Funding to Scale your Startup: From Angel Investors to Accelerators

by: | Sep 28, 2017

If you’ve ever watched Silicon Valley or Shark Tank, you might think getting funding is all about the pitch. It’s often presented as the climax of the startup story, filled with risk and uncertainty, and followed by a big reward. That drama makes for excellent television, but in reality the pitch is only one small element of what it takes get funding. There are a number of steps a founder has to take before a pitch is even appropriate. In our last post, we talked about creative approaches to capital that will help you get your startup off the ground. In this post, we’re focusing on securing funding when you’re ready to scale.

We talked to a diverse group of founders and funders including Jennifer Brandel, CEO and Founder of Hearken, Shannon Farley, Executive Director of Fast Forward, Morgan Debaun, CEO and Founder of Blavity, and Cheryl Contee, CEO of Fission Strategy. Here are their insights on different types of funders and how to approach fundraising with each when your startup is ready to grow.

Before we jump in, it’s critical to make sure you’re ready and strategic about fundraising for scale. Ask yourself these three questions:

Have you thought about what kind of organization you want to be, and how you want to grow?

Quick growth can lead to more impact faster, but also carries risks. Brandel recently collaborated on a series of posts that explore the dangerous myth of the startup “unicorn” and offer a vision for a new kind of company — the Zebra. Zebras, the authors argue, “balance profit and purpose, champion democracy, and put a premium on sharing power and resources” which ultimately helps “create a more just and responsible society”. For more on this vision, and to figure out what kind of company you want to be, check out the post.

From a strategy or mission perspective, do you want and are you prepared for third-party influence on your startup?

“If I had taken money earlier or listened to everything that people told me,” Debaun reflects, “Blavity would probably be a totally different company today. I don’t know if it would have achieved what it has if I had taken early offers.” It’s tempting to take money early on, but the seeming good fortune of quick funds can be costly and time-consuming down the line if you are committed to investors who are not aligned with your vision.

Are you and your team ready for the operational challenges of growth?

“Be really smart about it,” Brandel recommends. “Conduct a thought experiment every so often: If you had ten times the people knocking on your door to be a customer, would you be ready to handle it? If not, what do you need to be able to handle that volume? You want to make sure you’re deploying people in the right ways and continue to service customers really well as you grow. Don’t wait to build a system, have the system in place already.”

Once you’ve answered the questions above, here’s what you need to know about pursuing funding for growth.

WHO ARE THE FUNDERS?

Most startups, especially in the impact space, will likely need a number of smaller contributions to get off the ground before getting to a big round of funding. These are the players we typically see making investments at this stage:

Angel Investors & Major Donors

Angel investors are typically affluent individuals who provide early capital for a startup, usually in exchange for a piece of the company or favorable terms in later rounds of funding. Angel investors might have inherited wealth, be founders who have successfully exited (e.g. Elon Musk used his PayPal payout to start Tesla and SolarCity), or, increasingly, work at innovative foundations. Finding the right angel investor for your startup is definitely more of an art than a science. Remember that you’ll have a lot of competition if you focus only on the most famous investors. Everyone is trying to get a meeting with Marc Andreessen or Reid Hoffman, but Silicon Valley is minting new millionaires every day and many consider themselves angel investors. You may want to check out angel networks like Sand Hill AngelsPipeline Angels, or Golden Seeds, all of which have open application processes.

For nonprofit startups, major donors often serve as the angel investors of the charitable space. There are many existing resources online about major donor fundraising to help you understand how to reach out to them. This post is a good place to start. Remember, major donor cultivation, like finding the right angel investor, is a long-term relationship-building game. Many times, angel investors and major donors end up investing because they believe in the team and the product, even when the company isn’t at a point where it’s scalable.

Early Stage Venture Capital Firms / Seed Funds

Venture Capital (VC) firms pool investments betting on large returns from a small number of successful startups. While VCs typically expect more than half of their investments to fail, each VC has a different approach that weighs various factors around the risk and potential return of the investment. Industry Ventures’ Venture Capital Risk and Return Matrix is a transparent example of how one firm approaches their investments. Also remember that VC firms often focus on specific stages or rounds of funding — this is a short and sweet outline of the stages of VC funding.

To learn about and connect with VCs, don’t underestimate how helpful sites like LinkedIn and Quora can be. According to Contee, there are a number of surprisingly helpful Quora threads, some even offering up the names and contact information of VCs and other investors. Even if you’re not pitching, Contee also recommends attending pitch events (many are listed on Eventbrite and open to the public). It’s an opportunity to network — VCs and angel investors are always in attendance — and up your pitch game.

Foundations

Foundations offer grants to mission- or strategically-aligned initiatives (most often nonprofits), and run the gamut from small family foundations to behemoths like the Ford and Gates Foundations with endowments of $12 and $40 billion respectively. In the civic engagement and democracy space, some great examples include the Knight Foundation and Omidyar NetworkThe Voqal Fund offers both a Fellows program and grant support for innovative startups at the intersection of social equity, technology and media. Open Society Foundations has dedicated funding for innovation. And there are many more.

It’s also true that most foundations don’t explicitly identify as foundations supporting tech or innovation, but here’s where your creativity comes in. Farley recommends finding overlapping interests to unlock new opportunities within foundation networks. “To be fair there are only a handful of institutional organizations that fund technology nonprofits. But there are hundreds or thousands of family foundations that are tech adjacent or that have members of the board or trustees interested in issues that your startup cares about.” Technology impacts every issue area in profound ways; making the case for why technology matters to a specific program area may be the most effective route into a foundation. As the team at Fast Forward advises in their recent post on how to better fundraise, when pitching a foundation that’s not focused on technology, your goal should be to highlight your impact rather than the technology that enables it.

Accelerators

Accelerator programs offer startups financial, network, capacity building and mentorship support, typically over the course of a fixed period of time. Since every accelerator has a different focus, founders should think about domain expertise and network when considering applying to an accelerator. Y-Combinator is arguably the most well-known, but there are many accelerators with more specific domain expertise. For example, Fast Forward offers deep expertise in nonprofit technology, Matter supports media entrepreneurs, Digitalundivided focuses on high-growth startups run by women of color, and Higher Ground Labs is focused on progressive political tech companies.

Hybrid Structures

In recent years, we’ve seen lines blurring between and among these categories, as hybrid structures arise to fill gaps. Y-Combinator now invests in nonprofits (including Vote.org, one of NMV’s portfolio startups), social impact accelerators often expect organizations to have a plan for revenue generation and foundations are stepping more boldly into impact investingNew Media Ventures supports both nonprofits and for-profits, so we are often thought as a combination of a venture capital firm and a foundation. In addition to the seed capital we provide entrepreneurs, and the follow-on funding we organize from our angel network, a lot of our work is focused on evangelizing more thoughtful, sustainable, and impactful ways to support civic and political innovation efforts in both the philanthropic and venture communities.

A lot has been written about fundraising, and as we add to that conversation in these posts, we want to recognize valuable insights that already exist. We recommend reading the Unreasonable Institute’s posts on what to look for in investors and where to learn about funders, as well as Ross Baird’s (CEO of Village Capital) thoughts on how VCs and entrepreneurs can better talk to each other. Our next post in this series will offer insights on what funders are looking for when investing and how you can develop relationships based on each funder’s unique priorities and interests. By getting to know what each funder cares about, you’ll be able to set the foundation for valuable relationships with them.

This is part of a series on fundraising for startup founders focused on impact, and is a collaboration with Shannon Baker, Director of Partnerships at NMV. Let us know if you have questions or more suggestions for resourceful entrepreneurs.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons