When you go to raise capital, remember to focus on the things that make you a great founder
This article was originally published in Inc.
Fundraising is weird. Until recently, my experience has been that I had to put on a fundraising persona that felt deeply unnatural. To pitch well, I felt like I needed to toss away my natural strengths and create artificial ones that didn’t fit.
In raising Ethena’s $15.5M Series A, I realized that I didn’t need a different persona for “fundraising me” versus “normal me.” Instead, I needed to channel the very things that make me good at company-building (focused problem solving, transparency, humility), and present them as part of the storytelling process.
Given how hot the fundraising environment is right now, it seems like the last thing anyone needs is more advice on how to raise. But fundraising is still hard, and data shows it’s even harder for certain groups. Women make up ~ 15%of VCs, women founders get around 2% of venture funding, and Black founders get ~ 1% of funding. It’s impossible for me to know how much of my experience fundraising is impacted by my lived experience, but I have found that I needed to “un-learn” some habits to successfully raise.
Thankfully, I got the advice and guidance of a bunch of smart people, which I’m sharing below, along with our (lightly edited) pitch deck. The deck is what I pitched, and here’s what I un-learned about how to pitch:
Early on in our company building, Ali Partovi told me to never overplay my hand in fundraising. For example, don’t say, “I’ve got term sheets in hand” when really, all I have are some vague “this is interesting” emails.
The reason I found this helpful is that when I was adopting my different, “fundraising personality”, there was a real danger that I could swing in the opposite direction and start saying bonkers things like, “Just got off the phone with Elon. He’s begging to get in the round.” It was helpful for me to learn that absurd statements of overconfidence are just as bad as saying, “Oh man, things aren’t looking good, please give me money.”
Tell your company’s story from Z to A
I’m naturally a linear thinker and so if I’m explaining to you how Ethena will win the compliance space, my inclination is to tell you that first, we start with training, because it’s the biggest chunk of the compliance OS. Then we’ll build out other features and eventually, we’ll revolutionize compliance by making it all proactive and effective instead of reactive and counterproductive.
But the issue is you’ve likely tuned out somewhere around B or C. And an investor definitely left the Zoom mentally, if not physically.
Deborah Quazzo pushed us to pitch the end state, “Z”, first. This is the long-term, if everything goes right vision. Once investors see how the world looks different when Ethena wins, then they’re interested in whether we can execute. But if they don’t believe there’s a game-changing idea at the end of the road, they aren’t going to walk down it.
Pitch the “team” in “I”
If there’s one slide I’d like to gloss over, it’s the one with my face on it. I find it weird to tell someone how awesome I am for three reasons:
- As a woman, I’ve been socialized not to.
- I spent my first “career” in the army where there’s a special place in cultural hell for those who spotlight their own success.
- I feel like an investor could quickly go on LinkedIn, see that I’m a combat veteran, Rhodes Scholar, and Harvard grad, and glean that by conventional metrics, I’m top 5%.
(Yes, I see the conflict in reasons 1-2 and reason 3 and I don’t know what to say other than, people are complicated.)
Hunter Walk helped me get over this hangup by suggesting that I emphasize what our credentials mean to the business. Here’s an example: my co-founder Anne was an early engineer at Mark43, a govtech unicorn. Instead of saying, “Yay her, she’s smart” I say, “Anne’s experience scaling a unicorn tech team in a risk averse space makes her the ideal CTO to build our compliance product.”
You can talk about how your experience or credentials help the business, instead of just sharing your credentials. To me, the former feels like I’m emphasizing the business, not just how impressed I am with myself.
Focus can be your secret
We do compliance training. It’s a huge market, full of legacy players. It’s also adjacent to other huge markets. I asked Satya Patel what to do when an investor waxes poetic about how we could revolutionize, say, the LMS space. “Let focus be your secret,” Satya told us. Show them enthusiasm and let them dream, he said, even if we know that we won’t be entering that space for a while.
As a founder, there isn’t a benefit to being a party pooper if investors see a bunch of adjacent opportunities. Let them do the mental exercise of “where can this go”, just don’t let that upend your product road map.
Ideally, find great investors
Unfortunately, this last “lesson” isn’t always helpful, but if you have options, find the right investor. For me, finding the right investor makes pitching feel more like, well, having a conversation.
When we started talking with Felicis, I felt more like my natural company-building self. Yes, I still pitched a big vision that I believed our A+ team could uniquely execute on, but it all felt more natural. Victoria Treyger, our partner, saw how quickly we’d grown, let us have the “dream with me” moment, but also respected our focus and deliberate process. It was so easy to see how we’d partner with Felicis to grow our business. We never worried about needing to be “crushing it all the time” and hiding the hard stuff.
My sense is that great investors can see the vision whether you pitch A to Z or Z to A. They can spot a stellar team out of a lineup and they know the difference between “dream with me” and focus. To the extent you can, find and work with those investors.