Categories
Angel Investing Crowd Funding Finance Regulation Start Up

SPAC’kled

Or, why should Venture Capitalists have all the fun?

The new dawn of SPACs is here. These shell companies, as they are called, first raise money to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars from institutional investors. The Founders of the SPAC also invest their own money. Then, they IPO the shell company and list the shares at $10/share. Retail investors can now buy shares of the SPAC in the open market. The SPAC keeps its funds in a trust until it can find a company to invest that money in and effect a merge. The SPAC has two years to do the merger. If it fails to merge, money is returned to all investors with interest. The merged company gets a new stock ticker and resumes trading. The original team that created the SPAC has to do some work to identify the target company and consummate the merger. It could get a sizable (median of 2-5%) in the merged entity. 

PIPE financing may also be done if the merged company needs to raise more money during the merging process or shortly thereafter. Big funders can provide PIPE financing in return for shares of the merged company. 

I am not a SPAC mechanics expert, but that’s a rough picture.

How can this impact the current VC and institutional model of financing of startup companies? A growing and successful startup usually raises a series of rounds from VCs and institutional investors while still remaining private. During this time, the success of the startup is often visible to the general public. Or for the curious, Crunchbase or Pitchbook tells the story. Retail investors, however, can’t buy shares of this startup until it goes public in some fashion.

The SPAC vehicle has the potential to accelerate the stage at which retail investors get to own shares of a startup company. We are talking possibly Series B/C/D stages that a company is suitable to be SPAC’kled allowing retail investors to invest in the majority of growth phase of the company. 

This allows retail investors to invest in an index of startup companies, diversifying risk. However, one should be cautious. SPACs are investing in moon shots and the target companies are not making revenue for decades. So, after getting de SPAC’kled (post merger), one could see big drops as investors get clarity on valuation and growth prospects. 

The first issue is that retail investors do not know beforehand the target company. They may know the target sector from the SPAC prospectus, but not much else. However, the SPAC gives voting rights and redemption rights to it’s investors once the target is announced. This allows the retail investor to get out if they don’t like the deal. There is a backstop redemption clause of $10/share in theory. As of this writing, I don’t know how well that is going to work

The second issue is the rigor of due diligence conducted by the SPAC. One goal of SPACs is to reduce burden on startup founders and companies and accelerate going public by limiting the need to disclose exhaustive information. As a retail investor in the SPAC, it is likely the case that you will not find details like you do in the S-1. So you have to trust the SPAC promoters that they are doing quality diligence and valuing the company fairly. 

By creating a lock up period for SPAC promoters to sell the merged company shares, it’s possible to reduce the motivation for them to flip. Some SPAC promoters are playing nice and adding lock up periods in their prospectus.

If SPACs work with good intent and are regulated efficiently, retail investors can stand to benefit. For VCs, it can act both ways. They could liquidate their “cash suckers” via the SPAC and breathe a sigh of relief. On the other hand, they don’t want to see their strongest performers go public before they can double down. They may still do that, but their control goes away.

Categories
Start Up

Traction

A potential list of traction channels for your startup business. Some or a combination of these can be used at different stages. The list is not my original, but a compilation from various sources. Let me know if I’m missing anything or anything novel that you’ve tried and has worked for you.

  1. Viral Marketing – Getting existing users to refer others to product
  2. Public Relations (PR) – Coverage in Newspapers, Magazines
  3. Unconventional PR – Publicity Stunts, Contests, Giveaways, Great customer support
  4. SEM – Place paid ads on Google, Bing and their Display Networks (ads on non Google sites), retargeting
  5. Social and Display Ads – Ads on LinkedIn, Twitter, FB, Foursquare, Youtube, Reddit etc
  6. Offline Ads – Ads in TV, Radio, Magazines, billboards, yellow pages, direct mail, buses etc
  7. SEO – Improve ranking in Search Engines using a specific content strategy
  8. Content Marketing – Publish Blog Articles, White Papers
  9. Email Marketing – Acquire emails via marketing; engage, retain, referrals
  10. Engineering as Marketing – Make useful tools such as calculators, widgets to get company in front of potential customers
  11. Targeting Blogs – Target blogs that are widely read by your target customers
  12. Business Development – Exchanging value through partnerships
  13. Sales – Generate leads, qualify, convert
  14. Affiliate Programs – Create own network or use existing network like Commission Junction, ClickBank etc
  15. Existing Platforms – Apple Store/Play Store Optimization, Chrome Extensions
  16. Trade Shows – Attend and present at Trade Shows
  17. Offline Events – Sponsor Meetups, Conference Events, Treasure Hunts
  18. Speaking Engagements
  19. Community Building – Building Connections amongst users of product
  20. Analysts – Establish relationships with Research Analysts from Forrester/ABI/Gartmer/TechNavio etc
  21. Participate in RFPs – Big companies/goverments issues Requests for Proposal that you can submit proposals to. Don’t be intimidated by size / revenue requirements
Categories
Sales Start Up

Using psychology in sales

Many of us grossly underestimate the effort, skill and persistence it takes to sell something. The theory of “Build it and they will come” applies to a small percentage of products and is usually serendipitous.

A sale is an exchange of value. It is also a persuasion. You are influencing someone to make a decision to buy your product. Since it involves people and emotions, psychology is therefore involved. Understanding the psychology of compliance (someone is complying by buying your product) should provide a distinct advantage in your sales process.

Recently, I read this book “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion by Dr. Robert Cialdini” He is both a Distinguished Professor of Marketing and Regent’s Professor of Psychology in Arizona State University.

He lays down the “Weapons of Influence” as the following

1. Reciprocation
2. Commitment and Consistency
3. Social Proof
4. Liking
5. Authority
6. Scarcity

In reciprocation, there is a give and take. A small give is offered by the influencer as a strategy to take from the buyer. The author cites the now defunct practice of Hare Krishna devotees “giving away” flowers to strangers at public places to incentivize them to donate to their cause. The author states that the impressive aspect of the rule for reciprocation and the sense of obligation that goes with it is its pervasiveness in human culture.

In today’s digital and social world, influencers actively build a following by actively liking pages, tweets, and blogs of other people. In the physical world, a dinner, a golf outing etc. create opportunities for using reciprocation.

Another variation of reciprocation is reciprocal concessions. This is when the influencer steps back from an initial request that gets rejected to a backup request that has a higher chance of compliance. An example would be when your push for an Enterprise or Premium Edition of a product gets rejected and you come back to sell the Pro Version of the product. This needs to be structured well to be successful.

In Commitment and Consistency, the psychology being used is that Human beings want to stay true to their commitments. Psychologists see that consistency as a powerful principle, according to the author. So, if you are able get an early commitment from someone, it is a wonderful thing. The odds are that they are going to keep that commitment. In a public setting, it is even more powerful. When fund raising, CEOs should try to get commitments really quickly from individuals, however soft.

Social Proof is a powerful tool used by influencers to get people to comply. The laugh track in TV sitcoms is cited repeatedly as a tactic to get audience to comply. It seems highly effective. The principle applied here is that we determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct. Modern media has used this effectively by publicly displaying product reviews, likes, shares, comments and much more. There are some really astounding case studies of influence of one’s behavior based on observation of other people’s in similar settings.

It has been proven time and again that people tend to comply with requests from people they like. The Liking principle is used by Sales Professionals to enhance their likability factor with customers. Acting on referrals from friends is one classic example. Endorsements and recommendations from people that you like influence you to repeat their actions.

Authority or “directed deference” is a powerful tool used by advertisers. Companies spend a ton of money on celebrity endorsements, because it has been proven to work. We have all at various points of time complied easily with authority. As a sales professional, it would help a great deal if you can identify and get endorsements from specific authorities or entities.

As the final weapon, scarcity relies on the psychological principle that if something is thought to be scarce, it is deemed very valuable to possess. There is lots of case studies for this.

As a sales professional, it is very important to understand the psychology of your buyer. Some of these techniques can be abused, so one has got to use them ethically. It should be realized that the other person may be aware of the persuasion principles and is actively resisting you by saying no.

Overall, I found this book to be a very good read, chock full of case studies and real life examples. It can be a fast read as some of the many studies can be skipped.

Happy Selling!

Featured Image Credit: study.com

Categories
Entrepreneurship Sales Start Up

Wisdom from a startup veteran

Samir Bodas is the CEO of iCertis a Bellevue WA based company providing SaaS based contract management software.  Recently, he gave a talk at a TiE event on Scaling a Startup. The interactive questions took us to areas other than scaling.  Few of my observations:-

  1. If you want to do a startup, just do it. 9/10 people don’t even start despite having an idea. 9/10 people who start something don’t succeed. Don’t be in the former camp. You will learn a lot by doing, even if you fail.
  1. Try to create a wave or ride one. Creating a wave is tough and requires the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. If you are riding a wave, get onto it early. Have a reasonably good idea that it will be a big wave. iCertis bet early on the cloud in 2009. Betting on Azure was pivotal in getting into the Microsoft ecosystem.
  1. Serendipity plays a crucial part in startup success. Many talented folks have not succeeded in building a successful company and many hardworking folks have failed too. Going back to #1, you will not know until you start something.
  1. Focus your startup by going deep in an area. In the original theme of “ERP Surround Software”, his company tried other areas such as transportation logistics but decided to focus on contract management. Once they did that, it was easy to raise money from VCs.
  1. In enterprise sales, respond to RFPs. Common wisdom is that this is cumbersome and costly process for startups, but could be an extremely valuable opportunity.
  1. It’s not necessary to have a full product before starting sales. Project confidence in your abilities and do the demo. The customer has likely not checked your competitor’s full capabilities.
  1. During early stages, have the Engineering team work extremely close with the customer. They were able to have 6 week turnaround time from customer ask to delivery.
  1. A sign of scale is when you can sign deals without seeing the customer. Their last 2 deals in Europe was signed, all via remote interactions.
  1. Getting your early customers into a customer advisory council is powerful. They are usually your strongest advocates and want to see you succeed.
  1. A company’s culture is captured in its values. Values need to be written down and adhered to across the board and consistently for true scaling of the company. Don’t get surprised if your customer asks you about your company’s values.
  1. Keep sales folks hungry. Compensate them enough to survive, but not enough to give them luxury of waiting for next year. Be maniacal about targets and don’t be wimpy about firing people that don’t meet it.
  1. Samir gets invited to all sales calls. His calendar is full of sales calls. Important thing is to listen for tone from the customers. As CEO, don’t be afraid to engage at the level of each sales call.
  1. With SaaS, it is not necessary to build a large remote sales force or have Satellite offices, unless situation demands it. Due to lack of skilled sales people in Seattle, iCertis has offices in Dallas, Philadelphia and Bellevue.
  1. If you can pull it off, having relationships with Industry Analysts is invaluable. Usually, analysts will look for you to have at least 20 customers, unless you are doing something completely differentiated in the space. They are a great source of leads.

These stood out for me. Overall, great stuff from Samir and thanks to TiE for organizing the Startup on TAP event.

Categories
Code Software Projects Start Up

Technical Debt

Addressing Technical Debt

Agile is the modern methodology of developing software. The Agile methodology is more popular in startups and small companies than large organizations, although that trend is changing. A sprint represents a time period where a collection of features, taken from a backlog are planned for development. Sprints can be 2 weeks to 30 days. Each company’s mileage may vary.

Speed to market is critical when developing software in a startup. Keeping users engaged with new features and improving existing features quickly is a good recipe for successful retention. You have a need to build your product quickly to gain traction to attract investors. Unless you are a successful serial entrepreneur with just an idea. I find that many startups use outsourced development teams to build their MVPs or their first customer facing projects, because they don’t have enough money yet for an in-house engineering team.