I used to think startup success was easy to figure out. If you sold your company for lots of money, that was success. These days, I’m not so sure. What if you sell your company for a billion dollars, but the company creates a product that causes cancer in thousands of children every year. Is that company a success? Conversely, what if you shut down your company, but, in the process of building it, you learned a ton from the experience and used that knowledge to move into a successful career you love? Was that company a failure?
Those are the kinds of questions I couldn’t help but ask myself after speaking with legendary entrepreneur Steve Kirsch. To be clear, Steve built some impressive things, including Infoseek, the product that’s now Adobe FrameMaker, and the first optical mouse. But, what surprised me during our conversation was how proud he was of the things he screwed up. That seems important, right?
Take a listen to our conversation, and let me know what you think. What does startup success actually look like?
Sure, on the surface, startup success equates to money. However, for some of the entrepreneurs who have made lots of money, success in the startup world probably looks a lot different than what most people think.
The Entrepreneur Who Wanted to Charge for Web Search
What if you had to pay every time you searched with Google? That might have happened if not for a few lucky twists of fate. Find out why in a conversation with Steve Kirsch, founder of Infoseek, the first commercial search engine.
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FROM THE ARCHIVES…
I wrote this article two years ago, and the phenomenon I’m complaining about is still one of my biggest pet peeves. Even worse, I still see it all the time from founders. Just… don’t… do it…
Office Hours Q&A
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I want to ask: How would you suggest I go about seed stage fundraising? I am a cofounder of an Agtech startup in Nigeria and have reached out to a lot of local angels, but some opportunities we received are around incubation, and a lot didn't even reply.
How do you think I can go about this as a local founder building a startup for the continent?
I don’t know a ton about Nigeria’s startup ecosystem, so I can’t give any specific advice about seed stage fundraising there. However, I don’t feel like I’m making too much of an assumption by suggesting that, at a basic level, fundraising is the same no matter where you live.
Fundamentally, is about finding people who want to invest in startups and convincing them that your startup has a good chance of delivering a significant return on their investment. That doesn’t change depending on where you’re fundraising. You’re not going to go to a different country and find people who invest in order to lose money, right?
Assuming the above is true, then seed stage fundraising is about convincing investors a very early startup has a good chance of succeeding. It’s a hard task, but it’s not impossible.
The key is evidence. The more evidence you have that you’ve got something valuable, the easier it will be to fundraise. It’s really that simple.
The best evidence is revenue. It’s hard to argue with revenue. The more revenue you have, and the better you are at explaining how you generate revenue, the better your chances of getting investors.
If you don’t have revenue, then seed stage fundraising gets harder. At that point, you need to convince investors you have a clear path toward revenue. How you’re going to do that depends on what you’re building, so I can’t share any specific steps. Still, don’t forget that revenue is the thing investors are looking for. As a result, all your fundraising efforts (emails, pitches, conversations, etc.) should point toward your ability to ultimate generate revenues.
In addition, you can make the work of fundraising easier by speaking with the right people. If you don’t have revenues to prove the value of your startup, then speaking with investors who have a deep understanding of your space/industry is critical. They’re the people who are more likely to believe in your potential for revenue because they understand what you’re trying to accomplish and why it might work. For what it’s worth, they’ll also be the investors who are best positioned to support you and help you succeed.
I mention all this because lots of entrepreneurs who struggle to fundraise for a seed round tend to be taking a “spray and pray” approach to fundraising. They reach out to anyone who claims to be an investor, and that’s not useful, particularly for pre-revenue companies. If I had to guess, you’re doing this, and it’s probably why you aren’t hearing back from lots of people.
Note that, almost by definition, if you were contacting the right people, they’d be replying. So don’t just assume anyone who invests could be an investor for you. Instead, find investors with an investing thesis that matches your company and its current stage, then target them. As you do, don’t forget to keep working hard to develop the traction you’ll need to make your company a more compelling investment. (Note: I see lots of fundraising founders neglect their companies, and that’s a recipe for disaster. Fundraising is something you do alongside building your company, not in lieu of it.)
Lastly, remember that fundraising is almost always a slow grind. Be patient and make sure to keep learning from every investor interaction. This will help you figure out what you’re doing wrong, and it’ll help you iterate and improve until you find a pitch that works.
Got startup questions of your own? Reply to this email with whatever you want to know, and I’ll do my best to answer!