That two letter word…

[This is a guest post I wrote in 2010 on 24waystostart. It still applies, so I thought I’d repost it here]

“No.” It has to be one of hardest, yet most frequent words an investor says…

It’s not easy for us to say, and many times, not easy for an entrepreneur to hear. You’ve been working hard on your business, you think it’s great, your only friend thinks it’s great (you’ve lost everyone else because you’ve been holed up working on your project), your family parted with their hard-earned cash to help you out… and then you meet with investors and they say No.

Great. “Investors are such idiots” you’ll think… well, maybe. Or maybe not. It turns out No has many meanings…

First, I’ll admit I personally hate saying no, but I do try to be pretty blunt when doing so, and giving a good reason why I say no (not always, but I try). Your job as an Entrepreneur is to figure out what the investor is saying when they say no… because there are different flavors of No, and different reasons for No.

The most frequent No is actually “Not now”. If that is the case, all is not lost, find out how to get to “Yes.”. It’s going to be a specific milestone or proof point. Find out what it is, ask clearly if you achieve x or y, will they invest at that point. The answer will normally be “Yes.”, and they will lay out exactly what they want to see. This usually lowers the risk of some element they’re not comfortable with yet. If that’s the case – then get on it and get back there. You’ll find a way.

There’s also a variant of “Not now” known as the Excalibur Test. I’ve given many entrepreneurs the Excalibur Test – give them something to do then have them come back with it later. If they’re successful, you write a check. And if they don’t come back…well, the story ends there. Excalibur tests or proof points are fine; but be careful that an investor doesn’t have you running around in circles when they have no real intention of investing—regardless of the outcome.

Another reason investors say “No” is bandwidth. Most people don’t realize an investor will only make 1-5 deals per year—depending on many factors (stage, size, etc.) They may actually like your business, but simply can’t deal with another investment at that exact moment in time, even though they love it. It definitely happens…

Other reasons you may get a No: lack of fit with the firm or individual’s investment thesis/areas or stage. This one is far more likely. Many investors are not what they seem. Every VC you meet in London will say “We do early stage.” What they actually mean is “We invest in profitable companies that don’t really need money”. The risk profile of that firm is simply not one that’s going to invest into an early stage – let alone a seed stage business. Everyone says “Great companies get funded.” but that’s an urban myth. I know several very good companies that haven’t been able to get funded because they were simply “too early”. Think about Fit and Stage when you’re talking to an investor and understand that you may simply not fit the bill. You can test this by asking if they think you should talk to someone else. If they make a suggestion, ask for an intro. You will have confirmed that you’re not right for them, and the intro helps act as validation for your business in the next investors eyes.

Another reason investors may say No is simply a lack of vision. They don’t actually get what you’re doing. It happens a lot. This one is really easy to spot, and understand. If this is the type of No you get, take it and move on. It doesn’t mean they’re an idiot (although that’s what you’ll be thinking), and it also doesn’t mean you’re some gifted visionary (which actually you may be). More likely it just means you see the world differently. It’s a simple No. Move on…

And then sometimes, the No is actually because the baby is… well… ugly. No one likes the Ugly Baby and it’s even worse to have to say it; but bad ideas are plentiful. Perhaps the business won’t scale well (niche business), will be difficult to execute operationally (manually intensive, for example), doesn’t create any real value (reselling someone else’s product/service), is crawling with competitors, etc. This is the hardest one to swallow. When it finally sinks in… and you realize that you’re working on a dud, I’d recommend you cut your losses and do something else.

Whatever answer you hear, focus on your business (unless it’s an ugly baby), and your customers. You’ll get to a yes… maybe it’s a different investor, or it’s a paying customer. But it will be a Yes.

Keep pushing. Believe in yourself.

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