A funny thing has been happening to me since I joined First Round Capital. People have gotten a lot more self-conscious about sharing their ideas with me. Several times in the past week, friends of mine and others that I know have hesitated to tell me about a new idea because it "wasn't ready". The other morning, I ran into an entrepreneur on the subway coming in from Brooklyn and he kept stressing to me how early his idea was and that he wasn't really planning on pitching it to “an investor” that early.
The truth is, you can absolutely never be too early--at least to talk to me personally. First of all, I'm big on feedback. I don't think you can innovate in a vacuum. Ideas need other ideas and feedback to grow. They're almost like little kids. Lots of overprotective parents keep their kids from playing in the dirt or playing with too many other kids, so as not to get them sick. What happens is that they never get exposed to all the other germy little kids and therefore never get the chance to build up any kind of immune resistance. The kids who play in the dirt almost always wind up getting sick less as they grow up. Similarly, you can always tell when a startup idea hasn’t been circulated among enough people for feedback.
Who Else is Out There?
At the same time, there’s a good chance I’ve already spoken to the eight other people thinking about this space. It’s in your best interest to ask me to put you in touch with them. They could be potential biz dev partners, competitors about to each your lunch, or even acquirers—you never know. Whatever the case, it’s better to talk to them as early as possible.
Strike While the Bar is Low
When your idea is half-baked, I’m really not going to expect much. It makes perfect sense that you have a lot of open questions and unsolved problems when you’re just a few days or weeks into an idea—but it seems worse if you’re “ready” for an investor pitch and you still have them. Holes and broken demos are fine. Things always break and you always wind up missing things you needed. One of the things it’s my job to do is to vet the person and to figure out whether this is the kind of person who can fix things.
I’ve also been there. I know what it’s like to iterate on a business idea as an entrepreneur. The early versions of the Path 101 concept look nothing like the eventual product. That’s what entrepreneurs, at least good ones, should do—pivot and adjust based on market and customer feedback, as well as a internal process of continual improvement.
Is There a Market for This?
Lastly, I think you want to know early on whether or not something seems to be venture fundable. When you pitch a half baked idea to people who could support you, and they seem to get excited about it, you get an early signal as to how easy or difficult fundraising might be. If every investor you talk to wants to know who your technical partner is, than maybe it’s an early signal that you need to get one. That’s better than waiting until your prototype or demo is perfect and then finding out no one really cares that much about your space or the angle you choose to exploit the opportunity.
Of course, if you’re really passionate about an idea, and your early feedback isn’t great, that doesn’t mean you should just drop in and move on to something else. Sometimes the process of moving forward can help you morph an idea into something disruptive. Besides, lots of investors initial instincts have proven to be wrong, but it helps to know where the market’s at while you’re building.
People tend to think that you only have one chance to pitch an investor, but one of the best things you can do to impress an investor is to meet them very early, and then let them see how your idea morphed over time and how you made progress. It shows forward momentum and we love it when we see someone three months later come back and say, “Hey, we vetted the idea and we’d like to update you on what we learned and our new approach.” Plus, if you first came to me before you were even sure if you needed money, how much, etc., then there’s really no way I can turn you down, because you haven’t asked for anything yet.
Some people don’t want to share their idea early because they’re worried that someone will steal it—especially an investor looking to make money off it. That notion fails on two accounts.
First, if I had any interest in having a long career in venture capital, which I do, it would absolutely not be in my best interest to steal your idea and give it to someone else, because then I’d basically do irreparable damage to my reputation. It’s just not worth it, because word travels too fast.
Second, an idea isn’t really worth anything anyway. It takes execution to get an idea off the ground, and not only are you probably the one best suited to execute on your own ideas. Even if they do get stolen, you can out-execute the next person if you put your mind to it anyway. I can’t think of very many people in online technology who succeeded because they were *first*… Not Facebook, YouTube, Google, Amazon, etc. So, there’s really no incentive for me to go stealing early ideas because getting them to someone else to beat you to it doesn’t guarantee success.
So if you’ve got a half assed idea and you want to talk it out, feel free to drop me a line. Even better, let’s get a couple of other people smarter than us together over lunch to kick the tires and see what’s there.