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Angel Investors – The Good, Bad and Very Ugly
Posted by Dr. Earl R. Smith II
There is a tendency among entrepreneurs to chase money wherever they find it. The pressure to find the financial resources so necessary to build a business can be over-mastering. Most of the time the partnerships which form between founders and angel investors are productive but, in a few cases, I have seen it turn very destructive. Companies that should have realized success have been held back by investor partnerships that have severely limited their potential or, in some cases, doomed them to failure.
Look Beyond the Checkbook
It may be hard to be discriminating when you are in the heat of the ‘money hunt’ but the sins of omission you commit while chasing investors can return ten-fold to destroy any chance of success. The problem become acute because of the incredible range of circumstances, experience and interests that angel investors bring to the table. Their having money to invest in not enough. You need to understand their basic motivations and what is driving them to act as an angel investor. You also need to understand that all investment money is not the same. Some money will help you succeed while other investments will be a poisoned pill that will reduce your chances of building the business you envision. Here are some ‘sacred cows’ that you need to slaughter:
- Angel investors are in it for a return on their investment: Well, how can you argue with that? You would assume that the primary driver is always a return on investment. But, as you will read further on, that is not always the case. I know angel investors who are simply bored and looking for something to do and others who are frustrated CEO-wannabees. For some investors, it is all about a return but for others the return is secondary. You need to sort these two groups out. Do not listen just to what they say; it is what they do that is important.
- They have money they; must be smart: This is another fallacy. Some of the dumbest and most self-destructive people I have ever met are wealthy. I have found only a weak correlation between wealth and intelligence and a slimmer one between wealth and wisdom. Many a destructive hubris has been built on a fat bank account. Investors have an important role in start-ups but pretense, omnipotence or omniscience can warp an investor’s understanding of that role. Smart investors play their part in a highly professional and constructive manner. Seek them out; they are most likely the winners you want to associate with.
- They have been successful in business so they will know how we can be: Past success is not always a good indicator of wisdom going forward. In fact, great success can be counter-productive when they decide to work with start-up companies. I know one investor who continually regales his CEOs with stories of how he ran his company. Of course, the company was running over one hundred million annually when these stories took place. The CEOs, wanting to emulate his success, take steps that are entirely premature. The result is wasted resources and a dysfunctional corporate culture. Past business success is not a good indicator of professional performance as an investor. Remember, you are seeking an investor, not a shadow CEO.
- They will become my close personal friends and advisers: Not a good idea; the correct focus of investors should produce a tension in the relationship with management. If you want a friend, buy a dog.
The Bad and the Very Ugly
The problem with writing about angel investors is that they come in an amazing variety. I have met lots of them and there is always something different about each. The ease of entry into the field may have something to do with it. The only real entry requirement is wealth beyond current needs. That’s all it takes to become an angel investor. There are no educational requirements, courses to take or certifications to merit. Only a bank account and a decision to ‘invest’ are required to hang out a shingle and open up for business. Watch out for the following:
- The Shadow CEO: I have met investors who purposefully pick weak or inexperienced CEOs to work with. Their real agenda is to run your company from the back seat. These investors are very intrusive and will push you to make decisions and commit resources that will put your company at risk. They are mostly successful entrepreneurs who have built and sold a business. In the process, they have lost touch with the necessary energy levels and passion that is essential to building a start-up into a going business. Mostly they remember the later stages of their company and the extended staff they had. Then they turn the CEO into a kind of executive assistant and attempt to run the company by proxy. Most of the companies in the portfolio of this type of investor remain very small. They generally have very complex Excel spreadsheet projections and poor records in meeting them. Stay away from the Shadow CEO; they are very dangerous investors.
- The Crazy, Rich Uncle: This is probably the most dangerous type of angel investor because they are so easy on the management team. They are mostly retired and living comfortably. Their mission in life is to ‘give back to the younger generation’. A clear indication of this type is the total lack of performance metrics and a weak statement of expectations. They can be very seductive to entrepreneurs but there is a dark side. Without stiff set of performance metrics, the company can develop a culture of permissiveness. That will feel good until the money runs out. A key indicator of this type is the feeling that the amounts of money involved are, at least initially, not sufficient to cause them concern. The expenditure patterns are not carefully monitored and discussions do not turn serious until the money is spent and the wolves are at the door. As an entrepreneur, you need to seek out investors who will be hard on you; insisting on strict performance metrics and precise definitions of roles. Take the easy way out and you will be in for a ride to nowhere with a crazy, rich uncle. Sure you will enjoy the ride but, in the end, you will be let off the bus in the middle of nowhere with a tarnished reputation for failure.
- The Gaggle: Remember the old saying about a camel being a horse designed by a committee? These gaggles are fond of that kind of engagement. The investments that they make are very often selected in a very casual way and supervised fairly loosely. The problem comes as the group itself is very loosely organized. Different participants might have significantly different understandings of what it mean to be an investor and what that status entitles them to. The can range from complete indifference to total immersion in the management of the company. This situation can result in lots of pulling and pushing of the management team without an overarching strategic vision. Investments should be made based on clear and concise understandings codified in a detailed investment agreement.
- The Bottom Feeders: You will meet some investors who are really only interested in your intellectual property. They ‘drag the bottom’ of the entrepreneurial community looking for weak teams with good ideas. Mostly they insist that their funding be used to develop the technology rather than developing revenues. Once the money runs out, they regretfully inform management that they are closing the company down and talking the intellectual property as compensation for their investment.
- The Lead Broker: I have seen these lead brokers promote themselves into central roles in companies without putting much of any of their own money on the line. The net result is that the bulk of the investor group gets involved without much direct knowledge of the business or the management team. In one case, such a broker put together an investment in excess of one million dollars without making any investment of his own. He still managed a seat on the board and a dominate role in the management of the company. Be particularly careful of the broker who can invest but does not. This situation can turn nasty if expectations are not met. Finger pointing and recriminations can come to dominate the relationships among the investors. This could seriously damage chances of follow-on investments by the group.
Good angel investors always take a highly professional approach to the process and their portfolio companies. They generally focus in industries that they are familiar with. It is a good idea to avoid angel investors whose portfolio companies do not fit a close pattern. The best angel investors will often forgo the option of claiming a board seat and, instead, insist that an independent board member with professional experience be appointed. Beware of investors who seem to see investment in your company as an opportunity to enhance their reputation by sitting on yet another board. Here are some positive things to look for:
- Success Breeds Success: There are angel investors who have the knack to help their portfolio companies thrive; while others seem to doom them to failure or stagnation. I know of one angel who specializes in little deals and has a well developed ability to keep them that way. Other investors seem to have the opposite skill. Their companies grow and prosper. It is a good idea to do some diligence on the track record of the investor. Go with the successful ones even if the deal terms are less generous.
- The Investment Agreement: There ought to be a detailed investment agreement agreed to before any funds are transferred. This agreement should be very specific when it comes to the roles and responsibilities of each party. The best agreements provide for an earn-in by management based on performance. It also sets the ground rules for further investment. Good angel investors will require this as a matter of course. The worst ones will simply require a term sheet and then write a check. Remember that the absence of planning is the road to failure. Think of the investment agreement as a strategic plan for the relationship.
- Strategic Agreement on Roles and Responsibilities: Good angel investors will insist that the roles and responsibilities for each party be very well understood from the very beginning. These roles will be codified in the investment agreement and specify the actions that each party will be able to take under a range of possible outcomes. Although such an agreement can complicate initial negotiations, it will help greatly when performance does not meet expectations and realignment become necessary.
- Use of Proceeds: I have seen investors write rather large checks without insisting that there be an agreed upon use of proceeds. You can imagine what happened then. Entrepreneurs initially like the freedom to simply take the money and spend it as they see fit. But, more often than not, this leads to waste and spending on things that do not connect directly to the success of the company. One company, upon receiving funds in this way, spent a lot of the money on new laptops and cell phones with expensive service plans. They replaced very serviceable units. Another CEO kept paying his salary, even through results fell far below projections, and failed to pay suppliers. The result was a law suit that is almost certain to shut down the company. It is good business practice for the angel investors to insist on a detailed use of proceeds and for control over the spending of their money.
- Insistence on Performance Metrics: As a CEO you should be insisting on performance metrics for every member of your team. That is just good management. Your investors should take the same approach. It may seem initially easier to deal with angel investors who are very lax about this, but it is far from best practices. I am not just talking about Excel spreadsheet metrics. They have to be much more detailed than that. Good performance metrics detail the responsibilities of each member of the management team and the way their performance will be measured. Everybody from the CEO to the receptionist should have a job description with metrics attached. And the metrics should be sufficiently detailed to drive evaluations based on performance. Performance should be the driver in determining both compensation and earned-in interest in the company. Performance metrics are a sign of a professional and productive organization. Start-ups with that culture have a much higher chance of success.
- Focus on Governance Issues and Oversight: “Who’s minding the store?” If the answer to that question is “nobody but us entrepreneurs”, consider that a red flag. In the short-term, it may feel good to be free from oversight but, in the long-term, you are guaranteed to make more mistakes and waste more opportunities. The board of directors has a very important role to fill in any corporate structure and it is not just making sure that the investors get to a liquidity event as soon as possible. Good governance means overseeing the strategic planning process, dealing with issues of succession, audit and compensation, and providing for the protections and expansion of shareholder value. This fiduciary relationship with the shareholders is an important part of the corporate structure. Without it, management is under no effective supervision and the investment looks more like a roll of the dice than an investment.
Keep This In Mind
An angel investment creates a relationship that will help determine how successful you are going to be. Your skill in crafting that relationship is a test of how dedicated you are to the success of your company and team. If you take the easy way out, your chances of success will drop significantly. If you opt for the limp relationship with an inattentive investor, your prospects will suffer. Angel investors, the good ones, bring much more than money to the table. The good ones have helped their companies succeed and will help you do the same.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II