Battling for Bucks -- and a Fair Hearing
By Lisa Bergson
"You fought for it, it's yours," were my father's words some 20 years ago after a sharp and unexpected turnabout on succession. (My father's brother-in-law and I were vying for control, and he had the inside track.) Since then, I've realized something I didn't foresee at the time: My father sought assurance that I could fight because he knew it was always going to be a battle to survive.
Take fundraising for my two-year-old company, Tiger Optics. It shows just how determined you've got to be if you're going to succeed (especially with other people's money). As an early stage company, Tiger has all the right stuff. We're postrevenue, with a fine team, great products, full-paying Fortune 500 customers, and a powerful, patented, platform technology.
PERFECT -- ON PAPER.
"You're invest-able," according to Steve Harris, the chief investment officer of Ben Franklin Investment Partners, who just anointed Tiger one of the first companies eligible for Pennsylvania's new insurance program for angel investors. Unique in the U.S., our state guarantees 25% of the raise, up to $200,000.
You see, we're entering the capital markets at a time when funds for high-risk ventures are hard to come by. "In this marketplace, raising money can take a full year," observes Alan Kraus, the senior director for Ben Franklin's investments and entrepreneurial services, at the Early Stage East venture-capital fair in Wilmington. Ever since the dot.com debacle, even the most venturesome of venture capitalists have lost their nerve.
Indeed, some investors are downright sour. Last week, I went to a highly touted evening with angels put on by the Women's Investment Network (WIN) of Philadelphia. Held in one of the modern high-rises that dot Market Street, the evening's events included "networking" opportunities before and after an expert panel. WIN put out a tasty spread replete with angel shaped butter cookies and champagne.
As women of all ages from around the region gathered, I mustered my courage and approached one of the angels on the panel. Before I got six words into my "elevator pitch", she hissed, "Save your breath." Stunned, I backed away. During the panel, this fallen angel recounted how badly her investments had performed and her subsequent decision to quit the game. Hey, don't take it out on me. Sad to say, two of the four other panelists I approached were equally dismissive.
"Why do they agree to participate if they don't want to interact?" my ever-loyal husband asked later. I try not to take it personally since they didn't know me or my business. But, based on this limited sample, I would say the men in this racket are more professional. That doesn't make them any more receptive. They are just nicer about being dismissive.
Some of the more seasoned VCs actually appear rather jaded. Like confirmed old bachelors, they've seen it all and now, little excites. I dub them the flesh-and-bloodless. With their graying, but still thick hair, chiseled faces, and deliberately lean bodies, they really do resemble sharks. "Cold," says my CFO, Eileen Jacob, as we walk away from one at the reception for Early Stage East.
They make snap judgments. Despite all my years in communications, I still haven't managed to distill my business down into the "secret sauce," three-minute pitch these folks live by. I have to believe that once they decide they might be interested, they -- or their subordinates -- make an effort to decipher your business. But snaring them is more a matter of the perfect pitch than potential profit. If you heard that hype went the way of the dot-com debacle, don't believe it.
NO SECOND CHANCES.
Still, they are polite. "Now, you're going to read my Executive Summary," I tease a particularly renowned local VC at Early Stage. "Oh, yes," he assures me. And maybe some lowly associate will. But, these guys have a checklist in their heads, and if, on the surface, you don't meet their investment criteria, forget it.
As a result, I'm getting better and better at screening them. "What space are you in? What's the minimum you invest? What size business do you consider?" are some good questions to ask up front -- or glean from a VC's Web site. At the same time, my understanding of what it takes deepens. Daddy, it's more than grit and determination.
You have to get it all right: your elevator pitch, your dog-and-pony, your executive summary, your business plan, your team, your space (most want to see a minimum of $500 million). And then, as the keynote speaker at Early Stage puts it, "You've got to have passion and energy." My father had the gumption to stay in business, but the business never grew. This one's on me.
Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org