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《如何创业》主持人分享全球最知名创业家的创业经历

《如何创业》主持人分享全球最知名创业家的创业经历

Guy Raz 2020年10月03日
全国公共广播电台播客最新的书作不仅仅只是一个标准的商业书刊。

作者与播客主持人盖伊·瑞兹。图片来源:COURTESY OF HOUGHTON MIFFLIN

觉得现在并非是一个创业的好时机吗?不妨再想想。一大批公司在金融下行期间涌现了出来,其名单读起来异常朗朗上口,包括眼下一些最值得尊敬的企业品牌,例如联邦快递、微软、Slack、爱彼迎、Uber、惠普,甚至Trader Joes!这些企业的创始人有着明显的优势,因为其企业除了增长之外别无选择。

金融危机和经济下行迫使创始人变得足智多谋、高效和敏捷。一旦这家初出茅庐的企业从下行期间发展壮大,那么面对未来的挫折,它会变得更有韧性。

当前的危机在很多层面上都有其独特性。一方面,它已经给部分经济带来了毁灭性的打击(旅行、休闲、娱乐、餐馆等等)。与此同时,风投和私募股权公司持有的未投资现金据估计已经高达数万亿美元,而且是寻求投资机会的那种现金。投资者展开了比以往任何时候都更加激烈的竞争,以寻找颇具吸引力的投资机会。

这对于有着金点子的企业家来说意味着什么呢。在一定程度上,它意味着与近代史上任何其他时期相比,此时筹集“专业”资金更加容易。不过,这些资金都不是白给的,而且有时候,人们最好认真思考一下由此而来的各类附加条件是否值当。

以下内容节选自我的新书《如何创业:全球最鼓舞人心的企业家出乎意料的成功之路》(How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths to Success from the World's Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs,Houghton Mifflin出版社出版),9月15日上架。

《如何创业:全球最鼓舞人心的企业家出乎意料的成功之路》。图片来源:COURTESY OF HOUGHTON MIFFLIN

并非所有创始人都能够打造独角兽企业,而且也没有这个必要。例如,以最少成本创建、经营一家仅有数名员工的小企业,然后一直干到退休,最终移交给他人或出售。这不仅没有错,反而是一种常态。

大多数美国中小企业的雇员人数都不到20名(如果有雇员的话),其年营收在30万至200万美元之间。确实,我在这些年来遇到的大多数企业家都是以这类成功为目标。他们并不是特别在意业务扩张的伴生事物,例如无限增长、整体市场影响力以及筹集大量的专业资金等。

然而,如果业务扩张是你的目标,而银行贷款和现金又无法帮助你实现这一点,那么你或多或少会将目光投向风投资本界。毕竟,要让资源密集型企业实现飞速发展并没有多少道路可供选择。这对很多企业家来说是一个令人生畏的前景,因为风投资本一直以两岸(硅谷和曼哈顿中城)少数人的闭环操作而闻名,而且这两个领域也充斥着诸多不成文的规则和陌生的术语,这些对那些习惯于直来直去的企业家来说无异于天书。

这些术语包括天使轮和种子轮融资;股权结构表和退出机制;A、B、C轮稀释和优先股;烧钱率和收入预估。还有风投资本和私募股权人士;美国金融业监管局、全国证券交易商协会和美国证券交易委员会。还包括股份兑现、投资和纯粹的马甲。Vest的含义实在是太多了,足够让创始人感到头晕目眩。但事实就是如此。所有这些模糊、缺乏准确定义的术语特意留出了模棱两可的空间,以打造和维持神秘感,就是为了防止人们发现风投资本不想让你知道的一个事实:他们也是人,与其他人无异。正因为如此,他们并非是预言家或超级英雄。事实上,该领域最成功的人士往往都是最幸运的人士,也就是能够早早地进驻有潜力的企业,并有足够的资金做出众多错误的豪赌,但最终依然会获得成功。

简而言之,风投资本,即便是最有经验的那类公司,在决策时往往也是错多对少。我提到这一点并不是为了让你对他们感到质疑,亦不是吓你,而是让你对此有个心理准备。因为这篇文章并非告诉人们在决定需要资金外援时如何筹集专业资金,而是从筹资流程经历者的角度,让人们了解专业投资行业和职业投资者思维,这样,你便会知道在进入这个圈子之后可能会遇到什么样的情况,这一点与结果无关。

2009年,简·海曼在种子轮为一家名为Rent the Runway的在线设计师服装租赁企业筹集了175万美元的资金。在这里,女性可以浏览可能价值数千美元的服饰,同时能够以非常低的价格租用。这件衣服随后便会送至客户家中,然后客户可以在任何场所穿着。这一事实也是女性们能够青睐这一网站的起因,她们会在活动结束后将衣服发回。这有点像Zipcar遇到了Netflix,再遇到了Zappos,它的后端最终成为了全美最大的干洗业务。如今,Rent the Runway拥有1,200多名雇员,其营收超过了1亿美元,然而在2009年,简及其联合创始人詹妮弗·弗雷斯从投资者那里得到的反响却是不怎么乐观,有时候甚至是令人大跌眼镜。

简对我说:“很多次,对方讲话的语气异常居高临下。在有一次对话中,来自于一家知名公司的合伙人边握着我的手边对我说:‘太可爱了,这样你便可以穿众多漂亮的衣服。这对于你来说一定非常有趣。’”

她们之后再也没有与这位投资者或其公司打交道,然而,在她们从男性主导的风投资本界获得的各种反馈当中,此次交流是傲慢和轻蔑态度最为集中的体现。

简说:“大多数投资者说:‘我先问问我夫人’,‘我先跟我女儿聊聊’,或‘我先跟我行政人员沟通一下’。这些是我们打算征求意见的三类目标客户。”从表面来看,这个听起来像是一个合理的回答,不是吗?一群四五十岁的男士又能对衣服有多少了解?可能是一无所知,但他们理应很在行,而且他们在回复简和詹妮弗的过程中忽视了对等原则,感觉就像是这个商业模式或商业计划与他们毫无关系,而且简的理念的商业价值已经被不熟悉其产品的潜在投资者排除在外。不仅如此,在听取其生活中女性的意见方面,这些投资者甚至连咨询的对象群体都选错了。

简说:“让我来告诉你为什么这些[‘目标客户’]都存在问题。第一,风投资本家的夫人是一个百万富翁。她有钱购买任何她想要的衣服,因此她并非是我的目标客户,不是吗?风投资本家的女儿在大多数情况下也就12岁左右,因为大多数风投资本家在其职业生涯的黄金时期都已经到了45至50岁的年纪。因此其女儿也不是绝佳的目标。然后在风投资本行业工作的女性管理人员通常都已经50多岁或60多岁,依然不属于我目标客户的范畴。”

如果投资者没有接触过这种产品,也不认识目标群体中的任何人,这似乎是在说这个理念并不适合他们,或者,更糟糕的是,这个理念根本不值得推广。在受够了这类对话之后,简与詹妮弗开始在投资者对其介绍做出反馈之前便会先发制人。简说:“我们向其展示了视频,并邀请他们来参加我们的一些快闪店,从而向其展示谁才是我们的目标客户,这样,他们才能真正了解我们服务的对象。”

这些快闪店十分具有启发性。这一举措在一开始就让简认为,这个理念是有市场的,而且他们最终能够让众多投资者对这一理念感兴趣。简在谈论自己见证快闪店客户试穿衣服的经历时说:“你会看到女性的面部表情发生了变化。她们会昂首挺胸,将秀发放下来,并在行走时呈现出一种新的自信。”在看到这些之后,众多自称无所不知、但却对其客户知之甚少的投资者终于对此有了充分的了解,并将Rent the Runway当作一种商业主张来看待。就在此时,种子轮的资本终于开始流入公司。

然而,这并没有打开专业资本的水闸。业界依然对这两位20多岁的年轻人及其“漂亮衣服”资源库存在大量的疑问。直到两位的故事最终发表于《纽约时报》的商业专栏,二位的头像出现在了封面上半版面位置,事情才开始有所改变。有10万人注册了网站。她们在短短数周内便实现了其第一年的销售预测。简描述说,谁又可以想到,“拜访其办公室、向其宣传A轮融资的风投投资者可谓是络绎不绝。之前,人们非常不看好我们这个项目,但如今,为了争抢这个项目,投资者们打起了突击战,在大楼的电梯中等着和我们见面。”

需要说的是,尽管简·海曼的故事中存在令人沮丧、反胃的性别歧视和沙文主义,但其公司获得的专业资本却没有什么不同。风投资本家十分了解资本运作,但他们并不一定就比你更了解你的业务,而且有时候,他们对你行业的了解也会不如你。因此,众多创始人告诉我,他们不得不向潜在投资者一点一点灌输并将所有的要素拼凑在一起,从而向其展示近在眼前的机会。

当然,并非所有投资者都是这样,即便他们并不怎么“了解这个行业”。并非所有创始人都得面对简·海曼所经历的一切,即便这些创始人是服装领域的女性。例如总部位于得克萨斯州奥斯丁的休闲运动公司Outdoor Voice创始人泰勒·海丽。当她2014年出马筹集最初的种子轮资金之时,她所面对的投资者(主要是男性)盘问并非是“女孩玩过家家”这类讽刺挖苦,而是一个十分合理的质疑:市场是否还有空间来容纳这样一个品牌。

泰勒对我说:“我会时不时地收到邮件回复或参加一些会面,内容差不多都是‘我们已经有安德玛和耐克,为什么我们还需要另一个运动装品牌?’我开始一点点地向他们描述,和我共事的都是男士,而这些传统运动装品牌均由男士打造,基本上都是针对竞技运动员。我开始意识到,尽管我在这里大讲特讲该运动装品牌的运动特性以及将健康从性能中释放出来,但那些自小从事竞技运动的投资者却是听得一头雾水。”

她很难继续到访那些由男性主导的办公室,并展开同样的对话。他们对她也没有多大的帮助。因此,泰勒在遭到简·海曼的待遇之前,也就是被这些困惑的投资者打发给秘书和女儿之前便选择了离开。她甚至在参加会议之前会直接去探望支持他的女性员工,或其女友和妻子。

泰勒说:“我开始向办公室的女性职员和一些投资者的夫人寄送产品。而且通过这个举措,我开始遇到那些愿意听我介绍,而且认为这个业务可以变为现实的投资者。我也开始获得了更多与其见面的时间。”

第一个感兴趣的投资者是皮特·博伊斯,他来自于总部位于马萨诸塞州剑桥的风投公司General Catalyst。泰勒说:“他看了产品,听了我的介绍。我向他的女友娜塔莉亚寄送了产品,她非常喜欢。他说:‘我很欣赏这个理念,希望能对其投资。’”General Catalyst最终领投了110万美元的种子轮。泰勒用这笔资金另外聘请了3名员工,开设了办事处,当然,还生产了更多的产品。

简·海曼和泰勒·海丽筹集其第一笔专业资金的经历发生在五年之前,而且筹集方式和效果有着很大的区别,但其遇到的专业投资者对筹资前景的巨大影响力都非常相似,这一点与其对商业主题的了解程度或其商业经验无关。其中的一些影响,尽管令人非常不快,但最终亦对其有着莫大的帮助。不过有时候,这一点对于某些人来说并非如此。

当我在2019年9月采访华盛顿特区的崔斯坦·沃克时,这一点让我感到尤为如释重负。崔斯坦是Walker & Company(取自自己的名字)的创始人,该公司致力于为有色人种生产健康与美容产品。就像丽莎·普莱斯在上个世纪90年代初意识到非洲裔女性护肤市场存在未得到满足的需求而创建了Carol’s Daughter一样,崔斯坦在2013年意识到,有色人种,尤其是非洲裔美国男性,在剃须方面亦存在类似未得到满足的需求。市场上没有产品能够解决其独特的问题,特别是剃须刀贴合性的问题,这些问题并非是老旧问题,而且这些产品也没有形成“少数种族美容产品”专柜。事实上,大多数店面所拥有的只不过是一个满是灰尘、被忽视的货架而已。

崔斯坦的想法是打造一整套有着精美设计和包装的产品,其中涵盖有色人种男士体验完美剃须所需的一切产品:一个安全刀架、一套刀头、一个面刷、剃须膏,以及须前和须后油。他为自己的产品线取名为Bevel,并认为它需要筹集240万美元的专业资金来启动这个项目(涉及产品本身和包装的制作成本),因为这并非是一个可以轻易白手起家的项目,也不大可能仅靠朋友或家人的帮助,否则会变得一团糟。

然而,与简·海曼不同的是,崔斯坦已经对此做好了准备。他深谙风投资本,而且是自内而外的。他曾经在硅谷呆了数年的时间,就读过斯坦福商学院,在推特实习过,曾经是定位应用程序Foursquare的第一批雇员,然后离开加入了风投资本公司安德森·霍洛维茨,担任常驻企业家,负责开发和评估新理念。他说:“这个期间涌现出了很多电子商务公司。我一直在倾听他们的介绍。我了解了哪些公司能够拿到资金,哪些拿不到。在当时可以进入这家公司真是一件好事。”崔斯坦甚至得到了本·霍洛维兹本人的祝福和指导,后者在这一期间给了他两个重要的建议:首先,霍洛维兹告诉他:“通常看起来是好主意的点子其实是坏点子,反之亦然,因为问题在于,所有人都会尝试好点子,结果就是难以创造什么价值。”第二,他说:“你需要从事你认为在这个世界上最适合你做的事情,而且自己在这一领域有独特的主见,然后从自己的经验出发,去解决某个问题。”此外,霍洛维兹鼓励崔斯坦抛弃一些其早期的观点(一个是颠覆货运,另一个是通过玩耍来应对儿童肥胖),并追求他在执行方面有着独特经验的事情。

正是基于这些条件,Bevel才得以成立,而且崔斯坦也开始上上下下地奔波于沙丘路以筹集资金。无论从专业投资者评估机会的哪个指标来讲,崔斯坦的理念都拿到了相当高的评分。崔斯坦说:“风投资本称他们想要那些在过去与之共过事的创始人、那些有这方面的背景和经验的创始人,以及那些有蓝海机会的创始人。在这一方面,主要工作就是核查、核查、再核查。”他向投资者介绍了存在的市场:“有色人种在所有单一门类的健康和美容产品的消费额比其他任何人群都高。”他还介绍了存在的机会:“有色人种,尤其是黑人,是地球上最有文化影响力的种族。”随后他介绍了其产品在如何解决这一紧急问题方面的愿景,该问题影响了80%的有色人种以及30%的剩余人口。他在整个时期都在思考,Bevel将成为一款能够在拥挤的健康与美容产品专柜中脱颖而出的产品。他说:“如果你是一家大谈特谈这个白色空间、蓝色海洋的风投资本公司,为什么不投资我的公司呢?”

崔斯坦见了60名投资者。仅有三家公司没有拒绝,而且花了很长的时间才找到这三家公司。57名专业投资者拒绝了他的请求,而这是一位有着斯坦福背景的风投资本资深人士,曾经在两家处于初期的主流科技初创公司工作过,而且知道这些公司都会习惯性地关注哪些要素。然而这种持续的遭拒现象会让人彻底丧失斗志。它原本可能让崔斯坦质疑他曾经做过的一切,并对自己的直觉产生怀疑。但他并没有,有什么原因呢?

他说:“我深知,在60名投资者之外还有其他60名投资者。如果他们不打算投资我的理念,那么我也知道他们不会投资其他人的类似理念。”他认为,问题并不在于我的理念,而是投资者并不认为这个决策存在问题。他说:“知道他们开始拒绝之时我才意识到他们还没有理解这个理念。我一直在尝试向这些风投资本公司解释有色人种有其不同之处,但这一点根本没有引起其注意。”崔斯坦打造的产品线是为了解决一系列他们没有或无法看到的问题,因此他们认为这些理念肯定不是真实的,或至少其体量还不够大,不值得他们花时间和金钱去关注。然而自相矛盾的是,这一点恰恰是他从未对自己产生怀疑的原因。他对这些感到困惑的受众说:“硅谷的风投资本家,尤其是以前没有投资经验的人士,都有一种有趣的世界观:自己总是正确的。然而,风投资本家的决策90%理应都是错误的,这基本上就是其工作,而且我知道自己这个糟糕的理念其实棒极了。”

如今,当崔斯坦遇到投资者时,他完全可以在某些事情上采取不同的行事方式或做得更好,从而让整个流程变得更加顺畅。可能其融资说辞可以制作的更好一些,他的第一个版本是PPT,而且确实使用了剪贴画,或者他原本可以直接投其所好。他说:“我在兜售希望和梦想”。然而,他本应讨论钱的问题。他还提到,“我的增长图表是一直向右上扬。”他本应可以在介绍时提升或放慢速度。也有可能他做什么都无法改变这一事实,也许他做的都是对的。谁知道呢?我也不知道,而且就像我说的,这并非这篇文章所要讲述的内容,而是如何看待风投资本。

首先应该了解的是,筹集风投资本其实就是在做承诺。这个承诺就是,你的产品或服务一定会有人购买,而且你自己已经制定了尽可能扩大受众的计划,同时作为对大量资金的交换,你一定会尽一切努力来实现这一点。

其次应该了解的是,好的投资者深知,你所做的承诺只是一个承诺。他们知道你无法做出任何保证。你可以不犯任何错误,但如果你所处的环境发生了变化,那么你对此也是无能为力。顾名思义,风投资本从本质来讲是一场赌博,每一次赌博都存在着重大亏损的风险。专业投资者深知并接受了这一事实,这也是为什么他们在做出重大投资决策之前会尽其所能地规避风险。

他们的一个主要做法是询问大量的问题,尤其是在他们不了解你所处行业的时候。

你打算如何扩张?

业务增长从何而来?你的客户是谁?

此类产品是否已经存在与市场?你如何降低成本?

制造地在哪?

总部在哪?

你会采取什么样的营销策略?

为什么人们会买你的产品?

为什么要这么做?

澳大利亚在线图形设计平台Canva的联合创始人梅兰妮·珀金斯在2012年向100多名投资者游说时遇到了无数这类问题。她从珀斯旅行至旧金山,然后来到了毛伊岛(进行风筝冲浪旅行,此次旅行实际上是为了参加一个由投资者比尔·泰举办的科技会议,梅兰妮曾经在珀斯的另一场会议中与其见过面),然后在这期间又去了不少地方。只要有投资者出现的活动,梅兰妮都会想方设法参加。

几乎在整个期间,梅兰妮都在美国努力筹集资金,以组建和推出Canva。她的努力没有换回什么成果,至少没有拿到任何人的投资。当然这一切并非是一无是处,因为每一次拒绝都让她学到了更多的东西。

梅兰妮说:“这个经历真的是让人受益匪浅,因为我们获得了众多不同的问题和评价。这意味着我们必须了解自己所从事的事情,而且重新制定我们的策略。”每一天,在她向一名最终拒绝她的投资者介绍情况之后,她会修改其融资说辞,以反映她从这些问题中所学到的东西。

梅兰妮回忆说:“每一次我们都会遇到非常难回答的问题,会直接进入我们融资说辞的头条内容。所以最困难的问题都是最先回答的问题。”

最终,梅兰妮演讲稿已经穷尽了投资者会问的所有问题。不久之后,对于那些无法完全理解Canva业务,以及那些意识到设计和发布工具网络化之后开始涌现的机会的投资者来说,这些答案能够减轻其疑问和顾虑。在梅兰妮的旅游签证过期并不得不返回澳大利亚之时,她已经筹集了75万美元的资金,而且最终在种子轮超额筹资150万美元。总的来说,我认为梅兰妮会说,因为她可以回答那些持怀疑态度、对风险敏感的投资者可能会提出的所有问题。

作为一名企业家,对于这些问题你得有思想准备,而且不得不去面对。简·海曼做到了。崔斯坦·沃克也做到了。事实在于,你会遇到一些没有正确答案的问题,你必须为此做好准备。那些由投资者倾泻而下的疑虑将开始悄悄进入你的脑海,会让你开始自问:“在这里我才是疯子吗?可能这个想法真的很愚蠢。可能它根本行不通。”

当你筹集资金时,这是每天都会遇到的思想斗争。如果你的目标是扩张你的业务,就像我在文章开始时提及的那样,你需要加倍努力去屏蔽这些让人不得安宁、自我怀疑的想法。然而,如果你发现你自己对于完全发挥自己最大的实力毫不在意,那么这场斗争的解决方案可能就会彻底消失。

在打造Walker & Company时,崔斯坦最大的遗憾就是接受了专业投资。他在种子轮的经历确实异常残酷,跟电影《好发型》(Good Hair)中的克里斯·洛克相似。后者自信地认为,自己所解决的问题根本不是个问题,然而,当他在数年后回到沙丘路寻求扩张公司的机会并拿到大量资金之后,真正的折磨开始了。不管他说什么做什么,筹资额都无法超过3000万美元。尽管这听起来已经很多了,但在那时,很多风投公司会向一些当时远不如崔斯坦项目的企业投资数亿美元的资金,其中也包括同年创建的竞争对手Harry’s,因此对比之下,3000万美元感觉就像是典型的不信任。在没有更多资金的情况下,崔斯坦无力投资营销、产品开发、研发,当然还有生产。他不得不寻找其他的方式来发展这家公司。

崔斯坦可以做的就是记住,如果“有人有条件实现这一理念的话,[那就是]我;他拥有该领域最佳的‘坏主意’;他拥有独特的条件来执行;而且他比风投资本更了解其业务和其市场。风投资本了解资金,但崔斯坦了解自己的业务。幸运的是,有一件事他可以做来支持其公司的长期愿景。2018年12月,他把Walker & Company出售给了宝洁,但价格要远低于公开市场的售价。”

作为交易的一部分,崔斯坦将公司搬到了亚特兰大,成为了宝洁180年历史中其旗下公司的首位非洲裔美国首席执行官。该交易严重制约了参与该公司A轮融资风投资本所能获得的回报。崔斯坦也是想尝试借此来以自己的方式来发展公司,以退为进,并向未来企业家(尤其是有色人种企业家)展示,尽管风投公司或许可以完全掌控资金,但它们不一定比你更明智,或者它们就是对的。你也可能是正确的,不管你是否选择接受它们的资金。(财富中文网)

译者:冯丰

审校:夏林

觉得现在并非是一个创业的好时机吗?不妨再想想。一大批公司在金融下行期间涌现了出来,其名单读起来异常朗朗上口,包括眼下一些最值得尊敬的企业品牌,例如联邦快递、微软、Slack、爱彼迎、Uber、惠普,甚至Trader Joes!这些企业的创始人有着明显的优势,因为其企业除了增长之外别无选择。

金融危机和经济下行迫使创始人变得足智多谋、高效和敏捷。一旦这家初出茅庐的企业从下行期间发展壮大,那么面对未来的挫折,它会变得更有韧性。

当前的危机在很多层面上都有其独特性。一方面,它已经给部分经济带来了毁灭性的打击(旅行、休闲、娱乐、餐馆等等)。与此同时,风投和私募股权公司持有的未投资现金据估计已经高达数万亿美元,而且是寻求投资机会的那种现金。投资者展开了比以往任何时候都更加激烈的竞争,以寻找颇具吸引力的投资机会。

这对于有着金点子的企业家来说意味着什么呢。在一定程度上,它意味着与近代史上任何其他时期相比,此时筹集“专业”资金更加容易。不过,这些资金都不是白给的,而且有时候,人们最好认真思考一下由此而来的各类附加条件是否值当。

以下内容节选自我的新书《如何创业:全球最鼓舞人心的企业家出乎意料的成功之路》(How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths to Success from the World's Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs,Houghton Mifflin出版社出版),9月15日上架。

并非所有创始人都能够打造独角兽企业,而且也没有这个必要。例如,以最少成本创建、经营一家仅有数名员工的小企业,然后一直干到退休,最终移交给他人或出售。这不仅没有错,反而是一种常态。

大多数美国中小企业的雇员人数都不到20名(如果有雇员的话),其年营收在30万至200万美元之间。确实,我在这些年来遇到的大多数企业家都是以这类成功为目标。他们并不是特别在意业务扩张的伴生事物,例如无限增长、整体市场影响力以及筹集大量的专业资金等。

然而,如果业务扩张是你的目标,而银行贷款和现金又无法帮助你实现这一点,那么你或多或少会将目光投向风投资本界。毕竟,要让资源密集型企业实现飞速发展并没有多少道路可供选择。这对很多企业家来说是一个令人生畏的前景,因为风投资本一直以两岸(硅谷和曼哈顿中城)少数人的闭环操作而闻名,而且这两个领域也充斥着诸多不成文的规则和陌生的术语,这些对那些习惯于直来直去的企业家来说无异于天书。

这些术语包括天使轮和种子轮融资;股权结构表和退出机制;A、B、C轮稀释和优先股;烧钱率和收入预估。还有风投资本和私募股权人士;美国金融业监管局、全国证券交易商协会和美国证券交易委员会。还包括股份兑现、投资和纯粹的马甲。Vest的含义实在是太多了,足够让创始人感到头晕目眩。但事实就是如此。所有这些模糊、缺乏准确定义的术语特意留出了模棱两可的空间,以打造和维持神秘感,就是为了防止人们发现风投资本不想让你知道的一个事实:他们也是人,与其他人无异。正因为如此,他们并非是预言家或超级英雄。事实上,该领域最成功的人士往往都是最幸运的人士,也就是能够早早地进驻有潜力的企业,并有足够的资金做出众多错误的豪赌,但最终依然会获得成功。

简而言之,风投资本,即便是最有经验的那类公司,在决策时往往也是错多对少。我提到这一点并不是为了让你对他们感到质疑,亦不是吓你,而是让你对此有个心理准备。因为这篇文章并非告诉人们在决定需要资金外援时如何筹集专业资金,而是从筹资流程经历者的角度,让人们了解专业投资行业和职业投资者思维,这样,你便会知道在进入这个圈子之后可能会遇到什么样的情况,这一点与结果无关。

2009年,简·海曼在种子轮为一家名为Rent the Runway的在线设计师服装租赁企业筹集了175万美元的资金。在这里,女性可以浏览可能价值数千美元的服饰,同时能够以非常低的价格租用。这件衣服随后便会送至客户家中,然后客户可以在任何场所穿着。这一事实也是女性们能够青睐这一网站的起因,她们会在活动结束后将衣服发回。这有点像Zipcar遇到了Netflix,再遇到了Zappos,它的后端最终成为了全美最大的干洗业务。如今,Rent the Runway拥有1,200多名雇员,其营收超过了1亿美元,然而在2009年,简及其联合创始人詹妮弗·弗雷斯从投资者那里得到的反响却是不怎么乐观,有时候甚至是令人大跌眼镜。

简对我说:“很多次,对方讲话的语气异常居高临下。在有一次对话中,来自于一家知名公司的合伙人边握着我的手边对我说:‘太可爱了,这样你便可以穿众多漂亮的衣服。这对于你来说一定非常有趣。’”

她们之后再也没有与这位投资者或其公司打交道,然而,在她们从男性主导的风投资本界获得的各种反馈当中,此次交流是傲慢和轻蔑态度最为集中的体现。

简说:“大多数投资者说:‘我先问问我夫人’,‘我先跟我女儿聊聊’,或‘我先跟我行政人员沟通一下’。这些是我们打算征求意见的三类目标客户。”从表面来看,这个听起来像是一个合理的回答,不是吗?一群四五十岁的男士又能对衣服有多少了解?可能是一无所知,但他们理应很在行,而且他们在回复简和詹妮弗的过程中忽视了对等原则,感觉就像是这个商业模式或商业计划与他们毫无关系,而且简的理念的商业价值已经被不熟悉其产品的潜在投资者排除在外。不仅如此,在听取其生活中女性的意见方面,这些投资者甚至连咨询的对象群体都选错了。

简说:“让我来告诉你为什么这些[‘目标客户’]都存在问题。第一,风投资本家的夫人是一个百万富翁。她有钱购买任何她想要的衣服,因此她并非是我的目标客户,不是吗?风投资本家的女儿在大多数情况下也就12岁左右,因为大多数风投资本家在其职业生涯的黄金时期都已经到了45至50岁的年纪。因此其女儿也不是绝佳的目标。然后在风投资本行业工作的女性管理人员通常都已经50多岁或60多岁,依然不属于我目标客户的范畴。”

如果投资者没有接触过这种产品,也不认识目标群体中的任何人,这似乎是在说这个理念并不适合他们,或者,更糟糕的是,这个理念根本不值得推广。在受够了这类对话之后,简与詹妮弗开始在投资者对其介绍做出反馈之前便会先发制人。简说:“我们向其展示了视频,并邀请他们来参加我们的一些快闪店,从而向其展示谁才是我们的目标客户,这样,他们才能真正了解我们服务的对象。”

这些快闪店十分具有启发性。这一举措在一开始就让简认为,这个理念是有市场的,而且他们最终能够让众多投资者对这一理念感兴趣。简在谈论自己见证快闪店客户试穿衣服的经历时说:“你会看到女性的面部表情发生了变化。她们会昂首挺胸,将秀发放下来,并在行走时呈现出一种新的自信。”在看到这些之后,众多自称无所不知、但却对其客户知之甚少的投资者终于对此有了充分的了解,并将Rent the Runway当作一种商业主张来看待。就在此时,种子轮的资本终于开始流入公司。

然而,这并没有打开专业资本的水闸。业界依然对这两位20多岁的年轻人及其“漂亮衣服”资源库存在大量的疑问。直到两位的故事最终发表于《纽约时报》的商业专栏,二位的头像出现在了封面上半版面位置,事情才开始有所改变。有10万人注册了网站。她们在短短数周内便实现了其第一年的销售预测。简描述说,谁又可以想到,“拜访其办公室、向其宣传A轮融资的风投投资者可谓是络绎不绝。之前,人们非常不看好我们这个项目,但如今,为了争抢这个项目,投资者们打起了突击战,在大楼的电梯中等着和我们见面。”

需要说的是,尽管简·海曼的故事中存在令人沮丧、反胃的性别歧视和沙文主义,但其公司获得的专业资本却没有什么不同。风投资本家十分了解资本运作,但他们并不一定就比你更了解你的业务,而且有时候,他们对你行业的了解也会不如你。因此,众多创始人告诉我,他们不得不向潜在投资者一点一点灌输并将所有的要素拼凑在一起,从而向其展示近在眼前的机会。

当然,并非所有投资者都是这样,即便他们并不怎么“了解这个行业”。并非所有创始人都得面对简·海曼所经历的一切,即便这些创始人是服装领域的女性。例如总部位于得克萨斯州奥斯丁的休闲运动公司Outdoor Voice创始人泰勒·海丽。当她2014年出马筹集最初的种子轮资金之时,她所面对的投资者(主要是男性)盘问并非是“女孩玩过家家”这类讽刺挖苦,而是一个十分合理的质疑:市场是否还有空间来容纳这样一个品牌。

泰勒对我说:“我会时不时地收到邮件回复或参加一些会面,内容差不多都是‘我们已经有安德玛和耐克,为什么我们还需要另一个运动装品牌?’我开始一点点地向他们描述,和我共事的都是男士,而这些传统运动装品牌均由男士打造,基本上都是针对竞技运动员。我开始意识到,尽管我在这里大讲特讲该运动装品牌的运动特性以及将健康从性能中释放出来,但那些自小从事竞技运动的投资者却是听得一头雾水。”

她很难继续到访那些由男性主导的办公室,并展开同样的对话。他们对她也没有多大的帮助。因此,泰勒在遭到简·海曼的待遇之前,也就是被这些困惑的投资者打发给秘书和女儿之前便选择了离开。她甚至在参加会议之前会直接去探望支持他的女性员工,或其女友和妻子。

泰勒说:“我开始向办公室的女性职员和一些投资者的夫人寄送产品。而且通过这个举措,我开始遇到那些愿意听我介绍,而且认为这个业务可以变为现实的投资者。我也开始获得了更多与其见面的时间。”

第一个感兴趣的投资者是皮特·博伊斯,他来自于总部位于马萨诸塞州剑桥的风投公司General Catalyst。泰勒说:“他看了产品,听了我的介绍。我向他的女友娜塔莉亚寄送了产品,她非常喜欢。他说:‘我很欣赏这个理念,希望能对其投资。’”General Catalyst最终领投了110万美元的种子轮。泰勒用这笔资金另外聘请了3名员工,开设了办事处,当然,还生产了更多的产品。

简·海曼和泰勒·海丽筹集其第一笔专业资金的经历发生在五年之前,而且筹集方式和效果有着很大的区别,但其遇到的专业投资者对筹资前景的巨大影响力都非常相似,这一点与其对商业主题的了解程度或其商业经验无关。其中的一些影响,尽管令人非常不快,但最终亦对其有着莫大的帮助。不过有时候,这一点对于某些人来说并非如此。

当我在2019年9月采访华盛顿特区的崔斯坦·沃克时,这一点让我感到尤为如释重负。崔斯坦是Walker & Company(取自自己的名字)的创始人,该公司致力于为有色人种生产健康与美容产品。就像丽莎·普莱斯在上个世纪90年代初意识到非洲裔女性护肤市场存在未得到满足的需求而创建了Carol’s Daughter一样,崔斯坦在2013年意识到,有色人种,尤其是非洲裔美国男性,在剃须方面亦存在类似未得到满足的需求。市场上没有产品能够解决其独特的问题,特别是剃须刀贴合性的问题,这些问题并非是老旧问题,而且这些产品也没有形成“少数种族美容产品”专柜。事实上,大多数店面所拥有的只不过是一个满是灰尘、被忽视的货架而已。

崔斯坦的想法是打造一整套有着精美设计和包装的产品,其中涵盖有色人种男士体验完美剃须所需的一切产品:一个安全刀架、一套刀头、一个面刷、剃须膏,以及须前和须后油。他为自己的产品线取名为Bevel,并认为它需要筹集240万美元的专业资金来启动这个项目(涉及产品本身和包装的制作成本),因为这并非是一个可以轻易白手起家的项目,也不大可能仅靠朋友或家人的帮助,否则会变得一团糟。

然而,与简·海曼不同的是,崔斯坦已经对此做好了准备。他深谙风投资本,而且是自内而外的。他曾经在硅谷呆了数年的时间,就读过斯坦福商学院,在推特实习过,曾经是定位应用程序Foursquare的第一批雇员,然后离开加入了风投资本公司安德森·霍洛维茨,担任常驻企业家,负责开发和评估新理念。他说:“这个期间涌现出了很多电子商务公司。我一直在倾听他们的介绍。我了解了哪些公司能够拿到资金,哪些拿不到。在当时可以进入这家公司真是一件好事。”崔斯坦甚至得到了本·霍洛维兹本人的祝福和指导,后者在这一期间给了他两个重要的建议:首先,霍洛维兹告诉他:“通常看起来是好主意的点子其实是坏点子,反之亦然,因为问题在于,所有人都会尝试好点子,结果就是难以创造什么价值。”第二,他说:“你需要从事你认为在这个世界上最适合你做的事情,而且自己在这一领域有独特的主见,然后从自己的经验出发,去解决某个问题。”此外,霍洛维兹鼓励崔斯坦抛弃一些其早期的观点(一个是颠覆货运,另一个是通过玩耍来应对儿童肥胖),并追求他在执行方面有着独特经验的事情。

正是基于这些条件,Bevel才得以成立,而且崔斯坦也开始上上下下地奔波于沙丘路以筹集资金。无论从专业投资者评估机会的哪个指标来讲,崔斯坦的理念都拿到了相当高的评分。崔斯坦说:“风投资本称他们想要那些在过去与之共过事的创始人、那些有这方面的背景和经验的创始人,以及那些有蓝海机会的创始人。在这一方面,主要工作就是核查、核查、再核查。”他向投资者介绍了存在的市场:“有色人种在所有单一门类的健康和美容产品的消费额比其他任何人群都高。”他还介绍了存在的机会:“有色人种,尤其是黑人,是地球上最有文化影响力的种族。”随后他介绍了其产品在如何解决这一紧急问题方面的愿景,该问题影响了80%的有色人种以及30%的剩余人口。他在整个时期都在思考,Bevel将成为一款能够在拥挤的健康与美容产品专柜中脱颖而出的产品。他说:“如果你是一家大谈特谈这个白色空间、蓝色海洋的风投资本公司,为什么不投资我的公司呢?”

崔斯坦见了60名投资者。仅有三家公司没有拒绝,而且花了很长的时间才找到这三家公司。57名专业投资者拒绝了他的请求,而这是一位有着斯坦福背景的风投资本资深人士,曾经在两家处于初期的主流科技初创公司工作过,而且知道这些公司都会习惯性地关注哪些要素。然而这种持续的遭拒现象会让人彻底丧失斗志。它原本可能让崔斯坦质疑他曾经做过的一切,并对自己的直觉产生怀疑。但他并没有,有什么原因呢?

他说:“我深知,在60名投资者之外还有其他60名投资者。如果他们不打算投资我的理念,那么我也知道他们不会投资其他人的类似理念。”他认为,问题并不在于我的理念,而是投资者并不认为这个决策存在问题。他说:“知道他们开始拒绝之时我才意识到他们还没有理解这个理念。我一直在尝试向这些风投资本公司解释有色人种有其不同之处,但这一点根本没有引起其注意。”崔斯坦打造的产品线是为了解决一系列他们没有或无法看到的问题,因此他们认为这些理念肯定不是真实的,或至少其体量还不够大,不值得他们花时间和金钱去关注。然而自相矛盾的是,这一点恰恰是他从未对自己产生怀疑的原因。他对这些感到困惑的受众说:“硅谷的风投资本家,尤其是以前没有投资经验的人士,都有一种有趣的世界观:自己总是正确的。然而,风投资本家的决策90%理应都是错误的,这基本上就是其工作,而且我知道自己这个糟糕的理念其实棒极了。”

如今,当崔斯坦遇到投资者时,他完全可以在某些事情上采取不同的行事方式或做得更好,从而让整个流程变得更加顺畅。可能其融资说辞可以制作的更好一些,他的第一个版本是PPT,而且确实使用了剪贴画,或者他原本可以直接投其所好。他说:“我在兜售希望和梦想”。然而,他本应讨论钱的问题。他还提到,“我的增长图表是一直向右上扬。”他本应可以在介绍时提升或放慢速度。也有可能他做什么都无法改变这一事实,也许他做的都是对的。谁知道呢?我也不知道,而且就像我说的,这并非这篇文章所要讲述的内容,而是如何看待风投资本。

首先应该了解的是,筹集风投资本其实就是在做承诺。这个承诺就是,你的产品或服务一定会有人购买,而且你自己已经制定了尽可能扩大受众的计划,同时作为对大量资金的交换,你一定会尽一切努力来实现这一点。

其次应该了解的是,好的投资者深知,你所做的承诺只是一个承诺。他们知道你无法做出任何保证。你可以不犯任何错误,但如果你所处的环境发生了变化,那么你对此也是无能为力。顾名思义,风投资本从本质来讲是一场赌博,每一次赌博都存在着重大亏损的风险。专业投资者深知并接受了这一事实,这也是为什么他们在做出重大投资决策之前会尽其所能地规避风险。

他们的一个主要做法是询问大量的问题,尤其是在他们不了解你所处行业的时候。

你打算如何扩张?

业务增长从何而来?你的客户是谁?

此类产品是否已经存在与市场?你如何降低成本?

制造地在哪?

总部在哪?

你会采取什么样的营销策略?

为什么人们会买你的产品?

为什么要这么做?

澳大利亚在线图形设计平台Canva的联合创始人梅兰妮·珀金斯在2012年向100多名投资者游说时遇到了无数这类问题。她从珀斯旅行至旧金山,然后来到了毛伊岛(进行风筝冲浪旅行,此次旅行实际上是为了参加一个由投资者比尔·泰举办的科技会议,梅兰妮曾经在珀斯的另一场会议中与其见过面),然后在这期间又去了不少地方。只要有投资者出现的活动,梅兰妮都会想方设法参加。

几乎在整个期间,梅兰妮都在美国努力筹集资金,以组建和推出Canva。她的努力没有换回什么成果,至少没有拿到任何人的投资。当然这一切并非是一无是处,因为每一次拒绝都让她学到了更多的东西。

梅兰妮说:“这个经历真的是让人受益匪浅,因为我们获得了众多不同的问题和评价。这意味着我们必须了解自己所从事的事情,而且重新制定我们的策略。”每一天,在她向一名最终拒绝她的投资者介绍情况之后,她会修改其融资说辞,以反映她从这些问题中所学到的东西。

梅兰妮回忆说:“每一次我们都会遇到非常难回答的问题,会直接进入我们融资说辞的头条内容。所以最困难的问题都是最先回答的问题。”

最终,梅兰妮演讲稿已经穷尽了投资者会问的所有问题。不久之后,对于那些无法完全理解Canva业务,以及那些意识到设计和发布工具网络化之后开始涌现的机会的投资者来说,这些答案能够减轻其疑问和顾虑。在梅兰妮的旅游签证过期并不得不返回澳大利亚之时,她已经筹集了75万美元的资金,而且最终在种子轮超额筹资150万美元。总的来说,我认为梅兰妮会说,因为她可以回答那些持怀疑态度、对风险敏感的投资者可能会提出的所有问题。

作为一名企业家,对于这些问题你得有思想准备,而且不得不去面对。简·海曼做到了。崔斯坦·沃克也做到了。事实在于,你会遇到一些没有正确答案的问题,你必须为此做好准备。那些由投资者倾泻而下的疑虑将开始悄悄进入你的脑海,会让你开始自问:“在这里我才是疯子吗?可能这个想法真的很愚蠢。可能它根本行不通。”

当你筹集资金时,这是每天都会遇到的思想斗争。如果你的目标是扩张你的业务,就像我在文章开始时提及的那样,你需要加倍努力去屏蔽这些让人不得安宁、自我怀疑的想法。然而,如果你发现你自己对于完全发挥自己最大的实力毫不在意,那么这场斗争的解决方案可能就会彻底消失。

在打造Walker & Company时,崔斯坦最大的遗憾就是接受了专业投资。他在种子轮的经历确实异常残酷,跟电影《好发型》(Good Hair)中的克里斯·洛克相似。后者自信地认为,自己所解决的问题根本不是个问题,然而,当他在数年后回到沙丘路寻求扩张公司的机会并拿到大量资金之后,真正的折磨开始了。不管他说什么做什么,筹资额都无法超过3000万美元。尽管这听起来已经很多了,但在那时,很多风投公司会向一些当时远不如崔斯坦项目的企业投资数亿美元的资金,其中也包括同年创建的竞争对手Harry’s,因此对比之下,3000万美元感觉就像是典型的不信任。在没有更多资金的情况下,崔斯坦无力投资营销、产品开发、研发,当然还有生产。他不得不寻找其他的方式来发展这家公司。

崔斯坦可以做的就是记住,如果“有人有条件实现这一理念的话,[那就是]我;他拥有该领域最佳的‘坏主意’;他拥有独特的条件来执行;而且他比风投资本更了解其业务和其市场。风投资本了解资金,但崔斯坦了解自己的业务。幸运的是,有一件事他可以做来支持其公司的长期愿景。2018年12月,他把Walker & Company出售给了宝洁,但价格要远低于公开市场的售价。”

作为交易的一部分,崔斯坦将公司搬到了亚特兰大,成为了宝洁180年历史中其旗下公司的首位非洲裔美国首席执行官。该交易严重制约了参与该公司A轮融资风投资本所能获得的回报。崔斯坦也是想尝试借此来以自己的方式来发展公司,以退为进,并向未来企业家(尤其是有色人种企业家)展示,尽管风投公司或许可以完全掌控资金,但它们不一定比你更明智,或者它们就是对的。你也可能是正确的,不管你是否选择接受它们的资金。(财富中文网)

译者:冯丰

审校:夏林

Think its a bad time to start a business? Think again. The list of companies created during financial downturns reads like a hit parade of some of the most admired brands: Fedex, Microsoft, Slack, Airbnb, Uber, Hewlett-Packard, even Trader Joes! The advantage these founders had was obvious—there was nowhere to go but up.

Financial crises and economic downturns force founders to be resourceful, efficient, and nimble. And once a fledgling business emerges from that downturn, it becomes more resilient to future setbacks.

This current crisis is a strange one on many levels. On the one hand, it has devastated parts of the economy (travel, leisure, entertainment, restaurants, to name a few) At the same time, it is estimated that there may be as much as trillion dollars in uninvested cash held by venture and private equity firms. Cash that is looking for opportunites. And the competition among investors to find attractive opportunities is fiercer than ever.

What it means for an entrepreneur with a promising idea is that—in some ways—it is easier to find “professional” money to fund your business than at any other time in recent history. But with that money comes strings and sometimes, it’s better to think long and hard about whether those strings are worth the trouble.

***

Below is an excerpt from my book How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths to Success from the World's Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs (Houghton Mifflin), available September 15.

Not every founder can build a unicorn. Nor should they need to. There’s nothing wrong, for example, with running a small business with a few employees that you bootstrap until you retire and either hand down or sell out. Not only is it not wrong, it’s actually the norm.

The vast majority of American small businesses have fewer than twenty employees (if they have any employees at all) and generate annual revenues somewhere between $300,000 and $2 million. Indeed, most of the entrepreneurs I’ve met over the years aimed at just this kind of success. They weren’t particularly focused on all the things that come with scaling a business, such as limitless growth, total market disruption, and raising loads of professional money.

But if scale is your goal and bank loans and cash ow can’t get you there, you will, at some point, and yourself engaging with the venture capital world. There are only so many ways to get a resource-intensive business off the ground, after all. This can be a daunting prospect for many entrepreneurs, since venture capital has a reputation as being a closed world that operates in small pockets on both coasts (Silicon Valley and Midtown Manhattan) with unwritten rules and unfamiliar terminology that feels impenetrable to anyone accustomed to speaking in plain, clear language.

There are angels and seed rounds; cap tables and exits; Series A, B, and C dilution and preferred shares; burn rate and run rate. There are VCs and PE guys; FINRA and NASD and the SEC. There’s vesting, investing, and just plain vests. So many vests! It’s enough to make a founder’s head spin. And that’s kind of the point. All these fuzzy, poorly defined terms are left deliberately vague in order to create and maintain opacity, lest you discover the one thing about VCs they don’t want you to know: that they’re human, just like the rest of us. And just like you and me, they aren’t seers or superheroes. In fact, the most successful ones are usually the luckiest ones—lucky to have access to promising businesses early on, and lucky to have access to so much money that they can make a lot of bad bets and still and success in the end.

To put it simply, VCs—even the most experienced ones—get it wrong more than they get it right. I mention this not to sow doubt in your mind, not to scare you, but rather to prepare you. Because this chapter isn’t actually about how to raise professional money; it’s about how to think about raising professional money once you’ve determined that you might need it. It’s about understanding the world of professional money and the mind-set of professional investors, from the perspective of those who’ve been through the process, so that you know what to expect when you walk in the room, for better or for worse.

Like Jenn Hyman who, in 2009, went out to raise a $1.75 million seed round for an online designer dress rental business she called Rent the Runway, where women could browse dresses that might cost thousands of dollars to buy, but that they could rent for a fraction of the cost. A dress would then show up at a customer’s home, she’d wear it for whatever occasion had brought her to the site to begin with, and then she’d ship the dress back when she was done with it. It was like Zipcar meets Netflix meets Zappos, with what would eventually become the country’s largest dry-cleaning service on the back end. Today, Rent the Runway has more than 1,200 employees and does more than $100 million in revenue, but in 2009 the responses Jenn and her co-founder, Jennifer Fleiss, got from investors were less than encouraging, sometimes even startling.

·

“We had several different very condescending conversations,” Jenn told me, “one in which a partner at a very prestigious firm took my hand into his and said, ‘This is so adorable. You’re going to get to wear such pretty dresses. This must be so fun for you.’”

They did not engage with this investor or his firm ever again, but the exchange was the most egregiously arrogant and dismissive example of a whole set of responses they received from the predominantly male venture capital class.

“Most investors said, ‘Let me talk to my wife,’ ‘Let me talk to my daughter,’ or ‘Let me talk to my admin.’ Those were the three target customers that we would hear about,” Jenn said. On the surface, that sounds like a reasonable response, right? What do a bunch of men in their forties and fifties know about dresses? Probably nothing, but they are supposed to know about business, and they were ignoring that part of the equation in their responses to Jenn and Jennifer, as if the business model or the business plan were irrelevant. As if the business-worthiness of Jenn’s idea had already been foreclosed by the potential investors’ lack of familiarity with the underlying product. Not only that, in deferring to the women in their lives, these investors weren’t even consulting the right demographic cohorts.

“Let me tell you why each [of the ‘target customers’] is problematic,” Jenn said. “Number one, the wife of a venture capitalist is a multimillionaire. She can afford to buy any dress she wants, so she is not my target customer, right? The daughter of a venture capitalist in most cases is about twelve, because most venture capitalists are, when they’re in the prime of their careers, in the forty-five-to-fifty range. So their daughter is not a great target either. And the admins who work in the venture capital industry, because it’s such a prestigious job, are often women who are in their fifties and sixties—again, not women who were in my target demo.”

If an investor didn’t have experience with the product and didn’t know anyone in the target demo, it seemed as if the idea wasn’t for them—or, worse, it wasn’t an idea worth pursuing at all. After enough of these conversations, Jenn and Jennifer began preempting investor responses to their pitch altogether. “We showed them videos and invited them to some of our pop-ups to show them who the customer was so that they really got a sense for who we were catering to,” Jenn said.

The pop-ups were revelatory. They were what convinced Jenn in the early going that this idea had legs, and they were ultimately what got the idea to click with a good number of investors. “You saw the facial expressions of women change,” Jenn said of her experience witnessing pop-up customers try on her dresses. “They threw their shoulders back, they tussled their hair, and they walked with a new sense of confidence.” Seeing this, enough of the know-it-all investors who knew nothing about her customers finally knew enough to engage with Rent the Runway as a business proposition. That’s when capital for the seed round finally started to trickle in.

This didn’t open the floodgates of professional money, however. There was still plenty of skepticism about these two twentysomethings and their repository of “pretty dresses.” It wasn’t until their story ended up in the New York Times business section, with their picture on the front page above the fold, that things changed. A hundred thousand people signed up for the site. They met their first-year sales projections in a matter of weeks. And wouldn’t you know it, they had “a clamoring of venture capital investors coming in to the office pitching us on Series A,” as Jenn described it. “We had gone from a very undesirable investment to people showing up at the elevator in our building to meet with us unannounced because they wanted to pounce on the deal.”

To be clear, while there are frustrating and nauseating elements of sexism and chauvinism in Jenn Hyman’s story, the way professional money came to her is not uncommon. Venture capitalists know money, but they don’t always know your business better than you do, and sometimes they don’t know your industry better than you do either. So many founders have told me that they’ve had to spoon-feed and connect all the dots for potential investors in order to show them the opportunity staring them in the face.

Not every investor is like this, of course, even when they don’t quite “get it.” And not every founder has had to deal with what Jenn Hyman endured, even when they are female and in the apparel space. Take Tyler Haney, for example, the founder of the athleisure company Outdoor Voices, based in Austin, Texas. When she went out to raise an initial seed round in 2014, the scrutiny she faced from (primarily male) investors was not cynical snark about girls playing dress-up, rather it was legitimate skepticism about whether the market had room for a brand like this.

“Pretty consistently, I’d get an email back or in the session it’d be like, ‘But we have Under Armour and we have Nike. Why do we need another activewear brand?” Tyler told me. “What I started to piece together was that I was in offices with men, and these traditional activewear brands had been built by men and really catered to the competitive athlete. And what I started to recognize was, me, over here pitching this activewear brand around play and freeing fitness from performance, didn’t make sense to these folks that had grown up as competitive athletes.”

She couldn’t keep going into these male-dominated offices and having the same conversations. They weren’t going to get her anywhere. So what Tyler did was get out ahead of being shunted to secretaries and daughters by confused investors, the way Jenn Hyman had. She went directly to their female support staff and to their girlfriends and wives before she even came in for her meetings.

“I started sending product to the women in the offices, and the wives of some of these investors,” Tyler described. “And I started to and that by getting the product onto the women in the offices and the wives, I started to [encounter investors] that were willing to hear me out and understood that this could be something real. I started to get more time with them.”

The first investor to bite was Peter Boyce, from a big VC firm headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called General Catalyst. “He saw the product, saw the pitch,” Tyler said. “I had gotten product on his girlfriend, Natalia. She loved it, and he said, ‘I love this concept. I want to back it.’ ” General Catalyst ended up leading the $1.1 million seed round, which Tyler then used to hire three additional employees, open an office, and, of course, make more product.

Jenn Hyman’s and Tyler Haney’s experiences raising their first chunks of professional money occurred five years apart and were widely different in style as well as in substance, but they were very similar to the extent to which the professional investors they encountered had an outsized influence on their funding prospects, regardless of their subject matter expertise or their business experience. Some of that influence, while frustrating to live through, ultimately turned out to be incredibly helpful. Sometimes, though, for some people, it isn’t.

This came into sharp relief for me when I interviewed Tristan Walker onstage in Washington, DC, in September 2019. Tristan is the founder of the eponymously named Walker & Company, which makes health and beauty products for people of color. Much as Lisa Price recognized an unmet need in the skin care market for African American women in the early 1990s when she created Carol’s Daughter, Tristan recognized, in 2013, that men of color, especially African American men, were similarly underserved when it came to their shaving needs. There were no products in the market that addressed their unique problems—in particular, razor bumps—that were not also old, tired, and segmented out into the “ethnic beauty” aisle, which in fact was nothing more than a dusty, disregarded shelf in most stores.

Tristan’s idea was to create a suite of beautifully designed and packaged products that bundled everything a man of color would need for the ideal shaving experience: a safety razor, a packet of blades, a brush, shaving cream, and pre- and post-shave oils. He called his product line Bevel and figured he needed to raise $2.4 million of professional money to get it o the ground, since this was not something—what with the manufacturing costs for both the hard and soft goods—he could reasonably bootstrap or go to friends and family for help with, without it becoming an unwieldy mess.

Unlike Jenn Hyman, though, Tristan knew what to expect. He knew the VC world intimately, from the inside. He’d spent the previous few years in Silicon Valley, attending the Stanford Graduate School of Business, interning at Twitter, working in business development as one of the first employees at the location check-in app Foursquare, and then leaving to join the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz as an entrepreneur in residence, where his en- tire job was to develop and evaluate new ideas. “This was around the time that a lot of the e-commerce companies started to pop up,” he said. “I was listening to their pitches. I understood the kind of companies that got funded, the types that didn’t. It was just great timing to start something like this.” Tristan even had the blessing and guidance of Ben Horowitz himself, who’d given him two important pieces of advice during his time at the firm: First, Horowitz told him, “what usually look like good ideas are bad ideas, and what look like bad ideas are good ideas, because the problem with good ideas is that everyone tries to do them, and as a result, there’s no value to be created there.” Second, he said, “you need to do the thing that you believe you are the best person in the world to do, where you have a unique proposition, given your story, to solve a problem.” Accordingly, Horowitz encouraged Tristan to abandon a few of his earliest ideas—one to revolutionize freight, another tackling childhood obesity with play—and instead to pursue this thing he was uniquely experienced to execute.

It was under these conditions that Bevel was born and Tristan began his trek up and down Sand Hill Road to raise money. By every metric professional investors use to evaluate opportunities, Tristan’s idea scored highly. “VCs say they want founders who they’ve worked with in the past, who have pedigree and experience, who have a blue ocean opportunity,” Tristan said. “And with this it was check, check, check, check.” He laid out the market for them: “Folks of color spend more money on every single category of health and beauty than anyone else.” He laid out the opportunity: “Folks of color, especially black folks, are the most culturally influential group on the planet.” Then he laid out the vision for how his products would solve this urgent problem that affected 80% of people of color and 30% of the rest of the population. The entire time thinking that Bevel was as sure a thing as one could expect to find in the crowded health and beauty segment. “If you’re a VC who talks about this white space, blue ocean stuff, why wouldn’t you invest in this?” he said.

Tristan met with sixty investors. All but three said no, and it took a long time to find those three. Fifty-seven professional investors turned him down—a Stanford-pedigreed venture capital veteran with experience operating inside two early major tech startups, who knew exactly what kind of rationale these firms used to place their bets. It was the kind of consistent rejection that could have been completely demoralizing. It could have made Tristan question everything he was doing and doubt all of his instincts. But he didn’t, for a few reasons.

“I knew there were 60 more investors right behind those sixty,” he said, “and if they weren’t going to invest in my idea, I knew they weren’t going to fund somebody else’s version of it either.” His point being that the problem wasn’t the idea; the problem was that investors didn’t think there was a problem. “It wasn’t until they started to push back that I realized they just didn’t get it,” he said. “I was trying to explain to these VCs that people are different, and it wasn’t even registering.” Tristan was creating a line of products to address a set of issues they didn’t have or couldn’t see, so therefore they must not be real or at least not big enough to be worth their time and money. Which, paradoxically, was the other reason he never doubted himself. “Silicon Valley, particularly venture capitalists who have never operated before, have this interesting worldview that they’re always right,” he told our bemused audience, “but the job of the venture capital investor is to be wrong 90% of the time. That is literally their job. And I knew this bad idea was good as hell.”

Now, there are probably some things Tristan could have done differently or better when he met with investors to make the process move more smoothly. Maybe his pitch deck could have been better—his first version was in PowerPoint and it did use clip art—or he could have spoken more directly to their self-interests. “I sold the hope and the dream,” he said. But maybe he should have just talked dollars and cents. “My growth chart was up and to the right,” he noted. Maybe he could have talked slower or faster, more or less. Or maybe there was nothing he could have done. Maybe he did everything right. Who knows? I certainly don’t. And like I said, that’s not what this chapter is about. It’s about understanding how to think about venture capital.

The first thing to understand is that raising venture capital is about making a promise. A promise that you have a product or a service that people will pay money for, that you have a plan to reach as many of those people as possible, and that in exchange for lots of money, you will bust your butt to reach them.

The next thing to understand is that good investors know the promise you are making to them is just that—a promise. They know you can’t make any guarantees. You can do everything right, but if the world shifts under your feet, there’s nothing you can do about it. Venture capital is by its nature a gamble—it’s right there in the name—and every gamble comes with the risk of heavy losses. Professional investors know and accept this fact, which is why they also do everything they can to mitigate the risk before writing very large checks.

One of the principal ways they do this, especially if they are unfamiliar with your industry, is to ask lots and lots of questions:

How do you expect to scale this?

Where is the growth going to come from? Who is the customer for this?

Doesn’t something like this already exist? How will you get costs down?

Where will you manufacture?

Where will you be based?

What’s your marketing strategy?

Why does anyone need this?

Why would anyone do this?

Melanie Perkins, the co-founder of the Australian online graphic design platform Canva, encountered countless of these types of questions from the more than 100 investors she pitched over a three-month period in 2012. She traveled from Perth to San Francisco, then to Maui (for a kitesurfing excursion masquerading as a tech conference run by the investor Bill Tai, whom Melanie had met at another conference in Perth), then to any number of places in between. Anywhere there was an event with investors present, Melanie found her way there.

For almost the entire time Melanie was in the United States trying to raise money to build out and launch Canva, her efforts were fruitless, at least as far as getting anyone to write a check was concerned. They were not without merit, though, because with each rejection she learned a little more.

“It was really beneficial because we got so many different questions and comments,” Melanie said, “and it meant that we really had to know what we were doing and really refine our strategy.” Every single day, after she’d pitch an investor who would invariably pass, she’d go back and revise the pitch deck to reflect what she’d learned from the questions that had been asked of her.

“Every time we got a really hard question, that would go right to the front of the pitch deck,” Melanie recalled. “So the hardest questions were answered right at the front."

Eventually, investors ran out of questions whose answers didn’t already appear in the front of Melanie’s pitch. Before long, those answers were able to allay the doubts and concerns of investors who maybe didn’t fully understand Canva’s business, but who recognized the opportunity that was beginning to emerge with design and publishing tools moving online. By the time Melanie’s tourist visa expired and she had to return to Australia, she’d raised $750,000 and would eventually oversubscribe her $1.5 million seed round. All, I think Melanie would say, because she was able to come up with an answer to every question a skeptical, risk-sensitive investor might have.

As an entrepreneur, you have to expect these questions. You have to know that you are going to face them. Jenn Hyman did. Tristan Walker did, too. And you have to be prepared to manage the fact that when you are faced with what feels like an inquisition with no right answers, it is only natural that the doubt pouring out of investors will begin to creep into your brain and make you start to wonder, “Am I the crazy one here? Maybe this idea really is silly. Maybe there is no way it can work.”

This is a daily fight when you’re raising money. And if your goal is to scale your business, as I talked about at the beginning of this chapter, then you need to fight extra hard to reject each of these nagging, self-doubting thoughts. If, however, you find that you aren’t all that concerned with becoming the biggest you can possibly be, then the resolution of this fight could very well be walking away altogether.

It’s Tristan’s greatest regret in the building of Walker & Company that he took professional money at all. The things he had to endure in the seed stage were tough enough—comparisons to the Chris Rock movie Good Hair, confident assertions that the problem he thought he was solving wasn’t really a problem at all—but when he went back to Sand Hill Road to scale the company a couple years later and really take it big, that’s where the real frustration occurred. He could not, no matter what he said or did, raise more than $30 million. That sounds like a lot, but at a time when VCs were throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at far less worthy companies—as well as at competitors like Harry’s, which started the same year as Walker & Company—$30 million felt like the ultimate vote of no confidence. Without more money, Tristan wouldn’t be able to invest in marketing, product development, research, and, of course, production. He would have to find another way to grow his company.

All Tristan could do was remember that “if there was anyone qualified to do this idea, [it was] me”; that he had the best “bad” idea in the space; that he was uniquely positioned to execute it; and that he knew more about his business and his market than the VCs did. They knew money, but he knew his business. Fortunately, there was one other thing he could do in support of his long-term vision for the company. In December 2018, he sold Walker & Company to Procter & Gamble for much less money than he might have gotten on the open market.

As part of the deal, Tristan moved the company to Atlanta, became the first African American CEO of a Procter & Gamble portfolio company in its 180-year history, and in the process severely limited the return the VC firms that had invested in his Series A got on their money. This was Tristan’s attempt to grow the company on his terms, to take a step back in order to move forward with more confidence down the road, and to show future entrepreneurs—especially those of color—that while VCs might have all the power over the money, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily wiser than you or that they are always right. You can be right, too, whether you choose to take their money or not.

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