Artists and designers, for the most part, strive to create beautiful products and solve an array of visual, aural, and tactile challenges. They don’t often pursue their careers with the hope of becoming professional number crunchers. And yet, as more designers strive to build businesses and brands of their own, many find they need to be fluent in more than Photoshop to spark the interest of the investment community.
Veteran investor Tige Savage, who co-founded venture capital firm Revolution and co-leads the firm’s early state investment fund, Revolution Ventures, knows a thing or two about what it takes to successfully grow a business. And he’s willing to look anywhere for a good idea. One of his most recent investments is the design-focused start-up Framebridge, a direct-to-consumer custom framing company that just announced a $30 million Series C funding led by T. Rowe Price.
In the interview below, Savage offers keen insight to creatives on how they can perfect their sales pitch.
When somebody is coming to you with an investment proposal, what do you look for?
The key things that you really want to articulate to your investors are your background, your team, and the elements of the team. There is a tendency to get into great detail. Take it to the high level. Say, this is what our thing does, this is how we monetize it, and here is what the competition look like. An investor will ask who your competitors are. Many people will say “our product is so new and different we have no competitors.” This is not right. VCs want to understand your awareness of the competitive environment. They want to know why you think you have strengths that carve out a reasonable niche versus the rest.
Then you need to explain how you expect to deploy capital. How, ultimately, you expect for the investors to get their money back? Know your numbers; investors will want to see objective evidence of success. Ask yourself: What’s my customer acquisition cost? How is that trending over time? How did those customers acquired at different points in time behave vis-a-vis each other?
What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
One of the greatest mistakes first-time founders make is thinking they need to know the answers to everything, and that VCs are just out to fire them if they don’t. Neither of those things is true.
Nobody expects you to know the answer to everything. What they are expecting is that you hire the best people. Often, founders feel that hiring super qualified people somehow undermines them. They think, “maybe this person knows more than I do and the VCs are going to want these guys to run the company and I’m gonna end up with some political fight.” The truth is, nobody ever gets fired because they have a great team. It’s the opposite.
It’s also important for founders to remember that when companies mature, the needs of the senior team change. Often, you can hire a better person when you’re a bigger, more established, better capitalized, higher growth company. But what happens is that founders who have a very small team of two or three people early on feel too great a sense of allegiance to these people. They think: “Gosh, they got me from A to B. I need to give them a shot to get to C. If they fail, then they fail.”
In reality, once you get to B, you can hire a person with the necessary skills set and find a new role within the organization for the other. Put them underneath a highly qualified person to learn a new skills set, empower them, but don’t let there be room for ego. There’s no room for the attitude “I was the chief product officer at a three-person company and now we’re a 100-person company and I’m not giving up that title.”
How do you go about figuring out how much money to raise?
Raise enough capital to achieve an important business milestone that is an inflection point in the business. Plus, enough capital for a little variability around achieving on the timeframe that you think. Plus, enough runway to raise your next round of capital.
Hypothetically, if you’re an entrepreneur you might think: “Hey, what I need is 10 customers, each of whom is at least $100,000 in sales, and I need to populate my database with these people and I need to find a business development deal with this important partner.” Now you have to think, what’s the sequencing for me to be able to achieve these things?
So, I’m going to get my first customer, then second, then eventually five. That’s going to be enough leverage for me to start my negotiations for this important business partnership. I’m going to hire somebody to populate that database and, by the time they bring us up to our tenth customer, I should have that business partnership done and that’s going to allow me to hire this many people. And I’m going to have to make some investments in order to do it. It’s going to take me 15 months.
Again, all hypothetical. You add it up and say “Oh, that 15 months is going to cost me $450,000, or $30,000 a month.” How certain am I that I’m going to get that? Let’s say I’m pretty certain; I have a list of 20 customers and we already have a conversation going. I’ll give myself 18 months to give just a little room.
It typically takes six months to raise capital. You say 15 months, I’m gonna make it 18 to give myself a little bit of room, plus another six is 24 months total. If I estimate $30,000 a month, that’s $360,000 a year, or $720,000 for two years, so I want to raise $720,000. What that all does is it gives me certainty that I hit these inflection points.
It can feel like creatives and VCs speak two different languages—right brain, left brain. Do you have any recommendations on how creators can best communicate ideas to investors?
VCs aren’t looking for a business plan; they’re looking for a pitch that’s crisp, tells the story well, is well presented and is substantiated by data. Stress test your pitch with everybody you know. Put it in front of as many people as you can. Ask them to ask hard questions. Come up with answers to the hard questions. Practice and be ready.
Two, consider a co-founder. If there’s a real vacancy in the skillset—if you just have the right side of the brain and you need both—go find the left side of the brain to fill that in. Incubators and accelerators are good places to go looking for a co-founder. They’re also good ways to be put through the paces to refine an idea into more concrete set of business opportunities.
What was your fastest ‘yes’ to an entrepreneur that pitched you?
The company is called Framebridge—they do custom framing of either physical or digital goods at great price points and with incredibly good customer service. It’s a very design-oriented business. The founder is Susan Tynan, who I’ve known from a few prior lives. She had worked with us, then left to go to the White House, then ran business development at LivingSocial. We met for breakfast to talk about other opportunities and part of the way through she said, “I have this idea. It’s this custom framing business.”
As I listened to her, I realized it’s exactly the kind of thing I like. Custom framing is a big category, $5 billion in the United States a year. There’s only one scale player, which is Michaels, the crafts store, and prices are extremely high. The customer experience is downright terrible. You have to go in, you make all these choices, you wait three weeks, you have to go back and pick the thing up, you find out it costs $400 and you’re like “Gosh.”
So Susan was describing this terrible experience and I could see how technology could make it better. And it was coming from a person whom I knew, who had learned the demand for this kind of thing exists from her experience with LivingSocial. I like disruptive consumer-oriented products, so it was right in my sweet spot, I told her, “I think it’s a great idea and I want to invest.”
You told her you’d invest before she even asked for an investment?
Yeah. I thought it was a great idea. I told her she ought to do it. I wanted her to go back and do a little bit of homework but I said, “I love it. We’ll find a way to make it happen.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.