In this post I’ll share some advice and learnings from a decade of angel investing to help others get started or improve their own process. In general, I’d advise investing in companies where you have some asymmetric advantage – either because you know the founder(s) well or because you know the space well.
I’ve been investing in startups for about 10 years through Musha Ventures, after learning the ropes at Index Ventures. I’ve made ~70 investments (around 40 in Africa), and realized around twice my total invested capital (Distribution to Paid in Capital – DPI). Most of the companies in my portfolio (~55) continue to operate without a realized liquidity event.
I love meeting and learning from founders, and being exposed to different business models. When I support a company, I am able to learn from observing its journey and build relationships with the founders beyond my small investment. I think that early stage investing has made me a better product person and operator, and I hope to continue to keep investing in entrepreneurs throughout my life.
Ben Holmes, Index Ventures
I worked with Ben Holmes at Index Ventures, who led their investments in King, iZettle, and Just Eat. He showed me a simple framework, which is still the foundation of my investment evaluation process, detailed below. At least one dimension of Team, Technology or Traction should be an A+, and a big enough Market (now or in the future) should be a precursor to making the investment.
- Market: Is the market big enough ($1Bn+) and can you see this company being a leading player (with 10%+ market share) in the next 3-5 years? If you think that the market now or in the future is too small, then don’t make the investment.
- Technology : Is the product or technology differentiated and sticky within their market? How difficult is it to replicate?
- Team: Is the founding team both individually exceptional and complement each other? How deep and long is their professional relationship?
- Traction: Is the business growing and do they have positive unit economics? Do they have paying users? What does customer retention look like?
Brian Singerman, Founders Fund
I don’t know Brian Singerman personally but I really enjoyed this episode of “Invest Like the Best” with him. He’s invested in companies like Oscar, Affirm, Wish, and AirBnB. Here are a few of my takeaways from the conversation:
- As a startup market, moats and execution are the only things that matter.
- As a VC, seeing, picking and closing are the only things that matter.
- You learn to invest in startups by actually investing, not by observing.
This is a collection of advice when you are starting to invest, in no particular order:
- Learn with small investments: Optimize for learning per dollar invested if you are just getting started, have limited capital and hope to build a portfolio. If you invest $1k with the same diligence process as if you were investing $100k, then you will learn by making less expensive mistakes early on.
- Take it slow: Start early in your career but start slow, and invest more frequently as you improve your judgement – I made too many investments in my first year. It takes a long time to calibrate your gut because it can take 10-15 years to figure out if you are a good investor (but you’ll get some validating and invalidating data points along the way).
- Asymmetric Advantage: Invest in areas where you have some asymmetric advantage. If you know a founder super well, or know a space really well and can invest in a related company (without conflict) these are sources of asymmetric advantage.
- Time vs. Money: Invest money in companies that you would be willing to spend your time on personally, but may not be the right personal trade off for you. When you are earlier in your career you can think of time and money as interchangeable. If you don’t have the capital to invest, then try and join these companies and get some equity for your time.
- Deep Relationships: Invest in great teams who’ve known each other a long time and even better worked together for a while – it reduces the risk of founder issues (65% of company breakups are for this reason).
- Founders you like and respect: I invested in a few companies that I did not have the best rapport with personally, or had an unexplainable ‘gut’ reaction to avoid even it if looked good on paper. Most of these companies did not work out, but I have a small sample and so this still needs more data.
- Company first, then terms: Terms are less important than believing in the company and the founders. Don’t make an investment because of a low valuation or tax incentives – these are all bonuses, and never a reason to make an investment. I made a number of mistakes here early on and regretted them.
- Valuation: If you are going to negotiate on anything, negotiate on price although this is mostly supply/demand driven and you may not have leverage if you are a small investor. There is a common belief that valuation does not matter in venture capital, but if you are investing your own money then overpaying consistently will hurt your returns.
- Get written answers: When I have follow up questions, I usually send them over email and look for an email response. This is an indication of how clearly they think, and communicate. It is also more efficient for me and I have a permanent record.
- Cap table: Look for ‘clean’ cap tables (equity split) in early rounds. If the founding team has an unexpected equity split, or there are early inactive employees/ investors significant equity it can affect the company’s ability to raise money in later rounds and if founders are too diluted, then they may lose motivation.
- Discipline: Founders who are structured and regular with investor communication are often also good operators. If they show discipline with investors, they are likely applying the same discipline to running their companies. I often ask for the last investor report to get a sense of their communication quality.
- Metrics: Founders should be super on top of their key metrics, growth rates, revenue distribution, burn rate etc. This shows that they both track them carefully, and review them frequently.
- Pace of iteration: At all stages look for pace of iteration and product development. Teams that ship more often and test more hypotheses are likely to have better products and build long term sustainable advantage.
- Sleep on it: Even when I really like a company, I always sleep on the decision and never commit after a meeting. If I still feel good about it the next day, then I’ll message the founder to invest. Try not to get pressured, or react to FOMO and make a decision too quickly or without conviction.
This is a collection of more practical/tactical things to do when you are investing:
- Track your portfolio: If you only make a handful of investments, then think of it as money spent and a nice bonus if one of them is successful. If you have a portfolio, then keep a strict record of your investments and track their progress and returns (I use a simple Google Sheet). I track key dates like fundraising events and summarize the status of each investment about once a year.
- Write Memos: Your memory is less reliable than paper record, and so I recommend writing short 1 page memos with the ‘why’ behind your investment. I’d start with the structure I outlined from Ben Holmes up above and expand it over time.
- Customer References: For software as a service businesses in particular, do some customer reference calls. I always ask the following three questions: What was in like before the product? What is it like after the product? What would happen if took the product away? If they get very upset at the last question happening, that is a very good signal.
- Post Mortems: If companies fail, write a few bullet points down about why the company failed (I just add them to my original memo), and see if you identified the risk when you made investment. Learn from this, and don’t repeat mistakes.
- Intro Email: I’ve just started writing an ‘intro’ email to founders which founders seem to appreciate. It allows you to clearly express how you can help, how you operate as an investor, and share some of your expectations as well.
I’ll continue to add to this list as I learn more, and please send me any thoughts or feedback!