The founder and head of 500 Startups is in town this week, before he jets across the world to the Middle East and 500 Startups' new offices in Malaysia. It's his first visit to North Carolina since an ultimate frisbee match in Wilmington two decades ago. But he was born and raised not too far north of here, in West Virginia. That's where he says he earned Redneck status (he even shared with us the origin of the sometimes-derogatory nickname).
Bull City Venture Partners invited the man to town—he's one of the most active venture capitalists in Silicon Valley (and he happens to be fundraising). And for an hour and a half Tuesday night, he lent his years of experience and knowledge building products and funding companies to a room full of entrepreneurs, investors and startup enthusiasts.
HIs advice sometimes countered conventional thought about startups. In other ways, it bolstered the Triangle's case for building startups outside the Valley. We've summed up all his one-liners and quips into a list of tips for raising money outside the Valley, and particularly from an investor like 500 Startups.
In no particular order, and with only minor editing for expletives, here are the goods:
It's okay to do something that fills a need or solves some mundane problem. In fact, 500 Startups prefers that. McClure isn't looking for some never-before-seen invention. He wants to invest in consumer or small business-oriented startups with straight forward business plans. SaaS is good. E-commerce is good. Affiliate revenue is good.
"We are generally looking for businesses that solve pretty basic problems and have a pretty clear path to revenue," he says.
Flat growth is sometimes better than the hockey stick kind. Plenty of other investors in Silicon Valley might only take a look at the hockey stick growth companies. But 500 Startups makes a lot of small bets on companies that haven't yet spiked. The investors want in early, when valuations are still low and a lot is left to prove. They can help figure out how to scale it. The key is having a plan that allows for the hockey stick growth down the road.
Story is important. McClure doesn't use the word pitch. He wants to hear your story. How are customers using your product? Are they making more money or working more efficiently or making customers happier? He said the word story at least 50 times. A good story is critical to grabbing his attention. Moreso than valuations or investment dollars or goals. Frankly, "I don't give a f*** about revenue projections," he says.
The story is different for each stage of investment. If you want to raise money from an angel, you should have a story about modest product functionality and early customer usage. A seed investor might need more substantial usage data and some revenue, perhaps of $100K to $1M a year and growth rates in double-digit percentage per month. A Series A investor might want to see $1M in annual revenue and a customer base to double or triple sales in a year or two.
Serve your local market. This might sound a little obvious, but it's a point not often talked about. Build a product first to serve the local market, to either fill a gap left by another company or replace that company's outdated ways. McClure suggests proving out a concept with local clients before extending to national ones.
Recognize that building a startup isn't glamorous. McClure contends that no average well-adjusted human being would ever attempt to start a company. So the best reasons to start a company are not to "be your own boss" or to avoid having to be at work on time. The type of founder he's impressed by are those who are pissed off by the way something is and obsessed with changing it.
"Personal passion or insanity is a very helpful affliction that will get you through hard times you will inevitably face with customers, funders, employees, etc.," he says.
Don't take offense. McClure passed on Uber, Airbnb and Fab.com. He admits he can tell an idiot within three to six months but a genius takes a least a year to figure out, and a great company often takes two or more years. That was the case for his successful investments in Twilio, Mint.com, Slideshare and Wildfire Interactive
"The sad part is I am just as likely to make dumb mistakes as anyone. You kind of need to realize even though you've been doing investing for 10 years, that you make mistakes and you don't know right away if companies are going to be successful."
The gist—if an investor says no, it doesn't mean you're doomed.
User experience and design are second to your customers. In McClure's words, "If they have crappy UX or shitty workflow and the company is still doing well, that's a great sign." A minimum viable product should be functional enough to lure customers and provide use cases. Prettiness and features come after you've made a case for why your business should exist, he believes. Preserve cash for marketing and customer acquisition, not building a perfect product.
Have a long view. McClure wants to hear you say you're in it till you die. The reality is that it takes most startups four to seven years to build a viable company worthy of exit. And in many cases even longer. He'd rather invest in a founder in it for the long haul than one hoping for an easy out.
Your company is only as good as the strength of your network and your ability to grow your network. It won't help to cold call or tweet at him. You need an introduction to 500 Startups through someone in the portfolio or an investor or advisor. And if it's a trusted connection, McClure says he'll make a decision to fund a company within 15 minutes. Other times it takes a meeting or two. But in the end, it's all about the referral and the story.