A Venture Capital Primer Investor For Small Business
By LaRue Tone Hosmer
Professor and Chairman Policy and Control Graduate
School of Business Administration
at The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Small businesses never seem to have enough money. Bankers and
suppliers, naturally, are important in financing small business
growth through loans and credit, but an equally important source
of long term growth capital is the venture capital firm. Venture
capital financing may have an extra bonus, for if a small firm
has an adequate equity base, banks are more willing to extend credit.
This Aid discusses what venture capital firms look for when they
analyze a company and its proposal for investment, the kinds of
conditions venture firms may require in financing agreements, and
the various types of venture capital investors. It stresses the
importance of formal financial planning as the first step to
getting venture capital financing.
What Venture Capital Firms Look For
One way of explaining the different ways in which banks and
venture capital firms evaluate a small business seeking funds,
put simply, is: Banks look at its immediate future, but are
most heavily influenced by its past. Venture capitalists look
to its longer run future.
To be sure, venture capital firms and individuals are interested
in many of the same factors that influence bankers in their analysis
of loan applications from smaller companies. All financial people
want to know the results and ratios of past operations, the amount
and intended use of the needed funds, and the earnings and financial
condition of future projections. But venture capitalists look much
more closely at the features of the product and the size of the
market than do commercial banks.
Banks are creditors. They're interested in the product/market
position of the company to the extent they look for assurance that
this service or product can provide steady sales and generate
sufficient cash flow to repay the loan. They look at projections
to be certain that owner/managers have done their homework.
Venture capital firms are owners. They hold stock in the company,
adding their invested capital to its equity base. Therefore, they
examine existing or planned products or services and the potential
markets for them with extreme care. They invest only in firms they
believe can rapidly increase sales and generate substantial profits.
Why? Because venture capital firms invest for long-term capital, not
for interest income. A common estimate is that they look for three
to five times their investment in five or seven years.
Of course venture capitalists don't realize capital gains on all
their investments. Certainly they don't make capital gains of 300%
to 500% except on a very limited portion of their total investments.
But their intent is to find venture projects with this appreciation
potential to make up for investments that aren't successful.
Venture capital is a risky business, because it's difficult to judge
the worth of early stage companies. So most venture capital firms
set rigorous policies for venture proposal size, maturity of the
seeking company, requirements and evaluation procedures to reduce
risks, since their investments are unprotected in the event of failure.
Size of the Venture Proposal. Most venture capital firms are
interested in investment projects requiring an investment of
$250,000 to $1,500,000. Projects requiring under $250,000 are of
limited interest because of the high cost of investigation and
administration; however, some venture firms will consider smaller
proposals, if the investment is intriguing enough.
The typical venture capital firm receives over 1,000 proposals a
year. Probably 90% of these will be rejected quickly because they
don't fit the established geographical, technical, or market area
policies of the firm--or because they have been poorly prepared.
The remaining 10% are investigated with care. These investigations
are expensive. Firms may hire consultants to evaluate the product,
particularly when it's the result of innovation or is technologically
complex. The market size and competitive position of the company are
analyzed by contacts with present and potential customers, suppliers,
Production costs are reviewed. The financial condition of the company
is confirmed by an auditor. The legal form and registration of the
business are checked. Most importantly, the character and competence
of the management are evaluated by the venture capital firm, normally
via a thorough background check.
These preliminary investigations may cost a venture firm between
$2,000 and $3,000 per company investigated. They result in perhaps
10 to 15 proposals of interest. Then, second investigations, more
thorough and more expensive than the first, reduce the number of
proposals under consideration to only three or four. Eventually the
firm invests in one or two of these.
Maturity of the Firm Making the Proposal. Most venture capital
firms' investment interest is limited to projects proposed by
companies with some operating history, even though they may not
yet have shown a profit. Companies that can expand into a new
product line or a new market with additional funds are particularly
interesting. The venture capital firm can provide funds to enable
such companies to grow in a spurt rather than gradually as they
would on retained earnings.
Companies that are just starting or that have serious financial
difficulties may interest some venture capitalists, if the potential
for significant gain over the long run can be identified and assessed.
If the venture firm has already extended its portfolio to a large
risk concentration, they may be reluctant to invest in these areas
because of increased risk of loss.
However, although most venture capital firms will not consider a
great many proposals from start-up companies, there are a small number
of venture firms that will do only "start-up" financing. The small
firm that has a well thought-out plan and can demonstrate that its
management group has an outstanding record (even if it is with other
companies) has a decided edge in acquiring this kind of seed capital.
Management of the Proposing Firm. Most venture capital firms
concentrate primarily on the competence and character of the
proposing firm's management. They feel that even mediocre products
can be successfully manufactured, promoted, and distributed by
an experienced, energetic management group.
They look for a group that is able to work together easily and
productively, especially under conditions of stress from temporary
reversals and competitive problems. They know that even excellent
products can be ruined by poor management. Many venture capital
firms really invest in management capability, not in product or
Obviously, analysis of managerial skill is difficult. A partner or
senior executive of a venture capital firm normally spends at least
a week at the offices of a company being considered, talking with
and observing the management, to estimate their competence and
Venture capital firms usually require that the company under
consideration have a complete management group. Each of the
important functional areas--product design, marketing, production,
finance, and control--must be under the direction of a trained,
experienced member of the group.
Responsibilities must be clearly assigned. And, in addition to
a thorough understanding of the industry, each member of the
management team must be firmly committed to the company and its
The "Something Special" in the Plan. Next in importance to the
excellence of the proposing firm's management group, most venture
capital firms seek a distinctive element in the strategy or
product/market/process combination of the firm. This distinctive
element may be a new feature of the product or process or a
particular skill or technical competence of the management.
But it must exist. It must provide a competitive advantage.
Elements of a Venture Proposal
Purpose and Objectives--a summary of the what and why of the project.
Proposed Financing--the amount of money you'll need from the
beginning to the maturity of the project proposed, how the proceeds
will be used, how you plan to structure the financing, and why
the amount designated is required.
Marketing--a description of the market segment you've got or plan to
get, the competition, the characteristics of the market, and your
plans (with costs) for getting or holding the market segment you're
History of the Firm--a summary of significant financial and organiza-
tional milestones, description of employees and employee relations,
explanations of banking relationships, recounting of major services
or products your firm has offered during its existence, and the like.
Description of the Product or Service--a full description of the
product (process) or service offered by the firm and the costs
associated with it in detail.
Financial Statements--both for the past few years and pro forma
projections (balance sheets, income statements, and cash flows)
for the next 3-5 years, showing the effect anticipated if the
project is undertaken and if the financing is secured. (This
should include an analysis of key variables affecting financial
performance, showing what could happen if the projected level of
revenue is not attained.)
Capitalization--a list of shareholders, how much is invested to
date, and in what form (equity/debt).
Biographical Sketches--the work histories and qualifications of
Principal Suppliers and Customers
Problems Anticipated and Other Pertinent Information--a candid
discussion of any contingent liabilities, pending litigation, tax
or patent difficulties, and any other contingencies that might
affect the project you're proposing.
Advantages--a discussion of what's special about your product,
service, marketing plans or channels that gives your project
Provisions of the Investment Proposal
What happens when, after the exhaustive investigation and analysis,
the venture capital firm decides to invest in a company? Most venture
firms prepare an equity financing proposal that details the amount
of money to be provided, the percentage of common stock to be
surrendered in exchange for these funds, the interim financing
method to be used, and the protective covenants to be included.
This proposal will be discussed with the management of the company
to be financed. The final financing agreement will be negotiated and
generally represents a compromise between the management of the
company and the partners or senior executives of the venture capital
firm. The important elements of this compromise are: ownership,
control, annual charges, and final objectives.
Ownership. Venture capital financing is not inexpensive for the
owners of a small business. The partners of the venture firm buy
a portion of the business's equity in exchange for their investment.
This percentage of equity varies, of course, and depends upon the
amount of money provided, the success and worth of the business, and
the anticipated investment return. It can range from perhaps 10% in
the case of an established, profitable company to as much as 80% or
90% for beginning or financially troubled firms.
Most venture firms, at least initially, don't want a position of
more than 30% to 40% because they want the owner to have the incentive
to keep building the business. If additional financing is required to
support business growth, the outsiders' stake may exceed 50%, but
investors realize that small business owner-managers can lose their
entrepreneurial zeal under those circumstances. In the final analysis,
however, the venture firm, regardless of its percentage of ownership,
really wants to leave control in the hands of the company's managers,
because it is really investing in that management team in the first
Most venture firms determine the ratio of funds provided to equity
requested by a comparison of the present financial worth of the
contributions made by each of the parties to the agreement. The
present value of the contribution by the owner of a starting or
financially troubled company is obviously rated low. Often it is
estimated as just the existing value of his or her idea and the
competitive costs of the owner's time. The contribution by the owners
of a thriving business is valued much higher. Generally, it is
capitalized at a multiple of the current earnings and/or net worth.
Financial valuation is not an exact science. The final compromise on
the owner's contribution's worth in the equity financing agreement
is likely to be much lower than the owner thinks it should be and
considerably higher than the partners of the capital firm think it
might be. In the ideal situation, of course, the two parties to
the agreement are able to do together what neither could do
separately: 1) the company is able to grow fast enough with the
additional funds to do more than overcome the owner's loss of
equity, and 2) the investment grows at a sufficient rate to
compensate the venture capitalists for assuming the risk.
An equity financing agreement with an outcome in five to seven
years which pleases both parties is ideal. Since, of course, the
parties can't see this outcome in the present, neither will be
perfectly satisfied with the compromise reached.
It is important, though, for the business owner to look at the
future. He or she should carefully consider the impact of the ratio
of funds invested to the ownership given up, not only for the
present, but for the years to come.
Control. Control is a much simpler issue to resolve. Unlike the
division of equity over which the parties are bound to disagree,
control is an issue in which they have a common (though perhaps
unapparent) interest. While it's understandable that the management
of a small company will have some anxiety in this area, the partners
of a venture firm have little interest in assuming control of the
business. They have neither the technical expertise nor the managerial
personnel to run a number of small companies in diverse industries.
They much prefer to leave operating control to the existing management.
The venture capital firm does, however, want to participate in any
strategic decisions that might change the basic product/market
character of the company and in any major investment decisions that
might divert or deplete the financial resources of the company. They
will, therefore, generally ask that at least one partner be made a
director of the company.
Venture capital firms also want to be able to assume control and
attempt to rescue their investments, if severe financial, operating,
or marketing problems develop. Thus, they will usually include
protective covenants in their equity financing agreements to permit
them to take control and appoint new officers if financial performance
is very poor.
Annual Charges. The investment of the venture capital firm may be in
the final form of direct stock ownership which does not impose fixed
charges. More likely, it will be in an interim form--convertible
subordinated debentures or preferred stock. Financing may also be
straight loans with options or warrants that can be converted to a
future equity position at a pre-established price.
The convertible debenture form of financing is like a loan. The
debentures can be converted at an established ratio to the common
stock of the company within a given period, so that the venture
capital firm can prepare to realize their capital gains at their
option in the future. These instruments are often subordinated
to existing and planned debt to permit the company invested in
to obtain additional bank financing.
Debentures also provide additional security and control for the
venture firm and impose a fixed charge for interest (and sometimes
for principal payment, too) upon the company. The owner-manager of
a small company seeking equity financing should consider the burden
of any fixed annual charges resulting from the financing agreement.
Final Objectives. Venture capital firms generally intend to realize
capital gains on their investments by providing for a stock buy-back
by the small firm, by arranging a public offering of stock of the
company invested in, or by providing for a merger with a larger firm
that has publicly traded stock. They usually hope to do this within
five to seven years of their initial investment. (It should be noted
that several additional stages of financing may be required over this
period of time.)
Most equity financing agreements include provisions guaranteeing
that the venture capital firm may participate in any stock sale or
approve any merger, regardless of their percentage of stock ownership.
Sometimes the agreement will require that the management work toward
an eventual stock sale or merger. Clearly, the owner-manager of a
small company seeking equity financing must consider the future
impact upon his or her own stock holdings and personal ambition of
the venture firm's aims, since taking in a venture capitalist as a
partner may be virtually a commitment to sell out or go public.
Types of Venture Capital Firms
There is quite a variety of types of venture capital firms. They
Traditional partnerships--which are often established by wealthy
families to aggressively manage a portion of their funds by
investing in small companies;
Professionally managed pools--which are made up of institutional
money and which operate like the traditional partnerships;
Investment banking firms--which usually trade in more
established securities, but occasionally form investor
syndicates for venture proposals;
Insurance companies--which often have required a portion of equity
as a condition of their loans to smaller companies as protection
Manufacturing companies--which have sometimes looked upon
investing in smaller companies as a means of supplementing
their R&D programs (Some "Fortune 500" corporations have
venture capital operations to help keep them abreast of
technological innovations); and
Small Business Investment Corporations (SBIC's)--which are
licensed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) and
which may provide management assistance as well as venture
capital. (When dealing with SBIC's, the small business owner-
manager should initially determine if the SBIC is primarily
interested in an equity position, as venture capital, or
merely in long term lending on a fully secured basis.)
In addition to these venture capital firms there are individual
private investors and finders. Finders, which can be firms or
individuals, often know the capital industry and may be able to
help the small company seeking capital to locate it, though they
are generally not sources of capital themselves. Care should be
exercised so that a small business owner deals with reputable,
professional finders whose fees are in line with industry
practice. Further, it should be noted that venture capitalists
generally prefer working directly with principals in making
investments, though finders may provide useful introductions.
The Importance of Formal Financial Planning
In case there is any doubt about the implications of the
previous sections, it should be noted: It is extremely difficult
for any small firm--especially the starting or struggling
company--to get venture capital.
There is one thing, however, that owner-managers of small
businesses can do to improve the chances of their venture
proposals at least escaping the 90% which are almost immediately
rejected. In a word--plan.
Having financial plans demonstrates to venture capital firms that
you are a competent manager, that you may have that special
managerial edge over other small business owners looking for
equity money. You may gain a decided advantage through well-
prepared plans and projections that include: cash budgets,
pro forma statements, and capital investment analysis and
capital source studies.
Cash budgets should be projected for one year and prepared
monthly. They should combine expected sales revenues, cash
receipts, material, labor and overhead expenses, and cash
disbursements on a monthly basis. This permits anticipation
of fluctuations in the level of cash and planning for short
term borrowing and investment.
Pro forma statements should be prepared for planning up to
3 years ahead. They should include both income statements
and balance sheets.
Again, these should be prepared quarterly to combine expected
sales revenues; production, marketing, and administrative
expenses; profits; product, market, or process investments; and
supplier, bank, or investment company borrowings. Pro forma
statements permit you to anticipate the financial results of
your operations and to plan intermediate term borrowings and
Capital investment analyses and capital source studies should
be prepared for planning up to 5 years ahead. The investment
analyses should compare rates of return for product, market,
or process investment, while the source alternatives should
compare the cost and availability of debt and equity and the
expected level of retained earnings, which together will support
the selected investments. These analyses and source studies should
be prepared quarterly so you may anticipate the financial
consequences of changes in your company's strategy. They will
allow you to plan long term borrowings, equity placements, and
There's a bonus in making such projections. They force you to
consider the results of your actions. Your estimates must be
explicit; you have to examine and evaluate your managerial records;
disagreements have to be resolved--at least discussed and understood.
Financial planning may be burdensome but it's one of the keys to
Now, making these financial plans will not guarantee that you'll
be able to get venture capital. Not making them, will virtually
assure that you won't receive favorable consideration from venture
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