Avoiding Errors in Demo Day Fundraising

I’ll be addressing the topic below along with Alfred Lin from Sequoia and Ilya Sukhar from Matrix on 3/24: https://us06web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_qgghYDq4QxCiW9REOOrbmw

It would be challenging to name all the fundraising mistakes that founders make during the many demo days that occur each year. There are certainly broad categories, but rather than focus on all of them, I think it’s worthwhile to consider one specific category of error, which is generally one of omission rather than commission: ignoring demo day as a step toward an A.

This is a big one because, at least when I ran the data at YC, the best companies in an accelerator tend to be the ones that raise a Series A within 12-18 months of Demo Day (or sometimes a month or two before Demo Day). There’s a strong correlation here driven by the fact that the best companies tend to set and maintain a rapid pace of growth throughout their lives, and that trend leads to rapid milestones.

And yet, most founders I talk to treat their Demo Day as a disconnected event. It’s worth thinking about why they do this, what behavior it causes, and how to correct it.

On the why: I think it’s fairly simple. Demo Days are stressful and are built and run around the idea that the sole purpose  is to raise seed funding. This is true but also misses the point because seed funding isn’t the goal of a company - building a big company is the goal of a company. From that lens, Demo Day and seed funding are part of a larger story, and are tools for executing on a larger vision. Now, many founders will say that they don’t have time to think about their A when putting together a seed, but that’s short sighted. Founders should be thinking about every round they do as it relates to the next round and the next set of milestones the business needs to achieve.

You can add to this that most of the advice founders get from various advisors around Demo Day is to close money fast and go “back to work.” But again, this is short sighted. A Demo Day is the only time where many investors are hyper focused on an early stage startup. Squandering that attention is a mistake.[1] Of course founders shouldn’t constantly be actively fundraising, but they sure as hell need to always be thinking about where the money they need to build is going to come from. On top of that, they need to act in a way that increases their chances of raising that money.

One more thing - last time I ran the data, it turned out that having a Series A investor in your seed was, on balance, a positive signal for your ability to raise a quality A. I’m sure the numbers have shifted a bit since then, but I’m willing to bet that the conclusion is the same.

So, to get to the errors:

  1. Don’t ignore Series A investors before or at a Demo day. If you do not plan on raising an “A,” find a way to schedule time with them anyway.

  2. Don’t shoehorn Series A investors into the same process that you have for angel/seed investors. They generally work differently, so account for that.

  3. Don’t think of your seed round as an isolated event. Think about the amount you raise and the cap you use as a starting condition for your next raise. Limiting dilution is good, on balance, but not if it gives you a cap so high as to impair your ability to raise your next round.

  4. Don’t vanish after meeting an investor who seemed interested and who has a good reputation. Figure out how to nurture that relationship and keep the investor interested.

  5. Don’t treat investors as interchangeable. It may be true that money is money, but the people deploying it are human and want to build a relationship. You are not trying to make friends, but you are playing a game that is designed to increase the chances of success for your company.

Avoiding these errors isn’t necessary or sufficient to raise an A. I’ve seen companies commit nearly every error imaginable and still raise money. However, founders shouldn’t strive to be uniquely lucky in fundraising. Founders should use knowledge about how fundraising works to constantly improve their odds of success. A demo day is an unfair advantage in that process, and founders should treat it that way.


[1] This goes for the accelerator as well as for the founder. Accelerators should harness the interest of later stage investors vs. designing fully against their interests.