5 Things Startups Can Learn From Angel Investors

what startups can learn from angel investors

Startups and high-growth businesses can learn a lot from angel investors, regardless of whether you’re seeking funding to grow your business or not. And if you pitch and get turned down, their feedback can be really valuable in helping you think about what you need to do next to meet your funding goals.

I’ve seen this over and over in my dealings, both as an angel investor on my own and as a member of a local angel investment group. Most angel investors don’t just reject startups—we explain why. And we don’t just say yes either; we explain what else is needed.

What we did at the Willamette Angel Conference (from 2009 to 2017) was the rule, not the exception. We took a $100 fee for submissions, and what we offered in return was real feedback. To see what I mean, take a look at the blog posts and videos available at Gust and do a web search for AngelList.

Angel investors are individuals willing to invest their own money to fund new startups. Most of them have made money with startups; they’ve been through the wringer, they’ve succeeded, and they are in a position to share. They can teach you a lot. So if you’re a startup, always focus on listening first.

angel investment not all businesses are good investments

Lesson 1: Not all good businesses are good investments

One of the most common misunderstandings is the assumption that angel investors invest in startups that will become strong, independent businesses.

However, the angel investors don’t make money from their investment until they can sell their ownership for actual real money—that is, until an exit, such as the business being acquired by a larger business, or registering for public stock sales. So, somewhat paradoxically, investing in a startup that becomes a healthy small business, generating its own cash and profits, can be a loss for investors. If that business never gives the investors a way to sell their ownership for actual money, then there is no return. No matter how good your business is, if it doesn’t offer investors cash out at some point, it’s a bad investment.

If the investors end up with a minority share in a healthy business, one that never sells out, then they never get their money back.

I think of it like the diagram here below—many really good businesses are not good investments:

This explains one very important point for your startup: If it has the potential to start, grow, and be healthy without needing outside investment, you could be better off without investors.

Keep in mind that when you take investment, you’re giving the investor a part of your business. When they have a stake in your company’s success, they have a vested interest in influencing your day-to-day operations for profitability. Never seek investment when you don’t need it.

Read more of my articles on seeking investment:

angel investor lessons not all metrics are useful

Lesson 2: Don’t sweat meaningless numbers

My personal favorite in the “pure nonsense category” is the IRR, the internal rate of return, something that was interesting for about one hour as part of the MBA curriculum, but which has no relevance in the real world.

Combine a wild guess on future growth for several years, add in a wilder guess about future valuation prices and exit opportunities, and then pretend that the combination means something. It really only means that you haven’t recovered from your MBA years. Forget it. You’re out of school now.

I have to admit, I’ve seen some judges of graduate-level business plan competitions care about IRR, but never an actual angel investor during actual due diligence.

A close second is projecting stupid profitability into the future.

Please, get a clue: Real businesses usually turn out net profits in single digits, and only rarely up as high as 20 percent. Angel investors are not impressed by projections of 30, 40, 50 percent or more profits on sales. They don’t think that means you’ll be profitable, but rather that you don’t understand what you’ll need to spend. If your sales forecast is reasonable, then you are probably underestimating costs, expenses, or both, in your expense forecast, budget, or projected profit and loss.

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And it gets worse—a lot of angels, in a lot of tech business markets, prefer high growth and deficit spending to profits. I was told once that my business was too profitable for VC investment. Many investors believe that startups have to choose between profits or growth, and can’t do both at the same time (more on this in lesson 5 below).

Finally, depending on context, those big market numbers can work against you. Not that bigger markets aren’t everybody’s goal—the investors’ as much as yours—but because top-down market numbers are annoying. Angel investors hate projections of sales based on some small percentage of a huge market, as in “if we get just one-quarter of a percent of this $20-billion market.”

Read more of my articles related to meaningless numbers:

angel investor lessons know how to scale your business

Lesson 3: You have to be able to scale up

Good investments need growth, and growth requires what investors refer to as being “scalable.”

This is a very important concept: Scalable means a business can ramp up, increase its volume enormously, without increasing its fixed costs proportionately.

Can you jump from selling 10 to 100 to 1,000 to 10,000 without a proportional jump in headcount and overhead? Product businesses usually can. Some web service businesses can. But a lot of businesses can’t. This is why investors don’t usually like service businesses. They tend to depend on the people more than the product. Key assets walk out the door every night. They can’t scale up.

Investors use the term “body shop” to refer to the many service businesses that depend on people doing specific things for each unit of sales. They will ask “do the assets walk out the door at the end of the working day?” Professional services such as attorneys, accountants, consultants, and design or product development companies are classic body shop businesses that can’t scale. Rand Fishkin’s book, “Lost and Founder,” gives some interesting perspective on a company that transitioned from an unscalable consulting business to a SaaS product. Fishkin is pretty frank about the pros and cons of scaling his business and taking on investors.

Read more of my articles on what investors want:

angel investor lessons your business needs a secret sauce

Lesson 4: You need a secret sauce

Angels want you to have some way to defend your business against competition.

They’ll ask, “what’s proprietary?” They’ll ask, “what’s to prevent a competitor with a bigger budget from jumping into your market and taking it over?”

They’ll talk about whether or not you have a so-called secret sauce that sets you apart from the competition. All that is about defensibility, also called barriers to entry.

Sometimes, this discussion is about patents. Patents can protect inventions, formulas, and algorithms. In a perfect world, having patent protection would be a good answer to concerns about defensibility. In the real world, although patents are always an advantage, patents alone aren’t enough.

Investors look for what the patents cover and ways competitors will work around them. Not all patents are enforceable and not all patents rule out ways to work around them, getting to the same market without violating the patents.

The world of startups is littered with the carcasses of businesses that were protected by patents in theory, but not in fact. Patents require active legal budgets to protect aggressively against infringement.

There are other factors that make startups defensible. Trade secrets, effective branding, differentiation, and first-mover advantage can help. What investors will teach you is that you don’t want to identify a great market without having the resources to grow fast and seize market share before others do.

angel investment advice it costs money to grow your business

Lesson 5: Rapid growth costs money

Consider this the two sides of a single coin: First, angel investors want companies that grow fast and exit. Second, companies that grow fast are going to present both the need for more investment and the growth potential to justify more investment.

Therefore, companies that can fund their own growth are less interesting than companies that need to raise more money later to finance continuing growth.

Normally, attractive growth takes investment. It doesn’t fund itself.

The scalable defensible company that has a shot at increasing sales 300 percent per year for a few years needs to invest in marketing expenses, working capital, employee ramp-up, product development, infrastructure, and other factors that support that growth.

Product companies, for example, need to spend on product development and materials and prototypes before they launch, and they have to buy inventory to build products. Then, if they sell through channels, they have to wait months to get paid by distributors or retailers. All that absorbs cash resources. Web companies, as another example, need to develop the product offering in code, and test, before they launch.

Most of which boils down to: Listen and get a clue

If you’re working a startup and dealing with angel investors, it’s not up to them to understand your story and believe in you; it’s up to you to have something they want to invest in.

If they don’t get it, first listen carefully to what they have to say. Their most powerful tool by far is the simple use of the word “no.”

And, don’t expect angels to give uniform advice.

I’ve seen many times how a startup pitching a focused targeted ramp-up strategy, using a narrow market as a beachhead, will be told by angels that it’s too narrow—so the entrepreneurs change the pitch to go all the way to the huge market instead, to get turned down as “too broad,” or “too many moving parts.” Angels don’t do that on purpose to drive you crazy; they’ll have different opinions.

Read this article on unsuccessful pitches:

And one final word: If you pitch repeatedly for angels and nobody is interested, get a clue.

You might not have a good investment to offer. Revise your business plan, do something else, or maybe you have one of those good businesses that isn’t a good investment.

The only general rule? There are no general rules.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2019.

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How to Get Funding for a Business

how to fund a business

Most healthy businesses need business financing at some point. Startups have to deal with starting costs and ongoing businesses have to finance growth and working capital.

Deciding to take on some kind of debt is quite common. In this article, we’ll take a quick look at the big picture, and then talk through options for funding.

Financing options depend on what kind of business you have. Its age, position, performance, market opportunities, team, and so forth are very important. So you should tailor your funding search and your approach. Don’t waste your time looking for the wrong kind of financing.

Understand the general realities of getting funded

Let’s start with a quick reality check. Like so many things in business, a lot about business financing depends on your specific details. Realities go case by case, depending on the growth stage, resources, and other factors.  

Are you a startup or ongoing business?

The outlook for funding depends a great deal on the specifics of the business.

For example, many ongoing businesses have access to standard business loans from a traditional bank that would not be available to startups. Also, high-tech high-growth startups have access to investment funding that would not be available to stable, established businesses that show only slow growth.

Small business financing myths

Before we get into the most viable options for start-ups and established businesses, let’s dispel some popular funding myths, just so we can get them out of the way. Don’t get discouraged at this point. Better to deal with realities that you can work with rather than myths you can’t.

Myth #1: Venture capital is a growing opportunity for funding businesses

Actually, venture capital financing is very rare. I’ll explain this more later, but assume that only a very few high-growth companies with high-power management teams are venture opportunities.

Myth #2: Bank loans are the most likely option for funding a new business

Actually, banks don’t finance business startups. I’ll have more on that later, too. Banks aren’t supposed to invest depositors’ money in new businesses.

Myth #3: Business plans sell investors

Actually, they don’t.

A well-written and convincing business plan (and pitch) presents your business to investors in detail; but they are investing in your business, not just a plan.

Normally you have to have a team in place, have made progress toward idea validation, or—better still—traction (paying customers). So you do a lot of work before you get investors.

Nobody invests in ideas or plans. The rare exception is a special case, in which investors know an entrepreneur well and are ready to invest in them at an early stage. In that case, they are investing in the entrepreneur, not the plan.  

The role of the business plan

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a business plan. You should.

Your business plan is an essential piece of the funding puzzle, explaining exactly how much money you need, and where it’s going to go, and how long it will take you to earn it back.

Investors will look first to a summary, and then a pitch; but if you get through that screening, they’ll want to see a business plan for the process of due diligence. And even before that, during the early stages, they’ll expect you to have a business plan in the background, for your own use.

Most commercial banks require a business plan as part of a loan application. A plan is also required for applying for a business loan guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA).

Everyone you talk to is going to expect you to have a business plan available. They may not start their discussions with you by looking at the plan, but don’t get caught without one when they ask to see it.

Where to look for money

The process of looking for money must match the needs of the company. Where you look for money, and how you look for money, depends on your company and the kind of money you need. There is an enormous difference, for example, between a high-growth internet-related company looking for second-round venture funding and a local retail store looking to finance a second location.

In the following sections of this article, I’ll talk more specifically about six different types of investment and lending available, to help you get your business funded.

1. Venture capital

The business of venture capital is frequently misunderstood. Many startup companies complain about venture capital companies for failing to invest in new ventures or risky ventures.

People talk about venture capitalists as sharks, because of their supposedly predatory business practices, or sheep, because they supposedly think like a flock, all wanting the same kinds of deals.

This is not the case. The venture capital business is just that—a business. The people we call venture capitalists are business people who are charged with investing other people’s money. They have a professional responsibility to reduce risk as much as possible. They should not take more risk than is absolutely necessary to produce the risk/return ratios that the sources of their capital ask of them.

Venture capital shouldn’t be thought of as a source of funding for any but a very few exceptional startup businesses. Venture capital can’t afford to invest in startups unless there is a rare combination of product opportunity, market opportunity, and proven management.

Venture capital professionals look for businesses that they believe could produce a huge increase in business value within just a few years. They know that most of these high-risk ventures fail, so the winners have to win big enough to pay for all the losers.

They focus on newer products and markets that can reasonably project increasing sales by huge multiples over a short period of time. They try to work only with proven management teams who have dealt with successful startups in the past.

If you are a potential venture capital investment, you probably know it already. You have management team members who have been through that already. You can convince yourself and a room full of intelligent people that your company can grow ten times over in three years.

If you have to ask whether your new company is a possible venture capital opportunity, it probably isn’t. People in new growth industries, multimedia communications, biotechnology, or the far reaches of high-technology products, generally know about venture capital and venture capital opportunities.

If you are looking for names and addresses of venture capitalists, start with the internet.

The names and addresses of venture capitalists are also available in a couple of annual directories:

2. Angel investment

We started with venture capital first in this article because the phrase is more common, and some people think of all outside investment in high-growth startups as venture capital.

However, the reality is that what we call angel investment is much more common than venture capital, and usually is much more available to startups, and at earlier growth stages too.

Although angel investment is a lot like venture capital (and is often confused with it), there are important distinctions. First, angel investors are groups or individuals who invest their own money. Second, angel investors tend to invest in companies at earlier stages of growth, while venture capital typically waits until after a few years of growth, after startups have more history.

Many people use the term “venture capital” to apply to any investors who invest in high-growth startups. In fact, angel investment in startups is much more common than venture capital, especially at the earlier growth stages. Businesses that land venture capital typically do so as they grow and mature after having started with angel investment first.

Like venture capitalists, angel investors normally focus on high-growth companies at early stages of development. Don’t think of them for funding for established, stable, low-growth businesses.

Your next question, of course, is how to find the “angels” that might want to invest in your business. Some government agencies, business development centers, business incubators, and similar organizations will be tied into the investment communities in your area. Turn first to your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which is most likely associated with your local community college.

You can also post your business plan on websites that bring angel investors together. The two most reputable sites in this area are:

You should also be aware that angel investment was affected by the 2012 JOBS Act that loosened some restrictions and allowed what we now call crowdfunding.

Traditionally, angel investment was limited by U.S. securities and exchange regulations to individuals meeting some minimum wealth requirements, called “accredited investors” in the legal wording. Crowdfunding is the accepted term for individual investment in startups by people who don’t meet the legal wealth requirements.

Under certain conditions, startups and even non-high-growth small business can solicit investment from a wider range of investors. Details are still fuzzy on a lot of this, so, when in doubt, check with a good attorney first.  

Important: Be careful dealing with anyone or business firm offering to find you startup investment if you hire them to act as front or negotiator for you, or do your business plan, or your pitch presentations and such. These are shark-infested waters.

I am aware of some legitimate providers of business plan consulting, but legitimate providers are harder to find than the sharks. Real angel investors want to deal with the startup team founders, not brokers, or finders, or consultants. Finders’ fees had a place in startup investment a few decades ago, but have become obsolete.

Download the free Investor Pitch Deck Template Kit today!

3. Commercial lenders

Banks are even less likely than venture capitalists to invest in, or loan money to, startup businesses. They are, however, the most likely source of financing for established small businesses.

Startup entrepreneurs and small business owners are too quick to criticize banks and financial institutions for failing to finance new businesses. Banks are not supposed to invest in businesses, and are strictly limited in this respect by federal banking laws.

The government prevents banks from investment in businesses because society, in general, doesn’t want banks taking savings from depositors and investing in risky business ventures; obviously when (and if) those business ventures fail, bank depositors’ money is at risk. Would you want your bank to invest in new businesses (other than your own, of course)?

Furthermore, banks should not loan money to startup companies either, for many of the same reasons. Federal regulators want banks to keep money safe, in very conservative loans backed by solid collateral. Startup businesses are not safe enough for bank regulators and they don’t have enough collateral.

Why then do I say that banks are the most likely source of small business financing? Because small business owners borrow from banks. A business that has been around for a few years generates enough stability and assets to serve as collateral. Banks commonly make loans to small businesses backed by the company’s inventory or accounts receivable. Normally there are formulas that determine how much can be loaned, depending on how much is in inventory and in accounts receivable.

A great deal of small business financing is accomplished through bank loans based on the business owner’s personal collateral, such as home ownership. Some would say that home equity is the greatest source of small business financing.

4. The Small Business Administration (SBA)

The SBA makes loans to small businesses and even to startup businesses. SBA loans are almost always applied for and administered by local banks. You normally deal with a local bank throughout the process of getting an SBA loan.

For startup loans, the SBA will normally require that at least one-third of the required capital be supplied by the new business owner. Furthermore, the rest of the amount must be guaranteed by reasonable business or personal assets.

The SBA works with “certified lenders,” which are banks. It takes a certified lender as little as one week to get approval from the SBA. If your own bank isn’t a certified lender, you should ask your banker to recommend a local bank that is.

Need help finding a business loan? Find available small business loan options with the Bplans Loan Finder.

5. Other lenders

Aside from standard bank loans, an established small business can also turn to accounts receivable specialists to borrow against its accounts receivables.

The most common accounts receivable financing is used to support cash flow when working capital is hung up in accounts receivable.

For example, if your business sells to distributors that take 60 days to pay, and the outstanding invoices waiting for payment (but not late) come to $100,000, your company can probably borrow more than $50,000.

Interest rates and fees may be relatively high, but this is still often a good source of small business financing. In most cases, the lender doesn’t take the risk of payment—if your customer doesn’t pay you, you have to pay the money back anyhow. These lenders will often review your debtors, and choose to finance some or all of the invoices outstanding.

Another related business practice is called factoring. So-called factors actually purchase obligations, so if a customer owes you $100,000 you can sell the related paperwork to the factor for some percentage of the total amount. In this case, the factor takes the risk of payment, so discounts are obviously quite steep. Ask your banker for additional information about factoring.

6. Friends and family funding

If I could make only one point with budding entrepreneurs, it would be that you should know what money you need, and understand that it is at risk. Know how much you are betting, and don’t bet money you can’t afford to lose.

I’ll always remember a talk I had with a man who had spent 15 years trying to make his sailboat manufacturing business work, achieving not much more than aging and more debt. “If I can tell you only one thing,” he said, “it is that you should never take money from friends and family. If you do, then you can never get out. Businesses sometimes fail, and you need to be able to close it down and walk away. I wasn’t able to do that.”

The story points out why the U.S. government securities laws discourage getting business investments from people who aren’t wealthy, sophisticated investors. They don’t fully understand how much risk there is. If your parents, siblings, good friends, cousins, and in-laws will invest in your business, they have paid you an enormous compliment. Please, in that case, make sure that you understand how easily this money can be lost, and that you make them understand as well.

Although you don’t want to rule out starting your company with investments from friends and family, don’t ignore some of the disadvantages. Go into this relationship with your eyes wide open.

Maybe, your idea and your situation is a better fit for crowdfunding—that is, creating a profile and pitching your business idea or product on a site like Kickstarter. In fact, this method of raising money has become so popular that here are dozens of crowdfunding sites to choose from, all offering different terms and benefits.

Words of warning

Sadly, financing and investment involves money; and money breeds some predatory business practices, scams and such. So here are some reminders to help you avoid the pitfalls.

  • Don’t take private placement, angels, friends, and family as good sources of investment capital just because they are described here or taken seriously in some other source of information. Some investors are a good source of capital, and some aren’t. These less established sources of investment should be handled with extreme caution.
  • Never, spend somebody else’s money without first doing the legal work properly. Have the papers done by professionals, and make sure they’re signed.
  • Never, spend money that has been promised but not delivered. Often companies get investment commitments and contract for expenses, and then the investment falls through.
  • Be aware that turning to friends and family for investment is not always a good idea. The worst possible time to not have the support of friends and family is when your business is in trouble. You risk losing friends, family, and your business at the same time.

Summary

Most businesses are financed by home equity or savings as they start—bootstrapping. Only a few high-growth startups can attract outside investment. Venture capital deals are extremely rare. Borrowing will always depend on collateral and guarantees, not on business plans or ideas. And business borrowing is normal for ongoing businesses with an established history, but not a normal option for startups.

What might be the next steps to take depends a lot on your specific business. Generally, high-tech startups might explore angel investment or friends and family first, while steady ongoing businesses should start by asking their small business banker. But always remember, your business is unique.

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