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The Startup Odds of Raising V.C. Investment

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We offer terms to 0.2% of the opportunities we see. The chances of raising VC investment are far lower than getting into that high school, top university or coveted corporate job. In fact, you have a 11.8% higher chance of getting into Harvard Business School.

While it may sound obvious, we want founders to beat those odds, but not to game them. By tracking “loss reasons”, we aim to provide insights into why we turn down opportunities and more importantly what founders can do to improve their odds of raising VC investment.

Key takeaways

  • Founders face a ‘differentiation challenge’, to set apart their company as a whole, as opposed to one or two isolated features.
  • Sizing up the addressable market determines a startup’s potential to deliver venture scale outcomes, so it’s important to do the maths.
  • Tech-push ideas are at greatest risk of not articulating a clear use case

At seed stage, the odds of a good founding team, with a fully tested product and early signs of traction would tend to be greater. At pre-seed, it’s a different ball game. For our monthly Office Hours (our main touchpoint with pre-seed founders), we receive ~150 applications per month, of which 10% get through to a 15-minute meeting and 1–2% progress. 4 out of 46 of our portfolio companies have now raised investment via Office Hours.

To help with the content we publish on The Path Forward, we track our “loss reasons” i.e. why applications don’t get through, of which the most common are outlined below:

There’s plenty of advice on The Path Forward on how to avoid these pitfalls:

Understand the “differentiation challenge”

Startups, by their very nature should offer something new and exciting. It therefore seems surprising that 32% (the highest number of opportunities) are lost because they fail to differentiate their offering versus what already exists. However, we appreciate it’s not easy to make a new product, vision or business model stand out, or indeed to build credibility in crowded markets.

Our guide to “evaluating your startup idea” provides a hands-on approach to testing whether founders have developed a differentiated product by putting it directly into the hands of customers. A particular challenge we observe from Office Hours submissions is the “feature trap”, where applicants pitch a new tool or a small tweak to existing solutions, but don’t have enough on which to build a differentiated business.

The founder’s ‘differentiation challenge’ is to set apart their company as a whole, as opposed to staking their future on one or two isolated features.

Markets that deliver “venture scale” outcomes

Many Office Hours applications pitch perfectly good businesses, which have every chance of succeeding by gaining traction in small, but limited market segments. These businesses often succeed with organic growth or raising investment from angels, whose cost of capital, (and required rate of return) is lower due to tax breaks and incentive schemes.

However, this article on the Equity Kicker explains why VCs must do the maths on the market and the potential exit outcomes when evaluating an investment. Due to VC fund economics (a subtle way of calling out the difficulty of predicting the success rate of startups), each investment we make must have the potential to return the entire fund back to our own investors (in Forward Partners’ case, that’s £60m). That means if we have a 10% stake, the exit value should be £600m or if we have a 25% stake it should be £240m.

Assuming this outcome is based on a 3–4x revenue multiple (£60-£80m revenue in the exit year), and the startup has captured 10% of a given market, the total size of the addressable market needs to be £600m+.

If founders are going after a large market (or starting with a small bridgehead before expanding into adjacent ones), it is equally important for founders to articulate the way in which their vision could deliver venture scale outcomes. This might involve setting out a clear plan on how to scale their marketing channels, or the unit economics behind achieving that kind of growth.

Fit with a VC’s investment strategy

Whether your startup is on / off strategy is a binary outcome (affecting 20% of all inbound). If a startup doesn’t fit with the fund’s focus or investment stage (9.7%), no matter how awesome it is, it’s unlikely to get a second look.

We have an article on getting to a first meeting with VCs, which explains how to target funds that are the best fit for your business. However, the best way to get a sense of a VC’s investment strategy is to look at their current portfolio or read thought pieces by their Managing Partner(s). For instance, Nic Brisbourne outlines Forward Partners’ investment strategy for Fund II here.

Similarly, it is important to pick the right VC targets. It makes no sense to send an application to a VC if you are too early (or in our case, more often too late) for their stage focus.

Articulate a crystal clear use case with proven pain points

Few applications (9.8%) are rejected on the basis of a poor use case, though this loss reason has been increasing over time. Cutting the data by “sector” or “category” suggests this correlates with our “Applied AI” investment strategy.

In areas such as artificial intelligence, there are many technologies looking for a problem to solve but it’s important to address a clear market pain point with the solution you have built. To help tech founders, we have a guide on identifying market applications for their technology, as well as more specifically for AI/machine learning startups.

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About the Author

This article was written by  of the Path Forward. The Path Forward was developed by Forward Partners, a VC platform that invests in the best ideas and brilliant people. Forward Partners devised The Path Forward to help their founders validate their ideas, build a product, achieve traction, hire a team and raise follow on funding all in the space of 12 months. The Path Forward is a fantastic startup framework for you to utilise as an early stage founder or operator. The framework clearly defines startup creation as being comprised of three steps. The first step of this framework involves understanding customer’s needs.

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Callum Connects

Mark Winterton, General Manager of InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay

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Mark Winterton has dedicated his life to achieving unparalleled and extraordinary guest experiences in the hospitality industry.

What’s your story?
I’m a seasoned hospitality professional with over twenty years international experience launching luxury brands, repositioning existing brands and driving innovation for some of the world’s most successful hotels.

As General Manager of InterContinental® Singapore Robertson Quay, I’m responsible for the strategic positioning of the property as the next generation of the InterContinental hotel brand and have been spearheading the hotel since its opening in October 2017, with the goal of achieving a unique and unrivalled market positioning as Singapore’s most luxurious residential hotel.

I started my career with InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG®) in 1995 and have since been dedicating myself towards achieving perfection. I find immense fulfillment in leading my team towards achieving extraordinary and unparalleled guest experiences.

What excites you most about your industry?
The hospitality industry boasts an extremely dynamic landscape, and we are always seeing new hotels opening alongside the entry of burgeoning brands. This growth has, over time developed positive competition and generated positive driving forces that have elevated the overall standard of the industry in Singapore. The industry has a dynamic landscape. There are many opportunities to bring the right people together and create amazing teams to launch or reposition hotels. The process of creating teams, inspiring individuals and then working together to bring a project to life is where I find the excitement lies.

What’s your connection to Asia?
The lure of Asia has always been very strong for foreign economies and companies, with great accessibility to new opportunities, customers, consumers and clients. My first foray into Asia was back in 2007, when I launched Crowne Plaza Changi Airport in Singapore. Following that, I was also based in Bangkok for a couple of years for the rebranding of Crowne Plaza Bangkok Lumpini Park. Over my years in Asia, I have had the opportunity to truly immerse myself in new cultures, establish new connections with key counterparts and friends; and these have further solidified my interest in and strengthened my connection to Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Definitely Singapore. Commonly known as the gateway to Asia, we’ve been blessed with a stable government, a sound political economy and a comprehensive infrastructure for reliable business operations. With tremendous efforts put in by the Singapore Tourism Board towards elevating the city as an attractive venue for visitors, the growth of Singapore as a key MICE destination, coupled with a cosmopolitan pool of talent, Singapore remains my favourite city in Asia for business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“You can never be 100% ready for a new role.” I believe that there will always be room for growth and learning on the job. As long as a person is 80% ready for a new role, the opportunity should be extended. I am a strong believer in the development of people and the grooming of talent, and this piece of advice has allowed me to take more chances on people I’ve worked with and developed over the years.

Who inspires you?
Simon Sinek, a speaker with TED Talk.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I don’t think I can pinpoint just one lesson learnt recently, as learning is an ongoing process. No matter how small a piece of knowledge may seem, it should be valued. Everyday is a journey of learning and development.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing at all. I don’t believe in regrets and everything that has happened thus far, has had a part to play in who I am and where I stand today.

How do you unwind?
Spending time with friends over relaxed conversations and wine or working my green fingers in my balcony garden.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Bali. It’s one destination where I’ve always returned to, simply because it offers me the same level of comfort and familiarity each time I return. It’s where I can feel most relaxed, yet still be able to enjoy the vibrant dining scene.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.

Shameless plug for your business:
Officially opened on 12 October 2017, InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay is the first international luxury hotel brand situated at Robertson Quay. Set amidst a dynamic, sophisticated neighbourhood along the Singapore River, known for its dining options and arts houses, the luxury residential-inspired hotel has been carefully curated by world-­class designers, architects and culinary purveyors. Located minutes away from the CBD, the hotel still maintains a stylish but laid back, relaxed feel in the leafy, upscale neighbourhood of Robertson Quay. The hotel offers 225 luxurious studios and suites, including an expansive Penthouse, which has unparalleled views of both the Singapore River and vibrant city via floor-­to-­ceiling windows.

The residential-­inspired property combines elements from Robertson Quay’s industrial and intriguing past with sleek contemporary finishes whilst seamlessly blending into the residential surrounds. Light-­filled room interiors have been designed to magnify the familiar comforts of home where guests may enjoy bespoke amenities such as a specially designed in-­room cocktail kit.

Established as part of a holistic dining and lifestyle destination, the hotel boasts a wide range of restaurant and bar concepts. Flagship restaurant Publico, representing the central core of Italian culture, is a multi-­concept dining destination comprising a variety of Italian experiences under one roof – a neighbourhood deli and bar and a ristorante with adjoining terrazzo by the river. Other highlights throughout the hotel include New York institution Wolfgang’s Steakhouse by Wolfgang Zwiener, and a bar and dining concept from the team behind Izy Sushi. Over 40 other dining options await at the hotel doorstep, in The Quayside precinct.

How can people connect with you?
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/markwinterton1/

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Joel Tay, CEO of Soft Space

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With a desire to run his own business, Joel Tay wanted to tick two boxes first – trying his hand in the corporate world and knowing the business he wanted to end up in.

What’s your story?
I’ve always wanted to run my own business. Before that, I needed to fulfill two important things. The first thing, having a corporate foundation, and the second, knowing the business that I’m getting into. First of all, after gaining experience with Ernst and Young, I started a school in Jakarta with my mother, who used to be a teacher. Some of my ex-colleagues laughed at me for doing this instead of working towards partnership like everybody else.

While the school was running, I returned to the corporate world because I was given a chance to try out something I’ve always wanted to try, consulting in IT Security, and this time with PwC. In my second return to the business world, I never looked back. I started a mobile device distribution company with friends, and later on diversified into IT Consulting in Mobile Device Management, and subsequently ended up in the payments business.

Today I manage Soft Space – a company thriving in the payments industry with a group of talented colleagues and engineers. The school I mentioned earlier is now in 8 different locations across Jakarta serving more than one thousand students.

What excites you most about your industry?
Payments are evolving so quickly; there’s so much to learn. No one can really say that they know everything there is to know about payments. I have learnt so much going from one country to another learning each time how payments work uniquely in each society.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Asia is Soft Space’s focus. We strongly believe that markets in Asia will be the primary drivers and innovators in the payments space for years to come.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Bangkok. I have a great business partner there, the banks are innovative, the market is huge and the people are creative.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
My parents reading Matthew 6:33 to me: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” This has taught me to prioritise the important things in life, and then everything else will fall into place according to God’s will.

Who inspires you?
My father and my Godfather. Both are men of principles who are very successful in their own trade, loving to their families and God-fearing.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The amount of money technology companies in the US lost in 2017. In Asia, and in particular SEA, investors won’t take two glances at your company if you’re not profitable to begin with.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Learn Mandarin. When I was young, my teacher gave a group of us a choice – attend Mandarin classes or wash school toilets. Every time I hear my colleagues laugh when I try to speak Mandarin, I think of that moment when we walked towards the toilet.

How do you unwind?
I watch movies with my wife. It takes us to another world and back to reality in two hours. No vacation can be so fast and effective.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Bali. Friendly people, great resorts and good restaurants.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. There are many lessons to be learned from the man who had it all, lost it all, and earned it back again.

Shameless plug for your business:
No one can claim to have one solution that fits all in payments. Your needs are always different and unique to the market you’re operating in. I’d like to think that we’ve been around the industry long enough to be able to advise and customise something for you. https://www.softspace.com.my/about-us

How can people connect with you?
I’m always just an email away – [email protected]

Twitter handle?
@crusaderdotcom

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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