Last year, one of our UnLtd USA investees was neck deep in raising their first major round of investment. If you had talked to them at that point, they would have said something to the tune of, “It’s like crawling through mud. Uphill. In a downpour.”
That didn’t line up with the local narrative around impact investing here in Austin, Texas – home to one of the nation’s most innovative private foundations embracing PRIs. Our mayor declared Austin a social innovation capital of the world, and there is an active community of founders and investors. Left and right, tech angel investors speak about how they want to make impact investments.
The process of raising investment feels frustrating and opaque to many entrepreneurs. Tweet This Quote
Not surprisingly, the founder mentioned above became more and more frustrated upon hearing how much impact capital was out there, yet pitching investors with no understanding of what it actually meant to create a social business model. Eventually, he got fed up. “Listen,” he said to one investor full of cashless advice, “if you haven’t been an entrepreneur before or tried building a business that’s good for the world, you’re probably not the right investor for us.”
Luckily, this particular entrepreneur went on to successfully raise their seed round, but that doesn’t erase how frustrating and opaque the process of raising investment feels to entrepreneurs. It doesn’t have to be like this.
A Survey on Raising Investment
Mark started his career in impact investing at Gray Ghost Ventures and Zoe with UnLtd India. Over the years, we have met some incredible entrepreneurs whose journeys we’ve followed closely. We decided to survey a dozen of our favorite founders all about the process of raising investment. We will share responses from one particular question in this post. The question was this:
The eight entrepreneurs who responded are an impressive and varied group (see who they are in the footnotes). They are two women and six men. Three operate or operated in East Africa, four in the U.S. and one in Europe. We’ve funded some of them and not others. Some have seen success, some are in the process of raising money, and some have closed up shop.
The responses we received were surprising and confirming, consonant and divergent. Mostly, they were too helpful not to share with other founders. The founders who responded were gracious enough to let us share publicly, in hopes that their responses could provide some guidance to other entrepreneurs raising investment or thinking about it.
Here is what our founders – nearly all have raised capital themselves – would say to other founders about what qualities to look for in investors:
1. They understand what it’s like to be a founder.
Founders respect founders and people who think like founders. Said one founder: “I only want to raise money from investors that have been entrepreneurs. I think the ability to empathize with a startup founder’s ups and downs goes a long way. It also means you’re in a relatively similar frame of mind from the beginning.”
Founders respect founders and people who think like founders. Tweet This Quote
2. They deploy their networks on behalf of their founders.
In the tech startup world, Andreessen Horowitz famously copied the talent management model of Hollywood to build robust, active networks around their founders. Few impact investors have been able to replicate this.
Omidyar Network was one exception mentioned: “Omidyar Network brings a massive value add outside money. They really do have a massive network that they deploy. [These] strategic partners have been really, really good for our company.”
3. Their financial and impact expectations line up with yours.
One entrepreneur we spoke with warned, “I love funding that comes with a deeper relationship and a shared vision. I still don’t have a vetting process to predict which of our funders will turn out to be true champions rather than just check-writers. It’s a really hard quality to gauge in advance. And as a result, we take funding just about anywhere we can find it and simply focus on defining funder relationships in a way that protect our vision from distracting funder priorities – but allow us to build deeper ties when we do find those rare birds.”
The best-case scenario, according to several of the entrepreneurs, is that your lead investor fits these criteria:
- Fully understands your vision.
- Has a solid sense, going into the deal, of what exits (and time horizons) look like in the industry you’re operating in.
- Has follow-on capital and relationships to support subsequent rounds.
- Has a capital structure and internal incentives that line up with what you can deliver.
4. They add either commercial or impact credibility.
Raising traditional VC money signals that a mainstream, commercially minded investor believes your business to be a real financial opportunity.
One entrepreneur shared, “As a software-based social impact company, I feel like I’d actually love to get traditional VC money, such as Greylock or KPCB backing. This would add a stamp of credibility that shows our business model and tech innovation are fundamentally scalable, and that we’re not just staying afloat on the premise of appealing to grants or philanthropic sources of capital.”
Raising traditional VC money signals that a mainstream investor believes your business to be a real financial opportunity. Tweet This Quote
On the other hand, impact credibility can be equally as important. Mulago Foundation was mentioned multiple times here for being laser-focused on impact.
In our next post, we will share the responses about what resources would be most valuable to entrepreneurs who are still looking to understand the investment space – and what gaps still need to be filled.
This article was co-written with Mark Hand (@markchand), a Ph.D. student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. Additionally, these are most of the founders that responded to the survey featured in this article: Hudson Baird (PelotonU), Trevor Boehm (Penny, UnLtd USA), Greg FitzGerald (Carbon Analytics), Isabella Horrocks (Linkage), Jen Medbery (Kickboard), Erine Gray (Aunt Bertha), and Ben Lyon (Kopo Kopo, Caribou Digital).