How to impress investors at start-up events
The tech and startup scenes of Indiana will converge at Dallara Indycar Factory this week for Innovation Showcase — one of the largest gatherings of fundable companies, capital sources, and entrepreneurial energy in the state. Whether you’re exhibiting, attending, or just hoping to someday meet up with investors at an event like this, you should know some best practices for how to talk to investors and leave them with a positive, lasting impression.
Focus on building relationships.
More often than not, industry events are not going to be the place where you close a big investment deal. Investors like to spend some time getting to know you and your team; they are investing in you as much as they are investing in your company.
“I am really interested in talent and being in business relationships with smart entrepreneurs and founders,” said Kristian Andersen, partner at High Alpha. “These types of events can provide great opportunities to broaden your network and occasionally find diamonds in the rough. As an entrepreneur, I’d take a similar approach. Don’t focus on closing, but rather focus on getting on the investor’s radar and developing relationships.”
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t come away from an event with immediate satisfaction. A connection you make could be the start of or the bridge to a future investment.
“We like to get to know them [entrepreneurs] and track their progress,” said Don Aquilano, managing director, Allos Ventures. “Many of our current portfolio companies are companies we have tracked for a year or two.”
Quickly find out the investor’s thesis.
Many investors specialize in a particular field or niche. You should try to find out as much about prospective investors before you meet, but if you don’t know in advance, ask, and ask early on in the conversation.
“It doesn’t really matter how great the idea is, or how much traction you’re experiencing — if it’s out of my wheelhouse, respect that and don’t attempt to be the exception to the rule,” Kristian said.
Mike Sweeney, operating professional at Riordan, Lewis & Haden Equity Partners and CEO of MTS Advisors looks for companies that stand out from the others. “For start-ups, I am looking for business ideas that are in growth markets where there is a unique angle or opportunity that the founder can articulate. For growth stage companies, I am looking to see how well they understand what drives success in their business and the team they have assembled.”
Keep it short.
Investors are busy people just like the rest of us. They may have only carved out a couple of hours to swing by an event, so unless you pre-arranged a meeting for a specific amount of time, investors aren’t going to be happy if you try to monopolize them for a long period. Kristian proposed five to 10 minutes at the most is enough time to determine if there is a potential match and warrants a follow-up meeting.
“Some entrepreneurs are so focused on promoting — in great detail — their company with investors that they fail to respect that they may be intruding on other entrepreneurs’ opportunities to pitch their story,” Don said.
Mike advises you to have some questions ready for investors, too, so keeping it short allows you more time to learn from their expertise and experience. Ask investors about their experiences and how they look at things and what trends they are seeing in the market.
Zero in on facts and accomplishments.
Focus on what you’ve accomplished, not what you intend to do. No amount of promises or fancy presentations will ever be as effective a sales tool as having actually created something, and better yet, creating something you can prove there is a market for and that people want to buy.
Mike said one of his biggest pet peeves is when “they don’t have energy or a concise story about what makes them different; they just know they want money and have not put the effort into understanding what the investors need to know, see and feel before investing.”
“First-time entrepreneurs will often spend a lot of time talking about what they are going to do once they get funded,” Kristian said. “Alternatively, the most successful entrepreneurs will spend time talking about what they have accomplished to date (completed their prototype, pre-sold 5 customers, launched in private beta, etc.) Investors are looking for entrepreneurs who know how to execute on their ideas — especially when resources are limited. I can’t overstate the importance of showing progress beyond the idea, planning phases of a startup.”
“Don’t over-promote,” Don said. “Be yourself, be confident and bold about what you know, but also be thoughtful about what type of help you could use. Indiana has a good habit of trying to help others.”
Know what you want next.
Mike, Don and Kristian all indicated that — if you, your company and the investor are a good match — your goal should probably always be a follow-up meeting or some form of reasonable, continuing communication. Don’t badger someone who simply isn’t interested; investors do talk to one another and you don’t want to get a reputation for being someone to avoid.
Just as you would with top-tier customers, have a plan and a system in place for how to maintain new relationships you form with investors at events like Innovation Showcase. Investors are human too. You don’t have to make every encounter all about “show me the money.” Consider mapping out a communications schedule with key investor prospects that includes more lighthearted, casual interactions — like grabbing a beer together at a new brewery or inviting them to a fun community event your company is involved with or for which you volunteer.
These five best practices are by no means the end all be all of interacting with investors, but if you heed the advice of Kristian, Don and Mike, and avoid some of the aforementioned pitfalls, you might just find yourself with the capital you need to take your startup to the next level!