Check Out an Investor Before Giving Away Equity
March 16, 2012 by Marty Zwilling
Due diligence should always be a two-way street. A while back, I published an article on “Startup Due Diligence Is Not a Mysterious Black Art,” describing what investors do to validate your startup before they invest. Here is the inverse, sometimes called reverse due diligence, describing what you should do to validate your investor before signing up for an equity partnership.
I’ve had startup founders tell me that it’s only about the color of the money, but I disagree. Particularly if you are desperate, keep in mind the person who finds a good-looking partner to take home from the bar at closing time, but then wakes up in the morning wondering “What did I just do?” Taking on an investor is like getting married – the relationship has to work at all levels.
Due diligence on an investor is where you validate the track record, operating style, and motivation of your new potential partner. Maybe more importantly, you need to confirm that the investor “chemistry” matches yours. Here are some techniques for making the assessment:
- Talk to other investors. The investment community in any geographic area is not that large, and most investors have relationships or knowledge of most of the others. Of course, you need to listen for biases, but local angel group leaders can quickly tell you who the bad angels and good angels are, and what kind of terms they typically demand.
- Network with other entrepreneurs. Contact peers you have met through networking, both ones who have used this investor, and ones who haven’t. Ask the investor for “references,” meaning contacts at companies where previous investments were made. Don’t just call, but personally visit these contacts.
- Check track record on the Internet and social networks. Do a simple Google search like you would on any company or individual before signing a contract. Look for positive or negative news articles, any controversial relationships, and involvement in community organizations. Check the profile of principals on LinkedIn and Facebook.
- Spend time with investors in a non-work environment. As with any relationship, don’t just close the deal in a heated rush. Invite the investment principal to a sports event, or join them in helping at a non-profit cause. Here is where you will really learn if there is a chemistry match that will likely lead to a good mentoring and business relationship.
- Validate business and financial status. Visit the firm’s website and read it carefully. Look for a background and experience in your industry, as well as quality and style. Conduct a routine credit and criminal check, using commercial services like HireRight. Be wary of individuals or funds sourced from offshore.
If you think all this sounds a bit sinister and unnecessary, go back and read again some of the articles about Bernie Madoff and the most common investment scams. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true. Entrepreneurs are optimists by nature, so I definitely recommend the involvement of your favorite attorney (usually the pessimist).
I recognize that it has been tough to raise capital these last couple of years, but don’t be tempted to take money from any source. This can be a big mistake, with common complaints running the gamut from unreasonable terms, constant pressure, to company takeovers. Be vigilant and ask questions.
A successful entrepreneur-investor agreement better be the beginning of a long-term relationship. If you don’t feel excited and energized by your first discussions with an investor, give it some time and do your homework. If the feeling doesn’t grow, it may be time to move on. It’s better to be alone than to wish you were alone.
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