The excellent book “Venture Deals” by Brad Feld, Jason Mendelson gives a ton of great advice, one nugget you should know is smart Entrepreneurs, even experienced ones like me, get a stable of experienced mentors.
Here’s their specific advice:
These mentors can be hugely useful in any financing, especially if they know the VCs involved.
We like to refer to these folks as mentors instead of advisers since the word adviser often implies that there is some sort of fee agreement with the company. It’s unusual for a company, especially an early stage one, to have a fee arrangement with an adviser around a financing.
Nonetheless, there are advisers who prey on entrepreneurs by showing up, offering to help raise money, and then asking for compensation by taking a cut of the deal. There are even some bold advisers who ask for a retainer relationship to help out. We encourage early stage entrepreneurs to stay away from these advisers.
In contrast, mentors help the entrepreneurs, especially early stage ones, because someone once helped them. Many mentors end up being early angel investors in companies or get a small equity grant for serving on the board of directors or board of advisers, but they rarely ask for anything up front.
While having mentors is never required, we strongly encourage entrepreneurs to find them, work with them, and build long-term relationships with them.
The benefits are enormous and often surprising. Most great mentors we know do it because they enjoy it. When this is the motivation, you often see some great relationships develop. The Entrepreneur’s Perspective Mentors are great.
There’s no reason not to give someone a small success fee if they truly help you raise money (random email introductions to a VC they met once at a cocktail party don’t count). Sometimes it will make sense to compensate mentors with options as long as you have some control over the vesting of the options based on your satisfaction with the mentor’s performance as an ongoing adviser.
Well most people would start the painful process of writing a business plan right away as they have their first idea for their startup, often taking months, just getting ready because that’s what they are trained to do – polish up word and PowerPoint and hone the idea in their minds and those of their friends.
NOT ME! Not any more…
In my view before you do anything you need to do lots and lots and lots of market research with target customers (customer development) – no business plan, excel or slides – just get a sample of whatever your idea is in as visual a form as possible ( a picture, mock-up, diagram…something potential customers can see, feel, smell, play with…even if it’s a service).
Spend a little time and money on the basic idea and then hit the streets – in my case I am prepared to go anywhere to get market data, for my last idea I travelled to 10 cities across the UK and the USA meeting competitors, potential customers, suppliers, consultants and anyone who could give me useful market data that was ‘visceral’ and ‘meaningful’.
On collation of all of this data, over 3 months, I started a business plan – after I had got many of my assumptions either thrown out, modified or proven – only then did I feel ‘comfortable’ to write something that was realistic.
I got an email from the great Silicon Valley StartupDigest newsletter and its giving subscribers free access to some really useful training for startups, check it out.
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A colleague at Stanford, serial entrepreneur and friend Joe Beninato has a really great new blog based around his adventures on his 7th startup Tello.
His is an example of the many granular things that just need to get done when you startup and some of his advice that could short circuit some of your efforts if you are valley based:
In no particular order, here are some things to be aware of as you get your new company going:
1. A good lawyer. Lots of people think lawyers are evil, expensive, etc. The best startup lawyers are certainly expensive, but I think of them as great startup advisors who happen to have J.D. degrees. The advantage of startup lawyers is they’ve seen hundreds of times more term sheets than you, they’ve negotiated hundreds of times more business deals than you, and because of this volume, they know what’s “market” and what is not. This is true for convertible notes, equity financings, leases, etc. The best firms will defer some amount of their fees until you get funded if you convince them you are credible and/or working on a good idea, so in a sense, they are willing to take a risk on you. I suggest getting someone on board right away to get you incorporated, get your founder agreements setup, etc. I’m a big fan of Scott Dettmer and Mike Irvine at Gunderson Dettmer, Mitch Zuklie at Orrick, and Mike Sullivan at Pillsbury.
2. Incorporation. I recommend incorporating as a Delaware “C” corporation. Delaware is much more startup-friendly than California from a logistics perspective, believe it or not. For example, if you need to modify corporate documents, the turnaround time for California can be days or weeks, whereas with Delaware, it’s typically hours. And if you’re ever going to raise venture capital, LLCs and “S” corporations are most typically converted into “C” corporations at that point. Once you get going, you’ll need a Federal EIN (employer identification number) for most things like lease applications, payroll, etc. and all of this can be taken care of by your lawyers.
3. Founder agreements. One of the biggest mistakes made by founders is to fail to have the hard conversations about how to split the equity and what happens if things don’t work out. This most likely happens because a) the founders are friends and don’t expect hard times to test their relationship, and b) these conversations are awkward and difficult. I can tell you that even experienced entrepreneurs don’t like to have these conversations, and it can lead to ugly situations. Bite the bullet, be an adult, and have these hard conversations. I call it the “Founder Pre-Nup.” You both (or all) owe it to yourselves to think through how you’re going to split the equity up front vs. down the road. Sometimes it’s an equal split, but I would say that more often than not, it is not an equal split because of someone’s experience level, IP contribution, reputation contribution, cash contribution, etc. There are no hard and fast rules of thumb here. You should also think about vesting schedules, vesting cliffs, what happens if one of the founders leaves, etc. It might be tough, but you’ll be surprised how relieved you are when it’s over and everything is understood between founders.
4. Salaries and benefits. This varies by situation, but I’d suggest making some progress on the product or fundraising before putting this into place. If founders aren’t willing to bootstrap and invest a month or two of time in getting something off the ground, imagine what happens down the road when times get tough. Some people who have a paying job will need to keep it while getting the new company going nights and weekends. Most people can continue to keep their COBRA coverage from a previous job, and once you get funded, it may even make sense to just reimburse people for their COBRA vs. the time/expense of setting up benefits right away. Of course, by the time you get to 5-10 people, you’ll need to set this up, but defer it as long as you can.
5. Banking. I recommend getting setup with Silicon Valley Bank right after incorporating. While you can choose to work with any bank, SVB is setup to work with startups, and knows the issues that come up all of the time.
6. Office space. Some people think that getting an office is a waste of time, that everyone can work virtually from home and be as productive as they would be sitting in a room together. While that approach might work for some, I am not a fan. I am all for being lean and frugal, but I think there is something special that happens when a team is getting together daily in their own “place” to solve tough problems together. It’s a bonding experience that forges them together. They’re working together in groups and individually, and eating lunch together. I’m not saying that this can’t happen if you meet over Skype or in a Starbucks every day, but I think it’s more difficult. For me, some of my fondest memories of the startups I’ve been involved in are the earliest days of the company with just the founders in the first office. I think back to S3 and Bunker Hill Lane in Santa Clara. When.com and Broadway Street in Redwood City. Presto and Sand Hill Road. Those of you who were there with me know what I’m talking about. I think it’s worth the $1000/month to get a small office and get people together almost daily.
More here: http://startupseven.com/
I was watching Michael Arrington interviewing Ron Conway and Paul Graham and this is what I learned and also my own view after several startups of my own and those of friends.
So Ron’s very simple data from 500+ startups on success and failure was:
- Ron Conway data shows a fail rate of 40% 2002-2010.
- Bubble years much worse – failure rate 77% (i.e. a total loss)
- Serial entrepreneurs better: 66% chance of success on repeat entrepreneur i.e. 20% edge on the second company i.e. vs 60% on current success rate.
- Regardless of economic climate, success probability is still the same i.e. any time is a good time to startup.
- Great defining companies are built at a faster rate than 10 years ago…now a couple of “mega” companies being built per year vs. one every 10 years.
- Younger entrepreneurs are more exciting, they will try anything and anything is possible.
- Trust gut and move faster – be decisive is also key to success.
* Success means still in business, a sale or not a total loss with no return at all.
OK so this data is from a small “gene pool” of companies that have managed to GET funded and doesn’t apply to all companies, also they will tend to be Silicon Valley companies and one’s where the founders have done a good job of working their network to get attention from Ron Conway…that’s a massive difference to the average startup – this is a very select group of companies already.
So from this select group who must have a big idea, a good basic team and have convinced their network to open doors in order to get funded in the first place…they have a current “success” rate of around 60% – what we don’t really know is what % actually got a good exit (yet) and therefore made money for themselves and Mr. Conway!
So what have we really learned from this then?
Only that if you are funded by someone as “networked” as Ron and can convince him then your odds are improved over the average…
So the learning for me is simple – pick your backers and investors very carefully and spend the time and effort to keep looking for funding until you get some “smart money” that will support and help develop you and your business. If you can’t get smart money then your risk goes up exponentially.
Additional comments from Paul Graham data from 400+ startup since 2005:
He didn’t get to say much but he saw some basic patterns for picking better startups:
- 4 person teams do badly, most likely security in numbers but this doesn’t work out after team formation. 2-3 optimal member teams.
- Men/women no difference. Couples good if they are stable.
- He has invested in 18-43 age range but no real difference based on age.
- Tough founders are best as they can weather the ups and downs vs. the others.
So my take from this is that you need a strong leader in a startup team and not a “committee” mindset. Anyone with the passion and drive can get started regardless of age, education or gender. If you have a team with a good mix of skills that has a good idea and that functions well then you are more likely to succeed (but that could be said of any team sport!).
In my opinion, Entrepreneurship is like “Chaos Theory” and that so many factors affect a good outcome that its hard to draw too much from these indicators other than what these big investors look out for when picking who to invest in – it’s not really a true indicator of success.