Every investor expects to see some business traction, both before and after a funding event. If you have been working 20 hours a day, and spent your last dollar, but have no results to show, investors will be sympathetic, but will probably tell you that your dream doesn’t have wheels. Traction means forward progress.
I hear a lot of entrepreneurs contemplating their great “idea” for several years with little discernable progress, and looking for money to start. Talk and time are cheap, but they need to understand that investors judge past results as a good indicator of future expectations. Here are some tips which will signal traction and fundability to investors, as well as to your team:
- Document your business plan. It’s hard to build a business without a plan, just like it’s hard to build a house without a blueprint. If you have a product description, that’s necessary, but not sufficient. If you have neither, and choose to approach an investor, you will get no attention, and probably never again get a shot at funding with that investor.Forcing yourself to write down a plan is actually the only way to make sure you actually have a plan. Make sure your plan answers every relevant question that you could possibly imagine from your business partners, spouse, and potential investors. That means skip the jargon and include explanations and examples.
- Set realistic milestones and achieve some. You can’t measure results if you don’t have a yardstick. On the other hand, if your objectives are off the chart, you look bad when you set them, and you look even worse when you miss them. Only written milestones are credible. Traction means that you have achieved one or more significant milestones, which will give you credibility with investors. Don’t expect them to believe your $100M revenue projection, if you are still waiting for the first revenue dollar. Only real results count.
- Attract a well-rounded team. A great business often starts with one person, but it doesn’t end there. If you are strong enough to surround yourself with a strong team, that’s great progress toward success.A CEO who has “been there and done that” is traction, especially if teamed with a financial lead (CFO) and a product lead (CTO). A team of friends and family that work for free on weekends is not likely to impress investors, unless they ARE your investors.
- Build qualified advisory board. If you can convince a couple of domain experts, or a couple of experienced executives to join your board and be your advocate, that’s traction. Investors love to have smart and experienced people in the boat.Investors are likely to make a few phone calls, so make sure these people really have taken the time and commitment to work with you, and know your business. Ideally, they will have links to distributors you need, or even be investors in your company as well.
- Ship a minimum product now. For a true scientist, the product is never good enough, so it’s never done. For a business, you must define the absolute minimum features you need to satisfy the customer problem, and test it in the market. It will be wrong, so count on iterating, but you learn something each time, and that is traction.By using a laser-focused approach for the first iteration, you may actually produce something and get a customer without funding. Now investors will pay attention, since scale-up funding is less risky and has a time frame.
- Get a real customer and real revenue. If you give away your product or service to the first 10 customers, that’s a good learning experience, but it’s not real traction. It doesn’t prove your business model of pricing, distribution, and support. Sell one.Real customers give you real feedback, rather than just tell you what you want to hear. Funding for pre-revenue startups used to be the domain of angel investors, but they have moved up-stage. Without revenue, your investors are largely limited to friends, family and fools.
- Register some intellectual property. File a provisional patent, register a trademark, and reserve your company domain names. These are things that can cost very little money, but go a long ways in convincing someone that you are making progress.Intellectual property is a large element of most early-stage company valuations, and this value determines what percent of the company an investor will expect to get for his money. It’s also the keystone to convincing investors that you have a “sustainable competitive advantage.”
- Letters of intent or endorsement. If it’s too early for real customers, a Letter of Intent (LOI) or a written endorsement from a potential big customer is good traction to show potential investors. These show you have the ability to make the connections you need.Of course, a real contract or purchase order from a big customer is even better. If you have neither, you better have a prospect pipeline, connections to distributors, or partner relationship with a known company to bolster your credibility.
- Show personal investment. Investors like to see that you have committed personal funds as well as “sweat equity,” and they like to see real progress at this level. If you haven’t risked anything or used funds effectively, investors won’t let you risk theirs.A related issue is your apparent commitment to the project. If your startup is an evening hobby for you and some friends, and they all have a full-time day job elsewhere, don’t expect investors to get excited.
- Become a visible expert. If your business is a new job site for boomers, you need to establish yourself as the expert on this subject in the press, on social networks, and join related organizations. This is traction that will impress investors, and get you customers.Other ways to be visible include writing a blog, speaking at local groups, and issuing press releases which are related to the market need rather than the product you are producing. These efforts should be started well before you are ready for funding.
Your objective is to build a business that marches with power and purpose past its goals and objectives. Both your team and potential investors are watching, and if all they see and feel is words and work without progress, it’s easy to conclude that your startup is still a dream and a prayer.