As a venture capitalist, I was often frustrated by how difficult it could be to form meaningful relationships with founders.
I would meet a dozen new entrepreneurs per week, many of whom I liked and wanted to help. I would offer up my time, perspective, and relationships; as a former founder myself I wanted to do what I could to make things a bit easier.
And yet, 9 times of out 10, the relationship would never go anywhere. There was no follow up on the offers of connections. No second call to review pitch deck feedback. No list of questions on how to polish up the financial model. Over time, it gnawed at me: relationship development with investors is one of the more important things a founder can invest in for long-term success. Why weren’t these founders investing that time when there was so much potential payoff down the road?
Now I’m 4 weeks back into the founder seat and everything’s coming back to me. The lack of sleep. The conflicting advice. The people so sure you’ll fail. The self-doubt. I don’t know of any job in the world with more combined stress, emotional toll, and time/energy commitment.
The lack of follow-through by the founders makes so much more sense from this side of the table. They had too many things on their plate. They were frustrated that I wasn’t leaning in right away for an investment. They didn’t want to waste their time on a junior member of the team. They didn’t think I could add value.
Of course, I intellectually knew all of these things as a VC. I had lived that life once already. But even just a short time back in the saddle has made that perspective real for me once again. Founding a company is hard; niceties like long-term relationship building take a back seat when you’re worried about making payroll next week.
But investing in long-term relationships is crucial
If I can only bring one lesson with me from the VC world, it’s that building long-term relationships is critically important.
No matter how intense the day-to-day life of founding a company gets, my plan is to build an enterprise that will last and scale. Doing that requires long-term strategic planning. And investor relationships are a key part of that planning.
How to build relationships with VCs
Step #1 — Meet VCs
Start way before you need to. In fact, start right now. Waiting until you have acute funding needs is already too late; VC relationship development should be happening from the very first days of your business.
Of course, it’s impossible to form a relationship without a first meeting. Tomes have been written on this, but ideally, that first meeting should come through a warm introduction. Find an advocate willing to vouch for you to investors.
Admittedly, everyone has to start somewhere; telling you to find introductions doesn’t do you much good if you don’t know anyone with those connections. If you’re in that boat, then start from the bottom. Identify the junior VCs in your geography (they’ll be called Analysts or Associates). Read their blog posts. Engage with them on social media. Reach out to them directly if they provide their contact information. No one can introduce you to VCs like a VC, so see if you can find some who are willing to talk with you.
Step #2 — Do your research
Walking into a meeting with an investor without having done your research ahead of time is like playing slots: sometimes it will work out, but more often than not you’re not going to get anything out of it.
Look into their past investments. Read anything they’ve posted online. Get an understanding of what they like investing in and any theses they have. Understand their background and where they like to add value.
All of this will inform the questions you ask and how you guide the conversation. If you can bring the dialogue to a mutual interest, you have a much higher likelihood of getting the investor to lean in and establish a foundation for strengthening the relationship over time.
Step #3 — Ask, don’t tell
Assuming you’re starting early, the basis for your VC conversations should be to get perspective and advice. You should be asking lots of questions.
You should not be pitching
If you do feel like you need to pitch because you’re trying to raise a round, then it’s honestly not the right time to be thinking about relationship development. That ideally should have happened six months earlier.
VCs get pitched a lot. They say no a lot. They fall into the habit of saying no when they’re pitched. It’s just how the industry works: they can only invest in about 1% of the companies they talk to. Chances are you’re not that company (for any given investor). Don’t get hung up on it.
To get out of the “no” trap, don’t pitch investors. It’s tough for them to say no if you’re not trying to get them to invest.
Instead, you should be reaching out with humility and patience. Identify what you need help with and where investors might be able to assist (other than giving you money!). Many are much happier to give you their time if you’re asking for help. It’s actually a lot less stressful for them than worrying about how to tell you no.
Step #4 — Wait, what?
You may be thinking to yourself, “Doesn’t this completely defeat the purpose of building relationships with VCs? The whole point is I want them to invest!”
I know, I know. I get it. But hear me out.
First, VCs really do have value to add other than their money. They can give you feedback on your pitch (invaluable for doing it better next time). They can tell you which of your financial model assumptions seem disconnected from reality. They can make introductions to other people who can add value (including other investors!). I did all of those things dozens of times as a VC and I would like to think it made a difference for the companies I worked with.
Second, not pitching an investor may actually be the best way to get them to invest. In many cases, an investor’s time is worth just as much to them as their money. If you can convince them to invest significant time in your business, it’s much more likely that they’ll also be willing to invest money down the road. I actually did this: I spent a year advising a startup I really liked and ended up putting in a small angel investment when they raised their seed round.
Step #5 —Reflect
Take notes during or after your first meeting with a VC. Try to capture any interests they expressed and tactical items for follow up. Spend some time afterward thinking about the conversation. What aspects of your business did they lean in for? What will get them excited about continuing the dialogue?
See if there are any ways that you can add value for them. They seemed surprised by something you said about your market? Find a few good articles and send them over. They mentioned they were getting into a new space? Introduce them to a founder in that space who can get them up to speed faster.
Write all of this down.
Step #6 — Follow up
For better or worse, the onus of relationship development falls on the shoulders of the founder. You should not expect investors to follow up with you. If they are, please reach out and teach me your secrets.
Follow up within a day on any tactical action items and quick value-adds (e.g., articles). Wait a week or two for things that are less directly tied to the conversation, like sharing a funding announcement in a space you think they’re interested in. Send over a personalized note every few months updating them on major milestones within your company.
Figure out whether or not this investor feels like a possible mentor to you. Do you respect their advice? Did they seem open to helping? Of course, not every investor will be open to this — some will interpret your requests for help as a sign of a weak founder. It’s frustrating, but true. Spend some thought up front to determine which investors will respect your vulnerability and which you need to be more buttoned up for. A good indicator of a helpful investor is when they proactively offer help without you having to ask for it.
When you do find investors you trust, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Vanishingly few founders ask for too much help. As long as your asks are authentic and humble, plenty of VCs will be happy to lend a helping hand. In many cases, these small asks don’t cost any political capital and may even help strengthen the relationship.
Even though it can be tough amidst the daily toil of the entrepreneur life, forming long-term relationships with investors is a critical responsibility of startup founders. These relationships are often built on advice and mentorship, rather than the transactional investor/founder paradigm. Be thoughtful about how you want to build these relationships, invest real time, and make sure to follow up and reach out proactively.