“It’s less about the concept. Quite frankly, I could care less about the concept. It’s about the people. Who’s going to be running the thing, what’s their track record, do they have experience, do they have perseverance. Most of all, do they have integrity and do they have a good team of support. That’s what I look for—the people.”
These were words spoken by one of the leading venture capitalists in the San Francisco Bay Area, or what’s often referred to as “the tech bubble”—home to the headquarters of Google, Facebook, Twitter and a massive “startup” sector (roughly 10,000, to be precise). The city is, arguably, the “heart of innovation” and the tech industry alone represents hundreds of billions in net worth in San Francisco.
Despite being the most expensive city to live in the United States, and despite egregiously sky-high rents (you’d be appalled at what I’m paying for a tiny bedroom), people of all kinds have relocated here with big plans and big aspirations—not too distant from their early ancestors of the California gold rush.
In short, San Francisco is a place where big dreams flock to find life—mostly, financial support.
So how does a young, aspiring entrepreneur with big plans and big aspirations make a dent in the eyes of 30,000 angel investors?
I recently visited an Extreme Design for Affordability class at Stanford University with a group of venture capitalists, professional fundraisers, angel investors and other high net-worth individuals. Extreme is a unicorn-like graduate course that builds multidisciplinary teams of students, pairs them with a specific “design challenge” (often international) and tasks them with developing change-making concepts throughout the course of the semester. Often, classwork results in several viable businesses—d.light and Embrace are a few from history to name.
Our visit occurred nine months into the course’s development, finding student teams with prototyped designs, rough concepts and inklings of viable business models. Our task, as a collection of 20+ individuals, was to meet with and coach what all entrepreneurs hunger for—how to fundraise. How to pitch for it, how to secure it. Though I, myself, was an outlier in my camp of high net-worth individuals (did I mention what I’m paying for my tiny bedroom?), I partook in the activities, played devil’s advocate, feigned disinterest and honed student presentations to clearly articulate, present and pitch for their “ask”.
The day afforded many nuggets of insight, but I’d like to focus on three for those of you who aspire to be the next “big one”, make billions or otherwise:
1. A fundraising conversation is a conversation. You’re both just people—come prepared, confident (not cocky), know your stuff and build architecture to the conversation. Who are they, and what are they interested in? How do your interests line up? Why might they be interested in what you want to share? It’s best if you have a concept that’s already a proven prototype.
2. Don’t forget to ask, and not just for funding. Having a conversation is great, but be sure to craft your “ask”. Keep in mind that moral, intellectual and professional support can be just as valuable as financial. Be sure to thank them for their time.
For the third, I’d like to pause and end with the opening quote, which came from one of the highest net-worth individuals in the room, whose portfolio represents some of the most strategic tech investments in the history of the tech industry. As a man who receives fundraising requests on a daily basis, he highlights the importance of the YOU—not just you, but your team:
“It’s less about the concept. Quite frankly, I could care less about the concept. It’s about the people. Who’s going to be running this thing, what’s their track record, do they have experience, do they have perseverance. Most of all, do they have integrity and do they have a good team of support. That’s what I look for—the people.”
These are the steps to see your idea turn to gold—begin with yourself, build your team from there. It’s less about what you say, more about who you are. If you’ve failed before, pick yourself up, learn and try again—next time, smarter. If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, are you committed to your idea? Do you have passion for it, one that borders on fervor? Are you honest about your failures, your journey? Most of all, do you demonstrate integrity, one that can rally other high-quality teammates to create your ideas into viable, sustained reality?
Once you embark on these steps, you’ll be well on your way to winning the trust and support of investors—all through the art of conversation and demonstrated commitment.
Onward you go, I dare you—innovate, iterate, persevere and most of all, develop yourselves!
RPCV Guinea (2011-2014)