What do angel investors want in startup founders? Drive, passion and smarts? Sure but every founder claims those. Integrity and character? Yes, they are essential, but investors notice them only if they are missing. So what do investors really look for? While every angel is different, here are the top five attributes I believe all entrepreneurs should have:
Investing in startups is risky business, and one of the best ways to manage the risk is to go with people who already have startup experience.
I’ve heard this at least a dozen times in investor discussions: “Bet on the jockey not the horse.” And I’ve heard this even more: “But nobody on the team has any experience with a startup.” This isn’t a good sign. You can study it, read about it, and spout the startup clichés with the best of them; but you have to live it to understand it.
What may surprise you is that most investors respect experience with failure as much as with success. Most of them know what failure feels like and respect the founder who can acknowledge the failure and recognize what went wrong.
If you haven’t started a company, some investors may suggest joining a funded startup team as an early employee before you get your hands dirty as a founder.
I’ve been in several discussions about founders being “teachable.” Teachable is a code word for being able to listen, acknowledge mistakes and learn. Angel investors like to share what they know with the companies they invest in. So they like people who listen and learn continuously. And they dislike people who already know everything (or act like they do).
Not being teachable can show up in various formats. For example, some founders who interrupt investors' questions too quickly and inject a pat answer without having understood the issue, might be called unteachable. And founders who treat every question like an attack, to be defended, are likely to be considered unteachable. Angel investors don’t usually like founders who seem sure they need no help and have all the answers.
Instead, founders should own their mistake and be open to taking advice from angel investors.
3. Plays well with others
Angel investors like startup founders who build teams. The single entrepreneur who does everything is probably bootstrapping a small business, not doing a high-growth startup looking for seed money from angels. Yes, it’s great to have deep domain knowledge directly related to the business, such as the technology involved, the market, or – really good – the customers, but it is hard to do everything.
It’s good for founders to know what they don’t know, so they can build to bolster up weaknesses. It’s great to see founders who recognize limitations and want to bring in people with the skills and experience they don’t already have. And I give special extra credit for founders who don’t want to be the smartest person in the room.
4. Believing that it matters
Startups with a cause do better. When potential investors ask startup founders how they developed the idea, they are often fishing for the authenticity – the light in founders’ eyes – that they hope shows up in those stories. When it’s just a quick business opportunity somebody who sees a way to make some money, there’s no history (or passion) to it.
This doesn’t mean you have to have a big social goal like clean water or curing disease. I’ve seen it with people developing better software to improve small business, founders making better baby bibs to make parents’ life easier and entrepreneurs developing local health food stores. These companies care about their customers – and the solution they offer. Angel investors know that makes a difference.
Dig into well-researched statistics on entrepreneurship and you’ll discover that the vast majority of successful startup founders have college degrees and almost half of them have graduate degrees.
Sure, some people can’t afford college or some build their businesses first and get college later – so there are those exceptions. But having the degree means you were able to stick to a program for a few years and got through difficult challenges, were able to meet deadlines and delivered work. Also, it ought to mean you know how to distinguish fact from opinion, digest information and communicate ideas.
Like I mentioned, there are special cases but angel investors are playing the odds and are looking for an attractive combination of risk and potential return.