Hello All In community! Today’s wisdom comes to you from Kelly Gasink, Co-Founder of Austin Cocktails. Kelly has recently joined the club of a small (but growing) number of women to successfully raise equity capital. We are grateful for her willingness to transparently share her wisdom, perspective and guidance. This is a phenomenal read. Thank you Kelly!
As Stephanie editorializes on her homepage, being an entrepreneur is hard, and being a female entrepreneur is even harder. I believe the same holds true for fundraising. Raising money is difficult, and raising money as a woman is even more so.
I come to this conclusion having co-founded and raised money for four successful companies, three with men on my team and one without. All four experiences were demanding physically in terms of hours worked and travel logged. They also proved emotionally rigorous in terms of rollercoasters ridden and rejections endured. As most entrepreneurs with enough distance from successful fundraising will tell you, however, the significant effort required to raise capital makes sense, and it is important entrepreneurs understand that fundraising is not and should not be easy. The good news is this high bar holds for both women and men alike.
When entrepreneurs embark on raising capital, they are asking individuals to part with their money and essentially bet on some combination of the entrepreneur’s work ethic, character, product, and, most significantly, her/his capacity to marshal resources toward a vision very few see. This is money that investors could spend on themselves, family, friends, education, travel, art, charity or other purchases and investments with more certain and immediate payoffs. Seen in this light, successful fundraising requires the innovation and tenacity of entrepreneurs to prove more compelling than the innumerable other spending and investment options available. This is hard work for absolutely everyone.
While survival of the fittest plays an important role in fundraising, however, my own experiences, along with a body of compelling statistics, affirm the gendered playing field for entrepreneurs remains far from leveled. Although venture capital deals for women-led businesses increased from 5% in 1997 to 18% in 2013, this is still a long way from parity. Whatever you make of these statistics, my personal conclusion is that female entrepreneurs have to work harder to achieve the same fundraising outcomes as our male counterparts. While the starting premise may sound dispiriting, I can tell you unequivocally that I have emerged on the other side of fundraising while female (FWF) with full-throated optimism. My positive outlook centers around two beliefs.
First, having co-founded and raised capital for four companies, two we later sold to publicly traded companies, I can attest to never having come across anything resembling an even loosely organized system for undermining entrepreneurial parity. Though this observation may seem simple, circumstances matter. The reasons behind gender-based disparities are too complex to address in any depth here. However, big picture, I believe inequity in fundraising, and for that matter, executive leadership, board representation, politics, and pay, is entirely the result of legacy infrastructure from women serving as the primary caretakers historically and entering the workforce relatively recently. So, while changing this infrastructure will require concerted, purposeful effort, we do not face an overwhelmingly intransigent system. The fight to be considered 5/5ths of a person worthy of a vote, for example, was an extraordinarily different undertaking than normalizing excellence within an accepting ecosystem.
Though the low likelihood of impenetrable barriers on the path to gender parity plays an important role in my optimism, it in no way diminishes my perception of the painful impacts and remaining work. However you choose to react to social injustice—from silent recognition to aggressive agitation and everything in between—I’d encourage you to consider how small and big actions matter. An extremely high level view of history suggests humankind’s greatest advancements have involved the accruing efforts of individuals and groups summoning the courage to reject, in both quiet and bold ways, inequity based on gender, nationality, religion, birth, sexual orientation or race. But, why, amidst historical sea changes, do the individual tides take so long to follow? I have come to believe that addressing inequity in day-to-day environments shatters a comforting and stabilizing world-view that advanced societies treat people equally and that everyone can get along. History has shown us that too bright a light on injustice or division, even centuries removed from their original architects, can foster incapacitating greed, guilt and anger. Whatever may drive modern-day incrementalism, I believe that, at a minimum, only once you acknowledge that inequities and tensions exist, and that they are highly interwoven into daily life, can you possibly begin to counteract how they limit our experiences and opportunities. Though hard to conceive, our daily individual and collective actions are 21st century history in the making.
The second reason behind my optimism is that female entrepreneurs have the merits on our side. There now exist myriad studies showing that female-led businesses and investment firms outperform those led by men (as do companies with gender balanced boards and executive leadership). So, while legacy infrastructure may suggest a gap in perceived potential, there is not one in actual potential.
This framework is the primary tip I offer to female entrepreneurs—Raising capital is hard, as it should be, and, for now, unjustly harder for women. However, the fundraising gap will disappear, especially with women like you being part of the change we want to see. And, as a satisfying irony, once females do raise capital, the odds of success are in our favor.
So, building upon this framework, I offer five practical tips I wish I’d known.
Tip #1: MASSIVE INEFFICIENCIES & REJECTIONS ARE NORMAL
Fundraising is challenging physically and emotionally for the reasons discussed and because no single process works. This means you will spend significant time finding prospective audiences and honing tailored pitches. Like the most famous entrepreneurs, you will receive countless critiques and rejections. You will get feedback from seasoned, gracious people with bad delivery and from wolves in sheep’s clothing overlaying irrelevant, personal experiences. You will learn there are few things more odious than verbal pats on the head from people in positions of power who champion vision, but lack the leadership within.
GOOD COPING SKILLS
Recall that you are disrupting the status quo and have a vision few see. Thoughtful confidence amid skepticism and bravery outside your comfort zone are what coalesce to form the entrepreneurial X Factor.
View rejection and critique as positive, mandatory experiences that will toughen you into exactly the leader your company needs. To cultivate resilience, author Brene Brown suggests a tool I heartily advocate. On a 1” x 1” paper square, put the names of the people whose opinion of you matters to you. This should not hold more than three names. When doing something daring or managing mistakes, consider only what these people would think. Not worrying about irrelevant opinions positions you to make the bravest and highest quality decisions. Steadfastly withstanding rejection and graciously learning from failure cultivate the intellect, character and tenacity your company always will need.
Read about wildly successful companies whose founders faced tremendous rejection (i.e. Zappos, Tesla).
Tip #2: EMPHASIZE THE PROBLEM SOLVING NATURE OF PRODUCT
The greatest piece of entrepreneurial advice I received came in the form of a rejection from the first customer we approached at the first company I co-founded. The uninterested buyer informed us that he saw our software as a “vitamin” and told us that he only bought “painkillers.” Indulging our confused looks, he explained that vitamin products are moderately helpful–like vitamins. Painkiller products, by contrast, solve problems.
Lest you think painkiller products need to cure cancer, just remember highly successful entrepreneurs have invented the pool noodle and pooper-scooper. Investors know problem-solving products sell and scale, so just emphasize the problem your offering solves, however humble.
Tip #3: GET INDUSTRY HELP WITH YOUR FINANCIALS
If you could allocate your constrained resources to one thing, I’d advise you to engage someone in finance within your industry to help create your financials. Start by looking for people at the best company in your space through your network or freelance consulting firms and take it from there. Online templates offer no human insight nor have undergone tax review.
Ask every question you have until you understand the numbers. I majored in economics at Stanford, got a Masters from Harvard, did economic policy on successful Gubernatorial and Presidential campaigns, aced accounting, ran a fund of hedge funds, and believe secretly I could be happy as an accountant, and absolutely none of that equipped me to create and quickly grasp company-specific financials. Despite what investment bankers would have you believe, you do not get this expertise in an Ivy League classroom or because you are a “numbers person.” You learn it on the job.
Industry specific, financial expertise offers realistic growth projections, accurate margins, sensible capital requirements and exit guidance. Defensible financials also provide the confidence of knowing the numbers that matter, while informing critical decisions and eliminating layers of risk.
Tip #4: ELEMENTS OF A GREAT INVESTOR DECK
PROFESSIONAL GRAPHIC DESIGN
I believe hiring a graphic designer for your deck is second in importance only to hiring a finance professional. Design brings your concept to life and communicates brand essence instantly. Investors feel good when they understand both early.
MINIMAL WORDS, MAXIMUM VISUALS
A deck should provide a high-level guide for discussing your offering, not include every important nuance and detail. Attention spans are short, so wordiness undermines your pitch. Lean on visuals.
INCLUDE “AN UNLOCK” SLIDE EARLY (See Example)
Examples of companies outside your industry that have done something similar to what you are doing help prospective investors i) better grasp your product and vision and ii) perceive your company as less risky. Try to include this in the first four slides and use as many images as possible.
Share your deck with people you have scheduled meetings with in-person or, at least, via phone. Only conversation can provide meaningful color on your company, and all investors value emotional connection.
Tip # 5: BOOTSTRAPPING MATTERS A LOT
As Stephanie eloquently has explained, few individuals can develop a product worth more than the sum of its parts that people will repeatedly buy, and even fewer can bring their concept to market. Investors correctly discriminate in favor of hard working “doers” who endure the gauntlet of building something from nothing vs. smart people unwilling to underwrite risk with their time and money. Bootstrapping the hard work beyond ideation allows entrepreneurs to understand the marketplace more deeply, learn from mistakes, hone important skills, and prove concept. As such, bootstrapping positions entrepreneurs to deploy outside capital more intelligently, thereby making you a less risky investment.
By Kelly Gasink
Co-Founder, Austin Cocktails