Funding A Startup – The Maddening Machinations Of Money Raising
Within days of posting on http://www.fundingpost.com, one of the many websites created for entrepreneurs to post summaries designed to draw the attention of potential investors, an email inquiry from the AngloAmerican Investment Group and one Anthony Oppenheim. Mr. Oppenheim explained in his email that from his Peachtree St. office in Atlanta, he represented a consortium of private investors and mostly European family trusts that were specifically looking for investments in globally oriented businesses like ours. They don’t charge any up front fees to review business plans. They represent the decision makers and can write checks for the right investments, etc. Please call him to discuss the venture.
Wow! Could we be that lucky? Although the email came from a Comcast.net address, it’s not unheard of for even big investors to use common email addresses. It contained phone numbers and address information that matched the Atlanta area and surely a huge conglomerate like the Anglo American Investment Group would clamp down quickly on any scam artists brazen enough to openly use their brand. We were pretty excited.
A phone call to Mr. Oppenheim gave good reason to believe they were for real. A professional demeanor, the right questions asked and quick answers to any concerns we had. They invest in people as much as projects. We’d be invited down to Atlanta to meet him and his associate Al Dubin (“D-U-B-I-N, yes that’s the correct spelling” the conversation went as I took notes) and review our business plan in detail. FedEx 10 copies of the business plan before coming down. A non-disclosure agreement was not a problem. If they like what they see and hear we’ll quickly see a Term Sheet. He’d send details about the accommodations in Atlanta.
“Awesome” my son said.
Then things took a strange turn. The next email read like a bad mass mail piece. They had reviewed our business plan (funny…we hadn’t sent them yet) and were prepared to invest the full amount. They boasted about investments made in places like Shang Hi (interesting spelling for Shanghai). A request from us for references or contact with legitimate past investments as our real due diligence kicked in resulted in a email that asked us to supply more information than even the government knows about us. And unfortunately Mr. Dubin’s name had suddenly changed to Dublin.
The jig was up.
One look at http://www.ripoffreport.com would have saved us some time since these characters have been at it for a while and apparently the con is to get entrepreneurs desperate for funding to believe that Anglo American will gladly fund them if the entrepreneur will pay the travel expenses of one of their representatives for site visits and setting up an offshore “escrow” account for safe keeping of the funds until the deal is done. Upwards of $40,000.
Entrepreneurs, like most creative people, are an odd lot (I can say that being what’s called a “serial” entrepreneur) and matching them and their projects with them right Angel investors is a often a long, incredibly frustrating and expense process. Hundreds of ideas die on the vine for lack of the life giving flow of cash. And anyone who thinks the process is easy, has had way too common an idea, asked for way too little investment and probably given up way too much equity.
The costs of raising capital to start any business from scratch are mind-numbing. If you’re doing a securities offering in even the most basic form, a good attorney will be $200 per hour and up. And your accounting firm better be top notch as well. Want a Private Placement Memorandum? Better have a nice house that you’re willing to mortgage to the hilt or sell that brand new Lexus in your driveway that you paid cash for last year. Wait a minute. You don’t have either one of those? You spent every penny of extra cash you had to developing your idea to the business plan stage?
As my cronies from the Great Lakes states say “You’re S.O.L.” The days of investing in just a concept are long gone.
Today it’s all about proven business models in the form of an already operating business generating some form of revenue from somewhere. The friends and family round of funding completed and likely one or two major investors from your own network of wealthy folks is the sweet spot for attracting “early stage” Angel investment. And some sectors are naturally sweeter than others. Being situated near the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina, a virtual incubator for bio-tech, life science and high tech business ventures, trying to sell local Angels on an idea for the formation of a new insurance company, no matter how sexy the plan, rarely even makes it into the evaluation process. The Angels of Silicon Valley look mostly for ideas in a different sector that needs no description.
In fact, most Angel groups will readily identify those business ideas that they’re interested in and those they’re not. Unfortunately for me, my particular venture falls into the categories of both a startup and a highly uncommon business sector for Angel investment. Add to that our need for $3 million in funding and the combination scares most Angels groups away, let alone individual investors. Three million dollars starts to encroach on the institution investment landscape controlled by venture capitalists and investment bankers. Five million dollars is the limit for most Regulation D offerings without getting into investor sophistication requirements. Get into that arena and be prepared to invest in the high five figures just to get started looking for more money, with no guarantee. Who are these entrepreneurs that have that in their back pocket? No one just getting started, that’s for sure.
So what are the alternatives when there are no rich Uncles or neighbors that just won the lottery and don’t know where to put their money? I can only speak from experience in that finding one or two true believers that have a network of accredited investor type clients or friends is your best bet. Six degrees of separation no longer applies thanks to the internet. I’ll guarantee you know someone who knows someone who knows a likely investor. The trick is getting the word out without alerting every would-be competitor, idea stealing piracy gang or scam artist that will nickel and dime you to death. Truth be told, that’s a high wire act of its own.
There are literally hundreds of websites advertising Angel groups or supposedly acting as a clearing house for Angels to search for investments they’re interested in. You can quickly spend tens of thousands of dollars in submission fees or retainers for individuals or groups that will claim to have a professional team that will “evaluate” or screen your business plan before they allow you access to investors even online. In reality many of these websites are simply an introduction to someone that will drain your bank account as they offer to take you to the next stage or introduce you to “real” investors.
Even some fairly well known Angel groups claim a qualified screening process that is really a single individual that, unless your business plan happens to be that person’s flavor of the month, often even the best ideas don’t make it through to the real investors’ eyes. So ask lots of questions before you pay any fees and understand exactly what you get for your money. Talk to entrepreneurs they claim to have funded and find out how their process really worked.
There are several directories of legitimate Angel groups and investment firms. One that I found fairly comprehensive is http://www.privateequity.com. And there are software applications that are available to let you slice and dice who you look up by stage or sector or geography or any number of other demographics.
Posting any venture information online is dicey if you’re not familiar with securities laws. Have a good securities attorney review anything you post to ensure you don’t step over the line of selling securities without a license. Don’t be telling people they can expect an average of 90% annual return on investment, even if it’s true. Unless you like orange jumpsuits, of course. Even seemingly innocuous language sometimes pushes the boundaries of information to advertisement.
And then of course we come back to the interesting inquiries you’ll get by posting information about your business online. From the Malaysian doctor who invites you to fly to Kuala Lumpur (at your own expense) to seal the deal without ever having so much as spoken to you on the phone. To Vernon Jones who has $6 million given to him by a woman in Libya that happens to be stored right now in the Bank of Ghana, but calls from a rented house with a phone number owned by someone named Neomia Green. Or the gentleman from Thailand that was surprised to learn that I actually called the company in Australia whose email address he was using illegally, and still claimed I judged him too fast. It’s always amazing to me that these con men assume that their marks don’t know how to use Google.
Or that Anglo American bunch, who by any other name, still reeks of a scam.
The sad part is that apparently the authorities don’t have the man power enough to snare these low level n’er do wells since we continue to get emails from these crooks despite calls and emails to various law enforcement agencies.
The bottom line is that it really does take money to make money, even if it’s not your own. The economy is headed in the right direction for entrepreneurs of all sorts, but understand the process and cost of raising outside capital before you get into it. Find yourself a mentor than has been through the entire process. Ask a lot of questions and learn from their mistakes.
After all, the wheel has already been invented.