil when it comes to projecting an acquisition’s cash flow and detailing your marketing and sales efforts. Often, your fundamental thesis is that subtle tinkering can have a profound impact on scaling the business.

Who Will Invest?

In a near zero interest rate climate, there are many investors looking to diversify their capital where their returns can be substantially higher than if they were putting money into savings accounts. For a small acquisition (less than $1mm), you’re likely approaching the same friends and family investors who you would otherwise be approaching if you were financing a startup. For a larger acquisition, you’re likely approaching a private equity firm that is in the business of financing similar types of deals.

How Much Money Can You Make?

In the startup scenario, your salary is capped because the business isn’t making any money while you’re trying to get it off the ground. It looks unseemly for you to take a large salary when you’re starting with 100% of the business and you’re asking others to follow your entrepreneurial dream.

In the acquisition scenario, it may be that the majority of the business is owned by your investors. More importantly, you’re likely looking for a business where your salary is coming from the cash flow of the business instead of from the capital that you’re taking from investors. Based on the size of the acquisition, you could make substantially more money– a salary potentially competitive with what you could have earned at a job. The difference is that you’re the CEO and as a much of an entrepreneur as the person who started their company from the ground up.

The Takeaway:

  • For older entrepreneurs who are risk-averse, acquiring a company may be a better option than launching a startup from scratch.
  • 2 good options for acquisition: offline businesses with online potential & online service-based businesses with growth potential.

– Andrew

Read part I here.

Want help weighing entrepreneurial options? Sign up for a free Founders’ Hours session.

Are You Too Old to Launch a Startup? Part 1

An Optimism Tempered by Fear

The hallmark of the entrepreneur is usually unqualified optimism. “We will disrupt this space” is a common refrain. You expect to hear that every idea is a “billion dollar opportunity.”

But lately, in several private conversations, I’ve been hearing from entrepreneurs who speak in a much humbler tone. They ask me, “Am I too old to start a business?” One guy said: “I can get over the fact that every venture-backed startup seems to be led by a CEO right out of school. I can even get over the fact that there’s probably some age discrimination at play when it comes to financing startups. I think I can afford to launch a company. But I’m not sure I can afford to fail. Am I too old for a startup?”

It’s easy to tell someone that you’re never too old to start over. Or you’re never too old to start up. Or you’re never too old to dream of doing something big. But is it true? At what point does the fear of failure become a self-fulfilling prophecy for those embarking on the path of entrepreneurship?

Older people arguably have more to worry about than younger people. Older people are more likely to have families or they may be gearing up to start them. Older people may be taking care of aging parents or considering how their own retirement is approaching. An older person’s desire for stability may trump their search for new experiences as they consider their finances, obligations, and time required to start anew if their venture were to fail. So an older person may have a great business idea and huge ambition, but if their savings aren’t very large, it’s understandable they would be afraid of the possibility that they might find themselves looking for work and depleted of savings with nothing to show for their failed startup.

If that outcome sounds bad, it’s not the worst prospect. It’s a fact that most businesses don’t succeed, but they often don’t fail right away either. Instead, they may churn along for 5 or 6 years before they finally fade away. Worse than being 45 with no salary or savings is being 50 with no salary or savings.

“Can I really afford to take that risk?” they ask me. To put it simply, there is no easy answer.

Is Entrepreneurship Less Risky than the Alternatives?

There exists the notion of launching a startup not as fulfilling a dream, but as pursuing an alternative. For example, most people considering starting businesses are unhappy with their current situations. In New York, I’ve met many people who have recently left high paying jobs in finance and are now considering becoming entrepreneurs. They evaluate the tiny salary they might earn with a startup against the much larger salary they were earning at a bank, struggling with the huge differential. But, the comparison is often a false choice.

When the banks downsized a few years ago, they laid off many people in their 30’s and 40’s. And the unfortunate truth for many of these people is that as the banks begin rehiring, they’re replacing their mid-level managers with upstarts in their 20’s. The same is true for other professions where older, more expensive workers are replaced with younger, cheaper workers. For any person who once believed that their career was a lifelong decision, they may now be a third to half-way through their life, faced with the reality that they must learn new skills necessary to transition their careers to an increasingly digital world.

A Startup as a Tool for Developing New Skills & a New Rolodex

Sometimes, the ability to recognize how bad the alternatives are makes starting a new business easier. When you realize that the old opportunities no longer exist or that you’re missing the skills to get the new jobs you want, or worse yet, you’re just miserable with the established way of doing things, the prospect of launching a startup is less about seeking new possibilities and more about fulfilling an imperative.

When you’re older, you’ll need to consider different issues than you would if you were younger while embarking on a startup. You should be aware of the resources you’re lacking as well as the skills and expertise that you’ll need to scale. For example: if you were to launch a social networking app, you would need to develop an understanding of product design and development, and you’d also need to learn what it means to construct a funnel for acquiring customers and how online paid acquisition works. It’s crucial that recognize your weak points and plan ahead.

Recently, I spoke with a 40-something entrepreneur who was evaluating the future of his enterprise software business that he’d been selling to some of the largest retailers in the world. He wanted to know what I thought about his prospects if he were to discontinue the business. I pointed out to him that his rolodex of senior executives at these retailers was second to none. He had perfected the sales process akin to something of an artform.

If his startup didn’t succeed, it wouldn’t be because he couldn’t sell, but because there were macro changes afoot concerning the software being used in his industry. He could feel safe pursuing his business, knowing that every day he was learning and building more for himself, regardless of whether or not his business succeeded. If he ever needed to find another job, the relationships and skills he’d been developing would prove invaluable for another software firm targeting these same clients.

I find that every entrepreneur is afraid of failure. But the sine qua non for the successful entrepreneur is to operate in a way where the fear of failure doesn’t cripple your ambition or cloud your strategic decision-making skills. The culture of entrepreneurship is predicated on the notion that failure is expected on the path to success, so much so that entrepreneurs who have failed are generally viewed as more financeable than aspiring entrepreneurs who have never tried to start businesses.

As an older first-time entrepreneur, you’ll need to convince yourself prior to starting that failure is likely. If it happens, it will be part of your journey, rather than the end of the road.

Mitigate Risks by Choosing the Right Business & Planning Ahead

More responsibilities means that older entrepreneurs need to be much more granular in planning than younger entrepreneurs. This is especially true when managing the personal cash flow. Whereas you once might have been comfortable with unknowns and living off of credit card debt, you’ll now need to understand the exact cash requirements of your new venture before you start.

I tell people who are starting businesses that they should plan to go 6 to 9 months with no salary. At the end of that period, if you’re able to raise capital from friends and family, your annual salary probably won’t be more than 10% of the total money raised– a number that is likely to be less than what you’d be earning at a day job. Your strategy for dealing with the salary issue is to develop a clear understanding of what you will realistically make and how much of your savings you’ll likely deplete before you can expect to earn a more competitive salary. Whereas younger entrepreneurs might not contemplate devising a personal “breakpoint,” you’ll need to figure out early on at what point you won’t be able to afford to continue your business.

If the “breakpoint” is a year out and you’ve selected a business where you’re acquiring skills that would also be useful on the hunt for a new job, then you should be able to come to terms with the prospect of failure. Recognize that a new venture will shape you and your trajectory regardless of its ultimate outcome.

The Takeaway:

  • It’s normal to have fears, but don’t let them cloud your judgment.
  • Analyze your situation objectively to figure out whether or not a startup would provide you with more long-term opportunities than your current career path.
  • If you decide to launch a startup, create a realistic personal cash flow and choose a “breakpoint” before you start.

– Andrew

Read part II here.

Still have questions about entrepreneurship? Sign up for a free Founders’ Hours session.

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