I like to think of money as fuel and not as a destination. A fuel for supporting people and ideas that basically align with my values and interests.
Alex Danco has argued that most of the seed investment merely results in a transfer of wealth from investors to founders, and more noticeably, only in social bragging rights for the angel investors.
I tend to agree with this realistic view of the early-stage investment market. Besides, I caveat other investors to be particularly attentive to the opportunity costs – both in terms of time and money – required by trying to contribute to improving the world.
Alex also argues that the social aspects of angel investing depend on the density of the network that sustains them:
Once you have that sufficient density of people who care about the social return to angel investing, and you establish a genuine “early stage capital market” that is subsidized in part by the social and emotional job that it’s doing for its angel members, you create something really special. You get the rare conditions where capital is available for founders at high enough valuations, with no strings attached, and by investors who are evaluating them “the right way”, that you actually sustain a scene that produces startups in sufficient numbers to generate those few unlikely mega-winners that replenish angels’ bank accounts and keep the cycle going
I also observe the social network spillover effects identified by Alex but dispute the need for such density to be geographically driven. Increasingly the value of such networks will not be conditioned by where you live, but by whom you know and even more precisely, by its quality. Thus my call to share deal flow among impact investors. This will hopefully not just result in a wealth transfer or ‘innovation subsidy’ in favor of social entrepreneurs, but more critically, will probably contribute to the strengthening of the early-stage capital market system.
The crucial role of the rich in a capitalist economy is… to invest; to provide unencumbered and unbureaucratized cash.George Gilder – American economist
Some time ago, I joined a discussion with a group of impact investors, about the best ways for sourcing deal flow, and, which are the best practices for the sharing of deal flow.
The elephant in the room was the tension between keeping a deal to yourself versus cooperating, i.e., competitive edge (access) to investment opportunities vs. co-developing deal-flow.
I believe that the best way forward for impact investors regardless of their stage or scale is by joining resources with other impact angels. My goal is not to be the best impact investor in the world, but rather to contribute to its improvement. In my view, this is best done by working together with other persons. Ergo, please feel free to contact me to discuss the potential sharing of investment opportunities.
Going from one-to-one to a more structured approach
How to more easily share deal flow/resources among impact business angels?
Finding excellent investment opportunities is quite challenging, and at a minimum time-consuming. Besides deal flow, there is a lot more we could share and syndicate (*) to foster opportunities for great companies to connect with great investors.
Besides the time consumed by deal sourcing, it is also difficult and time-consuming to keep track of everybody to know who is doing what?. How most investors find and share deal flow is based more on ‘who do you know’, i.e., your current network, and mainly done in an unstructured manner. Even professionals have admitted that most of their deal flow development efforts are carried out on an ad hoc basis. Most often, via word of mouth, using email or phone.
A common theme for most successful investors is being overwhelmed by their overflowing mailboxes. Receiving a lot of applications but finding few startups that are suitable for investment. This results in a lot of time invested in screening and triage of potential investment opportunities. Furthermore, investors are more likely to invest in startups that they actively identified and sought to the detriment of those that may have just shown up in their email inbox. As with VCs, an intro from another founder never hurts.
Finally, another perhaps obvious but not always applied lesson is not to recommend things that you haven’t done due diligence on.
How to do it? Deal flow sharing toolkit
Email: schedule it to go out on the same day and at the same time every month. “Every month or so, I sent out an email with some info on between four and eight companies. If investors are interested in a company, they let me know, and I do the intro. I vet everyone on the list to make sure they’re an accredited angel or from a fund“.
Slack community: needs to be appropriately managed and nurtured so that people can get access to support, partners, co-investors, and excellent deal-flow from around the world. Some Slack communities regularly share notes on startups, split up attendance to demo days, and collaboratively hunt to fill open roles at each other’s portfolio companies.
- easy penetration with (likely) little resistance;
- essentially becomes a two-sided marketplace within the investor community;
- strong network effects if it catches on; and
- improved pipeline for all (or at least an increased number of companies on their radar).
- a balance needs to be found on the number of internal thoughts and analysis to be shared for each deal vs. just sharing deals ‘objectively’;
- relies on each member of the channel to provide and not only consume;
- possible adverse selection — some investors unlikely to share their top deals if they fear they could miss out on rounds if they do;
- legality — be sure to talk to your lawyer before posting.
Database / Mapping tools- any such devices should have the ‘right filters’ for the identification and screening of the relevant startups that will fit the investment criteria of other investors. There are some databases such as The Impact Investment Network Map, Toniic community; however, access is limited to members only.
Physical meetings – organizing physical meetings such as meetups, theme-based networking events. One of the best practices is to distribute a deal book and to collect feedback about the investment opportunities on the spot.
(*) Many things that could be shared, such as deal opportunities, risks, resources, mentoring, information.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Ludovic Libert, Co-founder of Happy Hours Market (*) shares how to overcome the challenges of scaling up a food waste avoidance startup.
Why did you start Happy Hours Market, and what do you do?
About 7 tons of food are wasted every minute in Belgium. At the same time almost one-third of the population is considered close to the poverty threshold. We offer the possibility to buy via our app unsold products at half price, and then donate any leftovers to affiliated charities.
Why do your clients shop with you?
Basically, for two reasons. First, they are interested in saving some money with their purchases (most of our items are at half the price of what the retail store charges typically for them). Second, they are conscious of the ecological impact that they avoid with their purchases.
What are your plans for this year?
We are trying to expand our operations to cover all of Brussels this year. In the future, we envisage deploying in other major cities in Belgium and abroad.
Which are your main challenges for this year?
We have to execute our growth strategy. This includes partnering with new stores, adding more users to our platform, and developing new tools and systems to cope with the increasing complexity of our logistics.
What are the most challenging areas for Happy Hours Market’s growth and for the waste avoidance industry?
They are multiple and concern:
- the management of the logistics of this business,
- the scaling up of our management systems,
- offering new services to our stakeholders and
- incorporating block-chain based solutions to ensure the trace-ability (from reception to end of life) of any food and perishables that are marketed through our platform.
(*) I am an investor in Happy Hours Market
About 7 tons of food are wasted every minute in BelgiumLudovic Libert, Co-Founder Happy Hours Market
I don’t care that much about valuation, and thus pay slight attention to this parameter when deciding whether to invest or not in a startup. Apparently, I am not the only one. In a recent post, Sam Altman, of YC fame, provided his recipe for successful investment in startups, which doesn’t mention valuation at all.
Hunting for a diamond
Similarly to what Fred Wilson stated in his post “Venture Fund Economics: When One Deal Returns The Fund“, I don’t try to “swing for the fences“, I just try to create a reasonably well-diversified portfolio that corresponds to my values and interests.
Some will read this and suggest that our business is all about swinging for the fences. But I don’t think so. There are hitters in baseball, the best hitters in fact, that hit balls out of the park when they are just trying to make good contact. That’s how you have to do it in the venture business. You try to make 20 great investments and you work with them closely in hopes that four years in you have six or seven that have home run potential, and after ten years, you maybe hit one or two out of the park. If you try to hit every one out of the park day one, you’ll strike out way too much and the fund won’t work out very well. – Fred Wilson
Swinging for the fences would require being in the 1% of the angel investment community, and being capable of identifying entrepreneurs that are also in the 1% of their industry. It implies being capable of making extensive use of second-order thinking. Without contradicting the above, Altman’s guidance for “thinking big” additionally applies:
You should try to limit yourself to opportunities that could be $10 billion companies if they work.
From hypothetical to real value
Investing in seed rounds is going from hypothetical value to real value.
In seed investments don’t focus too much on hard metrics but rather on more intangible factors such as the grit of the founder, size of the future market, optionality (did anybody say pivot?) and potential systemic leadership of the startup that you are considering funding.
In my view, most financial analysis is backward-looking, and the discounted cash flow analysis performed at the due diligence stage is only based on the founder’s promises/narrative. With these tools, how are we supposed to appraise the potential income or impact of a startup?
This said I am one of those that firmly believe that you should hold founders accountable for their projections vs. real achievements. Once you have agreed to the goals self-imposed by founders, do hold them accountable for the gap between expectations and reality, and let them explain how they will overcome any obstacles that they didn’t initially anticipate. You should challenge the action plan if it is not bold enough or clearly pointing in the path to failure, in all other cases I normally stay put until the next investor update.
Another way to look for value
Asking hard questions in addition to those that I included in doing due diligence as per my investment criteria
- Are you meeting your financial targets?
- What’s your path to profitability?
- How much fundraising is required to get there?
- How much will investors get diluted?
- What’s your burn?
- How much runway is left?
- What are the anti-dilution rights?
- What is the liquidation preference of the money already raised?
Valuations measure the trade off between current prices and a very long-term stream of expected future cash flows. Every useful valuation ratio is just shorthand for that calculation. Every valuation ratio that fails that criterion is inferior, and you can show it in historical data.John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
President, Hussman Investment Trust
I really get upset when weeks go on and I don’t get any news from some of the startups in which I have invested. In the case of publicly-traded stocks, I can find out the market cap almost every minute, get quarterly reports and follow discussions with the management for those companies that hold investors’ calls.
When it gets to startups, a few of them provide regular updates. Some founders only get back to you when they are running out of money or even worse, when the major crisis or bankruptcy is looming or irreversible. Why??? – What benefit do you get from keeping your shareholders and investors in the dark? Even if you are not making much progress, they will eventually find out.
I understand that reporting takes time and that the founders’ priority is growth, but by neglecting to communicate regularly with your investors, paradoxically you may be missing some opportunities to accelerate growth.
What I (and probably all investors ) want from you:
- No bullshit communication, straight and to the point.
- Provide a few KPIs – Trends – Goals – Highlights and Low-lights. Asks.
- Do it every month, on a rigid schedule.
Information rights are not very frequently considered in pre-Series A shareholders agreements since there is a scarce chance to enforce them, nevertheless, I am considering starting to insist on their inclusion as a condition for investment, at least as a system for the self-identification of the “bad apples”.
Effective communication is 20% what you know and 80% how you feel about what you know.Jim Rohn
The purpose of this post is not to patronize you on how to fund-raise. There are plenty of places all over the internet where you can learn that.
My goal is to encourage you to reflect on your startup’s future cap table and more particularly on how you will take advantage of your potential investor base beyond money, i.e. what will be their added value?.
As one social entrepreneur that raised over $10 million in funding for her social enterprise said ‘”… find people who don’t just write checks. Instead, find people who can actually help the business grow“.
Concentrated number of shareholders
You may think that potential investors, particularly those that may come on board in future larger rounds such as VCs and corporate investors, would like to find as part of their due diligence, a cap table with a concentrated number of shareholders. This may be true but is not necessarily rational. As long as they have their investment protections in terms of voting and control of the company well protected, there is no reason to reject an atomized shareholder base, specifically if they do not vote or act as a class.
Also, you may not want to burden yourself with the multiplication of administrative tasks associated with having a larger number of shareholders. As a founder recently told me “We’re trying to be light on the number of investors to reduce admin and O/H expenses when managing the cap table and investors“. But is a minimal number of investors and mitigation of operational expenses really the best way to add value for a startup looking to raise seed capital?.
Furthermore, the investor’s expectations must indeed be managed. You need smart money that can help you grow the business. You may think that if you have too many investors, then you will be constantly distracted from managing the business, but is this necessarily so?.
Managing a startup with a large number of shareholders
Why don’t you automate your fundraising process starting with the standardization of your pitch (deck, video, terms sheet)?. I know that at later stages you are strongly advised to personalize your pitch to the recipient, but at this point, you should be comfortable having a standard presentation that caters to most of your potential investors.
There are multiple ways to get your startup funded. Do you prefer to have a few angel investors in your cap table or should you consider crowdfunding or other collective fundraising methods?.
Have you tried Carta, Captable.io or Assure for the administration of the fundraising process?. I know this might currently seem like a non-productive expense for your startup, but who told you that your investors are not willing to pay for these costs?.
Communication with your shareholders could also be, up to a certain point, automated. Some of the startups in my impact investment portfolio do a great work in this area, e.g. Genuine Impact – has weekly communication via a newsletter and has even implemented an open innovation process.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind themJRR Tolkien
Interview with Thibault Lesueur – Co Founder & CMO Solaris Offgrid – Solaris Tanzania (*)
What constraints are preventing the inter-operable off-grid appliances market from ramping up? and what could be done to overcome them?
The number one issue is plugging. There are different plugs and plugging systems, as they are ultimately defined by the manufacturers of solar systems. This limits expansions and constrains users to remain captive within the proprietary systems developed by such manufacturers.
At Solaris Offgrid we promote the adoption of a “neutral” plugging protocol. We are currently developing one mandated by the organisation Efficiency 4 Access (and being financed by UKAID) to develop an opensource one in order to facilitate collaboration across the industry players. This open source protocol is already in its testing phase. We believe that inter-operability breeds efficiency and enlarges the freedom of choice for the final user, which in addition will result in easier access to finance.
Having a standard plugging protocol will allow manufacturers to sell more accessories to a larger group of users, possibly there will be more competition but at the same time, this will foster the creation of more plugging products.
How does Solaris Offgrid envision to address the Productive Use Leveraging Solar Energy market?
The Open Paygo Token makes vertical markets accessible for the end-user, i.e. promotes and helps their financing. Markets such as water, mobility, sanitation, med tech, etc. targeted at BOP users will become accessible through the adoption of Pay As You Go (PAYGO) payment mechanisms. We promote the adoption of an open-source PAYGO mechanism as a form to broaden financing, enable the owners of data to share it widely and improve the tracking of users’ credit history across different products. This is really about providing value to the end-user and enabling impact beyond the use of solar energy, without detriment to the privacy and confidentiality of the information. We have developed a payment protocol that meets EU GDRP standards and that will enable end-users to add value to their credit records, should they decide to share them.
Will preventive analytics help reduce PAYG credit risk?
When we discuss machine learning, there is always this debate between the need for a lot of data vs. useful data. We have to keep in mind that the end-users of the PAYGO solutions mostly live in informal economies. They have no credit history, thus there is no proof about the usefulness, veracity or accuracy of any information that they voluntarily contribute. The principle of ‘garbage-in / garbage-out‘ clearly applies to these situations.
Predictive credit models are being designed by several solar PAYGO operators, including Solaris Offgrid. We are interested in providing value for the end-user through the data that we collect, beyond up-selling. We look to create a virtuous cycle, such as the one that BrightLife and Baobab+ bring to their users while combining PAYGO with micro-financing, or being able to offer them additional freebies such as insurance, similarly to what PEG Africa does.
Even though the most reliable data comes from telemetry, i.e. from tracking use, and despite the widespread belief that ‘data is the new oil‘, we acknowledge the limits and constraints imposed by the context in which we operate. We do not want to impose any costs on the end-users since they already go to great strides to afford the electricity. We thus promote software solutions that favor the sharing of data and the spreading of costs among multiple providers.
Today we have implemented automated payment reminders, and we can accurately predict who will pay and who will fail. What we are trying to do now goes beyond early action, we are trying to compile customer identity patterns that will let us anticipate who will be a good client based on weak signals such as his/her profession, location, consumption patterns, etc.
Today every product is speaking its own language in the paygo world, making their adoption harder. With OpenPaygo Token we have created the Esperanto of paygo, under an open source methodologyThibault Lesueur – Co Founder & CMO Solaris Offgrid
(*) I am an investor in Solaris Offgrid
Why don’t you have a 100% impact portfolio in which all your asset classes are deployed in impact investments?
When I started investing I didn’t care a lot whether my investments had any positive impact or not; this was just an afterthought held somewhere in the back of my mind. I just was squarely driven by greed and mainly focused on identifying promising startups with engaged founders, a large addressable market, good product-market fit and the possibility to scale quickly.
My initial plan was to put some chips in startups raising funds at seed-stage and to eventually double down on the most promising follow-up rounds. I had no explicit financial returns requirements, but based on public information that I had gathered about angel investment return averages, I expected that on aggregate my investments could be returned at least 2-3x within 7-10 years.
As possibly many other impact investors, I didn’t discard per se the idea of supporting impact-oriented startups or social enterprises, it was just that I didn’t want to impose on myself any unnecessary constraints since that would likely result in additional time devoted to research.
Another reason – once again acknowledging that I practically didn’t make any efforts to identify any worthy impact investment opportunities – was that most of the startups that I initially interviewed were:
- trying to solve a problem that didn’t connect with any transcendental human problem, nevertheless offered a good risk/return opportunity (Weezic, Nudge, Fidzup, etc.); or
- addressing valuable socio-environmental challenges but spooking investors by announcing projected return targets less enticing than the vast majority of other non-impact-oriented startups.
At a certain point, probably associated with my mid-life crisis, I realized that my money could have a lot “more bang for the buck” if it went into impact investments. I was inspired by the idea promoted by Toniic T100 of deploying 100% of my investments – across all asset classes – in alignment with my social priorities, in pursuit of a deeper positive net impact and using the whole spectrum of my capital to do so.
We normally are embarking on a long journey when trying to change our minds about anything including why and how we invest. Personally, having a 100% impact portfolio is still work in progress(*) rather than a ticked off goal. Nevertheless, I now have a simple rule for any new seed investments which is also quite a high hurdle: it has to be impact-focused.
When you get to 100%, that’s when the real journey startsToni Johnson formerly at Heron Foundation
(*) This is the impact section of my current startup portfolio.