Friday, December 17, 2010

Business Investment Checklist

Before offering business finance to a business plan, any investors will hopefully go through a rigorous testing process where the entrepreneur's business plan will be analysed, the financial forecasts scrutinised and the marketing research pondered upon. Whether an online business or regular, similar processes will be in place. You are putting your money into someone elses idea with the intention of bot contributing the business and also ultimately getting a healthy return. So what are you looking for from an investment point of view? Here are a a few issues that I hope you will consider before choosing whether or not to back the business in question.

In the spirit of transparency, please see my list below and let me know if you think I am missing any core issues.

The Basics
Can I understand the business?
what is the product?
what is the value?
who is the buyer and why would they buy?
can the buyer quantify the value? If so, what unit?

The Market
Is the market attractive?
Growth rates?
Is there a fundamental disruption that is the basis for the opportunity and limits the incubments' competitive response?

Market --> SaaS, Open Source
Product --> core innovation
Is the product delivered in a buyer appropriate way?
open source for infrastructure
SaaS for a business app buyer
REST/SOAP/JavaScript for a web service

Is the core value tied to a technical innovation?
ex. HWVP's portfolio company examples = Baynote's collective intelligence algorithms and Move Networks' streaming protocols

Requirements and Obstacles
Are their frictions in....?
time and resources required to test the value proposition?
time and resources required to deploy?
time and risk to realize value?
Is there a good market comparable for both the business model and the exit multiple?
What unit scales the revenue model?
page views, sales heads, downloads, sessions?
Is the architecture scalable and does it leverage the best available infrastructure - EC2, S3, Rackspace, etc?

Are there exogenous dependencies?
carrier or MSO deals?
RFID deployments, etc?
Is there a market master?
WMT or MSFT or Dell....

The Entrepreneur
Who is the incumbent? How will they react?
Who are the other new companies in the space?
Is the team able and honest?
Prior track record of working together?
Is the CEO special?
What is his/her motivation, passion, strength?
Where do they need help and complement?

The Investment
Are the round size and pre-money reasonable?
Is the model reasonable (profit margins, growth, burn)?
Is the plan capital efficient?
how much money for 18 months?
margin of safety?
are their clear milestones in the plan that will allow for an objective assessment of value creation - ie a new investor

Opportunity and Possibility
Can this be a home run?
What are the core risks?
why will the company fail? is their a plan in place to mitigate such risks?
What are the KPIs - ie leading indicators to measure and track the company's progress?
Is the cap table clean and the paid-in capital reasonable?
Is the progress to date commensurate with the money in?
Has the money in to date been productive?

While I am sure there are risk and questions not raised above, the goal is to systematically measure a prospect against a consistent analytical framework that, hopefully, ensures smooth take-offs, flights, and landings.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What to include in a business plan

Although every business plan is different as the purpose and the audience for whom it is written for governs the structure and wording within the business plan, most business plans will still consists of three main sections.

  1. The Executive Summary
  2. The Main plot
  3. The Financials and Finance
Arguably, is the most important part of the plan, the Executive Summary normally consists out of one or two pages providing the reader with a synopsis of what is to come. This section can really be seen as a bite-size version of the plan. The reason why it is so important is that, as with most first impressions, the reader will quickly decide if this is something that is of interest or. If yes, the rest of the business plan will be read, if not, well, your plans is probably destined for the waste paper basket and you will have to continue your search for an sympathetic eye. Think of your executive summary as a longish elevator pitch.

The Main Plot provides the reader with a more detailed account of the important areas of your business. This is the ideal place for you to ensure and that you have thought through the functional areas of your business such as strategy, the products and services, the people, the competition the market, and most importantly your sales & marketing plan. Of course you are not only writing the business plan for yourself and this section will also be targeted at the chosen audience who you want to impress. Remember that most of the business plan can be used as a selling document as you are off course intending on getting a second party to take action. Whether the action is to provide you with finance or simply to impress a future business partner or grant provider. Get your fax correct and don’t oversell, as this can be highly off-putting.

The financials will consist of your Profit & Loss, Balance Sheet and Cash-flow forecasts with full assumptions. This section can often develop a life of its own, especially where you re trying to justify a certain amount of funding needed for the business. You must resist the temptation to sound to optimistic as lenders will quickly recognise when your forecasts are unrealistic. Make sure you consider the realities of delivering your products or services and the possibilities of obtaining new business. 

One of my favourite quotes comes from John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, "Deal with the world the way it is, not the way you wish it was." Another possible pot hole here is to not under estimate the amount of finance that your business needs. Its common for first time owners to over estimate their income for the first year and hence under forecast the amount of business finance needed. This often results in a red faced entrepreneur having to go back to bank or VC asking for an additional round of funding. Be realistic. Your business does not have to be cash machine to get start-up capital, it simply has to be viable while entering a market with potential.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The reality of finding finance for a new business

Finding business finance for your business plan is often much more challenging that what people may realise. Luckily us entrepreneurs are a hardy bunch and a few obstacles and challenges along the way will 99% of the time simply make us more determined. You will obviously have written a business plan by now and then the fun really starts. But you should not confuse a challenging financing process with a poor business idea which just simply does not deserve the funding you are looking for. Make sure that you have done sufficient marketing research to determine that someone else that you and your friends & family believes in the product and that will be a demand for the product once it gets to the market.

I am providing this information because so many people here post requests for funding to cover 2 to 3 years of product creation or R&D. Then when they are ignored, they get angry.

Let's look at the typical stages in a successful company's financing. Although there are rare exceptions to this sequence, in most cases it looks like this:

If you are realistic about what types of scenarios attract investors, you won't get angry. Instead you will work to create an opportunity that will be attractive to investors at every stage.

If you think that you are going to attract money to cover your living expenses and provide a bit of fun money while you create the product for 2 or 3 years, you are in for nothing but frustration.

-Seed Round
At this stage you have no more than an idea. You are going to build the next Facebook or Google or Apple...only it will take a year or two of work before there is something that can be sold. Or maybe it's a dull little business which excites only you?

So, who comes in at this stage if you should be lucky enough to attract any money? The answer is the "3Fs", otherwise known as Family, Friends, and Fools. Yes, this means your parents and rich frat buddies from your days at Harvard or Yale. What's that? Your family is not wealthy and you didn't attend an Ivy League college? In that case, you are going to have to finance your seed stage the most common way: with a day job.

-Angel Round
Angels come in with money when you have started selling. They jump aboard because you now have tangible proof of concept. You're finally walking your talk. It's no longer all just hot air coming from the founder. Be honest, talk is cheap.

-Venture Capital A-Round
VCs step in when the business looks like it has potential for an IPO or acquisition a few years down the road.

-Venture Capital B-Round
Wall Street is starting to take notice of the company. Therefore, the VCs want to maximize its forward momentum.

-Venture Capital C-Round
The IPO is now in sight and the C-round is used to "fatten the pig" as much as possible in addition to preparing the company for it. Often this preparation includes replacing management with C-level officers who are known to and respected by Wall Street.

-The IPO
This is the big pay-off at the end of years of hard work. It means liquid stock selling at, hopefully, a high P/E multiple. (The second best alternative is to be acquired by a large company such as a member of the Fortune 1000.)

Welcome to Planet Earth. That's how 99% of start ups get through the seed stage and if you are having difficulty in succeeding here refer yourself to the opening paragraph and assess into which category you fall. Best of luck as you will probably need it.