Don’t chalk it up to recency bias: Tech startups today are experiencing an unprecedented boom in investor interest.
The Bloomberg U.S. Startups Barometer, which measures the market conditions for U.S. private tech companies, hit a record high in October, an increase of 44 percent from last year. Bloomberg attributes this boost to a recent surge in tech companies acquiring funding for the first time, indicating that investors are more willing than ever to take chances on startups.
With the stock market performing well, assertive investors are demanding higher, faster returns on their capital. This forces funds to use their investments or lose them to another fund that will. To meet those demands, these funds are turning to startups, which require less capital to produce a proof of concept than later-stage companies. Third-quarter 2017 reached the highest level of early-stage investments in more than a year, according to Crunchbase.
Founders cannot afford to wait. Young companies must secure funding now or risk missing this huge tech investment boom.
Winning the investment war
Startups have many advantages over larger companies that appeal to investors, most notably their ability to attract and retain high-level talent. Recent graduates flock to startups to develop diverse skill sets, working on smaller teams where they have opportunities to take on roles they would not at a company with specialized departments.
At UE.co, most managers worked their way up from entry-level positions. This kind of internal growth boosts company loyalty and motivation in the workplace — statistics investors love to see.
According to LinkedIn, eight of the top ten U.S. companies in recruiting and retaining top talent are still run by their original founders. In an interview with CNBC about Facebook’s purchase of Instagram and what the move says about successful startups, Sequoia Capital partner Aaref Hilaly said, “If a founder cannot recruit and develop top talent, you can say with certainty that the company will fail.” Investors see the value in homegrown teams, and they are willing to bet on leaders who prove they can put together a good one.
If I had known in our early growth stages what I know now, I would have focused more on the factors that investors look for during that early stage, rather than try to accomplish everything at once. For example, we tried to balance gross margins and revenue at the same time, instead of picking one and excelling at it. This created a flat company that was neither growing quickly nor extremely profitable, turning off potential investors in a market with thousands of investment options.
The founders of Dropbox got it right the first time. After they rejected a nine-figure offer from Steve Jobs, they leveraged their rapid user growth into $250 million in funding in 2014, reaching a $10 billion valuation. Jobs recognized the strength of the founding team and tried to buy them out, but the founding team knew they had something special — and other investors saw it, too.
How to attract investors in a boom
Today’s tech boom means investors are more willing than ever to write big checks, but it also means more startups than ever are competing for those funds. To stand out from the crowd, founders should follow three steps:
1. Don’t try to be good at everything.
Pick one strength and focus your efforts there until the company hits a sustainable momentum. That might be service, sales or product — but not all three. Leaders who try to be the best at everything invariably achieve mediocrity across the board, because they cannot allocate the time and resources to beat other talented founders in every category.
Be willing to sacrifice metrics such as margin, revenue or even product perfection in exchange for superiority in one area, if only temporarily. No company is perfect during the initial growth, and investors understand that.
In the early days, the founders of the stock-trading app Robinhood were rejected in 75 separate investor pitches. After finally securing funding and taking off, co-founder Vlad Tenev told Business Insider that the company’s biggest mistake was focusing on anything but the product. Mixers and conferences are side dishes, not the main course, and investors are more interested in a company that excels in one metric than companies present at every startup function.
2. Define core values.
Many startups claim to be “cool,” but simply saying so doesn’t make it true, nor does that reputation make an appropriate fit all young companies. Don’t try to fit the common mold. Instead, meet with the founding team and other key employees to define the values the company should strive to achieve every day. These values will determine everything from the tone of the internal workday to the way the public perceives the company.
Clear values make it easier to attract investors who share those values. When investors feel personally connected to the mission and the team, they are far more likely to make a financial commitment.
Serenflipity founder Cara Thomas didn’t hash out a mission statement in a conference room. Instead, she traveled the world, using her experiences to guide what she feels her business should represent. On the Reflektive blog, Thomas said, “Values are where the individual passion and vision, the market need and the consumer need overlap.” By staying true to their beliefs and blending passion with viable products, leaders can establish values that will attract more serious investors.
3. Delegate responsibility.
Just as companies shouldn’t try to be great at everything, founders must recognize that they cannot do it all alone. They need partners and employees to help carry out their visions for the future.
Speaking to OfferZen, 4Di Capital partner Justin Stanford stressed the importance of a balanced team. He advises startups to create teams in which people cover one another’s weaknesses and get along, assuring investors that personal clashes will not cause problems down the road.
Hire leaders and employees who will step up and finish the job because they want to contribute to the company’s goals, not because they want to cash a paycheck and leave. A team of salespeople who are not only great at their jobs, but also believe in the company mission will speak louder to investors than any pitch can.
Startups might never have a better opportunity to secure funding than right now, but the window won’t stay open forever. By following these strategies, founders can stand out from the crowd and take their slices of the biggest investment pie the market has ever seen.