I’ll never forget pitching two angel investors with my first fully thought-out business plan. I’ve always been a dreamer, a creator, and an aspiring visionary known for the verbal tick, “What if…” But this was the first time I had put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard), pulled out my calculator (iPhone), and drawn up my Master Plan for launching a creation all my own.
After months of late-night product sketching, competitor pricing research and excel formula wrangling, I was ready to talk to someone who actually knew something about starting a business.
While technically the investors were approaching my pitch as merely a coaching and feedback session… I knew if I nailed this I’d have a real shot at raising capital and turning my idea into reality. That knee-knocking realization made me about as cool and comfortable as an oversized pug in an Alabama August afternoon.
I ran through my pitch, expertly fielding questions while preaching the good news of technology and innovation. When I got to the end, I quickly skimmed a slide on me and my experience then called it a wrap asking if there were any more questions.
The first one hit me like a gut punch: “Why didn’t you talk about yourself until the end?”
The truth was, I told them, I wasn’t all that confident in my experience. I was pursuing this idea because I believed in it, not because I had 15 years of doing this at another company.
My lack of industry-specific experience didn’t seem to bother them. Ideas are a dime a dozen, they told me. Early stage investors invest in founders, not businesses. The business model will change a hundred times before it’s successful (Ironically, I had already changed a key component of my model based on their feedback). What investors are betting on isn’t whether or not you (the business owner) has picked the best solution, but rather do you have what it takes to pivot, twist, learn, adapt, and just generally get stuff done.
Experience can play a part in building investor confidence but it’s only one piece of your story. Crafting a story around your innovations, passions, and accomplishments creates a clearer picture of your potential success than any list of industries and years of experience.
Recently I heard the idea of person-based investments in a more expansive application. In a discussion about raising funds for startups and more established small businesses, Greg Barker aptly described Birmingham as a “Who Economy”.
He went on to explain that while some folks would get excited about what you were building, and others would get excited about why you were building it, most often, investors buy-in because of WHO is building it. Like I found when pitching my idea, the business was solid and the why was compelling, but ultimately it fell flat because I didn’t pitch who was going to make things happen.
So what does “The Who Economy” have to do with raising local capital and local investing? In a word: everything. This doesn’t mean you have to be a networking ninja or sit on the board of a dozen nonprofits to raise money or invest locally. The Who Economy is less about who you know and more about who you are. While our cities have grown and expanded over the years, thanks to technology and country clubs, it’s sometimes hard to escape the small-town feel where everyone is connected to everybody.
Navigating the Who Economy can be difficult, so here are some tips to help you think through either side of a local investment.
- Explain why you’re the right person to get the job done. If that sounds like an interview, it’s because it is. You’re interviewing for the job of chief caretaker for your investors’ money, and they’d like some confidence that you’re going to do a good job.
- Describe your experience in relation to the needs of your new business. For me, it was a background in sales and leadership. While the industry and products were completely different, I asked myself: “What does any startup need in a founder?” The answer was clear: an ability to sell a product, then the skills to build and lead a core team. Take those key needs of your business and explain how you’ll fill those needs with the skills, experience, and passion you have for solving those problems.
- Respect those who paved the way. Whether you’re creating something from scratch or expanding a successful existing business, seek the counsel and feedback of those in your community who are experts in your space. This is why we say that proximity matters. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel when there are many that are happy to share their wisdom and experience with you. Raising capital and building locally can position you to receive a wealth of local, tribal-esque knowledge if you’ll simply take the time to ask.
- Do your homework. Take time to read the owners’ bios, look them up on LinkedIn or ask your friends about them. The easiest way to de-risk the “Who” aspect of your investment is to find out about the person you’re investing in.
- Don’t buy the hype. The winner of the popularity contest may or may not make a good investment. A business owner having fans in their hometown is a significant step in the right direction, but don’t overlook a weak skillset because they have a strong network or look like the next celebrity CEO.
- Think beyond the titles. Are they a change-maker? A creative visionary or a bulldog trailblazer? Think about what their business needs, and regardless of whether they’re a CXO or lead customer data ninja wrangler whachmacaller… would you hire them to take this idea/expansion/development and turn it into something valuable?
When it comes to growing a small business, we’re all playing in the Who Economy. If you approach this arena with a confident authenticity, you’ll find the social capital built around transparency, accountability, proximity and personal value trades at a low cost. Ignore these tenets of a locally invested community at your own risk.
As Michael Scott said: “Business is always personal, it’s the most personal thing in the world.”