What Tier is your Investor (or what to look for in an Investor)?

by Carlos Eduardo Espinal 
Twitter – @cee
Blog – http://thedrawingboard.me

One question that I often get from founders is what ‘tier’ a prospective investor is. As in, what differentiates their prospective investor over another as ‘better’ or ‘worse’, relatively speaking, and on what basis.

Just to clarify, although there is no formal ‘ranking system’ for the tiers of investors, generally speaking, every investor sort of knows where they ‘rank’ relative to others or at least relative to the top investors. The best funds, generally known as ‘Tier 1 investors’ are the most in demand, and then, the tiering is largely subjective from that point onwards as to whether a fund is Tier 2, or Tier x, so there isn’t a huge benefit to spending too much time trying to actively find the ‘objective’ rank of an investor.

That said, what IS worth exploring is what differentiates the better ‘tier’ investors from the rest. Below are the seven attributes that I believe differentiate ‘the best from the rest’.

As you seek out potential investors, keep an eye out for these variables, the more of these your prospective investor has, the likely better off you will be as a founder.

1) Has a great network – the biggest value-add, in my opinion, that an investor can bring to the table, is their network. The larger their network, the more doors they can open for you. Nothing beats a direct intro to someone you need to meet.

2) Has a great brand-name – this helps with the network, but having an investor with a great brand name, either as an individual or fund, can help not only open doors indirectly (as in not requiring an introduction), but also to provide your startup with instant validation to potential customers, partners, and new investors.

3) Has sufficient levels of capital to support you – Although different investors have different strategies around this (eg. an Angel rarely can follow-on as much as an institutional fund), it is generally a good thing to have an investor who can invest in your company throughout the lifecycle of your company.

4) Has sector expertise – One way that investors can differentiate themselves as a top tier investor from the usual suspects is by having focused experience in your sector. For example, an investor could be a generalist Tier 2 fund (remember that this is subjective), but as an ecommerce investor they may be a Tier 1, great if you are a ecommerce company, but just ok if you’re a fintech company. This is because they will likely have a large network (see point 1 above) in their sector of expertise.

 5) Has deal experience – You will go through a lot of unique and stressful situations during a fund raise. It really helps to have someone who has gone through the process before and can help smoothen things out between all parties involved if needed.

6) Isn’t burdensome – An excellent investor does not burden the founder during the investment process with unnecessary or unusual diligence requirements for the stage your company is in. For example, a company that is very early stage will likely not have much to be ‘diligenced’, if an investor is requiring you to have an accurate version of what will happen in your company 5 years from now and you started your company three months ago, question whether they truly think the information you will give them has any likelihood of being true (and whether you think they’d make a good investor for you).

7) (Lastly, and most importantly) Has a big vision – Good investors on your board will help you by working with you on best practices for company building, but great investors will help you by helping you set the right vision for your company. The better investors help you think big because they think big themselves. This means not only having an attitude of can-do vs can-not, but also having the experience on how to coach you through this type of thinking.

Now, keep several things in mind, however, after reviewing this list:

1) There are many new investment funds and or individual angels that come to the ecosystem and therefore may not have an established brand name, but have great networks and experience. Don’t dismiss them prematurely, however, do ask others that they’ve worked with what it’s like to work with them.

2) Although founders that have done well and gone on to join a fund can be awesome people to have on your board, however, investors don’t have to have been founders themselves to be great investors. Experience as investor, having done many deals and knowing how the best companies operate, can count for a lot, so look for  a blend of all attributes in your investor and not just look for a founder-turned-investor that can empathetically relate to what you’re going through, but provides little beyond aged anecdotes about how they did things.

3) If you’re ever stuck between two potential investors, really really consider that the person that will be working with you on the board will help you define many things about your company over the coming years. Choose wisely and ask yourself who you would rather work with long term, you wouldn’t want too chose someone on a brand name alone, but causes you hair loss, heart burn, and emotional stress on a regular basis.

I hope this helps you in your quest to find your potential investor.

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