How To

Build an Investor List

Russ Wilcox
Partner @ Pillar

If your company is ready for a Series A, your biggest limiting factor will be finding investors.

The greatest factor that can reduce the effort required to run the Series A process is to invest heavily in researching your targets well before you’re ready to raise. At Pillar, we recommend that our founders begin creating a Series A target list right after they’ve raised their seed round, or at least 9 months before they plan to raise a Series A. 

Meet future investors

During your seed stage, you may be contacted by investors seeking to meet you, especially if your company has received press coverage or if it is backed by well-known seed investors. You may also be invited to pitch events, or to industry panels where investors are in the audience. Sometimes, you will meet VC partners, and more often, you will be canvassed by Associates. How should you respond?

Our advice is to maintain a spreadsheet with the names of any interested investors who are chasing you. Don’t automatically respond to them all. Carefully examine each incoming call to decide if the investor could be a fit for your Series A (more on the factors to consider below). If so, take the call and see what you can learn about the firm and its investing priorities and style.

Dave Balter, CEO at Flipside Crypto, calls this stage “the Wind-Up” (to be followed later by the Pitch – read his insightful comments on fund-raising). He says this stage is “Just casual glad-handing, coffee meetings and character-setting. A good Wind-Up will inform who you have chemistry with. Nothing will happen without chemistry.”

"Nothing will happen without chemistry."
- Dave Balter

 

Dave is a fund-raising master. He likes to stay in the Wind-Up phase while polishing the way he explains the Vision and at the same time, step by step improving his management team. At a certain point he senses that the VCs are starting to ask him to come pitch, and he senses he has momentum. That’s when he goes into execution and pitch mode, with a goal of trying to get to a term sheet in just a few weeks. He will not go into pitch mode until AFTER he senses from these coffee meetings that he had momentum.

Follow two rules when you accept meetings with VCs who approach you too early: 

Rule #1:
Be clear that you are NOT fundraising

Be clear that you are NOT fundraising. The last thing you want is to start asking for money prematurely. The goal of your fundraising process should be to prepare thoroughly, put your best foot forward, and then run a tight process to generate multiple offers. That can’t happen if you start working closely with one investor ahead of the rest.

Make it a mostly social meeting to get to know prospective partners and firms and to develop personal chemistry. DO introduce yourself and your company and its vision, but DO NOT give a detailed update, financials, projections, customer lists, or other inside or proprietary information. No forward promises. Maintain an element of mystery. That keeps your gunpowder dry for later.

Rule #2:
Make it social.
Develop personal chemistry.

Understand VC dynamics

 

Should you reach out to schedule meetings with other VCs “for coffee” at this stage? Our general rule is NO. Wait until you have your pitch before you start calling anyone. Many VCs are super busy and inclined to make snap judgements – and if you knock on their doors now, you may not get a second chance later. 

Wait until you have your pitch before you start calling anyone.

The typical Series A partner will lead just 1 or 2 deals per year. Think about that… they review hundreds of companies and give out perhaps 3 lead term sheets per year, and win just 1 or 2 deals!

VCs have limited ammunition and can only pull the trigger a few times per year. Because of this need to select, VC partners are extremely fussy. It’s not just a question of whether your company will make money, but also a question of whether your deal will make them more money than the other hundreds of choices. 

VCs can only
pull the trigger
a few times
per year.

A common tactic of Series A partners to help identify the best of the best and to appeal to the CEOs they like is to specialize in a domain. They may focus purely on enterprise SaaS, vertical SaaS, consumer products, cloud infrastructure, deeptech, fintech, biotech, agtech, AI, virtual reality, robotics, blockchain, transportation and logistics, cleantech, sports, real estate, workforce and recruiting, eCommerce, marketplaces, business intelligence, food, gaming, health services, manufacturing, media, marketing, semiconductors, or something else.

That is why a random referral to a Series A venture fund will usually be pointless. The choice of partner matters a lot. And for all you know, the fund does not even have a partner who covers your area at all.

Surprisingly, an off-topic VC will often meet you anyway! VCs want to cultivate referrals and they measure themselves on how many deals they see. So if a mutual acquaintance gives your company a warm intro, the VC will often take a short meeting just to be responsive. But unless you match up with their interest, you are nearly certain to hear a polite no later, no matter how great your pitch. This drains your time, saps your energy, and depresses whoever gave you the introduction – yuck!

Research your list

To avoid wasting your precious time and energy, you need to invest 20-40 hours of research to reviewing your inbound investor list, adding new names, and then narrowing it down before you ask for introductions. Be cautious about accepting well-meaning but unfiltered introductions. Protect your own resilience in the future by screening every target carefully now.

Be cautious
about accepting well-meaning
but unfiltered introductions.

Begin by asking your seed investors to each give you 2 - 3 top names where they can provide strong introductions.

Then identify other start-up companies who raised Series A already, and who are similar enough for some insights to carry over, but not directly competitive. 

Next figure out who. Who were the VC partners (and you need to look at partners, not firms) that led the Series A round for each?

For example, if you sell pet food online, look for a VC partner who has already backed 1 or more eCommerce companies but not pet food. 

This takes elbow grease! To get you started, there is a partial list of Series A VCs organized by specialty on Signal. You also can find records of Series A financings on Crunchbase, Pitchbook, Google, the SEC (most Series A deals are recorded with publication of a Form D), the business press such as TechCrunch, Xconomy, Forbes, and VentureBeat. 

Know who needs to go

 Screen aggressively. There are also a lot of VC funds out there that focus on Seed, or on later-stage, or that do not have any cash left, or that have not actually started making investments because they are still raising capital.

None of these are relevant to you. Cross out anyone from a VC fund who has not actually led a Series A deal in the past 180 days. 

Cross out anyone who works at a VC fund that is already backing one of your direct competitors. 

Pay extra attention to any partner who has already backed a company in your city and will therefore already be coming through town.

For all the partners remaining on your short list, carefully review their Medium blogs, LinkedIn posts, and Twitter feeds and also cross out anyone who turns out to be a poor fit for your Series A. For example, you make hardware and they say “we never invest in hardware.” Believe them and move on! 

Narrowing down your list

Next to each remaining partner on your list, use your research to write down the reason why you think they could add value or see a connection to your company. “Sue backed TripAdvisor, so may be interested in our social rating site for barbers.” “Beth has a PhD in materials science and we are developing a new material.” 

Write down the why you think they could add value to your company.

Now prioritize into three levels:  a Tier I list of strong-fit prospects at the most famous firms, a Tier II list of other highly appealing prospects from reputable funds, and a Tier III list of partners who fit on paper but work at regional, less well-known, small, or family office funds. Note that these tiers are not about partner quality or fit with you, but about volume of deal flow and signaling the quality of your company to future investors. Your chances are lowest at the Tier I firms because they are mobbed at all times, however, if you can win a term sheet from one, then this is a strong positive signal to everyone else.

Screen each VC firm before you even ask for the meeting. What are they saying about their investment strategy on the website and on their social media? Who is in their portfolio? What was their most recent investment? And why is the background of the person you are asking to meet a good fit for your project? Do they lead deals, or only do follow-ons?

Screen each
VC firm before
you even ask
for the
meeting.

 

However, some corporate VCs come with baggage that makes them too complicated to be good lead Series A investors. Save them for Series B and beyond. A few corporate VC funds work quite independently and may chase you for Series A; if so take care to evaluate their strategic fit. If your company’s goals are loosely supportive of their BigCo goals that can work, but if you plan to disrupt their core business, or if you guess they will want to buy you, then stay away. Never sell a minority stake to anyone you consider a likely acquirer because their insider status will deter other bidders down the road.

Good to remember:

Never sell a minority stake to anyone you consider a likely acquirer

 

Finally, put your list in a Google Sheet or Airtable document and share it with your Board for comment and refinement. Create columns and as with any pipeline, track your targets by entering the date you achieve each step: intro scheduled, first call, site visit, due diligence, received pass, received term sheet. You can view our template here

Now, go fill those columns!