October 17th, 2014 Entrepreneur Small Business Forum Hosts Panel


Is your business fundable? Three panelists with diverse experience with startups and investing gave advice to help entrepreneurs answer this question at the Entrepreneur Small & Business Forum event on October 17. The panelists included Alan Brody, of events company Startupalooza, Alessandro Piol of AlphaPrime investors and Tom Wisniewski of RosePaul Venture.

First Alan Brody talked about the investor code from his new book Are You Fundable. Brody explained his hierarchy of who gets funded the most.

1. Serial entrepreneurs: This is a rare person in the startup world. Serial entrepreneurs have a track record. They’ve already started 1 or more successful companies and won’t have a hard time getting funded. One example, is Steve Jobs. When his company NeXT was on the verge of bankruptcy, he met Ross Perot at an event, they hit it off, and Perot offered him $20 million.

2. Pedigreed: This person has 5+ years expertise in their startup’s industry. They know it well, they have a product, customers and a growth market.

3. Up and comer: This group represents about half of everyone in NY and Silicon Valley, Brody said. An up and comer is a young person who has an idea and really thinks they can make it.

4. Me too: These are entrepreneurs who join a crowded market (like froyo or cupcakes). They often get a bad rap, but you can make it if you have a competitive advantage. An example is Cousins Maine Lobster, which received funding from Barbara Corcoran on Shark Tank. It’s not the only truck selling lobster rolls, but the two owners are lobster brokers, meaning they know how to source lobster cheaper than the competitors.

5. And then there’s everyone else

He stressed the importance of the entrepreneur and uses a “jockey vs. the horse” analogy. The “jockey” is more important because the “horse,” meaning the business, can always change or be refined.  

Entrepreneurs need to have a background that is relevant to their idea, which will increase their credibility, especially if it is an older entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs also need a get-it-done attitude and have grit, not passion. Brody said the emotional definition of passion is wrong. Passion in the startup world means grit, Brody said.

Brody also warned entrepreneurs of what investors fear. Investors don’t like lifestyle businesses because they don’t have growth potential. These are more small businesses, like a Laundromat. They won’t invest, Brody said. A “zombie startup” is a business that isn’t growing or profiting and the owners have stepped back. A “settler” is an entrepreneur who is more interested in making the money back quickly and selling rather than growing on his own. 

Investor Alessandro Piol spoke about what he looks for as an early stage investor. He focuses on investing in early stage tech startups at AlphaPrime Ventures. He also has written a book Tech and the City, which he explained as “more inspirational and informational,” than Brody’s motivational, how-to book, and explains the birth of the NY startup ecosystem.

Having experience with both early and late stage startups, he said they have their own advantages and disadvantages. Later stage companies have a track record, revenue and management team investors can investigate to make their assessment. Yet, the return for investors might be smaller.

Earlier stage businesses are risky, he said, because there is a higher rate of failure and guessing consumer trends is hard. It’s also hard to determine if there’s competition and who they are. Because of this, his firm tries to find companies that are going after a huge market, not only because it can scale, but because if there is competition it’s easier to find a piece of the market. He used Uber as an example because with their model, they can go anywhere (the law allows, that is).

And of course, the entrepreneur has to solve a problem for the idea to be valid.

“The first thing I ask people when they come to present to us is – I don’t want to see pitches, presentations, financials, I just want you to tell me your story,” Piol said. “I want to understand where you came up with your idea, where it comes from.”

He echoed Brody saying the team is very important because the original idea often doesn’t end up as business. Startups usually have to pivot, and good entrepreneurs can recognize when to shift.

“There’s really one thing we look at – the entrepreneur and the management, that’s really the story,” Piol said. “Sometimes when you invest it’s better to invest in a mediocre idea with a great entrepreneur rather than a great idea with a mediocre entrepreneur.”

Management and timing often lead to companies’ demise, he said.

“Most of the times when things don’t work out it’s because either there was a problem with management or there was a timing problem – either the company was too early or the company was too late,” Piol said.

He looks for competent, experienced, passionate and driven leaders. If you’re in the startup game because it’s fashionable, Pio said to get out.

Tom Wisniewski, a full-time investor at Rose Paul Ventures, said most of the audience was in the angel/seed stage, which meant they were looking for $300 thousand to $1 million. Businesses qualify for this category if they have a detailed business plan, full-time founders, product in market, some traction, a path to break-even or next funding. He reminds them that often times angel investors are not full-time and don’t have a team working for them, unlike venture capitalist who work for a firm.

Four major pieces of advice:

1.Avoid raising money

“It sucks the life out of you,” Wisniewski said.

Not only is raising money hard, he said, but all the efforts to get meetings and pitch detract from developing the business. He suggests bootstrapping as long as possible.

2.Find investors that fit

Research the investors before you pitch them to make sure they’ll actually care about your business.

“Your likelihood of success increases if you talk to the right audience,” he said.

“People invest in things that they know, things they have experience with.”

He tells entrepreneurs to imagine what the perfect investor looks like so they’ll be prepared to recognize those elements in people they meet.

3.Avoid pitching (initially)

“Pitching is a really bad way to meet people, it sets up an awkward tension right off the bat,” he said, showing how when someone pitching leans in, investors instinctively move away.

Get to know investors before you pitch at them. Pitching reeks of salesmanship, not friendship. Build relationships because you won’t get money at the first meeting anyway. Ask for their opinion, which is non-threatening and complimentary, or even offer the investor something helpful to get off on the right foot.

4.Become a student of…pitching

Pitches aren’t limited to the deck. It can be an elevator pitch, an email or a 1-pager.

Wisniewski said no one is good at it to begin with – it is a learned art, everyone can improve. Just practice and watch other people.