When it comes to getting a loan or taking on a partner, many small business owners feel a lot like young Luke Skywalker after he crashed his fighter – dazed and confused. Their preconceived ideas about the people and the process, most of which are just wrong, keep them from seeing how everything could work together for their benefit. So before you start talking to banks and investors about investing in your company, be sure that you don’t fall prey to these common mindtraps.
Trap # 1: Bankers & investors are smarter than me
Although bankers and investors have a different kind of knowledge than you, they aren’t any smarter (or better) than you! Because asking for help is always difficult, particularly when it involves your business, I think that we tell ourselves this story to explain our feelings of inferiority.
What to do: Instead of focusing on what you don’t know, take the time to write down the good and bad of your business. The good is a list of your assets (what you do well) and the bad is a list of the risks (where you might need improvement, or where you aren’t sure what you will do). Detailing your strengths and your weaknesses will help clarify what you have to offer and where you need help.
Then, as you meet with them, think of your banker / investor as any other vendor. They are experts in their business, but they are there to help your business succeed. No one knows your business as well as you do, and any loan or investment will be made on the basis of what you have built. Once you are clear about what you have to offer (and where you need help), it is much easier to explain that value to someone else.
Trap # 2: Bankers & investors want to take advantage of me
As mentioned above, bankers and investors are in the business of investing. They aren’t sharks – even if they play them on TV.
The business of investing means that they need to earn a certain amount on every dollar that they invest, and they need to ensure that they make investments that will actually be paid back. Bankers and investors have a responsibility to their clients (who give them the money that they invest), namely to earn them the highest return for the risk that those clients are willing to accept.
While bankers and investors are experts in the risk/reward game, they aren’t scrooges out to steal or swindle you – they’re just doing their jobs and using their experience to do the best jobs they can for their clients.
What to do: Learn everything you can about how bankers and investors make their decisions (this is a good place to start). Use the list you made of strengths and weaknesses to understand what your business offers in terms of risks (weaknesses) and rewards (strengths), and don’t be afraid to make changes to reduce the risks and improve the rewards.
Trap #3: I need to have solved all the problems in my business before I talk to a bank or an investor
Nobody’s perfect, and if you have already solved all the problems in your business, you won’t need a loan or investment anyway. What banks and investors are looking for is not a perfect business, but a business that has a good potential and an owner who understands the risks of his business and how to manage them.
While you can’t go into a discussion with an investor without a good plan, it’s perfectly acceptable to leave some of the details to be ironed out later. How to know the right level of detail? If it will change one of your strengths by more than 10%, or increase a risk by that amount, it needs to be hammered out.
What to do: Evaluate your list of weaknesses using “disaster” scenario. For each weakness, ask yourself “if I can’t find a solution to this particular issue, what is the worst thing that can happen?” If the answer will kill or significantly diminish your business, or if worrying about it keeps you up at night, you need to find a solution before talking to an investor. Otherwise, it’s a detail.
Trap #4: I need to pretend to be someone I’m not in order to get banks & investors interested
There’s a perception that perfect projections, pitches and owners are what win bankers and investors over. Not at all – what wins investors over is solid projections and pitches made by passionate and credible owners. Bankers and investors see hundreds if not thousands of deals over their careers, and they aren’t sold by a pitch alone.
When making an investment in your company, they are ultimately investing in your vision and your ability to accomplish that vision. You need to help them see that vision clearly, and show them what it will take to get there, in terms of money, time and commitment. If you can show a compelling vision and a reasonable probability of reaching it, you’ll be heads above all those other “perfect” pitches.
What to do: Develop a relationship with your potential investor before asking for funds. If possible, present them with an overview of your strengths and weaknesses, and ask for their advice about improving your operations and/or reducing risks.
When you’re ready to ask for funds, understand the value in your business, and get comfortable with explaining that value – in your words, your way. A banker or investor doesn’t want some slick presentation, they want to see how well you understand your business and how you can make it work. They need to see you as credible yet passionate, enthusiastic but realistic about the challenges you’ll face. Perfect only works in the movies.
Trap #5: I’ll do a lot of work for “nothing” if I create financial projections and then don’t find an investor
Like the famous “business plan”, many owners view the creation of financial projections (budgets) as an exercise that’s only useful when asking for financing. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Just as your vision will guide your business over the long-term, your financial projections will ensure that you are taking regular steps to achieve that vision. In order to have $1,000,000 in sales in 5 years, you need to sell your first product! It’s unreasonable to expect that sales go from $0 to $1,000,000, so you need a plan to help you track your progress. That means translating the long term goal into several shorter-term targets. Perhaps the first year’s target is only $120,000 – so you know that you need to sell $10,000 per month. That’s an easy figure to check, and to keep in your head throughout the year to measure your progress.
Likewise with expenses, if you know that you have only planned to spend $240,000 in the first year of operations, any expense over $20,000 per month should sound alarm bells in your head.
Having short-term targets can help you keep your business on track, and as the business grows, can also serve as targets for employees (sales managers, etc.). By instituting a budget early on, you not only set yourself up for success, but you build credibility with future investors, since they will be able to easily measure your projections against your performance.
What to do: Build a financial projection (budget) that helps you manage your business – it doesn’t have to be fancy, but you must understand all the assumptions. You should include an income (or profit and loss) statement and a cash flow (or sources and uses of cash) statement. The income statement will help you understand when your business becomes profitable (sales are greater than expenses), which is usually a point at which you need less external financing. The cash flow statement will help you understand when you need financing, and what it will be used for (either operations, before you become profitable, or for equipment/durable good purchases after profitability).
And once you’ve built the budget, be sure that you are comparing your performance to that budget regularly: at least monthly for sales and operating expenses, and at least quarterly for any equipment purchases. If you see any major variances (10% or more), DIG IN and understand where they are coming from – problems don’t magically fix themselves, so you need to identify them and try solutions until you find the right one for the situation at hand.