How to confidently navigate your way forward into the uncharted and unknown
I live in Utah which has one of the strongest, most vibrant tech scenes in the US. Companies such as Qualtrics, Vivint, Divvy, and Pluralsight have gone from zero to unicorn and either acquired or gone public. Several other companies follow on their heels hoping to become the next emerging unicorn here in ‘Silicon Slopes’ — I count my company as one of those.
Many of these companies have been able to secure funding from VCs.
The Utah population is predominantly white and hence the tech scene here is also predominantly white. I look around and find myself as one of the only (if not the only) tech founder and CEO of color here in Silicon Slopes.
It has been an exciting yet intimidating task to fundraise here in the Beehive State. When I was working for other companies I felt invincible as an expert in my field — even as a man of color. Everyone from executives to channel managers would listen when I spoke.
But going out and starting my own company I soon realized how much of that influence was tied to the resources and reputation of my employers. When I spoke as a new-to-the-game founder of a small company, my aura of invincibility disappeared and people saw me as a Polynesian entrepreneur through the stereotypical lens of inexperience and “misplacement.”
I’ve felt that self-pressure going into a tech business pitch of thinking that the people across the table will have a hard time seeing more than the typical Utah stereotype of a Polynesian football player, construction worker or musician.
However, I truly believe that I stand second-to-none in my field. I am American of Samoan and Hawaiian ancestry — a Polynesian — and I have pressed forward growing my company and have gone into dozens and dozens of pitches resulting in great offers.
I have been trying to fundraise since 2018 and my journey has been full of learning all along the way. For the entrepreneur, and specifically the entrepreneur of color, here are some lessons that can help you save time — and help you push through — on your fundraising journey!
I’ve seen some people raise money with just an idea and zero customers — but don’t count on that.
To be safe, expect that no one will believe in your idea. This is why it is critical for all entrepreneurs (and especially entrepreneurs of color) to get customers as fast as possible if you are to be taken seriously.
Hands down this is the most important thing you can do as an entrepreneur trying to attract investors.
It gives you 1000% confidence in what you are doing. And this permeates through everything, every interaction you have with people — including investors.
I remember talking with one VC for a few months. They sent over some terms earlier on in our conversations that I felt were low on the valuation of my company.
I didn’t end up connecting with the VC for 2 months because we were so busy closing year-end deals and because of the holidays.
When we reconnected, I was proud and excited to talk about all of our new customers since we last spoke and told them that we are probably justified in increasing the valuation. They promptly agreed with me and we raised the valuation.
Get good at selling your product or service. Read books, role-play, and get training from your friends who do sales for a living.
One of your greatest weapons against self-doubt, and negativity is making the next sale.
When I was first thinking about fundraising, I didn’t know any VCs personally and I wasn’t sure where to start.
There may not always be a rich uncle in your network — I know I didn’t have any.
But throughout business school and my career, I stood out through my performance and because I was different. I brought unique ideas, traits, and color to the conversations around me. I connected with people, and went out of my way to find new ways to contribute. This allowed me to make many lifelong friends and build my own network.
I ended up reaching out to a classmate of mine from business school who was an entrepreneur himself. He was able to introduce me to several VCs here in Utah and that quickly led to my first pitches back in 2018.
Fast-forward a few years later. One of my friends Marcel, who knew I was trying to find new VCs to pitch, suggested I meet a business professor of his. In my mind I was thinking:
Wait he’s a professor, not even an investor.
Do I have time for this?
I need to code and close more business …
Marcel insisted again I should take a break and come meet his professor and I finally did. The meeting went better than I expected and the professor said I should meet some people in his network. I felt like I was on a wild goose chase — and I was! But this is what it takes and here’s what happened:
- 1 of his contacts ended up being an angel interested in backing me
- 2 more of his contacts were VCs also interested in backing me
- That’s 3 investors added to my pipeline through this 1 meeting
You may not know any VC’s, but you likely know someone who does (or someone who knows someone who does). You’ll be surprised by the network you can command when you get out and meet them!
I remember complaining to my wife at one point in complete disappointment. I had been turned down by every VC in Utah for a seed round — twice. This is another story for another time — but let me just say I felt bitter and began losing the drive to continue meeting with new VCs.
I connected with Kim, a woman of color, from a pre-seed fund that focuses on underrepresented companies — such as mine. I was excited for the conversation with her and figured if anyone understood how I was feeling, she did.
When we met, I told her about my experience here in Utah getting the door slammed on my face by everyone. I was expecting, hoping she would take my side and give me some words of comfort. Here’s what she said:
Kim: How many VCs have rejected you? How many did you talk to?
Me: Around 10.
Kim: That’s it? Only 10?
Me: (surprised, confused, and a little offended) Yes? Wait, what do you mean only 10?
Kim: Come back and talk to me when you hit 100 …
Me: (feeling a bit depressed now) Wow.
Kim: This is what it takes. I know it’s a journey — so take your breaks, and keep going.
In hindsight, I fully appreciate that Kim helped me more by pushing me than pitying my situation.
It didn’t comfort me at the time, but this conversation has stuck with me ever since. It has guided me forward. It helped me to accept the fact that fundraising is a marathon and not a sprint.
You may be fortunate and get funding from the 1st or 10th investor you pitch to, but be prepared to put in the work.
And don’t forget to take your breaks and keep going.
The ancient Polynesians were master navigators of the ocean, unafraid to travel into the uncharted and unknown. I’ve taken this approach in my journey as an entrepreneur: always moving forward, unafraid, despite the challenges of the task.
I hope that this glimpse into my experience can help the next level of tech entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color to more confidently navigate their own way forward into the uncharted and unknown.
To summarize, these are some of the valuable lessons I have learned along my fundraising path:
- Get more customers
- Use your network (and their network too)
- Pace yourself
I hope these help you on your path to fundraising success. I wish everyone reading this article the very best of luck along their journey. You can do it. Feel free to connect with me.