Start-up advice: How to raise money through equity crowdfunding (seven tips)

t123-e1382511864510Shahab Kaviani | February 11, 2014 | Washington Post – Start-up founders are often looking for new ways to raise capital for their ventures. Until now, my primary sources of funding were venture capitalists and angel investors, and while they are well suited for early-stage start-ups, finding them can be very difficult, especially if you’re not based in a start-up hub like New York City, San Francisco or Tel Aviv.

Thanks to Title II of the JOBS Act, which was signed by President Obama in 2012, finding investors is now a little easier. That provision of the law lifts an 80-year-old ban on private companies from publicly advertising their fundraising efforts.

My company was the first to take advantage of the new laws, and thinking back on our experience, there are some lessons I learned in trying to raise funds through this new equity crowdfunding process. Here are some pointers.

1. Zero in on your lead investor

By lead investor, I mean the one who’s going to contribute at least 25 percent of your funding round. If you’re lucky, some of your early investors are either well-known or their credentials will establish some social proof when recruiting additional investors.

Move on to lesser known investors only after you have your lead investor locked down. Crowdfunding platforms can bring you investors who you otherwise would not have uncovered on your own, but typically, the platform comes into play once there’s already some momentum. This means you often have to first engage with potential investors that you already know or use traditional off-line methods first before relying on the crowdfunding platform to send you leads.

Campaigns have higher rates of success after hitting a tipping point of around 30 percent of the round filled. It’s important to put in the work on your own first to close the first lead investor, then have several follow-on investors lined up to capitalize on the momentum.

2. Don’t give up too much

Just because you’re new to the process doesn’t mean you have to comply with unfamiliar requests. For example, some investors may ask for board seats. Unless the investor is hugely strategic or invests 75 percent of your target amount, I would think long and hard about requests to be on the board.

One potential compromise is to offer an “observer” seat. This provides the visibility the investor is mostly after, but they don’t get the voting rights of an actual board member.

3. Don’t wade into trouble

Crowdfunding is still a highly nuanced and regulated space. If you’re raising money by offering equity through one of these portals, you’re required by law to verify that the investor is accredited. We used a company called Rock the Post, which offers that certification service, but there are others available. This is a huge time saver and can steer you clear of hot water with the SEC.

4. Be efficient

Manage your leads based on this simple formula: after a couple of e-mails and conversations, estimate the chance your prospective investor will invest as a percentage. Multiply that percentage by the amount you expect they would invest. Prioritize your time and focus on the investors with the highest scores based on that formula.

I once spent a lot of time, for instance, with an investor who said he would invest $15,000 and ended up not investing at all. In hindsight he had a lot of red flags, but I wasn’t experienced enough to pick up on them at the time.

Don’t get me wrong, I was thankful for his interest, but I could have spent more time on someone who may have scored higher using this prioritization method because they had a higher propensity to invest, even if their likely investment wasn’t as large. And by higher propensity to invest, I mean people who have invested in start-ups before and buy into your vision. Avoid investors who are overly focused on near-term profitability rather than investing in building a brand and capturing market-share.

5. Send updates showing new developments and committed investments

Investors are like sheep. I sent out news about major endorsements and customers acquisitions whenever I could. Most crowdfunding platforms can automate this for you. I also sent personal emails for good measure to smaller groups and specific investors with more details than my standard “status updates.”

Build your collateral, and make it accessible online. Most crowdfunding platforms will offer a service to that end.

6. Ask for feedback

Investors see lots of deals. Many have launched successful businesses, some have even had successful exits, and they have seen lots of mistakes as well as lots of things that work. Sometimes it’s best to ask for advice before you ask for money; a good investor will let you know if they are interested.

By soliciting valuable feedback, you’re sure to avoid wasting each other’s time. Even if you don’t get a check, at least you’ve improved your chances for the next investor by tweaking your pitch.

7. Be bold and exude confidence

Be ready to travel, because people don’t part with money easy. You must build rapport, so go meet an investor in person when you can. Fundraising is still a relationship-based business and there’s no substitute for a handshake.

Use investors’ fear of missing out as an opportunity to create a sense of urgency, and de-risk the proposition by showing them clearly how they will make a return, and your ability to execute the plan.

Making an investment is a very emotional decision. Investors have to believe in you, the founder, and that’s directly reflected in how much you believe in yourself and your company. Good investors can just smell uncertainty and hesitance, so don’t even try faking it. If you feel like you are, go back and work on your business, get more traction, convince yourself and try again next season.

Shahab Kaviani is co-founder and chief executive of Rockville-based founder match-making site CoFoundersLab.

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