As seed phase investors (H/T to Hunter Walk for the term), we invest in companies that spend the majority of their time learning and iterating, and yet when it comes to fundraising conversations too many founders think that what I want to talk about the most is their solution and why it’s going to make a billion dollars.
The truth is, while I certainly care about your product in the context of how it evolves towards a big vision, I care a lot less than you think about what you’ve built thus far and are planning to build over the next year. Companies that go on to IPO as well as those that go nowhere both pretty much uniformly have bad products (if one at all) at the stage we invest. Like really, really bad barely usable products that are also probably at least 50% wrong for the customer. In some cases, and even with incredibly successful companies like Outreach and our Techstars Seattle portfolio companies Skilljar, Zipline, and Leanplum, it can be closer to 100% wrong.
But it’s not the founders’ fault for pitching us this way, it’s on us as early stage investors to help them better frame the conversation. After all, since you likely don’t yet have revenue, what else can we talk about besides your product and how exciting and potentially lucrative its customer is, right? But at the seed stage specifically, I’m not investing in what you’ve built thus far, nor am I investing in what you think you should build next. And it’s a waste of time to try and convince me why your envisioned solution is so exciting, because again… what you build is likely going to suck and at best be just good enough to not be bad.
What I am interested in investing in, besides the founding team, is the sum of what you’ve learned thus far about your business opportunity and what you’re planning on learning over the next 18 months.
Fundamentally, when I invest, I’m investing in a team and a process, not a product. I want to know what your process looks like, how well it works, what you’ve learned evolving it, and how you’re going to use it to build a big business. That’s what excites me.
The customer problem your product is solving isn’t interesting yet and your product doesn’t yet have any intrinsic value (see bad). A good product in an early stage startup is actually just an agile research tool. Something that can be used to test hypotheses, get closer to the customer, and search for a business model. The better you are at this, the more excited I am.
The first product we built at Simply Measured was a really awful social analytics tool designed for one purpose, to validate whether marketers were willing to pay for easier to access social media data. Our next iteration of the product tested their willingness to pay for reports. Our third iteration tested marketers’ appetite to pay for owned-media reporting.
Armed with those learnings, we went out to pitch our investors and asked for $750k to see if enterprises and larger agencies would pay large amounts of money for our solution. We told investors what we had set out to learn, what we did, and what we were planning on learning next. We found folks as excited about the answers to those questions as we were, and because of that, they invested in our company.
If you want investors like Founders’ Co-op to love you and love your company, pitch your team, pitch your process, and pitch me some really interesting questions that you’re the best-suited person in the world to answer. Don’t pitch me your product.