In a previous post, I covered the kinds of investors that support startups. In the last post, I discussed the different types of financial instruments available to startups. But how does an entrepreneur know which type of instrument is ideal for his or her business? Let’s now turn to the main questions one should ask when trying to decide between the two key instruments – equity and debt.
Whether raising capital through equity is right for you depends on how you answer the following questions:
- Does your business have the potential to grow exponentially? Equity investors, such as angels and VC funds, will only buy equity in startups, i.e., companies that are working on scalable solutions and have the potential to increase the value of that equity substantially over the next several years. In other words, they will not invest in lifestyle businesses, which are businesses that may be successful and last decades, but without experiencing fast growth and giving investors an exit opportunity. Equity investors get their return when they sell their equity (exit) at a higher valuation to new investors, either private, such as a private equity (PE) fund or, if they are very lucky, through an initial public offering (IPO). Therefore, be realistic and ask yourself: Is my business a startup or a lifestyle business? By the way, there is nothing wrong with being a lifestyle business, and a friend or an uncle might even put some equity in it. However, professional equity investors will only invest in true startups.
- How important is it for you to retain ownership? Some entrepreneurs are overly protective of their equity and want to maintain full ownership at all costs. This is usually not a good mindset, especially if you run a startup, given that sharing ownership with investors, management, and even staff might be key to the success of the business. You will need investors to help grow your business and more partners to align interests and have everyone onboard and working for the long-term success of the company. Remember, it is better to have smaller share of a highly successful business than 100% of nothing. So, if you feel you are the overly protective type, consider rethinking your approach – otherwise, equity may not be for you.
- Do you work well with others and welcome mentorship and opinions? When you get equity partners you are embarking in a relationship that you don’t know how long is going to last and how smooth (or rough) it will be. Angels and VCs, particularly, will want to participate in key business decisions and often mentor you. They will likely want a seat at the Board. To maximize the chances of success for this relationship, be sure you can take opinions, you welcome feedback (constructive and sometimes not so much), and that you can share some of the decision making. Remember these investors are literally betting on you. They are putting money in the early stages of your venture, when risks are extremely high, and deserve – in fact, usually have the right – to have their voices heard. It doesn’t mean that they are always right and that you should avoid disagreements. Simply be open to healthy discussions.
- How much support do you need, on top of the money? Equity investors usually bring a lot more than just money. They help you with corporate strategy and business development, open doors through their Rolodexes, provide industry knowledge, sit on your side of the table in major negotiations, such as sales, partnerships etc. If none of that seems important to you (really?!) and you strongly believe in your ability to grow the business on your own or with your current team, then perhaps taking a loan – if you can – would be the best approach. That is because, if your business is indeed successful, it means your equity will gain value over the years, and the cost of selling equity should be higher than taking debt.
When it comes to debt, these are some of the important questions to ask:
- What is your current (and future) cash flow situation (projection)? You should not take a loan if you are not confident in your ability to commit to debt repayments, including interest and principal. If you are in the earlier stages of your company, have not broken-even yet, and don’t see it happening in the near future, perhaps debt is not for you. Debt requires some degree of predictability in your financial situation to ensure you can service it accordingly. For that reason, it is not a very popular instrument for early-stage startups (unless when offered in hybrid instruments such as convertibles), being more suited for later-stage companies and lifestyle businesses.
- Do you have collateral (assets), credit history, or receivables? Banks and other lenders may still give you a loan if you don’t have enough cash flows. However, they are notoriously risk averse and will only provide you with a loan if they are comfortable with their ability to recover their loan, even if it means acquiring your assets to cover or minimize their loss. Therefore, even if you think debt is the right instrument for you, if you don’t have enough revenues, promising receivables, a credit history, or some collateral (machinery, building, inventory etc.) to borrow against, chances are you will not be able to get that credit.
- Are you comfortable using collateral, including personal assets? When it comes to collateral, the question is actually deeper: It is not just whether you have it or not, but also if you are willing to borrow against it. Some entrepreneurs believe so much in their business that they literally bet their car or house on it! Even when the company itself does not have assets, the entrepreneur uses his or her own property as collateral providing personal guarantees to the bank. This is certainly not for the fainthearted and doesn’t make sense for everybody. Also, tragically, sometimes entrepreneurs expose personal assets without knowledge. Be sure to check the laws and regulations in your country to see whether your company provides you with limited liability or if creditors could go after your personal assets in case of debt default.
While this list of questions is certainly not exhaustive, it covers some of the key issues I had to ask myself during my fundraising experiences. If you have more ideas for questions, feel free to share them in the comments below!