Business expert and start-up founder Merlie Calvert, writes her thoughts on the fundraising paradoxes. As she embarks on her fourth round of fundraising, Merlie shares the lessons learned and tips for those considering going for investment.

Fundraising tests entrepreneurs and business owners in multiple ways. It brings its own mixed messages, and often, you find yourself up against conflicting advice. Should you channel the style and approach of another business or founder, or just be you and unafraid to stand out and look different? Is the investor’s decision about the product, or the founder, or the team – or just how much you’ve sold already? Should your investors be involved in running your business, or do you just get the money? Will you be taken seriously?

Paradox 1: Investors – are they angels or demons?

People make and break businesses: You’ll meet some amazing people on your fundraising journey – sadly, some of these are amazing for all the wrong reasons.

There are times, when being female definitely seems to be unhelpful! In one of our earliest funding rounds, I was told that I’d be ‘brilliantly investible’ if I just had a male co-founder. Women aren’t saints either, as we found out when an enthusiastic PE investor kept asking us to meetings, told us she was ‘definitely in’, then rudely never spoke to us again.

There are a lot of time-wasters– many are simply checking you out vs your competition. The truth is, you probably won’t spot a time-waster or a ‘sleuth in disguise’ before you’ve experienced them, unless you’re lucky to be pre-warned by a fellow founder beforehand. Just remember that this is a founder’s lot. And this crazy, confidence-challenging experience is nuts, but also normal for most of us.

Then there are investors who will blow your minds on incredibly positive levels and you’ll be stronger and more resolute because of them. Good people, who support female-led startups and have plenty to bring to your business, are definitely out there – finding them is the challenge, but one that’s absolutely worth embracing. Finding the good angels takes time, so start cultivating relationships long before you’re raising a request for their money.

Paradox 2: Conform and follow ‘the formula’ or embrace your maverick?

The natural temptation with fundraising is to emulate those who’ve been successful before you. We’re all guilty of this at times. But doing this means it can be easy to lose sight of you: you the founder and you the business.

Avoid the pressure to strip out who you are. When it comes to the pitch deck and presentation piece, yes there are core elements investors want to know. But don’t let this process commoditise or compromise you. 

One of the best pieces of advice I received early on came from a fellow founder, who laughed when he saw my fear…and our pitch deck. “Seriously?” he said, “If I had a brand like yours, I’d show its personality on every page. Why have you made your deck look so dull and just like everyone else’s?”

I’d been trying too hard. And fear had made me uncharacteristically conformist. The minute I let our brand shine through, we scored several key investment commitments.

It’s the people around you who can make all the difference. Being able to reach out to those who completely understand what you’re going through, and to learn from their experiences is gold dust. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

And each time someone helps you this meaningfully, pay it forward. Because now you’re learning the secrets, you need to pass them on. #TheFoundersCode

Paradox 3: Are you the Formula 1 driver or do you look more like a scooter?

I have a secret love of scooters. When I set up Farillio, I wanted to call it something with ‘scoot’ in the brand name –because a scooter gets to the same destination as everyone else, but simpler, faster and better. And it’s not over-engineered.

You’ve probably seen the ‘Formula 1 founders’ on-stage? They look as though they effortlessly left the competition behind… They’re the leaders, those with expertise and track record. You’d invest in them, right? They have the market knowledge, contacts, training, presentation eloquence …

Investors need to be persuaded that you’ll go into the race and deliver a fabulous return. And that can be really hard to do, especially if you don’t have a track record. You start a business because you’re passionate about an idea and you’re generally great at something that is core to creating a business from that idea. The reality is, you’re likely to be missing some key skillsets.

So how can you give investors ‘Formula 1 grade’ confidence in you? For me, this comes down to how you build a great team around you.  Founders – women especially, I notice – feel the need to be amazing, perfect, multi-faceted entrepreneurs and train themselves over long hours to find – and have – the skills or answers. But that’s an inhuman amount of pressure. You won’t look any less competent if you bring on others to collaborate and build with you, covering the bits that you’re not good at. Actually, investors will have a whole lot more confidence where you do.    

It’s not about being a Formula 1 founder: success is about having the Formula 1 team.  

Paradox 4: You need advisers or you need to go it alone

Founder life can be pretty lonely at times. And you will feel vulnerable and you often want help. it’s natural.

Lots of people will try to tell you that you need them to help bring in the investment money.  The reality is that they want to make money off you.  In some cases, this is of course fair, if they’re working hard to help you get deals and make the right investor contacts, for example.  

I’ve also seen some of the most inappropriate, patronising and unwelcome hard-sell tactics since becoming an entrepreneur – particularly towards female founders.

Go into any relationship discussion with your eyes wide open and, beware the vultures. Sadly, startups are seen as a hyper-attractive sales funnel. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into signing deals without time to reflect;  and take references or get a second view on the value to your business.

And when you do sign contracts, try hard to avoid agreeing to overly long notice periods, because you’ll otherwise end up in the unhappy position of having to pay someone money for a service that you simply don’t want or need anymore.

You want to feel the excitement of a new relationship and to be optimistic about what it will bring to you. Do take time to find out what you can about people who want to sell to you.

I believe in having the right advisers. Farillio’s advisers span markets, experience and even areas of expertise that we simply don’t have as a team. Choose wisely. Sometimes the very best support does not come with a price tag and is always willing to give first, before taking.

Paradox 5: The best investors are hands-on … or hands-off?

A balance of both actually works well. Just ensure the ones who are keen to be actively involved will add real value – this means expertise, or key introductions across their network.

We learned pretty quickly which advisers mean well, but end up being more of a distraction and we ration time spent with them. Others who are active and brilliant – likeminded rebels with a ‘make it happen’ mindset – are a joy to spend time with and power us forward.

And then there are those who believe in the vision, but are happy to ‘backseat’ and crack on with their own lives, leaving you to it.

Your requirements will change depending on your business’ lifecycle and how much you’re raising for what objectives.

Be clear about your expectations in all investor conversations. And make sure they’re clear with you about theirs. Get the low-down on their style from others who they’re already invested in too.  Comparing notes can be invaluable.

So where does this leave us?

Three fundraises in, about to start a fourth ‘big one’ – and with a stack of war stories from fellow founders – both male and female, I’ve unpicked a few golden threads running through the peculiar, and challenging world of fundraising, that I happily share with anyone joining the founder tribe:

  • Surround yourself with great people, whether it’s your co-founders and colleagues, or a wider team of peers and community.  Often, the very best advisers, resources and solution-providers will be your peers.  
  • Stay unapologetically true to you; live your brand, be proud of it and don’t let your vision get diluted by a couple of negative pitch experiences. This is easier said than done, the knock-backs always smart and the fear never really goes away. Values can bring brilliant clarity in tricky times.
  • Don’t get drawn in by theorists or measure yourself against unreal ideals/idols. Look to your fellow founders instead, ask them to share recent experiences, contacts, pitch decks, tips, the list of all those investors we’ve each black-balled for good reasons…

Then when you make it big, pay it forward, adding your own experiences of the fundraising paradoxes and the solutions you applied to the list I’ve summarised here.

Want to learn more?

I will be speaking at an investment masterclass with Found & Flourish on the 13th September where I will be discussing money related topics including fundraising, investing and more!

You will learn:

  • What do I need to know before I start investing money?
  • Why are you investing money: goals vs. investment choices?
  • Why is it important to invest: inflation and interest compounding?
  • Understand your tolerance for risk and diversification
  • How to develop a new mindset and understand money is power for you and your worth
  • And loads more

Looking forward to seeing some of you there!

Merlie calvert

About the author

In April 2018, Merlie Calvert launched Farillio, the business and legaltech startup. Farillio provides comprehensive, everyday business recipes, complete with all the tools and ingredients you’ll need, in a digital, subscription-based platform, that everyone can afford. It’s been engineered to smash the unacceptable barriers to the vital information and materials that every business needs to grow and thrive, with an overriding mission to ensure that small businesses, (whether they’re freelancers, startups or have been going for a little while), do not struggle or fail because they can’t get, or afford, what they really need.

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