Mouse Trap

Eight Things You Never Say to Investors

When you approach potential investors about investing in your new company, you should avoid certain expressions. They are traps that you either make you look weak, or from which you will have a difficult time extricating yourself. Here are some examples.

1. “I have no competitors”

Everybody has competition, even if they offer a substitute product. A sophisticated investor will be turned off immediately if you imply you have no competition.

Every startup launches because its founder has thought of something new. It is either

  • a new product or service, or
  • a new market for an existing product or service, or
  • a new way to deliver an existing product or service.

But just because you have thought of something new doesn’t mean you have no competition. You provide products and services as solutions to customers’ problems/needs/pains. Ask yourself, “How do people satisfy their problems/needs/pains currently?” Even if the answer is “They don’t,” then the status quo is competition!

Let’s look at some examples:

  • A new 3rd generation canine cancer-fighting drug. The competition includes: (a) less effective 2nd generation cancer-fighting drug, (b) not treating the dog (could be cost effective), or (c) pain killers for the dog to enhance quality of life.
  • The first online gourmet recipe ingredient store. The competition includes: (a) general on-line merchandisers like Amazon, and (b) storefront sellers of gourmet food.
  • The first allergy clinic franchise embedded inside of physician offices. The competition includes: (a) standalone allergy clinics, (b) allergists, and (c) physician assistants and nurse practitioners specializing in allergies.
  • The first online bookstore (i.e., Amazon). The competition includes all the brick and mortar bookstores.

Bottom line: just because you are the “first” does not mean you have no competition.

2. “All I need is your money; not your opinions”

Investors, whether angels or venture capitalists, usually consider their business acumen to be of considerable value to their portfolio companies. When you make a statement like this (or imply it through your actions) you will likely alienate the investors sufficiently so they will not invest.

3. “My time is worth as much as your money”

During an investor pitch, investors will often ask “how much money have you raised to date?” They want to know how much cash has been invested in the company so far. All founders devote enormous hours in birthing their companies, but labor hours just don’t count.

Yes, you can and should offer to work for no cash compensation (this could be a factor in encouraging investors to invest), and yes, you can suggest that you will accept options in lieu of such compensation. This is all good.

But don’t go into a monologue explaining how your time is worth $100,000/year, so you have thus far invested $100,000 into the company by working for a year without salary.

4. “I will guarantee you an X% return on your investment”

“Danger! Will Robinson. Danger!” You cannot guarantee anything to your investors. You are selling them securities in return for their payment and the terms of this transaction are spelled out in a written subscription agreement.

When you state that you “guarantee” such a return, you are inviting a class action law suit from investors if such a return is not delivered. Do not do this! And the limited liability of the corporation will likely not protect you as an individual (or your personal assets) from claims by the investors.

5. “This is a risk free investment”

By their very nature, startups are risky. The graph to the left shows the survival rates for startup companies, and emphasizes that the rates have been the same regardless of the year they were started. Notice that only 50% of companies survive for 5 years or more.

But even ignoring the data, making such a statement is foolhardy. You have an obligation (legally and ethically) to potential investors to understand and spell out all the risks involved in investing in your startup.

And your attorneys, when they draft your subscription agreements, will insist on including a clause that spells out the likelihood of total loss of the investment.

6. “All I have to do is build my product and the customers will come”

This is a classic statement made by engineers without any marketing savvy. By saying it, investors will know you are a geek. Only three ways exist to create revenue:

  • You can “buy” a customer. That is, you can spend resources (usually money) to raise awareness of your product, you can pull or push leads to you, and you can spend more resources to convert those leads into customers.
  • You can convince existing customers to buy more, or buy more often, or not stop being your customer.
  • You can encourage existing customers to convert non-customers to become customers.

That’s it! Nowhere in this list is “Build my product and  customers will come.” Creating and growing revenue takes work. Plain and simple. Investors know that. If you don’t know that, you will be seen as naïve, not street smart.

7. “We’re almost out of cash”

The timing of raising capital is always a challenge. If you wait too long (e.g., you get close to running out of cash), less respectable investors could take advantage of your situation by delaying their decision to invest until you are desperate and you may end up being forced to accept less-then-ideal terms.

On the other hand, if you solicit investments too early, company valuations might be lower than you would like, and you may end up having to sell a larger percentage of the company to raise necessary cash. No perfect answer exists, but unless you are about to hit a major valuation-changing milestone, I would err on the side of too-early rather than too-late.

Whatever you do, don’t ever suggest to the investor that you are desperate for cash; that will invite even scrupulous investors to make lower offers. The best advice is manage your company so you are never desperate for cash.

8. “The market is so huge; all we need to do is capture 1/10 of 1% of it.”

This might sound impressive to you, but it doesn’t to the seasoned investor. Investors want to invest in market leaders; they want you to have a large percent of some market. Market leaders lead. Market laggards lag.

Successful startups first focus on penetration of relatively narrow vertical markets; it is called the “rifle shot.” Such an approach enables you to target your desired audience with a marketing campaign designed specifically to their particular pains.

Bragging about a “huge market” and the sufficiency of a tiny capture to “make millions” demonstrates that you don’t understand the dynamics of focusing. It sounds like you are going to take the “shot gun” approach, one that usually results in failure because of overly broad messaging.

In summary

Investors are much better at negotiations than you are; after all, they do it over and over again, and you do it rarely. They have heard all the “lines” before and they can see through BS immediately. They also know how to take advantage of your vulnerabilities if they desire to.

I have a few other cautionary bits of advice. They don’t fit into the category of “never say these,” but they are close:

  • “It will be easy to steal customers from competitors because they provide such terrible customer service.” Competitors may in fact be providing terrible customer service, but never underestimate the power of inertia. Many customers would rather stick with a known, but poor, service provider than venture into the unknown.
  • “Our key differentiator is a great user interface.” Sorry, but every new startup claims that it will provide the greatest user experience. You might actually plan on doing so, and you might even be able to do so, but because you sound like every other entrepreneur, your claim will be summarily dismissed.



Dr. Al Davis has published 100+ articles in journals, conferences and trade press, and lectured 2,000+ times in 28 countries. He is the author of 6 books, including the latest, Will Your New Start Up Make Money? He is co-founder and CEO of Offtoa, Inc., an internet company that assists entrepreneurs in crafting their business strategies to optimize financial return for themselves and their investors. Formerly, he was founding member of the board of directors of Requisite, Inc., acquired by Rational Software Corporation in 1997, and subsequently acquired by IBM in 2003; co-founder, chairman and CEO of Omni-Vista, Inc.; and vice president at BTG, Inc., a Virginia-based company that went public in 1995, acquired by Titan in 2001, and subsequently acquired by L-3 Communications in 2003.

If you’d like to learn if your great business idea will make money, take a look at Will Your New Start Up Make Money?

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