A week ago, my co-founder Ale and I had an interview with Newsweek. It was a good conversation that touched on many of the innovative aspects of Beepi. One of the things that stayed with me after the interview was the reporter’s sentiment that money grows on trees in Silicon Valley; that raising a substantial round of capital for your new venture is an easy task. With my experience in both sides of money raising – as a serial entrepreneur and an angel investor – I beg to differ. I thought I would share our story of raising a venture round for Beepi as an example.
Let me take you back to July 2013. I know, ages ago. Before setting out to raise money, Ale and I had an important decision to make: timing. Specifically, we needed to decide whether to try and raise money immediately, pre-launch and before we had customers or revenue. The other option was to start operating without any VC-backing, get some traction and paying customers, and then raise money. Obviously, there were pros and cons to both approaches: raising early would mean we could deliver an extraordinary service to both our buyers and sellers, but would be that much more difficult. After all, investors want to see traction, revenue, growth. As proof of that, the first question we were asked every single time, in each fund and in every meeting, was “how many cars have you sold so far?” Not only that: failure to raise money is a stain on the company’s reputation that isn’t easily removed. Investors speak amongst themselves all the time, and there are no secrets in Silicon Valley. If you try – and fail – to raise funds, you seriously hurt your chances of doing so later. The first thing potential investors will ask themselves and their colleagues is “if everybody else said no, why should we say yes?”
In the end, the decision was to try and raise immediately. Beepi was founded to completely revamp the way cars are bought and sold in the US, and we wanted to provide an exceptional service to our buyers and sellers. It may be a Silicon Valley cliché, but in our case it’s true: we want to delight our customers. And when you want to delight your customers buying and selling cars, you need money. Lots of it.
To mitigate the reputation risks associated with failing to raise money, we pitched only to 5 “friendly” funds; places where we knew the partners, and the partners knew us. As an aside, when you want to pitch to a fund, always get a warm intro to someone at the fund. Not only is your deck more likely to actually get read, but also it’s a sort of a test: if you’re not resourceful enough to find a way to get introduced to an investor, why should the investor trust that you would be resourceful enough to be a successful entrepreneur? Our chats with the VC investors were pitch-less pitches, more of a friendly discussion where Ale and I shared what we were working on, asking for feedback. And oh, by the way, if you have some money to spare, we would love to get some. We agreed that if we couldn’t raise money from these 5 funds we would stop trying, and restart the effort post-launch.
Nobody turned us down – VCs, in general, try not to say no – but it was clear the investors wanted to see some traction before they would consider investing. Everybody agreed the idea was great, but they wanted to see execution. That was the case even though both Ale and I are seasoned entrepreneurs, who have grown companies to millions of dollars in revenues and dozens of employees. As the saying goes: “Ideas are cheap; execution is king” They all seemed to want that extra something, a secret ingredient that would make them feel more comfortable with the potential investment.
During our non-fund-raising tour of renowned Sand Hill Road, we were lucky enough to meet Jeff Brody and Tim Haley of Redpoint Ventures. Two visionary investors, with such portfolio companies as Netflix, HomeAway and Juniper Networks. Despite a terrible first meeting – Ale was ill and I had spent the night coding – Jeff invited us to a second meeting. Let me take the opportunity to advise everyone against going to a VC meeting when you’re not at the top of your game. Better to postpone or cancel than make a lousy first impression. Somehow Jeff saw Beepi’s potential through Ale’s fever and my rambling. That’s what separates the good investors from the great. Following that first meeting with Jeff, we had four more meetings with Jeff, Tim Haley and Jamie Davidson, where Ale and I were grilled on Beepi’s idea, execution plan, projected costs and revenues, hiring plans and more. We then presented to the entire partnership, which was a good opportunity for us to get feedback from many smart people hearing about Beepi for the first time. In addition, we all had dinner together, to get to know each other on a more personal basis. After all, if all goes well you end up spending 5 to 7 years with your investors, through good times and bad. Much like a marriage.
When we heard from Jeff that Redpoint was interested in investing, we were over the moon. Not only because we knew we had a serious believer in our vision and plan, but also because after getting to know Jeff over the preceding 7 weeks we knew this is someone we would be fortunate to work with. Of course, once Redpoint gave us the official “Yes”, the other 4 funds we pitched to came back with their own positive answers; when it rains, it pours.
In summary, even though Ale and I presented only to funds who knew us; even though we are both seasoned entrepreneurs; even though we have a great idea and an even better execution plan (and I’m not biased at all); and even though we were backed by prolific angel investors as Fabrice Grinda and Jose Marin, raising money was a long, and sometimes frustrating process for us. True, the outcome was successful, but it was not a guaranteed outcome. To those of you thinking about raising money in the future: if you have a good idea, a good team and a good plan, you definitely have a chance of getting funded. However, don’t be fooled: nobody will be waiting for you with a check the minute you land in San Francisco Airport.