Lately I've found myself in a number of pitch sessions where I've quickly realized that the entrepreneur's pitch did not correspond to the framework I use to analyze a company. All investors have some type of mental model and set of proxies that they use to help them evaluate a company and how it fits into an overall market. This model will often drive the types of questions that a VC will ask. This is not rocket science - rather, just some common sense. For example, if you are entering into an existing market with entrenched players, a VC will place a lot of importance on understanding the competitive landscape.
To really deliver a knock-out pitch, an entrepreneur should have an understanding of how the model works, and frame their presentation squarely within it. This allows them to anticipate the questions that the VCs are likely to ask before they ask them. Although these mental models can vary from individual to individual, there are some basic fundamentals that apply across the board. The first step is to understand whether you're a 1, 2, or 3 type of business...
VC Evaluation Framework
1. New Market or Space
When I was an undergraduate at Wharton, I had an entrepreneurship professor who definitively stated that "a successful entrepreneur is one who finds a new, unmet market need." And after 15+ years of working in IT-related startups, I can now say that I disagree. The IT market has gotten so efficient, with low barriers to entry, that the answer is almost never that you were the first person to think of the idea. Rather, the odds are far more likely that if there is an "unmet market need" it might be unmet for a reason. I can't tell you the number of companies I see entering into a market space that have not fully investigated why the previous companies in their space have failed. (Take the swap market - I've seen many new Swap 2.0 entrants over the last two years, but few had really studied the rise and fall of the 1998-2003 players like WebSwap, Switchouse, Swap.com, SwapVillage, Mr. Swap).
Given that perspective, when I'm looking at a company that is attempting to define a brand new market or space, I will generally want to know: "Why you? Why now?." The answer is almost never that you were the first person to think of the idea, but rather the confluence of a number of trends that make this possible now where it just wasn't before. For example, Aggregate Knowledge could not have existed until the computing and network power required for them to deliver relevant real-time recommendations became available. Likewise YouTube could not have existed before broadband penetration reached critical mass, storage costs significantly dropped, and flash became the online video standard.
If you're a Number One type of business, you should expect questions like these:
- Why now? What technologies and/or trends have changed to make this possible?
- Why was this not possible before?
- Why did prior companies fail here?
- Why are you the right company to do this?
- How big is this market going to be?
- What existing companies are you disrupting?
At the end of the day, an investor needs to make a "gut bet" on a Number One business. The absence of existing market data forces a VC to take the "market acceptance" risk. While I definitely see a lot of Number One businesses (and make the bets occasionally, like we did with Jingle Network's 1-800-FREE411), the vast majority of the deals we see compete in an existing space or market. In this case VCs will generally look at two scenarios:
2. Existing Market with Successful Players
In an existing market with successful players, market acceptance risk has already been taken off the table. However investors will still need to understand what makes you significantly faster, better, cheaper than the existing companies. For example Half.com's structured market for buyers and sellers of used goods gave it a strong advantage over incumbents eBay and Amazon. The classic example of a Number 2 company is Google, which used its PageRank algorithm to deliver better search results than the existing search engines. Typical questions you'll get as a Number 2 business include:
- What is your significant competitive advantage over existing solutions?
- Is it meaningful enough to steal market share away from existing players?
- Is this a feature or a company?
- Why won't [insert market leader here] just do this?
If you are a Number Two type of company, your differentiation needs to be real and meaningful. Don't expect your AJAX homepage to succeed because you have a good URL. Also, you should never downplay the competition. Rather, you should emphasize the competitive landscape -- and your differentiation from the entrenched players. In the ideal world, your differentiation will be extreme (ie, not just "our website is easier to use") and business model will allow you to succeed at the expense of your competitors (perhaps you can shrink a market?).
3. Existing Market with Struggling Players
Perhaps the toughest of the three scenarios, an existing market with struggling players requires you to prove two things - that the market doesn't suck, but that your competitors do. For example despite multiple attempts by a host of venture-backed companies, to date there has been relatively low traction in the online tutoring market. Startups in this space will need to explain how they plan on creating a market where plenty of companies that came before them were unable to. This also requires convincing investors to overcome both market and competitive risk - no small feat. If you're a Number 3 type of company, you can expect to hear questions like these:
- Why has no other company been able to succeed in this market?
- What has changed in this market that makes this idea possible now?
- Why have none of the existing players moved in this direction?
All pitches are not created equal. Understanding the framework that investors use to analyze their business will enable entrepreneurs to view their company with greater perspective, and ultimately articulate its value (to themselves and their investors) more effectively. It all starts with a simple question - are you a 1, 2 or 3?
Thanks to Mazen Araabi for helping with this post...