As an entrepreneur, "NO" from a VC is a good thing

In the blogosphere, there is some buzz as to why VC’s don’t say no. There has been early writing on this topic, but Stu Phillips of Ridgelift Ventures and his entry, Getting to NO!, is getting a lot of buzz.

I would like to add the entrepreneur’s perspective on the conversation.

In my experience, the VC’s I have presented to and met with for the most part think of themselves as risk takers or the “rebels of the investment world”. My perspective is that while this might have held true in the early days when people where investing in Apple and those first Internet startups, now it is mostly follow the leader.

This is one of the reasons many a clone of YouTube or MySpace to appear on the web and generate the froth in yet another new wave of startups. VC money for the most part does not chase true innovation, many pursue later stage with a clear exit or if it is early stage, they chasing deals with what I call “parallel potential” that emulate the successful pioneer.

This is why many companies getting funding sound very much like variations on the original (i.e. “this is MySpace for Retired People” or “this is YouTube for music videos” or “Google for vertical markets”) there is a reason this happens. First, VC’s who didn’t get in on MySpace or YouTube believe they invest in one with similar features and have a good exit if its positioning makes it stand out. Enabling this co-dependent investment relationship are the entrepreneur’s who are not really innovating and just see a niche that they can capitalize on and hope the VC is interested.

I look at a VC as a combination of Movie Producer and Casting Director. You are the actor/actress and winning the part is the equivalent to getting the investment. This means that you as the actor need to audition for the right parts and your company must match their type of portfolio investment or you are just wasting your time.

The value of a VC, a good VC that is, is to do as many “no harm/no foul” meetings to explore a potential investment. Many entrepreneurs think this is a YES/NO meeting. It is not. Think of it like a first round audition to see if your company fits their portfolio. If there is interest, you move to the next round.

I have experienced this first hand and for many investors, the real opportunities are ones that disrupt what exists on the market today or innovates in an area that can be marketed to a number of industries ensuring a safety net to reduce its risk relying on one sector or business model. Ironically, many VC’s when they first see these deals are apprehensive to jump and say “Yes”, but they will never say “No”.

Most investors might have a no harm/no foul meeting with an entrepreneur, they are reticent to say no because they like what they are seeing but maybe the customers aren’t there yet or they want the market to reach the idea and prove its viability. This is why you get the typical responses:

  • “If you find a lead, give me a call”
  • “It is a great concept, if you get a few key beta customers, come back and let’s talk”
  • For more of these little “nuggets”, I direct you to Guy Kawasaki’s “Top 10 Lies of Venture Capitalists“.

If you are getting these kinds responses your frustration level is high and I know how you feel. You must look at this as – NO, NOT RIGHT AT THIS MOMENT. But why don’t they tell you “NO”? It is because they want to stay in the game in case you do reach those milestones or other VC’s begin to get interested and want you. Does this not remind you of high school and trying to be popular? Yeah, I thought so too.

For you entrepreneurs that read this blog, understand that for a VC, saying ‘No’ shuts them out of a future potential deal, but hearing NO can be good for both of you. Hearing “No” let’s you focus on those VC’s that either say “YES, let’s continue” or “Not right now, but when you do X, let’s move forward”.

So here is my plea to the VC’s that subscribe to the blog – BE HONEST. TELL US NO AND TELL US WHY NO. If we know why, we are happy to move on or update you later and come back to TURN THAT NO INTO A YES.

What is interesting is that this is not uncommon in other countries and is a standard way of doing business. Business etiquette in many countries do not use “NO” in their negotiations. China is a prime example of this where “Maybe” is as close as you are going to get and negotiations are always happening right up until the contract is signed.

What I recommend to you my fellow entrepreneurs is not to focus your business on making it a VC play. If you are building a good business, build a good business. True, some have amazing potential but a limited time window to execute so VC or angel investment is necessary to grow. If this is the case, the opportunity will present itself and the relationships you build will be there when you are ready.

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