Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Opportunity-Based Thinking)

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Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

One of the fundamental ways that a startup company can find success is by focusing on opportunities.  This could include new ways of doing things, a better solution, or markets where demand exceeds supply, to name a few.  Being successful in this regard requires a special perspective, one that understands customer needs and wants today, and also in the future.  It requires the ability to look beyond the company at hand and pay greater attention to the marketplace, outside your window.

Corporate jobs are often more about focusing on what’s in front of you, ranging from tasks that relate to the past (think audits and tax returns) or immediate future.  Although you might look forward from time to time, as in the case of budgeting, forecasting, or planning initiatives, sitting back and considering what the future might look like and the opportunities that could be created isn’t typically in the mix.  This is a much different range of view and represents a successful entrepreneur’s golden time.

Why it Matters

You might have been asked at some point in your life to “read between the lines” or observe “the negative space”.  Both of these concepts require a person to see what isn’t obvious at first blush, and some people find it quite difficult.  It requires looking past what’s in front of you and connecting the dots to arrive at what could be a very different answer or idea.  Apply this concept to a startup company (or any business looking to expand its horizons, for that matter), and you will begin to understand what opportunity-based thinking is all about.

Businesses need people who can bring this important perspective, in order to be successful over the long term, as many simply do not have this ability.  Missing opportunities in the marketplace has led to the failure of many companies, as well as career setbacks for a host of business leaders, entrepreneurs, and senior team members.  Prepare in advance by learning how to make the marketplace your new BFF, providing access to the powerful opportunities that await!

Get Started

In a world of glancing in the rear view mirror, you can begin to practice the key skill of looking forward in advance of when it’s actually needed; here’s how:

  • Take on forward looking projects: Bring a new approach to organizing your workload, by separating tasks or projects that require a past or present perspective, as compared to those that look forward.  You will likely find that you have far more work that involves looking backwards or at what’s in front of you, so seek out projects that look ahead to balance the scale.  Projects that involve budgeting, forecasting, and planning can be a good place to start.
  • Trend is your friend: Taking on tasks that involve research or an external focus will help you to understand what drives markets, key trends, and where the opportunities are.  Once you spend some time doing this type of work, it will become obvious just how different the perspective is.
  • Look outside of your own organization: Challenge yourself to spend a portion of every day thinking about what goes on outside of the four walls of your organization, such as with customers, competitors, and industry/market developments.  Start with 20% of your time and progress upwards from there to develop a meaningful external perspective (and, no, 50% is not too high!).
  • Check in on a regular basis: It might be relatively easy to make some changes in routine for a short period of time, but seeing opportunities that will propel a company forward only starts to happen after you’ve developed the necessary skills to do so. Whatever you call it; a mind shift, a fresh perspective, or creative visioning, it won’t happen unless you “check in” with yourself periodically to ensure that you haven’t fallen back into a focus characterized by short term, internal matters.  Change your perspective for good.

The ability to look forward in advance of when it’s needed spells opportunity, no matter how you slice it.  What’s more, it can lead to opportunities for you to play a key role in the startup companies that need this perspective more than either of you know.

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Attitude)

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Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

Although you’ve completed years of education and gained some experience, there is still much to learn.  Whether this reality hits you as daunting, exciting, or somewhere in between, you probably don’t realize just how much your attitude matters when facing future learning.  Many of us were raised with reminders to “think positive”, but probably didn’t realize just how important this is when facing something new.  This concept is particularly relevant in the startup world.

Generating success isn’t just about getting something new to “work”; but rather, in the case of startup companies that require assistance and investment from others, it’s more about what comes along with the quest for capital.  Investors tend to have many choices where they can put their money, and there are often far more options than what can be financed.  For this reason, those with capital have the latitude to select the opportunities that represent the best “fit”, in terms of returns and the ease of getting there.  A big part of this has to do with attitude.

Why it Matters

One of the “screens” that early stage investors tend to use to evaluate investment opportunities is the attitude of a company’s leadership, particularly in terms of responsiveness to advice.  For all that is known, there is much more to learn, and investors typically bring a host of knowledge that is critical to moving a young company forward.  Although they might not understand all of the intricacies of a startup’s technology platform, investors understand enough to generate success, as well as many other things that entrepreneurs typically don’t have the depth of experience to appreciate.

What is powerful is when experience and emerging ideas come together to build something that is both competitively advantageous and soundly executed.  In order to do so, startups need to be receptive to good advice and demonstrate an ability to work well with those who have more experience than they do.  What many startups don’t realize is that investors have better things to do than fight with entrepreneurs who will never see the light, and, as a result, will bypass these situations for more productive opportunities.  Don’t let this happen to your business!

Get Started

Experienced investors know that smart entrepreneurs will do whatever they can to reduce the risk of rejection.  Since grace in times of what could be a hearty dose of reality isn’t a given, take the opportunity to get some practice; here’s how:

  • Learn how to focus on “breathing”: If you’re not in the routine of receiving constructive criticism, it’s time to get used to it.  When facing times of difficult questions or advice, learn how to respond.  Practicing how to reflect on the question, “count to 10”, or give all ideas a “positive life” for a period of time can help.
  • Reflect on what you don’t know: Step 1: Accept the fact that you don’t know everything.  Step 2:  Accept the fact that there are things that you will be wrong about.  Step 3:  Make an active effort to learn about what you don’t know.  Step 4:  Reconcile the first three steps and move forward with a positive attitude, not grudgingly or with resentment.
  • Refresh research skills: Although it might be easy to find information online and think that this alone addresses the question or combats the advice, this is only half the battle.  Investors know that understanding what to do with the information is what really matters.  Think about it.
  • Practice developing responses: Startups seeking capital will be asked a lot of questions and face a great deal of advice.  Make the most of these opportunities (yes, these are opportunities!) by learning how to address inquiries directly with responses that are thorough and relevant, yet concise, and then utilize “smart advice” for all it’s worth!

There are lots of entrepreneurs who take the position that pushing forward with reckless abandon is what matters; be difficult, be original, never surrender.  The reality is that when investment capital from others is needed, this type of approach just doesn’t cut it, and although some things might be worth fighting for, the list should be short.  Failing to do so can result in alienating the audience that startups have such a critical need to engage in order to move forward; one that’s counting on your positive attitude.

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Finance & Business Acumen)

Hand and aces

Published by CPA Canada in Careervision

You’ve spent a good portion of your career in the business world, working with those who manage, keep track of the numbers, and hopefully understand it well.  In addition to this practical experience, you’ve probably spent a number of years completing formal business and finance study.  It’s easy to take management and finance for granted, when it’s a big part of what you and those around you do on a daily basis.

Although entrepreneurs tend to end up in the leadership role in startup companies (often by default), most lack actual business experience; this is particularly true in terms of finance.  The bulk of the emphasis tends to be placed on the product, service, or technology (entrepreneurs are typically guilty of this!), resulting in the business and finance aspects that are so important to any company being overlooked.  This can also be a function of entrepreneurs simply preferring to spend their time on what they love, and it isn’t accounting.

Those who have formal education and experience in these areas have knowledge and skills to offer to startup companies, to a degree much more than they realize.  What’s important is to understand what the real needs are and why, so that the opportunity to prepare in advance isn’t missed.

Why it Matters

As already explored in this series, startup companies lack the stability of more established businesses, and one of the main areas of risk is cash flow, closely followed by the challenge of attracting investment capital to support growth.  Non-financial entrepreneurs typically don’t realize the degree to which their venture is at risk in financial terms, nor do they understand the needs of early stage investors, when it comes to raising capital.

As a result, startups often find themselves in double trouble: (i) short of cash and the skills to manage it; and (ii) an inability to provide the financial oversight and reporting that investors require.  The outcome, too often, is a predictable death spiral, where these two factors get caught in an endless loop, resulting in the business running out of cash and being unable to generate what’s required in order to stop the plunge.

Get Started

Chances are that you have underestimated just how much the business and finance skills that you have learned and practiced are of value to startup companies.  Put a lid on the typical excitement and hype associated with new technologies and opportunities and focus instead on accentuating the value of what you have to offer:

  • Become acquainted with the “hands on” finance role: Since startup companies are small, the “accounting person” often has to do it all: transaction entry, generating financial statements, and dealing with billing and banking matters.  Recognize that startup work is much more involved than a lofty oversight role and that the buck will truly stop with you.
  • Map out routine processes: Make the most of limited time by developing checklists to guide task completion, including on a weekly and monthly basis.  Most entrepreneurs don’t have the financial experience to do this and it will make everyone’s life easier, as well as provide the discipline that investors seek.
  • Revisit financial accounting, in reporting terms: Recognize that internal reporting and recordkeeping often differ from what external parties expect to see.  In order to keep investors and financial institutions happy, ensure that you’re able to produce monthly financial statements in the standard financial accounting format.
  • Master cash flow management: Being able to manage cash with confidence is critical, and may not be a skill that is practiced much while working in a larger company.  Cash flow management is not an area to be learned on Day One of working with a startup, so get lots of advance practice now.
  • Learn about what investors require: Early stage investors look for a qualified person in the Finance Chair, as it’s this individual who will take care of their investment.  Recognize this and seek to learn about their particular needs, in terms of reporting and ongoing operation of the finance function.

Early stage investors recognize that the majority (if not the vast majority) of startup companies fail.  There are a variety of reasons for this, including products that aren’t competitive in the marketplace and an inability to attract enough customers.  What’s more typically the problem, however, is poor execution on the part of Management, in terms of not running the business well.  At the core is often a lack of financial acumen, resulting in the company running out of money before it even had a chance to get started.

EVENT: CVCA Insights, Data Release Roadshow (Apr 6th, Halifax)

Pleased to be co-sponsoring this event with innovacorp!

Join us for a morning of networking to mark another great year in the private capital industry.  The CVCA‘s Chief Executive Officer, Mike Woollatt, will discuss the 2015 Market Overview, including transaction and fundraising data, most active Venture Capital and Private Equity investors, top firms, rising investment sectors, and other insights.

Registration is required by March 30, 2016 and seating is limited.  Reserve your place today!

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Discipline)

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Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

The word “entrepreneurial” is often associated with a freewheeling, zig-zagging, devil-may-care, caution-into-the-wind type of attitude. Although it’s true that the ideas and new ways of doing things that are typically associated with startup companies require some creative thought, this is not all that’s needed.  In fact, one of the things that is surprising about young companies is just how much discipline they need in order to be successful.

Startups are focused on building: new companies, new products and services, new markets, new ways of doing things. Like any construction project, this is best done by building on solid ground, starting with the site, a good foundation, and using tactics that are tried and true.  Although this particular house might include some new features or ideas (think geothermal heating or windows that provide privacy with the flick of a switch!), most construction fundamentals still need to be in place.  Why is this the case?  Simply because it’s important to put evolution into practice within a stable environment, as combining too many new things at once can cause the structure to come tumbling down.

This type of balanced progress (or evolution under control) resonates well with early stage investors, as it raises the likelihood of overall success. It also serves as a means to manage and mitigate risk, which is something that we have already explored in this series.  Understanding that the sound business practices and discipline that are learned in the corporate world shouldn’t be abandoned; but, rather, leveraged and built upon, is a key area of opportunity for anyone entering a startup company.

Why it Matters

When something is young; be it a child, a puppy, or a company, it needs more structure, not less. Think about the last time you learned how to do something: in order to understand the task, your role, and the implications of doing it right (or wrong!), it was necessary to pay careful attention to the lesson, understand what needed to be done (and how), practice, and perhaps take corrective action (or refer back to the manual) in order to get it right.  Startup companies really aren’t much different than these examples.

What runs against the grain of what early stage investors know to be true is when young companies do the opposite (remember that devil-may-care attitude?), applying good business practices just about nowhere. If the intent to is make a new way of doing things work for the long term, it has to be supported by the fundamentals; business planning, financial management, implementation monitoring, and defined roles and responsibilities are just a few examples of the discipline that should be in place.  In many startup companies, an investor would be challenged to find any of these practices!

Get Started

Benefit from the established fundamental business practices that are typically present in large companies by learning how to incorporate them with discipline into a startup environment:

  • Dust off that textbook: Although it might have been a while since you’ve held the student viewpoint, recognize what is part of good, old fashioned fundamental business practices and undertake the discipline to learn how to put (and keep) them in place. Areas to think and learn about include planning, budgeting, assigning tasks, monitoring performance, documentation, and roles and responsibilities.
  • Practice recognizing where business fundamentals can be applied: Regardless of the environment, there is a place for good business practices. Learn how to transfer what you have observed and worked with in a corporate environment to that of a startup business. Resist the temptation to fall into the “it can’t be done” trap; experienced investors know that it can be done.
  • Learn more about what you don’t know: While in the relative stability of an established organization, take the time to learn more about areas with which you are less familiar. Research, courses, and new job responsibilities are all strategies for learning.
  • Test your ability to perform on a disciplined basis: What sounds simple “on paper” is typically much more of a challenge when it’s put into practice. Pursue opportunities to take learning to a practical level and be sure to take note of how performance could be improved.
  • Think in both the short and long term: Short term thinking tends to equate with getting things done, while a long term mindset is more about putting policies and procedures into place. Recognize that investors expect to see both: the track record of what has been achieved and established practices in a business to demonstrate discipline and ongoing value.

When you take the time to think about a startup company in the context of other things that are early in their developmental stage, it is blatantly obvious that much structure and attention are needed in order to shepherd a neophyte safely into the future. By separating the creative process of generating ideas from the disciplined approach of building, it’s possible to fully recognize the stark differences between the two.  This is what early stage investors see every time.

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Early Stage Financing)

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Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

One thing that most start up companies have in common is a lack of resources, including people, capital, and “stuff”. The root of this shortfall (or the thing that can resolve it) is money, something that can be hard to come by in the startup world.  Once entrepreneurs have exhausted their own funds, and often that of friends, family, and anyone else they can convince, the only remaining option is to find an investor.  This is a big step for many young companies, as it represents the first time that the money ask goes outside of “the circle”.

There’s another important reason why approaching an investor is such a significant step, and it is simply this: most entrepreneurs have no idea what investors need to know in order to make an investment decision. Put another way, investors, be they experienced angels or institutional funds (such as venture capitalists) have very specific expectations in terms of the information they require.  This includes content and format, as well as fitting within the investor’s particular mandate.  While it might sound simple, it’s anything but, and most of what investors receive doesn’t meet their needs at all.

Life in a corporate job usually doesn’t involve spending time in this area, especially in terms of just how critical it is to success. Financing matters are typically handled by others, and access to this type of external party is limited.  In this series, our focus is on understanding the significant differences between a startup environment and the corporate world so that you can place a greater amount of emphasis on developing some of the skills that will serve you well in advance of when they’re actually needed.   So far, areas we’ve considered include risk, rejection, and money.  Understanding the expectations of early stage investors couldn’t be more important!

Why it Matters

Entrepreneurs tend to show a lot of confidence when discussing the topic of investors. They’re excited about the product/service they’ve developed, and generally expect that others will be equally impressed.  Comments like “so-and-so wants to invest” or “is ready to cut a cheque” are often heard, but as the process moves forward, these seemingly slam-dunk situations tend to fade.  Impressed or not, entrepreneurs are often left to wonder where the money went.

A big part of the reason for this is that young companies lack the ability to package an investment opportunity in a manner that meets the needs of investors. Be it the business plan that lacks context, too much emphasis on the product, or a financial forecast with questionable assumptions (or none at all; startups can’t forecast!), investors aren’t buying.  Entrepreneurs tend to respond by offering up information that is used to run the business, or even worse, more technical information, in the hopes that the tide will turn.  No such luck.

Get Started

Not understanding the needs of early stage investors is a very common problem in the start up world. Rise above it by taking the time to understand what investors want to know, well in advance of when the bank account is empty:

  • Research the topic of early stage financing: Venture capital and angel investing are specialized areas that are not understood well, and reading about it in a text book isn’t sufficient. Tap into resources produced by investor networks, associations, and similar sources to understand how it works and the preparation that is required.
  • Recognize that investors have specific needs: Many entrepreneurs simply do not do this. They believe that all they have to do is provide “what they have” and the investor will adapt. In a world where deal opportunities vastly outnumber the supply of capital, this isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
  • Learn how to write a business plan: Bypass the folklore that “investors don’t read business plans”; they do. In addition, they challenge entrepreneurs on their business model, target markets, and the financial outcome of implementing the plan. All of these areas are very difficult to address well in the absence of having developed an investor ready business plan.
  • Network with experienced advisors: Those who specialize in the area of early stage financing have a clear understanding what is needed to raise the likelihood of getting to yes. Although there are no guarantees in life, their expertise can be invaluable. Look for those with a demonstrated early stage financing background, such as a former venture capitalist.
  • Practice accepting rejection gracefully: As simple as it sounds, doing this well can be the difference between ultimately receiving capital and burning your bridges. Chances are, you won’t raise money on the first (or even on the tenth!) try, so learn how to make the most of these interactions by asking questions, seeking out network contacts, and leaving a professional impression. Too many entrepreneurs do the opposite.

Thinking that your product or service is so great that investors will line up to put money in is a path to failure. If there is a scenario out there where all of the stars will line up to secure easy capital, chances are, it won’t be your company.  These are rough lessons that are best learned before they happen, so take the time to understand the complex world of early stage investing and prepare for it.

COVER STORY: Canada’s Venture Capital Report Card- Building on regional successes to stoke the long term fire

Cover story, as published in Private Capital, Q4 2015

The Conference Board of Canada’s most recent Innovation Report Card includes some impressive venture capital benchmarks, but there’s much more to consider when looking beneath the surface.

Decreased venture capital investment levels in peer global markets, which are largely a lingering byproduct of the financial crisis, coupled with brisk, but isolated investment activity in select geographies here in Canada raises questions about our ability to sustain a high ranking when conditions improve elsewhere.  Perhaps, even more importantly, these findings put the focus on what actions should be taken to bring improvement to Canada’s weaker markets, of which, there are quite a few.

The Findings

Canada

Increased venture capital investment, primarily in Canada’s large provinces, coupled with lagging investment in European countries since the recession have resulted in Canada moving from being one of the weakest performers to one of the strongest. Specifically:

  • Canada’s ranking has improved from third worst in 2009 to second best in 2014 in venture capital investment, relative to 15 peer countries. Canada earned a B grade and a fifth place ranking overall.
  • Canada’s venture capital investment has more than doubled, from nearly $1 billion (.07 per cent of GDP) in 2009 to over $2.3 billion (.12 per cent of GDP) in 2014.
  • The number of companies receiving venture capital in Canada has increased from 378 in 2009, to 416 in 2014. Peak levels of approximately 450 companies receiving venture capital in 2011 and 2012 have not been met in recent years.
  • The vast majority (80 per cent) of Canada’s venture capital investment in 2013 was later stage, with only 20 per cent taking the form of early stage financing. This falls well short of international trends where more than 60 per cent of venture capital targets early stage financing. The report notes that Canadian venture capital took a much more balanced approach in 2009, when financing was more evenly split between early and later stage.

The Provinces

Provincial venture capital investment levels and rankings vary widely, from A to D-, with six provinces receiving a D or D- ranking. Specifically:

  • Both BC and Quebec rank as A’s in terms of venture capital investment (representing .16 per cent and .14 per cent of GDP, respectively), outpaced only by the US (.17 per cent of GDP).
  • Although companies in Ontario received more venture capital money than that of other provinces, the venture capital investment level of .11 per cent of GDP was sufficient to earn a B ranking.
  • Propelled by two venture capital deals totaling $60 million in 2014, Newfoundland and Labrador received a C ranking.
  • Canada’s remaining provinces received a D ranking in venture capital investment, with Manitoba and Prince Edward Island receiving a grade of D-.
  • Substantial increases in venture capital investment levels from 2009 to 2014 have occurred in four provinces; Ontario (117 per cent), BC (91 per cent), Alberta (81 per cent), and Quebec (61 per cent). All other provinces have experienced declines.
  • In terms of the number of Canadian companies that received venture capital funding in 2014, the highest levels occurred in Quebec (151), Ontario (142), BC (60), Alberta (27), and New Brunswick (19). The remaining provinces ranged from one to nine companies receiving venture capital.

The Fuel

Canada’s much improved ranking was assisted by the fact that, with the exception of the US, venture capital investments declined in all of the other peer countries between 2009 and 2013. Canada weathered the recession better than many countries, contributing to more stable venture capital investment levels. In fact, venture capital investment levels have now returned to the pre-recession level of $2.3 billion. Contributions from the Venture Capital Action Plan (VCAP) have helped, as well as the ongoing participation of BDC Capital, which the study cites as Canada’s largest and most active early stage technology investor.

Venture capital investment in Canada from foreign sources has continued to rise. Traditionally, it has represented approximately 30 per cent of the total, but increased to more than 37 per cent in 2014 from US sources alone. Clearly, venture capital investment levels are positively impacted by foreign participation and our own public policy that encourages investment.

However, we must also be wary of the fact that Canada is currently standing out in a cohort that is performing well below its pre-recession standards. What we do next to continue to separate ourselves from the pack now could have long-standing consequences.

Viewing Canada’s current position of strength as an opportunity to make the necessary improvements to “lift the level of all boats” is a much more proactive approach than simply benefiting from the rise of the tide.

The Fire

Improving venture capital investment levels across the country and generating long term sustainability are important areas of focus. The Conference Board cites a number of factors that contribute to establishing a successful level of venture capital investment, including the presence of those with money to invest, companies that are investment worthy, and a means to connect the two.

Much could be said about the challenges of establishing venture capital pools in particular geographic areas and the difficulties of allocating a portion of funds in existing pools to investments with a higher risk profile. Regardless, fueling the venture investment process requires a stable of “investor ready” companies, enabling venture capitalists to invest well, work with high potential businesses, and generate the returns that are so important in attracting fundraising over the long term.  These are critical components in generating a sustainable venture capital environment.

Venture capitalists recognize that the presence of investor ready businesses and the right approach to get there are, in many ways, the fuel for generating a vibrant investment environment. Too often, the focus tends to be on leading with capital, and although this approach might find some initial success to “get money out”, it does little to generate the level of returns to stoke the fire for the long term.

Go Big or Go Home: What does it take to build a great company?

Published by the Canadian Venture Capital Association in Private Capital

If early stage companies know little about the expectations of venture capitalists (see Bridging the Gap, Spring 2011 edition of Private Capital), they probably know even less about the working relationship between the two parties post-investment.  While VC’s might see the next steps as obvious (“let’s go and build a great company!”), early stage companies may be exhausted and overwhelmed from the due diligence and closing process and may simply be wishing for things to return to normal; but will their world ever be “normal” again?  Most VC’s certainly hope not.

If the devil is in the details, the challenge is in the goal: taking a largely unproven, early stage business and building it into a great company.  To a VC, this means the elusive “big win”; the company that grows from mere obscurity to sales of $50 million, $75 million, or more.  Beyond the cash that is generated, these winning companies are leaders in their markets, innovators in their industry, and perhaps, most importantly, they share in this powerful vision of top tier growth.  They too want to build a great company, and will take whatever assistance and valuable insight they can find in order to get there.

If a journey begins with a single step, where do you start?  Surprisingly, there may not be a lot of magic in terms of starting the relationship with a new portfolio company off on the right path.  As with the preparation for raising early stage capital, the fundamentals also matter when building a business.  Although strategy is important, what can be even more critical is successful implementation (i.e., getting it done!), while being in tune with the industry and market to know when to shift gears and make the necessary changes.

Investee companies need to take the necessary steps to build the business to support future growth, and not get caught up in the status quo.  And while distractions often arise, it is critical to focus on the fundamentals and the ultimate goal, a discipline that can be difficult for young companies.

As part of this process, a number of key areas require careful and consistent attention, including:

Fundamental Area Critical Success Factors
Aligned Objectives Management buy-in to the short term and long term objectives, as well as the exit strategy.  Willingness to use experienced resources/advice to grow the company.  Consistent focus on what is in the best interest of the business
Product Focus on sustainable competitive advantage. Strong understanding of industry and market developments to guide future product development efforts.  Ability to deliver new products and product enhancements on a timely basis
Market Demonstrated ability to reach and penetrate target market(s) through an appropriate strategy (i.e., pricing, advertising, promotion, distribution, etc.).  Strong focus on competitive landscape and market developments, making necessary adjustments to grow market position
Management Management team includes those with aligned objectives, the right skills and expertise, and strong implementation skills.  Problem areas are addressed on a timely basis
Financial Results & Capital Requirements Timely and accurate financial information that is used to track progress and make adjustments where needed.  Established short term budgets and long term financial targets, as well as the necessary capital to achieve results
Exit Strategy Well developed strategy, including estimated timeline, key milestones, and exit approach.  Should consider market and industry trends and outlook

Given the importance of building the business to support future growth, management may lack the experience to do so, but can gain valuable assistance from the expertise that VC’s bring to the table.  In order to raise the likelihood of success: (i) management needs to be receptive of this type of assistance; and (ii) VC’s need to take an active role in providing it.  Although it is a given that VC’s don’t run companies, this process can mean that early stage investors might have to roll up their sleeves more than they would like, particularly when difficulties arise.  Failing to do so could result in a company that never really reaches its potential, falling well short of “great”.

Beyond providing assistance with the fundamentals, important problem areas for VC’s to play an active role in resolving include the following types of situations:

When the founder flounders Just because a CEO has what it takes to start a business and manage it in the early days does not mean that they have the skillset and desire to build a company.  It’s been said that many high growth companies have at least three CEO’s during the course of their history: one to start the business, one to grow the business, and one to position the company for exit.  All of these situations have a different focus and require different skillsets.  Chances are that all of these skillsets do not reside within a single CEO, so a change in leadership as part of the strategy should not be surprising.  It can, in fact, represent an opportunity to drive growth in each stage of development.

Where the issue can become really problematic, however, is with a CEO who is truly out of their element.  This situation can be typical with early stage companies, where: (i) one of the founders was arbitrarily put in the CEO position, but clearly lacks the necessary skillset; or (ii) the investee company hired the best CEO they could afford, on a very limited or part time budget, and got what they paid for.

In any event, VC’s need to recognize situations where the “CEO has to go” and take swift action.   Weaknesses at the top normally don’t turn around, and sub-par performance results in opportunity that is forever lost.  Although CEO recruitment is often a time consuming process, leadership is beyond important and maintaining a poor CEO and hoping for improvement does not represent a strategy for resolving the problem or for generating solid financial results.

When financial management gets no respect Many young companies underestimate the importance of the finance function, including the critical nature of timely financial information as a management tool, as well as in terms of attracting capital.  Companies with a significant technical or intellectual property component, in particular, tend to put the majority of their resources into technology or product related areas, while downplaying the need to hire a qualified Controller or CFO.

It is often up to the VC to drive change in this area, as they truly recognize just how much a good CFO can do for a company, especially when there is more capital to raise.  VC’s need to ensure that companies build a finance function that can support future growth and create the necessary level of confidence to attract future investors.  The bottom line is that sound financial management is always critical, and you simply won’t build a great company without the right resources and systems in the finance function.

When the culture isn’t a learning one Building an early stage business can be an isolating process and the founders and their team can become overly focused on internal activities.  Growing a business requires a more balanced approach, with sufficient focus being paid to customers, competitors, and market developments, as well as to internal matters.  CEO’s who tend to rest on their laurels and what they already know, without upping the knowledge ante, can be a problem, as well as a sure fire way to get stuck in the status quo.  Successful businesses are always learning, from the CEO’s office throughout the ranks, and building for growth requires new knowledge and skills.

VC’s can be an important catalyst in this regard, setting expectations for CEO’s to actively network and stress the importance of continuous learning throughout the company, as well as seeking out collaborative relationships, perhaps with other investees.  VC’s have almost constant access to industry events and professional development opportunities crossing their desk, and taking a moment to invite portfolio companies along can help to set these important expectations and fuel growth.

When the company needs more help than a VC can provide Early stage companies often lack the experience to address issues that arise, while maintaining forward motion.  This is often the case in “business as usual” situations, so imagine how much of a skill and knowledge shortfall could occur when building a company to support significant growth.  Assisting an investee company in this area could become a full time job for a VC, and that’s just not workable for the long term, given that there is an entire portfolio to manage.

Hands on advisors can be a real help in this type of situation, and VC’s should play an active role in making it happen.  Early stage companies may lack the experience to fully understand the type of resources they need to assist with a particular situation, and as a result, are often not well equipped to identify the type of assistance they require.  VC’s, on the other hand, have typically seen the same situations many times, understand what is needed to support growth, and can be in the best position to diagnose the problem and suggest a handful of qualified advisors who can help; they just need to make the effort to do so.

Helping portfolio companies go from good to great is not just about the big moments; it’s also about paying careful attention to the fundamentals and taking timely corrective action when needed.  Setting expectations of disciplined implementation, seeking out the right resources for assistance when needed, and not tolerating sub-par performance can help to make the most of investment opportunities.  It could be the difference between a breakout company and those that just plod along.

Bridging the Gap between VC’s and Entrepreneurs: A fresh look can be well worth the effort

Published by the Canadian Venture Capital Association in Private Capital

There has been plenty of talk about the state of Canada’s venture capital industry over the last few years; Are returns improving? When will fundraising levels increase? Are more deals getting done?  Although the industry, like many others, moves in cycles, there are some things that seem constant: the gap between the expectations of venture capitalists and how entrepreneurs approach fulfilling these requirements is a good example.

In times of limited capital, bridging this gap to establish the necessary common ground for an investment to occur is critical, particularly for entrepreneurs.  The great divide may be as simple as this: entrepreneurs often focus on building technologies, while VC’s focus on building companies.  Although both aspects of the equation are required in order to capitalize on a market opportunity, why is it so often a zero sum game?

While entrepreneurs are busy perfecting existing technologies, developing new ones, and perhaps focusing on securing support for ongoing research and development, venture capitalists are focused on assessing investment opportunities in terms of key business fundamentals: Product, Market, Management, Financial Requirements and Potential, and Exit Strategy.  VC’s focus on all of these areas, as each one is integral to building a business to capitalize on a market opportunity and generate growth to the point where a successful exit can be achieved.  Many entrepreneurs, however, concentrate their efforts on one or two of these areas, most often the Product category.  Is it any wonder that so many transactions fail to occur?

The very fact that this gap still exists makes it worthy of a fresh look.  The crux of the issue is the opportunity that is lost when an investor and entrepreneur simply are not on the same page, each having different expectations and requirements in order for a transaction to occur.  How often have venture capitalists mused “great product; but they just don’t have a clue about business…”?  In cases like this, they might as well be speaking different languages (and, in fact, they probably are).

Entrepreneurs need to do their part; by taking the time to increase their level of business and financing knowledge and to actively listen to what a VC requires in order to move forward.  Expecting the process to change and balking at the requirements is not realistic or constructive; not as long as VC’s have the money.  Entrepreneurs need to make a conscious decision in terms of whether or not they are truly committed to fulfilling the requirements of the financing process and stick to it.

Venture capitalists, on the other hand, may not have the time or resources to address the areas of development within a potential investee company; and it is not typically their role to do so.  However, there is much that a VC can do to positively influence and expedite this process.

Recognize the language gap:  Venture capital is a complex business, and it does not take much to confuse those who do not work in the industry.  Given that many entrepreneurs lack knowledge of the financing process, they can quickly become “lost” in discussions with potential financial partners.  A VC might think they have been clear in their expectations with an entrepreneur and may be surprised to learn that only a small percentage of their message was actually heard.  Although it may sound simplistic, making a conscious effort to communicate expectations in a plain and straightforward manner increases the likelihood that the message will be both heard and understood.

Demonstrate the fundamentals:  Many entrepreneurs wonder what it is exactly that venture capitalists are looking for in an investment opportunity.  Although the final analysis may be in the eye of the beholder, as much as things change, the fundamentals stay the same.  Articulating the fundamentals in a clear and concise manner is much easier for an entrepreneur to absorb and fulfill.  A simple table, such as the one shown here, not only can help an entrepreneur to better understand the requirements, but also to identify the areas where assistance is needed.

Fundamental Area Items to Address
Product Proprietary technology (i.e., patents, etc.); stage of completion (i.e., market readiness); sustainable competitive advantage; future product development opportunities and capability
Market Demonstrated market need for the product; identification of primary and secondary markets; competitive landscape; strategy to get the product to market (i.e., pricing, advertising, promotion, distribution)
Management Management team members; qualifications; roles and responsibilities; gaps in management team and how they will be addressed; board of directors/advisory board members; advisors under contract
Financial Requirements & Potential Current and projected financial results (including Income Statement, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow); schedules and key assumptions; sensitivity analysis; estimated valuation; amount of financing required and use of funds
Exit Strategy Industry life cycle/outlook; timeline; key milestones; and exit approach

 

Provide clear action items:  After meeting with a VC, an entrepreneur might walk away with the basic understanding that they “need to improve their business plan” in order for an investor to take the next step.  In practical terms, what does this mean?  Although the VC might have made reference to particular areas, the entrepreneur may simply be at a loss in terms of what they need to do to fulfill the requirement (or simply, how to start).  Providing clear action items (i.e., “develop a table that summarizes competitors in the following categories”, etc.) can help create the “to do” list for an entrepreneur to fulfill what is being asked of them.  Examples can be particularly helpful.

Suggest practical, hands on assistance:  At the end of the day, some entrepreneurs lack the experience and focus to address the needs of a venture capitalist.  Utilizing an experienced business advisor who understands both the early stage financing process and building a business can be an effective way to bridge the gap and a valuable resource when the going gets tough.  An advisor with this type of experience understands both sides of the coin; in terms of where the business needs to “get to” in order to meet the expectations of the VC, and how to work with an entrepreneur to get the job done.  This role can also be the translator between those who speak the language of venture capital and those who do not.

Is it worth the effort?  Sure it is.  Aren’t we all looking for that one great deal?