How does an Early-Stage Investor Review your Financial Plan?
by Carlos Eduardo Espinal @ceduardo
You are about to go meet an investor… you’ve read on the web and heard differing views from people on whether you need a financial plan… some say you don’t, it’s a waste of time as its all made up numbers anyway… others say, you absolutely need a financial plan… so you walk into an investor meeting full of anxiety as to whether not having something is going to reflect poorly on you or if what you’ve created (if you did create something) will be crap in the investors eyes… so what to do?
The financial plan, for most tech-focused early-stage founders, is probably one of the most dreaded bits of the investment pack to send your prospective early-stage investors. The variety of opinions online don’t help either as they just confuse the matter…
- Do I need one or do I not need one?
- If I build one, how do I know it is ‘right’?
- If I build one, surely the investor will know that my numbers are all “fake” and just slash them all in half?
Let’s face it, as much as we’d like to think we can predict the future with all sorts of fancy extrapolations on growth rates… but we can’t… Considering that most people create financial projections based on assumptions of what needs to happen for an upcoming month’s worth of operating events to happen and then project from there for x number of months or years, you effectively create a series of increasingly improbable chronological events with the last event (month) in the series being effectively a function of the compounded set of decreasing probabilities, all of which are asymptotically approaching zero percent in their likelihood of happening “according to the plan”.
What’s my point? Well, that your financial plan isn’t worth much from an accuracy perspective. So what then? If my numbers are crap, why bother with whole financials nonsense?
It is in its forensic analysis of your thinking behind the model, however, where an early-stage investor really gets a feel for how you think and how you want to direct your company in the near future. Next, it is in how your cash will be used efficiently to accomplish the mutually agreed goals.
Before we continue further, I want to clarify that I’m not going to discuss how it is that you should format your financials, or explain basic accounting principles, or how financial statements work. There are plenty of resources online that can help you with that. Rather I want to explore how an early-stage investor (well, at least myself) forensically reviews the financial plan of an early stage startup (vs. a later-stage startups where there is a historical performance record already there and with multiple years of budgets and actual figures).
So what do I mean by conducting a forensic analysis of company’s financials?
Well, I certainly don’t mean it in the sense of reviewing the financials of the startup from a post-mortem basis, but rather reviewing them with the same level of scrutiny on ‘reasons’ why things may have occurred or may occur as one sees on TV shows like CSI. Effectively, I’m looking for what are the cause & effects of each of the numbers and what are the key assumptions behind them, with emphasis on the word “assumptions”. The verbal discussion with the entrepreneur’s financials will focus entirely on their assumptions and the reasoning behind them.
When an investor is discussing numbers (which may be entirely wrong from a future-perspective) with an entrepreneur, if the entrepreneur shows a solid understanding on why the numbers are there, having a clear view of the market dynamics in which their company operates, with realistic customer acquisition assumptions, realistic hiring plans, effective use of marketing budgets, appropriate expenses for a growing company, it can have a HUGE impact on establishing the necessary credibility of competence an entrepreneur needs to inspire confidence in the investor. The opposite, seeing a financial plan with current month revenues/expenses projected five years into the future assuming linear or exponential growth in all aspects of the organization and then stated with a confidence of ‘this is what we realistically expect to happen’ can be both demoralizing for an investor if not outright humorous.
Let me share with you a little secret: With a few exceptions, you will always know your industry and its numbers better than any investor will. However, an experienced investor will ask you the right questions to ascertain whether or not you know your industry well enough to increase the probability of your own company’s success. As such, really do your homework… by homework I mean, don’t just go out and build a product and hope there will be customers. If you take the Lean Methodology approach, for example, as soon as you have customer validation, make an effort to understand the market dynamics of that customer… how many of them are there? What is their concentration? How do you reach them? Are they locked in with a competitor with some sort of monthly or annual contract? Do they buy in a cyclical pattern? Do they prefer to buy online or only from salespeople? Do they need help with setting up your product or can they use it as is? What are they generally willing to pay for other similar services? How is the market growing? Mind you that in some circumstances the ability to ‘charge’ money of your customers may not be deemed the real potential for revenues at first (think Twitter 3 years ago), but again it is how you articulate the future value that matters.
If you take all those questions and research them, what you will find are key components of what will make up the assumptions on your future revenues (or value creation objective). Perhaps your customers are only willing to buy your product during the holiday season, so you will have a hard time with cash coming into your company during the off-season. Financials that didn’t take that into consideration would look to an investor as somewhat unrealistic, not in the numbers, but in the market dynamics of your product. Take other assumptions for example, if you can only reach your customers via another party (perhaps a distributor?)… As in you aren’t directly selling to your end customer, how does that affect the time until you get cash, and the amount of customers you get all at once (or lose all at once)? How long are your customers likely to stay within your service (churn)?
Again, all of these examples are about doing your homework on how your company will operate within its industry and how it will acquire customers. The better you can explain the reasons why a number in your financial model is based on a realistic set of assumptions, the better off you will be. But look at it another way… while you are doing this exercise, you will realize whether there is actually a business that can make money (or other method of value creation) or not. For example, if you do the analysis and find that in the sector you are exploring people aren’t willing to pay and that many other competitors are giving the product away for free, and that there aren’t many opportunities to inject ‘advertising’ as a supplementary source of revenue, you may have just saved yourself a serious amount of wasted energy!
Which brings us to the next part of the homework: the understanding of your company’s expenses. If you have found a market where your product is actually capable of generating some sort of value (note again that I’m not necessarily focusing on “revenues” because there are many ways investors define what “value creation” is, whether it be a growing user base or actual sales) the next part is how do you spend your money to match that customer growth. When do you hire new sales people (and how many sales people do you need relative to a customer sale?), when do you bring new servers online, spend on marketing, spend on new offices, laptops, etc.. Obviously the types and amounts of expenses vary from company to company, but what matters here is how they map to what you are trying to do and whether that mapping is realistic (what is your customer acquisition cost?). For example, if you have a marketing charge of $500 one month, is it realistic to expect that next month your customer sign ups will increase by 500%? Well, as I said before about the “little dirty secret”… I have no flippin’ idea, but I will expect you to tell me how the $500 will equal 500% in customer growth and I will basically evaluate the credibility of your answer. If you answer, I will buy $500 worth of flyers and pass them out, you can rest assured that I will not believe your 500% figure, but if your team’s background has a track record of low-cost viral marketing campaigns, and your answer is basically a version of that… well guess what, I might just find it plausible. I may be exaggerating the bit about having ‘no flippin idea’ as most investors will have seen enough of what works and doesn’t work to call BS, but again, if you can walk an investor credibly through your assumptions, it will do wonders for the confidence you create.
Lastly and most importantly, is the review of how the expenses map to the revenues as far as cash flow is concerned. The lifeline of a company is how much cash it has before it either dies or needs to go fund-raising again. As such, investors not only want to know how much a company needs in terms of cash to execute its vision (perhaps the subject for an upcoming post), but also on how that cash is being used. If there is a huge mismatch here or there isn’t enough time for you to reach your company’s next point of tangible progress (a validation point), this may be a point worth discussing. Much is joked about how an investor will take your revenues and cut them in half, actually an investor may outright eliminate your revenues from the overall sensitivity analysis he is doing to get a feel for how much cash your company would burn on a monthly basis at time x in your plan (you should know your current monthly burn number by heart, by the way). This is because if your company has to do a pivot or something else goes wrong, this will not only accelerate the cash drain relative to your plan, but also have an effect on when the company needs to go fund-raising again and an investor needs to take all of that into consideration as part of the investment analysis.
In summary, do your homework before you build your financial model, but definitively go through the exercise of building one. It will be hugely helpful in helping you identify how your business may need to grow in order to adapt to the sector in which it operates and how you may need to spend money in order to achieve your goals. Most importantly however, by being prepared with a thorough understanding of why everything is there within your model, the less anxious you will be when meeting potential investors… and remember, you may not know all the answers, such as how much money will it cost you to acquire a new customer, but even if you at least start with a reasonable assumption, confess that you aren’t sure about it, and then play around with a range to see if things work, that is also helpful to the investor for them to get a feel for how you can evaluate uncertain circumstances and adapt accordingly.
- Get Your Financials Investor-Ready (openforum.com)
- Most Investors Bite Only at Specific Startup Stages (startupprofessionals.com)
- Putting the Romance in Due Diligence (inc.com)