Healthcare Informatics and Technology Investors
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Ready for the start-up game? Try these tough questions

Mercury News

Every week, I get calls and e-mails from entrepreneurs with questions like, how do I find the right VC to back my company? Or how do I set a valuation for my company? Or what do I need to do to get started?

I'm a journalist, not a business adviser, so I don't recommend one venture firm over another, nor do I help set dollar figures or write business plans.

But I have pointed people to resources that could help them make their own decisions, and I am compiling them here. I've never been a venture capitalist or an entrepreneur, and I don't have an MBA. My advice is based on several years of reporting on VC and my own idea of what I would do if I were going to start a company.

The first thing I'd do is ask myself some tough questions:

1. Could a $500 million-plus company be built around my idea within a few years? Smaller ambitions will not attract VCs' attention and those with more local or niched proposals will have to look elsewhere for money.

2. Who would my customers be? Would my product or service solve a sizable problem for them? Would they pay for it? VCs favor a company that fixes big problems over one that makes mild to moderate improvements in an already working system because it's easier to sell solutions than improvements.

3. How many competitors are there, and how well established are they? Can I really beat them? Try to avoid playing the mind game of assuming that companies using another approach to tackle the same issue aren't competitors just because their methods are different. The VCs -- and potential customers -- will see right through it.

4. Do I have the temperament and experience to be an entrepreneur? Am I comfortable taking on the risks and demands? Talk to other entrepreneurs -- including those whose companies have failed -- to get a clear sense of what it could be like.

5. Am I willing to give up, over time, majority ownership in my company to get the money and assistance venture capitalists provide? Can I accept that I might not be CEO, at least not for very long?

If your answers to these questions lead you to believe that seeking venture capital is the right thing to do, keep reading.

You're going to need a business plan, preferably one that is coherently written. Perhaps even more important, you need a sharply written executive summary, because it will be read far more often than your business plan. Right up at the top, you must have a sentence that clearly spells out what your company will do or make and for whom.

Thumb through your address book to figure what lawyers, accountants, consultants, headhunters and successful entrepreneurs you already know who could help you hone your plan and then make introductions to appropriate venture capitalists. Keep in mind that few business plans that flow in over the venture firms' transoms without introductions get funded.

If you want to look on your own for VCs, you could consult directories such as Pratt's Guide to Venture Capital Sources or Galante's Venture Capital & Private Equity Directory, keeping in mind that the data -- especially regarding what types of companies each firm backs -- tends to be very broad and sometimes out of date.

You want to pitch your plan to firms with interest and experience in your field, but you do not want to display your guts to a firm backing a competitor. Research the portfolios of venture firms you would consider approaching. Check their Web sites and filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission to learn about their holdings.

Read articles in newspapers and magazines, including the PricewaterhouseCoopers/Mercury News' quarterly venture surveys that list each local company that got funding and from whom. But keep in mind that stealth companies, those that are keeping their existence a secret, probably will not be listed on Web sites, surveys or in SEC filings until they're registering for an IPO.

Talk to entrepreneurs backed by firms you're considering. Good venture firms will want you to do this. You might also want to go down to the courthouse to find out if any entrepreneurs have sued the VCs you are considering and, if so, why.

So how many venture firms should you go after? I'd start with a handful. You do not want to be shopping your idea up and down Sand Hill Road, but you probably will want to work with more than one firm at a time to keep the fundraising process from dragging on too long.

When it comes to setting a valuation for your company, of course you'll look at similar companies in the public market for comparison, discounting your own valuation in light of your company's stage of development. You also will want to know what kind of valuations other start-ups in your sector are getting, though that data can be hard to come by, given its sensitivity.

Also, you might want to call Venture One of San Francisco or Venture Economics of Newark, N.J., both of which collect and sell data about venture capital financings. See their Web sites for more information (; www.venture

Good luck!