Just a Different Kind of Customer

As a Sand Hill Angels member, I sometimes have the privilege of being the Director of a portfolio company, and, as such, get to work closely with the CEO. I recently spoke with a CEO who was struggling to communicate effectively with the company’s investors.

We started by talking about the appropriate items to include in a monthly investor update, using Jason Calacanisblog post on the topic as a guideline. Using a suitable template is a good step, but I also wanted the CEO to have a good mental framework for thinking about investors. Communication is not just about what is said but also about why it is said.

Over a decade ago, I had a conversation with Dick Hardt, who was at the time the Founder & CEO of ActiveState. He told me that (to paraphrase) “Investors are just a different kind of customer.” I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, but Dick’s insight is profound, and one that every CEO should understand.

Every start-up company has a product. Once the first version of the product is available, the company markets the product (via word-of-mouth, advertising, etc.) and sells the product (on its website, by using sales people, through distribution, etc.). Methodologies like the “Lean Startup” approach help CEOs through this process. For example, a may iterate until it establishes “product-market fit,” at which point it will release a “minimum viable product,” and then use “growth hacking” to scale the company.

But, to Dick’s point, every start-up company has another product too: the company itself. The company literally sells itself to its investors, and, therefore, must market to, sell to, and retain those “customers” as well. In the case of investor-customers, marketing and sales take different forms; pitch decks replace web pages, angel conferences replace trade shows, and face-to-face meetings with investors replace e-commerce portals. But, establishing a product-market fit (i.e., building the sort of company in which investors invest), and getting to a minimum viable product (i.e., obtaining the first check from an outside investor), and growth hacking (i.e., finding ways to get more investors) are all important.

After the sale (i.e., after the investment closes), the company should — just as with ordinary customers — drive repeat business. The company will iterate to improve its Version 1.0 product (providing new value in Version 2.0); so should it improve itself so that Round 2.0 (a.k.a. Series A) is more attractive than Round 1.0 (a.k.a. Series Seed). The company should hire more-experienced leadership, increase revenues, develop its intellectual property, drive up gross margins, etc. — all to make itself a better product.

Communication with investors, too, should be like communication with customers. With “real” customers, the company shares success stories from users of the product, information about features that will appear in the next version of the product, and demonstrating its overall competence and commitment to excellence. Similarly, in investor communications, the company should talk about the successes it is having (new sales and new investments), the work it’s doing on its next investment round (meetings with VCs, or inbound interest from investors), and demonstrate its management expertise by providing vital information (burn rate, cash remaining, and other key performance indicators).

When the company is about to launch Product 2.0, it should contact its existing customers, giving them first access to the new product. Similarly, when the company raises follow-on capital, it should start with its existing investors. Even if an investor is not likely to re-invest, a positive relationship is important because an unhappy ex-investor is likely to spread negative sentiment to other potential investors — just as an unhappy customer can affect future sales.

In short, CEOs find it easy to communicate with investors — if they remember that those investors are just a different kind of customer.

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