I’m at it again, second time around. I’m back in the madness/hellscape/euphoria of early stage startup life. Like giving birth to an actual child (I’m told), after a few years, you forget how bad the experience was, and just remember the great bits. That is what entices you to do it again. Then back in the depths of this pre-product-market-fit stage, you remember “oooh, this is why I took a break after the last one!”.
It is *hard* to start a startup. This early stage when as founders you are doing your own role plus two or three other roles plus talking to customers plus managing a young team is incredibly demanding. It leads to many passionate supporters of startups – angels and VCs – to say they want to help. To offer value-add beyond the cash they provide.
This is of course admirable and kind. We do need help, in many ways.
However, sometimes the help that is offered is more of a hindrance or stress or distraction than is intended. So I wanted to take a moment now and document some of the ways angels and VCs can help, and some of the ways their kind efforts can be more effectively directed.
Time is our most precious resource
The first thing to understand is the extent to which time is valuable. I don’t just mean this conceptually, or in a cliched way. No, literally, there JUST aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to be done. Remember, at the pre-seed or seed stage, often the founders can’t afford the type of senior executives they can hire Series A and beyond. So founders are either *doing* a lot of the executive tasks alongside their own workload, or they are actively involved in coaching, reviewing, supporting, teaching their team to do the work. This takes time… patient, supportive, culturally-sensitive time. For a founder, often, 90% of their day is just doing team management/coaching or filling the gaps they haven’t been able to hire for yet.
On top of this, we are often raising funding, which is a full-time job itself. They are also trying to speak to as many customers as possible, because this is what is needed to successfully iterate and achieve product-market fit, and also to start any B2B/B2B2C sales. This could also be a full-time job in itself.
So what we need from angels/VCs is an appreciation that founders are BUSY, like, BUUUUSSSSYYYYYY. And every email, every call, every request – however helpful it may seem – is a distraction. Running FLOWN – which is a focus/deep work company – we know the importance of focus, and how impactful even a minor email can be to our ability to execute everything else on our plate. So be judicious about what you send a founder. Here is an example:
I was sent by one of my favourite angels an email that said “What do you think?” with two links to YouTube links. Given I have several hundred emails in my inbox, and I’m ruthlessly prioritising every single thing on my plate, I don’t have enough information to assess how high a priority this is. Do I delay my team meeting to watch it? Is this going to feed directly into the work I am doing? Or is this just interesting and pleasant to watch? I have no idea, but it will take 10min of my time at least to watch (again, no idea how long those YouTube videos are), plus 25min either side because that is how long it takes to get back into a deep work flow once you’ve been distracted. Is it worth almost an hour of my limited time?
Make closing a funding round painless
Closing a priced round of investment is one of the most frustrating and painful processes a founder can go through. The pitching and diligence is one thing, that isn’t so bad. It is the agreement of the legal docs, and then trying to get everyone to sign so the deal can be closed. There is nothing more frustrating than having a round be held up because an angel investor who invested £2,000 in pre-seed wants to ask about certain terms in the Seed round. Or even as basic as not signing the Docusigns in a timely fashion. When an angel delays, that means the busy founder has to receive an update from their lawyers, and I spend an hour individually emailing each investor to remind them to sign.
Align your requests with your contribution to their round
I am very grateful for anyone who invests their hard-earned cash into my venture. Money is money, and I respect that. However, it isn’t a good use of an insanely stressed and busy founder to do a 30-60min call to pitch your business to them, if your intention is only to invest £2,000 at most. We don’t mind if we pitch and you decide not to invest, that happens. But it is gut-wrenchingly hard when you do invest that time – hopeful it is a good investment of your finite time – to find that investment had a smaller return than you’d have hoped.
Similarly, if you are a very minor investor and you have no intention of becoming a larger one, asking for time from the founder to update you on their progress/roadmap/financials is also not a great investment of their time. They will have a Board and major investors whose role it is to provide that governance and accountability, and that already is a huge investment of time *not* spent doing the billion other things on their to do list. If you are intending on following-on your investment at the minimum cheque size for that round, or want to help them find other significant investors, then yes, this is a worthwhile investment of my time, but otherwise, the best help you can provide the founder is giving them the gift of time.
Time for mental health
Time isn’t just a matter of minutes and hours to do tasks. Having done this startup thing a previous time, I can tell you wholeheartedly that one of the most important things a founder can invest in is their own mental health and vitality. If we feel strong and on top of things, we can hire the best people, we can win the best clients, we can motivate and inspire our team, we can shine the most on stage or on podcasts. That is basically what a founder’s job is, and the best thing you can do as an investor is help the founder feel strong, buoyant, vibrant.
The number one way to make them feel weak, like they are drowning, totally overwhelmed… is to ask more of them than they can do. Founders *need* time to exercise, to see sunlight, to be re-energised by family and friends, to be a part of a community. Without that… well, many of us can still perform, but we are teetering on burn-out at any point in time, and the number one reason founders lose it – and so many do – is they just can’t handle the demands on their time and headspace.
Ask for how and when you can help
At the early stage of a startup, it isn’t a shortage of ideas that is the problem. Founders are usually brimming with ideas, as are early stage employees. The number one challenge for early stage startups is focus. How do we ruthlessly prioritise so we work on the things that will move the needle, and halt on everything else.
So offering early stage startups workshops, talks, events… very very rarely is actually helpful. Bespoke advice often is, *WHEN* it arrives at a time they can use it. Generalised advice is rarely useful, and just leads to the founder feeling overwhelmed or more stressed as the work has piled up in their absence. Offering to introduce us to potential customers when we aren’t ready to sell, or other investors when we aren’t ready to raise money, or other advisors when we don’t have any time for new ideas for months… is another burden you are placing on our shoulders. Many of us agree to the intro – not because we need it, but because we don’t want to disappoint you or be ungrateful – and I’d say 80% of the time it is a waste of time. Sometimes it isn’t, and that is also why we sometimes take those meetings – you never know when a life-changing introduction is made, they do happen. But we ask that you understand if we don’t immediately leap at the opportunity, because we have probably deprioritised a dozen other things at the same time. We wear these decisions very heavily, we want to people-please (investor-please).
Instead I suggest you do the following:
- if you have help to offer, offer it as “I can help you in xxxx ways. When you are ready for this type of help, I am here.”
- if you want to do an intro, do a double-opt-in. And ask “This person can help you with xxxx. Is this a good time for them to help you with this, and if not, when (if ever) is a good time?”
Actually do the things they ask you to do
A good founder will use their Board and investor base as an extension of their team. They will ask directly for help when they need it, either in their investor updates or during Board meetings. The best thing you can do as an investor is to help when we do actually ask it of you. Help with introductions to other investors when we ask it; introductions to potential customers when they are ready for them; input into decisions when they invite it; sharing of news via social media when they suggest it. It amazes me the amount of times angels and investors will happily take your time asking for things from a founder, but don’t actually respond or provide any support when they do ask something of them.
Ultimately, founders are working their ass off to give you a return on investment. The best way you can help yourself, is to be mindful of a founder’s insanely high-pressure demands and stress-levels, and be understanding of their need to focus and prioritise. Don’t take offence (or make the founder feel guilty) if they just can’t get around to taking advantage of the intro/opportunity/event you offer them.