The great thing about ideas is that they don’t cost anything. Today there are more ways than ever to turn your app ideas into something material for close to free, but at the next steps of app entrepreneurship, you’ll need more than pocket change. This article is for app inventors who already have a minimum viable product on hand.
When you’re ready to truly launch your product into the world, you’ll need sufficient capital and a team of people behind you who can help you take it to the next level. This role is often best filled by experienced angel, seed, and venture investors. The key to securing an investor or investors is doing your homework. You’ll need to first take your idea to the people who can push the concept, and you, further. Think of securing funding as looking for a new job, because that’s really what it is. You’re on the hunt for the funds that will make self-employment and professional self-realization possible.
So, where to start? First, ask yourself if you are prepared for conversations with investors. It’s great to get a meeting, but you’ll usually only have one shot with a potential backer. Have you validated that your idea works? Can you effectively acquire users and monetize your business? If the answer is yes to these questions, then make sure you have a concise and well-designed 10-page pitch deck that explains how you will execute and scale your idea. If you’re not sure what should be in the deck, try a quick Google search for some helpful examples, or refer to this video that explains the key components.
Next, you need to make a list of appropriate investors. Narrow the list to only funds that invest in your sector and understand the size relative to the round you are trying to raise. If you’re contacting growth funds for your $200K seed round, you’re wasting your time. Vet your list against Crunchbase and AngelList, two resources that will give you the full scoop on the funds you are looking at.
Once you’ve picked your target funds, you will need to figure out how to get an introduction. If you can use your personal or professional contacts to get connected to a fund, do so. A warm introduction will make your raising process much easier. In this vein, you can look for people with lots of professional connections to work as an advisor for your company in exchange for options or small amounts of equity. But take note: You should choose these individuals with great care and consideration.
If you don’t have a warm lead, you’ll have to take your research one step further: Isolate and target the investors behind the fund. I am reminded of a story about a company that was in the camping sector that did this effectively. The entrepreneur made a list of funds and the investors within the funds. She then hired a freelancer on UpWork to see if there were any pictures of these same investors outdoors — hiking or camping — figuring that the investors who chose to be outdoors in their free time would truly understand the space and how she solved problems within it. She successfully raised more than a million dollars in one short round.
Once you have made your list of investors, make sure you have a planned attack set for a specific date. A blitzkrieg of emails should go out within a week or two, which will create a conversation within the investment community if your idea is strong. If you make pitching a targeted and concerted effort, ideally you will have your investment meetings close together so you can compare term sheets when raising your round.
In the lead up to this campaign, try to raise awareness about your app in the seed and angel investment community and tighten your pitch. One route is to enter different pitch nights or competitions put on by established entities such as universities in your area, top-tier accelerators like ERA, YCombinator, and TechStars, and prominent angel organizations such as The App Idea Awards. Participating in these competitions will enable you to collect valuable feedback, create buzz, and pitch to multiple investors, including investors you hadn’t included in your list, all at once.
If you have a solid idea and your blitz worked, you should have several meetings lined up. That’s not to say you will get a meeting with every investor. Out of all of the entrepreneurs who send me summaries, I might take a meeting with 10 percent, and I’ll typically fund 10 percent of those, meaning about 1 percent of ideas that come through receive funding. You can improve your odds of being funded by making sure your story is tight and being prepared to answer any question about your business. Each interview will be different based on your business model, but questions I have asked in the past relate to an entrepreneur’s understanding of the fundamental economics of his or her business.
For example, what is your cost of customer acquisition and what is the lifetime value of each customer? If the lifetime value is significantly higher than the acquisition cost, you have a sustainable business model. Next I’ll ask about your plan to find customers: Will you use word-of-mouth, advertising, social media, or some other channel? And how might each of those scale (or, how many users can you reach with each channel)? If you are building a “viral” app, what is the ratio of new to acquired users?
I’d certainly want to hear about your team as well. Plan to talk about their background and experience and what makes them knowledgeable about the application domain. Finally I’d want to understand how you’re going to use the funds you’re raising, whether it’s for marketing, engineering, or something else.
Depending on the size of the fund, your first meeting will typically be with a more junior team member. If, after the first meeting, they have not asked to move forward, it’s best to just keep moving. With each successful meeting you’ll move to different meetings with higher ranks of authority, with your last meetings being with partners or the larger team. It is rare for an investor to say “No, thank you” outright, since it could just be an issue of timing, in which case they will ping you when you’re at a different stage. Make sure to thank the investors for their time, and if they’ve asked you to follow up on anything, see things through. Be smart about communication: Keep these investors updated when you hit key metrics, but avoid a flood of communication — that won’t win you any brownie points. If you haven’t heard about next steps after several weeks, keep moving down your list.
The road for an app entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart, but with great risk comes great reward. And sometimes, we investors make mistakes. For example, at First Round we passed on Twitter and Airbnb. With the right business model, technology, and tenacity, you will find funding. Good luck!
Howard Morgan is a founding partner at First Round Capital, president at the Arca Group, and director at Idealab. He began his career in higher education, serving as professor of decision sciences at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and professor of computer science at the Moore School at the University of Pennsylvania from 1972 through 1985. In 1997, he was named Delaware Valley Entrepreneur of the Year. He is an investor in Idealab, Gust.com, and serves on the boards of Memsql, Kentik, and Augury in the First Round portfolio.