Angel Investing - Beware of the Financial Product missell

Over the last few years we have seen a rise in a class of investors that have plugged a hole in the fund raising exercise that every startup has to tread on its way to getting to a certain size before the big boys of the VC world get involved.

Till recently this activity was restricted to a set of people who have either been entrepreneurs, run startups themselves with or without successful exits or High Net-worth Individuals, who have been exposed to financial products that fall outside the assured returns ambit.

There is increasingly an influx of individuals that goes beyond this narrow and restricted range – which is great for the startup ecosystem. It widens the set of people getting involved with this activity, not only in terms of access to pools of capital that would not have necessarily been deployed in startup capital fund raising, but also the much cited network effects in terms of availability of  relevant industry experience and skill-sets for mentoring fledgling startup initiatives.

But what skews the situation dramatically is how some startup founders and entities dispensing financial products are using (abusing?) this much needed resource. I’m increasingly seeing an undue focus on what returns investors (all paper money) made in the last couple of years, a year and in some cases, even the last 3-5 months!  

What are these ballyhooed returns based on? What is the basis for this increase in valuation, what is the said valuation based on in the first place? This amounts to a complete mis-selling of an asset class that has no track record of revenues and customers, backed by no real underlying assets and no definitive line of sight as to what the future revenue growth will be – other than an opinion of a few folks charted out in a spreadsheet.

Angel/retail investors have to realize that this is at least a 7-8 year horizon game. They should focus on what the product is and what the team is trying to do in terms of disrupting the market place and satisfying a market need.

There are several milestones that a startup has to traverse in this time frame (and I’m only focusing on the fund raising aspect, leave only all the moving parts of running a startup). Raise seed money, then raise larger and larger rounds of funds through the much traversed fund raising tango that looks something like : seed – team and concept, series A – product, series B – customers and traction, series C – scale, series D – profitability and so on.

All of this is predicated on an exponential rise in paying customers and revenue, control over Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) and a substantial Life Time Value (LTV) of a customer, better product through various iterations and finally an enterprise that is fulfilling a requirement that no one else was addressing. The end goal is to either make this an on-going concern by getting it listed on public exchanges or for it to be positioned as a buy for any potential existing suitor in the market place.

To not lay out this trajectory and only harp on what the valuation is this early in the startup life-stage – which at the seed stage is more art than science anyway – is to my mind not only false, but blatantly misleading. It takes away from the fact that a bunch of enterprising, passionate founders are working on a product/service that is going to alter the universe based on their sheer chutzpah to take on well entrenched monoliths.

All ethical selling is predicated on the premise that the investor is made fully aware of the product that is being sold – the nature of the product, the dynamics of the industry/sector it operates in, the investment horizon that is required for this investment class, the exit options for investors to make these potential returns and most importantly, the risks associated with this. To not do so is criminal.

The financial dailies are doing a great job in shining the spotlight on the success stories, but investors have to realize that for every successful startup there are several that bite the dust. Historical data shows that even for the most successful investors, out of every 10 investments they make, 1 or 2 are multi-baggers, 2 or 3 provide average returns and for the rest, you either write off your investments or take a severe haircut.

Even in this day and age of growth hacking, unicorns, decacorns and software eating the world, some homilies still hold true – research what you are investing in, is the investment decision a fit with your financial goals and is this a relationship you want to have for the next few years of your life.

If, both investors and startups do not heed these critical issues, then we run the risk of throttling the golden goose before it even starts to lay its Fort Knox-sized eggs.