The (Not So) New Game in Private Equity

This is a Guest blog post by Kerry Moynihan, Partner at Boyden.

Top Private Equity Firms Investing in Education Businesses ...

 

WHY LEADERSHIP MATTERS MORE THAN EVER

A Very Brief History of Private Equity

The origins of today’s private equity industry (which I would define as including both venture capital and leveraged buyouts) date to 1946 with the foundations of American Research & Development Corp. (ARDC) & J. H. Whitney.  Prior, risk capital had almost exclusively been the domain of wealthy families.  Venture capital pioneers Mayfield and Kleiner Perkins were founded in 1969 and 1972, respectively.  In the buyout realm, the origins of LBO pioneers KKR began at Bear Stearns with “bootstrap” investments in the early 1970s, forming the foundation of the firm as we know it today.  TH Lee; Forstmann Little; Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe; and GTCR were all in operation by 1980 and became major players.  The modern private equity business continued to emerge in the 1980s with the realization that there were major discrepancies between public company management interests, the age old “agency problem” and the values that could be unleashed were business units to be decoupled from large public companies.  The year 1980 saw some $2.5 billion raised dedicated to the emerging alternative asset class and in the decade that followed nearly $22 billion was raised by venture and buyout funds.

The wide availability of junk bond financing fueled a boom during the 1980s, followed by a crash as the stock market tanked in October 1987.  High yield financing, or “junk bonds,” dried up for a time, and Drexel Burnham, the leading purveyor of these instruments, later went down.  However, institutional investors had certainly picked up on the higher returns available to PE than in the public markets.

Key to these were the availability of debt financing, the disparity between management that were merely salaried and those that were incentivized by equity, and the discrepancy between public and private market information.  For much of the next two decades private equity vastly outperformed the public markets.  Clearly, the emergence of technological innovation in software, semiconductors, and telecom fueled the venture side, while widespread industry consolidation and globalization largely propelled the LBO market.

As ever more money flowed into pensions and other institutional investor funds, the demand for higher yields accelerated.  This put more capital into the financial markets seeking higher returns and the boom continued.  Of course  there were blips and shocks, including the Foreign Debt crisis of 1997/98, the bursting of the dotcom bubble around 2000, the cessation of normal market activity following the 9/11 attacks, and perhaps most seriously, the major Financial Crisis after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns in 2008.

However, markets rebounded, time and time again.  Institutional capital, which seems to have a short collective memory, always seeks ever higher levels of Alpha (relative return) and will accommodate Beta (risk), often in unison, seemingly without independent, objective decision-making.

Institutionalization & Growth of the PE Industry

Funds were usually (relatively) small and privately held, and made individualized, partner-driven investment decisions.  Yet as their size has increased, and in many cases the larger funds went out to the public markets, the industry has fundamentally changed.  Now publicly traded, firms like Apollo, Blackstone The Carlyle Group, and others are, as the co-founder of one confessed to me “No longer in the business of making extraordinary, outsized returns on unique investments.  We are now in the asset management business. If we can beat the S&P by 150 basis points and put huge sums to work from institutional investors, we are happy and the investors are happy.“  With the traditional model of a 2% management fee on assets under management (AUM) and 20% capture of the return on investment, the carried interest, who would not be?

Where a billion dollar fund was once considered a large player, there were over 350 by 2018 and even more today.  There has been a veritable explosion in investment in the sector, as uninvested cash, or “dry powder“ at PE firms exceeded $1.5 trillion by the end of 2019.  Blackstone alone, the Wall Street Journal reported, had $150 billion in cash to invest at the end of last year.  Institutional Investor reported in July 2019 that 4000 funds were seeking to raise an additional $980 billion, up from 1385 funds seeking to raise $417 billion just four years earlier.

Yet in the 2010s the number of publicly traded companies stayed roughly the same while global AUM for PE firms and the number of PE-backed companies doubled, according to McKinsey & Co.  It comes down to simple economics as more money is chasing fewer good assets, hence driving up prices, and reducing returns.  S&P reported in November 2019 that the average pro forma EBITDA multiple was 12.9, up over 30% from pre-Financial Crisis pricing.  The massive leverage, low prices, and eye-popping returns of the 1980s are but a memory.  What is a simple fund to do?

Operations Management Software from Integrify

Adding Operating Expertise

Importantly, funds have changed their own internal structures over the last several decades. Almost no funds had seriously tenured operating executives as part of their investment teams in the 1980s, being almost exclusively comprised of “recovering investment bankers.”  The 1990s saw a bit of a change, but now almost every major fund has hired people who have more than an investment banking/finance background and have been senior operating executives who have actually run P&Ls.  In many cases these are actual full partners in the funds, as the Silicon Valley venture capital community was quicker to adopt this model, typically by adding tech CEOs to their rosters, than the Wall Street LBO community.  Many are termed Operating Partners or Management Associates, but whatever the nomenclature, there has been a collective recognition that strictly financial engineering and financing skills are necessary, but not sufficient, to create outsized shareholder returns.

Most of my clients and many of my good friends are private equity professionals.  Without naming names, an informal survey confirms the general thesis that by training they are not prepared to run the businesses that they buy.  Increasingly they recognize these facts, despite being “the smartest person in the room“ on virtually any topic (sic), in the not so distant past.

Where Are We and Where Are We Going

Fast forward to today, the late 2010s and early 2020s. The game has changed significantly, to say the least.  Not surprisingly, many of the factors that led to the tremendous success of the industry in years past have changed dramatically.  There is a changing reality and investment firms have, with varying degrees of success, made adjustments.  For example:

Financial engineering is no longer adequate.

Given the low interest rate environment of recent years, and explosion of alternative lenders such as credit funds, beyond the traditional large banks, a giant fund enjoys little advantage over a smaller one on the availability of financing or borrowing terms.  And, let’s face it, even if KKR or TPG can borrow at 25 basis points lower and with slightly less restrictive covenants than XYZ Capital Partners can, that factor alone is unlikely to be the deciding factor between the success or failure of an investment.

Globalization of the industry

Where venture capital and leveraged buyouts were virtually exclusively a US phenomenon just a few decades ago, today according to various studies, only about 55% of global private equity activity is in North America today.  While Africa and Latin America are somewhat underrepresented, Europe and Asia are booming in this respect and the former may well catch up over time.  It has become, as in so many industries, a much more competitive, truly international playing field.

Ubiquity of information has changed the game

The asymmetry of information that led to smart buyers and uninformed sellers is simply no longer the case.  The incredible proliferation of information and ease of access on a global basis means that sellers, even of relatively small and unsophisticated businesses, have a much better handle on the overall market than in the past.  An investment banker friend and I have a running joke that Old Uncle Burt, selling his cornfield in Iowa, knows that he can command 7.8 to 9.3 times EBITDA these days and will have five buyers lined up!  In short, because of this the market is much more ruthlessly efficient, further evidenced by the dramatic expansion in the number of deals done and in the ever higher multiples paid for them.

The Model Still Works

The increased volatility of public markets, however, continues to make private equity attractive.  What was once termed an alternative investment is certainly now very much in the mainstream for most sophisticated investors.  However, the delta in returns between public markets and private markets have flagged in the last several years.  As Bain & Co. noted in its 2020 Private Equity Report, “10-year public market returns match PE returns for the first time.”

Yet the current crisis, at the same time akin to the ones we seem to have every five or 10 years, and on the other hand of unprecedented scope, has obviously put an enormous dent in the wealth accumulated in the stock market.  The ability to be patient and not have to respond to quarter-by-quarter earnings can allow private equity investors to take a more strategic, long-term view and ride out much of the fickle fluctuations of the financial markets.

This may seem a bit ironic, since most PE funds would love to be in and out of investments in a 3 to 5 year timeframe if possible.  But with the public markets bouncing as violently as they are, private equity will remain a very attractive industry, both for Limited Partners as institutional investors and General Partners, the PE funds, as the custodians and direct investors of those funds.

Stanford Senior Executive Leadership Program | Stanford Online

 

Executive Leadership Matters, Now More Than Ever

Over time, more and more funds have gone to a model of backing individual executives or executive teams in what I call the “Back-able, Bankable Leadership“ model, or BBL.  Both venture and buyout funds have increasingly backed executive leadership that has had prior success and will continue to do so.  The proverbial “Holy Grail“ for investment funds is to find management teams that are proven and have as close to a proprietary idea as possible.  By this I mean either a specific target company(ies) for acquisition or a well-developed investment thesis with demonstrable potential acquisition targets.

How much better to create a situation where you have an organic genesis of an investment, rather than competing in a broad auction scenario against many other funds.  In the latter case, the “winner” of an auction may be successful in acquiring a business, but a loser as an investor, having paid too high a price at the outset.

An old saw in investing circles is that “You are more likely to win by backing an ‘A’ management team with a ‘B’ plan over a ‘B’ management team with an ‘A’ quality plan.“  At no time has this been more true than today, as many firms actually have to reinvent their business models on the fly.  As we face unparalleled turbulence in the markets, especially given the latest crisis, never has leadership, true leadership, been at more of a premium.  Operational excellence, coupled with the genuine ability to inspire, will always be valued.  In short, today it is more critical than ever to actually run businesses better.

Effective executive leadership makes all the difference.  It certainly makes me quite sanguine about the prospects for the executive search industry in partnering with private equity clients to create value.  Successful investors invest in superior management and leadership, especially when competition is greater than ever and times are uncertain, to say the least!

 

Kerry Moynihan is a Partner at Boyden. He has had a distinguished career of more than 30 years in executive search, making a significant impact on client organizations through strategic talent acquisition and development. Working across a range of industries, he specializes in partnering with boards of directors as well as private equity firms and the C-suite executives of their portfolio companies to deliver for investors. He can be reached at kmoynihan@boyden.com.

How Innovation Companies Find Liquidity in the COVID-19 Economy

This is a Guest blog post from Ling Zhang, Senior Manager at Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP. She covers a lot information which is extremely valuable for small businesses. 

CASH IS KING | Armstrong Economics

“Cash is King” for businesses, especially when they are drifting in the rough currents due to COVID-19. What can technology, services, and life science companies do to survive the challenges and thrive through oppotunities in the current economic conditions? Here are a few considerations for innovative companies to manage cash flow since the pandemic’s inception.

 

Small businesses start to see relief through Paycheck Protection ...

Utilizing the CARES Act and New Laws and Legislation

Businesses have been following new legislation closely and, when possible, taking advantage of cash flow assistance from the federal government to increase liquidity. The following is a list of programs created by the CARES Act that support small businesses:

Lender letter for PPP application documentation - SynergySynergy

1. Paycheck Protection Program

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress had appropriated $349 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), providing loans of up to $10 million to certain qualified small businesses, and also offering forgiveness for
all or a portion of the loan. As the first round of PPP funding has been utilized, a new funding package has been approved for the PPP for $480 billion, which appropriated an additional $320 billion for the PPP.

The new funding package, passed on April 24, 2020, also includes $60 billion for the Disaster Loans Program and Emergency EIDL Grants.

 
2. Small Business Debt Relief Program

This program will provide non-disaster Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, specifically 7(a), 504 and microloans not made under the PPP. Under this program, all payments on these SBA loans, including principal, interest and fees, are covered by SBA for six months.

 
3. Economic Injury Disaster Loans & Emergency Economic Injury Grants

The program provides loans up to $2 million and emergency advances up to $10,000 that are not required to be repaid.

The CARES Act also has the following tax provisions available:

1. Employee Retention Credit

A refundable payroll tax credit for up to 50 percent of wages paid to certain employees is available to eligible employers during the COVID-19 crisis through Dec. 31, 2020. This credit is not available to employers receiving

 

2. Delay Payment of Payroll Taxes

Taxpayers can defer paying the employer portion of certain payroll taxes during the period beginning on the Act’s date of enactment and ending on Dec. 31, 2020. Half of the deferred amount is due on Dec. 31, 2021, and the other half is due on Dec. 31, 2022. For PPP loan recipients, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) FAQs1 clarify that taxpayers may defer the employer portion of Social Security on wages paid between March 27, 2020, and the date which the lender issues a confirmation of loan forgiveness for the recipients’ PPP loan.

 

3. Other Tax Provisions to Accelerate Cash

Other tax provisions include correction of Qualified Improvement Property depreciation; use of excess business loss and Net Operating Losses; and use of Corporate AMT Credits. Consulting with a tax professional may help increase cash flows through maximizing tax refunds and tax planning for the business. Please reach out to your tax advisor to evaluate possible solutions as these may be complex decisions.

 

4. Main Street Lending Program to Provide Liquidity to Small and Mid-Size Businesses

These four-year term loans are for companies that have less than 15,000 employees and $5 billion in revenue and have a minimum loan size of $1 million. The loans are generally available even if you have received a PPP loan and there is currently no indication of “affiliation” rules that disallowed many private equity portfolio companies from eligibility for the PPP loans. The loan size is generally based on a multiple of 2019 earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA), which can be adjusted as permitted by lending institutions, and includes existing debt.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) also provides refundable tax credit as follows:

Eligible employers are entitled to refundable tax credits for qualified leave wages that are paid, during the period beginning April 1, 2020 and ending Dec. 31, 2020, for specified reasons related to COVID-19 under the FFCRA.

Federal and state governments are continuing to evaluate
additional assistance to businesses.

China's New Development Stage: Challenges and Opportunities ...

Turning Challenges into Opportunities

Many leaders of technology, life sciences and service companies, including technology giants and small businesses, have pivoted during the pandemic in different ways by identifying opportunities, and taking immediate action to generate cash to secure a future for their employees while contributing, in their own unique way, to find a vaccine.

Examples include life sciences and medical device companies developing and selling antibody or COVID-19 testing kits; tech manufacturers making ventilators; SaaS software companies offering free HR applications to help manage the health and safety of employees; cyber security information technology services companies developing tracing technologies and providing services to help mitigate cyber security and privacy risks of work-from-home arrangements; services firms providing assistance on the interpretation of new legislation; and more.

 

70% of SMEs try to manage Cash flow themselves | EFM
Managing Cash Flows

Tech and life sciences companies should also assess key performance indicators (KPI), monitor budget versus actual analyses more closely and frequently, and deploy a plan to manage cash flows through the pandemic and beyond. Companies can consider the following areas to manage internal cash flows in response to the current environment:

1. Accelerate accounts receivable collections through active collection efforts and/or evaluating new technologies to allow customers new payment methodologies;

2. Manage vendors by initiating dialogue and negotiations with extended or delayed payment terms;

3. Classify expenses by variable versus fixed, and consider plans to cut spending on variable expenses where possible. Seek concessions on fixed expenses such as rent abatements, delay in payments, or extended payment terms;

4. Evaluate plans to reduce salary expenses including furloughs, salary reductions, and/or a reduction in force;

5. Seek additional financing opportunities through loans or use of availability on lines of credit;

6. Revise and develop new cash flow forecasts from operations for various scenarios – three-to-six months or even longer if necessary.

 

As a Senior Manager in the DHG Technology practice, Ling Zhang works closely with client management and C-suite executives to provide audit, financial accounting advisory, and risk advisory services to multi-national publicly-traded corporations and private companies with revenues ranging from $10 million to $50 billion. She advises clients on SEC filings, complex debt and equity transactions, merger and acquisition, new accounting guidance implementation, internal control system design and implementation, and financial statements reporting and disclosures. She can be reached at ling.zhang@dhg.com.

InvestMaryland Wins Big, Raises $84 million for VC program

Last week, the State of Maryland became the first state in the USA to use an online auction to raise funds for a venture capital program.  The auction yielded $84 million, a whopping 20% more than the original forecasted goal of $70 million.  On September 24, 2011, I wrote a brief summary of the InvestMaryland program.

InvestMaryland will invest in the State’s promising start-up and early stage companies, as early as this summer.  The $84 million raised was generated through an online auction of premium tax credits to 11 insurance companies (including Hartford Insurance, New York Life, Chubb, GEICO, and Met Life) with operations in Maryland.  The inaugural round of investments will be made in innovative companies this summer through several private venture capital firms and the State’s successful Maryland Venture Fund (MVF),

Said Governor Martin O’Malley, “Our State is well-positioned to be a leader in the new economy as a global hub of innovation – a leader in science, security, health, discovery and information technology. That’s why last year, together with business leaders from across the State and the General Assembly, we chose to invest in our diverse and highly-educated workforce and the skills and talents of our people for the jobs and opportunity of tomorrow.”  

The InvestMaryland program is being implemented through the Maryland Venture Fund Authority, on which I am very proud to serve, as well as the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED).

Earlier this year, the Authority selected Grant Street Group to prepare for and run the tax credit auction and also recently selected Altius Associates, a London-based firm, to oversee the selection of three to four private venture firms to invest the InvestMaryland funds. The private venture firms will be responsible for investing two-thirds of the funds, which will return 100 percent of the principal and 80 percent of the profits to the State’s general fund. The remaining 33 percent will be invested by 17-year-old Maryland Venture Fund (MVF).  The Maryland Small Business Development Financing Authority (MSBDFA) will also receive a portion of funds for investment. Returns on the funds invested through the MVF will be reinvested in the program.

InvestMaryland has the potential to create thousands of jobs in Innovation Economy sectors – life sciences and biotechnology, cyber security/IT and clean/green tech and attract billions of follow on capital.

Maryland has an outstanding infrastructure to support an Innovation Economy. The Milken Institute ranks Maryland #2 in the nation for technology and science assets. According to study results, while Maryland received high rankings in human capital investment, research and development inputs, technology and science workforce, and technology concentration and dynamism, it lagged behind other states in risk capital and entrepreneurial infrastructure, demonstrating the need for InvestMaryland and other programs.

How will Altius select the Venture Capital firms?  Altius will be evaluating venture capital funds based on management experience, firm experience, investment performance and criteria defined in the legislation.

When will the firms be selected?  Venture capital firms will be selected starting June/July 2012 for a projected18-month period and make first round of investments in summer 2012.

What is the investment return to the State? The selected venture firms will return 100 percent of the principal investment by the State before taking any distribution of profits and will then pay 80 percent of the profits to the State.  Any returns on investments made through the Maryland Venture Fund go back into the fund for an evergreen program.

What is the projected average investment with venture capital companies? Investment will likely range from as low as $250,000 upwards to $10M.

Is there investment funding available from MVF?   Maryland Venture Fund will continue to invest in early stage companies (tech, biotech, clean energy) from $50,000 to $500,000 as initial investments.

Maryland Venture Fund Authority (MVFA) will perform a monitoring role to ensure that  investments and reporting meet the legislative guidelines.

In summary, as a member of the MVFA, and as a resident and business owner in Maryland, I am very excited to see this InvestMaryland program being implemented:

  • This program brings great benefit for taxpayers.  It helps create the jobs and companies of tomorrow and builds an economic climate where the most promising ideas and innovations have a chance to mature.
  • This is a win-win for all constituencies within the State of Maryland. Through this initiative, we can:
    • Infuse much needed capital into our seed and early stage companies
    • Recapitalize the State’s successful Maryland Venture Fund
    • Ensure no up-front cost to taxpayers
    • Provide a tax benefit to insurance companies who bid today, who can begin claiming credits in 2015.

Thanks for reading.  I’d appreciate any Comments or feedback you may have on InvestMaryland.

Featured image courtesy of Anosmia via Creative Commons.

Persistence and Commitment at HONEST TEA, a guest post by Marissa Levin

Guest Blog Post from Marissa Levin, CEO of Information Experts and Founder of Successful Culture, a new business dedicated to helping entrepreneurs and business leaders build successful cultures within their organizations.

Marissa was a guest at Lore Systems’ Big Idea CONNECTpreneur Spring Forum on March 7, 2012 and Seth Goldman, Co-Founder and TeaEO of Honest Tea, was one of our featured speakers on the “Entrepreneurship with a Higher Purpose” panel.

This post was written on March 13, 2012 and can be found on Marissa’s awesome new Blog, Successful Culture.

Honest Tea CEO Seth Goldman Takes Persistence & A Commitment to Mission to New Heights

Imagine pitching your idea to 1,000 investors. Over and over and over again. A little insane, right? Not if you’re Seth Goldman, TeaEO of Honest Tea. When we think of Honest Tea, we think of a delicious beverage, and a wildly successful business.

Dig a little deeper into the roots of Honest Tea, and you’ll discover an entrepreneur who is forever committed to the mission of “changing the way people eat, drink, think and live.”

Seth shared the struggles of his early days with 300 business leaders at the sold-out ConnectPreneur Event in the DC region, architected by global serial entrepreneur and angel investor Tien Wong, CEO of Lore Systems (www.lore.net).

Building an Empire One Brick at a Time

As a bootstrapped entrepreneur who has never sought outside funding, I was amazed at Seth’s relentless quest for angel investments when he launched Honest Tea. “I did over 1,000 pitches and landed 120 angel investors. I took $25,000 at a time,” Goldman said. “There were plenty of times when I was financially out of business. But you need just enough fumes to keep things going.”

The question on everyone’s mind – which was asked – was, “How did you keep going?” All entrepreneurs seek the answer to this question from others that travel the path of business ownership. What is the magic bullet -the secret sauce – that gives us the strength to keep pushing when we are seemingly out of options?

Always Return to the Mission

“What kept me going is I always believed and still believe in my mission. I believe we have to change the way we eat, drink, think, and live. Quitting was never an option.”

In addition to the initial 1,000+ calls, Goldman had to ruthlessly follow up with potential investors. Follow-up apparently is just as important as the initial contact.

“You need to be ruthless with your follow-up. You can’t ever quit. Your follow-up is a good indication of your commitment to what you are trying to build, and to your work ethic. Some we talked to for years before they came on,” he said.

Seth’s tenacity is an inspiration to anyone trying to make their entrepreneurial mark. Equally inspiring is his commitment to his core values, and his refusal to relinquish what matters most to him – providing healthy products that consumers feel good about drinking.

Coca-Cola now owns 40% of Honest Tea. The mammoth company’s management is like a bull in a china shop. This, however, doesn’t sway Goldman from his values. “Coca-Cola wanted me to remove “No High Fructose Corn Syrup!” from our labels. I asked if this was a legal or regulatory requirement, and it wasn’t,” he explained.

Goldman continued, “Because their products contain this ingredient, our label wasn’t a positive reflection of their brand. I refused to remove it it. The discussion made its way to the very top of the executive ladder, and I refused.”

Finally, Coca-Cola relented, and conceded that as a minority owner, they couldn’t force Honest Tea to remove the labeling.

All Natural Ingredients for Successful Entrepreneurship

Goldman boiled successful entrepreneurship down to the two basic tenets that we all inherently know: 1: A steadfast, laser-focused, driven commitment to what we are building, in which we will do whatever we need to succeed, and 2: A passionate belief in the change we are trying to make.

Thanks to Tien Wong (follow him on Twitter: @tienwong, and subscribe to his blog – Winning Ideas at (https://tienwong.wordpress.com/) for helping to quench the entrepreneurial thirst for learning with a great event!

And thanks to Seth Goldman (@HonestTea) for showing us what happens when you never ever ever ever ever give up.

Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success.” ~Napoleon Hill

InvestMaryland, Winning by Fueling Innovation + Creating Jobs

The State of Maryland is creating a $70 million investment fund to deploy into venture capital funds to stimulate innovation, spur economic growth, and create jobs.

This initiative is called “InvestMaryland,” and I am proud to have been appointed by Governor Martin O’Malley as a Member of the Maryland Venture Fund Authority, which will provide guidance to and oversight of the program.

This is a groundbreaking effort by the State of Maryland, and I applaud all of the various business and political constituencies who made this happen.

The State plans to raise at least $70 million by auctioning off tax credits to insurance companies.  About 2/3 of these proceeds will be invested into private venture capital funds, and 1/3 will be given to the Maryland Venture Fund, which will in turn invest in emerging companies in industried such as information technology, clean energy, and life sciences, among others.

Maryland is not the first state to employ this idea.  Eleven other states already have programs similar to InvestMaryland.  The expected benefit from InvestMaryland, according to some, is the creation of 2000+ new jobs while supporting at least 200 businesses.

Here is the the link to Gazette.net’s article in February, 2011 which covers the announcement of the program.

I am encouraged by these kinds of initiatives and would love to see more states embrace these kinds of public-private efforts to stimulate capital formation, and help create jobs and nurture new technologies and emerging companies.

Thank you for reading.  Let me know your thoughts about the InvestMaryland program or other ways in which technologies and small businesses can be supported.  And please sign up for my Blog!

Featured image courtesy of sidewalk flying licensed via creative commons.

12 Most Critical Questions for Raising Capital for Your Startup – 12most.com Guest Post

Stack of 100s at 12most.com

This was my August 16, 2011 Guest Post on 12most.com.

Right now – RIGHT now – is the BEST TIME to start a business, and there’s never been a better time to start raising capital. I firmly believe this. Why?  Because tough economic times cause tremendous dislocation in almost every market. Established companies are playing defense, trying to figure out where the economy is heading, laying off people, cutting costs, and trying to protect their turf. Fear is in the air.

Fear spells opportunity for new startups that can compete because they are small, nimble and agile.  Using creativity and resourcefulness, entrepreneurial startups can improve the way things have been done in the past, or attack brand new markets with new technology.  Startups are not encumbered by the baggage of their larger competitors.

However, raising money in tough economic times is, well, tough!  Angels and VCs seek to cherry pick the very best ideas, those that are most likely to succeed.  Money is still available for the best ideas and teams, but you have to be tuned in to what these investors need in order to make an investment in your startup.

Based on my experience as an entrepreneur, mentor, angel, VC fund LP, and board member, here are the 12 most important questions you need to answer when raising capital for your startup:

1. Money

How much do you need and what is the use of funds?

Investors want to know that you have thought through your capital requirements and where the money will be put to use.  Is it for product development, marketing, building out your sales team, etc.?  You must be ready to justify this request, and talk about how this gets you to the next stage in your startup’s development, as well as how much more money you may need in the future.  Know what kind of deal structure (preferred stock, convertible debenture, common stock, etc.) and valuation you are proposing to your investors.

2. Pain – What pain are you fixing?

Your product or solution must fix somebody’s pain, whether it’s making life easier, saving money, or making a customer more efficient.  Talk about the severity of the pain you are addressing, as well as how much money your customer will pay for it.  Show some basic market research, ROI analyses, and, ideally some 3rd party customers who are already happily using your product or service.

3. Raising Capital for Your Solution: What is it, exactly?

Exactly what product or service are you offering and how does it work?  Too many times, I have seen wishy washy descriptions of the solution because the idea is being matured, or in Alpha mode.  I have seen many super smart engineers with grand plans that are completely unfocused trying to be everything to everybody. Few have been funded.   Investors want to see certainty and simplicity in your proposed solution to the above-mentioned pain.

4. Customers – Who, exactly, is your customer?

You need to know WHO will be buying from you.  Are you selling B2B, B2C, B2G, all of the above?  Are your targets Fortune 500 companies, SMBs, NGOs, the Federal government, etc.  At what level are you selling (CEO, CFO, VP of Marketing, etc.)?  What kinds of situations will they need to be in to absolutely must buy from you?  The more precise the better.  And bring some testimonials or anecdotal evidence from these targets.

5. Execution Plan – What’s your plan for selling and delivering?

One of the biggest questions and concerns investors have is HOW you plan to win customers.  What’s your strategy, who’s leading the sales effort, and so on. Be prepared to discuss not only your marketing & sales plans and customer acquisition strategy, but also your customer retention strategy.

The Angel on Your Shoulder

6. Raising Capital, as a Team – Who are the players and what are their backgrounds?

Angel investors are not only investing in an idea or a market space.  We are investing in a team of people with, preferably, a strong and experienced founder.  Talk about your key executives and your advisors too (lawyers, accountants, Advisory Board members), anyone who is adding considerable value to your venture.

7. Culture – What kind of culture are you building?

Culture is the DNA of every organization, and good culture is a requirement for success.  Culture can even be a differentiator against your competition.  The best investors know this.  Talk about your culture, your approach and philosophy towards business operations, leadership development, hiring, customer care, product development, and other key parts of your business.

8. Competitors – Who are they and how will you compete?

Competition is one of the most important questions to answer.  I have met with countless entrepreneurs who claim that they have “no competition.”  This is a particular pet peeve of mine, because every company has competitors, and all customers have choice.  Believing that you don’t have competitors is not only naive, it is a recipe for disaster.  So talk about all your competitors, both direct and indirect, and show how you are better and how you will beat them.

9. “Moats” – How are you special and what are your differentiators?

Warren Buffett likes to invest in companies with high barriers to entry, or “moats,” as he calls them.  Startups are risky enough for investors, and they want to invest in ventures which have a higher probability of success.  Moats include IP, patents, unique skills or knowledge, proprietary methods, unique brands, unique culture, etc.

10. Raising Capital for Pivotability – What will you do if your Plan “A” fails?

One thing is absolutely certain in a startup: your original plan will not happen the way you initially envisioned it.  Investors want a team that’s resourceful, agile, and creative enough to pivot, if necessary.  A sailboat in a regatta does not go from Point A to Point B in a straight line.  It gets there by “tacking, ” or making a series of rapid and opportunistic turns in order to maximize the wind in its sails.  Startups have to do the same thing, and investors want to see that you have thought through your contingency plans.

11. Commitment – How much money did you personally invest? Is this a full time job for you?

The best investors take a “partner” approach to investing, and they want to invest alongside their entrepreneurs.  I’m not so much looking for huge sums of cash invested, but rather whether the amount invested is a “significant” percentage of the entrepreneur’s net worth.  If a founder has put a good chuck of her net worth into the company, or taken out a second mortgage on her home, the investor will feel more comfortable about the founder’s putting her money where her mouth is.  As for working “full time,” this is essential.  I have never seen a startup succeed that didn’t have full time (80 hours a week) commitment from its founding team.  Be ready to field questions about how much your team is willing to sacrifice in order to win.

12. Exit – How are you going to make your investors money?

Investors are not looking to put their money in forever.  You have to paint the picture of how they will get their money and profits out within their expected timeframe (generally 4-7 years).  Be ready to talk about how you’re going to exit (for example via IPO, sale, recap, or refi).  How is the market for your proposed exit options?  Talk about recent deals in your space and get some data from the experts (M&A specialists, deal lawyers, etc.).

I hope this helps you as you think through your approach to pitching angels and VCs.  If you believe in your startup, then be persistent. Don’t give up!  If you can’t get funded initially, then prove out your business model by getting traction, i.e. happy customers, and figuring out other creative ways to raise the capital you need, whether it’s by getting equipment leases, vendor financing, customer deposits, or even money from “FF&F” (friends, family and fools).

Good luck out there!  It’s a great time to pursue your dreams!

Photo courtesy of amagill. Some rights reserved; used under creative commons license.

Warren Buffett’s Ten Rules for Winning

While enjoying a nice lunch with my Son at a Minneapolis Jimmy John’s sub shop this weekend, I saw this “WARREN BUFFETT’S TEN RULES” sign tacked to the wall.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take a glare-free or hi-res photo, so let me list out these Rules below (with my comments in bold Italics):

No. 1:  REINVEST YOUR PROFITS – When you first make money, you may be tempted to spend it.  Don’t.  Instead, reinvest the profits.  Buffett learned this early on. In high school, he and a pal bought a pinball machine to put in a barbershop. With the money they earned, they bought more machines until they had eight in different shops. When the friends sold the venture, Buffett used the proceeds to buy stocks and to start another business. No surprise that this is Rule #1.  He is the greatest investor of our time and one of the reasons is because he followed his own advice here.

No. 2:  BE WILLING TO BE DIFFERENT – Don’t base your decisions upon what everyone is saying or doing. When Buffett began managing money in 1956 with $100,000 cobbled together from a handful of investors, he was dubbed an oddball. He worked in Omaha, not on Wall Street, and he refused to tell his partners where he was putting their money. People predicted that he’d fall, but when he closed his partnership 14 years later, it was worth more than $100 million.  In short:  Don’t be afraid to be contrarian.  Time and time again, we see tremendously successful investors, businessmen, entrepreneurs take a contrarian approach.  Wasn’t it John D. Rockefeller who said the best time to buy is when there’s “blood in the streets”?

No. 3:  NEVER SUCK YOUR THUMB – Gather in advance any information you need to make a decision, and ask a friend or relative to make sure that you stick to a deadline. Buffett prides himself on swiftly making up his mind and acting on it. He calls any unnecessary sitting and thinking “thumb-sucking.”  Buffett invested $5 Billion in Goldman Sachs during the worst moments of the 2008 financial crisis when Wall Street appeared to be melting down.  He committed this money in a 15 minute (no thumb sucking here) phone call with Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein.  Result?  A $10 Billion profit in 30 months.

No. 4:  SPELL OUT THE DEAL BEFORE YOU START – Your bargaining leverage is always greatest before you begin a job – that’s when you have something to offer that the other party wants. Buffett learned this lesson the hard way as a kid, when his grandfather Earnest hired him and a friend to dig out the family grocery store after a blizzard. The boys spent five hours shoveling until they could barely straighten their frozen hands. Afterward, his grandfather gave the pair less that 90 cents to split.  This advice holds not only for jobs, but also for any kind of negotiation, investments, partnerships, JVs, etc.

No. 5:  WATCH SMALL EXPENSES – Buffett invests in business run by managers who obsess over the tiniest costs. He once acquired a company whose owner counted the sheets in rolls of 500-sheet toilet paper to see if he was being cheated (he was). He also admired a friend who painted only the side of his office building that faced the road.  I think the lesson is also that the devil’s in the details, and that little things mean a lot. The best organizations have a handle on all of the nuances and details of their operations.

No. 6:  LIMIT WHAT YOU BORROW – Buffett has never borrowed a significant amount – not to invest, not for a mortgage. He has gotten many heartrending letters from people who thought their borrowing was manageable but became overwhelmed by debt. His advice: Negotiate with creditors to pay what you can. Then, when you’re debt-free, work on saving some money that you can invest.  If our country had followed this advice, we wouldn’t be in the financial pickle we’re in now, that’s for sure.  Seems like Buffett is not only saying to limit what you borrow, but also very simply to be disciplined, and that’s a key success driver

No. 7:  BE PERSISTENT – With tenacity and ingenuity, you can win against a more established competitor. Buffett acquired the Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1983 because he liked the way its founder, Rose Blumkin, did business. A Russian immigrant, she built the mart from a pawnshop into the largest furniture store in North America. Her strategy was to undersell the big shots, and she was a merciless negotiator.  This is my favorite of the Buffett Rules.

No. 8:  KNOW WHEN TO QUIT – Once, when Buffett was a teen, he went to the racetrack. He bet on a race and lost. To recoup his funds, he bet on another race. He lost again, leaving him with close to nothing. He felt sick – he had squandered nearly a week’s earnings. Buffett never repeated that mistake.  The only one making money at the racetrack is the owner.  I bet he’s happy he learned this lesson at a young age.

No. 9:  ASSESS THE RISKS – In 1995, the employer of Buffett’s son, Howie, was accused by the FBI of price-fixing. Buffett advised Howie to imagine the worst- and best-case scenarios if he stayed with the company. His son quickly realized the risks of staying far outweighed any potential gains, and he quit the next day.  Continually assess current and future risks and mitigate those you can to help shape and control your future.

No. 10:  KNOW WHAT SUCCESS REALLY MEANS – Despite his wealth, Buffett does not measure success by dollars. In 2006, he pledged to give away almost his entire fortune to charities, primarily the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He’s adamant about not funding monuments to himself – no Warren Buffett buildings or halls. “When you get to my age, you’ll measure your success in life by how many of the people you want to have love you actually do love you. That’s the ultimate test of how you lived your life.”  What a great definition of “success.”  After all the effort, the blood, sweat and tears, and the battle scars from the business and investment world, the Master defines his success so simply and elegantly.

I can’t help but think that the world would be a better place, and the economy would be in much better shape if we all followed Warren Buffett’s Rules.

Hopefully, President Obama will continue to seek Mr. Buffett’s sage counsel and (I know this is a stretch) convince him to become our next Treasury Secretary when Tim Geithner (my Mandarin language TA at Dartmouth) retires.

Thanks for reading, and please leave a Comment below.  Which Buffett Rule is your favorite one? What kinds of things do you think Mr. Buffett would do if he were Treasury Secretary?

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