It’s almost time to kick off another year at The International Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas! We are proud to partner with CES to present the Startup Stage in Eureka Park. Join us January 9th-11th for exclusive startup programming, pitch competitions, and the opportunity to connect and network with entrepreneurs and other people within the startup community.
At the Startup Stage, we will feature prominent entrepreneurs, investors, and Techstars staff, partners, and alumni. To help you grow your company and engage with the startup community, the Techstars worldwide network will be providing content and resources all week at Startup Stage. Throughout the conference we will discuss the latest topics in startups and consumer electronics, including how to find your path to market, crowdfund, and leverage big brands.
Looking to get your startup in front of our audience and judges? We are also hosting Startup Stage Pitch Competitions! This is your opportunity to pitch, receive feedback, and win prizes. Click here to register and to learn more about the competitions!
Check out some of the events below (full agenda here). See you in Las Vegas!
Tuesday, January 9th
11-11:45 AM INDIEGOGO – Entrepreneurship 202: bringing a product to life
From concept, to market validation, to shipping, and to retail, bringing a product to life is full of unexpected challenges. Join other entrepreneurs and experts to share their best advice or how to build your innovations into a successful business.
1-1:45 PM Smart Cities/CityOS
Smart Cities/CityOS will feature startups and big brands that are accelerating both access to data that can benefit citizens and reduce barriers to entry and increase productivity at the level of the city.
2:00 PM – 2:45PM Finding Your Path to Market
In this panel discussion, led by Ryan Broshar, Managing Director of the Techstars Retail Accelerator, in partnership with Target, hear industry experts from Indiegogo, Target, and others discuss how you can assess alternatives to market and manage your process for success.
3-4:30 PM Pitch Competition: Retail
Wednesday, January 10th
11-11:45 AM How Emerging Technologies Are Building a Better World
From robotics and drones to emerging use cases of AR/VR and blockchain, learn how entrepreneurs are leveraging innovative technologies to build business models aimed at solving some of our most pressing global challenges at scale.
1-1:45 PM Learn from profitable and fundable hardware startups
Hardware startups are experiencing monumental challenges: unfavorable fundraising environment, lack of role model companies, and lack of mentorship and guidance. These profitable early-stage hardware founders share battle stories and best practices around setting your company for success from day 1.
2-2:45 PM Music tech isn’t just music tech anymore
Music is fast becoming a technical business. “Music tech” means using technology for more than streaming — music startups are reinventing content creation, marketing, commerce and the live experience.
3-4:30 PM Pitch Competition: Entertainment
Thursday, January 11th
11-11:45 AM Great companies start anywhere
Talented founders are born anywhere but most don’t live in strong tech communities. In this session we’ll discuss how all startup founders based can access networks, make connections and build relationships that will make their companies succeed
1-1:45 PM How to Leverage Big Brands
Lesa Mitchell, Managing Director at Techstars Kansas City program, leads a panel featuring some of the world’s biggest brands. They’ll discuss their startup programs and success stories. You’ll also hear from startup founders on what works and what to avoid with partnering with big brands.
2-2:45 PM What’s Happening in VR, AR and Robotics?
This panel features startup founders and investors and hosted by Ryan Kuder, former runner of the Techstars Robotics program and the recent Virgin Media Accelerator, will discuss the trends we see emerging in VR, AR and robotics, including the intersection of all three.
3-4:30 PM Pitch Competition: VR, AR and Robotics
This month at CES, we hosted a panel of industry players to discuss product-based startups oftentimes tumultuous path to market. The panel included:
- Jacqueline Ros, CEO Revolar
- John Vaskis, Head of Hardware, Technology and Design Sales Indiegogo
- Tim Paulus, VP of Sales Arrow
- Cory Hooyman, Innovation Lead Target
The conversation was very insightful for how a product-based company like Revolar was able to navigate all the steps to market represented by the other panelists. Some of the insights included:
Creating a Product is the Easy Part
Most product-based startups are product-obsessed…as they should be. However, many times this gets ahead of the the question, “Will anyone purchase this once I build it?” Then if someone is willing to purchase it, “Will I actually be able to manufacture it, finance it, and provide customer service for it?” Considering these questions earlier in the process ensures time and money are not wasted on product development.
Buyers Treat Their Positions Like Small Businesses
When approaching a buyer about your product, it’s best to remember that they treat their product line like a small business. You must make a business case for why they would take your product over the other hundreds of products the should consider. Be ready for this and provide proposals for win-win situations.
Treat Your Vendors Like Co-Founders
For most product startups, you’ll most likely rely heavily on component vendors for the bulk of your product. Someone else will manufacture, test, or even engineer your product for you. Treat these vendors like co-founders and choose them wisely. They can literally make or break your company.
You Will Always Need More Money
While this may be true with most startups, it is especially true for product-based startups. Lots of money must be spent with vendors, retailers, R&D, marketing, etc before you even launch a product and hope to see revenue. If you’re seeking venture capital to fund this, you’ll always need more than you think. Make sure you raise enough to provide the runway needed for success.
If you’d like to learn more about getting a product to market, please feel free to reach out to me.
Applications for our next Techstars Retail Accelerator in partnership with Target can be found here.
At CES 2017, I hosted a panel with Amazon, Ford, and Motorola as well as founders from LISNR and HERO to discuss how to engage and leverage big brands. I have worked with well over 100 corporations developing deals with founders, and this panel had some great recommendations to get a deal moving, get it closed and make sure you are successful in the engagement.
Find a Champion and then Make a Friend
Rodney Williams, co-founder, and CEO of LISNR emphasized that you will need multiple contacts at each big brand you want to work with. Find contacts who are willing to make the extra effort and build relationships with them. Then, keep those relationships active, even as that champion moves throughout the corporation and even into other organizations.
Rodney says, “We follow our champions,” as they move to other companies and then leverage that relationship to extend our network with someone we already trust.
Figure Out Where You Fit and Make Your Role Obvious
Every time you get traction with a big brand, they are engaging with you for a purpose. It may be aligned with a new PR initiative, a new client, an internal initiative or even government regulation.
Alex Crosby, CEO, and Co-Founder of HERO highlighted that for him, “The brands are the connective tissue,” he needs to be successful. HERO delivers a solution to help those who have had a bit too much to drink get home safely. Since brands want to demonstrate they are helping reduce drinking related issues, they are very interested in working with authorities. HERO facilitates these connections and has a clear and measurable plan for the brands to work with local officials, such as a Mayor or Governor. Then the conversation shifts to focus on planning and execution, and not on why they should work with HERO.
Be Ready — But Don’t Move Too Early
Everybody wants that big deal or to launch their latest product on Amazon. But, Jenny Hagemann, Business Development Manager at Amazon, and the individual at Amazon who is responsible for helping startups get launched on their site, says it’s best to test elsewhere, before launching on Amazon.
Amazon has tools on LaunchPad, such as pages to help tell your product story, and contribute to get that first pool of reviews. But, once you go live, and people start consuming the product, then the reviews start coming in. It is very hard to recover from poor reviews, so best to pilot on Indiegogo or Kickstarter and be prepared for that big launch.
Plan, Then Execute with Your Big Brand Partner
Before pursuing and engaging with a big brand partner, make sure you understand what the opportunities are to work together. Engaging a big brand is different than just finding a customer and filling the pipeline. Many have clearly defined startup programs and these programs describe how they want to work with startups.
Motorola recently launched the Motorola Moto Mods, a platform for startups to build hardware add-ons to their phones. Stephen McDonnell is the Director of the program, and they have developed a program in partnership with Indiegogo to give founders an easy platform to work with and a way get the solution to users to test it. Stephen emphasized how important it is to have a plan when engaging a big brand and know what you want. Jessica Robinson from Ford stressed being open and honest with the corporate brand and be willing to work together to create a plan that starts slow and scales as your startup scales.
More big brands than ever are willing and ready to work with your startup. To be successful, you need a plan that makes sense for all of you and you need to develop strong and trusted relationships with multiple champions at your target corporation before you can be successful.
In the end, successful execution can launch your company into a new level of visibility and success.
Watch the full recording of the panel here.
Last Friday, January 6, at CES, we hosted a conversation with a panel of venture capital investors to understand how they approach Series A investing. Participants in the conversation included:
- Hamet Watt, Board Partner, Upfront Ventures
- Jenny Fielding, Managing Director, Techstars
- Jon Goldman, Venture Partner, Greycroft Venture Partners
- Nicole Quinn, Partner, Lightspeed Venture Partners
- Ryan McIntyre, Managing Director, Foundry Group
If you want to dive deep into the conversation, you can view it in its entirety on our Periscope feed. There are tons of great nuggets of wisdom and unique perspectives offered by each of our panelists. For those with less time on their hands (after all, we’re building companies here!), here is a summary of some of the topics we discussed:
Each VC Approaches Investments Differently
Each of the investors talked about their investment theses for how they approach investments at key stages such as first money in, seed, series A and later stage investments. They each had a bit of a different approach in terms of target ownership amount, range of investment size, desire to hold a board seat or not, industry/sector focus, and geographies in which they consider investing.
Do Your Homework Before Approaching Investors
Given how differently each fund and even each individual investor within a fund approaches each of the above items, it is critical that founders do their homework on each investor they may wish to approach before attempting to do so.
Entrepreneurs can do this homework in any number of ways from finding articles or interviews from investors (including things like watching this panel!), following them on social media and paying attention to what they post, pattern matching against past investments, and getting feedback from other entrepreneurs who may have worked with them in the past.
That Said, Exceptions Happen!
But given all of this, it is critically important to remember that in venture capital, each individual investor may have a set of general guidelines they use when making investments but almost every investor can cite instances where they’ve deviated from their guidelines in the past.
That said, the closer your company is to matching their sweet spot for an investment, the more likely it is that they’ll want to engage with you.
VCs Invest Time “Getting Smart” on New Markets
Investors spend considerable time themselves getting up to speed on emerging technologies, and often they are learning about these technologies roughly within the same general window or curve as entrepreneurs who are building businesses around them.
VCs do all sorts of things to dive deep on new technologies including reading articles, attending conferences, and (probably most importantly) trying to meet as many founders and companies as possible who are working on technologies that they want to know more about.
As a founder, keep this in mind, especially if you are working in an emerging area! There is nothing disingenuous about a VC meeting you as part of their learning curve, but one thing you can ask when meeting a VC is to understand how likely they are to make an investment in or around your technology focus or business focus in the near future regardless of whether or not it is in your company directly.
Referrals Drive Deal Flow
There are lots of services on the web now to help investors get smart about a space including Mattermark, Pitchbook, CB Insights, and more. Investors are more likely to use these in a diligence phase or to understand competition around an investment they are contemplating rather than using these for sourcing of new investments.
Investors source the vast majority of their new investments via referrals from other founders, other investors, and trusted members of their personal networks.
Pro tip: when trying to engage a specific investor, the stronger the referral you can get, the better chance you have of securing a real conversation with that investor.
And super pro tip: this is one reason why it’s always useful as founders to spend some time helping and being #givefirst with other founders… you never know when good karma can be helpful to you down the line… like when that entrepreneur you helped two years ago goes on to close a funding round with a top VC and is glad to help you with an intro in the future.
VCs engage in what is called deal syndication, where once they know they want to invest in a deal they will often work to bring other investors in the deal that they think can be helpful to the company in the future and down the line as well.
Their approach to syndication can change on a deal by deal basis…on some deals an investor may want to take the bulk of the round in order to achieve a target ownership percentage of the round…in other deals they strategically may want to bring in a co-investor who they know can lead a later stage round in the future if necessary (typically a VC doesn’t intentionally seek to lead multiple rounds of investment in a company in a row as they want outside investors into the company in order to make sure that the company is fetching a market price with each new round). Various factors can change their approach on this such as whether the company is pre-revenue, pre-product, or in a less mature market.
Product Market Fit
VCs often talk about whether a company has achieved product market fit but this is a fairly subjective thing. Some investors may have key metrics they want to see a business achieving in terms of revenue or growth before deciding to invest…and again the maturity/immaturity of a market or technology may impact this as well. In general, this goes back to the above point that every investor likely has a set of theses they use to guide them but in the end the decision to invest or not is highly subjective.
Finally, one last point to consider is that venture capital investment is only one of many means you can use to grow your business. You can of course bootstrap by living within the means of the revenue you directly generate. If you are working on a new technology, there are often grants at your disposal such as NSF SBIR grant.
And there are debt instruments and other tools at your disposal (though a typical bank loan is usually not readily available to early stage startups due to lack of revenue and extreme unpredictability about the business itself). In general, figuring out how to finance your business is, like most things to do with startups, extremely hard and is much or more art than science.
Hopefully these tips and insights help make the journey just a little more accessible! And again, if you have time, check out the full conversation for more details and tips. Thanks again to Hamet, Jenny, Jon, Nicole, and Ryan for taking the time to share their thoughts!
How do we move from just talking about the topic to taking action?
During CES 2017, on Friday at Startup Stage, a diversity discussion took place between Brad Feld, managing director of Foundry Group; Jenny Fielding, MD for Techstars IoT in NYC; Anielle Guedes, CEO & co-founder at Urban 3D, Jinger Zeng, co-founder at Drone Smith, and Jayant Ratti, co-founder at Vairdo. This panel discussed the specific actions startups can take on the issue, rather than just talking about a hot topic with a lot of buzz.
Having diversity creates a better working environment
For Anielle, a Brazilian Founder of Urban 3D, it is important to have people from different backgrounds on her team. One of the perks of having a diverse team, is that they can go into different markets and regions on a shorter timeline. Having people from India, Brazil and the USA, makes it easier for them to achieve the goal of expansion for the startup because of connections and language barriers that no longer exist.
Surround yourself with people who think differently, and who have a distinct life experience
Jayant, who studied engineering, has a PhD in Robotics, and is co-founder at Vairdo, thinks it’s extremely important to have people on your team who can challenge your point of view. Differences in background and the contrast in thinking often lead to the most innovative ideas and solutions.
Be aware of your Unconscious Bias so you understand diversity better
As Managing Director of Techstars Internet of Things, founder of several companies, and with a long background in tech entrepreneurship, Jenny Fielding is — on many occasions — the only female voice in the room. She gave an example of a meeting with venture capitalists, where all the questions for the product were aimed at her co-founders (both males). The VCs ignored her.
She explained the importance of awareness over something as small as eye contact, which can make you feel good or bad. This is all part of the unconscious bias we have within because of how we were raised, our level of education, and other factors that influence it. Learn more about Unconscious Bias and how to prevent it here.
Enhancing entrepreneurship through age diversity
For Jinger Zeng, founder at Dronesmith, she has been dealing with age discrimination as she has built her company. On several occasions she felt that potential customers would not take her seriously or who saw her only as very young and didn’t think she had enough experience to be credible. She understood that business owners sometimes rely heavily on experience (age) to purchase a product or be convinced that it works. One way she handled this was to ask her mentors to help her team reach people who would not respond to them directly.
The conversation then moved to the Techstars Foundation, which is committed to improving diversity in tech entrepreneurship. We do this by investing in organizations with grant money and leveraging the Techstars network to empower these organizations to accelerate their mission.
Here are a few ways we encourage founders and startups to take action to improve diversity:
- Set up office hours where you invite interns or high school students to learn about entrepreneurship and startups
- Invite youth or veterans to learn about the environment in startups.
- Mentor a Startup Weekend
- Make time to teach entrepreneurial concepts in places where people are eager to learn– Schools, underprivileged sectors.
For even more ways to learn about what actions you can take to improve diversity, visit techstarsblog.wpengine.com/bealeader.
At CES, Brad Feld, CEO of the Foundry Group, led a fireside chat with James Park, Co-Founder and CEO of Fitbit, about the startup journey and the ups and downs they’ve experienced since they started and all the way through to IPO.
How did Fitbit get started?
In late 2006, James Park and his co-founder, Eric Friedman, were working at a company which is now part of CBS. Nintendo had just released the Nintendo Wii, which was the first consumer device that had accelerometers, and it was the first product that proved gaming was begging to be made into something fun and active for users. During April 2007, they decided to start Fitbit. At the time, the company was just Eric, James, and some consultants helping part time.
How long did it take for Fitbit to have something that would look like a Fitbit?
By the time they created their first prototype, they were raising Series A investment. People started to get more interested in the company once they saw a fancy object (that was actually made out of plastic).
Around the IPO, they went back to review their pitch decks. The slides read, “Automated personal trainer and nutritionist in your pocket.” It is not far from what they are now, even though they pivoted every six months. Fitbit has held through the original vision, however they weren’t presenting much to investors.
How much money did the company raise before Series A?
Thanks to friends and family, James and Eric were able to raise around $400K. This initial funding is what took them to production and launched the product. However, the money ran out quickly.
In September 2007, raising for Series A was different – they went to TechCrunch Disrupt with a prototype that “kind of worked” for the demo. They told people that they were shipping at Christmas (but they didn’t say which Christmas!) — and everyone was excited.
How did you get people excited about Fitbit?
The initial excitement came after the company joined Kickstarter. Later, the weekend before TechCrunch Disrupt, James shared photos of his friends using the device. Their website was poorly built on a ‘sketchy’ platform, so they didn’t think anyone was going to pre-order the device. But less than a month after the conference, they had over one thousand pre-orders.
Since the production wasn’t ready for release, James created a blog and a Flickr account to keep people updated on the status of the product, including what they were doing to get the product ready for customers. This consistent communication kept people from rioting and hating the company.
Did any of you have a background in consumer electronics products?
James only had a single semester of school under his belt, so no. Eric, on the other hand, had a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s. Eric was responsible for software and James was responsible for hardware.
How did it feel the first moment you had the box in your hand with the produced Fitbit?
Both co-founders did not feel 100% confident in the product. Unlike software, they couldn’t fix it and patch it up once it was released and shipped; this was hardware, it required different kind of work. We were lucky enough to tap into something people were passionate about, so people just ignored the first few mistakes.
What was the path like going forward after the first production line?
In the beginning, during the Christmas of 2008, 5000 units were out after a couple of months of production. They had 25K to 30K pre-orders in their platform and by the end of 2009 they had about $500K in revenue. In 2010, the production was up to 50K devices with $5M in revenue.
When James and Eric were seeking to raise their Series B, they were looking for around $12M in financing. During this time, they met with around 40 VCs. In the end, they were rejected by all of them and ended up raising a Series A-1 instead.
By the time they met with Brad Feld as a potential investor, Fitbit already had Fitbit One, which was the product they were releasing after Fitbit Classic and Fitbit Ultra, and that’s when things started to really move. Classic and Ultra were both released before any type of mobile connectivity, so in order for them to get data from the device to the backend, they had to develop their own platform. It was not a quality experience for the user.
When they heard Apple was releasing third party app development, they stopped coding the backend, because they decided to bet on Apple to do that, even though it was just a rumor. When it finally happened, that’s when the business took off; Fitbit went from $15M to $76M in revenue, which signified 5x growth over a year.
What made Fitbit different from other companies?
The keywords to describe Fitbit was “fitness tracker” or “activity tracker.” Information that was invisible before was made visible so people could play with it, adding different sorts of data to provide a personalized coaching or guidance experience which used information in a smart way. That change brought them from $70M to $300M in revenue.
Next, they changed the marketing strategy. Before, they only used social media platforms and word of mouth, maybe a blog post here and there. But in order to go from $300M to $750M, they needed to change their distribution in a major way, starting with their distribution deal with Best Buy. Marketing dollars were invested in channel marketing, buying displays and putting them in stores, which helped with advertising, but also helped educating staff of stores by having POP marketing at the stores.
What would you have done differently since you started Fitbit?
Fitbit was lucky to end up with a small pool of investors, which meant there was a lot of cohesiveness on the board and practically no egos; it was focused on getting stuff done. At some point as a company, they were really desperate for investment but now are grateful to not have accepted some of those investors on the board, because the key ingredient was having people that believed in the product.
One of James’ biggest transitions was when he stopped coding. He went to manage the hardware part of the business in the summer of 2014, but he was still involved in the company’s internal operations. A lot of stuff was being neglected, for example, they were still using Quickbooks until they had about $300M in revenue, so they hired a CFO that helped them prepare for the IPO.
What was it like going from a private to a public company?
The transition from private to public was one of the hardest things for the founders to do. They experienced incredibly fast paced growth and launched a new product called Fitbit 4, which included Color ID and alphanumeric display. At the time, they sold around 600K units and within a couple of months, discovered the product had health risks and people were starting to get skin irritation. They had already raised about $65M by that point and had $300M in revenue.
The exposure and liability included inventory, stock that they owed the suppliers, and the cost of that production mistake, which was close to $100M. In terms of cash flow, it was a hit they could take, but the risk was losing consumer confidence. They had to work on convincing the suppliers to stack their displays with other Fitbit products instead of their competitors.
The IPO process started in late 2014, Fitbit started all the documentation in January 2015 and went public by June of that year.
What’s coming for Fitbit in 2017?
Fitbit’s vision is to make everyone in the world healthier, and they want to do it from a consumer point of view. The goal is to make Fitbit an essential part of the healthcare ecosystem. Currently they’re developing sensors and the software that will support them.
What is the best advice for entrepreneurs?
- Be prepared for a lot of grey hairs.
- Raise efficient capital – mistakes are really expensive.
- Try to have the right investor base.
- Co-found your startup with someone you have chemistry with.
It’s almost time to kick off another year at The International Consumer Electronic Show! We are proud to once again partner with CES to present the Startup Stage in Eureka Park. Join the Techstars team January 5th-7th in Las Vegas for exclusive startup programming and pitch competitions.
At the Startup Stage, we’ll highlight the startup community by featuring prominent entrepreneurs, investors, and Techstars staff and alumni. Throughout the conference we’ll be discussing the latest topics in startups and consumer electronics, from finding your path to market, to fundraising your Series A round.
We’re also bringing back the Startup Stage Pitch Competitions! Looking to get your startup in front of our audience and judges? This is your opportunity to pitch, receive feedback, and win prizes. Apply to pitch here!
Check out some of the events below (full agenda here), and a recap of Techstars at CES last year. See you in Las Vegas!
Thursday, January 5th
11:00am – Indiegogo: Does a Smarter Home Mean a Smarter Life?
1:00pm – Fireside chat with Fitbit: From Inspiration to IPO, hosted by Brad Feld
2:00pm – Enterprise IoT: Looking beyond Gadgets
Friday, January 6th
11:00am – Diversity in Tech Panel
1:00pm – Fundraising: From Angel to Series A
2:00pm – Healthcare: Building Traction for Your Startup
Saturday, January 7th
11:00am – Finding Your Path to Market
1:00pm – How to Leverage Big Brands
2:00pm – What’s Happening in VR, AR and Robotics?
The 2017 Startup Stage will provide startups with a place to meet other entrepreneurs, investors, executives, media, as well as Techstars staff and alumni. Startup Stage also will provide entrepreneurs with the opportunity to learn:
- Fundraising: From Angel to Series A
- How to find the path to market
- From experts about IoT, VR, robotics and healthcare
In addition to enabling entrepreneurs by providing an opportunity to network and build business relationships at CES, the Startup Stage program will feature Techstars’ annual pitch competition. The competition gives startups the opportunity to pitch their business to a panel of iconic entrepreneurs and win prizes.
Techstars executives will be participating in a variety of panels on the Startup Stage. Jenny Fielding, managing director for Techstars IoT, will lead a panel on the Internet of Things. Cody Simms, executive director of Techstars, will participate in a panel to talk about VC fundraising. Matt Kozlov, managing director of Techstars Healthcare, in partnership with Cedars Sinai, will participate on a healthcare focused panel. Ryan Kuder, managing director, will speak about VR and robotics. Ryan Brosher, managing director for Techstars Retail, in partnership with Target, will be hosting a panel on distribution channels.
CES attendees will find some of the biggest technology companies in the world at CES, but they will also discover some of the most innovative startups. Now in its sixth year, the Eureka Park Marketplace is a curated exhibit area that will have 600 exhibiting startups, an increase from 500 companies from 29 countries in 2016. Through the Eureka Park Marketplace, rising stars have an opportunity to connect with suppliers, manufacturers, investors and media to grow their businesses. Since 2012, more than 1,100 startups have used the CES brand to showcase their products and have been funded at more than $1 billion.
Join Techstars at the Startup Stage January 5-8, 2017, in the Eureka Park Marketplace located in the Sands, Level 1,booth #50248. For the full schedule of events and to register for the pitch competition, please visit http://events.techstars.com/ces.
CES is the world’s gathering place for all who thrive on the business of consumer technologies. It has served as the proving ground for innovators and breakthrough technologies for 50 years—the global stage where next-generation innovations are introduced to the marketplace. As the largest hands-on event of its kind, CES features all aspects of the industry. Owned and produced by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)TM, the technology trade association representing the $287 billion U.S. consumer technology industry, it attracts the world’s business leaders and pioneering thinkers. Check out CES video highlights. Follow CES online at CES.tech and on social.
I recently moderated a panel discussion at CES 2016 on how to get from Seed to Series A and it ended up being great in a lot of ways. Topics were broad with some contrarian views on metrics and approaches. A few days later, a Techstars CEO posted a very relevant question on our email list and a great discussion ensued. I chimed in with some of the take-aways from the panel and thought I’d share them here.
A quick note of thanks to my esteemed panelists who provided great input and kept me on my toes! Anjula Acharia-Bath of Trinity Ventures, Nihal Mehta of ENIAC Ventures, Jenny Fielding of Techstars and Adam D’Augelli of True Ventures.
The question from the CEO was:
“In your experience, what ARR is required before approaching investors for a Series A? I’ve received a few suggestions, but most suggestions come from our existing investors (with bias).”
The email responses included some of the market-standard metrics like $100K MRR and double digit monthly growth as common targets.
Our panel went in a different direction on what it takes to get from Seed to Series A. Part of the framing for the panel and the room was:
“In Q4 the venture market started to shift (I hate to use the loaded term “correction”) and the volatility we’ve already seen in January suggests this trend will continue.”
While getting rounds done isn’t going to get any easier in 2016, there is a lot you can do before going out to raise to improve your chances. As a group, we could not agree there was set number, or even one set of criteria that made any Series A round a given…
- One of the themes that came out of the panel was that Series A is still about the overall story. Metrics do play a part, but the investors have to share the vision and the long term potential about a huge return at this stage.
- Related to the point above, make sure you know who you are talking to and and how they like to make investments. For example, if you are talking to Bessemer, a prolific Cloud/SaaS investor, make sure your metrics are tight and you know their portfolio. If you are approaching True Ventures, know that they like to lead/co-lead the 1st institutional round.
- One of my panelists thought that investor feedback of, “ your metrics aren’t quite there for a Series A” truly means “we just aren’t that excited but don’t want to say no yet.” A lot of VCs like to hold onto optionality by not saying no, but not saying yes either. In my experience a “no decision” is often a no and rarely changes. For what it’s worth, I got a lot of this with Filtrbox in 2009 when I was raising the A. I was at $70-80k MRR and growing just around 10% per month and was told, “if you were over $100k MRR this would be an easy round to do.” I think I heard this over a dozen times. We would have been at over 100k by the time the round closed. At the time this was super frustrating because investors were using it as a smokescreen and that option value. Had I been growing 20-30% M/M for 6 months, I think it would have been different. Note that 2009 was a very hard time to raise money, but the market is turning in that direction more than where we were in 1H 2015.
- Growth and solid G2M metrics are a bit of a proxy for gross MRR, but you have to have enough runtime with those numbers for investors to be comfortable they are real and will stick around. Two to three months of high growth might get the meeting, but everyone is going to want to see another chapter or two unless they fall in love with the business on the spot or have FOMO.
- The Series A crunch is real in that there are many seed-funded companies but not a commensurate growth in Series A funds out there — what this means is that rounds are going to be harder to get done and truly based on fit between the fund and the company. Do your VC research deeply and make sure they are a fit on paper so you don’t waste time.
- I heard anything from $50k MRR to $250k MRR for Series A on the panel. Not super helpful given the range but illustrates the dynamic a bit.
- Every investor will tell you to, “Have eighteen months of runway, be able to run at break-even, and it’s about survival if the market gets really bad,” – pretty vanilla and predictable advice, but the reason for it is investor risk-mitigation. If I fund a company’s A round and the sh*t hits the fan, I want to know we can batten down the hatches and ride it out without having to put in more money.
- “Build relationships, not pitches,” was discussed as well. The panel debated whether this was true for seed rounds vs. Series A. The gist of the debate was that many Series A round investment decisions can happen when the investor is in “advice mode” and the light bulb goes off.
Check out a recording of the full panel below:
If this is helpful and/or you have more questions about raising your Series A – let me know in the comments.
Diversity in the startup industry is a widely discussed topic lately, and rightfully so. At CES 2016, we dove deep into the topic and discussed the tough questions. Is it more than a pipeline issue? Who should be leading the conversation? What’s the end goal? We talked with leaders from Pandora, Instacart, Jopwell, and the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) about the current landscape and solutions for companies and individuals alike to spark change.
Takeaways from this conversation revealed it’s more than what’s lying at the surface. When you think about diversity and creating a more dynamic company, you consider the basics like recruiting diverse candidates, offering company trainings around diversity, and gathering data.
But then there are the things that can truly help drive change: sharing that data, considering diverse candidates when making referrals, tying diversity goals to bonuses, improving retention and advancement, creating a culture beyond ping-pong tables, and thinking about diversity for what it really is – it’s not just gender — it’s ethnicity, it’s age, it’s background.
The easiest way to start? Talk about it. Have the conversation.
“It’s not a women’s issue, it’s not a diversity issue – it’s an everybody issue. We have to own it. The places we work & live are what we make them.”
– Brad McLain, National Center for Women & Information Technology
Listen to the full session below.
Moderator: Nicole Glaros – Chief Product Officer, Techstars
Panelists: Brad McLain – Research Scientist, National Center for Women in Information Technology
Porter Brasswell – CEO, Jopwell
Anita Stokes – Senior Manager, University Recruiting, Pandora
Matthew Caldwell – VP of People, Instacart
Jenny Fielding – Managing Director, Techstars
Are you seeking to make an impact in diversity in tech entrepreneurship? Grant applications for the Techstars Foundation are now open. Non-profit and for profit organizations worldwide, seeking to make a scalable impact on diversity, are eligible to apply. Learn more and apply.