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Angels use more than a wing and a prayer

We're all familiar with Dragons Den, the popular TV series where all manner of weird and wonderful ideas are pitched to a panel of wealthy self-made business men and women in the hope of attracting investment. Well Dragons are not mythical beasts who only exist on TV for our entertainment. All over the UK there are clubs of relatively wealthy people known as angels, not dragons, where businesses pitch their ideas in much the same way as you see on TV (usually 5 or 10 minute Powerpoint presentations). The better ones attract angels to invest typically £10,000 to £20,000 each, or occasionally more, in exchange for shares in their companies. It's fun, and it's vital for the economy. It's also immensely satisfying for those of us who were fortunate enough in our day to have had help to build our own wealth, to assist younger men and women to do the same - hopefully.

I'm a member of an angel group called The Surrey 100 Club. It operates under the auspices of Surrey University in Guildford and is the only club attached to SETsquared, the world's largest network combining the output of the business incubators of the universities of Surrey, Southampton, Bath, Bristol and Exeter who between them have helped thousands of businesses provide employment and eventually pay tax.

The UK is a very fertile place to start a business. We are a nation of dreamers and chancers. We come up with ideas, and we back ourselves to create businesses to exploit them. It's very easy to start a company in the UK. Anyone can do it. You don't need to incorporate (although it's usually a good idea if you want to attract investment and maybe one day sell it. Forming a 'limited liability company' takes just minutes online). You don't need permission from anyone. All you have to do is follow a few basic rules, and tell the government how you're doing from time to time. The idea is to spend less than you make in sales. That's pretty much it. However...

...There are many things trying to stop you doing this. Competition is the most obvious. If you can do it, so can others. Darwin says only the best will survive. Which is why capitalism works. It's brutal, but it means to succeed in business, you need to be well prepared. And preparation means having the right product or service, in the right place, at the right time, at the right price, then repeating it to build customer loyalty and referral.

The typical business angel is someone who is prepared to risk a relatively small part of their liquid wealth (ie not tied up in property, shares or other types of investments), in young businesses, sometimes before they've begun trading. Most businesses begin by using money provided by Family, Friends and Fools (the 3Fs). Some manage to reach break-even and profitability without needing further funding. Angels rarely see these. If they ever need funding to accelerate their growth, they will borrow from banks and specialist funds designed to offer lower risk finance than the place where angels inhabit - the high risk world where founders are still bootstrapping their businesses (ie surviving on fresh air, passion, determination and wishful thinking).

What typically happens is that someone comes up with an idea for a business.  

Ideally they know: 
  • What problem it solves;
  • What other options exist;
  • Is the solution worth paying for;
  • How much is it worth;
  • Who needs that problem solved;
  • Are there enough of them to make the provision of the solution a sustainable and worthwhile business;
  • How do you reach them?
You'd be amazed how many businesses I see who start with the presumption that if you solve a problem in the mind of the inventor, then it's plain sailing ever after. Usually those innovators convince friends and family with the same naive justification to raise what they need to start the business. Then one of three things will happen:

  1. They were right, and the business prospers. Sadly angels rarely see these companies. They leapfrog the need for funding between £100k-£1m (the angel zone) and often seek investment to accelerate. This is the low risk territory of Venture Capitalists, banks and even stock markets.
  2. They were wrong and go out of business. This is the fate of over half of all start-ups in the UK within 12 months.
  3. They still believe they were right, or nearly right and have adapted their idea to what the market needs - or they know how to adapt it - but are running out of money and need help. This is angel territory where you hope you're not looking at a company delaying 2 above.
So how do angels distinguish between type 1 (as a family or friend), type 2 (just before they bite the dust), and type 3 before they become type 2?

Basically by asking all the above questions and requiring evidence for the answers. Then they look at the people. Do they listen, are they passionate and compelling, are they presentable (they need to be able to sell), and will they persist? Are they seeking to build a business they will want to sell (or exit as it's known), or are they seeking to build a lifestyle business - in which case the angels probably won't get their money back.

The final part of the process to minimise the risks, is to get stuck into the business. Most angels are former entrepreneurs or senior executives of large corporations and probably in their 60s and 70s, so bring a great deal of experience to the party. They are typically very skilled in helping the execs to smell the coffee, avoid pitfalls, and identify short-cuts. But this only works when they donate time to their investments, and work hard to keep up to speed on developments.

There is one caveat to the above. Technology.

The definition of technology is something that doesn't work properly yet. Basically if it's a technical solution, it's never been done before, so experience is limited or non-existent. If it has been done before, then the business is probably too late - or needs vastly too much money to compete with established players. So if it's solving a problem that's never been solved before, it faces very special additional challenges that experience alone can rarely resolve:
  1. How do you persuade people they have a problem they didn't realise they had? I'm struggling with this challenge over an invention for a note organiser called TABi. It is a better notebook. But the world doesn't realise it has a problem with traditional notebooks - great for making notes, not for finding them.
  2. When you do find people who recognise the problem and discover a need for your product, competition will quickly appear. So you not only need a plan to supply the market, you also need a plan to keep innovating solutions to solve more problems they didn't know they had. That's called a product road map, and it opens up a whole string of issues for businesses regarding resourcing and managing new product development.
The art of angel investing is to de-risk. Spot the doomed. Get involved. Avoid technology - unless, like me, you love it. And never assume you or the company's execs know enough. Keep asking, listening and learning.

Then if all else fails, I guess angels know how to pray.


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