How to build a Mastermind for your startup

This is a follow up post on my earlier blog post: ‘Why boards don’t work for startups and how to do it right’. If you missed that post, I suggest you read it first. It gives the right context for this post. Find it here.

My last post argued that boards were invented to solve a problem that startups don’t have. I argued that boards should be replaced with a Mastermind. This is a post on how to construct the Mastermind and how to make use of it. Ideas are power. Use them.

The purpose of the Mastermind

The fundamental purpose of the Mastermind is to help the founders turn their startup into a company. Startups are eighty hour weeks and burn money. Companies are forty hour weeks and make money. How can that be? How can input not equal output. Something isn’t right.

The difference is effectiveness. Companies apply their resources effectively. Startups don’t. And the reasons for this are relatively simple.

Startups need to spent time on plumbing. Founders need to set up payroll, implement a CRM system and assemble furniture. Companies got the plumbing done. Employees can spend all their hours on execution. But that fact only accounts for a tiny part of the difference in effectiveness. The big culprit is hidden elsewhere.

The real difference is this: Companies know exactly how to sell their products and who to sell them to. They know because a long time ago, their founder did eighty hour weeks. His picture is now framed on the wall.

Startups don’t know how to sell their products. Or to who. But they try. And try. And try. Trying is really experimenting. To be experimenting is to approach things differently every time. Founders approach customers in different ways. The times the approach doesn’t work is time spent that didn’t result in money. Bingo! We found the culprit of the ineffectiveness of startups. The main reason why twice the work hours do not equal twice the money. But how do we solve this problem?

Unfortunately, the problem can only be solved by continuous experimenting. By checking of things that don’t work and getting closer to what works. All human progress has been a result of experimentation. Thomas Edison knew this better than anyone.
The good news is that experimentation can be done wisely. So founders need a tool that makes them smarter. And by now you know where I am going.

The Mastermind is that tool. Groups outperform individuals every time. Humans have become the dominant species because of we are good at collaborating. Few would like to face a lion alone.

The Mastermind is the group that must help the founders experiment wisely. The question is how to create it?

Construction of the Mastermind

First the Mastermind must be constructed right. This is the most important part. Boards are constructed to protect interests and secure influence. Advisory boards are mostly constructed to look good towards investors. The mastermind must be different. It must be constructed with the single purpose of helping founders experiment smarter.

Now for the practical part. How to do it. And I want to start with an apology. I will give you a guide. I don’t like guides. They are simplistic and force multidimensional things into a linear format. I feel ashamed. But I found no better way to do it. I have rewritten this section over and over. Anything else than a “step by step” format becomes messy. Sorry. So here we go:

Step 1. Choose the right people. I mean the RIGHT people.

Getting the right people in the Mastermind is the most important. First of all, each member must want to do it. They must fundamentally want to help. They must be people who have experimented a lot and learned from it. Titles and career success can be a bad proxy for this. Take long walks to understand how much they have really learned. They must be reflective. They must fundamentally respect the other people. They must be factual and honest. If you doubt any of these qualities, find someone else. Find 3 people that match.

Step 2. Establish the Mastermind on a clear philosophy

The Mastermind must be constructed on a coherent philosophy that every member agrees upon. The philosophy should be something close to this: Every member is here to help the founders experiment wisely in order to speed up the process of turning the startup into a company. Any member not buying into this philosophy will disturb the work of the group. Be sure everyone is aligned. That includes the founders.Get everyone together and shake hands. Maybe even sign something.

Step 3. Execute meetings often and structured

Use the Mastermind. Make it your most important institution. If meetings are too far between, most the time is spent bringing everyone up to date. It becomes reporting. Each meeting should pick up from the last meeting. Weekly meetings work. Keep them short. Maximum 1 hour per meeting. Do long sessions once in a while.

The meetings should have a fixed agenda with only one topic. The topic should be experiments and learning. The founders must give insight into the latest experiments. The Mastermind will discuss how to interpret the results and what to do next. Limit the topic to this. Save the rest for other forums.

Step 4. Appreciate your Mastermind

Treat your Mastermind right. They have chosen to help. Don’t choose people who will only help if they get paid. But pay people who help. Most founders are not good at this. Pay them with recognition. Pay them with acknowledgement when you succeed and get interviewed. Pay them by showing respect for their time. Start meetings on time. End them on time. Make the time they spent productive and pleasant. Pay them money or stock if you want. Pay them anything you can. A true Mastermind is worth it.

Step 5. End the Mastermind

I said that startups are not companies. I said that companies have boards, but startups should have Masterminds. I said that the purpose of the Mastermind was to turn the startup into a company. Consequently, I must also conclude that the Mastermind must end. It will make itself obsolete. The day it happens the group should celebrate. They succeeded.

One day the startup has found an effective way to sell their product. One day they have identified the people who want to buy it. Now they just need to do more of it. The founders raise series B, C and so on. They go into hyper scale. They hire lots of people. Professional management will join. The founders will bring more investors onboard to finance the growth. New problems will arise. But the new problems well dealt with by the traditional board.

The board has stood the test of time. It works. But no governing structure has yet stood the test of time for startups. The modern tech startup is still a new invention. The Mastermind just might be what we have been missing.

Conclusion made:

  • The purpose of the Mastermind is to help the founders turn their startup into a company by speeding up the process of experimenting their way to a viable business model
  • The right construction of the Mastermind is vital
  • The successful Mastermind will make itself obsolete over time

Why boards don’t add value to startups and how to make them do so

Lawyers and investors will help you set up a board of directors. This post will not. Instead it will do the opposite. It will deconstruct startup governance into what really matters. In the process many board members of startups will dislike me. My intention is to ask the right questions and improve the way we built startups. Questioning is power. Use it.

Most startups have boards. Investors demand them. Founders feel they should have them. Everyone knows that a real company has a board. Founders want to build a real company. They are right. Real companies have boards. There is just one problem.

The problem is this: startups are not real companies. They are startups. They are potential companies. Boards work for companies. Do they also work for startups?

The answer is no. After doing two startups and three years of startup investing at Accelerace Invest, I know why. Lately, I have decided to tell people the truth about boards. And it begins a long time ago…..

Boards were invented to solve a corporate governance problem

Once upon a time companies were owned by individuals, families or small groups of partners. Then something was invented in the mid 1800th century that changed the world forever.

The invention was the modern Corporation. It was a huge success. Corporations allowed people to invest in companies without assuming personal liability. It became attractive to buy company stock. And people did.

As more people bought stocks, the number of shareholders rose. Companies were no longer owned by individuals, families or small groups of partners. They were owned by hundreds or even thousands of people. The shareholders. The money from stock offerings helped companies grow big. But a problem was born: Corporate governance.

In essence the corporate governance problem was simple. Before the corporation, the owners and the managers were mostly the same people. And they were few in number. They could fit around the kitchen table and have productive conversations. They knew each other intimately and understood what everyone was doing.

With the Corporation things changed. Not all shareholders could be part of the management. Only a few were. Sometimes none were.  But the shareholders still wanted to have a say and be informed. After all, they were the owners. But the kitchen table was too small now. So they had to rent a big event space and serve drinks. It was a lot of work. But an even bigger problem arouse.

The meetings were a chaotic. Everyone wanted to speak. Everyone had questions. Each topic got debated forever. No clear decisions could be made. It was frustrating.

Shareholders and managers started to hate these meetings. But the meetings were necessary. In the end everyone agreed on a solution: To limit these dreadful meetings to once a year. They called this meeting: The General Assembly.

The problem was solved. Managers and shareholders met once a year. The chaos was contained. However, a new problem emerged. An even bigger problem. Much bigger.

Now the shareholders only got information at the general assembly. Suddenly the shareholders felt uneasy. They didn’t really know what was going on. But they heard rumors. And they didn’t like what they heard.

They heard that one of the managers bought a yacht. Or the brother of the CEO won a huge contract from the company. Distrust started to surface. Distrust was bad for both managers and shareholders. Everyone needed a solution. Luckily, an ingenious solution was found. A solution that has lasted until this day.

The solution was: The Board. It was brilliant. The board was small enough to meet regularly. Shareholders could choose board members they trusted. These board members could assert influence and make sure the management served the shareholders’ interests.

Managers felt relieved. Now they could inform and interact with shareholders in a structured way. No more chaos. It was a win- win. It worked like magic. Until a new invention came along: The modern tech startup.

Conclusion: boards works well for companies

Startups do not have a governance problem

The modern tech startup was invented in Silicon Valley. Not by the entrepreneurs. They have always been around. Also other places than Silicon Valley. The modern tech startup was invented by another invention: Modern venture capital.

Modern venture capital was invented in the late 1940s. Second World War created a huge pressure to develop superior military technology. The epicenter of military research was Silicon Valley. Here brilliant people invented ground breaking technology.

Some people saw the value in these brilliant minds and their ability to develop technology. These people were called Venture Capitalists. The venture capitalists started to fund the brilliant minds. They didn’t just buy stocks. They invested.

The venture capitalists provided lots of cash a very early stage. In return, they got a large stake and significant influence. It was a small and closed party. Once again the people involved could talk around the kitchen table. And they did

And so we return to the core of the issue: The kitchen table.

A typical startup is so very different from the original corporation (I just call them companies). Startups do NOT have a large number of investors. Investors do NOT have limited access to information. Investors do NOT distrust the management (I hope not).

Everyone involved with the startup can fit around the kitchen table. And they should. The problem solved by the board is gone. The board becomes a medicine to a non existing problem. And taking the wrong medicine can have severe consequences.  Any doctor knows this.

Conclusion: boards solves no problem for startups

The problem in startups is fundamentally different from that of companies

Many startups have adopted the concept of the corporate board. Founders and investors think it’s “professional”. That’s how a real company does. And they are right. But startups are not real companies. The difference is fundamental.

The difference is best illustrated with an analogy. Ships.

A startup is like a treasure ship in unknown waters with icebergs are floating around. It’s risky, but the crew hope to find gold. It is a treasure hunt. And the investors are in it for the bounty.

A company is a cargo ship carrying goods from one port to another. It’s sailing a fixed route in a well known environment. The shareholders are in it for their part of the cargo. They know the worth of the cargo and just want to protect it.

The difference between the two ships is their environment and mission. And the difference demands two very different types of governance. The wrong approach can have fatal consequences.

Conclusion: startups and companies have very different problems

Startups need a Mastermind

If you were captain on a cargo ship sailing a known route between two harbors, how would you organize meetings?

I suspect you would do something close to a board meeting. You would have scheduled meetings. The crew would report to you.  You would just want to know if everything goes as planned. In most cases it does. If not, you would ask the crew for corrective actions. The cargo must arrive in time.

But what if you were captain of a treasure ship in unknown waters? The weather is rough and icebergs are floating around. Then, how would you then organize meetings?

I suspect you would do frequent status meetings. You would evaluate every new turn of event and constantly calibrate your plan. Everyone would have full attention of the situation and collaborate. Everyone’s lives depended on it. The treasure would be worth it.

When startups mindlessly adopt the traditional format of the board, they apply the wrong tool. They are trying to steer a treasure ship like a cargo ship. It will lead to frustration and mismanagement, at best. In most cases, it leads to something much worse. They sink.

Instead of a board, startups need something closer to a Mastermind. Not an evil individual as portrayed in James Bond movies. But a combined mind made up by smart people with a relevant and diverse set of skills. A mind that evaluate every new event and can make rapid decisions. A mind that works independently from individual shareholder interests.

The Mastermind can be called a board. I understand if you prefer that name. It can have any name you want. It can have rules of procedure. It can meet at fixed schedules. It can have an agenda. It can have any attribute optimal to do the job. But it cannot be established without first completely disregarding the traditional ideas and formats of the corporate board.

The mastermind must be built from the ground up. It must be constructed to fit the purpose. To go treasure hunting. Only then, are managing startups right.

And here I will leave you. I know. I have not adequately filled the void I created with my post. I have not provided a proper description of the Mastermind. I have given no guidance on how to construct it. But I will. I am thinking. And my conclusion will be posted in my next post. How to build a Mastermind for your startup.

Conclusion: startups need to rethink the concept of the board and built a mastermind instead

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Conclusions made in this post:

  • Boards works well for companies
  • Boards solves no problem for startups
  • Startups and companies have very different problems
  • startups need to rethink the concept of the board and built a mastermind instead

Why founders make bullshit competitor slides (and why my wife is better than yours)

Pitch doctors will help you to make cool competitor slides. This post will not. Instead it will do the opposite. It will deconstruct competition into what really matters. In the process I will offend you. I will use examples involving your wife. I will use women as product examples. Some will find it objectifying and sexist. My intention is to give you understanding. Understanding is power. Use it.

All founders claim that competitors are inferior. Competitor’s products are hard to use, outdated and lacks features. Founders can prove it. They have a formula that objectifies competition into a clear picture of exactly how superior their product is. The formula is called a 2 by 2 matrix. The picture is called the competitor slide.

Competitor slide(The slide is borrowed from Steve Blank. Hope he don’t mind)

Every startup has the competitor slide. And they should. Investors want to see it. Mentors want you to create it. It is a powerful slide. Maybe the most powerful in the deck. It eliminates any question. Any doubt. The facts are clear. We are good and they are bad. It’s quantified and obvious.

Except that it is not obvious.

I used to nod when founders pitched the slide to us at Accelerace Invest. But something about these slides didn’t seem right. After three years of startup investing, I figured out why. Now I will share it with you. And I will begin by offending you.

Competition slides are fundamentally flawed

What if I told you this: My wife is better than your wife. And you would be better off having a wife like mine! (If you have a husband, replace wife with husband in the rest of the post. Same with girlfriend or boyfriend)

Do you feel it? The sting. You probably like me a little less now. Maybe a lot less. The reason is obvious. I am incredibly rude. You probably think it’s a ridiculous comparison. First of all, what do I really know about you wife? Secondly, what attributes do I compare? Thirdly, can spouse-quality even be objectified? What if our values are different and you appreciate things, I don’t care about.

By now you know where I am going. I will use the logic from the wife example to build my case.

Most founders are in love

Most founders have an emotional relationship with their startup. It is important that they do. If founders were not emotional, they would either be psychopaths or not believe in their startup. Belief is an emotional state. Steve Jobs was emotional. Some say it helped him succeed.

The emotion that founders feel is something close to being in love. I felt it every time. Psychologists would call it positivity bias. Economists would call it escalating commitment. A phenomenon where people can no longer make rational judgments, and will continue down a path even though it is no longer the optimal thing to do. They have invested a lot in their current path and don’t face reality.

The emotional relationship affects founders. Here, we have the first point of similarity to the wife comparison. We feel love for our spouse. We feel love for our startup. In both cases we have positivity bias. We cannot make rational judgments.

Conclusion: Founders are in love and it clutters their judgment

Most founders don’t really know their competitors

When I claimed my wife was better than your wife, you most likely thought: I don’t really know your wife. You are right. I don’t. I only know what I can observe in public. I don’t know what she is like at home. Most people act differently in public. They show their best side. I know nothing.

When founders evaluate competition they use public information. They check competitors’ websites. Sometimes they test competitors’ products. Maybe founders pick up rumors. They are evaluating someone else’ spouse. Unless the founders use to be core team members at the competing company, they know nothing.

The founders don’t know the competitors’ product pipeline, their sales pitch, the strength of relationships to their customers, the marketing strategy or the culture. Companies don’t just compete on descriptions of features on their website.

Conclusion: Founders rarely know enough about competitors to truly evaluate them

The variables founders compare are random

You wondered which variables I used to conclude that my wife is better than yours. Did I use looks, intelligence, career success, value system or something else?

I used whatever supported my conclusion. I am in love. I think my wife is the best. I will justify it. And I pick the variables that support that picture. The game is rigged.

Founders do the same. The love for their startup convinces founders that their startups is the best. The conclusion is established. Now they just need to choose the variables that support what they already believe. The variables serve the purpose. They become random. In the end, they ensure a place in the right hand corner of the 2 by 2 matrix. The spot of superiority.

Wife matrix

Conclusion: Most 2 by 2 matrices are reversed engineered with variables fitting the conclusion

The startup serves other people. Not themselves.

I claimed that you would be better off having my wife. Or at least one exactly like her. That claim would require I knew you intimately. I would have to be your best friend or your brother. Anything further from that and the suggestion would seem preposterous. Few new friendships would survive such a suggestion.

The reason is simple. You are the one who must live with her. And I do not know you well enough.

The same is true for the product of the startup. It is the customers who will live with the product. Not the founders. Then wouldn’t it be important to know what the customers value? Do the founders know the customers well enough. Like a best friend or a brother?

In most cases founders do not know the customers to that degree. Do you see the problem?

What would a professional matchmaker do? She would interview her customer and ask him about his preferences. What attributes are important to him. Have him rank them. Only then would she score potential candidates to find his match.

Conclusion: Only customers can truly provide accurate variables


The score assigned to the attributes are assessed by the wrong people

Let’s say I interviewed you. The attributes you chose on the Y and X axis were the ones you proposed. Let’s say those attributes were physical attractiveness and parenting skills.

Let us even say that you knew my wife intimately.

I showed you my matrix. It looks right. Physical attractiveness and parenting skills make up the axes. However, my wife is in the upper right hand corner. Your wife is in the low left corner. Maybe you don’t agree.

The problem is the score. You might find blond hair sexy. I find black hair sexy. You might think children should have strict rules. I might think children should do as they please. Different people value different things differently. Who is right? You are. The customer.

I cannot count the number of times founders have told me that their software is the most user friendly. Well, my mother just returned her iPhone because she found it too difficult to use. My daughter cannot use anything but an iPhone.

The thing is that the score depends on the customer segment. If segmented right, customers will be homogeneous. They will be similar in the way they prioritize, make decisions and value things. In other words, the score is segment dependent. So when founders create their competition slide, they must understand which customer segment it represents.

Conclusion: The scores of the variables depends on the segment


The true picture hides in the mind of the customer

Okay. I have made my case. I have rendered the competition slide useless. I think I even used the word bullshit. I rarely curse.

Then what should founders do? Well, if they want to win pitch contests, stick with the 2 by 2 matrix. It just works.

If founders truly want to understand competition they must reverse the process. Instead of establishing the conclusion and then justify it, they must seek the truth. It might not pretty.

The truth is hidden in the mind of the customer. The human beings in the customer segment that the startup is focusing on. The users and the buyers.

Founders must talk to customers and identify what they find important. They must ask them to rank those attributes. And founders must ask customers to help score the different competing solutions on these attributes.

The picture will be muddy. The process will be painful. The result cannot be used in pitch contests. But it can be used to understand how customers really evaluate their available solutions. The true picture will help founders to make sure their product becomes truly superior.

Conclusion: Founders must include customers in their competitor analysis and snap out of love for a while


Conclusions made:

  • Founders are in love and it clutters their judgment
  • Founders rarely know enough about competitors to truly evaluate them
  • Most 2 by 2 matrices are reversed engineered with variables fitting the conclusion
  • The scores on the variables depends on the segment
  • Founders must include customers in their competitor analysis and snap out of love for a while


Why founders shouldn’t care about market size

Business schools and MBA programs will help you calculate market size. This post will not. Instead it will do the opposite. It will deconstruct market size into what really matters. Knowledge is power. Use it.

Many founders go after billion dollar markets. Or so they say. They think they must. Everyone knows that is what investors want. So founders adapt their calculations and definition to make up the billion dollar figure. They create a slide with a world map. They put big numbers on Europe and the US. Maybe even Asia and Africa too. And founders are right. That is what investors want.

But founders shouldn’t care. In fact, they should completely forget about the market. I am about to tell you why.

The problem is this: The founders start believing in the existence of the billion dollar market. They have repeated it so many times to nodding investors that their brain starts to accept it as fact. And it feels good. Like believing in paradise. Who wouldn’t like a reality where success is guaranteed? I’ve been there myself. Many times. Now, I see it in other founders coming to us at Accelerace Invest. Lately, I have decided to tell them the truth about market size.

Market size is a useless concept for founders

The term: the market, is only meaningful for analysts. The size of the market is simply the aggregate number of people who transact products or services within a defined category. It is completely irrelevant for founders because the definition is retrospective. The size of the market is calculated by the number of people who have already performed the transactions.

Startups are not part of that market. They are built to bring change to the market. A start up can expand a market, win a market or create a new market. Those are future acts that will change the market. No one can foresee the change it will create. It is the future. The future is fundamentally unpredictable. There are just too many variables.

Serving people is what matters

Founders must forget about “the market”. They must think about people. Why? Because the market is made up by people. The market is just people. Recognizing them as people makes all the difference.

A market is something that the startup should conquer, win or dominate. But people are someone the startup must serve.

To serve people is to make them better off. Not in the founders mind or even objectively. But subjectively in the mind of the person who is served.

The first personal computers only felt valuable to a few people. To those who knew how to connect hardware components to the computer and write their own software. Not to any others. So the “market” was only those people.

When computers got software such as Excel and PowerPoint, they also became valuable to business professionals. When computers got advanced graphics, they became relevant to gamers and designers. When computers became portable, they became relevant to offsite technicians and travelers.

Conclusion: founders should focus on servicing people

The market will develop with the product

With each new feature, new people find the product valuable. Thus, the market grows with the product. No one can foresee the ultimate size of the market, because it grows with every new feature or service.

Founders must investigate: who are the people that will find the current version of my product valuable? Most likely, that numbers is quite small. Most definitely a lot smaller than the billion dollar market slide said. But that doesn’t matter. The product will evolve.

Then the founders need to ask: If we add these new features or services, who else will benefit from our product? The process repeats and the market grows. How much will it grow? How big will it become? Why care. Founders have already taken the irreversible step to try and grow the market when they launched the startup. There is no stopping. Just serve more and more people and the market will develop in the process.

Conclusion: Markets grow when more people are served

Conclusions made:
• Founders should focus on servicing people
• The market will grow and more people are served

The equation of (seed stage) valuation

Books and lawyers will teach you the art of negotiation. This post will not. Instead it will deconstruct the equation behind valuation. It will expose the different elements and weight them. The equation will give you knowledge to optimize your valuation. Knowledge is power. Use it

Most founders want a high valuation. It’s on the last slide of the pitch deck. They meet the investor and pitch energetically. They get to the last slide, pauses and say the big number. They look the investor straight in the eyes. The room turns silent. They think it’s all about being confident. To look like they are worth it. I used to think so too. Now, I know better.

Getting a high valuation is not like a Turkish bazaar where starting high and expecting half pays off. The truth is that valuation is tricky. In fact, it’s downright peculiar.  After 3 years of startup investing and raising funding for about 14 startups, this is what I know:

Valuation is not value

Valuation indicates “value”. It’s a poor choice of word. It has little to do with value. I once talked to founder. He told me that an investor had given his startup a €2 million valuation. He said that he was a millionaire because his startup was worth €2 million. He was wrong.

Valuation is not value. Value is something a buyer assigns to an asset. Investors are not buyers. They don’t want to buy. They want to sell. They are investors. If they wanted to buy, they would want a majority of the shares. They don’t. In most cases, startups don’t have any value. None wants to buy it.

Then what is valuation? Valuation is distribution of shares. It calculates how many shares the investor receives. That’s it. Does this matter? Certainly! But, not as much as founders think.

Only two things really matter: 1) how much influence the founders have 2) how much money founders get in an exit scenario. None of them are a direct function of the share distribution.

Instead, influence is a function of the rights assigned to the particular shares. It’s possible to have large shareholders with limited influence. It’s also possible to have small shareholders with significant influence.

How much money founders get in at exit a function of the price of the company, liquidation preferences assigned to specific shareholders and the amount of shares held. Two of the three elements are detached from the distribution of shares.
Conclusion: valuation matters, but not very much.

What valuation actually is

Valuation is not that important. But founders still want a high valuation. It feels good. It’s a vanity number. It influences the morale of the team, the chance to be featured on Techcrunch and the level support from the family. Valuation is social capital. Human hierarchies are formed by social capital. In that context, valuation is important.
Conclusion: Valuation is primarily social capital

The limits of valuation

Getting a high valuation depends on more than just the haggling. If founders understand what those things are, they can increase their valuation. If founders know which things matter the most, they can maximize it.

What matters and how much below:

The equation of seed stage funding

The first thing founders should know is this: The valuation has limitations. Not because investors have a sense of fairness. But because (institutional) investors have specific investment strategies.

Investment strategies restrict investors. In practical terms, it means that investors aim to own a specific amount of the company and invest within a certain size frame. This mathematics defines the limitation of the valuation. Any valuation not fitting this math is impossible for investors to accept.

At Accelerace Invest we often meet founders who ask for amounts we simply don’t do. The reason is that investors have investors. And the investors of the investor don’t like to see their asset managers go rouge. Many founders don’t know this.
Conclusion: founders should understand the investment strategy of the investor because it governs the limitations for the valuation.

Getting the maximum valuation

Maximizing valuation is basically a function of three things. 1) Performance of the startup, 2) competing funding offers the startup has received (term sheets) and 3) negotiation skills

1) Performance of the startup is a function of A) the historic performance of the startup and B) the future performance of the startup.

2) Influence by alternative funding offers are a function of C) the status of the competing investors and D) the number of competing investors.

3) Negotiation skills are a function of E) the founders own skills and F) the skills of the advisors they use.

Now that we identified the variables, let’s assign the weights.

What is most important? 1) The performance of the startup, 2) the competing funding offers or 3) the negotiation skills?

The obvious answer is the performance of the startup. If the startup makes a ton of money, the company is really valuable. Right? Yes and No. The problem is that some startups get a really high valuation with no significant traction.

The second obvious answer is negotiation skills. Being confident and having the right arguments. Right? In combination with stellar performance, negotiation skills will work in your favor. Without traction, confidence and arguments seems delusional.

What about competing funding offers? Are those important for valuation? Experience tells me that they are. In fact, they often trump everything else. If investors flock around a startup, the game changes. I’ve seen it. It happened to a few startups I helped. Their fundraising were no longer a game between the founders and the investors. It became a game among the investors.

With multiple investors in play, the game turns social. Some investors are friends. Some are not. Some have a low status and other have high status. Played right, this game can work in the favor of the founders.

Founders can get investors to compete, bid and form alliances. Suddenly the main argument for investing can be: “this really well-known business angel or VC fund is investing at this valuation”. Suddenly, the valuation is detached from performance or negotiation skills. It is driven by the game investors play among each other.
Conclusion: competing funding offers are essential for maximizing valuation.

Conclusions made:

  • Valuation matters, but not very much
  • Valuation is primarily social capital
  • Founders should understand the investment strategy of the investor because it governs the limitations for the valuation
  • Competing funding offers are essential for maximizing valuation

The secret equation of startup funding

Many founders walk into investor meetings blind. They know the address and the name of the investor. That’s all.

But they bring a pitch deck and have rehearsed numbers. They pitch, high five and wait for the call back. The phone is silent. Instead they get an email. It’s polite. It says something along the lines of: we think you are really interesting but the timing is not right. Let us talk in another six months.

I have received these emails myself and I have sent them. Lately, I have decided to do it differently. To tell the truth. The truth is that getting funding is not just about delivering an energetic pitch. Unfortunately, many founders don’t know any better. After 3 years of startup investing and raising funding for about 14 startups, this is what I know:

Getting funding has an equation. And few people know it. The equation has clear elements and weights. Those who know the equation can harness it’s power. But before exposing it. Let me put funding into the right perspective.

Resources are the blood of a startup. Founders use resources to create something from nothing. The resources founders need are people and money. Collaborating people are one of the strongest forces of the universe. Humans became the dominate species because of our superior ability to collaborate. No other species has ever organized thousands of individuals to do anything. Humans do. And in the process we built the Great Wall, traveled to the moon and created Wikipedia.

Likewise, collaborating startup teams can do a lot. I’ve seen it. Teams of men and women who focus solely on the common purpose of building their startup. The founders of an on-demand laundry and dry cleaning startup called Washa sacrificed the activities young people normally do. Instead they moved in together and started washing clothes. All day, all night, every day of the week. Just washing, folding and delivering. They were like a machine.

The team is the machine. Money is fuel. Without fuel, companies grow slowly. Most big companies have taken generations to built. Fuel applied to a well functioning machine make it run faster. Fast is what we want. Humans are impatient.

Money for startups is called funding. Most startups I meet chase funding. Not everyone should. Fuel only makes the machine run faster. Fuel to a broken or incomplete machine is a waste. Even dangerous. But if the machine works, funding will have positive effects. Conclusion: only raise funding if you got a machine that works.

Most funding comes from institutional investors. Getting funding from institutional investors depends on more than just the pitch. If founders understand what those things are, they can increase their odds. If founders know which things matters the most, they can (almost) control the outcome.

What matters and how much below:

Equation of funding

Getting funding is a direct function of getting the decisions makers (usually the partners) to be positive.

The attitude of the partners is a function of two things: 1) the status of the person proposing the investment and 2) the attractiveness of the investment itself.

1) The status of the person proposing the investment is a function of: A) the person’s level of seniority (associate, analyst, principal or partner) in the firm and B) the person’s level of expertise within the space of the investment.

2) The attractiveness of the investment itself is a function of: C) the attractiveness of the startup and D) the attractiveness of terms.

A) The person’s level of seniority is a function of: I) the person’s track record and II) the time the person has been with the firm

B) The person’s level of expertise within the space of the investment is a function of: III) the amount of own startup experience in the space IV) the amount of investing experience in the space

C) The attractiveness of startup is a function of: V) the strength of team and VI) the size of the opportunity

D) The attractiveness of terms is a function of: VII) how well the investor is protected in a downside scenario and VIII) how much the investor profits in an upside scenario

The equation can be deconstructed further, but this level should do for now.

Now that we identified the variables, let’s assign the weights.

First level. What is most important? The status of the person proposing the investment or the attractiveness of the investment itself? The obvious answer is the attractiveness of the investment itself. Even the youngest associate would get internal support for the next AirBnB or Uber, right?

The problem is this: We only know that AirBnB and Uber were good bets in retrospect. Both startups got turned down by a lot of investors. Let’s take the opposite example. Would a senior partner ever get support to do a really bad deal? Well again, good and bad are assigned in retrospect. In reality senior partners advocate for really bad deals all the time. Most venture backed startups fail miserably and somewhere along the way senior partners were involved.

My current calibration tells me that the two sides weight about the same. Experience tells me that founders don’t know this. Conclusion: founders should pay a lot more attention to the left side (green) of the equation than they usually do.

Second level left side. (1) Because the status of the person proposing the investment weights 50%, it’s relevant to look at the elements making up the status level. Who should the founders seek out?

Is it most important to convince the person has a senior position (A), or that the firm’s expert in the space (B)? In my experience, experts work as gate keepers. They can say no. That makes the expert extremely important but unless he also has high status in the firm, founders cannot solely focus on him. Conclusion: founders should focus on the person with the highest status while making sure the expert is supportive.

Second level right side. History decides if an investment was good. However, certain things seem attractive to investors at the point of investing. Those things can roughly be divided into the attractiveness of startup (C) and D) the attractiveness of the terms. Which is most important?

In this case, the weight is clear. The attractiveness of the startups is by far the most important. Founders know this. In fact, founders think their startup can justify almost any terms they propose. In most cases, sky high valuations. They are wrong.

At Accelerace Invest we have turned down investment solely because of the terms. I know that other investors do too. Even though terms are secondary, the terms still matter. Most founders are ignorant of the economics and business model of an institutional investor. When founders forecast their ownership in the cap table, they tend to assume that investors will be happy if they get a return. Again, they are wrong.

The return for the whole fund most beat the “market”. And in most cases founders don’t even think about the return of their investors. But they should. Not to be nice. But to ensure they get funded.

If founders don’t know what an attractive financial structure of a deal looks like to an investor, how can founders negotiate wisely and get to the best deal possible? They can’t. Conclusion: founders should understand the economics and business model of their investor.

Conclusions made:

  • Only raise funding if you got a machine that works
  • Founders should pay a lot more attention to the left side (green) of the equation than they usually do
  • founders should focus on the person with the highest status while making sure the expert is supportive
  • Founders should understand the economics and business model of their investor

Investment thesis

Projects I believe in

Many investors formulate certain verticals or technologies that interest them. I like to think about it differently.

To me, technology and industries are mere bi-products of human need to dominate our surroundings. In our effort of establishing humans as the most powerful species in the universe, we have undertaken immense projects. Projects that transcend generations and are the headlines of human effort throughout history, and in many years to come. These projects are the core of human effort, and to me these projects are the true aim of the technologies and industries that arise.

As an investor, I am really excited about anything that will help us progress in these areas:

Urban Mobility

Originally cities was a solution to reducing friction in transactions. The Egyptian invention of cities enabled us to live in close proximity to each other. This meant that we could easily interact and get our business done. Traveling for three days to get stuff sold on the market was a thing of the past. Productivity skyrocketed. However, this only worked to a certain point.

Continuous urbanization enlarges cities to the extent that friction starts rising again. I spend a lot of time in China because my wife is Chinese. Here I experience the implication of the rising megacities. Friction is enormous. Just getting simple things done, like going to the post office or buying or buying a new sink for the kitchen, takes forever. Traffic is a nightmare and the stores concentrate in specific parts of the city. The vast number of people creates incentives for cheating. Both buyer and seller mitigate this risk by spending more time ensuring the transaction is valid. Sometimes I spent an entire day just buying a single item.

Luckily technology is our savior. Technology can increase the mobility of people and goods in urban environments. Drones can circumvent traffic. Collaborative consumption can create liquidity in the availability cars, housing and storage space. Review and trust systems make quality providers easy to find. Payment technology saves us valuable minutes in every transaction. We want the benefit of cities without the pain. Any technology that makes it significantly easier to be an urban citizen makes me excited.

Global Mobility

Countries formed coincidentally. Only, a few countries in Africa have been created by design, and they don’t seem to work. The division of the world into independent countries made sense, because mobility was limited.

Geographical distance mattered and countries that grew into empires struggled with this problem. Collecting taxes from Britain and getting the coins to Rome was a problem. Every attempt to sustain empires failed. Thus, countries grew independently and developed distinct laws, language and institutions. Today we suffer from this.

The entrepreneurs that came before us have solved many of the long distance mobility problems. They invented ships, trains, cars, airplanes, phones and the internet. Transferring money from Britain to Rome takes about a minute now. Business can be conducted on a global scale. However, countries still exist. And the asymmetry of laws, language and institutions is a problem.

Again, technology will help us. Technology can circumvent institutions such as banks, courts and government. Technology will make it free to buy stocks in other countries and make it easy to enforce rights and agreements across borders. Technology will remove the friction of language differences and reduce the time and hassle to get from Copenhagen to New York. Any technology that makes it significantly easier to act as a global citizen makes me excited.


Life expectancy has more than doubled in the last 100 years. In large part because of medical advances. The sad story is that the extra years mostly extend old age. 6 out of 10 people now end their life in prolonged states of frailty and growing incapacity. In practical terms, it means that you don’t recognize your children and you are being spoon fed while wearing a diaper. If you want to know more about these sad facts, see Peter Saul’s TED talk from 2011. We are getting older. Just older. Needless to say, this is the exact opposite of what we want.

The thing is that time is not created equal. One year when you are 25 is worth more than one year when you are 90. At 25 you can spend those 12 months backpacking, making children and win Olympic medals. At 90, the options for pumping natural dopamine into your brain have been drastically reduced.

Health is the answer and technology is the remedy. Health adds to the other end of life. It extends our youth and vitality. Technology can provide accurate health information, ensure the right nutrients intake and hack our biology. Any technology that significantly increases our health makes me excited.


All mammals depend on information. We use it to make decisions. Biological evolution has formed bodies with sensors that obtain information in our surroundings. Humans obtain information from five categories of sensors. We call them the five senses (sound, taste, touch, sight and smell).

However, humans have a disadvantage. First problem: We only got five senses. Many animals have more. Second problem: Our senses are not particularly good. In fact they are downright inferior. We make up for that with superior processing of the information. Still, it bothers us. Imagine if we had senses on par with dolphins, fish and bees.

In fact, we have dreamt about superior senses for a long time. Ancient Gods were humans with superior senses. From the clouds or the top of a mountain they could see and hear everything. They were omnipresent. And because of this advantage they ruled earth. Seeing and hearing everything is the ultimate advantage. The quality of decisions is a function of the speed and quality of information. Any stock broker knows this.

Technology has disrupted evolution. Instead of waiting for nature to give us the sight of an eagle, we can fly drones equipped with high resolution cameras. We can participate in lectures at universities on other continents, and we can follow a package on the way to our door. We are becoming omnipresent and our thirst for this kind of power is limitless.

Startups I believe in

The most successful company in any given ecosystem is the one that is optimally positioned within that ecosystem. A startup is the hope of a future company in a future ecosystem. However, the future is fundamentally unpredictable.

Luckily, the market is a big component of the ecosystem. The market is made up by humans, and human needs are stable and predictable. Humans want to solve problems or/and have fun.

The product takes care of the human need. The founders take care of the company’s position within the future ecosystem.

Consequently, the product must demonstrate that it is superior at serving a widespread human need and the founders must be superior at positioning the company in the future.

The product is the simple part. It just needs to have potential to solve a human need in a superior way. The tell is that early customers really love the product.

The founder team is the complicated part. They need to steer the company into an unknown future. To navigate in an unknown environment requires a team with the right set of complementary skills. The right set of skills depends on the business model.

If the startup has a product that early customers love and has a team of founders with the critical complementary skills, then the startup has a fair chance. It is a bar. An entry criteria that puts them in the bucket of entrepreneurs who have a chance of success. The equivalent would be teenagers above 190cm who want to become professional basketball players. Above this height, they all have a chance and extra height is no longer required to become a top player.

Consequently, this is the minimum requirement for me to consider investing.

However, as investor I do not succeed if the company just survives in the future ecosystem. I succeed if the company becomes the very best placed within that ecosystem. Having a fair chance is not enough. The startup needs to be the likely winner. It needs to become Michael Jordan.

Because most of the things that impact the position of the startup in the ecosystem take place in the future, the founders are the most important element.

The act of positioning the startup in an unpredictable future is the daily act of deciding where to spend the resources (time and money). Founders must be good at attracting resources and spending them wisely.

Attracting resources is a function of the ability to persuade great people to join the startup and to get investors to provide money. People and money make up the resources.

The ability to attract resources is the ability to tell stories and persuade. Like any great leader in history mastered. Conclusion: The founders must be superior leaders.

Spending the resources wisely is a function of focusing the resources where they have the biggest impact. Focus makes up the impact of the resources.

The ability to focus resources where they have the biggest impact, is the ability to learn and reflect. When my daughter tries something new and learn from the process we call her smart. Conclusion: The founders must be smart.

However, the mentioned are abilities are not enough. Founders must put ability into action. They must furiously tell stories, persuade people and make decisions to apply their resources. And they must get these things done in the most effective way possible. Often the most effective way lies outside the beaten path. Often it requires actions that are way outside what other people would consider “normal behavior”. Conclusion: The founders must get things done and be unbound by the limitations of “normal behavior” . People with the latter tendency are often called crazy. So be it. I look for the crazy doers.

The logic of my thesis commands a two step approach. First I check for Entry Criteria. Does the startup have a complete and complementary founder team and a product that early customers love? If yes, then I check for Excellence Criteria. How much do the founders get done, unbound by the limitations of “normal behavior”?. How good leaders are they? and how smart are they?. I will bet on teams with the highest Excellence Criteria score.