When startups are too honest, they have trouble finding investors. In practice, it looks like this: founders are showing off before funds, they show off before their LPs, and they tell what wonderful companies they got involved with and a beautiful spiral rises from here.
I recently had a rather clear example that illustrates this very well. A growing company, with a good team and a stable financial foundation, went for the round. What set their pitch apart from the vast majority of what you see on the market was that they didn’t want to be a unicorn. So they didn’t tell the story of how they would conquer the world, become a global tycoon, and change the market forever. Instead, they decided to be honest about the size to which their company can grow with the support of the investor and what they are realistically able to achieve. They had a clear plan for who they wanted to sell it to. They also spoke openly about the problems they have with the product or with customers. This was a real reflection of the situation in the company without any exaggeration. For the sake of clarity, I will add that the presented figures gave really sensible returns for the funds.
A whole large group of investors came back with the same answer: NO! The CEO has been thinking for a long time what to do with this fact, because the company is growing, the potential is significant, but there is still no external capital for growth. Finally, they heard an inconvenient truth: ‘You have to do what everyone else does. Start saying that you will be a unicorn and dominate the market. Fake it until you make it…’ The rigid moral backbone had to acquire some flexibility. They decided to give it a try.
What came out of it? The updated narrative almost immediately translated into significant investor interest and a number of promising talks…
This phenomenon is particularly interesting in today’s market, after the startup bubble burst once again and the investment landscape has changed. Theoretically, the business model in venture capital is built in such a way that each investment must be a potential unicorn so that the whole has a chance to pay off sensibly. However, let’s not go into VC mathematics today.
What’s important is that there are already funds that do not chase unicorns. They are interested in indicators such as growth rate or profitability. They generally look for companies that have financial stability and do not spend everything on growth at all costs.
Paradoxically, however, when a startup honestly tells it like it is, the same funds refuse them. So there’s another thing to learn here. When everyone around is impeccable and says that they will be the kings of life, there is little room for directness and plain honesty. It just seems unattractive, ordinary, gray, – it’s hard to build a story on it. In most cases, if you want to get capital from investors, you have to oversell and play their own game with them. It remains to flex your muscles and boost your income… or look for another way.
The comment section virtually exploded with opinions, amendments, and even a little sarcasm:
Suggesting that softening the moral backbone is a good solution shows how broken this market is. I never do it because I would have to think very poorly of myself, that I’m a fraud and I’m involved in cheating fund investors merely because that’s what the fund wants. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t talk to funds anymore, equity crowdfunding seems to me a much fairer solution.
I thought for a moment about how to use this story and as a startup builder, I think that it is a good way to recruit the right investors. Maybe it’s time to reverse the narrative. A wise investor is sought, not a cash holder, because there are still many of them. Let’s start paying attention to Younicorn investors. Especially when we have appetites and an idea for strong unicorn positions in the future. Then our startup future may look different, business and social costs generated by dimming will decrease, and the chances of changing the world for the better will definitely increase.
A similar note could be written about the sale of the product. In my first contact with software sales for compliance departments of financial institutions plus then crypto companies, I applied the principle of ‘treating others as you would like to be treated.’ I spoke openly about what is good and what has room for development in a given product – all the more so because the so-called compliance officer is responsible for the correctness of the decisions made on the basis of these tools.
I quickly learned that customers don’t really like the truth. They prefer to pull the wool over their eyes and listen to how a given tool will optimize their work by 99% and that it is the best tool on the market. Most sellers stick to such a narrative and thus create such sales fairy tales that the winner is not the best product, but the best fairy tale writer.
Bursting bubbles hurts :). The old truth is that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’ However, we like fairy tales and myths, which is why information about the life of celebrities attracts attention so much. It’s the same way of thinking in my opinion.
It is also worth adding that such plans to conquer the world often translate into KPIs in the investment agreement, and their failure to implement very quickly leads to the founders losing the company. So go ahead… Fake It.
Investors like unicorns so much. I have an idea for a pony farm with 3D-printed horns glued to their heads. Each pony will be given a name that sounds like a SaaS.
My pitch will then be real, for as little as PLN 100K they can invest in a real, one-of-a-kind unicorn!
Regular reports on the development of the unicorn are included.
A similar instance: an ordinary bank with 10% on the deposit – I don’t go there, a lovely shady company with 15% – I rush to place everything I have in there.