Seattle is a hotbed of business happy hours; those awkward events designed for introducing people whose only known shared interest is that they'd rather be home watching Downton Abbey. It's hard to find meaningful connection in a room teeming with stunted introductions and feigned interest. But one noted exception are the events hosted by Zealyst, a member-driven networking service started by local women, Britta Jacobs and Martina Welke.
The two use games and their uncanny ability to match up folks who really “ought” to know each other to give these gatherings of relative strangers the feel of a group of old friends. They've recently shifted their focus to corporate events, like the breakfast I attended last Friday at Tilth on the role of gender in angel investment.
Conversation centered around Natalia Oberti Noguera, Founder and CEO of Pipeline Fellowship, and Barbara Prowant, President of Seraph Capital Forum. Pipeline trains women to be angel investors. Seraph Capital is an all-female angel fund that mentors upstart businesses on the art of the pitch.
The two had an abundance of good advice for prospective entrepreneurs — even those without a XX-chromosome.
1. Pitching isn't a zero sum game. The more you pitch your company to friends, angels, venture capitalists, even strangers, the better you'll get at presenting your product and the more likely you are to receive funding. Even if a fund or individual investor turns you down, they may know someone who's interested in investing in your field, or they may offer a piece of advice that helps you identify market opportunities and focus your business plan.
2. Don't dilly-dally. Great ideas are a dime a dozen. It's the follow-through that's in scarce supply. Entrepreneurs with the wherewithal to bring their product to its final stages before the concept becomes passe stand out, making it much more likely they'll receive funding. "If, by the time you launch your product, you're no longer embarrassed by it," Oberti Noguera warned, "you've already waited too long."
3. Team up. A solo entrepreneur who thinks he or she can do all the heavy lifting alone is one who doesn't understand what it means to scale. Oberti Noguera said she's far more likely to fund a company led by a pair of co-founders — particularly if they've worked together before and have a proven success record. On a similar note, identify the weaknesses in your team's collective experience and develop a plan for addressing them. If none of you has financial chops, be ready to talk about how you'll add a Chief Financial Officer to your company roster.
4. Acknowledge your competitive landscape. "Competitors? We don't have any. We're truly an early adopter/out ahead of the market/more brilliant than everyone else." Those words might as well be your death knell when it comes to pitching. If you don't have competitors, Prowant warned, there's most likely a reason for that. And it doesn't bode well for your idea. Maybe what you're trying to do is too hard, or there's not enough market demand to support your business. Prowant looks for entrepreneurs who know the competitive landscape in their market and have a plan for navigating it.
5. Be coachable. There's a lot of preparation and anticipation involved in presenting your business plan to a potential funder. But one of the most important parts of the meeting doesn't come until after you've finished your pitch and turned the floor over to the potential investors for questions. There's a reason behind every question, so listen up. Put on your humility hat, acknowledge areas that need improvement and think hard about the point behind the questions before responding. At Seraph, Prowant said, those who are dismissive of investor questions or don't listen to advice usually don't get funded.
6. Take smart $$, don't just take $$. It's thrilling when investors first commit, but investing is like dating — the first fish that swims along isn't always the right one. Some investors are needier and more involved than others. Some money, as Oberti Noguera and Prowant put it, is more expensive than other money. The best scenario is one in which both the values and expectations of both parties are aligned. "You want the ones who have their noses in and their fingers out," Prowant advised.