Get to the top of VCs’ investment interest list.
Following up on the idea that most of the VCs he knows don’t invest in the Semantic Web, per se, but in ideas and companies that aim to solve problems, AdaptiveBlue CEO and founder Alex Iskold advises that you be ready to show them just how your start-up goes about doing that. The first thing you need to tell is that your idea has been implemented and show them the real demo,” he says. “Without the demo there won’t be any conversations. But even with that it’s going to be tough. Ideally you need to show them customers or users if it’s a consumer app.”
The “Back to Basics” approach – with a demo as part of it – is the route to take, says Ranjit Padmanabhan, co-founder and VP of products at MashLogic. That means: Clear articulation of the value proposition and its differentiation from existing solutions; a well-reasoned financial model; a distribution strategy (traffic, usage, retention, monetization); competitive analysis; and have the product as far along as possible, but ideally a demo.
“The product should do something non-obvious, demonstrably better than the incumbent, without requiring behavior changes on the part of the user,” he says.
On the point about citing the competition, entrepreneurs who know they have the right stuff shouldn’t be nervous. “A bit of competition seems to provide market validation, especially if the space has also received funding,” says Padmanabhan. “For that reason it is beneficial to list competitors in your presentation, accompanied by a clear analysis of why you are more likely to succeed.”
Importantly, Padmanabhan says you’d better have a compelling response to the questions, “Why is this a product and not a feature?” and “What if Google decided to build this?”
He notes that you can use the semantic label-but with care-to help VCs quickly categorize the nature of the product. Andraz Tori, CTO and co-founder of Zemanta Ltd., says that if you need to, you can play the semantic web card as a cost-savings factor – i.e. getting the well-organized data on the cheap). “If you are in specific industry where data exchange or integration is a painful issue, semantic web might play a role in commoditizing the space,” he says. “Overall my advice would be to concentrate on other strong points of your startup and mention words “semantic web” only on the technology slide.”
Everyone agrees, of course, that VCs want to see a clear monetization model and growth path. How clear? Radar Networks founder and CEO Nova Spivack puts the figure at bringing in $100 million in revenue in four to five years. Having a technology that is not easy to replicate-and patents or trade secrets in support of that-is helpful to your cause, he says, but better is to show a proven business model and demonstrate, using conservative assumptions, that you’ll be bringing in money to break even in a set period of time, say 18 to 24 months.
Also on the money side of things, “the most important thing to every VC right now is that you have a low burn rate,” he says – on the order of $100,000 or $200,000 a month for a completely new, pure startup, or about double that for a somewhat bigger player.
Here’s insight into typical investment parameters.
Generally a VC wants at least 20 percent of your company when they invest, according to Spivack – and they are likely not to want your enterprise to be headed up by a first-time CEO. They’re looking for someone at the helm who’s been successful shepherding startups before, or at least someone who’s been in a business leadership role in the technology space.
And, says Padmanabhan, be advised that the prevailing mood is that the availability of open source and cheap infrastructure requires lower levels of investment, so entrepreneurs should be prepared for tighter valuations. “This gives some VCs the capacity to spread their money among more investments, which in turn can benefit a larger number of entrepreneurs, especially at the seed stage,” he says.