What do investors look for in a start up?

By Shani Shoham, January 26, 2012
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When it comes to investing in start-ups there are two theories that guide me. First, the notion that most business plans will change once assumptions "meet the market". Second, the notion that an early-stage start-up is a hypothesis with many assumptions. Therefore the risk is the ratio between the assumptions that were validated and the ones that have not been validated yet.

The elements I look at when assessing an investment are:

The team: Is the team competent? Are the entrepreneurs focused on vision or execution? How analytical are they when it comes to the product? How well do they know their customers and competitors? And are they open to feedback? The process the team has gone through so far is a good indication of the future so I spend time listening to the back story and how the idea evolved.

Defensibility: How easy would it be for someone to replicate the product? Have the entrepreneurs created a barrier to entry or do they have a proprietary technology that is valuable enough even if their initial business model fails? A good example would be a company I saw a while ago named Centzy. The founders found a way to get accurate pricing data for local businesses that was dramatically cheaper than current methods. Such data is very valuable to companies such as Yelp and Google so I was confident about the potential of monetising that value.

Scale: Can the method used to acquire the first customer be used to scale and acquire many other customers? Can it be replicated?

The product: I never know what might fail. I only assess the product to the extent of whether it is a "vitamin" or a "painkiller." Does it solve a real problem or is it just a "nice-to-have" product?

Analytics: I ask the founders for the two or three metrics they watch to assess how they are doing. I am a big believer in numbers since they are hard to argue with.

Market: Many VCs look for start-ups in big and growing markets, assuming the start-up will take a portion of that growth. This, in my view, has led to so many group-buying/content-discovery start-ups. All I want to know is that the company doesn't target a 90 per cent market share to reach $20 million in revenues.

Shani Shoham is an entrepreneur, VC and a board member of four incubators

    Last updated: 11:37am, January 26 2012