Imagine for a moment you’re a hungry entrepreneur who needs capital to launch or grow a business that has some real potential for success. You started talking to angel investors about your deal, and finally connected with one that’s interested! The angel looks you in the eye and asks, “Are you looking for smart or dumb money?”
How would you respond?
- Smart money, of course!
- Dumb money, that’s why I’m talking to you.
- Which kind can I get from you?
The question is ridiculous, yet the issue comes up a lot. Money is inanimate, and is neither smart nor dumb in and of itself. The way entrepreneurs or investors manage and invest money can be smart or dumb, and this gets more to the heart of the matter. But before delving into this issue and its implications for entrepreneurs, let’s take a quick look at some definitions.
The term “smart money” is often used to describe investment capital from sources that also provide valuable expertise and contacts that will enable businesses to become more successful. This sounds like a smart idea, and I believe the principle is a good one. But the term is also used in other less useful ways, and not always explicitly. For example, a venture capitalist or angel investor may deem their investment as smart money, and infer that others who invested in your business at an earlier stage on an informal basis provided dumb money.
There are many elitists in the capital markets. But ultimately this doesn’t matter, and I’ll tell you why. I’ll also tell you what’s far more important as an entrepreneur looking for capital.
First, many of the “smartest” financial people in the world helped create the recent global economic meltdown. And even today, whenever they talk about the future, the only truth is “we don’t really know.”
Second, $18 billion (the same amount angel investors and venture capitalists each invested in 2009) was entrusted to Bernie Madoff by thousands of smart people.
Third, let’s compare the failure rates of companies that received angel investment, those that received venture capital, and the whole gamut of U.S. start-ups that survive at least 5 years. Perhaps surprisingly, the approximate failure rate in all cases is 50 percent! While different studies report varying failure rates, these numbers reflect a reasonable average.
What does the data indicate about the value of so-called smart money?
Taken on the whole, it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.
So what does matter for you, the entrepreneur?
YOU being smart.
Here are some tips to help guide you along.
- Bootstrap your company using appropriate capitalization solutions that don’t require you to go down the equity capital path. Aside from banks, there are many other viable ways to grow a business by leveraging all available capitalization options.
- Smart entrepreneurs surround themselves with advisors, strategic partners, board members, employees, subcontractors, customers, vendors, etc. who bring expertise and contacts to the business. When you look at the big picture, you can get vastly more support from these resources than you are likely to get from your investors, though good participating investors can be very helpful members of your team.
- Investors who are also well-known and successful figures in your industry could be very helpful, if they take an active role in supporting you. There are many anecdotal tales of high profile experts that promised to help for a premium, but never did. Find out how active such investors will really be for you (check their references) before you take their money.
- Don’t take money from investors that are likely to become a problem for you later on. You can conduct due diligence on them by asking to talk to the owners of other companies they invested in.
- If investors are too “smart” you could end up in a dangerous situation where they can take over your business if you don’t meet certain performances on schedule. While this a a major concern for entrepreneurs, the reality is that it doesn’t happen very often. Most angel investors don’t want your business, don’t have time for it, and would rather support it with help from time to time rather than taking it over. Onerous terms and conditions proposed by an investor should flag you to perform due diligence on the investor, and talk to your trusted business advisors before committing to do a proposed deal. This is the path of the smart entrepreneur.
- Develop a strong financial model of your business built on leading indicators that will help you manage the business from the beginning of the marketing and sales cycle. Show it to experienced advisors you trust. Refine it until you completely believe in your ability to achieve these numbers. Don’t start trying to raise money until after this has been accomplished.
- Expect that you’ll have to do a major overhaul of your business model within a few years in order to ultimately succeed.
- Know that a smart entrepreneur can make just as much with so-called “smart money” as can be made with “dumb money.” So focus on being a smart entrepreneur. That’s something you have a lot more control of.
- Don’t be a smart aleck, that’s not the same thing as being smart. You’re unlikely to succeed with Tip #1 if you’re a jerk. I’d like to be able to say that jerks are also more likely to fail, but I haven’t seen any reliable numbers on that issue yet . . .