The stages of traditional fundraising
Funding comes in stages.
Understanding these will help you know when and where to go for funding at each stage of your business. Further, it will help you communicate with funders more precisely. What you think when you hear “seed funding” and “A rounds” might be different from what investors think. You both need to be on the same page as you move forward.
Early money stage
The first stage is early money, when cash is invested in exchange for large amounts of equity. This cash, which ranges between $1,000 and $500,000, typically, comes from the three Fs: friends, family and (we don’t like this nomenclature) fools. The last-named folks are essentially “giving” you cash, and these investors are well-aware that you will most likely fail — hence, “fools.”
Your earliest investors should reap the biggest rewards because they are taking the most risk. The assumption is that, ultimately, you’ll make good or improve their investment. The reality, they understand, is that you probably won’t.
Your first money may come from bootstrapping or F&F, and your first big checks may come from an accelerator that pays you about $50,000 for a fairly large stake in your company. Accelerators are essentially greenhouses — or incubators — for startups. You apply to them. If accepted, you get assistance and a small amount of funding.
Why do investors give early money? Because they trust you, they understand your industry and they believe you can succeed. Some are curious about what you are doing and want to be close to the action. Others want to lock you up in case you are successful. In fact, many accelerators have this in mind when they connect with new startups. At its core, the funding landscape is surprisingly narrow. When you begin fundraising, you’ll hear a lot of terminology including descriptions of various funding categories and investors. Let’s talk about them one by one.
As the old saying goes, if you need a helping hand, you’ll find it at the end of your arm. With that adage in mind, let’s begin with bootstrapping.
Bootstrapping comes from the concept of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps,” a comical image that computer scientists adapted to describe how a computer starts from a powered-down state. In the case of an entrepreneur, bootstrapping is synonymous with sweat equity — your own work and money that you put into your business without outside help.
Bootstrapping is often the only way to begin a business as an entrepreneur. By bootstrapping, you will find out very quickly how invested you are, personally, in your idea.
Bootstrapping requires you to spend money or resources on yourself. This means you either spend your own cash to build an early version of your product, or you build the product yourself, using your own skills and experience. In the case of service businesses — IT shops, design houses and so on — it requires you to quit your day job and invest, full time, in your own business.
Bootstrapping should be a finite action. For example, you should plan to bootstrap for a year or less and plan to spend a certain amount of money bootstrapping. If you blow past your time or money budget with little to show for your efforts, you should probably scrap the idea.
Some ideas take very little cash to bootstrap. These businesses require sweat equity — that is, your own work on a project that leads to at least a minimum viable product (MVP).
Consider an entrepreneur who wants to build a new app-based business in which users pay (or will pay) for access to a service. Very basic Apple iOS and Google Android applications cost about $25,000 to build, and they can take up to six months to design and implement. You could also create a simpler, web-based version of the application as a bootstrapping effort, which often takes far less cash — about $5,000 at $50 an hour.
You can also teach yourself to code and build your MVP yourself. This is often how tech businesses begin, and it says plenty about the need for founders to code or at least be proficient in the technical aspects of their business.
You can’t bootstrap forever. One entrepreneur we encountered was building a dating app. She had dedicated her life to this dating app, spending all of her money, quitting her job to continue to build it. She slept on couches and told everyone she knew about the app, networking to within an inch of her life. Years later it is a dead app in an app store containing millions of dead apps. While this behavior might get results one in a thousand times, few entrepreneurs can survive for a year of app-induced penury, let alone multiple years.
Another entrepreneur we knew was focused on nanotubes. He spent years rushing here and there, wasting cash on flights and taking meetings with people who wanted to sell him services. Many smart investors told him that he should go and work internally at a nanotube business and then branch out when he was ready. Instead, he attacked all angles for years, eventually leading to exhaustion. He’s still at it, however, which is a testament to his intensity.